Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ergaster's Childern

(Picture from here.)

When I first moved up here to Massachusetts I did what I always do, I went to the science museum. There was an exhibit of the cave paintings. The docent talked about them and said (as close as I remember): "Who were these wonderful artists? It certainly wasn't these folks. They just weren't capable." With that he brandished a Neanderthal skull.

That ticked me off. First, because the cave paintings were made long after the Neanderthals had died out. So, while it's true they didn't do the work, since they were already dead it was a meaningless point. Second, it was a snide way at taking a whack at Neanderthals as brutes-- an odd sort of racism. Translated: "They weren't us so they couldn't have done this."

It's not an accident that my first published story, "A Capella", is about a Neanderthal cave artist.

Nothing sparks discussion like the Neanderthals. Were they brutes? Were they not so brutes? Clearly, we succeeded when they failed. How did we do that? Or, translated, in what way were we preternaturally superior to them? After all: we're here. They're not. We must be better.

There have been lots of hypotheses on the Neanderthal demise-- most of which involve some sort of compare/contrast relationship with competing humans. They had bigger brains than ours so that had to be addressed-- and it has, a few times. One study suggests that their brain organization is substantially different than ours. Neanderthals have a larger visual system than that of modern humans and that reduced the available space for cognitive systems. Another one implicated bunnies in their demise-- or, rather, their inability to catch them. Modern humans will eat anything: bunnies, squirrels, birds, each other. The Bunny Hypothesis suggests that Neanderthals did not have the capacity to be this flexible.

As time has gone on the differences in capability between Neanderthals and modern humans has diminished.

Do Neanderthals have complex tools? Check. There's one tool-- a lissoir-- was invented by Neanderthals before the tool was used by modern humans. In fact, there's a distinct possibility that humans learned about the tool from Neanderthals. Did Neanderthals have art and culture? Check, check, check and check. Neanderthals buried their dead with ornamentation, wore jewelry and make up. Did Neanderthals eat things other than big mammals? (I.e., the Bunny Hypothesis.) Check. Neanderthals ate fish and birds, processed wood and hides and ate their vegetables. They may also have understood that some plants had medicinal values. (See here.) Now that's pretty sophisticated.

It's not clear that they ate or didn't eat bunnies. It's also not so clear from what I've read how much small game there was to eat or when modern humans learned to catch it. Paleo-Indians subsisted largely on now extinct mega-fauna: giant beaver, ox, mammoths, etc. Not much different from Neanderthals.

A good deal of new information has been showing up since the Neanderthal genome was fully sequenced. Interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans has become pretty definitive now-- to the point a hybrid may have been found. (See here.)

A problem with understanding Neanderthals comes from mis-connecting our own tribe with Neanderthals. For one reason or another, Neanderthals have become defined by their opposition to human beings. There are differences between Neanderthals and modern humans. Possibly the ocular system as mentioned above. The olfactory neurological system in modern humans is 12% greater in size than in Neanderthals. (Which, of course, could not reflect any cognitive deficit comparing modern humans to Neanderthals. Right? Right?)

To me, the most interesting news that is coming out regarding Neanderthals is that they may have largely died out long before they met humans. There was little or no competition between the two groups, though there was enough encounters for interbreeding.

New radio carbon dating techniques (see here) make the time overlap between modern humans and Neanderthals problematic. This is interestingly corroborated with some DNA evidence (see here and here) suggesting that Neanderthal populations may have crashed prior to modern humans came to Europe. In fact, it may have been the sheer dumb luck of timing that a population of modern humans didn't buy the farm right alongside Neanderthals.

There's this concept of refugia in ecology. A refugia is a place of relative calmness when everything else is crashing down-- usually because of either local or global climate change. When the femets hit the windmill a hundred thousand years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum, modern humans hadn't moved north. Their refugia were safer than those of Neanderthals so much farther north. (See here and here.)

Neither group could protect the future. Things were going downhill-- I suspect both groups knew it. They both went where it looked like things could remain if not okay, at least survivable. But the range of choices between the two groups was different. Neanderthals got nailed. Modern humans fared better. When modern humans finally did get to Eurasia the remaining Neanderthal and Denisovan groups were tiny.

As they say, it's better to be lucky than smart.

Which brings us to the question of how did humans really evolve? Annalee Newitz suggests its a crooked, branching road that brought us to now, filled with little groups (such as the hobbits) that didn't quite make it to modern times.

There may even be a new addition to our ranks, the Red Deer People of southwest China. The find there dates to between 14,500 to 11,500 years ago and the skeletons show an intriguing mix of modern and primitive human qualities. Too soon to tell anything about them. But they did clearly overlap humans in time. Were they a relic population of humans? Were they a different sub-species, as were Denisovans or Neanderthals? Were they a completely different species such as Homo floresiensis? We don't know yet.

I wonder sometimes if our continuing defining of other species, even those related to ourselves, only in opposition to what we consider human is a relic of our essential loneliness.

Homo ergaster is the founding species of us all, the more sophisticated descendant of Homo habilis. From habilis came the rest of us, ergaster's children, of which only we, of mixed heritage, remain.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Consideration of Works Past: Battlefield Earth

(Picture from here.)

Here's where I lose any possible literary creds.

Okay, in the interest of transparency, I like bad movies.

There are several ways a work can fail. It can aim too low and miss. It can aim too high and miss. It can thread the myriad ways of mediocrity and nail the target-- which is a fail in and of itself.

"B" movies) aim at a specific lowbrow target and much more often than not nail it.

This is a good thing.

Sometimes (note Sharktopus, which I saw last night.) the bar is so ludicrously low-- more a strip of paint on the sidewalk-- that the effort to hit the target trivializes anything of value in the work.

My favorite "B" movie director is John Carpenter-- in my opinion, the true heir to Roger Corman. He's produced a fair amount of schlock. But he also gets quite good performances from otherwise limited actors. Go watch Natasha Henstridge in Ghosts of Mars and then go watch her phone in her performance for The Whole Nine Yards.

Battlefield Earth is a "B" movie at its very heart. Made from a "B-" book (Battlefield Earth) by L. Ron Hubbard founder of Scientology. I liked Hubbard's pulp stories. They were a romp-- Ole Doc Methuseleh, for example. The story has been circulating for years that he was out on a boat commiserating with John Campbell about the sorry pay SF writers get. One of them (stories differ) said the real way to make money was to found a religion. It's one of those stories that might tell better than the truth.

Anyway, the whole Dianetics/Scientology thing pretty much took Hubbard away from writing and into wealth. Then, in 1982 he released Battlefield Earth. Followed by a series of equally pulpy books. John Travolta tried to get the movie made for years and it was finally released in 2000 to pretty uniformly bad reviews. It cost $75M to make and barely brought in $20M. It regularly appears in lists of the worst films ever made. (Here's an example.) Rita Kempley at the Washington Post said, "A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth." (See here.)

People in the SF Community hated it.

I mean every now and then it comes up in conversations at conventions and the revulsion is palpable. Part of it is the irritation the SF community have towards most bad SF films. If it's not MST3K worthy, it ought to try to be good SF. Most SF films don't bother. There are so few actual SF films made (as opposed to marketed) that we tend to really want them to be good. Blade Runner is a good SF film. It's not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel it's based on. But it is good SF. Wouldn't it be nice if they actually made a Phillip K. Dick movie?

But Battlefield Earth had a bunch of things stacked against it. Hubbard was disliked by a some of those in the SF community because of the whole Scientology thing-- and if you want to look that up, go ahead. I'm not going into analyzing the problems of a psuedo-religion here. He tried to connect back with the community by the Writers of the Future program. It was run for a while by one of the finest human beings and finest writers, ever: Algis Budrys. But in spite of that, a lot of us felt a little queasy at Scientology's little fiction project.

So: a bad movie with a suspicious heritage. What's not to love?

I saw it last week. And then backed it up with a bracer of Sharktopus. After all, if you're wondering about the quality of a bad film it's important to have a standard for comparison. Sharktopus is an unrelentingly bad film. There is no argument.

Battlefield Earth has actual moments.

Let's be clear: Battlefield Earth is a bad movie. But the same people that hate this film then turn around and say how great Roger Corman is. Roger Corman did Death Race 2000. He did Piranha. He did Battletruck. The Women in Cages collection. These are not good films. They are much worse than Battlefield Earth. I mean they're not Sharktopus but then, what is? Oh, yeah. Sharknado.

Quick synopsis of Battlefield Earth: Earth has been invaded and beaten by the Psychlos for a 1000 years. These are a bunch of sociopathic profit mongers that don't even care much if their own limbs get blown off, much less anybody else's. They strip a world of what it has and then leave it. (And this is different from Independence Day, how? Oh, yeah. It's not.)

A Young Turk is captured who is a bit smarter than the average barbarian. The Psychlo of note, Terl (John Travolta) and his sidekick Ker (Forest Whitaker) figure they'll get the smarter humans to mine gold for them in an area where the radiation would kill Psychlos. The humans get the better of them, fight them, win and then blow up the home planet.

Not a lot different from a lot of other bad SF films. (See Independence Day above.) But, as I said, there are moments.

First, you get to watch Barry Pepper, John Travolta and Forest Whitaker-- even in bad films, these guys are professionals and it's always fun to watch virtuosos play their instruments. Whitaker is like some fiery genius so even on his bad days he's a joy to watch. These guys look like they're having fun.

The aliens are pretty good at being fully realized sociopaths. They have no mercy and no remorse. They have no empathic feelings whatsoever. None. These guys are never redeemed. They are looking out for self-interest at all times. They are fully realized aliens. Yeah, yeah. They have arms and legs-- they're humans in alien suits. But the interaction between them is sociopathically seamless.

Then, there are a lot of neat little bits. There's a scene when the hero and his buds are flying off to find a library full of things they can use to fight the Psychlos. They're using an old Rand-McNally map-- yeah, I know after a 1000 years it's just dust on a counter. Work with me here-- and hero and friends are arguing how lost they must be since they haven't crossed any of those big lines between the states.

There's a sort of continuing homage through the film to Planet of the Apes, where the humans sometimes act like apes. They climb up things and shout and such. Rita Kempley particularly didn't like that.

Yes, there is a lot of laughing out loud at the clumsy dialog and special effects. But, go watch Terminator. The dialog and directing there is much clunkier. The acting is worse and the direction is marginal. Battlefield Earth has fewer stupid things in it than Stargate and that was on television for 10 years!

My point is it doesn't deserve the level of scorn it's gotten over the years. Is it Plan 9 From Outer Space? No. Is it Manos: The Hands of Fate? No. On the other hand, is it 2001? Hell no.

So, on a considerations level, Battlefield Earth was a "B" movie when it came out in 2000 and it's a "B" movie now. If you like "B" movies (I do) it's a fun romp. Park your brain at the door.

And thank your ever loving God you're not watching Sharktopus.