Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Miletos Tristesse

The saddest sights we saw in Turkey were the ruins of Miletos.
We saw a lot of lost and abandoned cities. Ephesus, Priene, and Kaunos were all once-thriving port cities stranded inland when their harbors silted up. That's also what happened to Miletos, which is now 10km from the sea.
But somehow those other cities weren't sad, and Miletos was.
There was the huge Roman-era theater that had once held 15,000 people who could all look over one of the city's four harbors, but now standing empty and overlooking only a swampy desert. There were the ruins of the harbor monument, built by Antony and visited by St. Paul, that stood now as a Ozymandian pillar in a sad, watery pond. And there was the temple, shown here in the photo, that once gazed out on a harbor, and which now looks out on a shallow lake filled with frogs and water fowl.
Miletos was an enormously powerful presence in its day. It was the principal city of Ionia, and played a major role in the rediscovery of civilization after the Greek dark age. Miletos planted no less than 90 colonies, mostly in the Black Sea region. It was a leader in culture and art, and produced the philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Pericles' celebrated hetaera, Aspasia, came from Miletos. Miletos was one of the leaders in resistance to the Persian conquerors, and was destroyed for its efforts--- and then was rebuilt on a grid system, the first city ever buit on such a plan.
Now, home only to frogs.
We all agreed that there was a powerful sense of tragedy that dogged us as we walked among the ruins. It was difficult to quantify, this tristesse, but it was truly present.
Sadness walks among the old stones like a ghost forever seeking a departed lover. What other landscapes produce such melancholy?


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Elegy for Angels and Dogs

I just signed contracts with a French publisher for my novelet "Elegy for Angels and Dogs."
This will be printed in an edition of Roger Zelazny's stories. Which is not as strange as it might seem, because the story is a direct sequel to Roger's "The Graveyard Heart."
The two were originally paired in a Tor double--- the first Tor doubles were classic SF stories with sequels written by younger writers. Martin Harry Greenberg asked me specifically to write a sequel to one of Roger's works, presumably because I had been compared to Roger in print, and was believed to write like him.
(Though I was flattered by being compared to Roger, I never actually set out to write in his style. In part I accepted the assignment to show that we didn't write alike--- you can compare the pages and plainly see that we don't. The only imitation I ever made of Roger is in one of the story's poems, recited by Roger's poet character Unger.)
The protagonist of the story is a future Prince von Thurn und Taxis, a fictional scion of a perfectly genuine aristocratic family. I kept running into the Thurn und Taxis family in various places, and I must have decided I kept running into them for a reason.
There was the Pynchon novel The Crying of Lot 49, where the Thurn und Taxis and their postal monopoly under the Habsburgs were an important element. Then there were Rilke's Duino Elegies, which I greatly admire and which were produced under the patronage of the Princess von Thurn und Taxis. (There may be more of Rilke in my story than there is Roger, now I think about it.) Then, most importantly, I found a section on Johannes von Thurn und Taxis in a book called Aristocrats, which was about modern aristocrats and their modern lives. Of the various families chronicled in the book, the TnTs seemed the most interesting and productive.
Also, my friend Bob Norton had just returned from a trip to Germany, where he'd seen the TnTs' massive schloss in Regensburg. He remembered seeing the giant coat of arms over the door, and recalled a curious element (which you can see in the bottom center of the photo above), which he described as "a dead dog impaled by a vertical screw." He had a photo of the dog in question, though he wasn't able to lay his hands on it.
Still, this was enough to set my imagination going. For the title, I got the "Elegy" and "Angel" from Rilke. (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich, as the Elegies inform us) The dogs I got from the Thurn und Taxis coat of arms, and they ended up being a major element of the plot. I got a lot of literary mileage out of those skewered dogs, and I'm very pleased with the final story.
Except that the whole dog element was based on a misidentification. When Bob Norton finally found his photo of the TnT arms and showed it to me, I realized at once that his screwed dog was in fact the symbol of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Catholic knightly order. The dead dog was in fact a dangling sheepskin.
Well, drat. I had made beautiful word-music based on a complete, and completely ridiculous, misunderstanding.
Does it matter? Not to the story. But not getting my facts straight is always something that rankles.
Not that I'd have the same problem were I to write the story today. The Thurn und Taxis family now has its own web page, complete with a visual guide to the Regensburg palace that shows it as even more elaborate and fantastic than I made it to be in my novel. (It's roughly the size of Versailles.) It's now also open to the public at certain points of the year, something that no doubt has sent the late Prince Johannes spinning in his crypt.
(There's also a video by the onetime "punk princess" Gloria, mother of the current prince, once famous for her jet-setting lifestyle, Kool Aid-colored hair, and the fact she was once busted for hash possession at the Munich airport. I note that it's Gloria who's playing host rather than her son, the current prince. Still hogging the headlines, I see.)
At any rate, the family is far more outrageous in real life than I made them in my story, so I'm not fearing a lawsuit anytime soon.
But that dog business--- that part still bugs me.


Weird Factoid of the Day

I just found out that while working for Eyre and Spottiswoode--- surely my favourite British publisher, just for the name alone--- Graham Greene edited the first novel of a man better known as a fantasy illustrator:

"Greene scrupulously hammers Mervyn Peake for the facetiousness, prolixity, and overwriting in the original manuscript of Titus Groan. Peake, after reeling from the shock, reworked his book, now regarded as one of the summits of modern fantasy."

Wow. It was even more overwritten, prolix, and facetious in its first draft!

I'm not sure what to make of the author of End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory laboring to better illuminate the tale of Lord Sepulchrave, Doctor Prunesquallor, Steerpike, and the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Groan.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The News

Notes from the world:

The Army has a problem, in that its soldiers keep getting old and unable to function properly--- just like the rest of us.

Unlike the rest of us, the Army has a plan. They're going to use Science to keep their soldiers young for, maybe, ever.

A soldier rendered forever young – because of red wine and bald rats? It has the makings of a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, but research is moving so quickly that an anti-aging tonic could soon be on a store shelf. And expect a sell-out. As the Army so astutely observes, “vast numbers of civilians are old.

Remember when the GOP's great nonwhite hope Bobby Jindal ridiculed the administration's plan for volcano monitoring--- only to have Mount Redoubt erupt in Alaska and show that he was, well, an idiot?

Now that the CDC has declared a health emergency, and the WHO has raised its pandemic alert level to 4 on a scale of 5, perhaps it's worthwhile remembering that it was Republican Senator Susan Collins (cheered on by Karl Rove in the WSJ) who played a key role in stripping pandemic preparedness money from the stimulus bill.

Oops. They did it again.

Maybe they should rally the nation around them by calling Obama a socialist again.

And General Motors, once the largest corporation in the world, has now asked to be taken over by the U.S. Government and the auto workers' union.

GM said that it will ask the government to take more than 50 percent of its common stock in exchange for canceling half the government loans to the company as of June 1. The swap would cancel about $10 billion in government debt.

Can we call GM socialist now?

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A musical jam from New Orleans to Congo to Moscow.

A melodic tribute to the power of the internet.

I'm not sure how they cope with the time delay as signals are bounced to HEO and back, but they seem to do it well.

There are jam sites, or so I'm told. My Inner Rock Star is complaining that I learned touch typing instead of guitar.

(Thanks to Sage Walker)

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Maybe it's an overreaction to spending three weeks in a Muslim country, but I've been having quite a love affair with the Unutterable Flesh since I've got back.

I've grilled pork chops. I've had carne adovada. I've eaten BBQ ribs, and I've enjoyed chorizo.

Just now I've finished Julia's recipe for Roti de Porc Grand'Mere, which she doesn't translate as "Grandma's Pork Roast" but as "Casserole-roasted Pork with Potatoes and Onions."

I'm aiming to enjoy leftovers for the rest of the week.


Friday, April 24, 2009


Here are pictures of the tombs I promised you. The bottom picture was taken from our hotel room balcony in Dalyan.

These are referred to as "Lycian temple tombs," though as it happens these particular tombs are in Caria, and are part of the necropolis of Kaunos, a once-great city whose ruins are now accessible only by water.

The Lycians, and I guess the Carians, began building elaborate tombs in the 4th Century BCE. These began with distinctive "house tombs" (top photo), with the inside arranged as a miniature home for the deceased. Then the "houses" were moved into small rock-cut tombs on the cliff face, and then more elaborate tombs began to be built in the shape of temples.

Note that the largest and most elaborate tomb hasn't been finished. We've been making up stories about why it was abandoned, and why workers never went back to it. Also, if you look to the upper right of the abandoned tomb, you'll see another temple tomb that was roughed in but never actually started.

These particular tombs were inaccessible, but we were able to enter some of the spectacular tombs in the Lycian city of Tloss. (Patricia, who grew up on Roger Corman films, was particularly thrilled.) Each tomb had niches for exactly three bodies.

Why three? Why these tombs at all? History does not tell us: the structures themselves, long looted, are the only evidence.

By the way, if you've never heard of Lycia and Caria, don't feel embarrassed. Nothing really ever happened there--- no history at all in its conventional sense, meaning conquests, battles, famous leaders, etc. The area was (and remains) rich, protected by the natural walls of the Tauros mountains to the north, and by the Mediterranean to the south. The people there were wealthy in their isolation, concentrated on making money and living the good life, and then leaving a beautifully-housed corpse.
I expect this area will inspire a number of stories from me. If only I can find time to write them.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tombs Across the River

The other day, we could step out onto the balcony of our hotel and view, across the river, the rock-cut temple tombs of Lycia. On the western side of the river, as the tombs are in Egypt.

I will have to post a picture once I get home.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bath Time

The other night the three of us went to the hamam, or Turkish bath. The order can vary, but generally this involves a long relaxing stretch on a slab of hot marble, a tub of hot water being splashed all over you, a scrub with a scratchy mitten, a sudsy massage, followed by a cleanoff, change to a clean towel, an optional oil massage for an extra 15 lira, and some hot tea in front of an iron stove in the waiting area while cooling down.

The ladies, Melinda and Patricia, were deeply enthusiastic. 'This is much better than an American massage, where they won't touch your breasts,' Patricia said. Apparently their breasts got touched, a lot. They started out in bathing suits, but were topless ere long.

They opted for the optional oil massage, which I did not. Pat got straddled by her masseur, and she thought, 'Now is when the buggery begins,' but no buggery ensued. Instead a deep, very thorough massage.

I have to say that the quality of the experience was somewhat different for me. Perhaps because I've never had a secret fantasy of being straddled by a powerful Turkish man wearing only in a towel.

'I've hardly been more naked in my life than in Turkey,' Pat reported. 'Here I am in a Muslim country, tits to the wind!'

'Tits to the wind!' is our new battle cry. Tits to the wind, we advance!


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Best Turkish Story Ever!

Still in Turkey, having a great time. Heard this story and needed to share.

There are a lot of people here from Down Under. Aussies and Kiwis have a strange affinity for this country--- they come for vacation and stay for years, marry the locals, and often end up in the hospitality industry.

There was this Aussie living in Selçuk, where he earned a living dealing with electronics. The local muezzin, who was pretty lazy, hired him to set up a system where he could record the prayer calls and play them automatically at the appropriate times. (Theyre supposed to be sung live.)

The system was set up. The muezzin was happy. He went on vacation, leaving the Aussie in charge.

Next morning, the town awakened at 5am to the sound of 'Highway to Hell' being broadcast from the minarets of every mosque in town.

Nothing actually happened to the Aussie. Turns out that it isn't actually illegal to play 'Highway to Hell' on the PA.

The muezzin, however, was fined for not doing his job.

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