An Updated Game of Thrones Hotel Made of Snow and Ice

The Snow Village hotel in Kittilä in Lapland, Finland (which I blogged about last year), updated its Game of Thrones scenery for the 2018-2019 season.

Flickr Timo Kytta GoT Dining Room

As previously, they’re collaborating with HBO Nordic. This year’s snow and ice sculptures cover seasons 1-7 of the GoT tv series.
Instagram Snow Village Baratheon Bedroom

Instagram Snow Village Three-eyed Raven

Like their previous GoT creation, it looks absolutely amazing! Check out more and/or follow Snow Village on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Images: Dining room by Timo Kyttä on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Baratheon bedroom via Snow Village on Instagram. Three-eyed raven via Snow Village on Instagram.

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

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Some Random Thoughts on Aquaman

We were late to see Aquaman, but here, finally, are some random thoughts in no particular order.

Spoiler warning very much in effect!

IMDb Aquaman Comic-Con Poster

  • First of all: visually, it was a feast! In the theater while waiting for the movie to start, Erik mentioned he’d read somewhere someone say that Aquaman will change the way movies are expected to look for this generation the same way (I assume the original) Star Wars did for previous generations. I’d fully believe it: so many different effects and environments, all polished off to a regal shine (if you’ll pardon me for being corny for a bit). I’d also say this: while the SW prequels attempted to shower the audience with rich sets and visuals, they ultimately just didn’t reach the level of breathtaking; Aquaman (and Moana, Rogue One, and SW:XIII) actually succeeded.
  • The character Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison), the lighthouse keeper, looked Polynesian and sounded like a Kiwi. For a character who’s supposed to be a Mainer that was a bit of a whiplash. Then again, the world is more international these days than ever before.
  • Speaking of Maine and lighthouses, even I could tell there were too few trees in the “Maine” scenes. It looks like they were filmed in Newfoundland, so that would explain it. Other than that, the supposedly northern locations looked at least plausible—the rocky coast looks just right, in fact—so a plus for that. (I’m the kind of northener who happens to care whether my home is misrepresented or not.)
  • I’ve never read the comics, so I have no idea which plot elements came from where; I can’t comment from that point of view. (Literally, what I knew is Raj from The Big Bang Theory saying “Aquaman sucks!”) With that caveat, at first I was merely amused by the mixing of the Atlantean and Arthurian legends, but they kinda made it work. The antagonist’s father-son-tragedy-as-backstory was unfortunately tiresome, but at least it was given to black people, plus Yahya Abdul-Mateen II really rocked as Manta. (I’m so sick of seeing middle-aged white men wrangling with son guilt. Hey Leverage—I’m talking about you especially!)
  • The Tom-Atlanna romance was seemingly set up exatly like the dime-a-dozen action movies that have come before: man meets woman, she blows his mind with her awesomeness, they fall in love only to have him lose her In Order to Have Feelings(TM). Thankfully, Aquaman not only didn’t follow the trope through, it subverted parts of it: instead of dying, Queen Atlanna thoroughly wiped the deck with the team sent to bring her back to Atlantis (while he protected their child, Arthur, having correctly determined that her enhanced abilities would allow the family to survive—I just LOVE smart, self-confident, genuine, non-egotistical men). After the attack, Atlanna decided she’d better return voluntarily to protect Tom and Arthur, and subsequently was reported to have been sacrificed to a Verifiable Monster of the Deep, again making it look like the plot fridged her to give Tom the Official Permission to Wallow, but no—towards the end, we find out she not only survived, but carved a haven for herself and joined Princess Mera and Arthur in their quest for the super trident.
  • In the same vein, the Mera-Arthur romance was foreseeable and dull. At least the movie gave her the initiative unlike so many prior Hollywood stories.
  • Surprisingly, I didn’t mind Nicole Kidman as Atlanna.
  • Hairwise, surprisingly many characters kept their long hair loose even underwater. I would’ve thought it would be in the way too much, at least for the guards and other fighters. Mera’s hair was too red for my taste (The Little Mermaid, anyone?), but Vulko (played by Willem Dafoe) had quite a cute man bun/thing.
  • Overall, I felt that characters didn’t fare that well, unfortunately. Apart from Atlanna and Mera, I can’t remember any other women having more than a line, if that, except for the Fisherman Princess (and that’s really pushing it, too). Why is is that the only women being shown as active, rounded-out people instead of plot-relevant placeholders* are royalty? Not to forget the many mer-men who barely got defined as individuals. The creators clearly made a choice to focus on the story and visuals instead of characters. I’d rather see great characters AND great story, preferably with knock-out visuals, too; that’s why I love Black Panther so much.
  • I found the five underwater kingdoms that separated from the original Atlantean culture quite cliched, flat, and underdeveloped. Looks like developing the visuals took precedence indeed.
  • And wow—the Verifiable Monster of the Deep was monstrous!
  • And whatever else you might say, Aquaman really was epic. That said, some of the power poses approached ridiculous, but I suppose that happens easily when adapting superhero comics.
  • The final fight between Manta plus his goons and Mera plus Aquaman happened in a small seaside town in the Mediterranean, and it was inventive and not too predictable. However, we last see Manta plunging into the water from a cliff, bouncing off the rocks in the process. Now, one of my pet peeves is when a protagonist survives repeated and super violent hits, shakes, car crashes, what have you, because no matter how well a human body may be armored, your brain can still whiplash inside your skull, and that, as I understand, is really the life-threatening aspect of being hit too hard on the head. I thought that was it for Manta after his plunge and felt pleased Aquaman avoided yet another trope, but no—in a stinger, we see him drag himself to the shore. Argh!

Did you see Aquaman? What did you think?

Image: Aquaman Comic-Con poster via IMDb.

*) The delightful term plot-relevant placeholder is from a review by Liz Bourke—thank you!

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

2-Hour Fan-Made Pokémon Musical Online

Any Pokémon fans here? This might be of interest.

In 2016, a group of dedicated fans in Finland created a musical based on Pokémon games, toured the country, and uploaded a two-hour video of the live performance online:

“Valitsen sinut! -musikaali (I Choose You! The Musical) is an entirely fan-made musical based on Pokémon games Red, Blue and Yellow, as well as the first season of the anime. Behind the project there is a volunteer team of 50 people, and the musical toured Finland in 2016, the 20th anniversary of Pokémon.

“We’re not affiliated with Nintendo or Pokémon Company in any way. No one was paid for the project, and our crowdfunding was used fully for creating the musical.”

Valitsen sinut! -musikaali on YouTube

The performance is entirely in Finnish, but English subtitles are available on YouTube.

So far, I haven’t seen more than a few minutes from the beginning. Looks like the performers were really motivated, though, and enjoyed themselves. Really cool. I’ll have to carve time to see the whole. Mahtavaa!

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

I Miss Episodes

I turned 40 last year, and I think it’s starting to affect me: I’m beginning to feel the urge to rant about kids these days and how everything was better when I was young. So be warned, there is some curmudgeonliness ahead, but I do have a point here.

I’ve been thinking lately about why I find a lot of contemporary tv so unsatisfying. It’s not that tv shows are bad now. It’s been aptly said that we live in a golden age of television. Freed from the constraints of syndication and network time slots, modern shows have dared to tell bigger, more complicated stories. The proliferation of cable channels and online services producing their own original content has meant a chance for a wider range of productions, from big-budget crowd-winners to oddball side projects. All of this is to the good.

At the same time, we’ve lost something in the modern approach to tv-making: episodes. It used to be that a season of a tv show was one or two dozen short stories, each told over the course of an hour or half hour (or twenty to forty minutes, on commercial television). Nowadays, a season of television is a ten-hour movie with arbitrary breaks for theme music. Stories are not told in an episode but slosh over to the next hour or two before there’s any resolution; meanwhile, another story has started going at the same time and continues to slosh forward on its own. Every tv drama has now become a soap opera.

I miss shows that had actual episodes, each a story unto itself with a beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement all in one sitting. As much as that format could sometimes be limiting, it also had its artistic virtues. It forced the action to move along at a brisk pace. It created a sense of urgency that shaped the storytelling. There was a feeling of satisfaction that came with watching the problem of the episode be resolved. Modern shows tend to wallow in characters’ unresolved feelings, pad their running time with filler, and dive down narrative dead ends, much of which would have been cut short in properly episodic television.

Of course, lack of satisfaction is the point. Now that we can stream any show we want any time we want, the economic pressures have changed. Rather than keep us coming back every week to see more commercials, the business imperative of tv is now to keep us from clicking away to another streaming service. While new content models have freed tv from some artistic constraints, they have imposed new ones that are just as limiting. It is now tv’s job to never give us satisfying endings lest we wander off to do something else.

I do appreciate tv shows that have continuity and ongoing stories. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when the end of an episode meant a complete reset back to status quo ante, but continuity can coexist with episodes. Shows of the 1990s like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, X-Files, and Stargate pulled it off. In these shows, episodes mostly told self-contained stories, but they also remembered what had happened in previous episodes. Characters grew and changed, major plot twists had ongoing consequences, and big multi-season arcs played out a piece at a time, and yet when the credits rolled at the end of an episode, you still had the satisfaction of a resolution.

I wish we had more shows like that these days.

Here there be opinions!

An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe

I recently came across Endangered Alphabets, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization engaged in “preserving endangered cultures by using their writing systems to create artwork and educational materials”.

An article in Colossal pulled several examples from the Endangered database. The most striking of them, I thought, was Mandombe. It was created about 40 years ago by David Wabeladio Payi. His work was influenced by the look of a brick wall and a wish to connect the direction a shape pointed with pronunciation.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe-script-example Sm

Apparently, Mandombe is based on consonant and vowel graphemes, but they are organized into syllabic blocks (like written Korean) instead of word-length units.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe Script Table Sm

Today, Mandombe is taught in Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, and Brussels.

Wikipedia Mandombe Book Sm

Isn’t it fascinating?

P.S. Did you know that the United Nations declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) in order to raise awareness of the thousands of languages that are in danger of disappearing? Also, go ahead and visit the gallery or atlas at Endangered Alphabets for even more eye candy!

Images: script sample and table via Endangered Alphabets. Mandombe book via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

The Staffordshire Helmet Reconstructed

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest and perhaps the most magnificent find from Anglo-Saxon England. The hoard dates from the 7th century and comes from the Kingdom of Mercia. It was found in 2009 by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, and is now owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils on behalf of the nation.

The vast majority of items in the hoard are war gear, especially sword fittings. Among the items, all of which are of exceptionally high quality, is a helmet. Two copies of a reconstruction completed in 2018 are now available for public viewing, one in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Birmingham, England) and the other in The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England).

And it’s utterly breathtaking!

Twitter Staffordshire Hoard Helmet on Model Sm

Potteries Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

The so-called Staffordshire Helmet is very rare—only five other Anglo-Saxon helmets are known—and looks exquisite: the gold filigree with red accents make an arresting combination, and the dyed crest adds to the wearer’s height.

Birmingham Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

As Erik pointed out, ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed northwestern barbarians as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. On the basis of the Staffordshire Hoard alone, whatever else they were, there’s absolutely no basis in calling Anglo-Saxons technologically unskilled!

Visit The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for more.

Found via Express & Star on Twitter.

Images: Staffordshire Helmet worn by model via Staffordshire Hoard on Twitter. Side view via Staffordshire Hoard. Front view via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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

Aithiopia Forever

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us some interesting stories about the people he refers to as Ethiopians (or Aithiopes in Greek). The term Ethiopians/Aithiopes was widely used in ancient Greece for any dark-skinned people from the southern regions of Africa or India, but the people Herodotus means were those who lived in the northeastern African interior, south of Egypt along the Nile, in the region we know as Nubia.

Herodotus reports several remarkable things about these Ethiopians.While many of these stories are fanciful, or at least greatly exaggerated, they paint an interesting picture of what Herodotus and his fellow Greeks imagined the people of inner Africa to be like.

They were physically impressive and long-lived:

The Ethiopians are said to be the tallest and most beautiful of all peoples.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.20

Most of them live to 120 and some surpass this.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.23

They enjoyed a life of ease and good health, enabled by the special resources of their land:

There is a meadow outside the city filled with boiled meats from animals of all kinds. The lords of the city make it their custom to set these meats out at night, and during the day anyone who wants to may feast there. The locals say that the earth itself provides these things.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.18

[The Ethiopians possessed] a spring where they washed themselves and became sleeker, as if they had bathed in oil, even though it smelled of violets. … [T]he water of this spring was so light that nothing could float on it, neither wood nor anything lighter. Everything just sank to the bottom. If what they say is true, it seems likely that it is their regular use of this spring that makes them all so long-lived.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.23

They have an interesting way of choosing their leader:

Their customs are unlike those of any other people, and especially their kingship: they choose as king the one among them who is tallest and has the strength to match his height.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.20

And they preferred to be left alone and not be bothered by the rest of the world’s problems:

The Ethiopian king said [to the Persian king’s emissaries]: “The king of the Persians does not send you with these gifts because he desires my friendship, nor have you spoken the truth, for you have come here to spy on my kingdom. Nor is that man just, for if he were he would not desire the lands of others or enslave men who have done him no wrong. Now, give him this bow and say to him: ‘The king of the Ethiopians advises the king of the Persians that when a Persian can draw so strong a bow as easily as I do, then he may contemplate making war upon the long-lived Ethiopians. Until then, let him thank the gods for not putting the sons of the Ethiopians in a mood to conquer other lands.’”

– Herodotus, Histories 3.21

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Herodotus’ Aithiopia is essentially Wakanda.

Happy anniversary, Black Panther!

Image: T’Challa and Shuri via Giphy

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

Visual Inspiration: Now I See from Where Ents Might Have Come

As a kid, I spent time playing in the small wooded areas nearby and imagined all sorts of critters living there. I know I did, but at some point I lost the ability (or willingness, or perhaps leisure? I remember an increase in homework around the same time). By the time I read of the enormous woodlands in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I remember having trouble imagining the really large trees of Lothlórien or Mirkwood, or how Ents might be mistaken for trees.

You see, I grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle. We have woods up there, of course, thanks to the Gulf stream. The trees may not necessarily grow very big, however—although there are exceptions—and the ones that do grow tall tend to be relatively thin and arrow-straight instead of bulky and gnarly. (Two examples here and here. Both are further south than where I grew up, but nevertheless very similar.)

So, even I can easily imagine how a forest might invoke stories of elves, trolls, ents, and other creatures on the basis of photos of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England.

Flickr Andy Walker Wistmans Wood

Flickr Clifton Beard Wistmans Wood

Flickr Natural England Peter Wakely Wistmans Wood

Isn’t it breathtaking? It’s like there are Ents about to walk out from behind a tree at any moment!

Images: Andy Walker (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flicker. Clifton Beard (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr. Natural England/Peter Wakely (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Mountains and Valleys

Landscape and geography shape the ways people live and the kinds of societies they build. While we cannot lay it down as a rule that a particular kind of landscape always produces a corresponding type of society, there are definite patterns that can be found in many parts of the world. One important set of such patterns revolves around the interaction between mountain societies and river valley societies.

River valleys have long been centers of population and growth. Rivers provide crucial resources including drinking water, irrigation water, and fish, which allow for a large population to grow in a small area. Rivers also provide easy transport for people and goods, encouraging travel and trade. As a result, river valleys support the development of large-scale, densely populated settlements. It is no surprise that most of the world’s earliest urbanized societies emerged in river valleys, including the Nile River in Egypt, the Tirgis and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Yellow River in China.

Because of the ways that river valleys encourage dense, concentrated populations, the people who live along rivers have to develop ways of managing social conflicts that aren’t necessary in more widely scattered settlements. Early valley cultures were faced with the problem of working out competing claims to resources like irrigation water and access to navigable streams. They also confronted situations in which one person’s actions, such as discharging waste into a common waterway, could affect many other people. Different cultures found different ways of dealing with these problems. Some arrived at relatively peaceful and stable solutions while others frequently fell into conflicts over rights and resources. In the end, though, many river valley cultures ended up with complex, socially-stratified societies ruled over by centralized, bureaucratic governments.

Mountain societies, by contrast, tend to be small-scale, economically simple, and egalitarian. In the mountains, crucial resources such as fertile land and fresh water tend to be scattered in small pockets rather than concentrated in large quantities. Travel is difficult and time-consuming. These facts of geography lead to people living in very small communities, individual farmsteads, or movable camps. Self-sufficiency is at a premium when you can’t easily reach out to a larger community to help solve your problems. Mountain cultures therefore tend to remain small and highly local, and to rely more on personal relationships than organized institutions. Large-scale, organized mountain empires do exist in history, such as the Inca Empire in the Andes, but they are rare.

In some mountain cultures, the very sparseness of the population helps to maintain peace—you don’t fight your neighbors if you never see your neighbors—but the same factors that shape mountain cultures also often encourage violent conflict. When resources are limited, population growth can lead to spikes of competition, sometimes escalating into violence. Without well-developed institutions for managing interpersonal or inter-family conflict, fights over land and other vital resources can spiral out of control or drag on for generations. Many mountain societies have historically been subject to frequent violent conflicts, and those who live in them develop fighting skills as a matter of course.

These basic patterns have tended to shape how mountain cultures and river valley cultures have developed in history, but neither valleys nor mountains exist on their own. When valley societies and mountain societies interacted with one another, a whole new set of dynamics came into play.

Valley societies and mountain societies have often found themselves in conflict, but it is has historically been difficult for one to decisively overcome the other. River valley societies have the resources and surplus population to field large, well-organized armies and to provide those armies with a reliable source of supplies for long campaigns. Valley armies, however, have often struggled to assert control over mountainous regions. The fragmented nature of mountains makes it difficult to move large numbers of troops and supplies around. At the same time, mountains provide plenty of hiding places for local fighters who know the terrain well. Mountainous terrain favors the kind of small, mobile, skirmishing bands and guerrilla tactics that small, feuding, fragmented mountain cultures develop. Sometimes in history, valley empires have been able to assert control over the mountains at their edges, but it requires a concerted effort. The Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia, for instance, kept up steady pressure against the mountain tribes to the north and east, but never had much direct control over them. The Roman Empire had secure control of the lowlands on both sides of the Alps generations before it could claim success in the mountains themselves.

On the other hand, mountain people rarely have much success at invading well-developed valley cultures. While mountain warriors tend to be good at hit-and-run raiding and harassing tactics that can effectively limit a valley culture’s reach, conquering a valley takes a more coordinated effort and larger numbers of troops than most mountain societies can muster. Without a well-established centralized government, mountain armies are more dependent on ties of family loyalty and negotiated compromises that are hard to maintain far from home under the rigors of a campaign. While there are often hostilities in the hinterlands where organized, expansive river valley powers run up against the scattered but tenacious resistance of mountain-dwellers, it is rare that one side manages to decisively defeat the other.

Decisive defeats can happen, however. Sometimes, as with the Roman conquest of the Alps, Spain, Illyria, and other mountainous parts of the greater Mediterranean, river valley cultures can gather the resources and effort for a concerted push that overwhelms the locals’ ability to resist. Other times, moments of weakness in the valley can create an opening for aggressive mountain neighbors to sweep down and take control. The Zhou Dynasty in China was founded when a people from the mountainous uplands of the west seized power from the Shang Dynasty that had ruled the lowlands of the Yellow River valley. The Persians came from the mountains of the Iranian Plateau to build an empire that took in two of the great ancient river valley civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The legends of the Mexica, whom we often refer to as Aztecs, say that they came from a mountainous home called Aztlán before migrating into the Valley of Mexico and dominating it with their warriors. There may well be some historical truth behind this myth.

Not all mountain-valley interactions are hostile, however. Sometimes mountain and valley societies can coexist peacefully and profitably. River valleys produce agricultural surplus, which is often in demand in the mountains where farming is harder and less predictable. Mountains can produce useful commodities such as metals, timber, and stone that are harder to come by in the lowlands. Mountains can also be good recruiting grounds for mercenaries to build up valley armies. The rugged mountains of Greece provided trade goods and experienced warriors to Egypt and Egypt in return furnished surplus food to Greece in a relationship that was stable and mutually beneficial.

There are no hard rules in history. The study of the past is as much the study of exceptions and unexpected results as it is of familiar patterns. Still, the patterns are there. History is full of mountain people and river valley people, and the problems and opportunities that arise when they come into contact with one another.

Thoughts for writers

As always, my advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land. The ways that societies shape themselves, cope with problems, and interact with one another are always influenced by the landscape in which they were created.

The dynamics of mountain and valley societies are also applicable to other landscapes. Wherever large numbers of people settle around a shared resource—a mystical Elven city on a nexus of magic-bearing ley lines, say, or a space station guarding a hyperspace portal—similar conflicts are likely to arise, leading to a similar range of possible solutions. Wherever people live in small, scattered communities with limited resources—whether it’s desert nomads traveling from oasis to oasis or hardscrabble asteroid miners—their cultures will likely reflect many of the same influences as mountain societies. When these disparate groups of people interact, they will show the effects of many of the same forces at work between mountain and valley peoples.

The interactions of mountain people and valley people have shaped history. They can shape imagined worlds as well.

Image: Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, photograph by Imrankhakwami via Wikimedia

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

One Month to the Captain Marvel Movie Release

The release of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain Marvel is one month away.

Twitter Review Wire Media CpMarvel Character Posters

Nice—out of nine characters who got their own posters, four are women, four are men, and one is a cat. Can’t wait!

I’ve tried to stay away from spoilers of any kind, but it’s difficult to do completely in these days of nigh-universal social media saturation. (Yes, I protect my media bubble accordingly!)

While looking for an image to post I came across some discussion on the cat, apparently called Goose, whom we saw Nick Fury getting cute with in the second trailer. That, at least, is a safe topic! 😀

And here’s the tv spot that dropped last weekend:

Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel – “Big Game” TV Spot by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Only a few new clips there.

Soon! 🙂

Image: Marvel Entertainment via Review Wire Media on Twitter

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