Tuesday, May 15, 2007

300 Humanoids vs. the Mutants

The best way to deal with the Frank Miller graphic novel 300 and the movie based on it is to forget about historical Greece. Instead suppose that the story was actually drawn from a forgotten pulp SF novella, possibly by the same author that wrote The Iron Dream. Set on the harsh planet Apollo-Phoebus III, it features the epic struggle of the Humanoid Brotherhood, fighting to maintain their Spartan eugenic purity against the oncoming mutant hordes. The double star Apollo-Phoebus has a very different spectral type than our own yellow sun, and bathes the grim landscape in muted hues of red, bronze, black, bronze, grey, bronze, bronze and bronze. The mutant hordes bend to the will of their Very Tall Shaved Androgynous Overlord, richly bejeweled and liberally pierced. Surrounded by girl-on-girl mutant writhing, he sends forth his servants, who are masked, disfigured, hunchbacked or sometimes marked by a skin color other than bronze.

Against them stand the Humanoid Brotherhood, striding forth to do battle clad only in bronze helmets, red cloaks and leather glandbags. They scorn the protection of bronze breastplates which might conceal signs of mutant infestation, such as an unfortunate skin condition or imperfectly formed six-packs. Likewise they scorn love between men and youths: rather they love nothing better than heterosexual sex, outdoor exercise, and hazing raw recruits by marching over their semi-naked bodies.

Human vocal chords are ill equipped to reproduce the local language, and so the author has chosen to replace the actual proper names with others drawn from Earth’s classical history. Ephor, the local term for corrupt inbred mystics with a disfiguring skin condition, is one of the few words of that language that human tongues can pronounce. Purely by coincidence, the same word appeared in classical Greek, describing popularly elected Spartan officials with strict term limits.

Any resemblance to classical Greece during the Persian invasion is also purely coincidental. It’s a big universe, and if you visit enough planets these parallels are inevitable. Remember how in the original Star Trek the Enterprise would stumble across planets whose architecture bore an uncanny resemblance to the studio lot for a Terran 20th c. urban street scene? Like that.

This sort of work can be an exotic, visually imaginative spectacle. However, it misses just how weird and different ancient Greece in general and Sparta in particular was: iron money, the boy-scout death squads of the Crypteia, institutionalized love between men and youths that nonetheless rejected sexual relations between them (if we can believe Xenophon and Plutarch), and a state that managed to blend democracy, oligarchy and redundant dual monarchy into a constitution of remarkable stability. And more than this, a culture that believed in the reality of the Olympian gods and their omens like we believe in Australia.

The last is perhaps the toughest to make credible to a modern audience. At the battle of Plataea, the Spartan King Pausanias made sacrifice after sacrifice while the Spartans patiently endured a rain of Persian arrows, rapidly running through the supply of available livestock until he finally got a victim with the propitious entrails that allowed him to launch an attack. It’s very hard for the modern reader to see this not as daft superstition, but the admirable piety that it appeared to be to contemporary eyes.

Gene Wolfe uses an approach that’s the exact opposite of Frank Miller’s to pull off this difficult challenge in Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete and Soldier of Sidon. Rather than using historical names and (mostly) invented culture, he does the reverse. His protagonist, Latro, a brain damaged foreign mercenary, encounters the rival cities he calls Thought and Rope, his translation or mistranslation of places that are more familiar to us as Athens and Sparta. The fantastic place names help cut the reader loose from our modern view of the historical Greece of purely mythical pagan gods. We soon discover that one symptom of Latro’s injury is the blessing or curse of being able to see and speak to gods and other supernatural beings who are as real to him as anything else he encounters. His head injury is an aid to the reader in suspending disbelief: perhaps Latro is only hallucinating. But over time the narrative builds the view that the ancient gods are more than a delusion: that they are as real within the story as they were to Pausanias. The scenario and setting allow Wolfe to create a rich narrative that provides a window into the psychology of the ancient world, while being as true to the known details of daily life as 300 is false.

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