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Welcome to 2018: "short periods of loneliness or transient melancholy"

The lovely quote above is from a Chinese horoscope site, heralding the new year of the Earth Dog that starts on Friday (16th Feb). I'll certainly be watching out for those poetic moods and, between my sighs, finding more or less plausible reasons to be hopeful. We had greenfinches on our bird feeding station for the RSPB count, first time in years. Likewise dunnocks, and the male blackcap, besides plenty of the more regular customers. The frogs are back in the fish pond, and the snowdrops, though few of mine survived the ravages of those evil squirrels, have been unusually wonderful in King Death's Garden . . .

New Year's Books (the Japanese Connection)

Kelly Jennings' Velocity Wrachant novel for Candlemark & Gleam isn't out until June, so I won't be letting slip any spoilers. I'll just say Kelly has considerably extended her reach in this "non-clichéd space opera". Previously she's concentrated on space opera's underclasses, too often only represented in faceless CGI ranks, or hauled in briefly (eg, I'm afraid, The Last Jedi) for cameo cuteness. She's co-edited an anthology of sf working-stiff protagonists ( Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction) and published a novel, Broken Slate, the grimly engrossing story about a young man from a merchant (space) shipping family sold into the most brutal slavery . . . Fault Lines takes a less punishing approach to the same issues, featuring Velocity herself and a young girl called "Bronte" as ex-privileged fugitives from the galaxy's Japanese-ish ruling class, called the Combine. When is a person not a person? The Combine's view on that issue is disquieting, and their gene-driven caste system provides some shock moments, but the warmth of Velocity's polyamorous "self-chosen family" is a welcome background. There are intriguing (and reassuring: the story isn't one you'd like to see done and dusted in the first volume) hints of more to come, in the subtle role played by "the Dagan". He's an artificial being from the other power in this Cold War set-up; who serves Velocity, as she comes to realise, very much on his own terms.

Kelly has been compared with C.J Cherryh, and I think deservedly. Fault Lines isn't burdened with the awful angst of Cherryh's greatest novel, Cyteen, but it has the same intensity and conviction.

Meanwhile, the Tale Of Genji, which I am reading for maybe the tenth or the twelfth time, is drawing to a close again. The noble-spirited & melancholy Oigimi (Elder sister), is dead, having stubbornly refused poetic Kaoru's advances to the last, & her younger sister, Nakanokimi is facing the realities of a subordinate marriage to the court's darling, Prince Niou. We're moving into the endgame. I love the final section of this (more than a) thousand year old novel. Murasaki has observed the conventions of court fiction for so long, waving a magic wand of sighs, poetic allusions, exquisite robes, bird-song and dew and perfume, over the marriage-by-rape convention of her enclosed, palace society; always taking the male point of view (which her female audience also preferred, to avoid the humiliating reality. However boldly they played their sexual cards in reality they had no control; no control at all). With Oigimi, suddenly she reverses the tapestry, and its thrilling. Though tough on the two sisters.

& continuing the Japanese theme in library books, I'm about to start reading The Emperor of the Eight Islands, "Lian Hearn's" latest fantasy, a two-parter. Again (having read the back of the jacket, besides the Otori) I know the author will take the male point of view. But she'll be subtle about it; the women will be fierce as well as subordinate, and there'll be plenty of bizarre magic. Looking forward to it!

My Fracking Round Up

It already seems forever since I caught some kind of knockdown flu back in January, & had to enlist Peter as my deputy for the planning committee meeting, where, despite public outcry, West Sussex County Council unanimously approved Cuadrilla's application to renew flow testing at Balcombe. It was a low point, like the end of a period of remission, though we'd expected nothing else. A lot has changed since then.

Are we finally winning the battle against the fracking industry in the UK? No. The threat is still active, down here in the Weald, and everywhere else the industry has managed to get a foot in the door; including within and under our National Parks. The clear message from science and the politics is that

a) the fossil fuels have to stay in the ground,
b) the people have spoken and rejected this reckless, stupid industry, and
c) this raggedy offshore island is extremely well placed to benefit from investment in renewables.

But the at least equally clear message is that dirty money speaks louder than science to our friends in the Tory government; much louder than democracy, and besides they all hate their children.

On the other hand, Third Energy's High Volume Hydraulic Fracking operation, which seemed a dead cert back then, has not yet commenced, and apparently Greg Clark's financial resilience test isn't going well for them.

The latest now traditional "leaked unpublished report" seems to show that UK gov has revised its hopes for the industry in a drastically downward direction:

& the various frackers' (admittedly always terminally daft) attempt to secure "Social Licence" has been declared DOA

Another year, and it's not beginning badly. The battle for democracy is not quite lost. All credit to the protectors, who just keep on keeping on, and derision to the investors, however small, however mighty. Let's leave it there.

UB#3: EUrovision Flash Mob, Proof Of Concept, & Movies

Last week they held the UK (ha!) Eurovision shortlist event in Brighton Dome. A modest EUrovision event "flashmob" was organised, and naturally I went down to join in, a short walk in the crispy night (sadly without snow, the snow had melted by then). We waved that blue flag with the yellow stars, big ones & small ones. We herded about, never getting far from the beery warmth of the Mash Tun, and sang Ode To Joy in English, on the other side of the street from the entrance to the great event. (The German words are better, but it's a good rousing tune, at least; although not the composer's best work). Then I went home. I did not forget to thank the police officers. Never forget to thank the police (if they've been well behaved). And here is a special official search string, for you to cut and paste. The official song, in all its stunning banality:

SuRie sings Storm - Eurovision: You Decide 2018 Artist - YouTube

If you find yourself trapped in a storm of Youtube ads, don't blame me. Note the brilliant first comment btw

The Science In Proof Of Concept

Another unexpected cultural highlight for me, when Proof Of Concept made it into the novella section of Locus Recommends . And a new positive review for the new year, from Christopher East:

The future of Proof of Concept is dark and plausible, but also bafflingly unrecognizable — in the best possible way. It makes for a riveting puzzle of a read, by turns accessible and disorienting as it paints a picture of a world clearly descended from ours, but also shockingly different . . . In the end, the effort pays off in a chilling finale that feels both surprising and inevitable. Its a deft authorial performance that makes for a brisk, thought-provoking read.

I can also draw your attention to an article in New Scientist 28th October 2017, about Mattias Troyer's work on quantum computing, and the exact same problem the Needle team were facing, only on a rather smaller scale: the staggering complexity of quantum entanglement, and the well-nigh magical solutions that are emerging, to the problem of deciphering their structure:

Doing the maths is like searching for a needle in a near-infinite haystack: there just isn't enough time to grind out an exact solution, no matter how large your processor

You could also try this one, from 11th November

I always derive my science fiction from real, cutting edge science: hints I've picked up and pursued; articles and books I've read. I'm not a moonlighting science academic. I don't claim to understand all this stuff (though you can bet I'll be pouncing on Philip Ball's new book Beyond Weird, when it comes out next month). I just enjoy it, I find it thrilling.

It's been a long time coming, but right now the weirdness of quantum mechanics, for so long the plaything of quirky science fiction, has found its technology (quantum computing), and is getting serious. It's not just that cat in a box, alive and dead and both until observed (whatever that means). Your own mind, the way you form your ideas and memories, exists in superposition. As does the galaxy we'd like to explore. The implications are beyond bizarre.

Usually, in fact almost always, want I want to convey, in the science of my science fiction, is that we don't know what the rules will be, further down the line. But I do know, from the record of the past, that the most bizarre suggestions of present "science" are the most likely to become recognised as obvious truth.

I wish more women could enjoy hard science fiction (I'm using "hard" in the sense James Blish originally intended, meaning solid, solidly connected to real science, not fantasy). It's a shame many women today, sf fans who are women, seem to police themselves out of this area. That's not half a cockroach in your sandwich. It's a light sword. It's the way you take back control, from the greedy corporations and the ruthless super rich, by gifting yourself with a sense of power, in a world increasingly dominated by the few who regard the rest of us as simply a feedstock.

Movies Sept 17-Jan 18


If only Darren Aronofsky had called this movie Monster!, and billed Javier Bardem (who was terrific) as his star; if only Jennifer Lawrence had had the sense to keep her director's stupid Tippi Hedren crush in check, what a great, grotesque, riveting and bludgeoning blockbuster of a horror movie this could have been. Although just as intolerably let me out of here endless.

The White Countess Merchant & Ivory's farewell, and the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese in 1941. A family affair, all the usual suspects. screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. Very pretty and touching, though Ralph Fiennes's American accent a bit wobbly.

The Blood Of Women

Set in Kenya, in the territory of the Pokot, where Female Genital Mutilation is defiantly practiced, in its most savage form. It's a good population control tool, since most first babies die stillborn & a very good living for the women who do the cutting. For the men it's easier not to argue with tradition, though sexual relations are a bit of a struggle. At least you can be damn sure your wives will not willingly commit adultery. The girls who suffer are amazing, as are the Kenyan medical staff and reformers, who do their best to repair, and to educate. But the resistance they face is staggering . . . A must see, but not for the faint-hearted.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

That's it. I'm never going to follow up a Guardian movies recommendation again. Ever.
I now suspect I only liked the bleak, surreal, Dogtooth because I hadn't a clue what was going on.

The Box Of Delights

For old sake's sake. The "special effects" aren't all that bad, just odd and uneven. The real problem is the story: not a patch on The Midnight Folk, which I am glad never got this treatment.

The Last Jedi

Loved it. I think I liked the glorious red knights fight scene best, but I loved the whole movie to bits. I think even Joanna Russ, the ferocious Star Trek partisan, would have given it a cheer.* The perfect Christmas movie. NB, I have not linked to IMDB in this case, because their Star Wars site is naff

*Okay, maybe not. Star Wars was the spawn of Satan. But she's have loved to see all the women who have invaded that universe.

#2 Unexpected Cultural Highlights January 2018

Cultural highlight #1 Gabriel's Swiss friend Eric came to stay, fortuitously on Twelfth Night, the feast of the kings, and brought with him from the mainland a kind of flaky, nutty-goo filled tart, a speciality for this occasion, to follow Gwyneth's traditional end of Christmas paella. A small foldable silver cardboard crown came with it, and Gabriel won the prize. So here he is, somewhat disconcerted to find he nearly broke a tooth not on the Baby Jesus, or maybe a Flask of Myrrh, but on a miniature sporting shoe.

More Unexpected Cultural Highlights

Why did I ever agree to take a trip to Lille in January? Maybe I wasn't paying attention . . . It was all for the sake of French chanteuse Camille, with her floating and flowing veils, her rousing drummers and her men in kilts, featuring on a Jools Holland special. Verdict, three days later: Camille's show, in the vast, elderly and cavernous Sebastopol Theatre, was pretty good (although I think her first appearance, completely shrouded in a burqa and looking like a small, swaying blue mushroom, was a mistake), but Lille upstaged her. The Vauban Citadel (currently home of NATO's Rapid Reaction Force). The miraculously intact Old Town, cranky little streets full of fancy food shops, fashion and chocolate. The cathedral . . . well, it's originally Victorian Gothic, with a very strange 1990s Brutalist front end, so maybe not the cathedral. Jeanne and Marguerite of Flanders, C13 princesses, powerful and progressive. The Musee de Marionettes, (puppet shows still thriving, as popular proletarian entertainment, into the C20) . The staggering civic celebrations, and the siege of 1792, recorded by the Watteau of Lille. The enormous Palais De Beaux Arts, sharing the Place de la Republique with Man on Horse in cocked hat, chiefly notable for losing the Franco-Prussian War; didn't catch his name. The Art-Deco People's Piscine, out in Rubaix, re-purposed for a bountiful collection of modern (C19-C20) textiles, fashion, pots and glass.

You can see the Vauban fortifications of Lille laid out in full, in the artistically low-lit basement of the Palais de Beaux Arts, which holds relief plans all the strategic centres of France's north east (so popular with invading forces, and so unfortunately lacking in natural barriers). They are entrancing. We walked around it, as we were staying near the beautiful huge park by the student quarter, where it now hides in plain sight, with great naked winter trees towering up in what were the "wet ditch" earthworks, meant to defeat the approach of artillery Swags of Eighteenth century draperies,garlands, swords and flags mingle with more recent memorials: a monument for the gallant carrier pigeons of WWI; tablets remembering the fusillées, and those hung in their cells, in the Nazi occupation.

Who's "Vauban"? Try starting here, if you're interested. I'd heard of him, he's hard to avoid if you study C17 European History, however hazily; as I did, long ago. I'd never heard of Jeanne of Flanders (also known as Jeanne of Constantinople, the portrait's not contemporary of course) or her troublesome sister Marguerite. She ruled Flanders, apparently without male direction, at least some of the time; she fostered the Beguines movement (all-female independent communities, living outside patriarchy on a don't ask don't tell basis); "transformed the position of women in society", and founded the great "Hospital", that still stands, in its seventeenth century incarnation. Efficacy of the regime of cleanliess, good food, good nursing here attested by fine C17 portraits of sick children who recovered. Primitive, male "doctors" and "surgeons" were forbidden entry . . .

Something happened to Western Europe, between the splendid C13 and the dreadful, dreadful C14. I must get A Distant Mirror down from the loft and read it again, and see if I can find out why. Was it Climate Change, Corporate Greed, Bombastic Heads Of State? Or all of the above?

The big canvases of the city en fete put Hieronymous Bosch in context, and attest the Spanish influence around here, due to crazy mixed up European History. You want human heads and bodies popping out of a nightmarish giant fish? You want a party being held in a big half-eggshell? A whale as big as house, with many little legs? All kinds of weirdness.

In ways the best thing in the Palais de Beaux Arts was the giant Matt Collishaw "Whispering Weeds" = video-banner of a famous Dürer study, brought to life, hanging in the entrance hall (inspired idea). Plus the two for the price of one Millet exhibition. Jean-Francois Millet and the USA, exploring how his tender, romantic portraits of well-set-up farm workers got into the American psyche, and into the movies; and then there were the pictures. Read all about it here Otherwise, they've got the decorators in, and a few star attractions: Chardin x 1; Goya x1; Bosch x1. . . Plus yards and yards and yards of more or less attractive figurative art stuff designed to cover large expanses of wall, and be used as currency by the rich, exactly like most of "museum quality" contemporary art today; which is sort of reassuring in a way. Millet's last picture, from the year before he died, Les Dénicheurs, is unexpected, a Black Goya: depicting something gruesome from the winters of his childhood. Migrating pigeons roosted thick as autumn leaves in the trees around his family farm. Everyone would go out, blind them with flaming torches and beat them out of the trees, all confused, and kill them in their hundreds. A source of meat, of course. But an image of violence, cruelty and destruction. And fear, too. Poor man.

Les Glaneuses by Millet and Banksy

After the Beaux Arts we bought a picnic for the train, which didn't last long, and a big pain sucré to take home, on the way to the station. Peter had bought himself a little savoury tart. My ham and cheese and leeks toasted panini was nicer and there was more of it. After I'd kindly let him have one bite, I had to walk fast and keep my distance. Then we waited, with the Disneyland crowd; then we got on the train in a nice extra carriage Eurostar had found was needed, and then we went home.

This in La Piscine, the art deco baths turned gallery, a few stops out of the centre on the Metro. I'm afraid you can't see my favourite piece, a male bather, arms akimbo and loins thrust forward, his whole prideful stance exclaiming "These are my pants!" He comes in 3 sizes, as a bonus. How much Lille spoke to me of Manchester! Dirty old down, cleaned up for the post-industrial Age of Leisure

Cultural Highlight #3 was the concert at St Luke's Church (where they have a very nice Steinway) where And took us for Peter's birthday. The main event was Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta", an amazing piece of music (that I now can't remember a thing about, and not easy to track down on disc; but it is on YouTube)

Cultural Highlight #4 was Songhoy Bluess, at the "O2 Forum" (Was, the Town and Country Club ) in Kentish Town on the 25th. I love The Songhoy Blues. The Toures' voices so warm and sonorous, the glittering guitar work. I wish I could tell you I danced the night away, but I cannot tell a lie. I leaned on a balustrade, and watched from a distance. It's so tiring being retired; I'm not cut out for non-stop treats in January. How could I help getting fascinated, by it all, but I'm going to have to get back to work, or invent some work, before I ruin my health.

We could go to Mali . . . It would be a challenge, but we could get to Bamako without flying. And then by boat to Timbuktu.
Just saying

Donate to Wateraid here (the band's sponsored charity)

& Get your Résistance here.

Je ne marche pas . . .

PS Lille old town was teeming with those gooey nut filled flaky pastry Kings tarts, lingering on.

Unfinished Business #1

Late with the final ceremony of the Christmas season this year, we took the last 2 slices of cake (very good cake) to Balcombe and Ardingly on the 5th of February. A chilly day, promising snow (of which we saw only a few vagrant dots of white), but none of the hard slabs of puddle ice of last year, and no flocks of fieldfares. The water naked of kayaking classes and the like, was empty of waterfowl, as usual, too; except for the grebe (there's always one grebe) two buzzards mewing, one or two wild ducks, a pair of tufted ducks . . . and far beyond the half-drowned hide, where the road crosses the water, cormorants & coots. We saw plenty of wild ducks* on this walk, some of them feeding on a heap of grain, I am afraid not provided for altruistic reasons. (We could eat a duck!, we thought, simultaneously. I tell you this so you know, and won't go on reading my blog under false pretences.) But the reservoir was brimming, for a change, and looking lovely. The light was beautiful, and as we made our way, in the weather of earliest spring, we saw plenty of other bird life, including a magnificent heron, and once marsh tits which we have never seen before, feeding on something invisible, among the cones of an alder tree. Not shy of humans, as it says in the RSPB guide.

It's been (it was) a busy year, full of all kinds of trouble, great souls passing on, and painful losses, including for me personally; and many interruptions that pushed me hard when it came to handing in my Joanna Russ study (which will be with the editors now for quite a while). I have fond memories of recording for The Frankenstein Myth in a tiny East End Studio (not a stone's throw from where Geoffrey Chaucer once lived, rent free, as a rather dodgy wool trade official) . . . but whether anything of my contribution will make it to the finished product, I don't know. I also met Emma Critchley, slipstream media artist, and suggest you take a look:

& of course there was I absolutely loved the art work for this event, and found the idea of hollowing out Canvey Island as a sort of dry-docked GSV alluring (especially if there turned out to be a volcano under it). But I had little to contribute besides facing the audience while grinning like a loon smiling, although apparently I had one startling and novel suggestion:

"Jones evolved the idea that utopia is necessarily a picture of what we lack, not a proposition of what is finally good"

Dear me. What DO they teach them on these sf courses?

On the plus side, no sign of Biedermeier withdrawal and cocooning breaking out. Everyone's still mad as hell, and not going to take it any more. But what aren't we going to take?

Unfortunately, there is no "we"
The one thing we're absolutely sure about is that we're not a united kingdom.
Although cute wildlife tv and an an end to plastic are contenders. . . No more plastic, says the PM, and oh, if she could just wave her lily white hand, for certain the plastic would go! But even that lily wave would be rather too decided.

*originally only the drake was a "mallard". To the Victorians these were just "wild ducks" (Birds Britannica)