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Bite My Shiny Metal… October 27, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Science Fiction, Television Shows.

Insults to the Fox network executives who cancelled it. Lethal limboing. Bender downloading an obedience virus. Romance. Heads in jars. Nudity. Email scamming aliens taking over the company, and finding the key to time travel on Fry’s ass. Futurama was great. But alas no exhortations to bite Bender’s shiny metal ass.

Over-Excited and Undersophisticated Post October 21, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Science Fiction, Television Shows.

I’ve just seen on Sky One that all new Futurama is starting on Sky on Sunday at 6. A very welcome return for something which is much better than that Simpsons nonsense, not least due to the more frequent appearance of Lucy Liu (or her head in a jar anyway). Alas this bears no relevance to progressive politics, or the state of chassis we are in, but deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.

The Perseids are coming… August 12, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science, Science Fiction.

Pete Baker got to this before me with a very informative post on Slugger which allows us for once to raise our eyes from the gutters of local and international politics and look at something a bit more cheering.
That said looking at gutters, they’re filled with water and rain seems to be the order of the day and night. A pity but – who knows, it may clear up. Incidentally, I’m always reminded (being a gloomy enough sort of character) of an essential plot twist in this piece of fiction whenever there are displays in the night sky. And following on from that surely the basic premise of the novel is only possible by one of the most complex of set-ups. Not so much a cosy catastrophe as an enormously complicated one.

Unlikely to be replicated tomorrow unless there is a truly unpleasant extra ramification of the Georgian/Russian conflict.

It’s summer, the sun is shining, it’s a bank holiday… so let’s read a book about sea levels rising… and rising… and… August 3, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction.

IT IS Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder?

When Orwell wrote those words just after the Second World War he hardly envisaged a planetary murder. Or to be more accurate… well, we’ll come to that.

I’m usually averse to the sort of 2 for 3 deals one gets in bookshops around this time of year. So it’s fortunate that I was handed the latest Stephen Baxter book “Flood” as a gift – sticker still attached. It’s an interesting – albeit not entirely (or even slightly) cheery – read.

Baxter is probably the leading contemporary exponent of Arthur C. Clarke style science fiction. Highly polished, low levels of characterisation, technologically correct and generally set within a framework of what is scientifically plausible. No coincidence then that they collaborated on a couple of novels some years ago. Baxter has straddled a number of areas, projections about space exploration in the near future, far-future space opera, historical novels with a science fiction twist and even near fantasy works. There is a harsh tone to some of his fiction. Much of it consists of humanity far in the future, often utterly changed by evolution filling some niche or another. It is hard to pinpoint an overriding message, but if one exists it is that the capacity for intelligence in no way is a guarantee for evolutionary success – indeed if we are not careful this phase of self-awareness on the part of the species (and perhaps indirectly on the part of the planet) may be but a blink of the eye.

Still, when some while ago I read on the internet that he had written a book called Flood, about rising sea levels I did wonder, not least because it seemed to shift very slightly towards James P. Hogan territory of cataclysmic planetary catastrophe. It’s not that Baxter doesn’t have form in this regard. He wrote Moonseed, a novel where the accidental dispersal of moondust with qualities not unlike nano-technology eventually reshapes the Earth in a very bad way. Very bad indeed. While the source of the ‘moonseed’ is never clearly explained the implication is that it is a technology used to spur the human race into space. One can think of easier ways.

There’s much though to like in Flood. The sense of contemporary civilisation collapsing is dealt with effectively. A fractured United Kingdom where millions move onto hills and then uplands and then mountains is remarkably potent as a vision. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t end well for Ireland – but then it never does. There are some lashes at the internet and the culture around it, and in particularly a poignant little vignette about the hubris of the trans-humanists awaiting a singularity that cannot occur as technology is literally washed away.

The potential power of the corporations and the super-rich, and the way in which they are supported by exploitation, to survive as national governments collapse is well detailed although some of the developments seem unlikely. For example there is no clear description of what happens to shipping, or why governments in such circumstances wouldn’t produce more of it. Nor does a civil war in a Spain groaning under mass migrations from North Africa and a right wing coup in the early 2010s seem to me to be hugely likely (and most unlikely of all? No mention of President Adams and the Green Party majority government in Ireland in 2016 – ahem!).

But if I have a major issue with the book that is the science underpinning it. Baxter has based his premise on research published in New Scientist amongst other places which proposes that there is water locked into the Earth’s mantle.

And not just a bit, but lots and lots…

Based on what they witnessed in their lab, the researchers concluded that more water probably exists deep within the Earth than is present on Earth’s surface—as much as five times more.

It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Five times as much – eh? A great starting point for a novel about that water somehow being unlocked – as it were – and released into the seas…

And some of the articles reporting this have stated baldly that this water consists of oceans of water beneath the continents.

Well, yes and no, and mainly no. Firstly it is highly theoretical with no clear evidence for vast quantities of water. Secondly even were it correct there is no obvious mechanism by which it would be released (seeing as it largely consists of molecules locked within rock) into the oceans in substantial quantities. Baxter uses some clever sleight of hand, bringing James Lovelock’s Gaia theories into play with the suggestion that the planet itself is self-regulating in some fashion, perhaps brought to this point by human activity. If so the regulation seems a tad excessive.

And Baxter himself is not unaware of these problems because in writing this he locks – indirectly it has to be said – into a discourse where many scientists fear to tread. At one point a character during a meeting with the IPCC refers to these underground seas by names drawn from the Biblical flood to the consternation of an onlooker…

‘Big mistake,’ murmured Nathan. “You don’t bring in Noah with these guys.’

Indeed. And the IPCC is depicted as an enormously conservative organisation unwilling to accept sea level rises much higher than predicted in their models. In a way that’s a modish dig – an inversion of the tiny industry and corporate linked rump unwilling to accept what is palpably evident. But it scans oddly in a book written by an arch-rationalist and proponent of evolution.

Not least because if one goes to here you will find creationists desperately scouring for scientific (!) evidence that the Biblical Flood happened (or that oil doesn’t take millions of years to be produced – so handy, so self-serving, no?). For them the reports on the subterranean ‘oceans’ has been a vindication of their stance. This is – of course – far from Baxter’s philosophy, but it indicates the dangers of underpinning fiction with speculative research.

So, do we treat this as part of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ sub-genre that was perfected by John Wyndham? Novels such as the Kraken Wakes saw the death of millions, but this was never described in detail. It always happened ‘off-screen’ as it were.

Somehow “Flood” doesn’t fit that category. It is a compassionate book, but the eventual outcome is bleak in the extreme. Indeed the more I think of it the more I suspect this book belongs more with the works of John Christopher (A Wrinkle in the Skin, the Death of Grass) written in the 1960s and with a much harder edge than those of Wyndham. But the fact that the science isn’t quite there – and in a way quite distinct from the tropes of most science fiction such as FTL – does make me wonder is it simply intended as a cautionary tale, in other words, this demonstrates in an exaggerated form what might happen. But that is problematic if only because the scenario rapidly becomes so extreme that one is relieved that we might only (only!) be facing a five or ten metre increase. Indeed the actual problems our planetary environment face seem – well – diminished to near insignificance by the novel.

Which is certainly not how it should be. Consider if you will some of the projections for close to home and they are quite terrifying particularly if the worst comes to the worst. It’s unlikely any of us will live to see that worst, but – who knows? The dislocation caused by the relatively minor sea level rises that face us wil be quite enough. Perhaps some people will remember Richard Cowper’s “Road to Corlay”, written in the 1970s and set centuries or so hence in precisely this sort of drowned world. At the time there was more talk of ice ages and rising sea levels seemed implausible.

So why not write about the actuality? Perhaps because the actuality doesn’t have the dizzying pace of fiction. Climate change is steady and inexorable, but it’s slow. As it happens I live in an area under considerable threat of minor sea level rises. It’s unlikely to happen today or tomorrow, but ten years, twenty? Fifty? Put it that way and the question becomes a little more academic, the threat a little less real. A century (or possibly less) to see sea level rises of six metres. Awful, but not quite as apocalyptic as Flood. Mind you looking at the same set of images in the last link, the melting of the Antarctic ice cap would definitely be catastrophic.

And to add a frisson of discomfort to the weekend, consider that in geological terms we’re close to the lowest figures ever recorded (although sea level changes were in these eras more to do with the structure of ocean basins). The trend remains downwards, but another way is up. If you’re willing to wait around millions of years.

There is a further thought that strikes me. I don’t know if this is almost a precious complaint, but there is something almost inhuman about the way in which fictions can for our entertainment consign millions, or billions to an untimely and unpleasant end. Of course the novel, and those like, is not real, but if it is for no greater purpose than entertainment then somehow that seems to be amorally glib. In a way I am reminded of reading Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach”, one of the first post-apocalyptic works and tracking the progress of the radiation as it progressively overwhelmed one town after another in Australia as it moved south. I was maybe twelve at the time I read it and although grim it didn’t touch me as anything other than a widescreen epic story of the end of humanity. It was only later that I realised Shute’s purpose in detailing that inexorable dynamic. For him the names of the towns were a short hand for those who lived in them and the novel demonstrated in fiction the dangers of a nuclear weapons equipped world.

Yet perhaps that is Baxter’s intention, at least in part. To write a novel which by exaggeration, by positing how ill-equipped we are even for the threats we currently face (a message implicit in his depiction of a London overwhelmed by floods – and how significant it is that that event comes early in the book giving an example of what could happen even under the present forecasts of climate change – and the fact that he has lobbied for serious disaster plans by the UK authorities), demonstrates just how containable climate change we face actually is. That far from being an extinction level event it is an opportunity to reshape our engagement with the planet, to rework our technologies so that they are smarter and more appropriate for a world which has finite limits. And in that respect perhaps this is a morality tale, because in pointing to the extreme it delivers a warning about just how disengaged we are with the present crisis. And that’s not a bad lesson to learn. Particularly while the sun is still shining.

For some interesting visuals and more on that consider this article.

While I was away… April 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, Science Fiction, Ulster.

Okay, it’s not exactly been an eternity. But during the week I’ve endured what is known as a minor medical procedure, a rather comprehensive biopsy to be precise, neither life threatening nor particularly painful, nor as far as I am aware (touch wood) the precursor or indicator of any medical condition, but not something I’d rush towards either.

My involuntary hiatus resulted in plenty of down time where I had to endure the worst that BBC News could throw at me concerning their own none-too-Swift boats, the remarkable change in tone in diplomatic language between Iran and the UK after the release of the “hostages” (really, I’m no fan of the Tehran regime – and the incident was so naked a power play on their part that even the most anti-UK voices were relatively muted, but is it absolutely necessary for London to turn the ‘hostility’ dial to eleven now that they’re back on British soil? And more to the point, what’s to prevent this from happening again? More boats in an already contested stretch of water? Yeah, that’ll work a treat).

Then there was the lovely photo-op at Farmleigh. No, really, lovely. Almost as if – and I say this advisedly – history, torn from it’s ‘natural’ course from 1970 to 2007 had somehow rethreaded itself and here were the Prime Minister of a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland and An Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland meeting as they would ordinarily to discuss even stronger links between the two parts of the island and independent of the United Kingdom. And while we consider just what sort of counter factuals might have brought exactly, or as near as makes no difference, that set of circumstances about we can move on…

Wor else? Well, it’s kind of joemomma to note the – er – somewhat eclectic mix of music that sometimes graces these pages…but mellow mood that I had thrust upon me I’ve been listening to a lot of Boards of Canada. Yeah, there’s a post about Intelligent Dance Music brewing out there which someday may face the light of day. But perhaps not today.

And…I’m reading Nick Cohen’s book (and sort of dipping in and out of the latest Charles Stross) and finding it both simultaneously infuriating and excellent. Often on the same page. Often at the same time. Worth another post – definitely. And while I think of it…it was that very Nick Cohen who did post here some time ago, because…the letter he posted here was just published by Prospect Magazine in their latest issue. So, unless it is one of the best hoaxes perpetrated at someone’s expense, fair dues to Nick Cohen for engaging…

Solipsism over.

Yes, that’s right, yet another of those end of year lists… December 24, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Books, Culture, Film and Television, Music, Science Fiction, Television Shows.

Following on from franklittles exhaustive and worryingly appropriate buying for lefties post here’s a few of the books, films and music which made my year.

The most impressive book I read this year was almost definitely Stephen Howe’s Ireland and Empire, Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (for which cheers smiffy). As a means of positioning one’s own thoughts on the matter it was invaluable (and indeed a great reference point for the Post-Nationalism pieces I’ve been posting over the past few months). Beyond that the revised edition of Unionist Politics by Feargal Cochrane was also mightily interesting. It’s a brilliant means of getting to grips with the Unionist identity and it’s internal dynamics. Auschwitz by Lawrence Rees and Interesting Times by Eric Hobsbawm were brilliant if depressing and perfect for dipping into as the mood took. Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists is a wonderful read, particularly for anyone who feels at home in the left beyond the Labour party. Finally Elusive Peace by Ahron Bregman was a fine overview of the disintegration of the Palestinian/Israeli peace process from the turn of the century onwards.

Fiction. Well a mixed bag this, but a couple in particular stand out. I’m currently wading through Terrorist by John Updike. Good so far. Michael Shaara’s novel of the battle of Gettysberg, Killer Angels, although first published in the late 1960s is an excellent anti-war piece (for which cheers Eagle). It’s a period I had little knowledge of before and accepting all the caveats of historical fiction there was something briliiantly lucid about it’s approach. Towards the trashier end of the spectrum, well, Charles Stross’s the Atrocity Archive was a briliant fusion of Cthulu mythos (of which I was unacquainted with in terms of actually reading the stories until this year) and Len Deighton, highly recommended. I also kind of liked John Creed’s Black Cat Black Dog, a thriller set in the North. But then again I didn’t (like, what’s happened to proof reading this century?), so buyer beware. The various offerings by Alastair Reynolds, Ken Macleod and Peter F. Hamilton, respectively weren’t to my mind as quite as good as previous works but readable nonetheless.
Speaking of books, for those of us based in Dublin the new Chapters on Parnell Street has opened and as a more than usually helpful staff member said to me, it’s the largest independent bookshop in Ireland or the UK. They’re moving their second hand section in over the next couple of days and after that the Middle Abbey Street shop closes. It’s well worth a look.

Films. Of those I saw only a couple really stood out. United 93 was, as noted previously, remarkable. A Scanner Darkly was – to my mind – one of the most interesting films I’ve ever seen. Looking beyond Rob Lowe and Keeanu Reeves performances and just seeing how it messed around with form and somehow was entirely true to the original work was astounding. Goodnight and Good Luck, while really just on the cusp of 2005/6 remained for me another brilliant snapshot, more suited in many ways to the stage than cinema and yet just perfect as a short and thoughtful consideration of the very real dangers of political rhetoric in democratic societies. Miami Vice was pretty good, but sort of flawed. So, Mr. Mann, no change there then…And, yeah, there’s a stack of films from this year I’ve still to see.

Music. Ah, well, by now you’ll know I’m shameless in my retrospectivity and ability to listen to almost anything, although as someone once pointed out to me there’s a difference between eclectic and undiscriminating taste. I signed up with a subscription based MP3 provider early this year and – to be honest – haven’t regretted it once. Granted this provider is one that deals in independent record labels and such like, so of course I’d be happy. Anyhow, what did I like?

Well, a couple of new albums have really impressed me. The White Rose Movement, I Love You but I’ve chosen Darkness, Big Spaceship, VNV Nation, Dykehouse, Airiel and currently I’m listening a lot to Motorhead’s latest release. And of the older stuff, I’ve managed to get much of the Fall’s back catalogue, a heap of shoegazing bands from the last ten years, and realised that my iPod just isn’t big enough. Guilty pleasure? Fields of the Nephilim.

On media, I know I bang the drum for KCRW, but really, can you afford not to listen to it? Little Atoms has been great, even when the interviewees have not. The Daily Show has been good, if perhaps not quite good enough for daily viewing, I’ve purchased the odd issue of the New Statesman and New Scientist, but Scientific American, Prospect and Analog remain must reads. Blogs? They’re all to the right of the screen, no reason to say more.

Finally a small word of thanks to my comrades on this blog mbari, joemomma, franklittle and smiffy, and to those of you who have contributed to discussions and thoughts, and to anyone else who is just passing through and been good enough to pass the time here.

And after that? Well, who knows what 2007 will bring – rocket shoes and holidays to Jupiter perhaps. If not, mines a Beamish.

Le Gach Dea-Ghuí Don Nollaig agus don Athbhliain

Nollaig Shona Daoibh.

Honey I shrunk my mind…or the unusual joy of pseudo-science. August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in H.P. Lovecraft, Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction, Skepticism, Uncategorized.

Put something about pseudo-science in front of me and I’ll read it avidly. UFO’s, ancient civilisations, paranormal phenomena, I love ’em all and believe not a word. Partly it’s because it would be great if there were real evidence of contact with aliens, partly because there’s a sort of allure about ancient knowledge, partly because it’s always interesting to discover what people believe in and why. The psychology of belief and (seeming) experience is remarkable. Maybe it’s also because science is at its best when it’s tested . No methodological framework is beyond testing, but it has to be said science seems to hold up fairly well.

Anyhow I like to flatter myself that I’ve heard it all, evidence that the moon landings were a hoax, evidence of alien activities on the moon and Mars, alien landings, the Nephilim as progenitors of civilisation (actually that one is great because if you have even a nodding acquaintance to the Fields of the Nephilim you can use them as the soundtrack to your browsing – ignoring the Lovecraftian nonsense on the second and third albums, like you base your lyrics on an invented mythos by a writer of early 20th century horror, natch!).

But no. I was wrong, I really haven’t heard it all.

Ever heard of the Expanding Earth hypothesis? I hadn’t until about a week ago. That’s the one where people have looked at the shape of the continents and decided that while they interlock quite well, it requires an Earth some 40% smaller in order for them to interlock perfectly. And the added bonus is an even more intriguing theory. That gravity was once much lesser than it is now and that was what allowed the dinosaurs to grow to such great sizes because as any fule kno’s they couldn’t possibly have stood upright under the prevailing gravity.

Exciting stuff I think you’ll agree. There are unfortunately problems of course. Foremost amongst them is the slight inconvenience that there is no evidence that the Earth has expanded. For example such expansion would have seriously impacted on the orbit of the Moon and so we could hope to see some evidence there. The motive force behind such an expansion doesn’t appear to exist. Nor do we see any evidence that other planets expand in such a fashion.

The gravity problem is even greater. A better argument could be made that for the gravity to be lower in the past the Earth would need to be larger and therefore we live on a shrinking Earth! I won’t even go into the biology of just why most scientists in the field are reasonably content that dinosaurs could stand up on their own (usually) four feet.

Earlier this year I was at a talk about themes in science fiction and fantasy where a guy called James P Hogan who has had a career as a fairly successful writer of mainstream SF, was part of a panel talking about mythological creatures. He brought it around to his favourite issue which is that of ‘catastrophist’ theory, basically the idea that there have been cataclysmic events on Earth and in the Solar System within historical time. Some of these are attributed to Venus being a sort of comet expelled by Saturn or Jupiter in the last 3000 years or so (much of this was first suggested by Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian emigre in the US) which blundered about the inner solar system causing amongst other events, the Biblical plagues, floods, earthquakes, and sundry other unpleasant events. For more see here.
He too believes in the lower gravity/bigger dinosaur hypothesis. But wait…that’s not all. He believes that science is trammelled by adherence to an orthodoxy perpetuated by scientists too blinkered to look outside their own narrow disciplines and afraid of fitting the facts to their theories.
My problem with all of this is that, as with the expanding earth concept, it’s very much a case of look at the facts then attempt to find the most extreme, albeit (and this is significant) entertaining and conceptually extravagant, possible cause to explain them.

Hogan is a pleasant character and clearly extremely intelligent, so it’s difficult to understand quite why he believes this stuff. However a visit to his website suggests that he’s shifting into darker territory since he now proclaims his belief in the ‘theories’ of those who cast doubt on the veracity of the Holocaust such as Arthur Butz and Mark Weber and he says that ‘…I find their case more scholarly, scientific, and convincing than what the history written by the victors says. So I suppose that expressing such skepticism makes me a guilty party too.’

Hogan, who is basically a libertarian and absolutely not an anti-semite, is presumably coming at this from the position of a free-thinking slayer of scientific shibboleths and perhaps a belief in freedom of speech. Well and good, or no, not so well and good. It’s hard not to feel that too great a detachment from the tedious old mainstream can lead intellectually to some very unusual places indeed.

Unfortunately there’s more than a trace of the old GK Chesterton saw ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.’

Substitute a sensible scepticism for God…and – well – you get the idea.

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