Thursday, May 19, 2005

Want Some Latin with Your Greek?

I am now writing a story -- it's actually kind of half-essay, half-story -- and will have to decide how to transliterate words in ancient Greek. The basic decision comes down to employing the spellings most common in English, which derive from Latin, or transliterating more literally the Greek alphabet. Olympus vs. Olympos, in other words; Hephaestus vs. Hephaistos.

My first impulse is to go with the Greek -- I am trying to evoke the experience of living in the Greek Age of the Gods, which should not be filtered through Roman recensions. This means emphasizing some distinctions most English readers do not really know about, like the fact that the Latin ligature æ is a transliteration of the Greek letters "ai" and should be pronounced with a long a rather than a long e. (The Latin ligature that should be pronounced with the long e is œ, as in œconomia and fœtus.)

This doesn't bother me, and certainly most readers have encountered spellings like "Hephaistos" and "daimon." But "ph" is itself a Latin creation, for that sound is rendered in Greek as one letter, phi. If you transliterate that properly as "f," you get words like Hefaistos, Fobos, and fallus, which I don't think readers will accept.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

No Cancer Yet

I usually restrict posts here to topics of interest (to others), but I will note that I saw one of my doctors yesterday, and by one measure at least, my cancer has not returned.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Origins of Centaurs

No one knows what Kentauros looked like. (Indeed, few people seem to know who Kentauros is.) Neither Edith Hamilton nor Bulfinch's compendia of Greek mythology include accounts of the origins of centaurs, and when other mention it, it usually to say that centaurs were born when the human Ixion lay with a cloud in the shape of Hera. The moral of that story -- that Ixion's unnatural lust for the goddess, compunded by the fact that it was in fact a cloud (or, in other accounts, the cloud nymph Nephele) with whom he slept, could only produce monsters -- is echoed in other myths, such as that of Pasiphae and the Minotaur. But in the earliest account I have found -- that of Pindar, who precedes just about everyone except Homer and Hesiod -- Ixion's union with the simulacra of Hera produced Kentauros, called a monster but otherwise undescribed. It was Kentauros's mating with the Magnesian mares that produced the race of hippocentaurs, the half-horse, half-humans known today simply as centaurs.

Here is Pindar's account, from Pythian II:

Far were the Graces when Cloud
Bore him a monstrous issue,
She like nothing, and like nothing It;
Which found no favor among men, nor in
The company of the Gods.
She nursed It and called It Kentauros: and It lay
With the Magnesian mares on Pelion's foot-hills.
And a race was born
Prodigious, in the image of both parents,
Their nether parts of the mother, their father's above.

(tr. C.M. Bowra, from the Penguin Odes)

The word kentauros seems to mean bull-slayer. (My ancient Greek is very weak but consulting Donnegan seems to confirm this.) One can see what Pindar was getting at: the union of a human and a nymph could only produce something human in appearance; but if its monstrous nature (a produce of its monstrous conception) led it to mate with animals, the resulting offspring would partake of both parents.

But of Kentauros nothing else (that I can find) was said by any ancient source. Pindar's "far from the Graces" means that its birth was unblessed (the more literal Myers translation available from Perseus says "without favour of the Graces"), so that although he was nurtured by his mother, his cursed nature was recognized -- by a validating source whose authority was beyond appeal -- even before his birth. From this, we gather, came a life of solitude, including erotic solace found only among a herd of horses in Thessaly.

A potentially interesting figure, Kentauros. But I have never read anything else about him.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Romans à Vapeur

Bruce Holland Rogers, who best known for his short stories, is engaged in writing a long novel, Steam, which he describes on his website at I have known Bruce for some time, and found his project intriguing, so I subscribed.

Bruce is currently six chapters into the novel (and very interesting they are; I recommend it). In a recent one -- written in the last week of April -- a character builds a steam engine and then uses it to convert coffee into espresso. I was struck by this, since the same thing happens (accidentally) in my Arabian Wine. I don't think Bruce has read my novel; likelier he got the idea on his own, since it's obvious enough if you are thinking about steam.

I found it interesting that his novel is primarily about futures trading, manic-depression, and steam power, and secondarily about coffee. My novel Arabian Wine is exactly the reverse.

Are there any other romans à vapeur out there?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Steam, Not Steampunk

A colleague recently read Arabian Wine and wrote to tell me how much he liked it. He got several of the sneaky allusions I worked into it (including the Kipling ones), but also called it "an example of steampunk -- in its most literal sense."

Well, yes and no. One of the odd things about Steampunk (to the degree that it was a coherent phenomenon in the first place) is that it had next to nothing to do with steam power. The term was coined after the appearance of James P. Blaylock's Homunculus in 1986, although the sub-genre's salient characteristics -- its crackpot rationalism, demonstrated by the lunatic inventions that actually work; its British, usually London setting; its focus on the individual (usually a lone inventor or investigator, typically of independent means) against a backdrop of ironically-regarded Imperialism -- had been evident in the work of Blaylock and his friends Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter for nearly a decade. Something about the conceit fell into perfect step with the zeitgeist, and the next dozen years saw any number of variously cyberpunk novels, most famously Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, but also Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Stephen Baxter's Anti-Ice, and (one that deserves to be better-known) Colin Greenland's Harm's Way.

One interesting thing about these novels, however, is that they tend to have very little to do with steam power. Nineteenth-century engines, yes, and a blast of steam can sometimes be discerned in the gaslight, but what Sadi Carnot called "the motive force of fire" in 1824: no, not much. "Steam" is here a metaphor for nineteenth century energies: industrial, imperial, often sexual. But it is rarely itself dramatized.

I can think of only a very few contemporary novels about steam. One of them is the little-known Steam Bird by Hilbert Schenck. It was serialized in F&SF in 1984, then appeared as a slim paperback four years later. The book concerns the deployment of a nuclear-powered bomber -- its steam turbines able to keep it in the air for days without refuelling -- such as the U.S. military actually planned to build in the 1950s but eventually abandoned. In Schenk's alternate history, a small number of such bombers were actually built, and in a brief military crisis, one of them is sent aloft. The enormous plane, the largest ever to fly, is both a military and ecological disaster -- it can't fly faster than three hundred miles and hour, spews radiactive steam, and is prohibitively dangerous to land -- but the crew of die-hard steam enthusiasts who man it convince the President to abandon military considerations and send it on a good will round-the-poles flight, and the novel ends in a giddy paean to the romance of steam power.

So, no, Arabian Wine isn't steampunk. It's about real steam power, something much more interesting.