Thursday, January 29, 2009

Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, Volume 1

Neal Stephenson has become one of my favorite author's over the past two years. I picked up a copy of his The Diamond Age or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer while I was in Rome. Not sure how a copy of that ended up in some used paperback news stand in Italy, but it caught my eye and hooked me as a solid fan of Stephenson. 

Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a trilogy (though Stephenson has tried persistently to avoid the term) that takes place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Baroque Cycle is available in the three volumes in which it was originally published, with each volume containing 2 to 3 smaller novels. Indeed, Quicksilver is actually three novels: Quicksilver, The King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque, and it is these three novels that make up just the first volume in the three volume series. You can purchase the Volume I novels as three separate paperbacks, but I recommend just getting the whole thing. It's a hefty 1000 pager, but come on, what else are you spending time doing? 

Quicksilver begins in colonial Massachusetts, with the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root arriving to fetch an aged Doctor Daniel Waterhouse back to his native England to resolve an intellectual dispute between the two greatest natural philosophers of the day: Isaac Newton and Gottfried Whilhem Leibniz. The first novel follows Daniel's treacherous voyage across the atlantic to return home as the ship transporting him evades a fleet of pirates. The novel then jumps back in time to Daniel's intellectual rearing at Cambridge with Isaac Newton. In this plot line, Daniel quickly realizes he must settle for the occupation of political savant while leaving the cataclysmic philosophical discoveries to the unmatched mind of Newton. Daniel also must come to terms with his Puritan upbringing as it both informs and collides with the fraught political atmosphere of post-civil-war England. Accusations of Catholic popery and Protestant extremism abound, and Daniel must navigate and eventually shape this powder keg of national, religious, political, and intellectual tensions. 

In King of the Vagabonds, we meet half-cocked Jack Shaftoe, a vagabond, pirate, mercenary, theif, wit, and lover. He meets the enchanting courtesan Eliza and together they form a lucrative partnership (and romance) that navigates the religious and territorial wars on the European Continent and masters the exploding trade markets in Amsterdam. 

Odalisque picks up several years later to find Daniel fully evolved into a man of domestic and international politics. Increasingly a secularist, Daniel is caught between the Catholic tendencies of the monarchy that he closely advises and the separatist Puritan elements who see him as a natural leader. While Daniel seems most interested in his original love of natural philosophy, he ends up in the middle of the Glorious Revolution, the torture chambers in the Tower of London, and even on the operating table in the notorious freak show that is Bedlam insane asylum. Having become a figure of international trade, Eliza finds herself forced into espionage to protect her fortune made in the Amsterdam markets. She takes up residence at Versailles while sending encrypted letters to Leibniz, dukes, and intellectuals in an attempt to position herself advantageously for the oncoming Glorious Revolution. Both Eliza and Daniel must contend with the likes of King James II, King Louis XIV, William of Orange, and their various agents in order to save their lives and alter the course of history in Europe. 

Quicksilver (I'm speaking of Volume I as a whole now) is a momentous world map of the early modern era. It is hard to pick out an area of 17th century Europe that Stephenson leaves untouched. The clarity, mastery, and sophistication that be brings to every aspect of this era's religion, philosophy, politics, science, stage drama, social decorum, dress, geography, economy, war, metaphysics, and technology trace elegant lines of latitude and longitude across this globe that he has created. 

Stephenson bridges many genres among and within his different works. The Baroque Cycle is as credible and thoroughly researched as any historical fiction out there, but the science fiction is hard to miss. In the time of Newton, alchemy, philosophy, astrology, religion, and what we would call "science" were inextricably linked, and Quicksilver shows us the period that began to pull them apart. Stephenson captures the birth of calculus, binary code, epistolary cypher, a universal philosophical language, and Newton's Principia Mathematica in a way that only a science fiction author can. 

The hard science fiction in Quicksilver can sometimes be a bit daunting, especially if it's been a while since your last class in advanced physics or calculus. Stephenson has a talent for making complex ideas clear and tying his science thematically into the plot, but you probably will get a little dizzy more than once if you are not a veteran of hard science fiction. There are also a TON of characters, so many in fact that Stephenson even includes a glossary of names and titles at the end of the novel to help you keep everything straight. Nontheless, Stephenson's skill at vivid world-building and sophisticated wit will make rereading some paragraphs well worth the effort. I am about 100 pages into Volume II, The Confusion, which so far is just as delightful.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Making Sex and the History of Medical Theory

I have been researching a lot about medical theory during the early modern/renaissance period (16th-17th century) and found some really interesting things. I don't know how much, if any, of this research will ultimately end up in a fiction piece that I am doing. So I wanted to share because I think it's really fascinating stuff. One of the books I've spent a lot of time with is Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by University of California Berkeley's Thomas Laqueur. Most gender historians seem to focus on gender and its social history, Laqueur reminds us that there is a social history of sex, too (when I say "sex" I am referring to it in the biologically understood male or female sense and not the intercourse sense), and that ideas of sex have been shifted by the social/cultural milieu just as much as ideas of gender. One chapter called "New Science, One Flesh." explains the medieval/early modern medical conceptualization of sex. 

Whereas today we GENERALLY understand that there are two distinct sexes (I'm aware there are exceptions), either male or female, this was not how early modern academic understanding conceived it. Biologically determined sex (as opposed to socially determined gender) was the mutable factor whereas socially determined gender was the fixed, divinely ordained factor. Interesting we generally understand this the other way around today, I think. You are born a particular sex, but gender identity is flexible. It seems almost the opposite in early modern thinking. 

In the 16th and 17th century, and well before that, your sex was determined by the amount of heat present at your conception. A hot enough conception would yield a male. A conception lacking enough heat would yield a female, the less desirable outcome. This was understood on a continuum, though, in the context of ONE sex (a masculine one, of course), and NOT two distinct sexes. Thus a woman's anatomy was described completely in terms of being inferior or colder VERSIONS of a man's anatomy. A vagina was an inverted penis, and the ovaries were undescended testes. Indeed, the same terminology was applied to what were thought to be the same organs in men and women, instead of testes and ovaries, you just had testes, external if male, internal if female. Instead of scrotum and womb, you had one word "bourse" or "bursa" which meant sack or purse, external if male, internal if female. Medical thinkers of the age called these organs the same thing because they theorized them AS the same thing, even though the organs served completely different functions (when, guys, was the last time you found a fetus in your... I'll stop there). Had there been enough heat during the woman's conception, these organs would have simply "sprouted" out of her and she would have been a man. 

Thus, a man that lactated was thought to be "colder" than the average man, and a woman that had more masculine physical features would be thought of as a "warmer" woman. And indeed, this theory also accounted for people born with both female and male genitalia, someone who, temperature-wise, was caught in the middle. So there was this weird continuum when it came to your biological sex that could even be shifted AFTER you were born, according to medical understanding. 

For example, the theory of the four humors, an idiosyncratic balance of hot and cold, dry and wet internal body substances that determined a persons health, necessarily implied that the balance of hot and cold could be manipulated (through blood letting or ingesting hotter or colder liquids) to make someone more masculine or more feminine if that individual was seen to be either physically or socially defective. This was just one part of a health system that could account for ANY physical or mental ailment, not just sexual. A headache or a quick temper could mean that one had an excess of hot blood, which needed to be drained. I find this idea of an understood continuum of biological sex really fascinating. Even though the ability to change one's biological sex surgically has only come about very recently, these issues of "what is sex?" and "can sex change?" are more than 500 years old. 

The other interesting thing is that, despite the new science of exploratory dissection becoming much more ubiquitous during this time period (16th-17th century) due to the work of physicians like Andreas Vesalius, which greatly shifted understandings about anatomy and health and disease, the understanding of female anatomy remained basically unchanged for a few more centuries. Anatomical drawings from the period are fairly accurate (see Andreas Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica from 1543), so we know that these things were observed (again, these people never saw a fetus inside a scrotum even though they theorized it to be the external correspondent to the womb), but the social interpretation of them remained fixed. This reminds me of mischaracterizations of conception that still exist today: the passive egg, the charging sperm! Even though that is not an accurate reflection of what actually goes on during conception, that description is still informed by cultural understandings of men and women. I think this is also a good case study of how science is not immune from the social forces at work in the surrounding culture, yes, even today.

How will this all end up in my fiction you ask? I'm not sure. I think one of the great opportunities that writers of historical fiction often miss is the ability to present a consciousness that is completely different from our own. The idea that a medical scholar in 16th century London walked down the street and understood the men and women that passed him by in a COMPLETELY different way than I do is literary gold! Aristotle and Plato had different, in some cases, completely opposite views of the nature of reality itself. How did this change how they physically looked AT things, how they saw themselves in the world. If as a writer, I can briefly get someone to look at the world through these different lenses, that is a very rich experience to offer. 

There are a few books I can think of that create a completely new consciousness pretty well. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is one of the best historical examples I can think of. Non-historical examples include Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping. All of these books present ways of looking at the world that are unfamiliar and new. Every sentence is imbued with the shifted sense of reality that these authors have created. The thing that is particularly impressive about Jesus' Son and Housekeeping is that they DON'T take place in a different world, but contemporary Iowa and Montana, respectively. However, they MIGHT AS WELL be in a different world. This, again, is the tragedy of a lot of historical fiction. It DOES take place in a different world, but the craft, language, and vision don't push those boundaries to create a new consciousness and a new reality that bend the lens through which we look at OUR world. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Back to the Auditorium Building!

It does NOT look this nice outside. This photo is from my summer visit to Roosevelt University, which is that tall black building in the background. NO! Just kidding. That is the Sears Tower. We are the big square building in the middle of the picture. The Auditorium Building in Chicago, where Roosevelt University is located, is actually quite a historic building.

It was designed by the famous architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. The firm Adler and Sullivan was transformative to the face of Chicago and American architecture, and  it is where the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright developed much of his architectural sensibility. When the building was dedicated by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889, it was the tallest building in Chicago and the largest building in the United States. 

It was also one of the first buildings in the world to be completely outfitted with electric bulbs. Throughout the building (the lobby with its grand staircase, the library with its plaster molded arches, and the breathtaking theatre), the chandeliers still feature plainly exposed lightbulbs in keeping with the building's original decor, which displayed the bulbs proudly as a sign of how modern it was. It also housed the largest theatre in the city until the opening of the Civic Opera House. 

I have not been inside Roosevelt's Auditorium Theatre yet, but I will see it shortly for the upcoming AWP conference, which is the largest and most important national conference for the literary community and creative writing programs in the United States. Art Spiegelman will be delivering the keynote address for the conference inside our theatre. Pretty exciting. More on that later. 

Anyway, the Auditorium Building is one of Chicago's gems. It was declared a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1975. The building is located on Michigan Avenue, with the Art Institute two blocks up the street, and it rests right in front of Grant Park where President Obama gave his 2008 election victory address. 

I missed coming to this building over the long winter break, and I am happy to be back. I can't believe this is the building where my school is!

Here are some more pics of the Auditorium Building, Roosevelt University:
1) stained glass windows in the stairwell
2) grand staircase in the front lobby on Michigan Ave
3) Auditorium Theatre
4) lobby entrance on Michigan Ave
5) Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University's smaller performance space

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, Not so?

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) is one of my favorite historical figures. He and the movement he incited with the founding of the Franciscan Order is one of the most fascinating threads in the history of the Middle Ages. 

My favorite novel, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose deals with the fractious politics surrounding the Franciscan Order. My novel in progress features Saint Francis as a character. I have been to La Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy and still take a simple wooden rosary from Assisi in my pocket when I get on an airplane. On my door hangs a wooden plaque (also from Assisi) with the famous prayer that the Saint composed:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Words to live by? Maybe. Actually written by Saint Francis? Well... probably not. A New York Times article from January 22 explains the true story. An article published in L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican, says that the prayer can be traced only to 1912, a far cry from the 12th century in which Francis was born. 

The prayer was printed in L'Osservatore in 1916 which caused it to become wildly popular during the traumatic years of World War I. At some point, the prayer ended up being published on the back of cards bearing the picture of the Saint, hence the confusion. The NYT article also points out that figures like Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa spoke the prayer and attributed it to Francis in public. Interesting that the prayer can only be dated back to two years AFTER Mother Theresa was born.

I have to admit, this makes me a little sad. But in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oyez Review Volume 36

I must start by saying my friend Adam Morgan took this picture while we were checking issues on Friday night, and I am too lazy to take out my camera and photograph my copies of the magazine myself. 

For those of you who don't know, last semester I enrolled as a student editor in a class/internship which is structured around the production of Roosevelt University's literary magazine Oyez Review (pronounced Oy-yay!). The Creative Writing program at Roosevelt publishes the magazine annually, which includes about 100 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art. Oyez Review circulates mainly in Chicago, and you can find it in several local and indy bookstores around the city, though the easiest way to get one is to contact us at oyezreview@roosevelt.edu. 

This year's issue, Volume 36, features writers from Chicago and all over the country. Inside, you'll find an eclectic mix of speculative, historical, humorous, and traditional literature. For more information on contributors, ordering, and past issues, see Oyez Review.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tudors Season 2

So this is how I spent the last week of my long and boring SIX WEEK vacation from school: TV on DVD! As a writer and reader of historical fiction, who focuses on the medieval and renaissance periods, I take an interest in any film or television series dealing in these eras. In general, medieval and renaissance work on the screen is hard to do well just like it is in writing fiction. One risks falling into the familiar traps of getting caught up in formulaic romances involving knights and fair ladies like all those King Arthur movies with people like Richard Gere, war epics like Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven (which has some siege scenes that could have been ripped straight from Lord of the Rings), or conspiracy thrillers about the Catholic Church a la Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code phenomenon. 

Indeed, The Tudors, one of the only TV series ever set in the renaissance that I am aware of, avoids lots of these pitfalls. It offers a MUCH better handling of the King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saga than the film The Other Boleyn Girl and its novel counterpart. To be fair though, The Tudors covers in two seasons (each containing ten one-hour-long episodes) what The Other Boleyn Girl attempts to cover in two hours. 

Nonetheless, this is why I think historical material can work so well on television: It can cover the complicated and unfamiliar terrain of a different era and culture with a depth that films sometimes cannot. The film The Other Boleyn Girl makes the decision to focus primarily on the romance between Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters while almost completely passing over Henry's decision to break with the Catholic Church, a huge historical detail that changed the course of christendom in England and had repercussions throughout the world. 

The Tudors slows this narrative down immensely and fully explores the formation of Henry VIII's relationship with Anne Boleyn, his gradual and fraught decision to break away from Rome, the political consequences for England and its relationships to France and the Holy Roman Empire, the social upheaval and near revolt this caused inside Henry's kingdom, and how the break away from Papal authority both enabled and eventually doomed Anne and Henry's marriage. Anne's beheading at the end of Season 2, due to Henry's frustration for her being unable to produce a male heir, makes much more sense when you understand the political, social, religious, and emotional cost of Henry's decision to divorce his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn. 

Getting off my history soapbox, The Tudors exhibits an intensity characteristic of most Showtime series with nudity, uncomfortable (sometimes sickening) torture scenes, lots of executions, and sexual coercion of female characters on a regular basis. The show is well cast. Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Henry VIII is eccentric, unstable, charismatic, passionate, vulnerable, powerful, and sexual. Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) fully realizes her character in the second season by adding fear and vulnerability to a formerly icy and calculating presentation. Dormer also does an excellent job of injecting brief cracks in Boleyn's sanity as she begins to abuse alcohol and laugh hauntingly in short hysterical outbursts as she senses her oncoming death. Jeremy Northam stands out as Thomas More with his balance of peace and anger. Henry Cavill's character (the Duke Charles Brandon) also improves in the second season by growing up a bit. James Frain who plays Thomas Cromwell is another standout performance, especially in the season finale when we get a glimpse into his guilt for his role in all the carnage in the last few episodes. 

Weaker performances include Nick Dunning (Boleyn's father) who does a good job of playing the heartless scheming father but can't seem to break out of that type. I would have liked to have seen the writing and the acting push this character a little further. He puts his family through a lot, and the pressure he puts on Anne is enormous and cruel, and he never seems that conflicted to me. Maria Doyle Kennedy (Queen Catharine of Aragon) is also pretty one-dimensional. Whenever we see her, she is sad, confused, and sitting. Seriously. Does this character ever walk? I also found her unwavering naiveté and devotion to Henry VIII, despite his cruel treatment of her, a little unbelievable. It would have been nice to see her show some different emotions other than flabbergasted hurt. She is boringly constant. 

The Peter O'Toole guest spots as Pope Paul III are entertaining. O'Toole brings charisma, sophistication, and humor to any role he plays, but the cutaways to these scenes in Rome seem a little out of place at times and don't always have a direct bearing on the plot back in foggy old England. The cuts to Rome are also noticeably absent in the last episode as the events of the entire season climax. If the O'Toole spots continue in the third season, I would like to see them better integrated into the show or otherwise dropped altogether. 

Back to history for a moment. The sets look authentic, and the costumes are beautiful. The show is filmed in Ireland, and this serves the series well with lots of shots of saturated misty mores and stone manors and palaces. The computer graphics of Whitehall Palace leave something to be desired. They look cheap when contrasted with shots of the actual Tower of London and other various onsite shots at country manors and palaces. But the large budget for the series appears in the costumes (In virtually every scene, Henry has a new wardrobe that is as equally ornate and complex as the last). Sets that aren't too grandiose, extremely accurate enactments of 16th century court masques, and proper use of titles, customs, and royal ceremony show superb attention to historical detail. 

Overall, The Tudors is a compelling political, religious, and romantic drama. Almost every character faces a crisis of conscience, guilt before God, personal ambition, betrayal, political maneuvering, and in one way or another the chopping block. There is very little relief from the intensity of the drama. It is constant almost to a slight fault and can sometimes approach draining. Some comedic relief may benefit the series, or even just more of the interesting tone shifts that we saw in the opening of the season finale (with the choir and the swans and the delayed climax) would serve the show well and give the viewer some time to recover from Henry's wrath. Generally speaking though, this is first rate drama that is character driven with beautiful costumes and set design and enough historical credibility to satisfy most history enthusiasts.

It will be interesting to see how the show carries forward beyond the Boleyn narrative, which has been the thrust of the show for two seasons. It is hard to imagine the Jane Seymour character (Anita Briem) being as captivating as Anne Boleyn, though it appears a new actress is taking on the role. Historically speaking, the subsequent marriages (and divorces) of Henry VIII were not as traumatic as the first "Great Matter" of Henry's divorce from his first wife Catharine of Aragon to marry Anne. The Tudors will have to come up with something new to drive itself, though Henry's capricious romances will undoubtedly remain a part of the drama. This closing of the Boleyn story is actually a good thing though. We have seen so much of Anne Boleyn over the past view years. Now that she is good and dead (Come on, we all knew the ending, I'm not spoiling anything), we can finally see Henry VIII develop beyond that relationship.