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Interesting Links for 21-10-2016

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Baptism and family

Yesterday I became a godfather for the second time. My cousin L had a baby boy, E, in June. He was christened in the same robe worn by Sean Murray, grandfather to both me and L, when he was baptised over a century ago, in an Ireland still under British rule. (Many later additions to his family subsequently wore the robes for their baptisms, including me.)

Our grandfather lived to become the second most important civil servant in the Irish state and died suddenly in October 1976, leaving nine children by two marriages. My grandmother had died in 1946, shortly after the youngest of her four children was born. My grandfather's second wife bore him five more children and survived him by two decades, until Christmas Day 1998. (They all three rest together now in Deansgrange cemetery.) My mother is the oldest of the nine (two of whom we have sadly lost in recent years); I am the oldest of the 22 grandchildren. (For completeness: my father had only one sister, who had no children. My paternal grandfather, however, was one of fifteen, and that's where it gets really complicated.)

My daughter B, who turned 19 in June, is the oldest of Sean Murray's 24 (so far) great-grandchildren, though not by much; L's niece K, born a few months later, is now 18 and (like my son F) in her last year in school and pondering university options. I was thrilled to be asked to be little E's godfather, and also delighted that his first cousin K is his godmother. It seemed nicely symmetrical that the oldest of the grandchildren, and the oldest great-grandchild who is able to do so, should take lead roles together in a rite of passage for one of the newest additions to the family.

I say one of the newest, because in fact three of my other first cousins have had babies this year, two of them since little E was born. The most recent baby of the lot is my first godson's fourth child. (I was a 14-year-old godfather; now I am 49. My first godson's godmother is one of our mutual aunts.) I don't know (and it's none of my business) if he or the others have decided to have their children baptised, and if so, if they have decided to have relatives as godparents. We ourselves broke with family tradition and asked friends of own generation to do the honours for our three. At the same time, I can see a strength to using the baptismal godparent/godchild relationship to slightly subvert and cut across the ordinary family ties of age and affinity.

I no longer count myself as a practicing Catholic, but I'm relaxed about participating in events like this. It is probably a tradition as old as humanity to have a welcoming ceremony for a new addition to the wider family, including the designation of special sponsors for the child in its later life; and whatever its other faults, the church in Ireland is at least still capable of implementing these rituals competently. In most of the country, it would be quite time-consuming to find or create an alternative, and it's entirely legitimate to go with the local institution that has been providing baptismal rites in Ireland since 432 AD. And I'm very glad to have been standing there with little E, with his first cousin K, with his mother L, with his father (another E), and to just say in public that we would be looking out for him.

Saturday reading

Late due to crappy wifi in hotel.

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in honour of Jack Vance, eds. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
SPQR, by Mary Beard
Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

Last books finished
Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington
Winter Song, by Colin Harvey
The Joy Device, by Justin Richards

Next books
AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, ed. Nnedi Okorafor
Kings of the North, by Cecelia Holland
Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany, by Neil Gaiman

Books acquired in last week
A Short Guide to Irish Science Fiction, by Jack Fennell
Jerusalem, by Alan Moore
Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, vol 1 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
The Great Glowing Coils of the Unierse: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, vol 2 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
A Cold Day In Hell, by Simon Furman et al
Brain Fetish, by Kinga Korska

Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Thus a shrill voice, to his ears hideously different from that other, interrupted and dispersed his visions. Little Jane, his ten-year-old sister, stood upon the front porch, the door open behind her, and in her hand she held a large slab of bread-and-butter covered with apple sauce and powdered sugar. Evidence that she had sampled this compound was upon her cheeks, and to her brother she was a repulsive sight.
Seventeen: A Tale Of Youth And Summer Time And The Baxter Family Especially William was the best-selling novel in America a hundred years ago, in 1916. If its author is remembered at all today, it is for The Magnificent Ambersons which came out in 1918, won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted to become an Orson Welles film in 1942. Seventeen was also filmed, in 1940, starring Jackie Cooper and Betty Field though not in their best known roles. (I note that one of the minor parts is played by a "Hal Clement"; presumably not the sf author, who would have been a Harvard undergraduate in 1940.)

Anyway, it is the story of seventeen-year-old William Baxter of an unnamed town in Indiana (though Tarkington was an Indianapolis man), during a summer when the lovely Lola Pratt comes to stay with the neighbours, and William along with the other seventeen-year-old boys of the neighbourhood decides to pay court to her.

I was rather turned off by the book at first because William is pretty callow even for a seventeen-year-old in literature, and Lola, whose entire conversation consists of baby talk with her dog, is even worse. There's also some good ol' racism in the treatment of the local black odd-job man, Genesis. But actually once I got into it, I started to appreciate some of the characters a bit more - William's mother, who tries to mediate between her son's actuakl and perceived needs, and especially Lola's host, Mr Parcher, who is at the sharp end of observing her infantile behaviour and her court of admirers. There's a lovely moment for him at the end of Chapter 27, as the farewell party for Lola reaches its end:
 At half past one the orchestra played “Home, Sweet Home.” As the last bars sounded, a group of earnest young men who had surrounded the lovely guest of honor, talking vehemently, broke into loud shouts, embraced one another and capered variously over the lawn. Mr. Parcher beheld from a distance these manifestations, and then, with an astonishment even more profound, took note of the tragic William, who was running toward him, radiant—Miss Boke hovering futilely in the far background.
   “What’s all the hullabaloo?” Mr. Parcher inquired.
   “Miss Pratt!” gasped William. “Miss Pratt!”
   “Well, what about her?”
   And upon receiving William’s reply, Mr. Parcher might well have discerned behind it the invisible hand of an ironic but recompensing Providence making things even—taking from the one to give to the other.
   “She’s going to stay!” shouted the happy William. “She’s promised to stay another week!”
   And then, mingling with the sounds of rejoicing, there ascended to heaven the stricken cry of an elderly man plunging blindly into the house in search of his wife.
And even the treatment of Genesis improves, especially as William's annoying (but much more sensible) little sister Jane becomes an ally in subverting her brother's plans.

At the same time, it's curiously innocent in some ways. William's parents' worst fear is that he might take it into his head to elope with Lola and marry her, a possibility of which he is only vaguely aware and in which she appears utterly uninterested. The prospect of pregnancy (let alone contraception) is simply not mentioned, except when Genesis reminisces to the uncomprehending Jane and William about his early life. (Later in 1916, Joyce published a book in which his teenage protagonist has sex.) Although William and his rivals are supposedly in their later teens, they are somewhat infantilised - and Lola even more so. And the author's humour at the expense of Youth tends uncomfortably towards sneering rather than gentle.

Anyway, I've read this, so you don't have to. It is mercifully short.

Front cover is very dull so this is the poster of the 1940 film.

The Peterloo Massacre, by Paul Magrs

Second line of third episode:
The Fifth Doctor: "Cathy? From Hurley Hall…?"
A straight historical story from the pen of Paul Magrs, dealing with the infamous attack on protesters in Manchester on 16 August 1819 by what we would now call security forces, in which 15 people are known to have died (though the real number was probably more). I realised writing this that I walked through the scene of the attack in central Manchester every day over the Easter weekend while at Mancunicon - it took place roughly where the Radisson Blu Edwardian is now, and I was staying down Oxford Street which turns into Peter Street as you approach the city centre.

Other reviewers have raved about this as being one of the best Big Finish plays for years. I can't quite rise to that level of enthusiasm - I liked it well enough, and I thought Peter Davison in particular nailed his Doctor's moral outrage very well, and Sutton and Fielding also strongly rise to the occasion. The soundscape of early nineteenth-century England is also very well realised from the technical viewpoint. But I found it all a bit didactic, and yet not quite delivering the substance of what the protesters were protesting about; I also wasn't completely satisfied by the impact of the massacre on the contemporary characters in the final episode. Chacun à son goût.

The Dinner, by Hermann Koch

Second paragraph of third chapter:
I was standing in the doorway to his room. He wasn't there. But let's not beat around the bush: I knew he wasn't there. He was in the garden, fixing the back tire of his bike.
This is a novel about an uncomfortable family meal in Amsterdam (which I read, with impeccable timing, immediately after a weekend in Amsterdam with my siblings and mother). Serge is in the running to be the next prime minister; Paul, the narrator, has become aware of a heinous crime that their sons committed; their wives Claire and Babette are in the conversation; the dinner is interrupted at various points in various ways; the technology of the mobile phone plays a key part in the narrative. It's intense and a bit unpleasant, but gripping reading. I often find unreliable narrators a bit annoying, but this one worked for me.

This was both the most popular unread book I acquired in 2016 and the most popular unread non-genre work of fiction on my shelves. Next on those lists, respectively, are V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and The Innocent Man by John Grisham.
I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago to get a letter from our local university, informing me that I am one of 3,000 randomly selected residents of Belgium who is invited to participate in the European Social Survey, a multinational project to discover what the Plain People of Europe Really Think. (I note that 3,000 is more or less the square root of the total population.)

Last time round, Belgians gave our health service the highest score of any country's respondents. I had looked at the previous questionnaire and was expecting to answer questions about television and drinking habits, but they were not asked this year. Instead there was a substantial section on energy policy and climate change, as well as the core questions about politics (including immigration) and general well-being.

Obviously I am a bit of an outlier on various important metrics, but I guess that they will average my answers in with the other 2,999 across Belgium, and indeed the others across Europe, and come up with the necessary statistics comparing Belgium with the other 24 participating countries. The whole process lasted an hour and a quarter - probably went quicker because I had done my homework - and is probably the longest conversation I have had in Dutch for many many years. (The interviewer complimented me on my taalkennis.) I am already looking forward to seeing how my answers correlate with those of the population as a whole.

I hope the UK stays in this initiative post-Brexit - non-EU states have always participated, but of course this project means engaging with experts, some of them foreign, so I guess we can't take it for granted.

Saturday reading

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in honour of Jack Vance, eds. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Winter Song, by Colin Harvey
SPQR, by Mary Beard
The Joy Device, by Justin Richards

Last books finished
Short Trips: The Solar System, ed. Gary Russell
Companion Piece, by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

Last week's audios
And You Will Obey Me, by Alan Barnes
The Victorian Age, by AK Benedict

Next books
AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, ed. Nnedi Okorafor
Kings of the North, by Cecelia Holland
Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany, by Neil Gaiman

Books acquired in last week
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington
Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

Toch Een Geluk, by Barbara Stok

Second frame of third page:

Barbara: "O tree, how can I achieve complete serenity?"

As previously noted, I'm a big fan of the Dutch graphic artist Barbara Stok, whose only work translated into English (so far) is her biography of Vincent van Gogh - I bought Toch Een Geluk (roughly, "It's Just As Well") at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Her work is generally autobiographical, ranging in length from a single frame to a half-dozen pages for individual pieces. In this 2016 volume she recounts incidents from her life around 2010 when she wrote and then published the van Gogh book - though in fact that occupies less than a quarter of the pages, the rest being about life with her partner Ricky (who is a new devlopment since the earlier books that I had read). Her humour is self-deprecating, her views on making the world a better place and being a better person mildly inspiring, and the art manages to convey a surprising amount of emotion and depth in a very cartoonish style. Toch Een Geluk is apparently now being translated into Korean (after the success of the van Gogh book there); I'm a bit surprised that no enterprising English-language publisher has picked up on her work yet.

Interesting Links for 07-10-2016

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Eventually [character] was moved by ambulance to a Sister Kenny Institute in Philadelphia, where, by this point in the summer, the epidemic was nearly as bad as it was in Newark and the hospital’s wards were so crowded that he was fortunate to get a bed. There the hot pack treatment continued, along with painful stretching of the contracted muscles of his arms and legs and of his back—which the paralysis had twisted—in order to “reeducate” them. He spent the next fourteen months in rehabilitation at the Kenny Institute, gradually recovering the full use of his right arm and partial use of his legs, though he was left with a twisted lower spine that had to be corrected several years later by a surgical fusion and a bone graft and the insertion of metal rods attached to the spine. The recuperation from the surgery put him on his back in a body cast for six months, tended day and night by his grandmother. He was at the Kenny Institute when President Roosevelt unexpectedly died, in April 1945, and the country went into mourning. He was there when defeated Germany surrendered in May, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, and when Japan asked to surrender to the Allies a few days later. World War II was over, his buddy Dave would be coming home unscathed from fighting in Europe, America was jubilant, and he was still in the hospital, disfigured and maimed.
I don't often post here these days about my work, but this is an exception. A month or so ago I was handed a new dossier - assisting Rotary in its campaign to eradicate polio worldwide, as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. It is worth noting that tremendous success has been achieved in this campaign. Polio is now endemic only in certain parts of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan; worldwide confirmed cases are now down to 26 in those three countries for the first nine months of this year, compared to 650 in 16 countries worldwide as recently as in 2011. It's entirely possible that polio could become the second major human disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated from the planet. (We are in a race with guinea worm. Rinderpest has already been eradicated, but it affects cattle rather than humans.)

We who were born in the developed world after 1955 have no memory of just how universal polio was, but the scars are around us if we care to look. An old friend in Belfast, who died last year, used a wheelchair for most of his life after surviving polio as a child in the 1940s. A relative, in her 70s now, similarly caught it as a child and recovered but with one leg permanently weakened. The list of famous polio survivors has some very surprising names on it, but the most striking thing about it is that it is so long. I enjoy all of the work that I do, but every minute that I spend helping Rotary's campaign has a special significance.

I was advised to read Nemesis, by Philip Roth, to help me get to grips with the problem. It's a short but very compelling book about an outbreak of polio among a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, in 1944. The central character has to deal with the consequences of the outbreak first at the playground he is supervising during the school holiday, then at the summer camp where his fiancé is working, then with the aftermath of recovery. The hot hot summer, and oppressive social context of a suburban society which is both subject to prejudice from the outside and rife with prejudice of its won, are vividly depicted, and it conveys better than any textbook possibly could the psychological impact of polio, both the general effects of any epidemic disease, and the specifics of this particular illness, viewed from more than fifty years later. It is actually the first Philip Roth novel that I have read, but it won't be the last.

I mistakenly thought that this was non-fiction when I bought it, and it zoomed to the top of my unread non-fiction pile. Next in that pile is SPQR, by Mary Beard.
Second paragraph of third story ("Retreat from Earth"):
So, forty million years after the last of the old ones had gone to his eternal rest, men began to rear their cities where once the architects of a greater race had flung their towers against the clouds. And in the long echoing centuries before the birth of man, the aliens had not been idle but had covered half the planet with their cities, filled with blind, fantastic slaves, and though man knew these cities, for they often caused him infinite trouble, yet he never suspected that all around him in the tropics an older civilisation than his was planning busily for the day when it would once again venture forth upon the seas of space to regain its lost inheritance.
I got this at the end of 2014 because I had had the idea of writing up three sfnal views of 2015 by Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein; these would have been the Asimov short story "Runaround", Clarke's original short story version of "Earthlight", and the Heinlein novel I Will Fear No Evil. However, I discovered that "Runaround" wasn't very interesting and I Will Fear No Evil wasn't set in 2015, and dropped the project before getting to "Earthlight". As it turns out, I liked the original version of "Earthlight" much more than the novel (which I reread only this summer); it much better constructed and pacier, and I would go so far as to call it the best discovery in the collection for me. However, I could also see why Clarke revised it so heavily for publication as a novel - the science had dated really rather rapidly after the 1951 publication. It's a shame that he took most of the steam out of it.

Otherwise this was mostly a reunion with old friends - almost all of the best stories by Clarke have been printed elsewhere in other collections that I own or have read, and one can see certain themes rise and fall (a lot of unsuccessful marriages at one point). I had not previously read many of the Tales from the White Hart, and I fear I did not have cause to regret that lapse. I was struck by how concentrated Clarke's successful story-writing career actually was, despite his longevity: the first really good story is probably "The Fires Within", from 1947, and then there is a steady rate of production with 87 stories in total from there up to "A Meeting With Medusa" in 1971; then the last stories are from 1977, 1984, two in 1986, 1992, 1997 and 1999, which is about one every four years on average.

But the good stuff remains very good, and it's nice to revisit material that had a formative effect on my thinking as I grew up, even if its limitations in terms of gender representation are a bit more obvious to me now.

This was both the most popular book acquired in 2014 on my shelves, and also the most popular unread sf book. next on both lists is Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch.

Second line of third episode:
Hargreaves: Yes, Miss?
Another audio story with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa, written by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris (who wrote the brilliant Scarifyers, starring Nicholas Courtney and Terry Molloy, a few years back). It's a nice isolated space ship story: the TARDIS arrives to find the human crew mysteriously absent, and the genteel but strangely forgetful robot Hargreaves (played charmingly by Matthew Cottle, who I remember from Game On twenty years ago) more or less in charge. The captain, when she eventually turns up, is played by Nina Sosanya who was brilliant in a very different role as Trish in the TV episode Fear Her, and is also good here though with less opportunity to show it. The plot is decently intricate, with parallel time lines and false memories, though some of the black hole stuff doe not stand up to scientific analysis. Of the regulars, Sarah Sutton is given some particularly good material to work with and does it well.

However, my inner linguistic pedant winced a couple of times - in his first scene, Cottle as Hargreaves mangles "Sangiovese" (as in the wine) out of all recognition, and the mad Russian scientist played by Harry Myers does not seem to have learned Russian from anyone who had ever heard a native speaker.

Still, it's good fun with some very chilling moments.

Unquenchable Fire, by Rachel Pollack

Second paragraph of third chapter:
After the liberation of Vera Cruz, Miracle Of The Green Earth (in beauty and truth lives his name forever) saw that the people needed to break with the past. He sent each one a dream in which a yellow dog whispered, 'Break down the storehouses, burn the food, the world begins today.' When the people woke up they piled all their food in the streets and burned it. Then they ran to destroy groceries, silos, even the crops waiting in the fields. When they had finished they stood swaying in the morning rain, listening to the wind blowing through their empty stomachs.
I thought this was great. It's set in a near-future world where spiritual forces have taken over, for good and ill, and Jenny from Poughkeepsie becomes pregnant from a dream. It is somewhere between Philip K. Dick and Ted Chiang, though closer to Dick, with a distinct slant of feminist spirituality. There is a lot of vivid language and exploration of the underlying myths (which may be real) of Jenny's world. It's not at all the sort of thing one associates with Arthur C. Clarke's writing (on which more soon) but it is definitely in line with his intellectual interests in later years, and I can see how the judges might have decided to give it the nod.

Unquenchable Fire won the third Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1989 (after The Handmaid's Tale and The Sea and Summer). Of the other shortlisted books, I have read only Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard, which can't remember much about though I think it was not quite as good as this. (Life During Wartime and another shortlisted novel were also on the BSFA shortluist that year; one of the other shortlisted books won the Kurd Laßwitz Preis; another won a prize for books about vampires; none was a finalist for the Hugo or Nebula, won respectively by Cyteen and Falling Free.) Pollack's most extensive writing has been not sf but on the Tarot; she also wrote 24 issues of the comic book Doom Patrol.

My next prize-winning novel will be that year's BSFA winner - Lavondyss, by Robert Holdstock.

Second paragraph of third chapter (on the Hereford Mappamundi):
[Archbishop of Canterbury John] Pecham was particularly concerned about bringing the Welsh clergy into line on the issue of pluralism. This was as much a political as a religious matter. Throughout the 1270s and 1280s King Edward [I] was involved in a long and bitter conflict with independent Welsh rulers in an attempt to incorporate the realm within England. Situated in the Marches (border regions) between England and Wales, the diocese of Hereford represented the furthest extent of English political and ecclesiastical authority, and Pecham was keen to ensure it abided by his reforms. While [Bishop of Hereford Thomas] Cantilupe remained loyal to King Edward on political matters, he rejected Pecham's attempts to challenge pluralism and other practices deeply embedded in English religious life, and resisted the archbishop's attempts at reforming his diocese. Matters came to a head in February 1282, when the Archbishop dramatically excommunicated Cantilupe at Lambeth Palace. The disgraced bishop went into exile in France, and by March 1282 was heading to Rome, to make a direct appeal to Pope Martin IV against his excommunication.
This is the sort of history of science that I very much approve of, taking twelve well-known historical maps and weaving around them the story of how cartography has changed in line with political needs and technological developments.

There are actually thirteen maps discussed in detail rather than twelve (though The Atlantic's review has a good overview of the twelve):
  1. The oldest known map, a cuneiform tablet from Babylon
  2. Ptolemy's Geography
  3. Al-Idrīsī's Tabula Rogeriana
  4. the Hereford Mappamundi
  5. the Korean Kangnido
  6. Martin Waldseemüller's map, the first to use the word "America"
  7. Diogo Ribeiro's world map, which helped Spain to claim the moluccas
  8. Mercator's world map
  9. Blaeu's Atlas
  10. the Cassini dynasty's mapping of France
  11. Halford Mackinder's geopolitical thesis
  12. the Peters Projection
  13. and Google Earth.
It's arguable that this represents only a partial snapshot of the history of the world - geographically, most of these are from within the European/Middle Eastern space, and chronologically three are from the sixteenth century and another two from the centuries immediately before and after. But I think it's legitimate for a London-based Professor of Renaissance Studies to write about what he knows, while pointing out that there are also other times and places which the interested reader can go and find out more about.

Brotton is particularly good at unpicking the ideological choices made by mapmakers at all periods, explaining how the demands of the reader / viewer / customer / patron impact on what is actually shown, and chiseling away at any concept of a perfectly representative map. For those of us who were exposed to the sociology of knowledge at an impressionable age, it's a good bit of re-education. His deconstruction of the more distant cultures in time and space sets him up nicely for brutal dissections of Halford Mackinder and the Peters Projection, and also sets the scene for the last chapter's interrogation of Google Earth. What we see on the map is what the map-maker has chosen to show us - not what is actually there.

This was the top non-fiction book recommended by you guys last year. Next on that list is Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, by David Kynaston.

Interesting Links for 02-10-2016

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