Tuesday, December 25, 2012


“Human life—that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value. It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, once could not wear over one’s face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain, and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams. There were poisons so subtle that to know their properties one had to sicken of them. There were maladies so strange that one had to pass through them if one sought to understand their nature. And, yet, what a great reward one received! How wonderful the whole world became to one! To note the curious hard logic of passion, and the emotional coloured life of the intellect—to observe where they met, and where they separated, at what point the were in unison, and at what point they were at discord—there was a delight in that! What matter what the cost was? One could never pay too high a price for any sensation.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Monday, December 17, 2012


“But in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Robert Jordan)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Myth of Human Races by Alain F. Corcos

If there’s any one paragraph that summarizes the thesis of this book, it is probably this:

Today, efforts to classify humanity have for the most part ceased. Scientists have finally realized that they were no more successful using blood groups, or other genetic markers, than they had been in the past when they were using skulls or skin color. They have finally realized that categorizing human beings into “races” requires such a distortion of the facts that its usefulness as a tool disappears. Simultaneously, the term “race” is disappearing from scientific writing because scientists no longer accept the clear cut division of humanity into white, black, yellow and red that is still present in most college curricula and textbooks. From a biological viewpoint, human races do not exist. This is a conclusion that most anthropologists and geneticists have accepted. Now they understand their task differently: to study human variability without the concept of race. It is also time for the rest of us to abandon this obsolete, destructive and false notion of race.

I don’t know how you’re going to react to this idea. I’m personally sympathetic to the concept. Indeed, I picked up this book because I already thought that races were sociological rather than biological in origin. Now, having read the book, I’m more convinced of it than ever. Biologically speaking, races only exist when populations live in isolation from one another long enough to develop genetically unique expressions, while retaining the ability to procreate with members of the other races of the same species. Despite thousands of years of folklore and pseudoscience to the contrary, this has never been the case for human populations. Our diversity is far greater on an individual basis than it has ever been on a group basis.

But I know some people won’t accept it. They’ll claim it is contrary to their common sense, which ultimately holds sway over us all, and they’ll reject any kind of evidence that goes against it. But if they dig a little more deeply into their understanding of biology and inheritance, they may find that much of their common sense on the subject is built on a bunch of false notions.

Like what? Well, how about the idea that blood plays a role in heredity. It’s a common expression—he’s got Irish blood flowing in his veins, for example—and it leads to the inexact concept that we somehow have the blood of our forebears in our bodies. But it has absolutely no basis in fact. Blood isn’t the mechanism of heredity, genes are. Every person’s body manufacturers its own blood, which is comprised of cells that are more-or-less identical to every other body’s blood cells, and there is no such thing as “Irish blood” or “African blood” or “Chinese blood.”

Unfortunately, this idea about blood being the medium for heredity is more than just word play.

However, one of the most disheartening and cruel consequences of the belief that blood was the carrier of heredity was the “one-drop” rule which was used for centuries in determining people’s ancestry. According to the blood theory of inheritance, as I mentioned previously, the blood of the parents was blended together to form the child; therefore, there was always a little of the blood of any ancestor flowing in one’s veins. If the ancestor were considered to be inferior in any respect, it was thought that his or her blood had tainted all of his or her descendants. For example, in Medieval Europe, people considered a person to be a Jew if he or she had a Jewish ancestor as far as six generations back. In the United States, people consider a person to be black, regardless of skin color, if he or she had a single black ancestor, no matter how far back that ancestor may have been. The “one-drop” rule persisted throughout  World War II. It was this rule that the Nazis used to exterminate the Jews. To them, having one Jewish grandparent was enough to classify someone as Jewish and have him or her exterminated. It made no difference what the religions of the other grandparents were or what the religion of the individual was; the Nazis believed the blood of a Jewish ancestor tainted the victim. It was this idea that also led German authorities to prevent blood transfusion from Jews to non-Jews. Jewish physicians were reported to have been sent to concentration camps for having committed such a “crime.” In the mind of the Nazis, the physicians who did this had obviously tainted the blood of “Aryan” people.

That’s just one false idea that has had horrifying consequences. Another is the again false idea that we carry some piece of the genetic heritage of all of our ancestors. In fact, the only guarantee you have is that you carry on the genetic material of your two parents in some randomly selected quantity. You probably have something from your grandparents—but not necessarily—and as for your great-grandparents, the reality is much slimmer than you may imagine.

The reason why this is so is the same as the one which we gave for the fact that we are unique: the process of meiosis that occurs during the formation of sex cells. Though you can be sure you inherited twenty three chromosomes from each of your parents, you cannot know how many chromosomes you indirectly received from your grandparents. As you remember from our previous discussion of meiosis, your father had received from his own father twenty-three chromosomes that we have called paternal chromosomes and from his mother twenty-three chromosomes that we have called maternal chromosomes. However, because his sperm contains only one chromosome of each pair (which one is determined at random), any one of them can contain any combination of paternal and maternal chromosomes; any one of them could have received either fifteen paternal chromosomes and eight maternal chromosomes or thirteen maternal chromosomes and ten paternal chromosomes, to name just a couple of possibilities. It could happen that the sperm of your father which fertilized the egg of your mother that produced you had only one chromosome or no chromosome at all from your paternal grandfather. It is highly improbable, but it is possible. In the same way it could happen that the egg that produced you had one or no chromosome from your maternal grandmother. Nevertheless, we can assume that, on average, we received eleven or twelve chromosomes from each of our grandparents, that an average of fix or six came from our great grandparents, and average of two or three from our great-great-grandparents. With each generation further back, the average number of chromosomes we may have received from any ancestor is diminished by half. Consider now an important fact: Six generations back we have more ancestors than chromosomes (sixty-four versus forty-six). Hence, it is clear that the more remote our ancestor is, the greater the odds become that we did not received even a single one of his or her chromosomes.

It’s a bit complicated, but it all clearly derives from biological mechanisms and mathematics. Once you realize that the genetic material that gives you your biological identity can only be from as many as six generations back, you begin to realize how utterly impossible the idea of human races is outside of anything but a sociological perspective. No one, for example, can be half-white and half-black, because there is no such thing as black genes and white genes, black chromosomes and white chromosomes. It may be culturally important to someone that their great-great grandfather was a Cherokee Indian, but it is extraordinarily unlikely that it is biologically so.

But don’t take me or the book to mean that the concept of human races is culturally insignificant. Indeed, one of the most fascinating chapters of the book deals with the racial classifications determined and perpetuated by the U.S. government. There is no biological underpinning to the concept of race, but that hasn’t stopped humans from discriminating of the basis of skin color for hundreds if not thousands of years. The government’s racial classification system is essentially a tracking mechanism that is meant to give it the ability to respond to and correct instances of institutionalized “racial” discrimination. And that mission lends some credibility to its efforts.

But like all racial classification systems, theirs is equally flawed and subject to the widest interpretations. Plenty of people don’t fit neatly into one of the current five categories (White, Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native), and many decisions based on demographic data based on those categories make little objective sense. It may surprise some, but creating a label for something that apparently exists, does not in fact bring that thing into actual existence. As a culture, we’ve understood this for a long time. It was the French naturalist Buffon who observed as early as 1750:

Genera, orders, classes exist only in our imagination … There are only individuals. Nature does not arrange her words in bunches, nor living beings in genera.

It is an observable fact. But, like human races, it runs counter to both common sense and generations of tradition. Few facts can withstand such a withering attack.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Nine


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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My mother realized the necessity of a father-figure in my life—a good, positive role model for her son to emulate and to learn from. Otis seemed to be the perfect choice. A man of Grecolus, he ran a good business and had enough education to impart to a young boy the moral, ethical, and religious training needed to rise above the rabble of the world. Amanda made her decision early in her pregnancy and did everything in her power to make herself available and attractive to Otis. She still loved my father, and would never stop loving him, but the responsibility of their son demanded such actions. Otis Parkinson was wise enough to see what she was doing, but took things slowly and bit by bit worked his unassuming way into my life and my mother’s heart. When I was three years old, the wedding was held in the local temple, and my mother took the name of a man more than ten years older than she.

+   +   +

When morning came, Smurch was removed from the cage by a group of groggy orks and put immediately to work around the settlement. Brisbane would not see him again until that night, but his day was filled with enough activity to keep him from missing the half-ork.

After he had returned the night before, Brisbane had shaken off Smurch’s questions about the importance of one sword and concentrated instead on getting Smurch to promise not to tell his superiors about Brisbane’s magic and his little midnight trip. It wasn’t easy, but he eventually got his wish when he reminded the half-ork that Ternosh would supposedly discover his true power the next day anyway.

Before they had finally gone to sleep for the night, Smurch reconsidered his duty to report Brisbane’s power to the clan in the light that Brisbane was, in fact, a Grumak of considerable power. The half-ork decided he would do as Brisbane wished for that reason if for no other. As he had said before, Gruumsh One-Eye must have sent a human Grumak here for a reason, and Smurch decided it was wise to steer clear of whatever that reason might be. He was, after all, just half an ork, and he didn’t know if he even had a place in the eternal army of He-Who-Watches.

The sun had only been up for an hour or two when a determined group of orks, led by Vrak, made their way over to Brisbane’s cage. Vrak opened the door with his key and sent four very large orks into the wagon to tie and gag Brisbane. He did not put up a fight, letting the orks secure his hands behind his back and place another awful-tasting gag in his mouth. Soon he was ready for transport and the orks led him out of the wagon.
Vrak stood there at the exit and when Brisbane reached the ground he snapped a few hostile-sounding words to his prisoner in his harsh language.

Brisbane burned the ork with an angry stare. Your name may be Vrak, but your teeth are no less twisted, you ugly bastard. Did you know I can open that lock without your key? Did you, Vrak?

Vrak pushed Brisbane ahead and he took control of the bonds connecting his wrists. The ork quickly began walking Brisbane toward the entrance of the cave.

Vrak. How many syllables does your name have, Vrak? Can you count that high? You’re just a flunkie, aren’t you, Vrak? A whipping boy with someone to whip.

They entered the cave and Brisbane’s vision suddenly failed him. Vrak kept pushing him forward. It was noticeably colder inside the cave and Brisbane could feel his steps descending into the earth. As they went along, his eyes began to adjust to the darkness and Brisbane could begin to make out the walls and floor of a tunnel. There were many turns and side passages. Some of them he was pushed past, some of them he was pushed into. Even if he could see his surroundings perfectly well, the many twists and turns he had taken would have left him utterly lost in what had to be a confusing maze of corridors.

Eventually, Brisbane was forced through an open portal and into a chamber that would have been unusual in the dark tunnels for no other reason than it was lighted by bright torches. But there was plenty else about the room that made it unusual. It was circular, about thirty feet in diameter, with smoothly polished walls unlike the rough stone found in the tunnels. The torches hung in wall sconces around the chamber, lighting the unusual contents of the room. In the very center, painted on the floor, was a red circled pentagram about three feet in diameter. On one side of the pentagram was a large chair, ornately carved with thousands of tiny ork faces, mouths open in screams of pain or pleasure. Seated in this chair, dressed in the red robes he had worn the day before, was Ternosh the Grumak.

Ternosh said something to Vrak in orkish and the ork pushed Brisbane into the room and onto a small chair in front of the Grumak, on the opposite side of the pentagram. While Vrak fastened a chain to Brisbane’s wrists that would keep them connected to the floor behind him, Brisbane looked around at the rest of the room. A small shelf ran nearly all the way around the wall at about neck level. This shelf was stuffed with all kinds of books and papers and boxes bulging over with miscellaneous items. The cluttered paraphernalia reminded Brisbane of all the things he had carried into a house owned by a man named Roy Stonerow so many years ago. There was a workbench of sorts behind Brisbane, but he did not have much of a chance to see what was on it, apart from a vague impression of some glassware and some rubber tubing.

Ternosh said something else in orkish to Vrak and the ork grudgingly removed Brisbane’s gag and slowly left the chamber. When he was gone, Ternosh fixed his single red eye on Brisbane.

“Well now,” the Grumak said in the common speech of humans, roughly spoken but understandable. “The time has come for our little talk. Let’s start at the beginning. What were you doing in the mountains?”

Brisbane did not see any reason not to answer the Grumak’s questions. Smurch’s opinion had been that his only chance was to cooperate and prove himself to be a human Grumak. If Ternosh discovered him to be a fake, Brisbane was sure he would quickly be killed for the sacrilege of wearing what was, in effect, an orkish holy symbol.

But what was this question about his presence in the mountains? Brisbane thought he had been brought here so the Grumak could somehow test him for magical powers. Why the interrogation? Brisbane was not sure what he should do.

Ternosh rose to his feet. He brought out a slim glass rod that had been concealed in the folds of his red robes. It was about a foot long and had a round glass ball about the size of a tangerine on the end of it.

He held the rod up for Brisbane to see. “Do you know what this is? My people call it the drom-kesh. A loose translation into your tongue renders it ‘the wand of pain.’”

Brisbane still said nothing.

Ternosh went on. “With it, I can channel the power given to me by He-Who-Watches from my mind into your flesh. The raw power, unfocused and unshaped as it is, can then dance across your nerves in a way that I’ve heard can be most painful. If you don’t answer my questions, and answer them now, I will use the drom-kesh on you.”

Brisbane did not know if this was possible, but he didn’t want to test it. He really didn’t see any point in hiding things from the Grumak, anyway. Smurch seemed to believe Ternosh would discover everything in the end, with or without Brisbane’s compliance. If he answered, he was not sure what was going to happen to him. If he did not answer, evidently he was to be tortured.

“So,” Ternosh said. “I shall ask you one more time. What were you doing in the mountains?”

“I was traveling,” Brisbane said.

Ternosh sat back down. He placed the drom-kesh in his lap. “Very good. You were traveling. What was your destination?”

“I was searching for a temple rumored to exist at the source of the Mystic River.” Brisbane did not see any harm in this line of questioning. What would Ternosh care about his expedition?

Ternosh’s brow ridge went up. “A temple? Devoted to which god?”


Ternosh nodded. “I know of this temple. It lies quite a bit farther up the Mystic than the place where you were found. Were you traveling alone?”

“No,” Brisbane said absent-mindedly. The orks knew about the lost temple? They lived in the hills and obviously patrolled the mountains. Brisbane supposed their knowledge of the temple was not that unusual. How long had the Clan of the Red Eye been here? Were they here when, say, the temple was a living part of the religious life of Grecolus? Perhaps they had attacked the temple and killed all the priests in their conquest of other races? It could explain a lot.

“Where are your companions?” Ternosh asked.

Now the questions were getting dangerous, Brisbane judged.

Ternosh held up the drom-kesh.

Brisbane told the ork how he had become separated from his friends. He did not say who his friends were or any of the events that had led up to his fall from the mountain top.

Ternosh stood up and began to pace in a slow, small circle around his carved chair. He tapped the drom-kesh against his chin with contemplative regularity.

“What is your name?” Ternosh asked.

Brisbane again so no reason to lie. “My name is Brisbane.” To most strangers he gave the name Parkinson. It usually avoided a lot of tiresome questions. With Ternosh, Brisbane did not think that would be necessary.

“You must forgive me, Brisbane,” the Grumak said. “I admit I have been delaying the inevitable. The scouting party that found you on the river bank also discovered the massacre of the kroganes in their lair. I believe your race calls them ettins.”

Brisbane said nothing.

“And just this morning,” the Grumak went on, “another party returned from the west with news of a slaughtered group of eight grugan. Orks, as you would call them, from this clan. I am very curious as to who could be responsible for all these deaths. Was it you? Your friends?”

Brisbane lowered his eyes and still said nothing. He fought uselessly against the chain that held him to the floor. They’re going to kill me, he thought. For killing their friends. Ettins and orks. They’re going to kill me.

Ternosh stopped pacing behind his chair. He waited until Brisbane stopped fighting the chain and looked back up at him.

“No matter, really,” the Grumak said. “You see, we grugan take a different look on combat than you humans do. It is a way of life to us and, when a man dies in combat, we believe it is just and that he deserved his death. In this way only the strongest survive.”

Brisbane still did not say anything.

“So,” Ternosh said. “You need have no concern for your own life because you may have killed some of our number. Even Kras, the man you strangled to death when you were taken captive, will not condemn you. If you are to be killed, I will do it, and it will be because you bear the symbol of that which you cannot be.”

With that, Ternosh went quickly over to the shelf that nearly circled the chamber, put the drom-kesh away and took down what appeared to be a large, golden incense burner. Ternosh brought it over and set it down in the middle of the pentagram at Brisbane’s feet. It had a five-pointed base, each point stretching out into one of the arms of the star. The bowl was about the size of a large cooking pot, and it too had five sides to it, set askew to the points of the base. The curving lid rested on a flat lip that ran all the way around the edge of the bowl and was pierced with five star-shaped holes to allow the incense smoke to escape.

Ternosh then went back to the shelf and took down a heavy, folded-up curtain, which he hung from some hooks above the open portal of the chamber. Lastly, from the shelf, he obtained a small golden bowl and a short silver knife. The Grumak returned to his carved chair.

“Now,” Ternosh said. “We shall hear the truth of the matter.” He took the lid off the golden vessel at their feet and Brisbane could see the bottom was filled with a fine red powder. Ternosh said an orkish word and a spark jumped off one of his fingers and fell into the powder. He replaced the lid as dark gray smoke began to trail out of the bowl, and then he stood up and went over to Brisbane.

“I will require some of your blood for the process,” the Grumak said as he brought the silver knife up and cut it into the side of Brisbane’s neck.

The pain was hot and immediate, but Brisbane did not flinch away as Ternosh held the small golden bowl up to catch some of the human’s blood. When he had collected enough for his purposes, the ork brought a sticky bandage out from one of the folds in his robe and pressed it against Brisbane’s wound. It held itself there and the Grumak said it would stop the bleeding.

Ternosh returned to his chair with the bowl of Brisbane’s blood. By now, smoke was pouring out of the vents in the golden burner. It had the smell of sharp oranges and was already beginning to make Brisbane’s eyes water. With the way the smoke was coming out of the vents and the curtain hung in the doorway, it would not be long before the room was thick with it.

“What are you doing?” Brisbane asked, his voice sounding far away from his ears.

“I am summoning my Demosk,” Ternosh said, his voice sounding more inside Brisbane’s head than outside. “He will sample your blood and tell me whether or not He-Who-Watches has infused it with power.”

With that, the Grumak began a low guttural chant in the tongue of magic Brisbane could almost understand. The orange-scented smoke was so thick now as to obscure Ternosh’s form across from Brisbane. He could only see glimpses of the red robes through the haze. His eyes were crying tears in reaction to the smoke, but it was not painful, and his head was swimming in a dizzy sea of pleasant feelings. Brisbane could no longer feel the chain that bound him or the chair he sat upon. He felt like he was floating free in the vapor, and he didn’t care where he might float to. Still, the Grumak’s chanting went on.

Brisbane’s rational mind, small and sheltered deep within his head, whispered that the incense was some kind of drug, and both he and Ternosh were flying on it. But Brisbane did not care about that, and did not care that his defenses were down and he was susceptible to suggestion and delusion. All he cared about was feeling good, and in a room full of this smoke, that was not much of a care at all.

As Ternosh continued to chant, an eerie light began to pour out of the incense burner, five tiny beams that widened and focused together at a spot in the smoky air about five feet

or was it five miles?

off the floor. Smoke poured through this light, making it appear as if it moved along without changing position.

Suddenly, Ternosh’s chanting shifted its timbre and the spot of ghostly white began to take shape. Its sphere elongated into the small head and torso of a humanoid figure. Slender arms broke away from the body and darker features began to deepen into it. The figure developed the pig-ears and snout of an ork, but under the heavy brow ridge, there was no trace of any eyes whatsoever. The figure floated in the air before Brisbane, but it only seemed to exist where the smoke was. As the vapor moved across it, where it was thinner, the figure was dimmer, and where it was absent, the figure was transparent.

Ternosh stopped chanting and stood up.

The floating figure opened its mouth and spoke. Brisbane heard it as the common tongue, but if he had had Ternosh’s ears, he would have heard orkish. “Why have you summoned me from the battlefield, Grumak Ternosh?”

Ternosh spoke to his Demosk in the native tongue of the grugan. Brisbane could not understand these words but, again, they seemed to sound more in his head than in his ears.

“I see,” The Demosk said. “The test is a simple one. Give me the bowl.”

Ternosh handed the small bowl with Brisbane’s blood in it to the Demosk. Brisbane’s rational mind might have asked how a creature made of light and smoke could hold and support a golden bowl, but that part of his mind was growing smaller with every inhalation. The Demosk held the bowl in its small hands, raised it to its smoky lips, and drank down its contents.

When finished, the Demosk tossed the bowl back to Ternosh. There was no sign of Brisbane’s blood anywhere. It was indeed as if the apparition had imbibed it.

Ternosh spoke again to the figure in orkish.

“Grumak Ternosh, the taste is unmistakable. The blood does contain the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye.”

The bane of Gruumsh One-Eye? What does that mean? The smoke was beginning to make Brisbane sick to his stomach.

Ternosh stiffened and launched into an explosive tirade against the shimmering Demosk. The figure floated patiently before the Grumak, waiting blindly for the ork to run out of breath.

“The blood contains the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye,” the Demosk said when Ternosh had finished. “I was summoned and I have performed as demanded. Grumak Ternosh, do you require anything else?”

Ternosh waved his hand angrily at the Demosk and the figure vanished in the blink of an eye. Instantly, smoke stopped coming out of the incense burner and the smoke already present in the room quickly began to dissipate. Brisbane’s rationality began a long swim back up to the surface and he began to again sense his surroundings. The effect of the drug had left him with an upset stomach and a headache. He began to wonder just what it had been in that smoke that had made him feel so light-headed. He began to wonder what kind of spell Ternosh had used to summon up his Demosk. He began to wonder just where the Demosk had been summoned from. He began to wonder where his blood that had been in the bowl had really gone. And beneath all these wonders, Brisbane still was bothered by what the Demosk could have possibly meant by the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye.

Before long, all the smoke had disappeared from the chamber and Ternosh was returning his items to the shelf that ran around the room. Brisbane’s head was clear but he felt a little tired and his pain and hunger had returned to him in force, seemingly worse after his short reprieve from them.

Ternosh called out for Vrak and moments later the ork burst into the chamber. His eyes scanned the room, his sword in hand, indicating he had expected some kind of trouble, but he saw everything as he had left it.

Ternosh turned to Brisbane. “Well,” he said. “It seems your power has been verified. Personally, I cannot fathom why He-Who-Watches would grant the power on a member of such an inferior race, but evidently he has. I will need time to decide just what his purpose may be in this matter. Vrak will return you to your cage until I have need of you again.”

The Grumak turned to Vrak and repeated his order to him in orkish. Vrak came over to Brisbane, reaffixed the foul gag, and released him from the chain that had kept Brisbane connected to the floor. Roughly, the ork jerked Brisbane to his feet and moved him towards the chamber’s exit.

“Remember,” Ternosh said before Brisbane left, “my spell of anti-magic still protects the circus wagon. Within it, you cannot use any of the spells you might have learned.”

That’s what you think, Brisbane thought. My cantrip worked and it will be interesting to see what else will work. Your anti-magic spell is a joke, Ternosh. It’s a sham, and I think you know it. But I wonder if you know I know it?

Vrak pushed him roughly from the chamber.