Although the White House justified its mission in Libya on humanitarian grounds, the intervention in fact greatly magnified the death toll there. To begin with, Qaddafi’s crackdown turns out to have been much less lethal than media reports indicated at the time. In eastern Libya, where the uprising began as a mix of peaceful and violent protests, Human Rights Watch documented only 233 deaths in the first days of the fighting, not 10,000, as had been reported by the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya. In fact, as I documented in a 2013 International Security article, from mid-February 2011, when the rebellion started, to mid-March 2011, when NATO intervened, only about 1,000 Libyans died, including soldiers and rebels. Although an Al Jazeera article touted by Western media in early 2011 alleged that Qaddafi’s air force had strafed and bombed civilians in Benghazi and Tripoli, “the story was untrue,” revealed an exhaustive examination in the London Review of Books by Hugh Roberts of Tufts University. Indeed, striving to minimize civilian casualties, Qaddafi’s forces had refrained from indiscriminate violence.
The best statistical evidence of that comes from Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, where the initial fighting raged most intensely. Human Rights Watch found that of the 949 people wounded there in the rebellion’s first seven weeks, only 30 (just over three percent) were women or children, which indicates that Qaddafi’s forces had narrowly targeted combatants, who were virtually all male. During that same period in Misurata, only 257 people were killed, a tiny fraction of the city’s 400,000 residents.
The same pattern of restraint was evident in Tripoli, where the government used significant force for only two days prior to NATO’s intervention, to beat back violent protesters who were burning government buildings. Libyan doctors subsequently told a UN investigative commission that they observed more than 200 corpses in the city’s morgues on February 20–21 but that only two of them were female. These statistics refute the notion that Qaddafi’s forces fired indiscriminately at peaceful civilians.
Moreover, by the time NATO intervened, Libya’s violence was on the verge of ending. Qaddafi’s well-armed forces had routed the ragtag rebels, who were retreating home. By mid-March 2011, government forces were poised to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi, thereby ending the one-month conflict at a total cost of just over 1,000 lives. Just then, however, Libyan expatriates in Switzerland affiliated with the rebels issued warnings of an impending “bloodbath” in Benghazi, which Western media duly reported but which in retrospect appear to have been propaganda. In reality, on March 17, Qaddafi pledged to protect the civilians of Benghazi, as he had those of other recaptured cities, adding that his forces had “left the way open” for the rebels to retreat to Egypt. Simply put, the militants were about to lose the war, and so their overseas agents raised the specter of genocide to attract a NATO intervention—which worked like a charm. There is no evidence or reason to believe that Qaddafi had planned or intended to perpetrate a killing campaign.
There’s something about his person that suggests he is waiting to die. Perhaps he is not aware that he is, specifically, waiting; by now, he swims so deeply in his drugged haze that any impending mortality is just a tint, a faint color on the edges of his life, a dark current that seems to move under his feet; it’s rather that the subtle murmurings of his wares occupy his mind, which struggles as it focuses on empty air, all his thoughts turned inward. Does the addling potency of his salves and poisons extend its power beyond the bottles, enseaming the air around him, rerouting his thoughts, tethering him to his trade? Or does his confusion come from another place–that his father, also in the business, was more practiced than him and understood more of the ancient art, bequeathing his knowledge and his books to a less skilled son, who apes and imitates, brewing the old formulas with exactitude, but remaining dimly aware that the deepest he plunges into the mysteries of these potions is shallow indeed? The workings of his mind immure themselves in this labyrinth of discovery. They are hostile to other notions, which are dead ends in the twisted maze of his purpose. He does not think of the future, which is uncertain (if not a fiction).
In a few moments, he will confront an apparition–young and strong, but in despair: another man at an extremity of human life. This one is charismatic and important. He has both a future and a past (a beginning and an end). He can change himself: he was once a lover, but is now just a mourner, which is what every lover becomes eventually. This sometime lover’s writhing, live flesh, contorted by grief, his manic, frenetic desperation, and his compulsion of want all make an alarming vision for the drug peddler, on whom a starving frailness and fragile cargo enforce a grave slowness. The dealer takes care not to disturb the bottles that clink in hidden places on his person. In some pocket of the stained leather apron, or in a vial that hides in his pants hem (scratching his bare feet), or in the left pants pocket, or in the right, or in the folds of his robe, there is the worst poison, the draught that, once drunk, gives the drinker no more time to live than if he’d pulled the trigger of a gun aimed at his head. Indeed, this is precisely what this living spectre, a picture of grief whose name is Romeo, has asked for:
Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.
Marveling, the audience observes what the apothecary in his drug haze has failed to notice: Romeo in his seach for a lethal instrument has neglected completely the knife that hangs at his side. Could there be an easier and more expedient way to loose life from one’s body? Rather than trying to convince this wretch, who stubbornly refuses to commit a capital crime even at the threshold of starvation, Romeo could already be on his way home to the mausoleum where Juliet lies, the instrument of suicide echoing his trembling heart as it jostles in its bonds there strapped against his thigh. Maybe he lacks resolve. After all, taking a drink is casual and completely ordinary, and its mundanity provides an easy mean of death to any one who can forget for an instant the nature of what’s in the bottle. But plunging a blade into your abdomen is forbidden by all kinds of instinctual resistances. Another possibility is that Romeo isn’t carefully considering what that moment will be like in Juliet’s tomb. In fact, most of the plan is improvised from the very start:
Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means–O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary, –
In the moment of searching, as Romeo’s brain racks itself for the particular passage that will convey him from life, a multitude of other past events align in his head, and they offer their details and circumstances to his cause. He remembers the countless hours spent alone in his room with the shades drawn, where the deprivation of his senses soothed his ravening desire. He remembers the circuitous walks around the public areas of the city, avoiding the streets where an errant word could ignite some duel of swords and emotions. He remembers Mercutio’s death and the agony of anger and loss. Blasted by grief, orderly thoughts leave Romeo’s brain to the ready improvisation of desperation. More appealing to the wild tumble in Romeo’s head is the promise of death provided by an apothecary’s euthanasia than an instrument of bloody murder. It’s useful to think of that choice as the result of the huge anger that Romeo used to destroy Tybalt, who was the best swordfighter in Verona until two days prior. In the lover’s single experience with fighting, arriving at the death of a dear friend, he learned that the violence of knives is an awful, intense proof of life until (and unless) in a moment of combat the last breath escapes one’s body. Fighting innervates the muscles and quickens one’s heartbeat. It spills blood. In a pattern of tension and relaxation of the body’s instruments, it makes the full electric sensation of life–for Romeo in that instant, chiefly grief–live in every channel of the body. It is the wellspring of thousands of individual sensations, and each one is a compelling witness of the body’s animus. Mercutio, for one, might have been desperate for that confirmation. He turned a manufactured argument into his own youthful, passionate suicide, a sexually-charged climax in dirt and sweat. Tybalt was a one that sought similar things; he came running back from safety to be speared on Romeo’s point (no less sexually than Mercutio, perhaps). The others (Sampson and Abram, Balthasar and Gregory) dare one another to ignite the brawl that they are desperate for but lack the courage to start themselves. The ‘lord’ Capulet’s fingers itch to bruise his wife and his daughter and (we suspect) have already shaken an infant or two to death. Do they long to die? Hard to claim, yet they seem to recognize in deadly violence some concentrated sensation of vitality, a precipice where feet and limbs are dangled continually and ever more precariously to arouse that feeling of bodily awareness that comes from great danger. In this manner, Romeo in his final hours does not seem to want to die at all, but only to be dead.
Romeo is in a frenzy, banging on the set, stomping his feet, and calling out for this peddler he needs: “What ho! a-po-the-car-eeeeee!” Often enough the performance is a bit showy, if only because this theater is small and we know the apothecary is right there, watching just out of sight behind the curtain. However, one sometimes-underappreciated geometry of acting is that when someone onstage is calling for someone offstage, the unseen actor has the power to wait as long as he wants before entering. Sometimes when cues are forgotten and these kinds of mistakes happen by accident, which isn’t so rare in fringe theaters, the audience is treated to a moment of somewhat barer truth than any of the planned scenes elsewhere in the play. Especially when it comes right after this display of extreme want, some voice (if not the audience) silently asks the stranded performer: “That’s great. What else have you got?” In response, Romeo will often demur and just keep calling, louder and louder, pleading for his scene partner to come on, afraid to derail from the track on which all his actions run. Occasionally, however, in this interstice, a present and alive actor will find himself dangling off the same precipice that Romeo and the other Verona youth do when they fight, hanging with completely embodied life, the immediate moment totally unplanned. The actor looks around, waiting for the next beat (of the play, of his heart), and he sees a theater, expectant faces, the audience. All present hear his heavy breaths. The audience looks back at him. They share his fear and they relish it, and as long as Romeo stays Romeo, scared and alone in the dark, and does not become an embarrassed actor, the audience doesn’t become embarrassed either. The rapt audience is dangled too, and they notice their aliveness. In this performance, as a spot-lit actor and Romeo simultaneously in one body peer into the darkness, a gaunt and dirty face materializes in the light’s margin, and speaks.
Who calls so loud?
“Who is it making all this noise?” but also, “What sort of person can cry with such strength in the world of silence?” We hear the second question in the first because by waiting, the apothecary has isolated and distilled Romeo’s vitality; he has bottled it inside the transparent walls of the stage, like one of the distillments on his person. By asserting a structural power in the flow of this performance, which is the absolute power of advancing the story, he defines all qualities of the scene moving forward: place, time, the air, the properties of the univese. Time does not pass except through his inevitable entrance. The apothecary appears as a rasping voice and a thin face all, a stooped figure with sunken eyes and trembling hands, a skin sack half-full of bones animated only by the convulsions of sickness and cancer. His abominable health cannot be over-emphasized in his manner and features, because the more deathly a companion it is to Romeo’s easy vigor, the more stark and isolated will Romeo’s pulsating body be. The audience is exhilarated when Romeo astonishes at the contempt and beggary that hangeth upon his back, the need and oppression that starveth in his eyes. They shares Romeo’s revulsion and his fear. It’s the same fear that causes us to distance ourselves from the decrepit and deformed in our daily lives. By asking for a poison that will instantly relieve him from life and its attendant sensations, Romeo actually asks to bypass the inevitable bodily decay that is the fate of all who die of age or sickness, and which the young cannot imagine suffering. The possibility of feeling even briefly these specific sensations of wasting and ebbing, as for example in one bleeding to death, are intolerable to Romeo. If the romance of the young lovers is marked by immaturity, it is the immaturity of being unable to accept pain.
Romeo and Juliet was first published in the first quarto of 1597, and was therefore likely performed for the first time in the years just prior; Shakespeare was known to be in London by 1592, and the theaters were closed for plague from 1592-1593, ending a run of Henry IV. A quarter of London’s population had been lost to plague some thirty years earlier, and it recurred periodically until the Great Plague of London in the next century. 10,675 deaths were recorded in the 1592 outbreak, in a city of some 200,000. Everyone in attendance at a performance of Romeo and Juliet knew someone who had died from the disease. The play conjures repeated vigorous lives cut short by violence to manifest in only moments the destruction of families that the plague brought; in this way, its performance in Elizabethan times constituted a bringing to light and collective witnessing of an omnipresent grief.
Business is slow. When his father was alive, there was always a customer being served in the shop, plus one or two others waiting among drying herbs, disembowelled creatures, and colored powders. Ten years ago, the time when his dad finally became the memory of a funeral rather than the memory of a man, the stream of customers had slowed to a trickle, with at most two or three per day. Now, customers are even less frequent. Eight in a month is very good business, one or two is bad. How did he find himself here? The concoctions seem as powerful. Has general interest in these arcane tools waned? Has he specialized too far, too concerned with poisons and with mind-alteration? He could still cure a headache or a case of boils, he thinks. If he were to be asked.
He hears the knocking first. Someone hammers on his door, then yells out for him by the name of his trade, then claps repeatedly and loudly. The stranger knocks again. The noise cracks fissures in the apothecary’s mind and blows his thoughts into a rough chaos, a house of cards defeated completely by a draft. As the calls of this unnamed person build, so does the intensity of the apothecary’s vision of him. The caller’s eyes, yet unseen, already bore past his frail walls. In a suffusion of terror and anger, the apothecary appears and demands the identity of the hidden roars. For the first time in many years, he is scrutinized. Romeo finds in this man’s obvious poverty the means to argue for what he wants, which is to trade his earthly wealth for that most precious distillment:
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear'st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law
The world affords no law to make thee rich
Then be not poor, but break it and take this.
The drug peddler steps away to retrieve the poison, but he doesn’t look on the shelves or in the medicine chest. He is looting his person for bottles: an amber one in the left pocket of his leather apron, a black flask wrapped in tattered papers in the right. A thin jar of clear glass with a dark sludge inside leans out of the pocket of his shirt. They are all wrong. He finds a vial with a tiny cork in the hem of his pants, but returns it to its place after peering at it closely for a long moment. He “finds” the amber bottle again and moves it to a different hiding place. He knows what he is looking for. He remembers the black day when he precipitated it and could not find the courage to throw it away. Finally he senses an unseen weight in one of the hidden folds of his rags, and pulls out a small, chipped flacon stoppered with wood and wax. He holds it to the light. The powder inside has dusted the interior, and it filters the stage light like a dusty window does a sunbeam. He already knows it is the right one.
Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.
Each actor in a play has not only complete knowledge of how a story will end, but also a detailed knowledge of both the events for which his character is not a witness and the mechanisms by which they are staged. Unfortunately for actors, theater thrives when it is suffused with possibility: the surprise of not knowing what is coming next, or how events will thereafter unfold. Executing a compelling performance is in large part a process of un-knowing what is known; of emptying the mind of all preparation and expectation so that when a line is said or a sword is swung, one must look to one’s brain for a reaction the way a person does in ordinary life, and then choose the correct one because rehearsal has identified and made specific that possibility among the many changing and less-defined other ones that some scenario might generate. When the apothecary takes out his vial of poison, his desire to tell Romeo of its terrible power manifests spontaneously in Shakespeare’s lines even as he sells it. But the actor, too, remembers a line he heard earlier in the play, as he wandered backstage, a line cried out in grief, reaching out unwittingly toward Romeo:
Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,
And all those twenty could but kill one life.
Romeo alone killed the most precise and practiced swordsmen of Verona’s street brawls. Tybalt was known to a pitiless fighter with perfect form, who spent at least as much time refining his swordsmanship as Romeo did wandering forlornly in the streets after dark. How did he lose to Romeo? Does some extreme quantity of fury and grief compensate for a lack of skill? Does intensity of passion and depth of feeling matter most? Or was Tybalt’s ability overblown, just part of Mercutio’s elaborate mockery of him? The actor playing the apothecary wonders these things. When he speaks, he sees a wild lover already unravelled by sorrow, and his actor’s outside vantage point furnishes him with an additional, supernatural knowledge of Tybalt’s killer, which the apothecary only knows as the frail boy before him. He speaks of the overwhelming power of his drugs using an idle phrase–don’t worry, you could be twenty times greater than you are and this would still kill you instantly–that acquires a double meaning through this rememberance of overhearing Lady’s Capulet’s line. The repeated words are both mundane, and they simultaneously conjure, deride, and deny the possibility that Romeo’s strength, his vitality, is in any way extraordinary–that although we might allow the protagonist to cheat death for narrative convenience once or a thousand times, or that he might fake it masterfully at Juliet’s tomb so that he can then be revived to tell his story several times a week for a month-long run, what is inside the bottle cannot be evaded by anyone. Of this the apothecary is certain.
The never-ending cycle of time and wordly events is instead for him a spiral. Last week (or was it a month ago?) when he met Romeo, his starvation wasn’t so advanced that the feasts of bread, meat, and fruit he buys with his newfound wealth should have failed to revive his body, and yet. And yet. Some invisible barrier exists between his blood and the very real nourishment that he consumes. The food tastes rich, it gives him energy, but still his life-force (a soul?) is tugged gently and persistently away from his body, rank disease having already made his organs too weak a vessel to carry health. He does think of the future now, which manifests as a seemingly-perpetual cloudiness of the sky, where tendrils of distant storms or wide, slate-gray plains are drawn into an abyssal gyre above his head. This central eye he does not look at, although he knows that it is a private vision of the blackness that he will encounter, soon, and hug in his arms.
(These are the thoughts that occur to me, night after night, as I wait in the wings, about to meet the lover Romeo who seeks the poison that will end his life.)
“Professor Spacetime and the Wonders of the Universe”
PROFESSOR: Come with me, and I can show you all the wonders of the universe. All of space and time, at your fingertips!
COMPANION: All of a space and time? Really?
PROFESSOR: Well… anything in our future light-cone.
COMPANION: So… most of space and time?
PROFESSOR: More like a small and steadily-shrinking fraction of space and time, within the confines of a slowly contracting cosmological horizon.
COMPANION: But it can travel to other galaxies, right?
PROFESSOR: Indeed! You’ll be dead millions of years before we get there, though.
COMPANION: Somehow I thought it’d be bigger…
“Professor Spacetime and the Pocket-Sized Plot Device”
PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear, grab the atomic screwdriver!
COMPANION: Here it is… but what good is it to us now? We’re about to be dropped in a pit of lava!
PROFESSOR: My dear, what isn’t an atomic screwdriver good for? This cunning device has gotten me out of thousands of scrapes over the years!
COMPANION: But how does it work?
PROFESSOR: It’s atomic!
COMPANION: But that’s just a word. It’s like calling it a quantum screwdriver or something–you haven’t explained what it *does*.
PROFESSOR: This is a life or death situation! I can’t possibly go into exposition *now.*
COMPANION: You do that all the time.
PROFESSOR: This is different! It would be far too difficult to explain my Spacelord science to a human.
COMPANION: It sounds to me like you just slapped the label “atomic” on it sixty years ago when it sounded cool and futuristic so you’d never have to explain it, and now you’re stuck with it, even though it’s a bit naff.
PROFESSOR: That was pretty easy, actually.
“Professor Spacetime and the Witches of Vaxahar”
PROFESSOR: I fear we’ve uncovered a terrible evil, my dear. I thought the Witches of Vaxahar were just a myth!
COMPANION: The Witches of Vaxahar? That’s far too many letters from the wrong end of the alphabet to be a good thing.
PROFESSOR: The Witches are an ancient and powerful species from the beginning of time. Where Spacelords–like you humans–mastered the universe through a science based on mathematics, the Witches mastered a different science… one based on words. You might call it magic.
COMPANION: Oh no! But… how will we defeat them, Professor?
PROFESSOR: Well… in order to accurately model the universe, their word-science still had to be self-consistent, and satisfy basic philosophical axioms in the same manner as our mathematics.
COMPANION: So it works exactly like math?
PROFESSOR: Pretty much. Except they never got around to inventing numerals, or mathematical notation
COMPANION: But that means…
PROFESSOR: Yes, my dear.
COMPANION: Word problems!
PROFESSOR: Fiendishly difficult ones. Have you ever tried to model rocket equations using descriptions of trains converging from Cardiff and Brighton?
COMPANION: They really are evil!
“Professor Spacetime and the Thousand-Year Reich”
MECHAQUEEN: …and as the Earth died, we could not help but despair… until our savior came, to carry us away into the stars. It was the suffering of the children, you see. I think that was what moved the spacewhale most to pity.
COMPANION: So that is how you rewarded her? Torturing her, for centuries, to carry your fossilized constitutional monarchy through the stars?
MECHAQUEEN: We thought we had no choice!
COMPANION: But that’s monstrous! How could you live with something like that?
MECHAQUEEN: Actually, we couldn’t. Hence the whole memory-wiping thing.
PROFESSOR: It’s a pretty ingenious solution, come to think of it.
COMPANION: Professor! You can’t actually think they did the right thing? To imprison such a noble and selfless soul, who wanted only to save lives and alleviate suffering…
PROFESSOR: Actually, I’m a consequentialist; though disturbing, sometimes we have to operate against our ethical intuitions in order to minimize suffering. Besides, your whole argument is predicated on the assumption the spacewhale has humanlike consciousness, and a humanlike capacity for empathy and suffering. Given its completely different evolutionary background and environmental selection pressures, this is beyond exceedingly unlikely; furthermore, its apparent selflessness also has to be held to be suspect. Given the vast emptiness of space, I would wager that spacewhales would be forced to use the k-selection strategy for reproduction; even if they had humanlike intellects, they couldn’t possibly share humanlike empathy for life, much less the lives of children, or they would be paralyzed by suffering and grief, at the knowledge the vast majority of their kin don’t make it to maturity, and end up starving to death in the vast emptiness between the stars. The spacewhale was probably there to feed on what was left after the solar flares destroyed Earth’s capacity to defend itself from spacewhale attacks.
COMPANION: So what you’re saying is…
PROFESSOR: The spacewhale is a dick, and deserves to be tortured.
COMPANION: Oh. Well, then. Carry on.
“Professor Spacetime and the Unresolved Sexual Tension”
PROFESSOR: I can’t! It wouldn’t be right! I’m a thousand year old Spacelord, you’re just a girl!
COMPANION: A woman, Professor! And don’t tell me you don’t want to kiss me!
PROFESSOR: But the angst is the only thing carrying this season!
COMPANION: Oh, Professor! All this–the spaceship, the wonders you’ve shown me, the fact you embody all the wisdom and experience of the older man, in the conventionally attractive body of a younger one–how could you not sweep me off my feet?
PROFESSOR: We mustn’t, my dear!
COMPANION: Professor… I should warn you, I-
COMPANION: I’ve been reading fanfiction…
“Professor Spacetime and the Translation Matrix”
COMPANION: Wait, seriously? You have a universal translator?
PROFESSOR: Of course. Standard Spacelord technology.
COMPANION: So you have a computer capable of instantly and seamlessly translating any language into any other, without significant context or prior exposure, and all you use it for is making conversation with aliens and Welshmen?
PROFESSOR: Why does that surprise you?
COMPANION: Because it’s impossible! Worse, it’s unlikely. A true universal translator would be nothing short of an extraordinarily powerful strong AI–capable of perfectly comprehending context and external reference and encoding these neatly into translated utterances–combined with *magic*. Zero-context translation would allow you to arbitrarily recover any plaintext from any ciphertext. You could use it to decipher Linear A! To crack every code ever! To generate reverse one-time-pads that turn meaningless noise into the secrets of the Universe!
PROFESSOR: Yes, but then this wouldn’t be a very interesting television programme, would it?
COMPANION: Face it, Professor. It’s all been downhill since Series 3 anyway.
“Professor Spacetime and the Ominous Secret”
MYSTERIOUS FIGURE: And when the clock strikes twelve, *his name shall be revealed!*
PROFESSOR: No! That’s impossible! It can never be!
COMPANION: What’s the big deal? It’s just your name.
PROFESSOR: I forsook my name long ago… I am only the Professor now. There is an ancient prophecy that, should my name ever be revealed, the Universe will come to an end.
COMPANION: I don’t believe you.
PROFESSOR: What? Why?
COMPANION: Look, it’s just a name: an arbitrary ordering of sounds that can be produced by the Spacelord vocal tract. Since Spacelords are suspiciously primate-like, in every external feature, including the manner of their vocalizations, we can assume the physical constraints on the phonology of Spacelord languages are roughly the same as they are on human; therefore, the probability that, even after the virtual extinction of your species, some human somewhere in the wide universe has ever uttered a set of syllables which resembles your name approaches pretty near certainty. But the universe hasn’t yet ended.
PROFESSOR: But… but all this foreshadowing! All these ominous clues, building throughout this series!
COMPANION: It’s something far more sinister, I’m afraid. Do you think your name could ever actually be revealed onscreen? The fact that you’re merely the Professor is one of the few interesting things about you.
PROFESSOR: It can’t be!
COMPANION: It is. I’m afraid the showrunner’s just been writing himself into a corner.
PROFESSOR No! That means—
COMPANION: Yes. The finale is going to be incredibly disappointing.
“Professor Spacetime and the Christmas Special”
THE CLOISTER BELL SOUNDS, SIGNALLING IMMINENT DISASTER
PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear! Reverse the polarity on the temporal stabilizers!
COMPANION: It’s no use! We’ll never break free in time!
PROFESSOR: Never say never, my dear! I’ll try to rephase the inertial dampeners with a blast of neutrino radiation from the timecore. Hold on!
COMPANION: The saccharine singularity is about to devour the ship!
PROFESSOR: Try to generate as much cynicism as you can! We can’t take another blast of mawkish cliches!
A BLAST OF SNOW ERUPTS FROM THE CONTROL CONSOLE, THROWING THE PLUCKY COMPANION ACROSS THE ROOM; THE DISTANT JINGLE OF BELLS IS HEARD
PROFESSOR: Damn it all!
COMPANION: Professor, I- I think I’ve been affected!
PROFESSOR: Resist, my dear!
COMPANION: I can feel it coming over me, Professor! Holiday cheer! The urge to repeat sentimental nonsense!
PROFESSOR: But it’s absurd, my dear! Remember that! We’re nowhere near Earth, you’re the only human for billions of light-years! What possible relevance could a culturally specific human religious holiday have to our present circumstances?
COMPANION: It’s no use, Professor! I can’t shake the feeling that, somehow…
PROFESSOR: Fight it!
COMPANION: …science ficiton should never make us uncomfortable!
“Professor Spacetime and the Planet of the Babyeaters”
COMPANION: Why, Professor, that’s the third planet this week we’ve visited that’s reinforced our parochial, middle-class British values!
PROFESSOR: Uncanny, isn’t it? Hundreds of worlds, and our biggest moral dilemma so far is whether I’m allowed to seduce you pre-watershed.
To the happy memory of 800 African refugees, exiles by the Schengen laws, drowned between midnight and morning of April 19th, 2015.
THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.
The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.
I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.
I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt—
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—
But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).
It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat;
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet—
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,
Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,
To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet—
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.
Be adored among men,
God, three-numberéd form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.
With an anvil-ding
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still:
Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,
Make mercy in all of us, out of us all
Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.
"Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood" goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dréam we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.
On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?
Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.
She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvass and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.
Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.
One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?
They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.
Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.
O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?
Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.
She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)
Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.
Five! the finding and sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.
Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the Life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.
Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.
The majesty! what did she mean?
Breathe, arch and original Breath.
Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
Breathe, body of lovely Death.
They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
Or ís it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?
For how to the heart’s cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?
No, but it was not these.
The jading and jar of the cart,
Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.
But how shall I … make me room there:
Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:
He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;
Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;
Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.
Ah! there was a heart right
There was single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—
The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast
Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light.
Jesu, heart’s light,
Jesu, maid’s son,
What was the feast followed the night
Thou hadst glory of this nun?—
Feast of the one woman without stain.
For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;
But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.
Well, she has thee for the pain, for the
Patience; but pity of the rest of them!
Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the
Comfortless unconfessed of them—
No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?
I admire thee, master of the tides,
Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;
The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,
The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;
Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;
With a mercy that outrides
The all of water, an ark
For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark
Our passion-plungèd giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.
Now burn, new born to the world,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.
Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.
“She heard him mutter, ‘Can you take away this grief?’
'I’m sorry,’ she replied. 'Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.”
–Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
Terry Pratchett dead at 66
“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of moral virtue. The indignant person has for once the satisfaction of despising and treating a creature as 'inferior,’ coupled with a feeling of his own superiority and rightness.”
–Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics
Memorandum of the Contact and Cultural Exchange to the settlement Iparaha: General Sciences divsion
From: Dr. Renée ISHIKAWA, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)
To: Dr. Mara SHANG, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)
August 11, 2206
I know the university senate has been eager for a more substantial update, especially after the worrying communique the U.N. mission received in July; you can reassure them that such an update is on its way, and that we’re all fine here. Yes, there was a small diplomatic incident, in that the Chereni did eat a couple of members of the diplomatic corps, but it was a genuine misunderstanding, and for what it’s worth, they do feel terrible about it. We’ve been hard at work building bridges with our hosts here at Iparaha, and the governing committee of the Exchange is putting finishing touches now on a pretty comprehensive document on the Chereni in re: the possibility of mutually beneficial scientific and economic exchange between our two species. Though the contents of the report are supposed to remain classified until the General Assembly has time to go over it, I can tell you that things are looking extremely promising. Aside from the aforementioned mixup, the Chereni are quite the peaceful people, and are as eager to learn from us, as we are from them.
As comprehensive as the report is going to be, though, we’ve learned so much in so short a time we couldn’t possibly fit everything in it. The general outlines of Chereni biology, history, culture, law, religion, etc., are there, and I’ll leave it to the experts and exchange officers briefed in those fields to cover them. (In short: the Chereni are like us in a lot of ways, and unlike us in a lot of ways; once you get past the different evolutionary pressures that produced them, and some elementary differences in their perceptual systems, though, it’s more like than unlike—under the slime and the scales, they’re basically human.) But there are some things that aren’t going to make it into the report, for reasons of time and space; of particular interest to me was the Chereni approach to astronomy. Well, not astronomy exactly, but astronomical nomenclature. In short: on the Cheren homeworld, the poets named the stars.
A little background: the arc of Chereni history has been pretty different from Earth’s—not surprising, given the environmental and biological differences, to say nothing of psychological—but it’s just as long and complicated, and I can’t hope to give you anything like a reasonable summary, so you will have to forgive me in advance for butchering it with crude analogies to our own. But there was a period, a few centuries ago, very roughly analagous to the scientific revolution on Earth, when it looked like the general trend of Chereni science and culture (and the interaction between the two) might’ve followed something like the trajectory they did on Earth: science as the province of socioeconomic elites, with time and money to spare, efforts being concentrated by something like universities or national academies, plus elite sponsorship, producing the ancestor of the modern research institution, and so on and so forth. But there was a political upheaval and, to cut a long and boring story short, the first Cheren Enlightenment fizzled. It didn’t die out, but it didn’t have anything like the impact the Enlightenment on Earth did, and the first, tentantive steps of scientific exploration and systematization of thought didn’t lead to anything much. Experiment and empiricism became the province mostly of a few minor religious orders, who laid a lot of the groundwork for the second Enlightenment. But they weren’t much interested in astronomy.
You see, the atmosphere of the Cheren homeworld is thicker than Earth’s. It lets some light through—they say about as much as a very cloudy day here at Iparaha—but their world is further from their sun than Earth is, and has to trap quite a lot of heat so that the surface remains inhabitable. There are very high mountains and plateaus where the clouds thin enough that you can see the stars, but the Chereni can’t survive any better than humans at those altitudes, so there wasn’t much in the way of ancient astronomy. The advent of radio helped a little—natural radio sources in the sky at least got them looking up—but the heavens never captured the Chereni imagination the way they did the human. Their gods were always walking among them, invisible; the skies were like the seas or the caves below the earth, supposed to be filled with demons and monsters, and the unhappy dead.
So even within the scientific fringe, slowly building the foundations of methodical empiricism during this great medium aevum, astronomy was a further fringe; it wasn’t the monks who tried to study the stars, venturing to the high mountaintops and the margins of the great uplands to make fleeting observations of the few visible stars, but mystics and wild-eyed hermits. Even the Chereni can’t account for why they did. I have my own suspicions—and they have to do with the feeling that infects the soul the first time you stand in a place like the Atacama Desert and look up at the night sky—but they remain suspicions, and pretty anthropocentric ones at that. These early astronomers weren’t versed in the religious language which was later adapted to scientific vocabulary, in the way the educated elite of Europe adapted Greek and Latin to science, and their jargon had little in common with the rest of early Chereni science, which only deepened the split. But they weren’t astrologers. They had no truck with gods and myths when they measured the stars—for, after all, among the Chereni, the gods walk the land, not the skies.
When the real Enlightenment came to the Chereni, when the scientific method finally exploded out of the cloisters and the scriptoria, the revolution was as swift and thorough as it was on Earth. Maybe even more so. But it didn’t sweep up astronomy, not at first. Astronomers were wild and dangerous back then—weirdos, not scientists. By the time the mainstream Chereni scientific establishment was ready to treat them seriously, a whole parallel subculture had emerged when it came to the study of the stars. True, they were every bit as systematic and rigorous as the scientists; but the astronomers had no truck with scientific jargon, distrusted dry technical language which was devoid of awe or appreciation of the phenomena it studied, and disagreed entirely with the implicit purpose of the Chereni scientific project. Their goal was not to understand the universe, they claimed, not as its own end. Their goal was nothing less than the transformation of the Cheren soul, in the crucible of beauty.
I’m quoting from an old astronomical treatise there, and not really doing the translation justice—please forgive me. Chereni grammar can be every bit as bloody-minded as human. Nowadays, of course, astronomy, like any other science/philosophy/scholarship, is regarded among the Chereni as one of many valid and interesting domains of knowledge, and probably without any inherent special purpose. It retains a distinct vocabulary, though, and in Chereni schools is usually more associated with what we would mostly call humanities and social sciences: literary and digital criticism, linguistics, conlanging, and sociology. But that’s a historical artifact.
But when I first sat down with my Chereni colleagues to compare our star charts, what really struck me were the names. That’s probably their biggest inheritance from their ancestors. You see, on Earth, we have to rely on photographs to convey the wonder of science to the public. And sometimes, even the pictures don’t do it justice; you see something a hundred times, you forget how special it is, even if it’s a photograph taken from the surface of a barren planet five light years away, by an AI-controlled probe. Jupiter is Jupiter; you forget it’s also hundreds of times the size of Earth, an immense swirling sphere of storms, a world of endless clouds and wind. The Chereni don’t have that problem because, as I said, the poets named the stars.
Their names are systematic; they are precise. They classify objects as rigorously as we do, and though they slice their classifications a bit differently, they use mostly the same basic parameters. But every name for an alien world, or a distant sun in a Cheren language contains a little fragment of awe. They have nothing so banal as the Crab Nebula here at Iparaha, because the first time a Chereni saw it, she saw it through a powerful telescope, and to her it was as if she had seen a forest made of fire. So they named it Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, and that’s how it’s referred to in every encyclopedia, database, and scientific paper since. When they saw the Eagle Nebula, to them, too, it looked something like a great bird of prey sheltering newborn stars. They named it Cuizigan, after the devouring mother of myth, and they added the epithet, Mother of Stars. The planets of their home system are given names a little more mundane, but still evocative of their natures: Taius, the Ice-Clad, Vethrin of the Shroud, Ardal the Broken, and Gorhas, the Desert. Some names are long, nearly unwieldy; some are short and pithy. But every time they speak of these things, they use the name in full. I asked one of my interlocutors why, and she did a Chereni shrug. “Tradition,” she said. “But also this: it reminds us that these are the faces of nature at its wildest and strongest, and the appropriate feeling toward such beauty is always awe.”
Naturally, when Chereni physics and astronomy advanced to the point where true cosmology became a field of study, this habit of poetic astronomical nomenclature was extended to cosmological matters as well. Because actual telescopic astronomy was so hobbled by Cheren’s atmosphere, the two actually developed hand-in-hand for much of the last three centuries. Just as we use metaphorical handles to deal with astrophysical phenomena beyond our comprehension, so do they; but I must give the Chereni credit. Theirs are far more beautiful. There is nothing so mean or naked as “the Big Bang” or the “steady-state model” in Chereni cosmology. They call the former Talasendrion, the ancient word their gnostics use for the birth of God. Sometimes, also, I have seen it named the Elemental Fire, but I believe this more usually corresponds to what we call Planck epoch. The latter is Choraselos, the Universe of Order; your opinion may vary on whether it is an appropriate name, but to the Chereni it carries all of the weight of the hope of a knowable and comfortable universe which inspired it there, as here. Supernovae, I am told, are given a dozen different names depending on the type, but they are grouped together within the “ephemeral and trembling stars,” which include also novae and some variable stars. Among stellar remnants, they speak of white dwarfs, “the white and dying flame,” neutron stars as “the mighty anchor-stones of the sky,” and for black holes they have a word which alludes to the ancient Cheren fear of oblivion, which my companion, shuddering, declined to speak aloud.
You may think that science among humans can be poetic, and until I came to Iparaha, I thought so, too. Certainly, we have our occasional turns of phrase; I am reminded of the old Hubble image, which was given an almost Chereni title, “The Pillars of Creation.” We have occasionally named the surfaces of our worlds with something approaching their majesty: the Labyrinth of Night, on Mars; or the Ocean of Storms. But these names are either informal (as for the Pillars), or rendered distant and sterile by languages whose use connotes all things Scientific and Rational, all things seperated from Emotion and Art. The odd popularizer of science has tried to bridge the gap: Sagan, for instance, when he wrote that bit about “what men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but not if he were an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia?” But Sagan wasn’t really a poet, or not a very good one, and his attempt to reclaim something of poetic majesty for astronomy, though admirable, was not quite up to snuff.
But, ah! The Chereni astronomers could put Shakespeare to shame. I can’t read the language they use here at Iparaha very well—it’s logographic, like Chinese, though they do have terminals that display phonetic symbols for children, and that’s mostly what we’ve been relying on. So I’ve struggled through a few astronomical papers that my hosts have provided. Jesus, Mara, you should read these papers. Hell, even just their encyclopedias. Just as ours tend to adopt the scientific tone when writing about scientific matters, so their adopt the poetic tone when writing about astronomy, or astrophysics. We may speak of the Crab Nebula as a remnant of a supernovae, a pulsar’s nebula in the direction of Taurus. The Chereni speak of Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, whose boughs of a thousand colors reach toward their father, the corpse of a shattered star that sings his death-song in the radio frequency, whose music causes his children to weep and burn. I can’t do it justice, really. There’s a specific vocabulary of usage here: the word they use for “weep” recalls the blue of synchronotron radiation. Their words for “radio” and “frequency” have nothing of the connotation we give them, of technology and wavy imagined lines. In all my years working in astronomy, or teaching it, I have seen nothing like the Chereni papers, and felt nothing like the awe their scientist-poets induce. Mara, I’ve never wept while reading about exoplanets before—but that’s what the Chereni have reduced me to.
I’m working on preparing a short paper on the Chereni approach to astronomy; I expect I could probably get it published in one of the Martian cultural journals. I’d like to try to translate a couple of articles, too, but honestly, I’m just not sure English as we speak it now is up to the task. Our technical vocabulary is—well, too technical. I yearn for a form of the language that could be stripped of the legacy of the industrial revolution, recast in a form where progress and logical positivism weren’t baked into every Greco-Latin syllable at the expense of sorrow, and beauty, and art. Then, perhaps, I could begin to tell you of what the Chereni know of the serene beauty of Andromeda, or the achingly sad yearning they see in the redshifted galaxies at the cosmic horizon; or the bewitching mystery of the Great Attractor, or the loneliness and the silence of the Boötes Void. But alas! We never let our poets explain the universe to us. We will have to let the Chereni do it for them.
Dr. Renée Ishikawa
University of New Berlin
Department of Astronomy
Digital Criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of computer programs as aesthetic objects; specifically, digital critics study the code of a program (referred to as the “text”) for its aesthetic, political, social, and artistic value. Digital criticism can be contrasted against computer science, which is concerned with a scientific approach to computing, or digital ludology, which is concerned with the aesthetics and design of programs in operation. Digital criticism applies the theories of literary and artistic criticism to the texts it studies, especially those of structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, mereological criticism, and neurocognitive criticism.
Early digital critics, beginning with R.F. Hawley, pointed to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (A Course in General Linguistics), Egon Djikstra (“‘Goto’ Statements Considered Harmful,” “On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computing Science”), and the open source movement (the Debian Constitution, Stallman’s “The GNU Project and the free software movement”) to establish a context for their work, and attempted to ground the field firmly within both the traditions of literary criticism and digital culture. Xǔ Song argues that digital criticism reached maturity with the 2164 publication of Anna Yatsko’s Digital Poetics, and its follow up the next year, Turing’s Ghost. Nonetheless, major universities did not begin offering courses or degrees in the subject until the 2180s. The first university to establish a department devoted to digital studies was the New People’s University of Beijing, and over the next few decades similar departments were founded at universities and liberal arts colleges all over the world.
Digital criticism can be divided into a number of sub-fields or specializations. Many such divisions are based on a particular programming language or class of programming languages, while others are based on the type of program that is studied. One of the largest specializations by far, and one of the major foundations of the field as a whole, is the study of operating systems. Although digital criticism does not focus on the operation of programs, in order to understand texts, critics must be proficient in numerous programming languages, and, to a more general degree, general theory of computer science.
See also: [Literary Criticism] [Technical Archeology] [“Historical Linguistics for the Computer Programmer” (X.C. Vale, 2184)] [The New Berlin Handbook of Digital Criticism (NBUP, 2199)]