21 April 2010

Log scene

This is the last post on this blog for at least an earthly year, as I'm taking off to Asteroid * again.

19 April 2010

Gail Carriger's genre writing: General Delight

Winifred Watson is lucky to have escaped genre classification in her Wikipedia entry, though she didn't escape a giddy dumbed-down movie adaptation of her book. Still, the superb publisher that rescued her masterpiece Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (one of my favourite reads in the past ten years—a very funny understated satire with compassion) and published it in a typically beautiful edition (I love their attitude to covers, fly papers, and bookmarks) doesn't genrepak her either. As they say about themselves, "Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 86 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are ideal presents or a good choice for reading groups."

She reminds me of Gail Carriger, who is fated to be listed in Wikipedia, and I hope frustrates all attempts to label her. She is an emerging great writer whose first novel, Soulless, in the Parasol Protectorate Trilogy, proved to me that a reader can be all ready to dismiss something because it's everything that reader hates—and lose so much.

I can't say the book didn't warn me. It says on the cover, A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols. Vampires! Yawn! Werewolves! Zzzz. It's even Steampunk! Parasols? Well, uh. Another meal-in-one proudly made just for you by Rehash. Our promise to you: You can't overcook it because it already is. Each meal comes with its own fun-fashion plaque-scrubbing-toothpick parasol, but all our meals are guaranteed fiber-free. Find our products in the Unfresh section of your supermarket.

I'm not much of a partier but I ended up at her launch party. It was in such good taste that I looked for a seller of the book the next day because there were none offered in the launch and no readings and praise for her. A model book launch, imo! Only amazing food with great attention to historical detail, and a wonderful array of people from the book (her friends in fiction-mufti) acting as hosts for the party. They (and her mother) made the food. I would have shoved one of her mother's Scotch eggs (not the overly corrected modern "Scottish" ones but the classic, good enough for Eliza Acton, who called them "Scotch") down the front of my dress to eat in private finger-licking greed later, but some Amazon sylph sidled up and purred "protein bomb". She was tall enough to look down my dress too, and would have seen my third breast, so all I could do was flit my fingers amongst the heavenly candied peel.

Still, nothing would have convinced me I would like the book, but I had to do something in the hell that is a Qantas flight home to Australia—and its cover does entice. Once I opened the book, I resented having to close it for any reason, till the end, when I really truly sighed with pleasure. Soulless now resides on my physical bookshelf, quite an honour that the thousands of other books of mine could only wish for. They get: piles.

That said, I said that Carriger is an "emerging great writer", and at the moment she does seem to be a caterpillar almost surfeited with praise. Soulless is on my shelf not because it is a great book, but because it defied my expectations, and gave me expectations. This book is a delicious read, a joy, a very light read with no pretensions—and that is a great achievement. It is, however, a very deliberate construction, its elements as costed as every ingredient in a Heinz All-Day-Breakfast. The characters in Soulless manage to avoid being caricatures by the skin of Carriger's skill, and issues in the book won't bruise any reader's prejudices or grey matter. I'm not saying Message and Politics and Meaning are necessary. Indeed, save us from them as they are often served out. Shelves aplenty groan with the weight of self-righteous and self-justifying inedibles. (Which reminds me of the guy who complained that he just wanted to go to an axe-murder movie for a break from living in war zones, and what did the movie give him? A political message!)

But I think that if Carriger were to put her soul into a book, really scrape her soul into it like the beans from a vanilla pod or the skin from her hands, that could be a truly great book. Carriger has the skill to be a master of subterfuge—to serve up liver-and-sump-oil cocktails if she mixed them, and have us demand from her: More! as we lick the parasol stirring sticks.

Carriger has perfect timing, made me laugh out loud till I was obnoxious, and would definitely change Wodehouse's mind about female novelists. He would admire her. Part of her strength comes from understatement, something rare in today's fiction. She takes as much care with her choice of words as Wodehouse, Wilde, Flann O'Brien, and Mae West—they hit the spot.

Another element of Carriger's fiction might surprise. There's a cherry in the lump of chocolate. In contrast to her sex scenes, Houellebecq's are as sexy as a drunk's grope (actually, he doesn't need the contrast—that's just how he writes), and there's not a Manolo whoreshoe in her books. Her rompcomerotics won't, I think, age any more than the fun of doing something forbidden at high risk of getting caught. It doesn't matter what she writes about, however. With her expertise, she could write novels so boring she could win top lit awards—but she has chosen well: her skill as a novelist to delight is already so well developed that it could be called voluptuous; and she flaunts it. But there is no category for General Delight, more's the pity.

The only criticism I have of this trilogy (for which Orbit deserves high praise) is that the otherwise perfectly suited model with character plus on the covers hasn't Alexia Tarabotti's curves. She needs to either eat some Scotch eggs, or shove them down her dress.

And by the way, Carriger's blog is as delightful as her books. Food, tea, mores, and more.

18 April 2010

Volcano clouds spelling at The Times

Too good to leave unprinted, this was the headline for a while today till some wowser stepped in to end the fun. I challenge you to label this, though. In three attempts, I still got the misspelling wrong.

16 April 2010

Sing a song of Simon Singh

“English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest.”
— Simon Singh, Simon Singh wins bitter libel battle, by Mark Henderson, The Times

First, he writes something in the public interest. Then, sued for libel under laws that should not exist, he funds his own fight in our public interest, winning a victory of a sort, as The Guardian points out in Victory doesn't mean libel laws work.

"I refuse to apologise for an article that I believe to be fair, accurate and in the public interest."
— Simon Singh, The libel fight interview in New Scientist

Isn't this legal fight and push for reform something that the Royal Society should be involved in?

The Libel Reform Campaign
Sense about Science and the Libel Reform Campaign have been active in raising awareness but it seems that Singh has had to buy his own lance and horse to go a-courting, since he refused to be silenced.

The Sing Singh Fund
Is it just a silly thought to
>establish a fund to recompense Singh for some of his expenses
>to help make free speech in the public interest not only a right but something encouraged?

Though no estimate can be made of Singh's real costs over these years of fighting for what is right, if all of us who think that Singh did society more than a passing favour gave the equivalent of £10, then we might establish something that keeps truth-dampening suits off people speaking in the public interest far better than a refurbished old pile of b & m.

15 April 2010

Worm fishing and double-headed worm tempters

This is worm-fisherman-spotting season, and I'm sorry I missed the w.f. who dropped this homemade amphisbaena, for he used a different worm-catching method than usual (though evidence points to him being an electrician without the wife).

One of Australia's most unusual and least touristed sights, the worm fisherman fascinates me and, by strange coincidence, Angela, co-star of Spotted Lily (my great Australian novel—the only one guaranteed to make you laugh about our censorship laws and to teach you about w.f.'s—or your money lost). I don't know if I would call worm fishing profound, but Angela has pondered.

As Angela explains to the Devil (aka Brett Hartshorn):
‘Do you know Australian fishermen?’

‘Uh?’ He must have been preoccupied, or thinking about the three men, for he wasn’t one to grunt.

‘I didn’t till I visited the coast. They hang out on sandy beaches. Old blokes with bandy legs sticking out of floppy shorts. They wear knee-high socks in footy team colours, and they keep their shoes on. The fisherman dangles the wife’s nylon stocking in the shallows where waves lap the sand. In the foot of the stocking is rotting fish.’

He was listening.

‘The old bloke wafts the fish in its stocking through the shallow water, and just as the waves draw back and all the little holes are exposed in the sand and they bubble and pop dry, he feels something tug at the toe of the stocking. I’ve never done it, but it’s what they say. Anyway, he’s got this pair of long-nose pliers, and he reaches down, and quick as your fingers pulling a string of spaghetti from a boiling pot—’ A ghost of an expression flitted across Brett’s face, so I stopped.

‘Please,’ he said.

‘Well, the fisherman nips his pliers in between the toe and the sand, and the pliers grab hold of the snout of the worm, he yanks up those pliers in one fast long swoop, and up comes a long worm. Night crawlers, they call them. He puts it in this little case he wears at his waist, and bends over the surf again, waving that stocking. He spends half a day there, sometimes with a mate. All the hours of low tide, catching worms with fish.’

‘What do they do with them?’

‘I wondered, too. They sell them for beer and smokes.’

NOTE: I admit to leading you astray. The scene tempted me. I don't really think any worm fisher would be daft enough to wave this lot of spines and teeth in the surf if he has ankles. So what probably happened was that an electrician on holiday fished on the beach and caught these, strung them on electric line and filleted them using the line as a convenient hold. Then he just dumped the lot in the sand and in a few days will be home again, far from the pristine beach he likes to visit. Most fishermen clean up their messes and don't leave things like hooks, fishing line, plastic bags and such on the beach—and the ones who fish for worms are the cleanest of the lot. I've never found an abandoned stocking with a rotten fish head in its toe. The worm fisher probably takes it home and puts it in the wife's freezer.

14 April 2010

Fishing for Fruit

Just when you thought you couldn't stomach another shrill, depressing, stilted and self-righteous "environmental" book, Tristram Stuart puts out Waste. This is a highly entertaining, deeply informative, and refreshingly positive look at how we live, with many recommendations that make sense. His extensive footnotes are a good part of the book, a very good part of the book, if only for the entertaining stories.

Do you also get unaccountably excited at the individuality of a forked carrot, an apple that slouches, a cucumber twinned at its side?
Any specimen the camera spots which fails to match its pre-programmed ideal of carrotness is marked down as condemned, a jet of air is fired at it with infernal precision, and the misfit is blasted down into a chasm below . . .
- Tristram Stuart, in Waste

All this reminds me of an incident so perfectly romantic that I tried to report it in a poem, but the poem is so imperfect, I left it to rot. I've pulled it out of the bin for those of you who aren't squeamish.


There had been so much rain that the sea was brown in the curve of harbour
where watchful eyes of blue boats nod.

We had been driving in the forests above; stone walls, cork trees,
acorns littering the earth like pebbles on a beach back home.

Now, down in the little village, no people visible
but the stones ringing with running.
Water clattaputting from terraces above,
rivuletting down through gardens old as folktales,
sluicing around knotted roots knocked raw
by ancient donkey hooves, and wooden sabots and bedroom slippers
of gardeners whose hard and corded limbs all curve like ancient grapevine trunks.

The curve of sea
still tossed, wetter than itself.
And on its waves there bobbed a harvest
orange yellow green bruised-ruby
swollen splashes of bright, awning-striped -
vegetables and fruits torn from the earth above.

We fished with a colander, omelette pan, long wooden spoon,
herded our school of edible buoys -
and feasted for days on citrus pumpkin moons of melons
marrows big as gumboots regal aubergines
apple windfalls tart as disapproval.

We burst the cells of sea-soaked
grapefruit against our teeth,
ending our festival in sighs.

Our next fruit-fishing harvest
will be nigh when
parrot-fish shoot sunwards
spattering cumulus,
their rainbow-ribboned bodies
arching through an oxygen-drenched sky.

09 April 2010

Untouched up beauties

Amateur photographers are being taught that to leave an image alone is to destroy its potential. So nature is being distorted, to the point that one "Dear Expert" letter in a photography magazine asks about a photo showing a flock of birds flying in V formation. Two birds are out of order, so close that they look like "a squashed bug".

The shooter asked whether it was right to leave the image as it is or to clean it up. The answer was that all photography is distortion, so to get over the prejudice against creating digital fiction.

Ah, reality. I wish it weren't so easy to take things out of photos and to distort them, because what's in them naturally is often so surprising. The pictures below are what I saw — only somewhat crisper than what my eyes noticed at the time. I never clean up pictures because I think that the chaos of nature is its own beauty, and thus, the wonders are even more wonderful. That doesn't mean these are technically wonderful. I'm still not good at that, and admire many others such as the brilliant Taylor Lockwood who are excellent photographers and knowledgeable teachers, too.

08 April 2010

Asimov's June 2010 issue out now


"Earth III" by Stephen Baxter

"The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele


"Petopia" by Benjamin Crowell

"Monkey Do" by Kit Reed

"The Peacock Cloak" by Chris Beckett

"Voyage to the Moon" by Peter Friend

"Dreadnought Neptune" by Anna Tambour


"Human Potential" by Geoffrey A. Landis

"Crushed" by Susan Abel Sullivan

"Of Lycanthropy and Lilacs" by Sandra Lindow


Editorial: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Zhu Zhu Pets?" by Sheila Williams

Reflections: "Satan, Get Thee Hence!" by Robert Silverberg

On the Net: "The Price of Free II" by James Patrick Kelly

Next Issue by Brian Bieniowski

On Books by Peter Heck

The SF Conventional Calendar by Erwin S. Strauss

The cover art is by Michael Carroll.

06 April 2010

Giles Watson paraphrases Dafydd ap Gwilym

Something to celebrate today: Giles Watson's launch of his online book, Dafydd ap Gwilym: Paraphrases and Palimpsests, a collection of modern English paraphrases of the works of the fourteenth century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. It contains paraphrases of 52 poems by Dafydd, and an elegy by Iolo Goch. Watson has also illustrated the book with paintings, drawings and photographs. As he says, "The paraphrases have been prepared by comparison of existing prose translations with the original texts, and the aim has been to echo some of the rhythms and cadences of the Welsh verse. I am not, alas, a Welsh speaker, and the project has been merely a labour of love, but I do know Welsh speakers who have enjoyed them. I do not intend to stop paraphrasing Dafydd but it seemed like a good time to put out a “first edition”. It is currently available here (for free, of course)."

This all sounds
sounds horridly daunting, if not physically painful, especially those palimpsests.
I assure you that
Dafydd ap Gwilym: Paraphrases and ... is a treat.

Watson is what a scholar should be, not to mention a poet, artist, and historian. An addict of the curious, and a passionate perfectionist of sensuality and meaning. This book is both fun and lush. The poems are surprisingly contemporary. Read, for instance, the damning one about one of those newfangled mechanical clocks waking the sleeper from a sexy dream, and the impotent rage the ex-sleeper feels.

I have previously told you how much I love Giles Watson's poetry. I nagged him privately to write more, hopefully a book, and to make sure it contains his wonderful footnotes. This is a treasure that he has produced. I'm so glad that it's probably too fine a work to go the rounds of publishing house rejections.

05 April 2010

Australia's funniest science prize: The Eureka Ethics Prize and the Vatican

Holy Galileo! Last year when I told you the Joke about the Vatican and the Science Ethics Prize I didn't expect it to get funnier, but this year it passes satire into silliness.

For yea, this year the Australian Museum's ACU Eureka Prize for Research in Ethics will again be sponsored by Australian Catholic University.

This is the year we in Australia have been granted the "honour" of getting our "first saint", Mary MacKillop, who achieved two miracles ("intercessions with God"— or in lay terms, getting God to stop torturing and killing in an untimely manner. What she had to do to get this is a mystery, as is the proof that she did this or he did that) from her grave.

The comments following this announcement about the saint and the miracles in the Adelaide News show Australians' healthy sense of humour, as well as the scepticism and demand for proof that is the basis of science itself.

Last year when I brought up the outrageousness of the Vatican-cozy Catholic University having anything to do with a science ethics prize, the comment from the Australian Museum (the host of the prizes) was "We're always after new prize sponsors." From the evidence, this means that an anti-science sponsor can continue to use the prestigious "Australian Nobels" like tobacco companies have, "research".

I suggest instead, that the Australian Museum look to the recently instituted policy of PLoS (the Public Library of Science) Medicine. Not wanting to continue to be a venue used by the tobacco industry to justify itself, PLoS Medicine has decided not to publish any tobacco-industry funded studies. New Scientist interviewed Ginnie Barbour, the editor of PLoS Medicine, who said:
There is a huge problem with all corporate funding of clinical trials: it's like asking the coach of the football team to referee the game. But unlike pharmaceuticals, the tobacco industry's products are never useful, they only harm human health.
Leaving out the current scandal of insufficient recognition by the Vatican of the ethics of the Vow of Silence that the raped were made to take, leaving out the history of the Church's claims to scientific knowledge about how condoms work (and the numbers of fatalities caused by this Church teaching) the very procedure of saint-making, its secrecy, its claim to determine proof with no proof and no outside scrutiny—if the scientists wear this silently and cheerfully, then they deserve not respect, but derision. Even the Latin liturgy that this Pope wants to spread shows that he thinks glories are best respected when they are not understood by those gathered to give awe.

The list of winners and runners-up for this Ethics prize reads curiously, to say the least. People like:

Rev Dr Norman Ford SDB
Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, Victoria
The Prenatal Person. Ethics from Conception to Birth

If this science "Ethics" prize stands and the Australian Museum does not excommunicate the Catholic Church from sponsorship and judging, then I suggest other deep-pocketed sponsors pile in. As things stand, the message the Eureka Prizes send is that scientists don't examine evidence, don't change opinions based on facts, and don't give a damn about ethics, provided the money's there. That isn't true for Australia's many brilliant and often brave scientists such as Nobel Laureates Barry J. Marshall and R. Robin Warren. So in their honour, I hope the Australian Museum acts like good scientists do.

Coming soon? The Church of Scientology Eureka Prize for Astronomy.