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Cowboy Bebop: Twenty Years After – Session 01: Asteroid Blues

Session 01: Asteroid Blues
Song and Silence

What is Cowboy Bebop?

In the fall of 2004, as my fiancée’s mother lay dying during a long, long convalescence and I took six college courses at a community college that considers four to be a full load, I drove south. In my beat-up, robin’s-egg blue 1989 Cutlass, I drove south, past my classes at Cuesta College, past San Luis Obispo, past the Five Cities, all the way south over a dry gulch to Santa Maria, an ass-pimple on the rear end of California. I brought with me my grey-gilt Vaio laptop and a red-and-black-splashed DVD I’d bought from the city’s anime shop. I drove to the Santa Maria Mall and, as the stores were closing, I bought a Coke and chicken teriyaki from the Japanese noodle counter. I drove that Cutlass up to the roof and parked there, looking down on the stars winking on along the streets and the streelights switching on above in God’s sky. I turned on my laptop, and slid in the DVD.

As night fell over Santa Maria, at age 17, over chicken teriyaki and a Coke, I saw “Asteroid Blues” for the first time.

As I touched on in the introduction, looking at Cowboy Bebop as a post-Buffy, post-Sopranos show is an exercise in futility. The plot arc only comes into play in a handful of episodes, all the rest is filler. The two main characters neither grow nor develop. The show seems more obsessed with its style than its writing. Even thinking of it in terms of the television of the time is problematic: it still basically has to be aired in order, it’s not funny or disposable like TV should be, and, besides, it’s a cartoon for adults and what kind of unnatural abomination is that?

The more I watch, the more I’m convinced that the best way to think of Cowboy Bebop is as an audio-visual jazz album.

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Possibly this one.

And this is the first track. The first hint of Cowboy Bebop the world got. On October 24, 1998 in Japan and, later, on September 2, 2001* in America.

And what’s the first thing we see?

The music box motif (“Memory”) and stylish, stylized noir straight out of The Third Man. A dropped rose, firefight, a church, mid-century Prague, blood, a dozen cigarette butts, a smile, a man walking away.

We’ll be revisiting this tune, these moments, sometimes even these actual animations, as the show goes on. Usually, a show finishes off with this kind of intensity and intimacy, but Cowboy Bebop started both in the thick of the action and at a distant prologue. Because this is, basically, the opening riff on the main theme.

Speaking of the main theme, BAM MOTHERFUCKER.

Those opening credits are a work of genius. They’re a declaration of intent, a proud and arrogant horn-blast of slick bebop confidence, a sock full of Johnny Quest, over and above the Credo in the background. Those slashes of color illuminate the ships and people, in such a way that you get a pretty firm idea of what you’re in for the first time you see them, and yet, without changing, they acquire new and deeper meaning as you reach the end of the series. There will be action, there will be spaceships with old-fashioned headlights, there will be wiseguys and dames with legs for days, and all of it will be stylish as Hell.

This episode in particular, the series in general, owes a debt of gratitude to Quentin Tarantino. When Bebop was being conceived, Tarantino was king of Hollywood, with Reservoir Dogs and the seminal Pulp Fiction only a few years old. Tarantino pioneered that self-aware, music-infused, post-video, post-MTV style of cinema that Cowboy Bebop picks up and runs with. But where Tarantino’s sensibilities are rooted in rock’n’roll (Stuck in the Middle with You), Shinchiro Watanabe’s vision, like his countryman Haruki Murakami’s prose, is rooted in jazz and bebop. Both Japanese men had a black American’s album playing as the soundtrack to their writing sessions.

Back to this session.

We’ve come to the present. You can tell, there’s color. But Spike is still basked in shadow and blue, complementary colors to the prologue where he was so prominent, his (chroma)key shifted up a fifth but not fundamentally changed. It’s Jet who’s rooted in the present, in the full-color reality of the world, a different key entirely. Jet cooks, Spike does his forms. Both are participating in Chinese cultural practices that are at least a millennium old**, practiced every day by millions across the world. The focus on details, the punches in the air and the flames of the burner, is a manga and anime technique which have been called amorphic panels or amorphic frames, individual phrases used to build the soaring melodies of Spike and Jet.

And the soundtrack, the all-important musical scene setting? A leitmotif we’ll be returning to again and again: “Spokey Dokey.” It’s a spare tune, a little blues piece for harmonica and acoustic guitar. And that’s exactly what it should be. It’s the sound of flat-broke jazz legends noodling away a long afternoon with no work  to be had and empty bellies to fill.

Jet interrupts Spike’s past, his timeless form, and brings him into the present with a flick of a switch and an announcement of earthy, everyday reality: “Dinner’s ready.” Spike looks abashed to be interrupted in his memorializing, but he recovers. There is so much subtlety in this first meaty scene — the urban-flavored poverty of Spike and Jet’s existence, with its fan and its plastic-mold furniture and its enforced closeness, Spike’s fixation on food (a trait of trickster gods the world over), Jet’s mechanical arm (and, by implication, Spike’s mechanical eye), even down to the identification of ‘woolong’ as currency and the exposition of Asimov Solensan.

Most of all, there’s that archetypal standard and half-joke about jazz: Jazz is about all the notes you don’t play. We don’t focus on Spike’s eye, nor mention it, but watching it again, it’s impossible not to think of Spike’s eye when we see Jet’s arm. For both men, their mechanical parts are mementos from the past, a part of the past that they can’t let go of and won’t let go of them. We don’t see it now, but it’s impossible not to see on the rewatch, twenty years later.

The other part of jazz, the indelibly Japanese part, is the silence. Both Yoko Kanno and Shinchiro Watanabe make use of selective silences, Kanno in letting the harmonica lie quiet between long, strung-out, Gilmour-esque twangs of the guitar, and Watanabe in when and where different aspects of the soundscape go silent and give way. The silence behind in the prologue was almost deafening, the silence between the characters as they come out of the Mars gateway is more forgiving. All we hear are the multilingual, prosaic announcements of the gate, an unremarkable and unremarked part of everyday life in the Bebop ‘verse. While Spike and Jet don’t comment on it, Watanabe draws our attention to it with their silence. It is truly masterful.

And it is rare.

I enjoy both The Expanse and Firefly***. I parlay Belter and wear a brown coat. But I got a beef with both of them, in that they both have pretensions of being a multicultural and broad future, and yet, both feature white Anglophone men leading white Anglophone teams with a couple minorities in to keep the SJWs from complaining. Cowboy Bebop, with a single motion, clearly establishes that their future is multicultural, and vast, and discordant. This everyday announcement, safety precautions and payment methods for the gates, is in a dozen overlapping languages.

The languages fade out, another silence, as they pay 7500 woolong (establishing the value of a woolong in five frames or so), and we’re surrounded by the hisses and clicks and clunks of a spaceship taking off. Never mind that there’d be no sound in the hard, cold vacuum of space. We’re not here for realism. We’re here for aesthetics.

The Expanse, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica all belong to the general umbrella of what is called “naturalistic science fiction.” Naturalistic science fiction tries to merge hardest-of-the-hard science (especially practical, every applications of Newtonian physics) with Dostoevsky-approved psychological complexity of character. Firefly famously used its bluegrass guitar as “the voice of the ship” in space, since there would be no sound. The Expanse spares no expense portraying the pouring of a cup of water in 1/6 G. Neither would be caught dead sounding clinks and clunks and latches and hisses in hard vacuum.

Cowboy Bebop would. Because it’s cooler, because it establishes the themes, and because they’re not interested in realism. They’re interested in rt. In writing, we’re told to aim for verisimilitude, rather than realism. Shinchiro Watanabe and crew understand this implicitly.

Now we arrive on the colony of Tijuana, and a loving montage of its streets and scenes. And what is the first thing we hear? “THIEF!” Slowly, the action focuses on a bar called El Ray, shouting out to Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado, a major influence on this session’s story and style. That connection is well-discussed elsewhere. There, the show’s Greek chorus, Antonio, Carlos, and Jobin, establish setting background and their role in the show. The bounty, Asimov, and his girlfriend, Katerina, arrive, and broker a deal with the bartender.

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Katerina also has some beer.

This scene mixes incredibly detailed and realistic elements (the architecture, the props, the cat) with more stylized elements (the people). However, reversing the effect from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s the more stylized and stereotypical parts that are the most important and closest to the action. Asimov and Katerina are caricatures of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek…

desperado

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…and they are the most important characters in the scene. Asimov even, for no reason at all, wears space spurs. It’s the most stylish, least chromatic progressions that have the strongest effect.

Speaking of stylish, this is where we get the second solo of the session: Asimov’s fight against the syndicate goons. While Spike’s memory is drawn in blue and black with bursts of red, Asimov’s red-eye speed-battle is overwhelming red like the whole world is drowned in blood. It’s both visceral and superhuman, leaving us exhausted as if we ourselves had just gone through a speed junket.

…that resolves instantly into the quiet tranquility (and boredom) of Laughing Bull’s tent. Rumbling stomachs and irreverent questions ground us in the main groove after that red-hot solo, letting Laughing Bull unveil his exposition and his prophecy while Spike deflates it for us with gentle humor. Spike emerges from the tent into the real world with a prophecy of death upon him, unruffled. “A woman will hunt the Swimming Bird and then – death.” But what is it to Spike? He’s been there already. And we start to work out, deep in our reptilian brains where the jazz goes, that Spike was the man in the prologue…

After Jet walks meaner, even more quotidian, streets in search of answers, Spike is compelled to stop off at a gas station where he encounters Asimov in the bathroom, and Katerina by chance. He steals (and returns) her food, and leads into one of my favorite lines of the whole show:

Katerina: “It must be very happy on Mars.”

Spike: “Sure, if you’re rich.”

God alone knows how many times I’ve quoted that in China, in Boston, in Rajasthan, in jest. There’s a lot of places that are happy if you’re rich, and most of us ain’t.

Spike’s flirting gets cut short along with his windpipe, as he goes to light a cigarette. At Katerina’s pleading, Asimov drops Spike before he dies, but not before he blacks out…and not before he pickpockets Asimov on his way down and out. Because Spike is truly skilled at three things: sharpshooting, Jeet Kune Do, and piloting a spaceship. And he’s marginally skilled at two other things: flirting and playing in other people’s pockets. Those are about the only things Spike knows how to do. Odysseos Polyteknikos he ain’t.

That’s where Jet finds him, long after the cigarette’s burnt to a stub, two quick shots on either side establishing just how long it’s been. None of Jet’s information is news to Spike, but the import, the connections, are. And he knows just where to find Asimov next.

The scene opens, as the scene in the bar did, with Antonio, Carlos, and Jobim talking about nothing. The only difference is that now they sit outside. Asimov enters, sits next to a man with a sombrero and the Man With No Name’s poncho.

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They banter, and Spike grins, revealing the drop of red-eye that he nicked off Asimov. He tosses it in the air, and quickdraws it.

The resulting fight scene has been featured in every anime music video, every promotion, every fan retrospective the show has ever had. Spike leaps over tables, casually kicks the shit out guys, and lands a punch on the nose of a man who’d previously dodged a bullet. He dances on cars to the detriment of the mooks inside. He forces Katerina into the role of the Neutral Female, try as she might to pull a gun and protect her man.

“You rely on your eyes too much, Asimov, you’re not a chameleon you know!”

Pretty rich, given how total a motif eyes are going to be for Spike.

But the action inexorably shifts to the spacecraft, where the episode started. Katerina’s bulging pregnancy is revealed as a ruse: She’s the way Asimov has been smuggling red-eye. And when her dress is torn and their precious cargo spills out, Asimov berates her like he might lash out at her next. As her eyes twitch in fear, seeing what’s become of the man she’d loved, the music switches. Hell, the sound switches.

Because up until now, we’ve been enjoying hard, fast bebop mixed with foley artists and sound effects. Each punch lands with a meaty thud and a scream of horns. Now it’s a mournful saxophone tune, and all the other sounds are distant, echoing, out of focus. The focus is on the scant lines of voices, and on the music.

Selective silence in action.

Spike and Jet give chase, Jet giving way. Katerina looks up toward the heavens, and sees the massed cops at the one hole leading out of Tijuana, out of her little life. And she knows.

“We’ll never make it to Mars now.” She almost sounds regretful.

Spike closes, Asimov bulges, but it’s Katerina’s choice, and Katerina’s story. The saxophone ascends to the heavens, as neither Asimov nor Katerina ever will. Asimov’s surname is Solensen, and at first, I thought it was a mistransliteration of “Sorensen.” But now I know, Asimov is the son of the Sun who, like Icarus, flies too close. And it’s in that flight that he, and the woman who shares his name, are doomed.

A single gunshot shatters the music.

For the first time in the episode, we are treated to true silence.

Spike takes in the whole thing at a glance: the splotch of blood, the woman curled around the man, the regret in her eyes. Spike sees it all with his mechanical eye. Spike has seen all this before.

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Katerina took Asimov’s life, giving him a clean death and cradling his body. She has time for one last word.

“Adios.”

Then a hail of gunshot, the return of the sound effects and the foley artists, and Katerina tumbling through space, the red-eye spilling from her fake pregnancy like blood from her body.

There’s a moment’s pause, and the next strains we here are familiar now: “Spokey Dokey.”

There’s that harmonica again, and that guitar. There’s the fists in the darkness and the fire of the burner. Nothing has changed, for Spike and Jet, or for us.

In the entire run of the series, Spike collects exactly two bounties. Spike loses, and destroys, and fails, more often than he succeeds. In this, he joins an honored roster, headed by the patron saint of heroic failure, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. As even The Big Bang Theory noted, Indy fails at everything he tries to do in Raiders of the Lost Ark except save the girl. Spike Spiegel, like Indiana Jones, is a beautiful loser. Yeah, he fails at his goals…but he does so damn good doing it, we don’t actually care. And we shouldn’t.

Because he made a difference to Katerina Solensen, in the end.

What does it matter that she shot Asimov, rather than the police? It matters to her. What does it matter that she died in a hail of gunfire before of seeing Mars? It matters to her. What does it matter that she lived, and loved, and suffered at all? It matters to her.

Katerina’s gunshot, the one she couldn’t make during the fight between Asimov and Spike and the one she could make in the spaceship during the escape, is the most important sound, the most important note, in the whole session. She chose to end his life herself, for reasons unto herself. And she wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t talked to Spike, if it hadn’t been Spike pursuing her. She accepted that Spike saw her in that last moment, that perfectly human and vulnerable moment.

And Spike accepted her, and her decision. One wonders if he didn’t wish Julia had decided to do the same, once upon a time.

But these are echoes of future tracks. Session 01, the first track on this jazz record, draws to a close, and we’re left with the last few long, plaintive notes of a harmonica and an acoustic guitar.

And then?

Warm silence.

What is Cowboy Bebop?

Cowboy Bebop is naturalistic science fiction – its science is hard as the titanium hull of the BeBop, its characterization as deep and rich as any Dostoevsky novel – mixed with jazz – for it is a freewheeling, impulsive thing that is almost alive, a blending of theme upon theme and an exploration of song and silence and the notes never played. Mixed together like gin and vermouth, Watanabe and his crew created something new and unique upon the face of the Earth. The work, which becomes a new genre in itself, will be called

COWBOY BEBOP

Next week: Session 02 – Stray Dog Strut.

* September of 2001. Keep that in mind. It will become very important later.

** Seriously, there’s a Chinese cookbook from Song-era Hangzhou. One of the many, many still-extant recipes in it is “bell peppers and beef.”

*** By the way, Firefly? Clearly happened after Joss Whedon saw Cowboy Bebop in 2001 and went “I want one of those!”

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Cowboy Bebop, 20 Years After: Introduction

Once upon a time, in New York City in 1941… at this club open to all comers to play, night after night, at a club named “Minston’s Play House” in Harlem, they play jazz sessions competing with each other. Young jazz men with a new sense are gathering. At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They’re eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then… in 2071 in the universe… The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship “BEBOP”, will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… COWBOY BEBOP

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On October 24, 1998, the world was introduced to Cowboy Bebop. That was the first time Jet served up bell peppers and beef (with no beef in it), the first time Spike let loose on a bounty-head, the first time any of us heard “Tank!“* It would take another three years for the show to premiere in America, but 1998, that was the magical year it all began.

It has now been twenty years since we first met Spike and Jet (and, in their turn, Ein, Faye, Vicious, Julia, and Ed). In the intervening twenty years, episodes have been banned, cut, and reinstated, the world crashed into a Great Recession and limped to a Jobless Recovery, and America fell from its hegemonic throne into a multipolar world that’s still sorting itself out. So how does a cartoon from twenty years ago still hold up?

Actually pretty damn well, as it turns out. Cowboy Bebop does not have the kind of plot or character development we expect of television in the post-Buffy, post-Sopranos era. Instead, Bebop‘s strength has always been in its development of theme, noodling variations on the basic melody of “starving bounty hunters in space.” Just so, Cowboy Bebop never predicted the destruction of the Shuttle Columbia, the rise of religiofascism, or the Euro. But those kind of don’t matter, because the themes are as relevant as ever, sometimes more.

The heady blend of blood opera, space opera, and, in one case, straight-up opera mirrors the myriad musical stylings under Yoko Kanno’s brilliant baton and the mélange of cultures where Mars hosts space-borne New York, Prague, and Hong Kong, where every sign is in eight languages, and Tijuana sails overhead. Music, in all its forms, infuses every millimeter of Cowboy Bebop, from overt dialogue and the way Kanno’s motifs are used and reused to draw disparate connections to the tempo of individual episodes and the overarching arc of the show. The point-counterpoint of Spike’s steady, unchanging tragic fugue and Faye’s slowly-evolving Bolero is, if anything, a more important musical theme than the direct contrasts between Spike and Vicious or Spike and Cowboy Andy. We see the formation of a chosen family, in Japanese nakama, which would become a core concern in the next two decades after Buffy, gay rights, and the continuing disintegration and reinterpretation of “family” in the developed world. More intriguingly, we see it this chosen family fly apart, following the same melodies and themes that brought it together. Like a perfect jazz session, the players came together, played as the music led them, and then left as the music left them.

Let’s go back and listen to those tunes again. Like Thoreau said of the Greek gods, time has not diminished them, only given them “a golden, autumnal tint.”

Over the next 26 weeks, join me as we dive into Cowboy Bebop together, twenty years after.


*It’s like getting smacked in the head with a sock-full of Johnny Quest!


Parable of the Gracchi

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Yes, I know, it’s an illustration of Julius Caesar’s assassination. Bear with me, nobody paints the Gracchi.

Today, I saw screaming on Facebook about civility, screaming on Facebook about political correctness, and screaming on Facebook about Justice Kennedy’s retirement. I saw a whole lot of screaming on Facebook that liberals and the Left need to block any Trump nomination just as hard as the Republicans blocked Obama’s nomination.

Let me tell you a story. It’s not a story you’ve been hearing much recently. It’s not a story about Germany in 1932 or American concentration camps in 1942. But it’s a story that needs telling, especially today.

In 146 BC, Rome ascended triumphant over her enemies. They burned and salted Carthage and so won the Mediterranean, and burned and salted Corinth, and so won the rich and decadent East. They had been at war for generations, and had only narrowly escaped death at the hands of Hannibal. Rome was joyous.

And then Rome came home.

The militia men who served in Rome’s armies were the “citizen-farmers,” who left their plows to take up swords and defend their city and then come home to finish bringing in the harvest. But the Punic Wars had been going on for generations, and those citizen-farmers hadn’t seen their farms in years. When they came home, there were no crops to harvest, nor unrusted tools to plow and sow and harvest with. Their land was worthless, and they were destitute. The senators, the nobles of Roman society, and the knights, their partners-in-crime, bought up the “worthless” land for a little money so that veteran Gaius Agricola and his family could go to Rome and look for work there. They planted vast plantation estates to grow wine and olives instead of wheat, and made vast profits off it because they could use slaves.

Oh yes, the slaves. Rome had always had slaves, like any other society in 146 BC, but the wars had brought more slaves. First hundreds. Then thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. So when Gaius Agricola made it to Rome to seek work, there was no work for an honest citizen to do. All the work was being done by enslaved Celts, and Greeks, and Carthaginians. Rome had once been an economy with slaves, but after their greatest victory over their greatest foe, they became an economy of slaves.

With the citizen-farmers driven from their land for the benefit of the senators and the knights, there was no one left to fill the legions. The legions were drawn from the free farmers, and there were no free farmers any more, and so the legions left to “pacify” Greece and Africa were dangerously undermanned.

And the Senate did nothing, because they might lose their investments and, anyway, Gaius Brutus who could trace his ancestry all the way back to the founding of the Republic had to keep up with Gaius Valerius who could do the same, and had a governorship over in Macedonia. They were too afraid of each other, too caught up in their petty rivalries, to do a thing for poor Gaius Agricola and his family, now starving on the very streets outside the Forum.

In all quarters of Roman society, the mos maiorum, “ways of the elders,” civility, political correctness, respect, decency, whatever you want to call it, was starting to break down.

And then came Tiberius Gracchus.

Tiberius represented the People. Nevermind that he was one of the most well-connected men in Rome, whose grandfather Scipio Africanus had defeated Hannibal, whose mother was already being held up as a demigoddess of Roman femininity, Tiberius Gracchus represented the People. He ran for tribune (think House Representative) on one platform and one platform only: land reform. He wanted to break up the huge plantations and get the land back to Roman citizens, to till crops and raise children and man the legions. The Senate laughed. They had seen such efforts before, and always quashed them, usually at the outset when, by tradition, civil and decent tribunes brought bills before them first, before the People had a chance to see it.

So Tiberius Gracchus went to the People first. He brought his bill before the Assembly of the People, who supported it full-throatedly. But when the time came for a vote, his fellow tribune, Marcus Octavius, did something no civil or decent tribune would do. At the Senate’s prompting, he vetoed the proposal. The People could not vote on it. Since Octavius and the Senate were being so uncivil, Gracchus decided to meet fire with fire, and ordered a vote for his fellow tribune to be deposed. Octavius vetoed that, too. Octavius, in fact, vetoed everything that came before the Assembly, delaying and delaying until the People and Gracchus dropped the whole thing. It was a shocking act of incivility, one that threatened the function of the entire Roman government.

So Gracchus had him removed by force. He ordered some strong, patriotic, upstanding gentlemen (mostly unemployed, mostly starving) to carry him out of the Forum. This struck at the heart of Roman civility and decency, since tribunes were “sacrosanct” and legally could not be attacked. But surely Octavius didn’t really count as a tribune any more, did he? He’d vetoed the People’s vote and needed removing. And since there were still plenty of strong, patriotic, upstanding  gentlemen in the Forum, everyone agreed that this must be so.

Tiberius Gracchus got his vote. That just left the Senate. And the Senate had already shown him how to get them to comply. He simply vetoed the City of Rome out of ever functioning. Even things as picayune as opening the city gates in the morning or approving the previous meeting’s minutes were vetoed. After all, Octavius had done it first, and on the Senate’s orders. But strong, patriotic, upstanding gentlemen (mostly friends of senators and knights, mostly well-fed and well-armed) started swarming around the tribune, despite his ancient claim to civility and sacrosanctity, so the People formed a guard around him, willing to muss up any of the Senate’s nefarious agents provocateur. …or anyone suspected thereof, or anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time, but accidents happen.

Tiberus Gracchus got his vote. But the Senate, feeling uncivil, voted his new “agrarian commission” no budget to work with, hoping to strangle the duly appointed commission on the purse string, contrary to all Roman decorum. Gracchus feared other shenanigans the Senate might pull, so he staffed the commission with men he could trust, reliable men, men of his own family and blood.

The matter hung there until fate intervened, in the form of a foreign power injecting itself in Rome’s affairs. The King of Pergamum (near where Constantinople would one day rise) died and bequeathed his kingdom to “the people of Rome.” The Senate had long held the power to decide how to spend the government’s money, a power its namesakes and descendants across the world enjoy to this day. Gracchus had none of it, declaring that the King bequeathed his fortune and his land to “the People of Rome,” the People that he represented, and that the money belonged to the Agrarian Commission. Rumors started to swirl that the King of Pergamum had promised Gracchus “a purple robe and a royal crown” and that he was preparing to declare himself the King of Rome.

The Senate, fearing for the ancient laws and customs of the free Republic that they commanded, knew they had to act, especially as Gracchus had just won his second election as tribune of the People. And Gracchus had already shown them how. The People assembled on the Capitol Hill, where no forged weapons were allowed by ancient custom, decency, and common civility. Tiberius Gracchus began to speak, and a fight broke out at the edge of the Capitol, rumors flying that it was slaves armed by the Senate to kill Gracchus and his supporters. They took up the benches and chairs of the Capitol, wooden and thus never forged, and promised violence in kind. Gracchus tried to shout over the din, then to gesture, but the crowd saw his head jerk as if he were begging for a crown.

Tiberius Gracchus died of a chair leg to the head, slaughtered on the sacred Capitol. Three hundred of his loyal followers died with him. Their blood stained the Forum.

The next century would see Gracchus’ little brother, Gaius, slaughter a messenger in the Forum and himself be slaughtered, the Senate and the People take up arms against one another, the rise of ambitious generals like Marius and Sulla who crushed Rome underfoot with their armies in order to wipe out their political opponents and more importantly each other, the death of free speech in Rome, the Civil Wars of Pompey and Caesar and Antony and Octavian, proscription lists of every man you didn’t like made to commit suicide by cop (or roving army, whatever), Cicero’s tongue and hands mounted on the walls of the Forum, and, finally, the re-establishment of Roman monarchy under Augustus, on the pretense that he was “just the first citizen of the Republic.”

Some of those horrors were from the Populares, the followers of the Gracchi brothers, who preached equality and the rights of the People, even if it means a mob-appointed king. Some of those horrors were from the Optimates, the followers of the Senate, who preached rule of law and the Republic, even if it crushed Rome’s most vulnerable citizens. If you can untangle who was worse, you can untangle who first breached civility, the mos maiorum, between Gracchus and the Senate. And if you can, you’re a better historian than I am.

“Civility,” like “political correctness,” is just another word for treating people with respect. And, like “political correctness,” it can be twisted into an instrument of power and control. The fact that the instrument can be misused does not erase the fact that it has a proper use. The Trumpist agenda and its Republican supporters is horrific, from concentration camps for profit in the southwest to the systematic erasure of voting rights, and it began with Trump’s own disgust with anything remotely resembling civility, decency, or the mos maiorum. The Republicans first denied Obama his Supreme Court election in defiance of all tradition, and now, all we want to do is deny Trump his, for good reasons and for bad.

But we are going to need political correctness, civility to come back, sometime, somewhere, or nothing will be spared.

What’s the road we should take instead? Fucked if I know. But I know exactly where the road marked “fuck civility” leads. It’s the road the Romans, both Optimate and Populare, both Senate and Gracchi, took in the years after 146 BC. It’s the road that leads to Augustus and then to Diocletian*. It’s a road that takes its sweet time getting there, and spares no one along the way.

There has got to be a better way, because that road leads nowhere.

——-

*FUCK Diocletian. Seriously.


Watch This Space

I had a writing project I was going to post here for Black History Month, but it’s not quite done yet and it’s more appropriate to post next week. See you there.


First-Day Thoughts

In calm and cool and silence, once again
I find my old accustomed place among
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,
Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!
There, syllabled by silence, let me hear
The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear;
Read in my heart a still diviner law
Than Israel’s leader on his tables saw!
There let me strive with each besetting sin,
Recall my wandering fancies, and restrain
The sore disquiet of a restless brain;
And as the path of duty is made plain,
May grace be given that I may walk therein,
Not like the hireling, for his selfish gain,
With backward glances and reluctant tread,
Making a merit of his coward dread,
But, cheerful, in the light around me thrown,
Walking as one to pleasant service led;
Doing God’s will as if it were my own,
yet trusting not in mine, but in His strength alone!

– “First-day Thoughts,” John Greenleaf Whittier

I’m going to talk today a bit about my religion. Our regularly scheduled SF stuff and political sermons will resume next week.

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I am a Quaker, specifically a universalist Liberal Quaker. On Sunday mornings I sit in worshipful silence with my Friends, center down, and wait and listen for the Presence. My wife calls it Shekhina, that of God which is immanent. Christian Friends call it the Holy Spirit. Other Friends usually call it the Light, or the still, small voice, or Spirit. We’re not particular about theology.

 

 

Sitting in worship is never easy. Any of you who have tried to meditate know the monkey-mind. Add to that an intentional lack of instructions or guidance, and a knowledge that the Presence is here, among Friends, and you can’t feel it, and it can all drive a Friend mad. I have gone months of “dry” sits, where I never even feel the Presence, much less hear the still, small voice or am commanded to stand and give vocal ministry. Whittier speaks to my condition, when I’m at my best.

But even a dry sit leaves me revived a little, calmer and cooler, more connected to myself, my fellow humans, and my God. And a good sit, where I feel the Presence and commune with it and with my Friends out of the silence, that is a quiet miracle that fills my heart with joy and gratitude enough to last months.

Last May, the Clerk of our Meeting asked me to be the one to close the Meeting. At the end of the appointed hour, a certain Friend shakes the hand of the Friend next to them, and guides the Meeting out of worship and into the announcements and fellowship that you’d recognize from my mother’s Episcopal church or, for that matter, my wife’s Jewish service. The Friend who closes is also responsible for “holding the Meeting in the Light” and praying for the Friends present. It is an honor, insomuch as my peculiar people can give honors while abhorring them.

That week, a Friend’s son died of an overdose. Another Friend took me by the arm on my way into the Meeting-house and told me, in hushed tones, so I would be ready.

The Presence was palpable that day, an invisible but immanent tiger and an open wound that we all shared. I sweated and breathed hard, trying to channel the sheer spiritual energy in the room ripped open by his early death. Friend after Friend rose and gave inspired ministry, spoken through of grief and pain and above all, love and tender affection for this Friend in need and all Friends in their need. And the Spirit was with them, and with me, and with us. I stumbled through the formulae of joys and sorrows, of First-day school’s report, of announcements, of rise of Meeting. And I stumbled home, exhausted and humbled.

That was the last time I felt the Presence in Meeting.

I was representative of Central Coast Friends to Pacific Yearly Meeting. PYM is the umbrella organization for all the Liberal Quaker meetings in Hawai’i, California, the Southwest, Mexico, and Guatemala. It’s also an annual gathering in the woods of Marin County that’s best described as Quakerstock. We gather in Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, in classes to learn effective protest techniques and nonviolent communication, in groups to discuss how to help immigrants, transfolk, Young Friends and elders. And, as representative, I had to be there to fly the colors for Central Coast Friends and to see to it that our needs and our concerns are addressed by the Yearly Meeting.

That was last July. And on the second day, the sun rose in the west.

Well, not literally. But I went to the morning meeting for worship, and something happened to me. Worship was no longer dry, it hurt. The Clerk of PYM spoke of “lifting the veil,” I felt a thick rug choked with mud-dust lowering before me. It felt like the Presence was actively pushing me away, and when I emerged to start the day’s business, I was shaking like a tent-rope in the wind. I felt torn away from the Spirit, and from my Friends around me, and from myself. I could barely understand English, and wandered stupefied among the buildings at Walker Creek Ranch.

It intensified when I met with my worship group, and I could not understand English. I couldn’t remember the beginning of a Friend’s sentence by the time they got to the end. Even my French (which I usually speak with God) was confused. A blackbird lighted on a branch above my had, and I heard God laughing in his caw, but everything was so far away and behind lead-lined glass.

Meeting for Worship went from a solace and a sanctuary that brought me closer to my fellow human beings and to my own self and to my God to a horrible dark night of the soul that drove me out into the spiritual rain and bolted the door behind me. And it happened overnight, as if God flipped a switch.

I did not do very well at PYM, which lasted another three god-damned days.

When I came home, and Melissa saw my thousand-yard stare, she took care of me and sang the Mi Sheberach (the Jewish prayer of healing) for me. The spiritual horror of PYM faded into memory and journaling, and I went back to my local Meeting.

It was the same effect – the ripping, the sundering, the driving out into the rain, the thick wall that grew in the place where the walls and veils are to be torn down and lifted. It wasn’t as strong, but it was clear – I was no longer welcome in the meeting-house, read out of Meeting by God Himself.

I still don’t understand why, but I trust that God knows why.

I spent six months wandering in the wilderness. I thought I sent a letter to the Clerk about my sabbatical, but I can’t seem to find it now. I journaled, calling God all sorts of fascinating names, and I sat in silence alone, and I read the Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 46 and John 1:9. I stopped doing or reading anything of Friendly persuasion except a short pause after Melissa’s HaMotzi over the food. For a few months, I didn’t even feel Quaker – like that Quaker identity belonged to someone else. The only spiritual solace left to me was hearing my wife sing her prayers, donned in her tallit and kippah, the Inner Light shining from her face. That’s not metaphor, incidentally – it is a living experience as plain as the sun in the sky and one of the reasons I married the woman.

I became meaner and angrier in those months, and it wasn’t just the election. I acted like a right bastard, and not like a Quaker, as John Reid could tell you. To those of you I hurt, I am sorry. You never deserved that.

In December, I had a lot of time to think for myself, because of how radically ripped away from myself and others I was. And I reread Whittier’s poem, and was amazed to find it didn’t hurt. I memorized the lines and reflected on sits I have known – my first vocal ministry, Hong Kong meeting the day before I left China, the meeting of the balloons when I knew God, the revolutionary meeting in Berkeley Meeting-house when light and thunder appeared and commanded “soyez tranquille, et connaisez que je suis Dieu,” my wedding to Melissa, the first time I held a Meeting in the Light, the opportunity with Melissa and Lloyd Lee Wilson, that wounded, pained First-day full of love.

I went back to Meeting the First-day after the day called Christmas. In calm and cool and silence, once again, I took my old accustomed place among my brethren. It was a dry sit, and Friends were glad to see me, but it did not hurt. Just by not hurting, it was a revelation and a solace. My wilderness was over, and I was welcome back in the Meeting-house.

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It took until two weeks ago to nerve up enough to go back again. Another dry sit.

On Saturday (Sixth-day), I felt a tug of conscience to go to the Planned Parenthood demonstration and show my support. I ignored it, and grieved, and asked God’s forgiveness for ignoring a clear leading. Marmaduke Stephenson left his plow, just walked away in the middle of his field, following a leading to become one of the Boston Martyrs. I stayed home because of a hangover.

This last First-day, as I sat, I felt the Presence among Friends, surrounding us and penetrating us and binding us together. It was a brush by, as my senses turned back inward and my monkey-mind churned, but I had felt it. I felt the Presence that inspired Lao Tzu and Siddhartha Guatama and Ste. Jeanne d’Arc and Bayard Rustin and John Woolman and Jesus of Nazareth. I felt the Presence in Meeting, and took solace from it, and healed a little.

At fellowship, a weighty Friend asked what I had gone through, and I felt close to her, and told her the truth as far as I can manage. I smiled at other Friends and spoke with them as Friends, among Friends, not as an exile or a stranger. I walked out of the Meeting-house and I felt the bright sun on my skin and the vivid green that the rains gifted us. I borrowed books from our Meeting’s small library and asked Friends how they were doing, how was their sit today.

I read again Douglas Steere’s redactions of George Fox and John Woolman, and I fall in love again with the plainness and the mysticism and the quiet of my Quaker faith. I sit in silence and I hold my wife’s hand in grace over our meals. I feel Quaker again.

I’ve even begun journaling, as any good Friend aught.

I don’t know why God read me out of the meeting, and made coming home so arduous and painful. I don’t know why God has lifted my excommunication and allowed me back into the Presence. I am grateful beyond words, and have learned gratitude beyond words, but I don’t think this is enough. This wasn’t the reason I was read out for six months. Perhaps someday I’ll know why. Until then, I am grateful that I can seek the Presence, and mindful that this can be withdrawn in a night, and the next morning the sun will rise in the west.

I have plenty of room to screw up – my convincement is an ongoing process and probably always will be. Quakers in general are not big on the “rise born again and without sin!” sort of action. But I have felt the Spirit move within me, and it is good. And if Spirit leads me again, I will follow it, and take care not to outrun my Guide.

Amen.
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(For those of you interested in attending, Central Coast Friends Meeting meets at the San Luis Obispo Odd-Fellows’ Hall, at 520 Dana St., every Sunday morning at 10:00AM.)


Outliers of Science Fiction

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Outliers of Speculative Fiction 2016
Edited by L. A. Little

Way back in 2015, L. A. Little’s Outliers of Science Fiction went up on Amazon.com, boasting among its pages Cat Rambo, P. E. Bolivar, and Little himself. The 17 stories it contained were speculative fiction of the first water – varied in scope, diverse in voice, and thought-provoking in flavor. The anthology is speculative fiction’s native format, and Outliers is why. “From forgotten gods to downtrodden superheroes, from visions of imperfect futures to new mythologies for the modern age, these are The Outliers of Speculative Fiction.”

He’s done it again.

Outliers2016 has eleven stories to the first volume’s 17, but packs just as much of a punch. The subject matter is rather darker and closer to modern-day Earth, but Little’s pride in the demographic diversity of the writers is justified: 50% are women, and they hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and experiences. I could almost swear there was a French-Canadian in there somewhere. And this diversity of voice creates a quintessential work of speculative fiction, the anthology: you’re never quite sure what the next story is going to be, what flavors and colors it will show you, but you know it’s going to take you away from everyday life and maybe, if you’re lucky, completely change what everyday life entails.

I liked these stories, in particular, well enough (with one notable exception) that I’m going to write out reviews for each one. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s after the cut. If not, just trust me on this: get a copy, whether it’s paperback or whispered to your Kindle. It is very much worth it.

Continue reading


Science Fiction’s Sacred Duty

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1984 has topped the Amazon bestseller list. I repeat: a novel almost 70 years old, a science fiction novel at that, is the bestselling book of any genre on Amazon.com. It’s not hard to see why, it’s the same reason people are buying up John Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. It’s the same reason women and scientists are marching on Washington. It’s the same reason ordinary people are phoning their Congresscritters in record numbers and tweeting from Badlands National Park.

Because in this staggering, lurching new world, people want to understand, to make a cosmos out of the chaos. For that, they need data and they need narratives.

George Orwell was a committed socialist, who in woolier younger days wrote of English Socialism in sincere glowing terms. He’d served alongside Russian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, fought in battles no one knew and walked empty fields the day thousands of men supposedly died there. He watched truth die in the rolling Spanish arroyos, and by 1948, he’d seen the Germans, the Russians, and the English all take a hand in its killing, like the train car in Murder on the Orient Express*.

So he transposed the year numbers and told a story of the future, where truth was dead so long everyone had forgotten its name.

And now, seventy years later, we turn to his narrative to make sense of this world.

To my mind, any science fiction writer has three sacred duties. The first is to entertain, which science fiction shares with all storytelling. But the other two belong to science fiction alone. The second is to tell what may come to pass. And the third is to tell us ugly truths about the present.

By entertaining, I mean that storytellers must tell the best stories they can, to move their listeners and give them catharsis – whether that’s the dark catharsis of Winston Smith loving Big Brother or the triumphal catharsis of seeing Sherlock Holmes apprehend the crook and calmly explain how he knew. Telling stories is deep magic, it’s transforming yourself into other people and bringing your listeners into those masks with you. And we all of us who tell stories owe it to our listeners to make it a good story, so that when we are done, they smile, and say “thanks for telling that one.”

Science fiction is charged, as Orwell was, with telling stories of what may come to pass. Bradbury said that science fiction does not predict the future, it warns us against it. Orwell certainly did. Bradbury did. Huxley did. But there is another strain that shows us possibilities of what we may become, the likes of Star Trek and solarpunk and Jules Verne. And there are those ambiguous futures that are in some ways better and in some ways worse and in all ways weird, the likes of The Dispossessed and Futurama. And when the future does come to pass, as no one could have predicted, we can turn back to Snow Crash and Stranger in a Strange Land to make some sense out of the senseless, to form a cosmos out of chaos.

But most importantly, science fiction can tell truths about the present. Gene Roddenberry and his stable of writers understood this implicitly, that they could talk about white people and black people if they pretended it was green people and blue people.

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Sometimes they did this better than other times.

The collection of masks that science fiction may wear is rivaled only by fantasy’s. And you can come out and say things like “right now, these people are being killed for the color of their skin, and we yet pretend this is an equal society” and “we are complicit in collectively forgetting unpleasant things” and “we are destroying the idea of objective truth, that 2+2=4, because it serves those in power.” And you can get away with saying this, because after all you are only talking about Cardassians and Bajorans, or about a speculative future England, or about a China that never was.

And this is exactly what Orwell set out to do. He was not writing about 1984. He was writing about 1948. And that is why his voice rings true in 2017…because he speaks to the pain and horror he saw around him, and those pains and horrors are with us still, like the stink of boiled cabbage in Winston Smith’s apartment block.

Yesterday, the President charged or detained a dozen American journalists. “Alternative facts” have become a buzzword alongside “fake news.” The government’s hostility to the media and to facts are well-documented.

The French became masters of satire and allusion because to speak plainly in the French courts of the ancien regime was to invite certain death. Just ask Moliere. The mandarins of Imperial China debated endlessly over Romance of the Three Kingdoms, because they could not criticize the Emperor or his minions, but they could speak of Liu Bei the White King and the dread warlord Cao Cao.

Now is the time to tell the truth, and for it to go masked. If you have a creative bone in your body, go write of the coming of the Great Orange One, or of the scientific Resistance and their invisible laboratories, or of the first Asian-American president. Tell your story, storyteller, and publish it. Make a cosmos of the chaos.

Give us your truths, your stories, your narratives, so we can make sense of the world.

*uh, spoilers?