Tag Archives: 300

Themistocles and the Rise of the Citizen – (a movie?)

Pattern recognition is a human gift… and curse.  Nowhere is this more blatant than in the entertainment biz.  Ideas get ripped-off, right and left — almost as often as folks hallucinate that they were plagiarized. Both have happened to me… and every shade in between. Have a good look at the “Uplift” scenarios that pervade so many games – like Mass Effect – across the last couple of decades.  Even if they are more “homages” than steals, you’d think they’d at least have the class to buy me dinner?

So yes, it is with many grains of salt — and a sense of mixed triumph and despair — that I rise again to glance at a modern propagandist who has tried – throughout his career – to undermine our confidence in our own civilization. The context is a coming cinematic event that I at least foreshadowed… possibly provoked or inspired or goaded into being and… well… I’ll let you be the judge.

==Coming Attractions: The Rise of Themistocles & the Common Man==

300RiseEmpireMaking the buzz is news that the garish, dance-‘n-flex-abs flick “300” — based on Frank Miller’s comic book of the same name — will soon have a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire. With a new hero, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), and a new villain, Artemisia (Eva Green).

Stephen Peterson writes: So “300: Rise of an Empire,” besides having a horribly generic title, apparently focuses on the Athenian navy and the battles of Artemisium and Salamis. Famously, this is where Athenians obliterated the invading Persians, while their Spartan allies were busy futilely, but flamboyantly, dying at Thermopylae. Oddly enough, David Brin wrote an article about how the Athenians and other non-Spartan Greeks kicked so much more Persian heiney at Salamis and Marathon, and how a movie about General Themistocles would be so much better than “300.” Lo and behold, this sequel is exactly that. Coincidence?

FrankmillerYes, my piece from years ago — Roll Over Frank Miller, or Why the Occupy Wall Street Kids are Better than the #$%! Spartans — eviscerating the original “300” – got a lot of attention for pointing out that Miller’s flick ignored history… in fact flagrantly pissed all over history. It also insulted the main, heroic characters, like King Leonidas, the Spartan leader at Thermopylae, who in real life would never have openly insulted Athenians or greek “amateur” militias the way Miller had him do.  Not then.  Not just ten years after those same amateurs crushed the first Persian invasion without a drop of Spartan help — at Marathon.

Oh, but let’s scan the press release: Days before Zack Snyder delivers the newest vision of Superman to the world with “Man of Steel,” fans of the director’s films are getting a glimpse at a follow-up to his first comic-book movie. “300: Rise of an Empire” continues the story that Snyder started in his 2006 film “300”, this time under the direction of Noam Murro. “The idea of this movie was always that it takes place at about the same time of the first one,” he said. “It’s as if you zoomed out and saw a bigger time frame and told a bigger story of what happened in ‘300.’ The first movie speaks to the detail of this sequel.”

300RiseOfAnEmpireSpeaks to the detail?  Rather than preaching the opposite? Okay, whatever. Go back and read my essay, which culminated a decade of more informal postings that got wide circulation, recommending that someone who loves democracy finally give the Athenians – and the underlying notions of democracy and volunteer citizenship – fair treatment. Especially the tale of Themistocles and Salamis — even if it meant repudiating every moral point that Miller pushed in “300.”

Such as the notion that Sparta (one of the worst and cruelest slavery states in history) should preen about “freedom” when the true citizen soldiers and sailors (including many escaped Spartan slaves) were down there at sea, on ships that fought the real fight for western civilization. Ships crewed by volunteer bakers, potter, poets and merchant-sailors who achieved the one thing that Miller’s beloved “professional” Spartan soldiers never could — victory.

Oh… and sure, I’ll go see this movie. Hey, it’ll probably be great fun. At least they are focused on real heroes, this time. And if it’s a big success, remember where you read about such things, first.

Ah, pattern recognition.

 == Sci Fi news miscellany ==

WhatIsScienceFictionThe fundamental premise of Science Fiction: I believe it is that…Children can learn from the mistakes of their parents…and create a better future! Take a look at my latest video, What is Science Fiction? 

…and for your further Saturday pleasure, Our Favorite Cliche: A World Filled with Idiots: here are  my own reasons why readers and viewers should cast a wary eye toward the sheer laziness of most modern storytellers who proclaim that citizens and civilizations can accomplish nothing. Those who cannot think of any way to propel a lively plot, except by calling humanity worthless. The secret: they don’t really believe this!  They do it out of simple laziness.

Cool Science Fictional World Generator: create planetary and city maps.

Popular Mechanics touts “Seven gadget predictions Sci Fi got right…” The slide show includes one of my own forecasts. A minor thing, really.

carlson-interrupt-144x216A new novel by my bro Jeff Carlson is always an event. Dig this exciting tease for his newest: Interrupt.  “In the distant past, the leader of a Neanderthal tribe confronts the end of his kind.  Today, a computational biologist, a Navy pilot, and an autistic boy are drawn together by the ancient mystery that gave rise to Homo sapiens.  Planes are falling from the sky. Global communications have ceased. America stands on the brink of war with China — but war is the least of humankind’s concerns. As solar storms destroy Earth’s electronics and plunge the world into another Ice Age, our civilization finds itself overrun by a powerful new species of man…”

Pondering possible movie ideas in the shower, for some reason my mind drifted to “Deep Safari” by Charles Sheffield, from his collection, Georgia on My Mind. Men waldo-control teensy robots to hunt insects.  All the drama of hunting, and with monstrous scale, and no PETA on your back! The last refuge of machismo, in a future when violence and death have been quelled… at least from plain sight!

Now available online, (legally, I hope), you should check out the whole ‘Connections‘ and ‘The Day The Universe Changed‘ documentary series.  They will blow your mind.  Start with Connections. The only series that ever impressed me more was Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man‘… with ‘Cosmos‘ coming in a third place tie with ‘The Universe‘ and ‘Life After People‘ (because I was in it).  Followed by “The Architechs“!  Watch em all!

Watch a 1982 video of Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Gene Wolfe, discussing writing, books, and the label, “Science Fiction. ”

NulatativeOne of my readers  was fascinated by a word that I invented, in my novel Brightness Reef.  “Nulatative”  stands for a type of reasoning – on a par with associative, inductive and deductive, having to do with Karl Popper’s process of falsification in science, finding out what is try by removing what is not-true.  Sherlock Holmes would approve. Donald G Mason added Nulatative to the Urban Dictionary.  

Looking Toward Tomorrow: Best Future-Oriented Books and Blogs. Which sites and tomes do the best job of exploring what’s next?  Well, this survey that I published some years ago is still a trove that many find useful. (Traffic/visits have zoomed lately.)

StarshipCenturySee a review of Starship Century , edited by James Benford & Gregory Benford. Starship Century is a collection of articles and stories about the future possibilities of extended space exploration and all its concomitant problems. With the recent discovery of Earth-sized planets orbiting other star systems, interest in space has mushroomed. In particular, the Darpa 100 Year Starship Symposium that met in October 2011 and the 2013 Starship Century Symposium at the University of California, San Diego brought both scientists and SF writers together “to set a bar high enough and hard enough to seriously challenge the next generations” and to make sure that the vision doesn’t lack plans for execution. As the promo material succinctly phrases the purpose of the anthology: “Starship Century is an anthology by authors from both science and fiction writing backgrounds, illustrating some of the tech and ideology behind the illustrious goal of traveling to another star within the next century.”

Science Fiction folk, alas, there won’t be Asimov, Heinlein and Herbert postage stamps!  A five-stamp set had been announced by the USPS Commemorative Panel program in February with a July 2013 release date, honoring Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein and Frank Herbert. Canceled. Sigh.

Random House’s science fiction and fantasy online community Suvudu has launched a blogger community called Suvudu Universe. Writers can register to post on science fiction, fantasy, gaming and comics.


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Roll over, Frank Miller: or why the Occupy Wall Street kids are better than #$%! Spartans

A few days ago, the famous comic book writer and illustrator Frank Miller issued a howl of hatred toward the young people in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Well, all right, that’s a bowdlerization. After reading even one randomly-chosen paragraph, I’m sure you’ll agree that  “howl” understates the red-hot fury and scatalogical spew of Miller’s lavishly expressed hate: “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

In fact, I need do nothing more — in order to reduce that individual’s public esteem — than simply point you all to his bile-drenched missive.  Please. If you must choose between reading that or my detailed, cogently-argued response (below), by all means let his words suffice!  I cede the floor. Let him express the maturity and thoughtfulness of his side.

Well, well. I’ve been fuming silently at Frank Miller for a years. The time’s come, so get ready for steam!  Because the screech that you just read – Miller’s attack on young citizens, clumsily feeling their way ahead toward saving their country – is only the latest example of Frank’s astonishing agenda. One that really needs exposure to light.

I’ll do it by dissecting – calmly and devastatingly – his most famous and lucrative piece of modern propaganda.  The comic book and movie tale about Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.

A tale called – “300.”

== Leni Riefenstahl would be proud==

Though I’m not best-known for graphic novels*, I’ve done a few. I’ve been sketching out a script about one of the greatest heroes of western civilization – Themistocles – the man who actually defeated Xerxes. the Persian emperor, during his brutal invasion of Greece, after the Spartans failed so miserably at Thermopylae.  In part, this would be an answer to Frank Miller’s “300”… a book and film that I find both visually stunning and morally disturbing.

For one thing, “300” gave all credit to the Spartans, extolling them as role models and peerless examples of manhood. Adorably macho defenders of freedom.

Uh, right.  Freedom. Sorry, but the word bears a heavy burden of irony when shouted by Spartans, who maintained one of the worst slave-states ever, treating the vast majority of their people as cattle, routinely quenching their swords in the bodies of poor, brutalized helots… who are never mentioned, even glimpsed, in the romanticized book or movie. Indeed, the very same queen who Frank Miller portrayed as so-earthy, so-kind, was said to be quite brutal with a whip, in real life.

Miller’s Spartan warriors honestly and openly conveyed the contempt for civilians that was felt across the ages by all feudal warrior castes. An attitude in sharp contrast to American sympathies, which always used to be about Minuteman farmers and shopkeepers – citizen soldiers – the kind who bravely pick up arms to aid their country, adapting and training under fire. Alas, Frank Miller’s book and movie “300” ridiculed that kind of soldier…

…even though the first invasion by Persia, ten years earlier – under Xerxes’s father – had been defeated by just such a militia army… from Athens… made up of farmers, clerks, tradesmen, artists and mathematicians. A rabble of ill-disciplined “brawlers” who, after waiting in vain for promised help from Sparta, finally decided to handle the problem alone.  On that fateful day that citizen militia leveled their spears and their thin blue line attacked a professional Persian force many times their number, slaughtering them to the last man on the legendary beach of Marathon.

== The inconvenient truth of Marathon

Think about that for a moment. Can you picture it? Damn. Please pause here and Wiki “Marathon.” Even better, watch it computer dramatized. Prepare to be amazed there were once such men.  Go on… I’ll wait!

BattleMarathon2Frank Miller rails against effete, pansy-boy militias of amateur, citizen soldiers. But funny thing, none of his Spartan characters ever mentions those events, just a decade earlier! How bakers, potters and poets from Athens – after vanquishing one giant invading army, then ran 26 miles in full armor to face down a second Persian horde and sent it packing, a feat of endurance that gave its name to the modern marathon race. A feat that goes unmatched today. Especially by Spartans.

That Athenian triumph deserves a movie! And believe me, it weighed heavily on the real life Leonidas, ten years later. “300” author Frank Miller portrays the Spartans’ preening arrogance in the best possible light, as a kind of endearing tribal machismo. Miller never hints at the underlying reason for Leonidas’s rant, a deep current of smoldering shame over how Sparta sat out Marathon, leaving it to Athenian amateurs, like the playwright Aeschelus, to save all of Greece. The “shopkeepers” whom Leonidas outrageously and ungratefully despises in the film.

41lK4RKGI9L._SL500_AA300_With that shame over Marathon fresh in memory, Leonidas was eager to prove Spartan mettle when Persia invaded a second time, even though he could find just three hundred volunteers.  That much, “300” gets right.  Alas, truth is rare in that book and film. Like the notion that Xerxes cared a whit about rustic Sparta in the first place.  Athens was always his chief target. It was the heart of the West.

Even when it comes to the Battle of Thermopylae itself, “300” tells outright lies.  For example, 1,000 Artemesians refused to leave their comrades at the end. They stayed in the pass and died next to Leonidas’s 300 Spartans.  More shopkeepers. Their valor was inconvenient to Miller’s narrative, So he just wrote them out. Worse, he slandered them, depicting them running away.

Oh, remember those helots? As slavemasters, Spartans made the later Romans seem positively goody-two-shoes, by comparison. In his book and movie “300” Frank Miller never shows the two thousand helot luggage-bearers who Leonidas’s gang of bullies whipped before them into the pass at Thermopylae, carrying their masters’ gear and food and wine and shields.

Where were those slaves during the battle? Why, in the front line! Handed spears but no armor, they slowed down the Persians with their bodies, then made the ground conveniently slippery with their blood. Huh, funny how that got left out! I’m sure it was just an oversight.

== Thermopylae: what was going on in plain view

But the worst slander of all is one of glaring, outrageous omission and tunnel vision. It is what “300” might have shown happening just offstage, simply by turning the camera! Indeed, Leonidas could see it with his own eyes, in plain view throughout the fight, if only he chose to swivel his head.  (Alas, Frank Miller doesn’t let him turn, in the comic and film.)

The Athenian navy, hard-pressed and outnumbered, guarding his flank in the nearby Artemisium Straits.  Again, a citizen militia of fishermen, merchants, blacksmiths and philosophers, they too were at Thermopylae! A few miles out to sea, they battled odds no less desperate than Leonidas faced, without the convenient cliff and wall, against vastly superior Persian forces.  Only with this one important difference.

Where Leonidas failed to hold for more that a day or so, the Athenians kept firm!  They only retreated when the Spartans let them down!

The commander of that brave flotilla, Themistocles, is a hero far more in keeping with American traditions.  A Washington-like commander who makes good use of volunteers – plus new technology and brains – to stave off hordes of arrogant, professional conquerors. Less interested in pompous bragging and macho preening, he cared about his men, striving to achieve both victory and survival. He despised “bold gestures.” What mattered were results.  Saving his country. His civilization. His men.

And now that you know this, can you believe that Miller and his partners refused to let Leonidas turn his head and witness such a wonderful thing? And maybe give a brief, respectful nod to his allies’ epic courage? Don’t you feel cheated? You were.

Forced to give way when Leonidas failed to hold a narrow pass, the Athenians kept up a fighting retreat, survived the burning of their city, (where their courageous women handled a skillful evacuation)… till Themistocles finally drew the vast Persian navy into a trap at a little island called Salamis… glorious Salamis…

…where outnumbered Athenians – and their neighbors –  utterly crushed the invading armada, sending Xerxes fleeing for his life.  THAT was what saved Greece, not futile boasting and choreographed prancing on the bluffs of Thermopylae.  (And again, what a movie someone might make out of the true story!)

As for the later land battle at Platea – glorified by the book and film “300” – it was hard-fought tactically. But strategically it wasn’t much more than a mopping-up, slaughtering a demoralized and starving Persian force that Xerxes had already abandoned. And even at Platea, there were more men from Athens ( and Attican towns) than Spartans! And it was the Athenians who raced ahead and turned the Persians’ flank.

Oh, one more thing about Platea. At the exact moment that Frank Miller portrays the Spartan Dilios taunting and deriding his own allies before a desperate fight — (yeah, that’s likely) — it happens that simultaneously Themistocles and his fleet of volunteer sailors were also finishing off the rest of the Persian navy, at Mycale. Dig it, the Athenians fought two epic battles on that same, fateful day. The day the West triumphed and survived.  A day worthy of Tolkien and Peter Jackson!  And those are the facts. Live with it Miller.

Do the Spartans at least get credit for commanding Greek armies ashore?  A couple of years after Platea, repelled by Spartan arrogance and brutality, the Greek cities dumped Sparta from any further leadership role as they spent the next thirty years pushing Persia ever further back, expelling them entirely from Europe and liberating enslaved populations. Led by the democratic rabble from Athens.

In other words.  History wasn’t at all like the book, or the movie “300.” It was much, much better!

== Artistic license? Or goddam evil-batshit lying?

BattleMarathonLook, artists get a lot of leeway. At least in this society of freedom they do. (They sure didn’t get any slack in feudal times, dominated by warrior-caste bullies.) Miller and the makers of the 300 flick were entitled to emphasize the Spartans and their martial spirit, even though their brave “sacrifice” at Thermopylae accomplished absolutely nothing, except to make a fine tale of futile bravado. A three-day delay? We’re supposed to be impressed by a three-day delaying action?

Well, okay, that is about equal to Davy Crockett at the Alamo. I would be willing to give credit and always have been! But please.  This was a small “feat” at best.

(I’ll admit, it certainly offered a great excuse for ninety minutes of homoerotic prancing!  Hey, I can appreciate the aesthetics in abstract. In fact, 300 gets full marks as a lavishly choreographed dance number. And for terrific painted-on abs.)

But there comes a point when artistic emphasis turns into deliberate, malicious omission.  And then omission becomes blatant, outright-evil lying propaganda. “300” not only crosses that line, it forges into territory that we haven’t seen since the propaganda machine of 1930s Germany. White is black.  Black is white. Good is defined by the triumph of will.

I might have just sat and glowered, if they simply omitted the Athenians.  But to sneer at them and call them effeminate cowards? After Athens’ citizen soldiers accomplished epic triumphs the Spartans never imagined and that they would never, ever come remotely close to equaling? At battles whose names still roll off our tongues today? Achieved by the same kind of “cincinnatus” militias that propelled both Republican Rome and the United States to unparalleled heights, during their time of vigor?

The kind of soldiers who make up our U.S. military today! Citizens-first, despite their vaunted professionalism.

(Historical note: Yes, the Athenians had their faults too! They owned slaves, though far more gently than Sparta. Women had few rights – though the legend of Lysistrata was born there. After they lost Great Pericles, their democracy fell into the kind of populist foolishness that we see in America today, idiotic foreign adventures and callousness toward neighbors. But all of that came later. And at their worst, they kept the basic virtues that are at-issue in this matter of “300”… and in my response. Fierce pride in citizenship.)

No, this is not just artistic license. Expressed repeatedly – with the relentlessness of deliberate, moralizing indoctrination – “300” idolizes the same arrogant contempt for citizenship that eventually ruined classical Greece and Republican Rome, and that might bring the same fate to America.

My own graphic novel “The Life Eaters” never sold as well as Miller’s. Heck, that’s not my expertise. With gorgeous art by Scott Hampton, “The Life Eaters” tells a vivid story of rebellion and resistance to a very Spartan-like oppression.

What I do suggest is this: use your own imagination! Picture an answer to “300,” told from the point of view of an escaped Spartan helot-slave serving aboard one of Themistocles’s ships, staring up at the frenetic death-prancing of his former masters on the cliff of Thermopylae, shaking his head over their futile, macho posturing, then turning to help the amateur fighters of Athens and Miletus and Corinth get on with the real job of saving civilization.

Doing it without boasting — or painted-on abs — but with wit, courage, comradeship, skill and the one thing that matters most. Something Leonidas never came close to achieving. The only truly indispensable accomplishment!

Something that is often best won by citizen soldiers –

– victory.

David Brin


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