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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 30, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Alpha, Champions, Eisenhower, Baby Giraffe

The Carolina Cobras, in their first season in the National Arena League, romped to a victory on Monday night, defeating the Columbus (Georgia) Lions for the second time this month -- this time in the league championship game.

This time, the Cobras' defense was so relentless, the offense so inspired, that the final score was a devastating 66 to 8.

I echo a comment I once heard on the occasion of an equally lopsided victory, though no championship was at stake: "The game was not as close as the score might indicate."

Because the rosters of Arena League teams are so limited, there was no B-team waiting on the bench to take the field when victory was assured. And because the shortened field makes it possible for scoring to occur on any play, the Cobras could not be content to sit on their lead or allow the Lions to score.

Meanwhile, though, in our seats three rows up at midfield, my wife and I could see amazing athleticism, acts of friendship and generosity, and the frustration of players who felt that an official's call had wronged them.

(Having watched enough college basketball, I understood that such expressions of resentment are part of the acting that is meant to keep the sympathy of the crowd, or to cause the referees to doubt themselves a little so that they might, on a later call, lean a little more toward leniency; a hope that I have never seen fulfilled.)

We watched a receiver leap over a defender to snatch the ball, about to be intercepted, from the defender's hands -- in the end zone. We watched several Cobra receivers (and defenders) make extraordinary catches of passes deliberately over- or underthrown in order to avoid interception.

The Most-Valuable-Player award was given, with justice, to Charles McCullum, the extraordinarily good quarterback. But it could have been given with equal justice to Cedric Poole, the defensive back who seemed to lead the league's best defense to achieving both the Cobras' high score and the Lions' low one.

For not only did the defense hold the Lions, who were playing their second championship game in two years, to one touchdown and one kickoff deuce, but also the Cobras' defense kept getting the ball back into the hands of the offense, so they could run up that overwhelming score.

And let's not forget other defensive players who made outstanding plays, or forget the number of receivers who were there to catch whatever McCullum threw, not always to them, but sometimes merely into their zip code.

With so many who received McCullum's passes, it's not fair, I suppose, to single out Tyron Laughinghouse, though he played a brilliant game Monday night. I suspect that I salute him in particular because he has the most wonderful last name in all of sports, today or ever.

The name is probably an Americanization of the Hessian place called Lefringhausen, but it would be hard to imagine a more felicitous name for a player who leapt cheerfully (and effectively) all over his opponents.

And when you pair Laughinghouse with Jordan Jolly, the other receiver who caught three touchdown passes in the championship game, the Cobras must have the cheerfulest set of wide receivers in the National Arena League.

To be fair, the Columbus Lions' regular starting quarterback was not in the game, because of an injury. But in the last regular-season game at the beginning of August, he had been only slightly more effective than his replacement in this game.

When I played in marching band in Mesa (Arizona) High School back in the fall of 1966, I was privileged to watch a lot of football -- enough to think I understood the game.

Watching Arena League games, though, always plunges us deep into the rule book, because the shorter and narrower field of play, with no sidelines at all, makes a lot of rule changes inevitable.

Sometimes, it seemed as if the refs were conferring over a flag because they had to make up a new rule by majority vote right there on the field.

In the end, the explanations were clear enough, except for two weird plays in which I'm convinced the ball and the players stepped outside of the space-time continuum for a fraction of a second.

But I don't mind having things occur which are beyond my understanding. At least in this football game it only happened twice, while in real life it happens all the time.

I think my wife and I will be buying season tickets for next year, particularly if we can get seats nearly where our seats have been both times we attended games. Even if we can't always go, I'm confident we won't lack for friends who would happily sub for us.

Much as we enjoyed the game, however, I have to confess that the most thrilling moment of the night was during halftime, when, after the Venom dancers had finished their brief performance, the announcer suddenly boomed out the news that we would be given a performance by the NC A&T "Cold Steel Drumline."

Not the whole marching band, mind you -- I don't think there would have been room for them on the field. But the drumline was enough. I got chills just watching them march onto the field. Even though their entire performance was presented toward the opposite side of the field (both sides were filled with Cobra fans, so I don't know how they chose the side to face), it was still a joy to watch the near perfection, the joy, the exuberance of their drumming and their dancing.

It made me realize that it's a shame that I've lived in Greensboro since 1983 and have never gone to an A&T football game. Even though a dear friend of mine works in the A&T athletic program; even though I've attended shows at A&T, so it's not like I don't know where the school is; it simply never occurred to me to buy tickets and show up and watch that legendary band and drumline -- and, oh yes, the team! -- perform.

I'm glad they came to show support for the local National Arena League team, especially on the night they crushed their opponent to win the league championship as the culmination of their first year of existence.

That success surely rests at the door of Billy Back, the head coach. Formerly an outstanding player in several previously existing arena football leagues, when Billy Back came to Greensboro to form the Cobras, he drew on friendships from previous teams in order to bring some excellent players into the Cobras.

These guys are not extravagantly-paid NFL players. Many of them have families to support, and they presumably live normal lives, shopping at the same stores, sending their kids to the same schools, as the people in the audience. They may not have grown up here, but they live here now; it's a team that is truly local, because they don't just skate above the surface of Greensboro, insulated from ordinary life by wealth.

I'm glad the Carolina Cobras exist. I'm glad the Coliseum has a place to roll out their green-carpeted playing field, with comfortable seats even for oversized humans like myself. I'm glad that our team is one to be proud of, not just because of this championship, but because they're a class act on the field, playing their hearts out and supporting each other with what seems to me to be exemplary sportsmanship.

So I extend the compliments and congratulations of the Rhino Times to the Carolina Cobras. Play long and prosper!

*

This seems to be the summer of the dog movie, but only one looked really appealing to me: Alpha.

The premise is that Keda, a young Cro-Magnon hunter 20,000 years ago in Ice Age Europe, is separated from his tribe, who have excellent reasons for believing him dead. But he lives, saved by his own grit plus the great luck of a torrential rainstorm.

However, with a sprained ankle, he is barely able to evade a small pack of wolves, who chase him up a tree. The most persistent of his attackers can only be fended off by slashing her with a knife.

When morning comes, there is the wolf he injured. Keda comes down out of the dry, leafless tree and prepares to kill the wolf. But, as we already know from when he could not bear to kill a pig (prehistoric PETA?), he finds it hard to kill an animal once he has looked into its frightened eyes.

As a result, the rest of the movie is spent with the wolf and the man bonding with and helping each other.

Now, I've studied enough of the evolution of dogs to know that this retelling of "Androcles and the Lion" is not at all related to the most plausible ways that wolves became dogs.

What the genetic record of dogs seems to indicate is that they evolved, not from a single wolf who happened to be saved by, and feel loyalty to, a lone human, but rather dogs arose inevitably from wolves who behaved like wolves.

Wherever prehistoric humans camped, wolves, like hyenas, would have stayed close by in order to scavenge from the leavings of human meals and hunting kills. By lingering near humans, the wolves would have self-domesticated, since the wolves who tolerated human company the best would have prospered the most.

So these self-taming wolves would have been nearby whenever the humans went out on a hunt. This might have been going on ever since Homo erectus started chasing prey animals across the savannahs of Africa, but what matters is that in Europe during the Ice Age, there were prey animals that humans could hunt and wolves could not.

We know that dogs instinctively join in whenever there's a chase. That's why they run after cars and joggers. So when a band of human hunters was pursuing a solitary large prey animal -- an aurochs, for instance, or a bison -- the wolves would have been part of that chase.

They might have thought of themselves as competing with the humans, but probably not. Wolves are almost as smart as crows, and they had undoubtedly discovered that when the exhausted and desperate prey animal was overtaken, allowing the humans to do the killing led to far fewer deaths or injuries among the wolves.

Even if the wolves made the actual kill, the human hunters would surely have used stones and spears to drive the wolves away from the prey until the humans had taken whatever parts they were capable of carrying home to their families.

As human technology improved, they would have begun loading the whole prey animal onto a travois to drag back to camp. Since these wolves were already used to scavenging from humans, they might well have learned to pad along calmly and patiently alongside the humans, knowing, from experience, that when the human females and children had eaten, there would still be a feast for the wolves.

The natural processes of domestication would have gradually changed the size and appearance of the wolves until they became transitional wolf-dogs, similar to the stage Australian dingos reached before they were brought to Australia from Southeast Asia.

So the kind of wolf-dog that would have been Keda's helpmate and occasional rescuer in this story would already have been an animal he knew from long association with the canines that dwelt near the camp.

There are other implausibilities, as well. The movie seems to show Keda going on his first hunt, so that apparently the pig he was supposed to kill was his first important prey animal.

But there is zero chance that as a boy who stayed in camp during the hunts, he would not have had many opportunities to kill animals who were attempting to seize and carry off that most delicious and vulnerable of prey, human babies.

I believe that the human throwing arm evolved from the apes' brachiating arm, because the ability to throw a hefty stone fast and accurately would be essential for the survival of the next human generation. Ten-year-old boys can throw a convincing stone, and they would certainly have practiced with spears and spear-throwers in keeping larger predators at bay.

So I did not accept the idea that any human boy would be taken on a hunt without having plenty of experience in killing animals.

However, the movie needed us to believe that he would decline to kill the injured wolf (and please remember that humans have eaten dogs whenever we needed to, in every culture that had dogs, so there's nothing about an injured wolf that would suggest, "I am not meat"). So they set up sparing the wolf by having Keda be unwilling to kill the pig.

The most unbelievable thing about Keda's reluctance to kill the wild pig was this: The other boys and the men did not show any contempt for the boy. This is simply impossible in any human culture, ever.

Yes, he was the chief's son -- but so what? A chief's son who can't slaughter a downed pig is never going to be chief himself.

They all seemed to treat Keda with respect that is not shown to any kid who shows weakness on any playground in America.

But all my more-correct ideas would have made a far less entertaining story, so even though the amateur primatologist and paleobiologist in me entertained themselves by criticizing the science, the writer in me agreed with all these choices.

Because it's hard to tell a story on film, in which there cannot be any conversation in any known human language, and in which most of the movie consists of one young man alone with an unchatty she-wolf. They did a good job of making it into a story the audience could care about, and whatever they might have got wrong, it's not like I can produce documentary evidence that it could not have happened.

Certainly we have the fossil evidence of hunting by the method of driving the animals over a cliff. Of course, it's hard to know how that would result in a hunting ground that this tribe returned to year after year.

I mean, if you slaughter the entire heard one year, is there another herd just waiting in the wings, so they can wander in the next year and graze on that grassy mesa surrounded on three sides by cliffs they can be driven off of?

It seems to me that if you plan to return to hunt in the same place, year after year, you would use a method of hunting that did not wipe out the entire herd.

But pay no attention to my attempts to think logically about this! It's a story, an entertaining one, superbly performed by an amazing company of actors.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Keda, is also known for wearing much heavier makeup to play Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler in X-Men: Apocalypse and the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix, along with an uncredited cameo in Deadpool 2. He's a gifted and fascinating actor, and he plays Keda convincingly.

And after all the years of "primitive" people in movies always being of non-white races, it's refreshing to see that one thing they got right was that the modern humans who swept into Europe were proto-Caucasian. So don't be surprised that everybody is more or less white in their features.

Keda's father, Tau, is played with bearded splendor by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, whom I had seen before only in Atomic Blonde and in two episodes of Game of Thrones.

Jóhannesson speaks Icelandic, Faroese, Danish, and English, so we can safely say that he is truly and completely Nordic in heritage -- born and raised in Iceland, which speaks the oldest form of the Nordic languages, with a few childhood years spend in the Faroe Islands.

Which brings me to the artificial language spoken by all the tribesmen in Alpha. Christine Schreyer, an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, was engaged to construct a language that might have been spoken in Europe 20,000 years ago

She did what had to be done: She created an entire language, so that what the actors spoke would be coherent sentences with words, and word forms, consistent throughout the entire film.

Just to contrast this with a movie that did this entirely wrong, think back to John Boorman's otherwise excellent Emerald Forest. After watching the Yanomami tribesmen speak a foreign tongue with subtitles, about halfway through the movie I realized that what they were speaking was absolutely not authentic Yanomamo.

Instead, every sentence was word for word English, identical to the subtitles, except that certain sounds were transformed according to some simple rules. So even though the language they spoke was unintelligible to English speakers, every sentence had the same length, rhythm, and intonation as the English equivalent.

From then on, my belief in the language was shattered.

So it is to Alpha's great benefit that Professor Schreyer constructed a language that was not based on any current Indo-European language. (Proto-Indo-European was still at least 15,000 years in the future, for the people in Alpha.)

Languages don't leave fossils; ancient languages that left no written record can only be extrapolated (i.e., guessed-at) by looking for commonalities and roots. Schreyer has done extensive work in the preservation of indigenous languages in Papua New Guinea and at home in Canada, so even though she was winging it, she had a grounding in the way languages form and develop.

It's cool to read more about how she approached this film: https://news.ubc.ca/2018/08/23/ubc-linguist-creates-language-for-hollywood-film-alpha/

Alpha is an entertaining movie, which was made by people who tried hard to give us an authentic idea of life in Ice Age Europe. Only ridiculous nit-pickers like me will find fault with it. It's far better than any other movie about prehistoric humans I've ever seen or heard of.

(An amusing comparison would be with the Raquel Welch movie One Million Years B.C. [1966], whose dumbness is demonstrated by the presence of at least one dinosaur on the movie poster.)

While Alpha is not in contention for year's best movie, it's still a good movie, with good performances and exciting action.

There are also enough scenes on the edge of a cliff, looking over and falling over, that acrophobiacs like me are left trembling. So be warned.

The reason the film is PG-13 is because of scary shots of predatory animals, those cliff-edge scenes, and lots of eating of disgusting things like maggots and worms without benefit of cooking or even of killing.

But since most ten-year-olds have eaten, or watched as friends ate, "foods" even more disgusting than that, just to show off to their friends, you may find that kids handle it better than adults do.

*

I turned 67 a few days ago, which means that when I was born, Harry Truman was still President of the United States.

By the time I was aware that we had a President, it was Dwight Eisenhower, and as a little kid I took it for granted that Presidents looked very much like my grandpa.

As I've grown older, I've read enough history to reach the conclusion that we have had some really lousy Presidents during my lifetime, and some effective ones who were appalling human beings, and only a few who made America better because of their vision and leadership.

A lot of stupid, ugly things were said about Eisenhower during his presidency, both by his rivals and by pundits who were too stupid to know what leadership looked like, if it was conducted by someone who didn't always seek the limelight.

One of the best things I learned from the fairly short but astonishingly thorough book The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, by William I. Hitchcock, was that Eisenhower was absolutely in control of the executive branch of the U.S. government, and he made all the decisions that mattered.

We may be appalled, nowadays, to realize that Eisenhower said and seemed to believe that nuclear weapons were simply armaments in our arsenal, to be used when and if they were necessary.

But when Ike was President, we were at first the only nation that had nukes, and later the only one with ICBMs that could reach anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Army was huge and massively equipped. Without the firm conviction that America not only had but would definitely use nuclear weapons, all of Europe would have been effectively defenseless against a Soviet invasion.

With the USSR forming puppet governments all over eastern Europe and sponsoring Communist coups and revolts pretty much everywhere else, with serious espionage going on in America itself (all proven facts of history, not some paranoid fantasy, as Leftists would have us believe today) it was quite believable to imagine a Soviet invasion of the West if we ever, for a moment, let it be believed that we would not use our nukes to counter a conventional military invasion.

After all, stupid comments from an American official led North Korea and its Russian and Chinese sponsors to believe that we did not regard South Korea as being within our protective sphere. The result of that was the Korean War.

But any Russian penetration of Eisenhower's inner circles would have revealed that even privately, Ike spoke of his willingness to treat nukes as a go-to weapon of first resort in the event of Russian adventurism in western Europe.

Meanwhile, there were a lot of Americans who thought we should initiate a war of liberation to bring one-time democracies like Czechoslovakia and one-time allies like Poland back out of the Soviet sphere of control. Eisenhower constantly had to fend of jingoism from American hawks.

Fortunately, Eisenhower understood just how terrible war always is, and therefore did not embark on it lightly. He declined to intervene when the Hungarians revolted against Russian Communist rule in 1956 -- and simultaneously pressured France and the UK to stand down in their war against Egypt, using Israel as their partner in an attempt to recapture the Suez Canal.

The Israelis fulfilled their part of the bargain, but when Britain and France were about to send in troops to seize and defend the Suez Canal, recently seized and nationalized by Egyptian President Nasser, Eisenhower made it crystal clear to the Brits that their ability to receive and borrow money from the U.S. was on the line.

Without American support, Britain could not sustain either an invasion or an occupation. Now, this was partly because post-war socialism was crippling the British economy -- they were still on World War II rationing at the time -- but by the time of the Falkland War, Thatcherism had made the British economy much more robust, so the UK is stronger today than it was then.

At the time, it was Eisenhower who forced the Brits to face the fact that they were no longer capable of defending their empire or intervening in the affairs of other nations unless the U.S. went along.

These, however, are not the main events in The Age of Eisenhower. Instead, the book gives us a picture of Eisenhower as a man, as a believer in God and religion, as a patriot, and as the most organized and capable man to sit in the Oval Office -- or lead the U.S. military -- in the Twentieth Century.

Because Eisenhower was not a self-promoting braggart, like his boss in the Philippines before WWII, Douglas MacArthur, many people overlooked his abilities or denigrated them by referring to him as a clerk.

But his attention to detail made it so most of the things he set out to do were accomplished, without anyone being particularly aware of how much was achieved by Ike behind the scenes.

This is by no means a biography of Eisenhower -- good ones have been written. This is instead an analysis of how Eisenhower got to be President and how he functioned in office. Hitchcock doesn't sugarcoat any of Eisenhower's mistakes -- but neither did Eisenhower himself. And when we consider the stupid things done by his successor, like the involvement in South Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs, we must recognize that the groundwork for these interventions was laid during the Eisenhower years.

Still, in my lifetime I think the White House has never been in more competent, reliable, and wise hands than when Eisenhower lived there. And The Age of Eisenhower makes it clear that even at its very best, the U.S. Presidency is a horrible office to try to control, with so many people and groups and forces tugging every which way.

If Twitter had existed when Ike was President, I think we can safely say that he would never have tweeted anything. Nor would he have ever used his wife to accept bribes disguised as amazing cattle-futures trading. Nor would he have sent troops into Lebanon without sending enough troops to safely do the job.

Eisenhower rarely acted without making sure that his actions would have the intended effect. But sometimes, as with the U-2 incident when Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR, he could be pressured into taking an action against his better judgment, because his advisers assured him that it must be done, for the sake of national security.

Eisenhower dreamed of peace and made efforts to try to achieve it. He dealt with Stalin and then Khrushchev with a sincere belief that we could work out a way to live in peace.

And the American people would have accepted the compromises such a peace would have required -- as long as it was their trusted father-figure, Eisenhower, who assured them that it was for our own good.

No other President has had, or deserved, such trust. The Age of Eisenhower is a very good, and highly readable, guide to why Eisenhower had it.

*

If you're looking for a gift for a very young pre-reader, I recommend the series of Baby Animal finger puppet books illustrated by Yu-Hsuan Huang.

The two I own -- Baby Giraffe and Baby Elephant -- are about four inches square with a hole in the middle of the thick cardboard pages.

Bound into that hole is a finger puppet of a head of the title animal, and as you turn pages, you can make the giraffe or elephant seem to look around at the page, or at the child you're reading to. For instance, you can make the baby giraffe puppet "drink" from the stream depicted on one of the pages.

These are very good toy books for pre-readers -- as young as a year old, I imagine, and certainly by the age of two.

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