Sunday, 27 April 2014

Life Does Find a Way, Dr Tyson - Just Not Always

I'd like to state up front that I am a fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson - I fully approve of his mission to raise the profile of science, particularly since America seems to have a really low opinion of the subject to begin with (can you name an American scientist? The British can name dozens, or more, of their own). If I haven't gotten to watch Cosmos yet, it's only because I have limited time to hang out watching on-demand TV at my mom's house. But I want to get to it.

My main exposure to him, therefore, is through the Nerdist Podcast (maybe they should start advertising here?). He's been on the show three times now, and his discussions have always been fascinating, not to say mind-bending - the first time he described the 4-dimensional hypercube, or a cube in four (spatial) dimensions.

But - and this is in full recognition of the fact that Dr Tyson is enormously smarter than I am - sometimes he says some silly, silly things. Or at least, things I disagree with (I sometimes have trouble telling the difference). Case in point: in his third appearance on the Nerdist, Dr Tyson takes issue with the statement that "life always finds a way", pointing out that 97% of all species that have existed on Earth have gone extinct.

My response is, this latter fact doesn't prove that life doesn't find a way - it just proves that the species who make up that unfortunate 97% didn't. On the other hand, the fact that we're here to debate the point seems to indicate to me just how tenacious life is.

Put another way, there have been times when the planet's climate has been seriously inimical to life, for instance in the exact moment that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs hit the Earth. As scientists in movies like to say, that was an extinction-level event. But while it wiped out a great many species, it didn't wipe them all out, because I'm here typing these words, and, one hopes, you're reading them. We couldn't be doing this if our shared rat-like ancestor (and more to the point, its entire species) had perished along with the dinosaurs.

Of course, I don't want to put too much faith in a throwaway line from "Jurassic Park", but you also don't need to look that far back to find examples that disprove Dr Tyson's critique of the "life finds a way" statement. As you head to certain areas, you find amazing adaptations to extreme conditions - camels that can cross deserts by hoarding water in their humps, Australian trees that have adapted to survive in landscapes full of elements that would kill other trees... even the creatures that live at pressures that would crush us in an instant.

And then there are the extremophiles. These are creatures - mainly in the form of bacteria, or other one-celled organisms - that can survive extremes of heat, cold, radiation, salinity. Essentially any condition that the vast majority of organisms on Earth would not be able to survive in. And this isn't theoretical - according to David Toomey's book, Weird Life, bacteria have been found in nuclear reactors and living in hard vacuum, on board satellites.

The point is that, while another asteroid strike right now would wipe out a great many species (most notably our own), it certainly wouldn't kill everything on Earth. The only creatures to survive would probably be rats and cockroaches, but within a few million years they could repopulate the planet and fill all of the vacant niches. The only thing that could conceivable destroy all life on Earth, from the macro to the micro level, is the Sun expanding to engulf the planet. And one hopes that by the time that happens, we'll have figured out a way to get out into the rest of the universe (or our rat-people successors, if not their sworn enemies, the cockroach-folk).

On the other hand, Mars may stand as a rebuke to my argument. There's evidence to suggest life may have existed there, but no smoking gun. If we discover that life did exist there, then we'll have to ask two questions: is it still there now, and if not, why? If life did once exist on Mars, but doesn't now, then I can accept Dr Tyson's argument - ignoring the observer effect bias that comes from the fact that life forms from one planet are going next door to discover that an entire ecosystem has failed.

My point here - and again, I stress this with the utmost respect for his achievements - is that just because someone's smarter than us, not everything he or she says is correct. I was intrigued that nobody in that podcast's comments section called Dr Tyson on that specific statement. They argued about science's relationship to philosophy, but because he said a whole lot of other spot-on things, then threw a number followed by the word "percent" at us, they didn't dig any further.

And while Dr Tyson may not agree with all that I've written above, he would surely agree when I say that if we want to become a more scientifically literate society, we need to stop being intimidated by numbers and statistics, and the people who use them to make points. Because Dr Tyson's comments are intended for entertainment and edification - others aren't afraid to present statistics to advance less-noble causes.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

How Fantasy is a Better Guide to the Past than History

I don't usually blog about books that I'm currently reading, but the idea for this week's post came to me so fully formed that I didn't want to wait. The book that inspired it is Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies, the author of the magisterial tome Europe: A History. In terms of popular history books, I believe the older book is considered a standard text, and certainly an important reference point for subsequent volumes of world and European history.

But while Europe is concerned with providing a history of the continent as it stands, Vanished Kingdoms looks at a number of nations that have flowered briefly and then disappeared. Davies takes in various Roman successor states, including the Byzantine empire, but also more recent disappearances, like the Soviet Union. I've only gotten as far as the second chapter, which deals with one of the pre-Anglo-Saxon but post-Roman kingdoms that sprang up in the early Middle Ages, called Alt Clud.

Davies makes much of the fact that Alt Clud, or the Kingdom of the Rock, was at the height of its power, near present-day Glasgow, before what we now know as England or Scotland even existed. And he does a good job of painting a picture of the political situation there at the time, despite the fact that actually very little is known about the place. There are links to St Patrick, and to King Arthur, but much that we know currently comes from sources that were written long afterwards.

Now, the reason I'm mentioning it is what Davies himself talks about in the introduction to the book. He notes that the majority of history books are about countries that exist currently, which risks "reading history backwards", as he himself puts it; that is to say, finding what exactly in their pasts led to their pre-eminence in the present.

But of course, this approach is by its nature reductive. Any history of Italy will talk about the Romans, as any Russian history will heavily feature the Soviet Union. But these notional books would probably struggle to do justice to the Romans' competitors, like the Etruscans, or to the Mediterranean empires built by the likes of Venice, or to the kingdom of Novgorod, against which the princes of Moscow vied for supremacy in what we now call Russia.

Yet they were important in their time, and Davies is at pains to point out - at the start of the introduction and presumably in more detail at the book's end - that our current crop of countries will likely one day be little more than a footnote. Interestingly, fantasy literature is probably more successful at conveying this idea than popular history.

This is no accident, if you think about it. It isn't controversial to suggest that the template for modern fantasy literature comes from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (I've previously referred to this as a form of kabuki). Tolkien was a philologist, interested in the languages of Scandinavia and medieval Britain, and both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of references to civilizations that have receded and left nothing but artifacts, desolate hill forts and place names.

The scene in the wights' barrow, sadly removed from the movies, is an excellent example, as are the Elves themselves - while they're still around in both novels, it's as remnants of the mighty civilizations that once occupied the lands of Middle-Earth. The dominant mood in Lord of the Rings is melancholy at the passing of these nations, seen from the perspective of people who are experiencing that passing in their day-to-day lives.

Most works of epic fantasy that came after Tolkien's have kept this aspect. The best example is probably Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which takes the idea and extends it to a metaphor for the destruction of indigenous peoples by invaders. The theme acts as a backdrop to a number of points in Williams's books (which for space and spoiler reasons I'm presuming you've read), from the destruction of the Sithi's civilization by the human Rimmersmen, to the encroachment of the Aedonite Church over the pagan belief systems of the lands of Osten Ard, and to the destruction, essentially, of the Hernystiri - a proud kingdom at the start of the first book, which by the end of the fourth is little more than a scattered remnant of people driven to living in hills and caves. Guy Gavriel Kay evokes this passage of time equally well in his book Ysabel.

Terry Brooks also plays with this idea in his Sword of Shannara books, although without Tad Williams's or Guy Gavriel Kay's eye toward historical parallels - the characters move through a medieval-looking landscape that is actually the remnant of our own world, thousands of years after our civilization has wiped itself out. This is a similar premise to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and a number of other series.

Of course, every trope evolves, and I believe that in recent years we've moved away from the idea of kingdoms built on top of preceding civilizations, to a more narrow medieval view. By this I mean a landscape that was once dominated by a single (Roman-influenced) empire, but that now consists of a number of smaller, meaner kingdoms.

Guy Gavriel Kay's books on the Byzantine-influenced Sarantine Empire could be said to fit into this mold, although he gets a pass because he's commenting on actual history - and he does a good job in The Sarantine Mosaic of evoking the Germanic states that sprang up in the ruins of the wider Roman Empire, and the tension between the Romanized elites of the time and their new masters.

In any case, while the idea of lost civilizations seems like a reliable trope of fantasy literature and adventure films, it's worth remembering that it's actually true to life - and it's a shame (if understandable) that the current crop of history books rarely touches on these civilizations that are still with us in our place names and loan words. It also goes to prove the saying among writers - who are forever giving this advice to whippersnappers like me - that you should read widely, in many genres and in non-fiction as well as fiction.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Comic Books vs Graphic Novels

I was in San Diego for work this past week, and because a friend from high school lives out there, I got together with him and his wife for dinner one night. It was nice catching up with him (and meeting her for the first time), in particular because we got talking about books. I found that they have similar tastes, and they were pretty impressed with my Neil Gaiman story - both the fact that he retweeted my blog about him and that I subsequently fanboyed disgracefully at him at World Fantasy Con in Brighton.

The conversation moved swiftly to other topics, but one thing I kept turning over in my head - despite the fact that I didn't say it - was how I'm more of a fan of his comics than his prose novels. But the first term that came up in my head to describe Neil Gaiman's comics work was "graphic novels", which I don't really like when it comes to describing the art form.

I get the sense that a lot of people refer to the Sandman books as "graphic novels" to distinguish them from ordinary comics (ie, superhero comics). Meanwhile, bookstores use the term to describe all comics that are collected into trade paperbacks, again, presumably to distinguish them from the monthly 22-page comics.

As far as I'm concerned, though, the term "graphic novel" is somewhat inadequate for describing the species, as is the term "sequential art", which was current for a while but may have fallen out of use. For that matter, "comics" isn't an entirely satisfying name either, for the simple and perhaps anal reason that most comic books aren't meant to be funny. For the record, Stan Lee refers to them as "comicbooks", to avoid the "not funny" thing - a solution I find as elegant as any, to be honest.

I'm enough of a geek that I used to put my love of "sequential art" on my resume, which led to interrogations from potential bosses once or twice about what that meant. It just resulted in me admitting that I liked comics, which was a double-whammy of 1.) not looking serious for job-seeking purposes, and 2.) looking embarrassed about what I was into. I eventually took that line out of my resume, and just went back to calling them comics.

With regard to the second point, though, I feel that embarrassment is really what's at the root of these nomenclature issues. It follows that if comic books are about guys in tights punching each other, but you read The Sandman or Tamara Drewe, then you aren't reading "comics", you're reading something more... novelistic. It's similar to Margaret Atwood's protestations that she doesn't write science fiction because that's just "talking squids in space", or the fact that many SF purists don't like the term "sci-fi", as it implies brainless action movies that happen to be set in space.

I can understand those comics readers who want to distance themselves from the more traditional types of books, but I think they'd do better to try and reclaim the term for all books that follow the form. Because the longer this divide continues between comic books and graphic novels, the more entrenched becomes the idea that comics are for juvenile males (whether 14 or 40) - and that will continue to push women and other male readers away from the form in its entirety.