2015: A Crazy Year in Review

Two-thousand and fifteen is my 5th year of blogging, and I have to say, this has been the craziest year to date.

Without a doubt, the most standout event was my moving from Blogger to WordPress. I knew this had to happen someday, but I was reluctant, for the same reasons I hate moving to a new house. All those articles and pages to transfer! Over two hundred! Plus, I wasn’t sure I’d like WordPress any better, though everyone kept telling me the same thing: Blogger is for beginners; WordPress is the big leagues.

Ironically, my moving was the result of someone trying to do me harm. After posting a Kickstarter video on YouTube, some jerk criticized me for my looks, and I went ballistic on the guy. Now, I don’t know if he was the culprit, but soon after my altercation, my Blogger site, which has been up for 5 years without a qualm, was reported for ‘objectionable content.’ My Google rankings plummeted, since whoever tried to visit me had to click past a warning page. I tried contacting Google, but they were too busy building their army of robots. And why should they bother, when all of their services are free? So I was forced to skedaddle.

Fortunately, moving to WordPress was easy. Blogger has a feature that compresses all of your articles into one big file, so the only thing you need to do is upload it to the server. But to make it look nice, I had to repost the pages individually and change all of the links. [Quick programmer’s trick: Use ‘view HTLM’ to get the code, cut and paste it into Word, then use Word’s “find and replace” feature to do the dirty work and viola! all the links are changed to the new domain name!] End result: I couldn’t be happier! WordPress has more tools and better tools, both for editing and building an audience. I have more followers than ever and I have an anonymous jerk to thank for it!

Twenty-fifteen also marks my foray into the aforementioned world of Kickstarter. After finding an editor for Ages of Aenya, someone I could trust, I needed $7000 to pay her for the job. As a lark, I turned to Kickstarter. I figured, if a guy can get fifty grand to make potato salad, why can’t I get a fraction of that for the first ever fantasy naturist novel? The results were heartbreaking, but I did learn two valuable lessons: 1) Raising funds is hard. and 2) Nudists/naturists are not very inclined to helping struggling writers, even if to promote their lifestyle. Still, I made new fans, to whom I am indebted. Even WNBR London organizer Lady God1va supported me on Twitter, pledging $100.

Another standout event, this year saw the return of Star Wars. As a huge fan and dedicated defender (not apologist) of George Lucas, I could not help but use my blog as a soapbox, preaching the virtues of the oft-maligned prequel films. To my surprise, I met many likeminded individuals.

One thing I’ve noticed about blogs, they tend to disintegrate over time. The first year, you might see a hundred or so posts. The second, that number goes way down. By the third and fourth years, you’ll find hardly any posts at all. An abandoned blog is a sad sight to see, and so I am cognizant that I not follow that trend, unless I am focused on something more important, like my novels. This year, I am proud to say, I have written 52 articles (up from 38 last year) many of which, I think, are worthy reads. So please check out my top picks for the Writer’s Disease, 2015:

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After weeks of e-mailing, I managed to buy the rights to this amazing piece by Selene Regener, for my character, Radia Noora.


 


JE SUIS CHARLIE and the Threat of Absolutism: After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris this year, I knew I had to chime in. Here, I explore the cultural roots of extremism, and how differences in thinking between East and West laid the groundwork for the kind of massacres we see happening around the world today.

The Road Less Traveled: My review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, easily the best book I’ve read this year: a masterfully written apocalyptic vision with enormous heart.

A False Dichotomy: The Religion/Atheism Debate: I tackle the divide between the new atheist/scientific/materialist’ view and the idealist/religious’ view, finding fault in their respective approaches to understanding one another. For the atheist, the only currency in debate is evidence and reason, whereas, for religious people, emotion and personal experience holds greater sway. Without acknowledging these differences in perspective, and the reasons people hold to them, the two sides will only continue to talk past each other.

The Devil’s Advocate: Why Nudism is Wrong*: I take an in-depth look at many of the claims nudists make, particularly regarding the health/social/psychological benefits of going au natural.

The Greek Pedophile/Pederasty Stereotype: Were the Ancient Greeks predominantly homosexual? Did the teachers of the time have a penchant for man/boy love? How much of our assumptions is based on actual evidence, and how much of it is simply a misunderstanding of how history is written?

The Procession: An epic/literary poem, from my work-in-progress novel, The Princess of Aenya.

Why Don’t We Live in a Perfect (Nude) World?: My most popular post to date, with 16,000+ reads and counting. I was also contacted by two editors who asked me if they could reprint this article in their publications. One works for a naturist newspaper, the other for a New Zealand based magazine, “Go Natural.” Quick summary: I examine the evolutionary and cultural roots of shame and the nakedness taboo.

Tapestry Theory, Sam Harris, and Defining the Self: I challenge Sam Harris’ assertion that what we believe to be “the self” is an illusion, arguing that, in fact, we can define our identities by the life we live and the people we touch.

 

 

Underwhelmed by the Force

I know what people are going to say. First, I am going to get accused of click-baiting. The only reason I am criticizing this film is to get attention, they’ll say. This is, perhaps, what is most depressing. Social media creates peer pressure, to the point where you’re afraid to voice your true feelings. Whether it’s 97% for Star Wars or 14% for Fantastic Four, the hype train takes on a life of its own, and everyone is expected to get on board. It reminds me of middle school. My sandwiches were getting smashed in the paper bags we used to carry, but only babies bring lunch boxes to the cafeteria, until you get to college, that is. Then they’re hip and retro.

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Not cool for middle school.

For the past fifteen years, I have defended the prequels, not because of some blind love for all things Star Wars, but because I actually (call me crazy) loved the movies. Now, in many ways, I feel that I owe the haters an apology, but not for the reasons you might expect. I now know the crushing disappointment they must have felt in ’99, and I can relate to their need to vent.

Star Wars has always meant different things to different people. For some, it is a gritty space-adventure with zingy one-liners. But for me, Star Wars is boundless imagination, spectacle and inventiveness epic in scope, sheer visual poetry. Lucas uses the screen like a painter does a canvas. You can just freeze the frame and hang it on your wall. His worlds feel alive even when you’re not watching. He is like a documentarian, only filming what he found. We may not have understood the political machinations of the Galactic Senate, but that was the whole point. Like THX1138 and American Graffiti, Star Wars was “found footage.” This has always been Lucas’ style, and it’s one of the reasons I love his films.

With the prequels especially, Lucas had something to say. Despite most people not wanting to think (just look at the travesty that is the Trek franchise) he espoused philosophies and explored political ideas. Maybe the dialogue felt wooden, and the acting abysmal, but at least his characters had something interesting to say. I’ll take Padme’s, “This is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause,” over 2 1/2 hours of vacuous lines—however well delivered—any day.

People act as if Lucas suddenly became interested in effects, at the expense of story, but this is demonstrably not true. The original trilogy was cutting-edge for its time, and George used every technique available to him, limited only by what he could imagine. When we got to the prequels, he did what he knew best, pushing the visual envelope. Now, for the first time in Star Wars history, the franchise has taken a deliberate step backward. While everything in Episode VII feels more gritty and real (JJ uses almost entirely real sets on real locations), what does it matter, when we’ve seen these places before, in other films, and with our very own eyes? I’ve walked through a forest before, and a beach, and a snowy mountain. I don’t need to go to a galaxy far, far away to visit Jakku. Heck, my parents went there this summer; it’s called Dubai. And if I had a Millennium Falcon, I sure as heck wouldn’t take a trip to Clearwater Beach, 10 miles down the road. I’d want to see a giant sinkhole planet, like Utapau, or a termite-mound world like Geonosis, or the planet-wide cityscape of Coruscant. I’ll take imaginative and unconvincing over boring and realistic any day. National Geographic may look more believable than anything Frazetta can paint, but what does it matter, when we’re talking Sci-Fi/fantasy?

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Looks fake? Who cares!

Now, I’d be willing to overlook the mundane settings if at least the story was original, but it isn’t. The Force Awakens is a near-identical retelling of A New Hope, only, and I am not kidding here, the ’77 version told it a lot better. And if you are reading this and want to remain spoiler free, this is your last warning:

 

—- SPOILERS AHEAD —-

So, the day before I go into the movie, I am having a conversation with my nephews, and here is what I said, “I bet Kylo Ren is going to end up being somebody’s son, either Luke’s or Han’s.” It was Han’s. “I bet Finn holding a lightsaber on the poster is a red-herring. At the very end, Rey is going to pull out a lightsaber, proving (to herself and the audience) she is a Jedi.” This is exactly what happens. But this is the worst part, “I really hate that Starkiller base is a knock-off of the Death Star. It’s bad enough we have a Vader clone, more tie fighters and more X-Wings, but did we really need another super weapon? I swear, if they have to fly their X-Wings inside of it, to blow up some tiny reactor so that it implodes, I am going to be really pissed.” But my older nephew gave me hope. “Maybe not,” he said, “maybe JJ will do something cool and unexpected, like have Luke pull a moon down on top of it, destroying it with the Force. Remember how Yoda said, ‘Size matters not?'” Had they done that, it would have been amazing. In fact, his idea made me consider how JJ could take a familiar element (like the Death Star) and do something unique with it. Alas, we got nothing of the sort. I predicted almost the entire movie, scene for scene. Now compare The Force Awakens to the first Star Wars sequel. Who could have imagined, after A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back? With the introduction of Yoda, and Vader telling Luke, “I am your father,” and Han getting frozen in carbonite? Had Lucas let 20th Century Fox make a sequel to Star Wars in 1980, I imagine we would have gotten something like VII. There’s even a character in it, Maz Kanata, reminiscent of Yoda, and an Emperor-type character, who appears only as a hologram, Supreme Leader Snoke.

I admit, I was excited about seeing Snoke and Kanata. Up to that point, the absence of CGI is bluntly apparent, an effort to pander to the haters and apologize for Jar Jar Binks. So many puppets and costumes are on display here, that the movie, at times, looks outdated. Considering modern Sci-Fi, like Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s kind of ridiculous. Unconstrained by the weight of nostalgia, director James Gunn was free to try new things, and embrace modern effects, something Star Wars has long prided itself on. I don’t care what people say, CGI creatures look more real to me, because they move more fluidly, and their expressions are more lifelike. Why else did nobody think to use a hand puppet for Rocket Raccoon? So, I figured, at least we get to see some aliens that look alive. Only, these CGI characters could not be more boring. Supreme Leader Snoke, particularly, looks so human, I don’t know why they didn’t just make him human, or an actor in makeup. It makes the CGI look less convincing than Jar Jar.

All this aside, I did not hate the film. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it, mostly for the nostalgia trip that it was. Watching the Falcon dodging tie fighters, and seeing the old gang together again, was great. Newcomer Daisey Ridley also gives a superb performance as Rey. But if Star Wars did not precede the title, the movie would not be causing such a stir, or come close to making the 2 billion it will undoubtedly make. As a standalone film, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy and even The Martian are better. But Star Wars has a history behind it, a pedigree of expectation, and this was the first time in the series that I walked out of the theater not feeling thrilled or inspired, or even really wanting to see it again. Even John Williams’ score, which never fails to impress, is routine. I can’t think of a single memorable piece of music, nothing to compare with Duel of the Fates or Across the Stars. Perhaps most disappointing for me, The Force Awakens gives us little to nothing to talk about, and I doubt anyone will be discussing it, or debating it, in the next ten years.

At this point, I realize, it doesn’t matter what I think. Episode VII is riding a wave of positivity, and any dissenting opinion (like mine) is bound to get washed away. But to the people who really loved this movie, I only ask, “Does this improve on the Star Wars saga as a whole? Were we not better off, leaving it at Return of the Jedi?” Lucas said he never made a VII because there was no more story to tell. And, quite honestly, it saddens me to know that Han is killed by his own son, and that he and Leia don’t get to live happily ever-after, and that Luke becomes a hermit somewhere. Jedi was the perfect ending to a perfect story. Now, we have this ugly, uninspired imitation tacked on to it. While I am happy to see my favorite franchise return, I would have preferred a clean slate in another era, perhaps something along the lines of Knights of the Old Republic, but then Disney would not have been able to cash-in on the nostalgia trip.

 

 

Tapestry Theory, Sam Harris, and Defining the Self

Who am I? Well, as far as I know, my name is Nick Alimonos. I am a father, a husband, and a writer. Admittedly, on occasion, I also sell pizza. But do these qualities define me? If you take them away, do I become someone else? Or do I have a soul, a deeper part of me, some immaterial and eternal essence living behind my eyes, somewhere in my body? In other words, what defines the “self” and does it even exist? This fundamental question has puzzled mankind since time immemorial. It has been the subject of debate within religious, philosophical, and scientific circles.

Philosophy has been hijacked, or perhaps “won-over” is a more accurate term, by the materialists. Thanks to advances in science, and new technologies that enable us to peer into the world at the subatomic level, it is commonly accepted that physical matter is all there is. But the problem remains of how to make sense of this new information. As always, there is a danger of “leaps of logic,” even when based on evidence. I recently came across an interesting YouTube video, part of a series called the Asimov Debates, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he and other astrophysicists were discussing the birth of the universe “from nothing.” Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, was on the panel, and he was arguing in favor of truly empty space, or absolute “nothing,” from which came the Big Bang. The other physicists, however, were not so convinced. “What about subatomic particles in a vacuum?” “What about gravity waves?” “What about the fabric of time-space itself?” Nope, said Krauss, those do not count. As a student of philosophy, I found this exchange utterly baffling. It’s not as if these scientists didn’t all have access to the same data. But the debate had nothing to do with well defined concepts, like the size and shape of the Earth, and everything to do with vague ideas like “nothingness.” Without realizing it, these astrophysicists had stumbled into the realm of philosophy, where evidence has less currency, and people like Krauss are left making silly statements hearkening to the days of Descartes, Kant and Heidegger. I personally think (in my very unprofessional opinion) that it would be more accurate to say, “absolute nothing does not exist.” But the nature of the universe isn’t what this post is about. Instead, I wish to address a different kind of nothing.

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In his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris posits “there is no such thing as the self.” What you call “I” or “me” is simply an illusion. Now, it is no surprise that Harris has spent a great many years abroad studying and meditating with mystics and yogis, and was once a practicing Buddhist. Most of his ideas regarding the self originate from the Far East. He even admits, offhandedly, that his wife teaches meditation to children. So, right from the start, there is evidence of bias. Though he often cites scientific research, it is usually taken out of context, things done by other scientists in other fields, and is typically anecdotal. As far as I can tell, Harris is never hindered by the rigors of experimentation. There is no double-blind testing, no chance for contrasting evidence to emerge. He continuously states how, through meditation, his beliefs become self-evident (like finding the blind spot of your eye), but how does this experience differ from Christian scientist and head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, who claims to have found God in a frozen waterfall? Waking Up feels a lot like a Buddhist-apologetic. From the very beginning, I had problems with his methodology. Science does not formulate a theory, then go in search of evidence to support it. This is how Intelligent Design got started. But while I’d never put Harris in a camp with Creationists (he’s much too smart for that), it’s tempting to do so, when one considers that the premise of his book was first imagined five centuries before Christ. 

Sam Harris offers numerous fact based statements to support his argument, but every time he does so, I am reminded of Krauss and the semantic problem of “nothing.” Harris writes, and I paraphrase: there is nothing in the brain where anything like a soul could be located; the brain can be split in half, and each half will then become its own identity; there are people who, due to some damage of the brain, are convinced one of their limbs does not belong to them; everything we do or do not do is based on a chemical reaction (again, in the brain) and these chemical reactions happen before we are consciously aware of them. All of these examples, you’ll notice, involve the brain, which is no surprise, considering that Harris is a neuroscientist. But again, I feel this makes for a biased viewpoint, and a narrow one at that. None of this convinces me that “I” is an illusion. Are you convinced? Even a little? Well, Harris argues this is difficult to realize, at first, that you may need years of meditation, and careful instruction by a learned teacher. Does this sound familiar? Scientology makes a very similar claim. If you “study” anything long enough, you can be made to “realize” it. This is what is called confirmation bias, and Harris has written whole books on the subject, so I am stupefied by his inability to “know thyself.”

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Imagine your best friend comes to your house and says to you, “Hey, I do not believe you own a car. In fact, your belief in your car is simply an illusion.” To that, you might say, “You must be crazy! Look! Just look in my driveway. My Volkswagen Beetle is sitting right there.” But then, your friend retorts, “Ah, but you’ve never looked closely, have you?” at which point he proceeds to take your car apart, piece by piece, removing the engine, the tires, the doors, everything. After working all night, every single component is laid out in front of you. It no longer resembles a car in any way. Now, looking smugly, your friend remarks, “Where is your car? You see, there is no car. There was never any car.” At this point, you’d probably want to punch him. But this is what happens in science. Interestingly, philosophers have been tackling this same problem of identity for thousands of years. In the first century, Plutarch conceived of a thought experiment, The Ship of Theseus, where each plank of a ship is removed and replaced, one by one. The same is done for the sails, the oars, the tiller, and every other part, until nothing of the original ship remains. At what point, Plutarch asks, does the ship become new?

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The Large Hadron Collider, Switzerland

It is, perhaps, the nature of scientific inquiry to dissect things, and sometimes to destroy things, to better understand how they work. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, arguably the largest scientific experiment in history, works by smashing atoms together at nearly the speed of light, breaking them into their constituent parts. This has given us great new insights into how the world works, like the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which is responsible for giving things mass. Problems arise, however, when scientists cannot see the forest from the trees, or the forest from the leaves. There is always a risk of misinterpreting the world at the macro-scale, and failing to assign proper meaning to the data. Case in point: particle physicists claim, “almost all matter is empty space.” This is in reference to the distances (at the quantum level) between individual atoms, and the gap within the atom between the nucleus and its electron, which is (comparatively) great. But calling an iron skillet “mostly empty space” is meaningless, because everyday experience tells us skillets are heavy, and that we cannot pass our hands through them. Now, if we could shrink like Ant-Man, and look between the atoms, things might appear differently. Essentially, what is “empty” at the quantum level is “not so empty” at the macro-level. When I consider my brain, I do not think of it at the level of the neuron. I know there is no single location where I am defined, or where my soul resides. There isn’t a lobe marked, “Nick Alimonos.” But this isn’t to say that I do not have a self. To get a true understanding of what something is, you have to look at the whole picture. This is what I call Tapestry Theory.

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Consider this: you are visiting a museum and come across Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. Right away, you recognize a picture of the night sky. However, looking much more closely, what at first seemed like a starry night becomes swirls of blues and violets and yellows. In fact, the closer you look, the less you are able to identify what you are seeing. If you are someone like Sam Harris, you might wonder where the painting went, or ask whether there was any painting to begin with. There is no marker in the pigment, or in the texture of the canvas, that defines the painting, or what it might look like at the macro-level. If we were to break it apart into its constituent atoms, scientists could study each atom under a microscope, using the most advanced computers, and never, ever complete the entire picture. Starry, Starry Night can only exist when looked at as a whole. Harris might call this an illusion, and in a way, it is. But it’s an illusion that is real.

Taking this macro-level approach, how do I define myself? Am I the entirety of my brain? No. I have always hated sports, because I have never been athletic. Put me in the body of Michael Jordan, however, and I might find basketball a little more enjoyable, even if I lacked his lifetime of experience. Does identity, then, equal brain + body? Again, no. Using my sports analogy, I might have found basketball more enjoyable had my teammates not been able to run circles around me. Even still, we need to move further out if we are to get a real sense of who we are as individuals. We have to consider not only the parts that make up our bodies, not only the people we interact with, but the environment we live in and the time and space we move through. All of these things together define us.

As a neuroscientist, it is only fitting that Sam Harris look to the brain to understand identity. I, on the other hand, write fiction. When I think upon matters of identity, I think about characters. What defines a character? For me, it has everything to do with their place in a story. In my novel, Ages of Aenya, Xandr is born in the mountains of Ilmarinen, is mentored by QuasiI, and at fourteen is forced from his home to wander the swamps, before being called to Hedonia, where he meets the woman he loves, Thelana. These events make up Xandr’s life, and consequently, his character. In the same way, who we are depends on where we have lived, what we have done, and the people who play supporting roles in our story. Without these outside factors, identity could not exist.

Imagine this (albeit horrible) scenario: a scientist culls stem cells from a zygote to produce an infant brain. But this brain is entirely isolated, left in a jar with only fluids to keep it functioning. Utterly divorced from stimuli, the brain does not process sound, sight, smell, or sensory input of any kind. While both human and alive, such an organ could not become aware of itself, and would thus have no concept of self. Sam Harris gives a similar but contrasting example, of someone with “soap opera amnesia”—who remembers nothing of who he is. Despite his absence of memory, the amnesiac still has a sense of self. He still says, “I do not remember anything.” But Harris stops there, telling only half the story. If you were to say to this man, “Well, if you don’t remember who you are, it doesn’t matter; self is an illusion anyway,” the amnesiac would likely get very annoyed. He would have a strong desire to learn who he used to be, knowing that more than likely, he had a life (a story), perhaps a wife and kids who are missing him. In other words, he would be seeking his sense of self. If self were an illusion, why would he bother?

While it is true that our sense of self can be transitory (we are rarely the same people we were a decade, a year, or even a day ago) this fact does not invalidate our identities. For one thing, our past selves continue to exist in space-time. Whoever you become later in life does not change the fact of your childhood, and your childhood continues to affect your identity, whether you can remember it or not. Even someone who has suffered from a stroke, who loses all memory of their past (I knew someone like this) is still defined by their past, because of the interactions they’ve had with other people and with their environment. My aunt, Tessia, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and no longer remembers who she is. But this does not mean she ceases to be Tessia. The life she lived still happened, and her family (like my Mom) continues to recognize her.

For Sam Harris, rejecting the self also means rejecting any possibility of a soul. In his mind, there is no eternal, immutable inner-substance that makes us what we are, or which persists beyond death. So far, we are in agreement. Nothing in the universe is permanent. But it is a leap in logic to suggest that impermanence and mutability necessitate illusion. If this were the case, everything would be illusion. The self, like matter, can even be transformed from one form into another, but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Consider the Twilight Zone scenario. Imagine that one day, you wake up on a rice farm in China. A strange woman calls you by a name you do not recognize, and two kids you’ve never seen start jumping excitedly onto your bed. As the days go by, you slowly come to realize that the woman is your wife, and that her kids believe you are their father. For weeks, you might try to convince them otherwise, but everywhere you go, people take you for a Chinese rice farmer. Even when you look into the mirror, you see a face you do not recognize. Given no option to return to your previous life, you would eventually accept your new identity. You might even be convinced that you were crazy to have believed differently. A student of Sam Harris might read this story and say aha! this proves identity is an illusion, but it doesn’t. It only demonstrates how social and environmental interactions define who we are. Changing these aspects of our lives, however, does not make identity any less substantial than changing your clothes makes your laundry insubstantial. Perhaps what Harris means by identity and illusion, and what I take it to mean, greatly differ. Typically speaking, an illusion is a trick, something false, not to be trusted. And to say that the self is false is to greatly diminish it.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson once wrote, “Science is true whether you believe in it or not.” This is one of my favorite quotes, as it beautifully illustrates the core quality of science. Barring new evidence, accepted scientific theories are irrefutable. In religion, people murder each other, sometimes for millennia, over interpretation of scripture. But no genuine scientist can deny the Heliocentric model of the Solar System, or the basics of evolution. Sam Harris’ theories in Waking Up, by comparison, more closely resemble pseudoscience, metaphysics, philosophy and religion (take your pick). While data can be cited to support his claims, particularly regarding meditation and its effect on the brain, the data is selective, and does not take into account other religious practices, like prayer, which has also been shown to have a positive influence. At any rate, there may never be a way to prove, definitively, whether the self is an illusion or something more, as these terms themselves are indefinite.

Comparing meditation to religious ritual is not necessarily a bad thing, however, and if we had to choose from religions, Buddhism is the one I’d go with. Like the Buddha, Sam Harris wants to save mankind from suffering, by helping us to realize the illusory aspect of the self. Without self, we can overcome the selfishness that stands in the way of compassion. Now, I am a strong advocate of compassion. I find that this is what we are most lacking in the world, but I do not believe we need to surrender our sense of self to do it, and even if we could, I do not imagine Western culture could ever be made to accept it. Europeans and Americans have long celebrated individuality. As someone of Greek descent, I have taken to heart the philosophy of Socrates, who said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” so that, rather than abolish thought, I try to be more thoughtful and sincere about my life. The solution to suffering, I believe, is not an outright rejection of the self, but an understanding that what we define as “self” is inseparable from the world and the people in it.

 

Answering the Lucas Haters

This post is going to be something different, an on-going series that I will be continuously updating to answer the haters’ complaints about George Lucas and the Star Wars films.

All the Lucas-bashing reminds me of the way I was bullied as a kid. Between 6th and 8th grade, I was mercilessly teased by pretty much the entire class, because hating on Nick was the “cool thing to do.” Nobody ever rushed to my defense for fear of being attacked in the same way. But Lucas is rich and famous, you say. He can take it. But that is no excuse for being a jerk. Someday, I may become a rich and famous writer, and I certainly don’t want that kind of hatred directed at me. What is entirely indefensible, however, is hating on a guy who has given so much joy to my generation.

The thing is, the hate is entirely unfounded. It’s not as if Lucas did something criminal, like raping someone, or taking an underage bride. There are certainly worse directors out there. Like I stated in an earlier post, a lot of it has to do with nostalgia and unmet expectations, but another big part is the Hollywood system. Lucas has always been an outsider, and over the years, his staunch independence has made for enemies. The big studios have wanted nothing more than to tear this man down. Now, while the Star Wars prequels were not everyone’s cup of Bantha milk, they did earn much critical and commercial success. Over time, however, a small but vocal minority grew, on the big new playground called the Internet, and the larger media quickly latched on to it. A beloved filmmaker failing miserably made for some great headlines, and from there, the whole thing escalated into what I can only describe as a lynch mob.

Personally, I could care less for public opinion. I like what I like, the prequel films included, despite their flaws. In fact, you can say the prequels turned me into a fan. At any rate, it is a mistake to judge a work of art in terms of flaws. Art isn’t science. Instead, we should be looking at the positives, at how the artwork makes us feel, how it stirs us emotionally and intellectually. When I saw The Phantom Menace in ’99, it blew me away precisely because of what it did right. I loved seeing the alien vistas of Naboo and Coruscant, the many space-ships and aliens, and the first ever CGI characters put to film, Jar Jar and Watto and Sebulba. I was thrilled by the pod-race, the three-way lightsaber duel, and I adored the music, especially the operatic “Duel of the Fates,” some of John Williams’ best. These kinds of things you didn’t often see in movies, even in Sci-Fi flicks, which around that time were almost always gloomy and depressing. The Star Wars galaxy was one I wanted to live in, the world of Aliens and Terminator or The Matrix, not so much. But the haters didn’t seem to get the same enjoyment as I did. They focused entirely on the negatives, dissecting each film for anything—and I mean anything—to gripe about.

Theedroyalpalace

This. Just look at this shot!

Acting and dialogue aside, just how bad are these stories, really? Are all the criticisms justified, or does Lucas simply demand a little more attention from the viewer? I aim to answer.


 

PALPATINE’S PLOT

Q: When Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi return from Naboo with news of a blockade, why doesn’t the Senate believe them? What was the point of sending two Jedi to investigate if the Senate can do nothing about it?

A: In an allegorical way, Lucas is critiquing ineffectual government. The Senate doesn’t accept the Jedi’s testimony for the same reason Congress doesn’t “believe” 99% of scientists when it comes to climate change. More importantly, this establishes that there is corruption in the Senate, without which Palpatine could not have seized power. The story of the prequels is the story of a fallen democracy, orchestrated by a Sith Lord. This is his first step to power. By arranging for the Trade Federation blockade of his own planet of Naboo, Palpatine convinces the Senate of the chancellor’s impotence, calling for a vote of “no confidence,” so that he can assume power.

Q: OK, but why then does Palpatine, acting secretly as Darth Sidious, order the Neimoidians to kill the Jedi? If he wants to gain a sympathy vote in the Senate, shouldn’t he want them to escape, to report what they have found?

A: To become chancellor, Palpatine needs to do two things: 1) He needs to create a crisis (the blockade of his home planet) and 2) He needs to prove that the Senate is both corrupt and ineffectual. The last thing Palpatine wants is a quick resolution to the conflict. By killing the Jedi, he is preventing that from happening. Remember, the Neimoidians feared the Jedi would “force a settlement.” If such a thing were to occur, there would be no need for new leadership, as the problem would have been resolved before it even began. When the Trade Federation representative later states, “There is no proof!” this is precisely what Palpatine is relying upon. He wants endless debating and uncertainty, something he can promise “to put an end to,” when he becomes chancellor.

Q: OK, fine, but what is all this talk about the queen signing a treaty? Why would Palpatine want this, if he intends to create conflict?

A: Keep in mind, we do not fully understand all of Palpatine’s machinations. Lucas likes to keep things vague in all his films, especially in THX1138, to maintain a sense of mystery, a sense we are looking at a larger world, one that continues to exist off camera. What we do know, however, is that Palpatine is not prepared for “all out war,” because the clone army he has ordered has another ten years to mature. Most likely, he needs the treaty to resolve the conflict. After all, the invasion is nothing more than a ruse to power. Once that power is attained, he needs to prove himself an effective leader. What better way to do that than to end the conflict quickly and without violence?

 

MIDICHLORIANS

Q. The idea of midichlorians is “a clumsy retcon that screws up an explanation we already had.” The Force is no longer magical, it is just a disease.

A. If you type “midichlorians” into a search engine, you’ll find a long list of blogs attacking the concept. Here is a direct quote, “Arguably the worst scene in all of Star Wars. A great example of failing to understand the material you’re making a prequel to. Some bad writing, George…” Problem is, this is a straw-man fallacy, attacking an idea that was never put forth in the first place. So, let’s break this down:

  1. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda describes the Force by FIRST saying, “Life creates it. Makes it grow.” So, from as far back as 1980, we are given the idea that physical life forms both create and make the Force grow.
  2. In Return of the Jedi, Luke says to Leia, “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it.” In this scene, Luke implies that the Force is more than a spiritual belief system, that there is a genetic component to it. If it were entirely spiritual, with no connection to physical matter, it could not have been “passed on” from generation to generation.
  3. In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon tests Anakin’s blood for midichlorians, and sends the data to Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan remarks, “the readings are off the chart! Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a count that high.” But now here is the important part: Obi-Wan then asks, “What does that mean?” Qui-Gon says he doesn’t know. He could have said, “it means he is more powerful than any Jedi,” but this is not the case. Why? Because midichlorians DO NOT = the Force.
  4. So, what does the movie actually say midichlorians are? Anakin asks Qui-Gon this question directly, “I’ve been wondering, what are midichlorians?” to which he responds, “Midichlorians are a microscopic life form that reside in all living cells, and we are symbionts with them, life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midichlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.” Now, where in this explanation does he say midichlorians ARE the Force? Nowhere. Where does he say that midichlorians give a Jedi his powers? Nowhere. All he says is, midichlorians give us knowledge of the Force. That’s it. Nothing more. And for this reason, someone on YouTube wrote, “That little fucking shit ruined the Star Wars trilogy. Fuck him.”
Naboo_star_skiff_1

A more elegant ship, for a more civilized age.

TECHNOLOGY

Q: Why did the prequels look so different than the originals? All the ships look sleek and more advanced. Shouldn’t things have improved by the time of Episode IV?

A: OK, there are many things to consider here.

  1. First and foremost, technology does not always advance with the passage of time. Any historian can tell you the Roman Empire was far more advanced than medieval Europe. While the Ancient Greeks had successfully calculated the circumference of the Earth, 1500 years later, Columbus argued (erroneously) that he could sail from Europe to India by going west.
  2. The galaxy is a big, big place, the scale of which greatly dwarfs anything we can imagine here on Earth. There are literally billions of stars in any one galaxy, and in Star Wars, potentially hundreds of millions of civilizations. Point being, just as you would not be surprised to find a great difference in technology between modern day subsaharan Africa and New York, you should not be surprised to see it between locations in Star Wars. In fact, the distances between planets should only exacerbate these differences. So, while ships on Tatooine look clunky, those on Naboo may look more refined.
  3. Technology has more to do with economy than time. Compare cars in Cuba or in Russia to those produced in Japan or Germany. Visiting a communist country, you might feel you’ve traveled fifty years into the past. It is a dark time when the Empire takes over. With restrictions on freedoms come restrictions on innovation and commerce. This makes for clunky spaceships.
  4. In A New Hope, the Millennium Falcon is called “a piece of junk” by Luke Skywalker, and Leia says to Han, “You’re getting in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” At the time, we had no idea what a “good looking” spaceship might look like. What would make Leia say the opposite, “Woo-hoo, we’re riding in style!” Now we have the answer. The opposite to “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy” is the Naboo star cruiser, or something like it.
  5. Cinematically speaking, the more elegant ships of the prequel trilogy convey a more “civilized age,” before “the dark times,” before “the Empire.” Basically, after the Empire took over, everything went to shit.

 

 

If you have any questions or complaints about the Star Wars films you’d like answered, please don’t hesitate to comment!

Ages of Aenya: Book 2 Chapter 12, “The Prince of Serpents”

 

 

Xandr was in a dark place. It was not the cage he had been placed into or the walls beyond, but the dungeon of the self, the light of reason, faith, and hope having gone from him. Such darkness could not be abated, even by the noonday sun. It was the place he came to in the deep valleys of sleep, where he would question the Mother Goddess and doubt his purpose, when he feared his existence, all existence, possessed no grand design, but was little more than a succession of happenstance, misery and fortune two sides of the same coin. After wandering through labyrinths of doubt, Xandr often found escape in the ghostly memory of QuasiI, or by the guiding hand of the Mother Goddess, or in Thelana’s loving eyes. Where were they now? Was the Mother Goddess too remote in this bleak fragment of history to hear him? Only one thing was certain. He was alone.

The grinding of chains lifting him into the open sky roused him from his stupor. He did not have the will to wrestle with the cage, though he could now, in the light, make out its crude construction, the rust flaking from the bars. He sat there for a moment, squinting under the intense blaze of sun, powerless, and then the sound of human voices brought strength back into his limbs. He tore the cage from its hinges and crawled into a standing position. Light percolated through a grated wall, casting hexagonal shadows across his face and body. The grate was on one side, adjacent to three walls streaked with blood, and the ceiling was low, barely enough to accommodate his height. Eldin was there, looking more animated than usual, as were two other men. They were far younger than Eldin, with skin like deep copper and stomachs hollowed for want of food. But like his ancestor whose body he occupied, they were corded with muscle throughout, their limbs like entwined ropes. And like him, they were both naked, and seemed commonly so, but he could only guess whether clothing was denied them or if, being in the distant past, man had yet to adopt a concept of shame. Either way, hope arose in his heart, however small, for under inhuman rule all humanity was as one brotherhood, and he rushed to Eldin’s side, stopping short of an embrace.

“Batal,” the old man addressed him, “. . . it is good you are here; I wished to document this most historic of days to complete my book, that is, of course, if I survive to write about it.”

“No,” said Xandr solemnly, “I have already failed you. I was within reach of the pharaoh, but could not lay a hand on him.”

Eldin’s face bunched into a ball of hair and wrinkles. “And what makes you think killing the pharaoh would have made any difference?”

“Wouldn’t it?” The other two men were watching, and Xandr could see the surrender in their eyes and on their haggard faces. He wondered if he looked as awful.

“No,” Eldin replied, “of course not! Kings are deposed throughout history, quite frequently I might add, and never has a nation fallen because of it. Nations are made by its people, not its rulers. Our fight is with the Septhera.”

“Enough of your lessons!” Xandr cried, taking the old man by the throat. “Tell me what I’m supposed to do!”

“I cannot!”

“And why not?”

“Because . . .” he gasped, “I don’t know!”

Xandr released him and he fell against the wall, clutching his throat. “How could you not know? I thought you were a historian. I thought you knew these events.”

“History is a mosaic, Xandr, which historians are always assembling and rearranging. We make conjectures. We make guesses on what the mosaic might look like if completed, but we never have all the pieces! We have hundreds, when there are perhaps tens of thousands of pieces.”

“Then how do you know I will do anything at all today?”

“Because your name is Batal, and your descendents would not have immortalized the name through generations of song, if you did not do great things. Shortly after this day, the revolution will begin to end Septheran domination over this planet, to bring the snake men to extinction! . . . But alas, I’ve said too much!”

“No, tell me more. Tell me everything you know.”

The larger of the two prisoners turned from Xandr to Eldin, saying, “Yes, tell us more about this revolution, if you are a prophet, as I have come to understand, for we are in need of good tidings.”

“No, No, No!” Eldin exclaimed, “Me and my big mouth! I fear I am not well suited to be a time traveling historian. My presence here, meeting you, which may or may not be part of the original time-line, might change things, might prevent you from acting the way you would have. It is already disconcerting that you have taken the place of your ancestor. Will you be as driven as he, without his experiences, without his loss to strengthen your resolve to fight?”

“I have my own loss,” Xandr said quietly. “The Septhera have done enough to warrant my hate.”

“How could anyone not hate them?” the more robust of the two prisoners replied. “There are many, it is true, who have come to accept their fate—who believe abject obedience is the wiser course, that it is better to live a slave than to die a free man . . . There are even those who ally themselves with the snakes, who worship the pharaoh as a god, and preach submission to them is a guarantee of security. But I say such men are traitors. Any man who does not lift his hand against a snake is no better than they.”

Xandr looked at him with renewed interest. He had spoken with a dignity that came unexpectedly given his appearance. “Who are you and how did you get here?”

“I am known as Tellhus. Before the serpents came to our village in Ilithia, I was a proud father and mason. They forced my people into the mines to look for metals, murdered those too weak for labor . . . and they, they ate my wife and children,” he added, devoid of feeling. “I rallied men to fight them; our pickaxes and our shovels broke their slimy scales—”

“But you did not succeed,” Xandr affirmed.

“We did not know it at the time, but our battle was with slavers, a lesser caste. After killing a good number of them, they sent for their warriors . . .,” his voice grew frail, exacting, as though reading the words from a scroll with difficulty. “We were fifty strong, strong with hate and anger and vengeance, and they were three, only three, cold and calculating and . . . fast . . . and we were slaughtered like swine. I alone survived, prepared to meet god with my pick in my hand, but they ensnared me, sent me to rot in their prison.”

“But we are no longer in the pits. Where are we now?”

“This is the arena,” Tellhus answered. “We are here, I suppose, because of our willingness to fight.”

“They make sport of suffering!” the lesser man chimed in, his voice full of dust and sorrow.

Tellhus silenced him with a stare. “We make things more entertaining for them. Since snake men do not work, and can spend cycles digesting, they bore easily. They like to watch things die, pitting beast against beast, saurian against saurian, man against man. And rarely, man against one of their own. But no single human can stand up to them and live. More than seventy went up against their slavers, the weakest of their race, and we killed . . . I dunno . . . four, maybe five . . . before we lost twenty to the Taker. Against three from the warrior caste, the fifty that remained stood no chance. Snakes are superior to man, far superior. To fight them is to die.”

“That’s not true.” It was the other prisoner again. “I was in the pits and I heard the talk, that the Batal alone killed two of them! Warriors as well, with his bare hands . . .”

“Impossible,” said Tellhus. “Tell him the truth, if you are the one called Batal.”

“He speaks truly,” said Xandr. “But I only started out bare-handed; I later acquired a chain and then a sword. They are not unbeatable, they . . .” By the Mother Goddess, is this it? Is this why I am here? To inspire hope?

Eldin smiled as understanding dawned on Xandr’s face. And though Tellhus appeared doubtful, the other prisoner looked on, unblinking.

“You may have been fortunate, if what you say is true, Batal—and some of us may break loose from time to time like an aurochs trampling over a herdsman, but humans will never be free of the yoke. When they came to Ilithia, our greatest hunters resisted them, but quickly we understood that they were the hunters, and we, the prey. Their first commandment was to forbid us our weapons—for without them we are powerless. Even in their digestive slumber, they are protected, by the scales they are born with. Truth be told, man is the most pathetic of creatures. Should we fall upon rock, we bruise; we bleed. Long ago, man thought himself first among predators, because of his reason. But we quickly learned our folly. Against those who think like men but fight like animals, we are no match.”

Xandr thought long on these words, knowing it was his duty to convince him otherwise. “What you say is not all true. If the snake men can think, then we must outthink them. If they have weapons, we must make superior ones; if they have scales, we must do better, with armor of bronze.”

“Armor? Bronze?” Tellhus echoed. “These words are meaningless to me.”

“Wait, you don’t have—” Xandr started, but cut himself short, considering how it might impact the future; he looked to Eldin, who nodded approval, and so he went on, “armor is used to protect the body, like clothing—”

“Clothing?” Tellhus remarked. “We have nothing like that in Ilithia. Is it customary in your village?”

By Alashiya! Xandr fell speechless with the realization, that in this forgotten past his people’s customs were not taboo, that as an Ilmar he was no stranger; and the words of his mentor came back to him, Since time immemorial when men became men, before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For hundreds of millennia, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.

His heart swelled at the notion. Before the Septhera, all of Aenya could be called Ilmarinen. But even after the revolution, when the snake men were forced to extinction, mankind—the world itself—was irrevocably changed. Subjugation and war must have taught man to fear, and fear breeds desire for power to overcome those fears . . . Somehow, through the millennia, Ilmarinen remained the last bastion of a simpler age, of an innocent humanity. Perhaps, even now, hidden in the river valleys between the Mountains of Ukko, the Ilmar were living free and prosperous, oblivious to the plight of the rest of mankind. But there was more to the story, he knew—for the world in which he was born was a ruined one, was divided into two hemispheres, where life could scarcely hope to thrive. Such questions had tormented him since childhood, and now the only man who might have the answers was standing before him. But time did not favor his curiosity, for already he could see the serpentine shapes casting long shadows across their cell. The mechanism holding the gate in place was undone and the five men, led by Xandr, wandered out into the haze. The earth was coarse, with sharp red-orange rocks uninviting to human soles. Through a distant arch in the surrounding wall, the sun glared, giving form and color to the tapestry of men and snake men seated along the perimeter. Most were slaves, but many thousands were snake-headed, their elongated faces trained on the five men.

There are so many humans, and yet, no one dares to challenge them.

Somewhere a snare drum rattled and a portcullis began lifting. The squeal of a winch and chain sounded for eternity. And then, an eerie chant of throaty S’s and rolling R’s swept through the masses, a long strain of repeated syllables impossible for the human tongue to approximate.

“What are they saying?” Xandr asked Eldin.

“It is the prince,” Tellhus interjected; “they chant his name. When we sing our woes in Ilithia, he is called Purple Death Adder, or simply, the Adder. I am surprised that your people know not of him. The name alone inspires dread. Workers show greater fear of his mention than of the lash. Our masters must think quite highly of us, or of you, if we are to face him. For some it is considered an honor.”

“Can he be killed?” Xandr asked.

“He is a pure-blood,” Tellhus explained, “of the royal caste. Pray we die quickly. Avoid the bite. Avoid the purple death.”

“What is the purple death?”

“The venom of the pure bloods,” he said. “Death comes quickly, but is exceedingly painful. For some less fortunate . . . I have heard . . . the venom can linger for days, even cycles, during which time the victim lives out dreams of unspeakable terror, as vivid as life itself.”

Xandr’s skin crawled with the possibility. Could he be dreaming, he wondered, lying in the cold grip of the Taker all this time, dying slowly as Thelana watched and waited? It certainly made more sense than any of Eldin’s explanations.

“Dreams?” the lesser man murmured. “Did you say dreams?” But the question was drowned out by the rising cacophony of hissing and rattling as a pair of hoofed saurians emerged from the open portcullis in a cloud of orange.

Tellhus did not shrink at the sight, but the other man shook with fear. Xandr put a hand on his shoulder to calm him. “Tell me your name?”

“My name, most regrettably, is Soog.”

“And how is that regrettable?”

“How can it not be, as it is a man with my name that must die a terrible and untimely death? Surely, yours cannot be a more fortunate name, as you stand here with me.”

“Courage, Soog! Don’t let them see your fear. Stand behind me and believe.”

“Believe?” he repeated, the word sounding strangely from his tongue. “What is there to believe in? Nothing but death awaits us. But I don’t want to die. I am afraid! I’ll admit it; I’m no hunter . . . I was but a simple fisherman before this . . .” And he continued to sob and tremble, despite his efforts to restrain himself.

“Sometimes,” Xandr replied, “belief is all we have. I’ll not deceive you, Soog; it is unlikely you will see another dawn, but all men must face the Taker. It is only how one faces him that matters. And we shall not be killed to amuse these monsters. Our deaths will have a nobler meaning.”

“Such heroic words!” Eldin exclaimed. “If only I remember them! Historians rarely have the opportunity to observe first hand so great events!”

Xandr scowled. “Fool! What do your writings matter at a time like this? Do you not stand here with us? Will you not share our fate?”

“Perhaps,” he said, “but perhaps not. You see, Xandr, I also was not born into this body. I found myself here the same way you did. I followed the wormhole made by the Serpent’s Eye. They are very tiny, you see, these wormholes, so tiny, in fact, that even light cannot fit through it. But something that does not possess matter, a soul, perhaps, consciousness—”

“Still your rambling tongue,” Xandr replied, “the prince is here.”

Having circled the arena, the saurian pair came to a stop, the dust still billowing, like orange smoke, from their hooves, and a cloaked figure made itself known, closing the distance between them with unnatural movements. Shining blades appeared from the hem of its sleeves and a snake’s tail drew hypnotic patterns in the air. As the cloak slipped from its scaly body, Soog let out a shriek, but his objections quickly went unnoticed amid the cheers, not from the Septheran’s throats, to Xandr’s confusion and dismay, but from the human onlookers in the rafters.

“Wait, Xandr!” Eldin cried, his eyes turning white, “hear me out! If you manage to find your way back to your time, you must seek out the book, the one written by my hand, in the original language of the Zo. By then, I will have pieced together the complete history of Aenya and you will be prepared to learn the truth.”

“What truth?” he asked.

“The truth you have been seeking, about the Great Cataclysm, about the Dark Age, and what has been kept secret from you since birth, the thing you’ve been raised to face as the Batal of your age!”

“How can you know all this?” Xandr exclaimed.

“I have seen it. Your future is my past and my past your future! I’ve lived events you have not yet reached, like on the mountain top, yes . . .” he added with a maniacal grin, “I will see you again on the mountain, but I won’t remember you!”

“Even in the face of the Taker, your madness knows no bounds!” Xandr admitted.

“Just remember the book, damn you; it will be difficult, but I will try to place it somewhere so that it ends up in your hands.”

Wind blasted the ground, etching away the hard-edged shapes at their feet. Swords and axes appeared as if molded from the earth. Stepping forward, Tellhus lifted a sickle-like sword to his face. There was no blood on its cutting edge, even after he ran his thumb hard against it.

Khopesh,” he said, “a guard’s sword, albeit an old one. At least they offer weapons.”

“What good are these!” cried Soog, considering the small ax. “They’re rusted beyond use! We might as well go bare-handed.”

“It is all for show,” Tellhus replied. “But if I can get in one good blow—just one—if I could but cripple the bastard, aye, I’d meet death with contentment.”

Standing over the weapons, Xandr counted one for each, but did not choose. “Your heart is full of hate, vengeance, but that will do us no good, Tellhus.”

“And what would you suggest, Batal?”

“Let me handle this prince of serpents . . .,” Xandr answered him, “I believe that I can best him, and that it may inspire others to rise against their masters. Think only of the men and women who are watching us. Our fight is for their eyes, not for the Septhera.”

“Mankind is doomed, Batal. Nothing will change after this day,” he added, dashing off suddenly, shouting with fury, “but my honor, when I twist this blade into that monster’s bowels!”

“No, Tellhus!” Xandr howled after him, “let’s face him together; don’t throw your life away!”

Sunlight reflected from the Septheran’s body, tinting him purple, but where the sun did not touch directly, his scales were as black and shiny as volcanic glass. Like his brother, the Pharaoh, the creature named Purple Death Adder possessed a fleshy membrane connecting the top of his head to his shoulders like the hood of a cobra. With his approach, his awfulness became more apparent, more intimidating; he was much taller than any human, with sinewy arms that reached to his knees and talon-like claws that snatched at the air and in each hand was a long dagger in the shape of a crescent moon. Tellhus charged with a lame leg and a desperate cry, his khopesh thrust at its gut, but the prince of serpents did not stir. Whether staring down his attacker or sleeping, the creature’s eyes showed no sign. But as the sun moved across his pointed face, his pinpoint eyes flickered from black to white and his head pivoted like a predator before a kill. In the instant of impact, the Adder became a torrent of motion, slashing at Tellhus’ sword arm. Blood gushed from the limb, cleanly cut from the elbow, but Tellhus simply stared where that part of him had been, the pain having yet to reach his senses. Retracting the scarlet blade, the Septheran crawled, lizard like, along the man’s body, biting deep into the shoulder. As the venom took hold, he became rigid, and even from a distance Xandr could see the discoloration—the subtle purple tint in the veins beneath the skin. Tellhus fell, shriveled to the bone, like a preserved corpse dead a dozen or more years.

A wretched sound circled the arena, filling the ears with dread, hisses and snare drums and human cheer. It wasn’t a battle they had been anticipating, but a slaughter. And they approved, Xandr realized with disgust. Even the human slaves accompanying their masters were too cowed, too complacent in their misery, to think otherwise.

As the spectators grew silent again, Purple Death Adder turned his attention to the three remaining humans. At this, Soog keeled over, his vomit pooling between his knees.

“Up!” Xandr commanded him. “Do not show them any weakness!”

“But we are weak!” Soog admitted. “Haven’t you figured that out yet? Tellhus is dead! Dead! And we’ll soon be with him!”

“We’ll all be dead someday,” Xandr replied softly, “but few men die with purpose.”

Few men die with purpose!” Eldin repeated excitedly. “It’s a popular saying of yours, you know.” Xandr gave him an annoyed look, but he went on, “Come to think of it, I must live through this day, either me or Soog, or who else will have recorded it? You don’t happen to be a bard or historian, are you, Soog?”

“No . . .” Soog replied timidly, “but I could start . . .”

“You’re mistaken,” Xandr said to him, “I learned the saying from my mentor.”

“Precisely,” Eldin agreed, “but it was passed down from you, from the Batal, which means—by the gods!—you were meant to embody your ancestor!”

Ever so gradually, the Septheran prince was making his way toward them, to prolong the kill for the crowds, and to torment his victims with impending death. In his periphery, Xandr could see Eldin retreat behind him. “If you’re so certain about all this, why do you tremble?”

“I—um—am only human,” he admitted, “and my calculations may be off . . .”

“The two of you stay here,” Xandr said finally, taking the least beaten sword from the ground and the small ax from Soog’s bumbling fingers.

Compared to the weight of his two-hander, carrying the khopesh was like going into battle empty-handed. The sickle-like blade twirled in Xandr’s palm as he rummaged through his memory for the techniques his mentor taught him for small swords. It was too dull to chop, that much he knew, but the Septheran’s armor-like hide made that a moot point. Any sword could do the deed if one were to simply push. The ax was a distraction, so he tossed it, marking the divide between him and the prince.

Purple Death Adder’s crescent blades silvered in the noonday sun. His neck stretched, accordion like, making him a head taller. His eyes rolled over Xandr’s body, studying his build, his demeanor. This was a different human specimen, the Septheran could tell; caution showed in the snake man’s coiled posture.

<<You do not fear me.>>

The voice was thick and venomous, rattling his brain, but Xandr resisted the instinct to step away from it. “No.”

Even while standing, the prince was all motion, every limb writhing, its head bobbing, its tail curling and snapping and recoiling. <<Why?>> he asked simply.

“Because my loved ones have already gone to the Taker,” Xandr answered, “and you cannot harm them.”

<<And what of you? You do not value your own life?>>

“I do,” he said, digging his fingers into the khopesh’ rusty hilt. “But I value the lives of others more.”

<<That is folly,>> the snake man communicated telepathically, his head agitated from side to side, <<Compassion is for the weak!>> All the while, the chatter from the wall intensified, the masses having never witnessed such an exchange between a man and a Septheran.

“You cannot understand because you are cold blooded,” Xandr said, his heart quickening, watching for any sign of attack, though the snake man’s posture and constant motion was utterly alien, mesmerizing. “Your cruelty is your weakness. No species can thrive on the suffering of another. The day will come when humankind shall triumph over you.”

<<That day is not today!>>

Xandr’s head screamed, the voice in it shaking him to his knees, as the prince’ scales quivered from hood to three-pronged foot, his mouth gaping wide enough to swallow a man whole, his fangs, nine inches and milky white, dripping with ichor. Anticipating the attack, Xandr bent at the ankle, but he was already too late, the moon blades crossing his throat, grazing the stubble of his chin. He had never seen anything, beast or man, move so swiftly. In retreating, Xandr made a slashing shield with the dull edge of his sword, but the tail came out of nowhere, cutting his brow like a whip. None of the Septheran’s movements were like those that would be made, or could be made, by a human opponent. The snake man was less limited by tendons, moving more fluidly than any man could, attacking from the side as readily as from the front. Xandr was outmatched and he knew it. Without thinking, his hand went to his breast, clutching his heart as if it might jump out—but the familiar scar crossing his torso was not there—and he remembered that he was not himself; he was Batal, and somehow—somehow the Batal had managed to make history. If he were to die at the hands of this monster, before so many witnesses, what difference could he make?

I must not lose. I must move faster.

But the Septheran was everywhere at once. Chrome clashed with dull iron, pelting him with rust. Attacks came so suddenly and in such succession that Xandr could not hope to use his khopesh but to defend, and he realized with some horror that he was fighting only to survive. The tail, though it could not kill him, flayed his skin to ribbons, cut slices from his body piece-by-piece. The mouth lunged, flashing fangs, but they came too quickly for Xandr to contemplate; only some primal terror distanced him from their venom.

The crescent moons crossed again, the black-purple maw snapping between flashes of silver. As the first blade whizzed past his nose, the rusted sickle caught against the second. But Xandr’s weapon was wearing thin, each deflected blow adding a notch to the blade. Soon, the khopesh would crumble in his palm, leaving him only with the hilt.

As hopeless as things seemed to him, from the tiered walls above, the spectators witnessed a different battle unfolding. They saw the defiance, courage, and strength of a human slave, a sight never before seen in that arena, eliciting feelings buried with their grandfathers, from when the first of the Septhera came to Aenya and men took up arms against them. To Xandr, their faces were stony abstracts, too distant to distinguish, yet he could see the turmoil on their brows, in the sunken ridges of their eyes, the hope battling anxiety. And despite their masters’ angry lashing tongues, one-by-one, from the lowest to the highest tier, slaves began to rise from their seats.

But none of them could see Xandr’s waning strength. The onslaught was unrelenting. And the day was sweltering hot, sapping the fight from him. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he did not see the blade until it was too late, until he felt it tear across his liver. He watched his blood speckle the orange rock, the curved edge turn red as if dipped in paint. The arena was spinning, Eldin and Soog and Tellhus, and shadowy faces far and wide dashed with hopelessness, all spinning. Without any sense of falling, he was on the ground; there was no pain, only cold and numbness.

Where is my sword?

It was gone. Knocked somewhere out of his hand. He tried to regain control of his feet but they would not obey.

I’ve done all I could do . . . all a man can do. What more is left?

The roar of thousands hushed to a whisper, and Xandr wondered why Purple Death Adder had not yet killed him. His only desire, his only regret in that instant, was that he would not see Thelana again. It was a selfish impulse and he knew it.

Out of the orange haze, a female shape was walking toward him, her hair like the tributaries in the valleys of Ilmarinen, and at first it was Thelana, but somehow she was more, was Alashiya also, for he remembered that the Goddess was in him, and all things of Aenya, and her skin glowed gold like the sun, became the sun.

You are not alone. Xandr. Her voice was a song, a mothers’ coo.

When Alashiya reached down to him, and her hand was clasped in his, he was no longer in a place of darkness. Xandr stood to face Purple Death Adder again, sword at his side. The Septheran was taken aback. The human spectators began shouting with religious fervor; they witnessed a miracle and no one could doubt it. Looking around him, at every hopeful face, he understood what he had to do. The fight was not his to win; it was theirs, and the Batal would not fail them.

“You wish to cow them?” Xandr cried, waving his sword over the masses, “then show them what they most fear . . . BITE ME . . . I welcome the purple death!”

The prince was quick to the bait, leaving his moon blades in the dust. <<You do not know for what you ask . . . it is no good death . . . it will avail your species nothing!>>

“Enough!” Xandr screamed, dashing forward, “SHOW ME!”

Purple Death Adder leapt, his pink glossy gums agape. But Xandr drew him in with a delayed counter, the tactic taught to him by his mentor, giving the attacker what he thought he wanted. Rather than bite throat and shoulder, as the Adder intended, Xandr offered up his forearm. The fang cut deep, through to the other side, and as Xandr tore himself free the venom started to fill, coursing through his veins like searing needles. His hand was a bloody pulp. His forearm dangled from the elbow in meaty tatters. But the prince of serpents staggered back, the elongated neck stretched to its breaking point. With frantic strokes, it clawed at its mouth, desperate to remove the sliver of iron from its throat. Xandr moved slowly, weakly, despite his urgency and the short time he had in which to live. With his one remaining hand, he retrieved the ax, bringing it down upon the serpent prince, in a wedge though its slender face and head. Purple Death Adder flailed backward without so much as a hiss, now groping blindly at the ax handle jutting from its face, and hit the ground writhing.

Cheers sounded above panicked hisses. He had defeated the Septheran champion at the cost of his own life, but would it be enough to inspire men’s hearts to revolution? The poison was setting in. Each heartbeat was agonizing, like a dagger twisting in his chest. But they would not be wasted. Raising the ax overhead, wet with blood of the fallen champion, Xandr turned toward the stepped walls, to man and snake man alike; “I am a man . . . and I have beaten you!” Even as he spoke, the venom continued to cripple him, his fingers growing icy, his legs giving way.

“Men of Aenya!” he gasped, “You lose no freedom . . . when you are free to fight!” Those were his last words before he dropped to his knees, toppling forward to join Tellhus.

It would have to do, he decided, confident that the name would live on to inspire hope, to become part of folksongs, to pass through history and be recalled by generations, in cities by the sea, and by the simple people of the Goddess, those untouched by civilization . . . One name.

Batal.


 

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