Thursday, January 27, 2011

From - To Tame the Sand

To Tame the Sand

by Satyajit Sarna | January 27, 2011

If you must know only one incantation against internal demons, it is hard to beat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear. Say it with me.

"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear's path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

When the lights are out, or the results of that test are forthcoming, or the threat is physical and boorish and near, the difference between a human being and any other animal is the ability to restore the rule of reason. All the Litany does is remind you that the answer to every question lies within.

Dune is, in part, about that unique and supreme potential of the human mind to impose itself on physical reality. Whether through means deductive and rational or mystical and immanent, man has the ability to be sovereign over, if not reality itself, at least his destined path.

At the point in the distant future that Dune is set in, human civilization has three political foci: the Imperial Household and a nominal emperor; the feudal Great Houses, who together form the Landsraad; and the Guild, which controls all transport. It is a delicately balanced tripod; if any of its legs were to grow, it would tip over. Paul Atreides is the teenage scion of the ducal house of Atreides, which rules the lush green planet of Caladan. The Emperor, in conspiracy with age-old rivals of the Atreides, grants the Duke of Atreides a honeyed trap – the fiefdom of the planet of Arrakis to operate for the Imperial corporations, and keep the change.

Arrakis, the desert planet, is unique amongst all settled worlds for one product: the geriatric spice, mélange, which is mined in its deep desert. The Spice allows the Navigators of the Guild to negotiate crowded space at speeds greater than light, and their stranglehold on transport is dependent on a constant supply of it. Arrakis has very little water and an insignificant, seemingly uncivilised, native population, the Fremen, whose every action is a preservation of moisture. Its deserts contain large sandworms that swallow mining factories whole. The reason we need to think of the eccentricities of Arrakis so is because Dune is, to my mind, the pre-eminent book of its genre – the Planetary Romance – a sub-species of science fiction dealing with the relation of people to an imagined world. To use a popular foil, if James Cameron’s Avatar was about lush Amazonian rainforest, Dune takes us into the deepest deserts of Arabia.

Before the Atreides can establish any real foothold on Arrakis, the Harkonnens, their feudal rivals, ambush and crush them. Paul and his mother escape into the inhuman desert, encounter the Fremen,and even become Fremen. They learn to recycle water from their bodies by wearing stillsuits, living by the code of the Fremen, and adapting to their customs and tribal structures. Paul is renamed by his tribe after the little jumping mouse of the sand dunes, and becomes the Muad’dib. Dune is the story of Paul’s adaptation to the desert, the transformation of the Fremen into a military force, and the rise of House Atreides from its fallen glory.

The desert planet of Arrakis (fan art).

Image above and on article thumbnail from Wikimedia Commons here.
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But this is not a story of free will, nor is it entirely that of a manufactured destiny; it is far more complex than that. Paul is the product of thousands of years of selective breeding by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood; carefully selected for the genetic basis of prescience. When Paul’s prescience is unlocked by the properties of the Spice, he becomes the rarest kind of hero in fiction - the mystic prophet. He can see the thousand possible paths of his future kaleidoscoping into his present as well as his entire genetic past, all of which were so far inaccessible to any male. Every step he takes is one deeper into Time’s terrifying hall of mirrors.

If I could bring myself to criticise this book honestly, I would hit hardest here. The omniscient narrator is as old as fiction, but omniscience in a character is impossible to maintain with the goals of fiction. Thankfully, Paul’s omniscience is limited, and stops just short of being a fatal character defect; it only grates occasionally. In fact, it is a miracle of writing that the Muad’dib can live in his own history, and that miracle operates within the mind of the reader – we are present at the moment of the making of the myth, privy to the deus ex machina. Think upon this: we know every single mystic, godman, or prophet, in history or fiction, through words of their own or those of their followers. The only one whose mind we are permitted to enter is Paul-Muad’dib of House Atreides.

Dune is now widely praised as the first science fiction with an acute sense of ecological change and preservation beyond the basic conception of environments shaping the people who live in them. The Fremen are survivors because their environment demands it. Similarly, the Imperial Sardaukar corps is dominant in battle because the soldiers are hardened on the prison planet of Salusa Secundus. Consciously, Frank Herbert focuses on the possibility that within relatively insignificant spans of time human beings will change and so will their environments. It seems a colourless assumption to us now, but remember, in 1965, Silent Spring was only three years old and the possibility of the world changing in one lifetime was laughable.

Tolkien famously harboured a cordial dislike of allegory. Frank Herbert courts it. He ransacks Arabic and Hebrew for their vocabulary and Zen Buddhism for its concentration tricks. Tempting as it is to conclude that Dune is about the birth of Islam, the politics of oil, or the double-edged sword of ecological control, that is not true. The Fremen are not nomadic Arab tribesmen; they just look a little like them. The Spice is not crude petroleum; it is more rare and far more magical. The process of terraforming a desert planet contains no real lessons for us; our world is not a hostile place where life must fight to survive, even if it does contain extreme environments. The odds in battle may remind us of T.E. Lawrence’s adventures, but nowhere in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom did he claim the ability to see into the future!

There is a philosophical problem in weighing up books like this. If you start with the axiom that any account is, by necessity, inaccurate and incomplete, then fiction is, by necessity, lies, and speculative fiction is a pack of outlandish and unforgivable whoppers. If all these spectres are just shadows in Plato’s cave, then what principle can we use to discriminate between them?

One way of skinning the cat is to abandon the standard of objectivity. If we are only concerned with the friendly shadows, we stand to be tutored by them. Allegorical treatments permit a logical empathy to grow in the reader. History is dead on the page, but narrative allows us to enter into the conversation as it grows. We know Muhammad took Mecca in a certain year, but we cannot really imagine what it may have felt like to be a seventh-century Arab engaged in that venture. By the unhinging of reality that allows us to imagine a Fremen attack on Imperial ships at Arakeen, we come closer to the first experience, enabling the mind to accept and express patterns underlying an inaccessible experience. To put this in shorthand, let me pose a simple question: are you closer to a man on the hundredth rung of a ladder by being on the third rung of the same ladder or by being on the hundredth rung of a different ladder? I don’t think that there’s a right answer to that question; some people benefit from analogy and others simply do not.

When one of the twenty editors to reject the book wrote back to Frank Herbert, he opened with, “I might be making the mistake of the decade, but...” He was. Dune went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time and was followed by five sequels, none as good as the first, one excellentIron Maiden song, and a horrendously shitty movie in 1984. In the imaginations of thousands of feverish minds, the universe of Dune grew, took colour and flesh, and became large enough to live in, like Middle Earth. At the heart of it was one small brown planet, with ripples like caramel.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

From - Summit Fever

Summit Fever

by Satyajit Sarna | January 20, 2011

They call it the Death Zone. At 26,000 feet above sea level, everything changes. There are no plants or animals; the world is composed of snow, ice, rock, and cold air - a negation of organic existence. At even very high altitudes, human beings can acclimatise, with time and rest. In the Death Zone, with preparation, you can merely postpone the breakdown of your body. You can’t eat, can’t sleep, and can’t think straight; tying bootlaces takes intense concentration. You hallucinate and ignore obvious dangers. Your internal organs grind slowly to a halt. If you are not fit enough or luck is not with you, your lungs will fill up with blood, or, in the alternative, your brain will fill with cerebral fluid. At any rate, every minute you stay past that altitude is a constant battle against the laws of thermodynamics – the universe wants to turn you into ice, and in time, it will win.

So, why would any half sane person want to go there?

“Because it’s there”, said George Mallory, before his fatal attempt on Mount Everest in 1924. For almost a century, people have been repeating that three-word mantra and flinging themselves into logically unsustainable ventures. They throw themselves off cliffs, dive to the bottom of the ocean, and run a thousand miles against time, whatever the risks, because they can. What does that say about human evolution? That our fittest and most competitive want to constantly skirt the edge of suicide, like indecisive lemmings?

"In the Death Zone, with preparation, you can merely postpone the breakdown of your body."
Image above and on article thumbnail is from ilkerender's photostream on Flickr.
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At the far end of all desperate, unnecessary, and dangerous ventures is ascending into the Death Zone. For precisely that reason, the altitude of 26,240 feet - or 8,000 metres - has attained a special fetish value. There are fourteen mountains in the world that high, and all are in the Himalayas or in theKarakoram, forming a glittering impenetrable wall around the subcontinent. They have names like K2and Nanga Parbat, names covered with blood and glory. Climbers from the world over spent the twentieth century hammering pitons into the rock faces of the Makalu and dying of exhaustion trying to get up the Gasherbrum massif. And even though some of them are harder climbs technically, above all of them, both literally and figuratively, towers Mount Everest.

Into Thin Air is the story of an ascent of Everest by a journalist and amateur climber, travelling with an expedition led by the charismatic Kiwi guide Rob Hall. Since the late 1980s, guiding climbers up mountains they could not have otherwise climbed has mushroomed into a big business, and Everestremains the biggest draw. Slowly, the path to the Base Camp widened and the number of discarded oxygen canisters on the South Col grew. More and more amateurs were being pushed uphill by organised teams of guides and Sherpas. Suddenly, the only requirement to summit was being reasonably fit and having pots of money. Hall reassures the author at one point, “A few of the blokes who’ve summitted with me were nearly as pathetic as you”, but even that gruff bonhomie cannot entirely erase the challenge of making sure that clients who have never climbed on ice survive. Over time, the delicate decision-making process of determining how far to push against hostile conditions and tight timelines began to be influenced by the hunger of paying customers to get what they came for - the top of the world. Sooner or later, something was bound to go wrong.

On May 10, 1996, it did. As Rob Hall’s team and three others all jostled to summit Everest on a clear day, wispy innocuous clouds were building below them. As they began their descent, a sudden storm closed upon them and everything went to hell. Suddenly, all the factors that on another day would have been forgotten spiralled into an irresolvable crisis. On another day it would not have mattered that one of the strongest Sherpa climbers was carrying a socialite and her satellite phone for a substantial distance, that the leader of one expedition was suffering from migraines due to a condition he had been refusing to treat, or that the gauge on one particular oxygen rig had frozen solid and was misreporting full cylinders as empty. But on May 10, 1996, everything that could go wrong did, and eight climbers died onEverest’s upper slopes. Rob Hall survived heroically for two days at 29,000 feet, without oxygen, but never left the South Summit.

"Remember, the wind that blows snow off Everest in all the photographs is the jetstream; Everest is so high that its tip is actually in the stratosphere."
Image above is from craa22uk's photostream on Flickr.
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Krakauer’s book is a minutely detailed story of this doomed expedition as well as a post-mortem of what went wrong. “Wisdom comes easily after the fact”, Krakauer rues, and he points to a number of avoidable factors. The overcrowding of expeditions and the delays at critical points like the Hillary Stepcould have been foreseen and prevented, or a higher guide-to-client ratio could have been maintained by regulation. On the other hand, the Sherpas, who believe that Everest is the goddess Sagarmatha, knew that something bad was going to happen from the moment unmarried couples started “sauce making” at the Base Camp.

At the base of Into Thin Air is a Foucauldian lesson about illusion and power. Simply, people forget that they need to respect mountains. Remember, the wind that blows snow off Everest in all the photographs is the jetstreamEverest is so high that its tip is actually in the stratosphere. The technology that putsEverest within the reach of a common climber is bottled oxygen. There is a school of thought, most famously espoused by Reinhold Messner, the greatest climber in the world, that bottled oxygen is cheating. Without oxygen, only the most gifted of athletes, “blessed with rare physiological attributes, could, after a lengthy period of acclimatisation” climb an eight-thousander. Reinhold Messner himself climbed all fourteen without oxygen. Karakauer also forwards the suggestion that only gasless climbing should be permitted and oxygen should be kept for medical emergencies. Deprived of a technology that creates an illusion of capability, climbers would be kept from danger by their own natural limitations.

A stark anti-ethics, governed by physiology, operates at the peaks of high mountains. As hypoxia takes hold, fewer and fewer coherent thoughts remain, until the only surviving stimulus is the drive to the top. The most chilling part of Into Thin Air is its description of climbers eager to get to the top passing by those who are dying of exhaustion and exposure in their lust to summit. The same determination that can push a person up through the Death Zone will also allow them to watch someone die and not move a finger. There is an icy wasteland at the heart of man that is revealed by the wasteland without, and I hope I never see it.

In the Death Zone, since there is no microbial action, all corpses are instantly mummified by the cold, like sacrifices to the spirit of adventure. In 1999, that fact helped solve the mystery of what happened to George Leigh. Just like his mountain, it appears that George Leigh Mallory is still there.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

From - The Egg-Splitting Gun of the Sultan

The Egg-Splitting Gun of the Sultan

by Satyajit Sarna | January 06, 2011

The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin, 2006

Gentile Bellini's drawing of a seated Janissary.

Image above and on article thumbnail is from the Wikimedia Commons here.

In the armoury at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is a musket, the barrel of which proclaims that on a particular day, the good Sultan Mehcit II used it to cleave an egg into two pieces from a distance of 400 yards. It is remarkable that Sultan Mehcit II was possessed of such powers of marksmanship so as to hit such a small object at so great a distance with such an unreliable weapon, and that a bullet hit an egg and only two discrete pieces resulted. Of course, I speak from a position of ignorance and against the written record, but I cannot discount the possibility of an artful courtier presenting the Sultan with two beautiful globular halves of some other, entirely unconnected egg. Alternately, we can never be sure that Sultan Mehcit II did not absolutely smash some egg at a respectable distance like twenty yards and that the artisan who then inscribed this most honourable musket did not think that a sufficiently impressive a feat for the Son of Heaven to have accomplished. Regardless, that musket must teach us to be chary of those who appear to think too highly of us.

In Istanbul, it is impossible to definitely know the truth of any fact because the uses of history are so many. Whose inscription of what date will you believe? Certainly, there is no shortage of records, not in this fabulously old, literate, heart of the world, but one man’s coronation is always another’s treachery. For example, it is very tempting to believe that the unfortunate Sultan Selim II, best known as Selim the Sot, actually drowned in a bath of champagne, but his excesses had cost the empire too much, and it would have benefited many to have brought his six-year-long reign to an end. All of Ottoman history is covered by this shifting veil of truths and interests, and before that, so was the history of sickly Holy Roman Empire, when Istanbul was Constantinople, and before that, it was true when Constantinople was only Byzantium. The only truth in that city is that none of this happened for the first time, that all of these events were merely manifestations of a pattern repeating itself. Civilization here is so old that it groans with age. Even the very stone of the Omphalion of the Aya Sofya is eroded by the kneeling of Emperors being anointed.

Fitted into this forever crumbling tracery of untruths is The Janissary Tree, a crime novel set in Istanbul in 1836. When soldiers are murdered in gruesome ways in the dark streets of Istanbul and the Circassian houris are strangled in the heart of the Imperial harem, the Empire needs one man to get to the bottom of things, and that man is Yashim the Eunuch. Because Yashim is a eunuch, he belongs everywhere in society and nowhere. He can go from the harem, where no whole man may step, to the posh European enclave of Pera and yet back to his garret in narrow alleys of the Kara Davut. Of course, he is also excluded from his society, never to know the “knowledge of women who’d speak the truth to their lovers in the quiet, and turn over the small business of the day with them; and the company of men who joked, jostled and held their common secret like ripe melons.” Yashim skirts the edges of the elliptical world that is Istanbul, from the cross dressing Kocek dancers to Stanislaw Palewski, the alcoholic Ambassador of Poland, which has been wiped off the map by Austria. They have something in common, claims Palewski, “I am an ambassador without a country and you – a man without testicles.”

But, at least metaphorically, Yashim has balls, and he needs them for the challenges that his assignment forces him to face. In a matter of pages, he is nearly torn apart by hostile tanners, cooked alive by murderous hamaam employees, garroted by mute wrestler assassins. In the finest tradition of the potboiler, Yashim dodges and circumvents all of them and uses his guile and cunning to eke out patterns and uncover the larger plot. Clearly, The Janissary Tree is not high literature, but high literature has never been this enjoyable. No, Yashim is an Ottoman Flashman, a James Bond of the Sublime Porte.

"Young Greeks at the Mosque" (Jean Léon Gérôme, oil on canvas, 1865); the picture portrays Greek youths, converted to Islam, and made into Janissaries.

Image above is from the Wikimedia Commons here.

Yashim’s investigations lead him to probe deeper into one of the most tumultuous events in the history of the Empire - the suppression of the Janisseries. The Janisseries were the shock troops of the Sultan, taken from Christian families in the Balkans when they were young boys, converted to Islam and raised as an elite military unit. When Mehmet the Conqueror’s cannon breached the walls of Constantinople in 1453, the Janisseries were the first to enter the breach. From the gates of Vienna to the Sudan, they were the symbol of Ottoman might, breaking armies with their discipline and fanaticism. But like all forces given too much power, they were corrupted. Turning inwards, they became a tyrannical and unpredictable militia acting domestically, running riot, overriding their old restrictions and rising even above the Sultan on occasion.

On June 15, 1826 the Janisseries were incited to revolt by an incendiary fatwa, and then put down savagely by Sultan Mahmud II with his new guard of European-trained soldiers, bombarded in their barracks and executed in cold blood. The survivors of the massacre went into hiding and escaped into the provinces. Imperial chroniclers glibly labelled the events of the day the ‘Auspicious Incident’. But, in the name of strengthening the empire, Sultan Mahmud II had fatally weakened it, because there was now no longer a link between the Christian Balkans and highlands and the Islamic core; the tributary links of the empire had been snapped at one blow. The Empire would stagger into decline but still survive till the end of the First World War.

Between analysing scraps of mystical poems and tracking down renegade janissaries, Yashim relaxes and cooks; in a book full of delights, these are the most charming. Goodwin describes his dishes in pornographic detail.

“The rice had gone clear, so he threw in a handful of currants and another of pine nuts, a lump of sugar and a pinch of salt. He took down a jar from the shelf and helped himself to a spoonful of oily tomato paste which he mixed into a tea glass of water. He drained the glass into the rice, with a hiss and a plume of steam. He added a pinch of dried mint and ground some pepper into the pot and stirred the rice, then clamped on a lid and moved the pot to the back of the stove.

“He had bought the mussels cleaned, the big three-inch mussels from Therapia, up the Bosphorus. He opened them one by one with a twist of a flat blade and dropped them into a basin of water. The rice was half cooked. He chopped dill, very fine, and stirred it into the mixture, then tipped it onto a dish to cool. He drained the mussels and stuffed them, using a spoon, closing the shells before he laid them head to toe in layers in a pan. He weighed them down with a plate, added some hot water from the kettle, put on a lid and slid the pan over the coals.”

Image above is from realSMILEY's phtostream on Flickr.

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That passage goes down as easily as one of these mussels, which they stuff, squirt with a wedge of lemon and serve in the fish market of Beyoglu even today. Suddenly, quicker than by flight, I am transported to a crowded bazaar below Seraglio Point, smelling the salt of the Bosphorus. It is a cold day and the wind is cutting. Come, Effendi, it is time for civilised men to be away; a cay and a nargileh, if it is not too much trouble?