Well-Dressed Immortals

Very few works of art survived from ancient times with color intact, which can make it hard to imagine just how richly colorful the world may have been in the past. So we’re fortunate to have this frieze of Persian soldiers in glazed brick survive with so much visible color, especially the richly patterned details of their robes. These soldiers, depicted on the Persian kings’ palace at Susa, probably represent the professional core of the Persian army, popularly known as the Immortals.

The brightly patterned robes these soldiers wear may be a ceremonial dress more suited to putting on a display at court than to campaigning on the wild frontiers of the empire, but it is interesting to note that the Greek historian Herodotus makes special mention of the clothing of Persian soldiers when praising the bravery of the Athenian and Plataean soldiers who faced them at Marathon:

These were the first Greeks we know of to charge into battle, and also the first to look on men in Persian clothing unshaken, for up to this time even hearing the name of the Persians had struck the Greeks with terror.

– Herodotus, Histories 6.112

(My own translation)

The Persians were well aware of the use of spectacle for political purposes. It may well be that Persian soldiers dressed to impress when on campaign as well in order to intimidate their opponents, for much the same reasons that the British army of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries loved to put their bright red coats on display in formation.

Image: Immortals relief from the palace at Susa, photograph by mshamma via Wikimedia (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: An Undersea Roundabout in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands—an autonomous region of Denmark—has built bridges and tunnels before to connect the numerous islands or islets and its 50,000-some residents. Never before, however, have they dug an undersea tunnel as deep or as long as the brand-new Eysturoyartunnilin, nor built an undersea roundabout.

Eysturoyartunnil Interior Green

The roundabout is part of a tunnel measuring about 11 km (6.8 miles), the third sub-sea tunnel in the islands. It connects the islands of Streymoy and Eysturoy, and reaches at its deepest 187 meters (roughly 200 yards) below sea level. At this writing the tunnel’s been in use for about a month.

Eysturoyartunnil Map

The roundabout comes with art—sculptures and light effects—designed by the Faroese artist Tróndur Patursson. You can read more about the tunnel at BBC or the P/F Eysturoyar- og Sandoyartunnil project website.

Eysturoyartunnil Interior Blue

Oh, my goodness. It’s obviously not a solution that suits every location, and I assume the cost plus know-how involved can also be a deterrent, but what a feat of engineering and vision it is. This is yet another reason why it’s (pandemic aside) exciting to be living now!

Found via Kristina Háfoss on Twitter.

Images: Map by P/F Eysturoyar- og Sandoyartunnil. Interior images by Estunlar.fo via BBC.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Cephalopodic Human Figures Drawn by Bored Children in 13th-Century Novgorod

Erik Kwakkel, Professor of Book History & Director, School of Information, UBC, Vancouver, Canada, shares all sorts of interesting tidbits online. Among the older ones—posted over seven years ago now and dating from the Middle Ages—are some wonderful children’s drawings made on birch bark.

This piece of bark is from among a large find made near the city of Novgorod, Russia, from the 13th century.

Tumblr Erik Kwakkel C13th Novgorod Birch Bark Drawing

Isn’t it interesting? Look at the eyebrows and the noses! And the torsos! Incredibly cephalopodic, in a charming way. And the hands look like rakes. The figures are clearly identifiable as humans, but the customary ways of drawing some of the details seems to have changed over the centuries quite a bit.

Check out Kwakkel’s Tumblr or Twitter for more book history particulars.

Image via Erik Kwakkel on Tumblr

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Matrilineality

Most traditional societies around the world have been patrilineal: power and property are passed down the male line of succession, usually from father to son, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, only on rare occasions to other relatives such as nephews, brothers, or cousins who share a common male ancestor. Some societies, however, have been matrilineal, where lines of succession are defined by descent from a common female ancestor. In these societies, power and property typically pass from brother to brother or uncle to nephew, only rarely from father to son.

Matrilineality should not be mistaken for matriarchy. Matrilineal cultures are often just as patriarchal as patrilineal ones are. Matrilineality is not a matter of women having power or being more important in society than men; it’s just a different way of determining which man is important and powerful.

Matrilineal succession can seem confusing and hard to follow for those of us who are used to the rules of patrilineality, but the principle is straightforward: to identify the next in line, find the nearest male relative who can trace their descent through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. to a common female ancestor with the current holder of the property or position in question. The nearest would be a brother by the same mother. Next nearest would be a nephew whose mother was the current person’s sister by the same mother.

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

In a patrilineal society, here’s how property and power would pass down from the eldest son of the original couple to his son and grandson.

In a matrilineal society, the line of succession from the same eldest son would go first to his brother, then to a nephew, then another nephew, then his brother.

Matrilineal succession has advantages for certain kinds of societies under certain circumstances. For one thing, it spreads power and property out among the family lines of a clan or extended kin group, rather than letting one line have a monopoly. It can also create incentives for skilled and ambitious men to marry into the family—if we image the example above tracing the lines of succession for a kingdom, the men who marry into the family will never be king themselves, but their sons and grandsons might be. Another advantage to matrilineality is it multiplies the number of legitimate heirs within any given generation, which can be helpful in times of crisis when a man might die leaving no sons of age to take over his position.

For these reasons, matrilineal patterns of succession often appear in societies that need to encourage cohesion and cooperation among different families in the face of a dangerous world.

Thoughts for writers

Lots of good stories involve questions of succession, whether its the return of a lost heir to claim their rightful inheritance, a struggle for power among rival families, or the mysterious death of a rich old miser. If you’re in the mood to write that kind of story, it’s worth thinking about the rules of succession in your world and what consequences they might have for your characters. Even if a matrilineal society isn’t in the cards, it’s good to remember that not everything has to go from father to eldest son.

Charts by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 4

Season 4 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has some great episodes and some fairly bad misfires. The Klingons, having been quiet for years, are suddenly feeling aggressive again, and our favorite Klingon, Worf, joins the station crew to help them deal with the consequences. This story fuels a good part of the season, but there’s plenty more to see, too. Here’s our take:

  1. “The Way of the Warrior” – 7
  2. “The Visitor” – 9
  3. “Hippocratic Oath” – 5.5
  4. “Indiscretion” – 5.5
  5. “Rejoined” – 8
  6. “Starship Down” – 8
  7. “Little Green Men” – 8
  8. “The Sword of Kahless” – 1.5
  9. “Our Man Bashir” – 10
  10. “Homefront” – 3
  11. “Paradise Lost” – 5
  12. “Crossfire” – 2
  13. “Return to Grace” – 4
  14. “Sons of Mogh” – 1
  15. “Bar Association” – 7
  16. “Accession” – 2
  17. “Rules of Engagement” – 2
  18. “Hard Time” – 2
  19. “Shattered Mirror” – 3.5
  20. “The Muse” – 2
  21. “For the Cause” – 4
  22. “To the Death” – 6
  23. “The Quickening” – 4.5
  24. “Body Parts” – 6
  25. “Broken Link” – 4

The average rating this season is 4.9, the same as in season 3, but season 4 gets there a different way. Where season 3’s episodes were mostly in the weak-average to average-good range, season 4 sends its episodes to the far ends of the scale. Only a handful fall in the 4-6 okay-but-not-great range; most are either well above or well below.

The distribution of ratings shows a certain level of confidence by the writers this season. You can tell that they felt comfortable enough with the characters and the setting at this point that they were ready to try new ideas, even really weird ones. What if we spent an episode in the holosuite playing a James Bond pastiche? What if we met a suicidal Klingon? What if Quark, Rom, and Nog were the Roswell aliens? What if there were a conspiracy to stage a military coup on Earth?

Some of these ideas really flop, like “Sons of Mogh,” scoring only a 1, in which Worf has to deal with his brother Kurn, who is depressed about the loss of status their family has suffered in the empire. The story presents the kind of ethical dilemma Star Trek specializes in—suicide is an honorable end for a Klingon with no hope, but it is unacceptable for a Starfleet officer like Worf—but never goes anywhere interesting with it. The episode boils down to Kurn standing on one side of Worf shouting “Kill me!” and the rest of the station crew on the other shouting “Don’t!” There’s nowhere interesting for this story to go.

On the other hand, some of these ideas pay off brilliantly, like “Our Man Bashir,” a full 10, which finds Dr. Bashir and Garak playing a swinging-sixties spy game in the holosuite for much higher stakes than they expected. DS9 largely avoids the Next Generation shtick of having the holodeck go haywire so the crew can have an adventure in period garb, but this episode figures out a way to make the holosuite matter: after a transporter accident, the main station crew’s physical patterns are stored on the holosuite until they can be rescued, but if the game shuts down they could be lost forever. This set-up gives us several delightful results: Bashir, the doctor playing spy, and Garak, the spy playing tailor, take their witty repartee to new heights in this episode, while some of the other regular cast get to go full ham in their holosutie roles—Nana Visitor as a sultry Russian agent and Avery Brooks as an omnicidal mad scientist steal every scene they’re in.

The rest of this season largely follows suit. Some ideas, like sending Worf and Dax on a quest for a lost Klingon artifact in “The Sword of Kahless”, just sputter and die. Others yield fantastic episodes, like “Little Green Men,” a hilarious romp through pulp sci-fi tropes, or “The Visitor,” a touching meditation on the power of love and memory.

While the Klingon war story at times just feels like a holding action while waiting for the Dominion to make its move, it also gives the series some new avenues to explore. This season does a lot of interesting work by overturning the status quo and seeing what happens to familiar characters in unfamiliar situations. Worf, Quark, Odo, and Dukat all find themselves cut off from their people in different ways; Sisko faces the possibility of treason within Starfleet; Dax has to grapple with the legacy of her past lives in ways she has not faced before; and Rom and Nog start new lives outside the traditional bounds of Ferengi culture.

Season 4 has a lot going for it, even if not every idea works. There’s a lot here that’s well worth coming back to.

Image: Bashir and Garak all tuxed up from “Our Man Bashir” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: We Humans Need Cinema, as a Collective Experience

Director Denis Villeneuve (whom I know from Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) talks about the decision made by Warner Brothers to release their new movies concurrently in theaters plus their streaming platform in an interview with Variety:

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.

“Once the pandemic is over, theaters will be filled again with film lovers.

“That is my strong belief. Not because the movie industry needs it, but because we humans need cinema, as a collective experience.”

This is a hairy situation. I fully agree with Villeneuve in that the theater experience—both movies and traditional plays, not to mention concerts of all varieties—was created with the physical presence of masses in mind, and, indeed, it benefits enormously from our physicality.

Technology has drastically changed how many things can be achieved digitally instead of physically. However, the fact has not changed that we are physical beings and crave physical experiences. There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a story and hearing the crowd around you reacting to it with you. (Think of sports events if you’re a sports fan.)

At the same time, however, I cannot but applaud the decision from an accessibility point of view. Personally, I literally understand and enjoy movies much, much better when I can access subtitling or captioning (and this is before the reduced hearing that’s in my family’s genes has really affected me; subtitles will only get more important for me in the future). And despite the theaters Erik and I usually visited in the Before Times being physically accessible, I have also visited theaters that aren’t, or theaters that have inaccessible bathrooms, or theaters that have bad seating.

Of course, one doesn’t have to have a disability or chronic conditions to enjoy streaming brand new movies. Coming from a large family I know herding kids in and out of theaters isn’t always easy. And there have been times I might have wanted to see a movie, but it would’ve meant slogging back out after a long day, waiting for a bus to take me downtown (or riding my bike in the wind and the rain) and all of it back again afterwards, so instead I stayed comfortably home.

There are a number of ways in which streaming content immediately on release day will benefit ordinary folks of all kind. At the same time, I do hope, most fervently, that movies made for the big screen do not disappear. For me, like for Villeneuve, they’re one of the major cultural features of 20th and 21st centuries.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Latest Wonder Woman 1984 Teaser

Warner Brothers has released a new 60-second Wonder Woman 1984 teaser:

WONDER WOMAN 1984 – CCXP :60 by Warner Bros. Picture on YouTube

We see a few new scenes and voiceovers. I assume it’s Diana’s mother who says in the first half of the video “This world is not yet ready for all you will do” as a lead-in to some amazing stunts, like lassoing the tail of an airplane or a bolt of thunder(!).

I confess I’m sceptical of how well those kinds of stunts might work; I mean that I have a hard time imagining them not looking ridiculous. I guess we’ll see. (Eventually. We’ve been too busy to talk about when we might want to see WW84.)

2020 has been a difficult year for the performing arts, too. Apparently, to recoup some of the losses, Wonder Woman 1984 will be shown in selected theaters in the U.S. and concurrently streamed on HBO Max. The release date here is December 25, 2020.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Inspiration for Moria Doors

Sophie Berry on Twitter shared this amazing photo of a church door flanked by two trees that have basically grown into the wall:

Twitter Sophie Berry St Edwards Stow-in-the-Wold Back Door

Apparently it’s thought to be the inspiration for the doors of Moria in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. No surprise there. How incredible!

Image via Sophie Berry on Twitter.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.