Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Vampires, Imagined and Historical

Much of the modern lore of vampires originates from a place called Transylvania, in part, due to the literary influence of Bram Stoker's original masterpiece, Dracula.  While many people know that, fewer know exactly where this is, and the history surrounding it.

Transylvania is located in what is now Romania, just to the west of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe.  The earliest mention of it as a political entity was in the 11th century, when it was a province under the Kingdom of Hungary.  It has also been a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Kingdom of Romania.

The region of Transylvania is a temperate plateau, bordered on several sides by the Carpathian Mountains, and most well known for farmlands and castles, many of which have been the inspiration for literary works such as Dracula.  In German and a number of Eastern European languages, the region's name translates to English as "seven cities" or "seven fortresses," a tribute to the colonization of the area by Saxons in the 12th century.

The Hunyad Castle, Transylvania, Romania, © Wikipedia user Koponya25

While Bram Stoker's novel has influenced much of the English-speaking world's view of Transylvania, stories from the region itself influenced Stoker to write it in the first place.  A Hungarian writer friend of Stoker's, Arminius Vámbéry, is said to have shared with him much of the Eastern European folklore, legends, and mythology that formed the basis for the original manuscript of Dracula.

The name Dracula comes from the historical figure Vlad III, Voivode of Wallachia.  His actual name was Wladislaus Dragwlya, of the House of "Drăculești," or translated, Vlad III Dracula.  He was the son of Vlad II Dracul, the patronymic whence the name Dracula originated.

Dubbed "Vlad the Impaler" after his death in late 1476 or early 1477, he was both hero and villain, depending on source of the tales about him.  In Romania, he was revered for his protection and defense of the country; to his enemies, he was a terrifying conqueror known for torturing and executing those he defeated in the cruelest of ways.

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, anonymous, 16th Century, Public Domain

Folklore involving the dead is quite common, and is the source of much of the vampire lore of today.  One tale that may have been related to Stoker by his friend Arminius Vámbéry is the tale of Petar Blagojević, an 18th century peasant from the town of Kisilova (now Kiseljevo), in northeastern Serbia.  Petar died in 1725.  His death was followed shortly by the deaths of a number of other villagers, each who died rather quickly after short, mysterious illnesses.  A large number of people died in the village the year Petar died, including over thirty children.  The survivors traced these deaths directly back to Petar as those who died claimed on their deathbeds to have been visited by him.

Most of the residents in the tiny village don't care to relate the tale.  To them, it's a stigma on the town that drives others away.  But some talk, if asked nicely enough.  As the story goes, the night it all started was dark and ominous, heavy with fog.  Nine people died in a span of just eight days, each claiming on his deathbed to have been visited by Petar, who had been the first to die.  Before they died, each victim said that Petar had come to their beds and had choked them during the night.  Petar's wife also claimed he had visited her in a dream, asking for shoes.  Other accounts say that Petar's son was brutally murdered after refusing to give him food when he came back to visit.  The mysterious deaths continued.

Village authorities finally ordered Petar exhumed, a full two months after his death.  He was allegedly found in the opened grave, still partially alive.  He had not rotted as a corpse should have; he was still lifelike, his lips still with fresh blood in them.  The villagers were so frightened by this that they demanded action be taken, even against the wishes of the local Austrian official.  They pulled Petar from the grave, stabbed his heart with a sharpened stick, and then for good measure, burned his body at the stake.

After Petar's death and the successive deaths of many more in the village, rumors of what was happening there spread to officials in the local Austrian government in Beograd.  Frombald, the Imperial Austrian head of the locality released a report to the Viennese newspaper, documenting the first recorded instance of vampires in Europe.  And at the request of Frombald, the Austrian military government dispatched a consignment of men to determine whether there were real vampires there, and if so, to determine if it signified the start of a vampire epidemic.

Ultimately, the Austrian commission could not make a determination, but that didn't stop the spread of rumors and tales of spreading, nor did it stop people from taking preventive measures against an outbreak of vampires, real or imagined.  Other such stories exist of vampires in the area at that time.  In each, the bodies of the dead were said to have looked alive, with fresh blood, and newly grown fingernails and hair.  A rash of such incidents of "vampire eradication" spread, where the newly dead were exhumed from their graves, staked in the heart, and burned.

Even today, the legend remains in the village.  Many of the younger generation are leaving, whether because of the tales or just to find work elsewhere, it's hard to say.  But the village is dying.  Few but the oldest denizens are left.  They remain, as does Petar Blagojević, who is still said to haunt the area.  A curse has even originated from the village: "Dabogda te Pera posetio!" - "May Peter visit you!"

The Premature Burial, by Antoine Wiertz, Public Domain

But is there scientific evidence vampires existed?  Maybe.  A while back in Poland, archaeologists found "vampire graves" on a construction site.  The remains buried there were decapitated, and their heads placed on their legs to ensure they stayed dead.  This finding is in line with the older, broader definition of vampires from the Middle Ages, but as with the story of Petar Blagojević, we find little in the way of empirical data.

In the field of medicine, there are a couple of interesting maladies that share symptoms with the more common legends of vampires.  Porphyria is one such malady, a genetic disorder that causes blisters, itching, and swelling of the skin when exposed to sunlight.  Other medical conditions which might lend themselves to such legends are catalepsy and catatonia, which cause states of unresponsiveness, something that without adequate medical training or facilities available could be mistaken for death.  Again, nothing that would indicate evidence of actual vampirism, but possible evidence explaining the root causes of such tales and superstitions.

The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897, Public Domain

So while there is no solid evidence supporting vampirism, the folklore remains.  The story of Peter Blagojević and others like it are quite common, and aren't confined to lore from Eastern Europe or the Balkans.  Vampire stories are rife throughout Western Europe, the Americas, and the rest of the world.  In fact, there are versions of the vampire found in almost every culture on Earth.

As with many such legends, most can be traced back to old wives' tales which attempt to put the inexplicable into terms which could be coped with, as strange as such terms may sound now.  Many of the signs of life as reported in these vampire tales can be explained by modern medicine as the signs of rigor mortis, or other common effects of death in a body.

But just as importantly, all such legends aren't likely to be completely disproved, leaving room for that one minute sliver of doubt in the mind, that one single thought in the back of the subconscious that allows us, every great once in a while, to believe they are true.

Quick note: several of the links in this post are in Serbian-Croatian, which is fine if you can understand them.  For those who can't, I suggest dropping the Internet addresses for them into Google and clicking on the "Translate this page" link.  It'll provide a rather shitty auto-translation that should get the job done for you.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday the 13th!

Happy Friday the 13th, everybody!

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13, and friggatriskaidekaphobia is the fear of Friday the 13th. Those are big words for paranoia based solely on superstition and rumor. A majority of people know about being superstition of the number and date, but what isn't known is why we are superstitious of them in the first place.

Friday the 13th, © Jonathan Dalar

Friday the 13th is a fairly common occurrence.  There is at least one in every calendar year, and we can't go more than 14 months in a row without one: either July to September the year before a leap year and leap year, or August to October between the following two years after leap year.  In fact, it can happen up to three times a year.  After today, it'll happen in December and again next June.  And if you're planning ahead - ahem, really far ahead - you can check out all the months when Friday the 13th occurs until the year 2100.

Some theories point to Either Norse mythology or Christian tradition for a possible origin.  Norse mythology tells a tale of a dinner party in Valhalla, where 12 gods were in attendance.  Loki, the 13th and uninvited guest, walked in and caused a day of chaos and bad luck by tricking the blind god Hoder into shooting Baldur with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.  And according to some belief, it stems from the Bible.  According to biblical writings, Jesus had 12 apostles, a perfect number.  The 13th guest at the Last Supper was Judas, the man who betrayed him to the Sanhedrin priests with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver.  Both versions share similar concepts, and a similar accounting of events.

The earliest written link between the superstition and the date was in 1869, in Henry Sutherland Edwards's biography of composer Gioachino Rossini, who died on Friday the 13th.  Edwards wrote of Rossini, "He was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that one Friday 13th of November he died."  Ironically, however, the number 13 is considered lucky by older Italians.  There, it's the number 17 that's considered the unlucky one.  Seems there might be conflicting stories there, eh?

Much has been made of accident rates on Friday the 13th, and according to some researchers, there just might be something to that notion.  The research was admittedly "too small to allow meaningful analysis," but it did show a staggering 52% increase in accidents in the particular region of England studied between 1989 and 1992.  And the Brits are not alone in suggesting this link between accidents and Friday the 13th.  A similar German study showed a 60% increase in accidents on that particular date.  While it appears a further, in-depth study should probably be done on the subject to say for sure, I wouldn't go all Mario Andretti on the Interstate today.  Any day, really, but especially today.  And if you are adventurous enough, and looking for somewhere exotic to go, you could board Flight 666 to HEL.  I hear it's popular on a day like today.

So what should you do?  Well, you do what you have to.  And you settle in this evening for a marathon viewing of Friday the 13th, the classic movie series that scared the bejeebus out of my generation when we were growing up.  I remember the first time I watched the film.  I was in high school, and I sneaked into the school library after hours with a girl to watch the movie.  It really wasn't all that scary until she grabbed my arm and screamed.  After that, I was a little jumpy.  Don't laugh; you would be too.

Whatever happens today, don't worry.  It's just a date, just a number, with no real supernatural power attached to it.  Its power derives simply from the superstition we allow it.  It's not like today is any different than any other day, where something terrifying will come up behind you suddenly, when you least expect it, and snatch you fr

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

2013 F/SF Movies on the To-See List

Those who know me know I rarely go to the theater for movies anymore.  There's hardly any point.  Unless the film is an epic, sweeping visual masterpiece, it's not worth the arm and leg for tickets, artery-clogging butter popcorn, gallon o' soft drink, and junior mints.  Especially when I can watch it in the comfort of our family room on a large screen, eat whatever I wish, and maybe even enjoy a couple of Pacific Northwest microbrews with it.  And I don't sit there all movie wishing I could crack a shoe over the heads of the teenie boppers constantly texting and talking in front of me.

Besides, spending all that cash on a gamble that Hollywood will actually invest more in plot and well-rounded characters instead of cool visual effects and explosions isn't exactly a safe bet.  And if there's one thing that turns me off quicker than anything else, it's a poor story disguised with glitz and plot Spackle, but let's not get me going off on that tangent!

This year, however, there are a few fine films that appear worth the price of hassle and admission, just to see them on a larger-than-life screen.  And they're movies I really don't want to have to wait a few months more to see.  Sure, you can bet on the danger of glossing over important story elements with special effects, but sometimes it's worth risking it to get the full effect.  There are three in particular I'm looking forward to, three that I have read the books to already, and in some cases several times.  So let's discuss.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Part One had its strengths and weaknesses.  Gravity certainly wasn't the cruel mistress in the movie that she is in real life, but there were better parts throughout too.  I didn't especially like the fact they stretched a rather short novel into three epic movies, and the stretching shows at times, but it's still interesting and visually stimulating enough to be enjoyable.  On the whole, it seems to fit well with the LOTR trilogy, especially in terms of feel and visuals, which it was supposed to do, and Jackson seems to be doing fair justice to the story.

They are adding new characters to the film that weren't in the book.  I'm really not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand, there's so much more added to the story already, that extra characters, especially ones that hopefully round the story out a little better, are probably a good thing.  But they're not staying as true to Tolkien's work as I'd have liked to see.

They teased Smaug during the first one, but never really showed more than a fleeting glimpse.  In the second round, Bilbo meets him, up close and personal, so he should get plenty of screen time.  I'm certainly looking forward to that.  I mean, the whole story centers around this magnificent dragon.  Isn't that what people are going to the movie to see?

It opens in the United States on December 13, 2013.  You can visit the official Hobbit website for more hobbitsy stuff from Middle Earth.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Sure, this is a young adult series, and we're all grown-ups here, but remember:

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
― Madeleine L'Engle
This is a great series, intellectually.  It makes you think, makes you mull over situations you ordinarily wouldn't give a second thought to.  The series may be criticized for not having an entirely original concept, but no story is ever completely original.  With most stories, one can find another, earlier story that mirrors it almost exactly.  This one is original enough, and provides a very fresh twist on one of the more interesting dystopian fiction tropes.

The first movie held up well in comparison to the books.  My daughter also read the books before we went to see the first movie, so it was a neat experience to have someone to talk to about the differences, and what we liked and didn't like about each.  That usually doesn't happen for me.  We had a great literary discussion that bored the hell out of the rest of the family.

It will be interesting to see where this series goes from here.  The stakes are higher, and the danger greater.  Without giving away too many spoilers, the books left something to be desired with some readers because of the way they turned out.  I thought it ended quite well, though, and I'll be watching closely to see if they pull any punches with the movies, as they so often tend to do.  Hollywood evidently thinks moviegoers are a weaker, more dim-witted breed than book readers.  Often they're the same people, so what gives?

It opens in the United States on November 22, 2013.  You can visit the official Hunger Games website for more Capitol directives regarding Panem.

Ender's Game

The book, no matter what one might think of the author, was fantastic.  The immediate sequel, Ender's Shadow, was even better, in my opinion, but only because we got to see the behind-the-scenes action that tied the whole story together better, and from a better narrator.

The movie, we're told, will be much different than the book.  It really has to be, which is one of the reasons it's taken so long to be translated from the written page to the silver screen.  And I'm okay with that.  The movie version of a book doesn't have to be the identical story for it to be a good story.  They're two different storytelling mediums, and one often can do things the other can't.  Sometimes there is merit in producing two very different versions of the same story to take advantage of the strengths of each storytelling medium.

One of the things I already like about the movie was the casting, which is a key difference between the movie and the book.  The actors are older - in their early teens, as opposed to around six - but appear to be well suited to the characters they are portraying.  That's an important aspect of a movie based on a book.  While the reader has to conjure an image of the characters in the mind's eye, a movie can give a thousand-word description in a single frame.  The problem lies when the characters in our mind's eye look nothing like their counterparts on the screen, because the producers failed to come up with the right actors.

It opens in the United States on November 1, 2013.  You can visit the official Ender's Game website for more tech from the International Fleet.

There are a number of other movies I'm looking forward to this summer.  These are but three of the ones I'm most anxious to see.  Others include Elysium, Oblivion, and World War Z.  What speculative fiction movies are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

Monday, June 3, 2013

I, For One, Welcome our New Robot Overlords

Remember when robots were these stiff, unresponsive automatons, that performed rudimentary, programmed tasks, and the thought of any higher intelligence response was the stuff of science fiction movies?  Well, that's all changed, and more quickly than we might have imagined.  Several breakthroughs and advances in robotics have made that science fiction movie pipe dream look a whole lot more like reality. Here are five really cool videos that illustrate how far we've come recently.

Robots can be controlled by human thoughts.  Through means of a brain-computer interface, a human is able to instruct the robot to complete tasks just by thinking.  We've recently seen robotic prostheses designed which reacted to human thought, via the surrounding muscle.  Now we're doing it from a computer interface wired directly to the brain.

Robots anticipate human actions and act accordingly.  They are no longer programmed to simply act, but are now learning to be reactionary, to "think" for themselves, based on a dynamic environment.  The ability to adjust to changing surroundings is key to real-world adaptations for robotics.

Current robotic technology is becoming better and faster than before.  Where just a few years ago, getting legged robot to walk was a major breakthrough, we're now setting speed records.  The faster a robot can travel, and the more agile it becomes, the better able it can function.  This guy ain't called "Cheetah" for nothing.

Robots are getting stronger and more agile.  Remember these guys, the "Big Dog," or "Alpha Dog" robots? The nightmare fuel I shared a while ago? Yea, I just thought you might like to revisit them, 'cause they're bad-ass beasts, and they're only getting better.  And there are more of them, too.  A whole army of them!

Robots are being taught intrinsic motivation, or artificial curiosity.  Similar to how children learn, robots are being trained via behavior reinforcement learning.  They learn by processing their environment into different types of behavioral modules, as seen through video cameras, and translating that into movement data.  This creates a usable representation of its environment, along with learned behavior associated with goal-oriented functions.

This may seem like the Terminator's Skynet to more than a few of you.  Hard to imagine otherwise staring down those big Alpha Dog robots coming at you at almost thirty miles an hour, especially when you imagine they've also melded reactive behavior and a usable translation of their environment to their skill sets.  To paraphrase that classic Simpson's line: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.  And so should you.

Luckily, scientists are all working to create peaceful robots, of course, which is why we see advances like prosthetic limbs, and cute robot boxing toys.  The days where everyone is able to drum up the cash for a giant warrior dog robot are well in the future.  But one can always dream, right?

Monday, April 22, 2013

It Ain't your Baby no More

In the wake of the Boston terror attacks at the marathon the other day, some strange twists developed that gave me pause for thought.  And they were strange - and I believe important - enough for me to break from tradition and share my thoughts on them with readers here.

Shortly after the attacks and their aftermath, musician and performer Amanda Palmer, as you may have seen, wrote and posted a poem to her blog titled "a poem for dzhokhar."  Based on the title, I can only assume it's dedicated to the suspected terrorist pinned down and arrested after several days of absolute madness in Boston.  A title is, after all, supposed to be "a descriptive name, caption, or heading" for a book, poem, etc.

Not surprising (at least to me) was the incredible backlash she faced as soon as she published the poem to the blog.  Reactions varied between mild concern over the poem's title and content, to "are you fucking kidding me?"  Ms. Palmer seemed to think it astonishing that people would think she was writing about him, and even had to defend the poem and try to explain what she really meant writing it.  She even came out and stated verbatim "the you isn't him," even as it appeared so to me and many other readers.  Many of her fans have come to her rescue too, stating quite emphatically that those who reacted negatively to the poem just didn't understand it.

I don't often discuss politically-related stuff on Twitter, or blog about it here, but felt compelled enough to comment.  That instantly drew me into conversation with someone I can only assume was one of her fans who promptly informed me that if I couldn't get the true meaning of the poem, I'd best butt out of the conversation and leave it to the adults.  We had a somewhat civil discussion following that about the intent and meaning of the poem, for what it's worth.  But it really got me thinking about what a story becomes to author and to reader.  And therein lies the key to a very interesting literary concept, folks.  It's not one often talked about, but it's very vital to the relationship between authors and readers.  That concept is this:

Once the author or artist publishes something, its interpretation is no longer theirs, but the readers'.  They have done their part to form something which they hope best conveys their thoughts to the audience, but once it is published, the interpretation no longer belongs to them.  In other words, it ain't your baby no more.

Of course, the author(s) and/or publisher(s) still hold the copyright to the work.  That is an important distinction, separate from what I'm talking about here.  They still have control over further creative edits, as well as the sale, production, and reproduction of the work.  That is a vital component of literature and art.  What they don't own is the imagery of the story itself, the reader's experience of it.

I've seen, time and again, literary agents give advice to authors, and one such piece of advice that has stuck with me is this: if you have to explain your writing to someone, you have failed as an writer.  It's your job to form the words in such a way as to best convey ideas and imagery from your mind to the readers'.  If that image is jumbled en route from your mind to theirs, then you have failed in that job.

There is an entire sub-set of the publishing industry built around interpreting plot points and meanings behind literary works, in the form of Cliffs Notes and other such cheat sheets and guides.  We take classes on literature and art, read all manner of written works, and then sit around and commend each other on how well we've understood and interpreted the author's true meaning behind the words.  We practically throw our shoulders out of joint patting ourselves on the back because we got the "true" meaning behind what the author wrote.

And a lot of it is bullshit.  While there is merit in understanding the meanings behind art and literature, and while there is often intended meaning behind such works, those works are by their very nature subjective.  This means they're completely subject to the readers' points of view, not the author's.  The imagery in the reader's mind's eye belongs only to the reader.  The accuracy in which it is conveyed from author to reader is because of the author's talent in writing, not the reader's in understanding.  And just as important, the lack of accuracy in transferal also belongs to the author and not the reader.

In my head are very vivid pictures of a world quite different from ours, a world that started with the image of a lone gunslinger heading out across a dry and dusty wasteland.  Now Stephen King did a tremendous job creating those images in my head, and I'd bet they're fairly similar to what he had in mind when he wrote the story.  That's a tribute to how well he did his job as an author.  But no matter how well he wrote, my images of that world will be far different from his, because when I read those books, that part of the story became mine.

Ms. Palmer is a songwriter and musician who has been in the business for a while.  She's married to the incredibly talented author Neil Gaiman.  Together, that's a ton of artistic and literary talent and experience.  I'm sure she's fully aware of this concept.  When her stated intent behind the poem clashes with such a large number of its readers, that tells me she failed to convey her intent to them.  At least I hope so, because the alternative is worrisome.

I'm not here to speculate on her motives for writing such a piece, although by publishing it, she leaves the option to do so fully in her readers' hands.  I have to think that if it's a sort of "sympathy for the devil" piece, it didn't work very well at all.  There are many pieces of literature throughout history that have themes of empathy for antagonistic characters.  Vladimir Nabokov's character Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita is a fine example.  As a reader, you come to hate him in the end, even as you understand him.  Author Joe Hill wrote one of the best such examples I can think of in recent history with his novel Horns.  His character Ig Parrish is quite obviously an antagonist written as a protagonist - essentially the devil himself, and yet we find ourselves rooting for him.  That's a hard thing to pull off in a book.  And yet it works incredibly well, because it isn't merely a story glorifying a very bad guy, but one that distinctly highlights the clash between good and evil in all of us.

So why do I feel that Ms. Palmer's poem didn't work very well in that regard?  Because while allegedly writing it to appeal to the compassionate or empathetic side of human kind, she linked it specifically to a man who planned and prepared for weeks in advance, deliberately placed a bomb down behind an eight-year-old boy, and then walked away smiling as shrapnel ripped through that boy and hundreds of other victims.  The horror was still vivid and immediate in the mind's eye because most of America watched as he did it, a few short days before.  To link that imagery, that callous lack of regard for the lives of others to the thought that we're somehow all connected, all human, completely boggled my mind.  There is a reason we call such acts "inhuman," and it's because they are decidedly not within the bounds of normal human behavior, not suited for human beings.  It's no wonder - and should be no wonder to Ms. Palmer - the poem has received such vitriol and negative criticism.

So to those who criticize detractors because we "just don't get it," just stop.  Just fuckin' stop.  You're insulting our intelligence by suggesting we can't grasp the "real" meaning behind it, and you're denigrating our humanity by insinuating we aren't willing or able to empathize with a terrorist who killed innocent life in cold blood.  If Ms. Palmer wants to write something that makes half her readers think she is glorifying a terrorist, fine, it's her prerogative.  If it does something for some folks, that's fine too.  But don't try to invalidate others' views of the poem or argue they don't get the meaning, because it ain't her baby no more.

Update: the Twitter user with which I conversed on this topic has since deleted all related tweets, leaving only my replies as evidence.