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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn

13apr2017

cropContinuing on my delving into 2 year old archives hugo/nebula slate splurge, Annihilation the first of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff vanderMeer showed up, and having no energy to make art, I read this book instead. I should start out by saying stories featuring not-terrifically-likeable people with understated character development are not my favorite. Though the book is sometimes categorized as atmospheric horror, it's not the sort of story to ratchet up tension till you're to the edge of your seat. Haunting, or melancholy would be the words I'd use to describe the overall mood. The cover, by the way, is striking, because though it's fairly plain—white with a vaguely menacing plant-like drawing—on the outside, the inside is acid yellow with horror-vacui organic drawings. I've not seen anything like that, particularly for mass-market paperback design in years if not decades, and found it striking and apropos.

Told in the form of a first person, real-time journal, Anniliation documents the experiences of a member of a four person team sent into a mysterious ‘Area X’, the eleventh such team, all of which have failed, one way or another, to ultimately survive their expedition. Nameless throughout the story, the viewpoint character, who calls herself merely ‘the biologist’, details the slow unwinding of the team as it interacts with a mysterious, belowground artifact she calls a tower and everyone insists is a tunnel, set amid a beautiful and ecologically varied region featuring pine forests, salt marshes and the seashore: their main landmark is an old lighthouse.

The biologist, who gradually reveals her broken upbringing and failed past relationships, both professional and personal, is fascinated by tide pools, those intersections—edges—between land and water. Misanthropic and deeply reserved, she's endlessly fascinated by the little lives she studies, to the point of naming and recognizing individual creatures within. More alert readers than I will have the pleasure of linking her descriptions of these, a la James Tiptree Jr., to the various landscape weirdnesses, such as alien fungal messages continually being (re)written in fungi upon the interior tunnel/tower walls.

Ultimately, however, the story is about the narrator; her transformations, and our transforming perceptions of her. I thought the book well done (and the author's love of a nature preserve, which obviously sat as the model for the setting, was very clear); but I couldn't help thinking of Frederick Pohl's hugo award winning Gateway (and its sequel) Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, or, particularly, Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon and Octavia Butler's Imago (i.e. Lilith's Brood) trilgoy. All were, for me, deeply memorable books, and, of course, some of the very best in the field. —All were also character studies, of misfits drawn to the alien, perhaps in part from having failed their human beloveds. How much of my preference simply stems from my reading the older books during more impressionable years is hard to say, but worse case scenario of being not quite as good as that is a strong recce.

I certainly plan on reading the next Southern Reach book!

Update, 8Apr17: Actually, I read the entire trilogy; just as I read the entire Ancillary trilogy; both, I think, are very good, but as Abigail Nussbaum (whose comments on this stuff are unsurprisingly very sophisticated, as she's been doing this long & well enough to garner multiple hugo award noms) notes, sticking the landing with trilogies is really hard —even if you're as gifted as Leckie or Vandermeer.

Braids are much easier.

12apr2017

cropSince I've been digging up art from the archives, so too intros. Here's a perfectly serviceable one from 2015; and in fact Ana Mardoll is still busily working on this series, in a much more consistent manner than I could said to be!

Mardoll writes interesting deconstructions, a la Fred Clark (who if he's not the founder of this little internet cottage industry, is at leasts its primary midwife and longest running exemplar—I think he's all the way up to book three of Left Behind (a 12 book series) and he's been at it for well over a decade.)

Mardoll tends to focus on fantasies, though I also found her series on the Little House of the Prairie illuminating. Some of her targets, such as the appalling xanth books (which I too read back in my teen years) are simply a matter of shooting fish in a barrel, deserving only of scorn for their disgusting misogyny. (Anyone wondering why so many sf&f fans of the female persuasion of my generation went for the honorary boy syndrome has only to peruse these books: if women were so awful, then obviously, it was better to be someone else. Thus, what are now called chill girls, I guess.)

But perhaps my favorite decon is of Narnia. Like Mardoll herself, as well as many of her commentariat, I loved and reread these books avidly as a child. (An a-religiously reared friend of the f2’s generation felt her education was lacking, as she'd barely heard of these books; but despite the fact that once I discovered the christian symbolism I automatically took it to be Catholic, I stumbled across these books not via my parents or their faith, but was introduced to them at a Reading is FUNdamental event—one of those public service thingies where children were given (or allowed to purchased for a nominal sum) books, and, being a fan of fairy tales, I picked up The Dawn Treader which remains my favorite. The 70s had its problems, and now of course the internet provides those children with access to it a fountain of material, but I think it meant something that adults felt kids—and reading—were important enough to give them new free books.)

Mardoll has a number of sharp observations to make about the series I hadn't, till that point, really thought much about, excepting the generally accepted modern wisdom that Susan got a raw deal. In much the way certain corners of Potter fancrit made Dumbledore into a villain (and sometimes Snape into the ‘hero’) Mardoll tried to suggest that the ‘good guys’ in general of these books often were not so much, with Aslan in particular being singled out for excoriation, with the putative villains, such as Jadis, being not that bad.

Because the combination of daylight savings time and suddenly warmer temperatures are playing hob with my circadian rhythms, I've been in that low-energy fog, and so recently returned to the Narnian decons: Mardoll is up to book 4, The Silver Chair. She's already covered some of the giant assumptions of the series, the first being,

Why are tween kids being made rulers of competent (albeit non-human) adults? Even if the animals are incompetent owing to lack of tech (which I admit is a colonialist attitude) and the fauns and nymphs and what not are “too flighty” there's still centaurs, which are generally considered wise, with suitable gravitas for running things. Shouldn't the (adult) Narnians be running their own land?

Well of course. Mardoll also comes with an intriguing explanation for the 100 years of winter the White Witch Jadis has inflicted upon Narnia at the start of the first book: Jadis is trying to make the best of a bad situation, by rendering the country unattractive and inaccessible to southern, more technologically advanced (read: human) aggressors. This sort of ‘flipping’ of intepretation was what made reading Harry Potter crit so much fun, and I was happy to play along.

However, I found that I play by somewhat different rules than Mardoll, in that I'm perfectly happy to switch from Watsonian to Doylanian perspectives to settle my cognitive dissonances: that is, I step out of the universe to an outside (authorial) viewpoint. Lucy and her sibs become the kings and queens of Narnia because C.S. Lewis, the author, originally conceived the story as a fairytale for his god-daughter (or niece) and so of course she was the heroine in it. The animals and Greek mythological creatures that populate Narnia became their subjects mostly because of the demands of fairy-tales/children's stories, in which the kids get to have mondo agency.

I don't think Mardoll would disagree with me here: she starts her deconstruction by noting how the series follows classic children's literature (e.g. four protags, and their leadership/nuturing/bratty/innocent roles, respectively); and anyone who's read this stuff will have noted that parents/teachers/guardians/adults-in-general are either absent or awful—otherwise, they'd be in charge.

In fact Narnia's problems, it seems to me, comes out of understandable, but conflicting authorial desires: on the one hand, Lewis desires to write a classic children's story (which is successful enough that he writes 6 more of them) in fairy tale format, with religious—allegorical—overtones. In classic children's stories, they, not adults, are in charge, and given that this is a fantasy aimed at a rather powerless segment of society, it's even more delish that said protags get to be in charge not only of their destiny, but of other [adults]. But of course, this isn't going to work, even on a fantasy level, unless those adults have a good reason to slot the kids in, and so, looking around for an acceptable demographic, Lewis picks a) talking animals and b) mythological Greek creatures, who at the time he was writing, could be by virtue of their race ahem, species, of lower, that is, non-ruling, caste.

Now, of course, as Ana Mardoll points out, we consider that sort of thing racism. (She and her commentariat note the breathtaking racism of earlier authors such as Burroughs; Lewis is a considerable improvement.) As a child being told always what to do—and Lewis was of an era when people still promulagated the children should be seen and not heard thing, doing the topsy turvy had to be enormously appealing. Children like playing the boss. So I don't think the animals are meant to be thinly disguised people of color; I think they're instead supposed to be a socially acceptable alternative. Of course, now that we seem to be slowly moving to a model of ‘positive parenting’, in which even very young children have significantly more agency in their lives, this fantasy may not appeal as much.

In much the same way, if an author presents me with a world in which there's been a 100 years of winter and never any Christmas, and yet people are eating sausages and marmalade, it's pretty obvious that a) I'm in a fairy tale, for which ordinary laws of physics do not apply (after a 100 years of winter, even the hardiest trees would have exhausted their winter stores, and all the animals save perhaps the tiniest of worms would have long since starved.) Therefore, the denizens of this world are living harsh, but not unendurable lives—I rather pictured this as the Narnian equivalent of living in a harshly authoritarian regime (like the way some people have described North Korea, or the USSR.)

Where Lewis gets into trouble is attempting to reconcile the absent-adult children's story with the christian symbolism: many people have pointed out the difficulty of an omniscient, benevolent, all-powerful god— especially in a story like this, when such a character is putatively a wise, gentle and powerful leader. (This is why Dumbledore as a powerful force for good was so problematic: if he were truly that powerful, he never should have exposed Harry to such danger; if he were even a competent headmaster, he certainly should've never allowed such dangers as ‘Third Corridor’ or ‘Forbidden Forest’ on campus, let alone the abuse he allowed some teachers to heap on their students [Snape, Moody] or permitted the incompetence of others to continue for years on end [e.g. Binns, Trelawney])

Aslan, as a god-substitute, is even harder to shoehorn into this role than Dumbledore, who at least could be a fallible human. Yet, just about all of Lewis’ fiction had these strong christian overtones, so asking him to dump that aspect of the narrative seems uncharitable at best, and demanding the author be untrue to himself at worst.

But it does mean that Lewis has set himself up a nigh-impossible task, both theologically, as well as narratively.

Take, for example, Mardoll's suggestion that Aslan, instead of terrifying Jill Pole at the beginning of The Silver Chair, and having her learn these vague 4 “signs” that he comfort and reassure her, instead of threatening her:

That might be just the thing a kind and benevolent god ought to do, instead of castigating her for pride (showing off); but fairy tales, the other half of this story's structure, are not about well-behaved children who never show off or fail to show remorse at their peers’ failings. The sort of powerful character who usually hands out such vague hints does so for the same reason the better sort of computer solitaire games do: because you want to do it yourself, but need a little help, not the answer in toto.

As a child, I could more readily identify with the sometimes bullied, and sometimes thoughtless (verging into heartless) Jill, who wants to one-up Eustace, who has a rep as a bully, and has, since the beginning of the story, been the one in charge. Yes, it's all very well, to be helped to escape bullies and possibly be shown something very cool, but it's also maddening to always be the supplicant.

So what about Aslan, who seems to be giving a Jill a not-entirely deserved lecture, finishing off with a bunch of annoying hints, instead of plain instructions? As a child, he worked relatively well as a powerful sorcerer with more or less goodwill for you (so long as you made a strong, good-faith effort)—because that's the underlying theme of most fairytales: in some sense, the protagonist has screwed up (occasionally just been dealt a really bad hand). Those ‘screwups’ weren't always just—wishing, for example, to live as a human rather than a mermaid (i.e. leave your culture for someone else's)—but they are, in the context of fairytales, a price that must be paid, redeemed by the protag's collection of plot coupons.

An all-benevolent god makes no sense to me, anyways: there's way too much cruelty in the world to justify such a being. So I did what I usually do when confronted with these un-reconcilable conflicts: accept that the worldbuilding, as set up, is imperfect (pretty much a guarantee with any worldbuilding, if you dig long enough, frankly) and move on. One of the pleasures of being an adult is holding two or three (conflicting) interpretations of a given work in your head at the same time—which is why I enjoy reading deconstructions/litcrit/analysis so much.

And here we have two braids for the price of one.

11apr2017

cropToday's non-political bonus is brought courtesy of a correspondent who sent me a link to this very cool 3D printed honeycomb object. I should note, the image is not a photograph, but rather CGI. This isn't the first time I've featured run across cool stuff like this; I especially like this outfit because a) it uses Open Source and b) it relates back to some really beautiful prosthetics.

I myself am not terribly gifted with 3D patterns, unless you count braids...

10apr2017

cropHi all. Happy Spring, for those of you enjoying snowdrops, crocus, squill, rock iris, chionodoxa and the like:) For various and assorted tedious reasons, I haven't got a lot of new material, but I do have a backlog of old stuff. Up this week, disk kumi, more or less (as far as I can determine) in chronological order.

20oct2016

cropVia boingboing (right now pretty much all my links are coming from them...) a vid by a guy investigating a math whiz's method for visualizing numbers. The prodigy sees numbers as geometric shapes that represent their prime composition. Math was never my strong suit, but every time I see math made into a visual pattern game, I get lots more excited about it. I wish I could've learned some variation of this approach for doing arithmatic!

One of the points that the narrator (Numberphile) makes is that kid is playing with math. This quality seems to be nearly universal to people who de interesting things with numbers, and I figured, given the role of triangles, I ought to link to that vihart Sierpinski vid again—except I found this halloween themed one instead, which seems completely appropriate, not only given the season, but also the extreme playfullness...

Or have a seasonally & only (very) slightly playful dead mouse.

19oct2016

cropToday, on a rather more upbeat note, a useful tip from another one of those little, socialist countries: how a simple mind/habit hack can prevent dooring cyclists. —A little background, for those of you not commuter (or urban) cyclists: most people riding bikes to and from work, or to the grocery store/bank/post office/etc typically go from 10–20 mph (I average about 12, which by the way is evidently also average for Amsterdam). All of those speeds are too great to ride on the sidewalk, because automobile drivers backing up treat all obstacles on sidewalks as essentially stationary, which is fine, as long as they're moving 5 mph (a little faster than walking pace) or less.

(Aside from the danger cyclists going at commuter speeds pose to pedestrians, strollers & dogs, for whom sidewalks are actually intended, of course.) Unless making a left turn, cyclists are typically mandated to stay to the right (where in fact bike lanes are usually positioned). Of course, if there is on-street parking, that will be to the right of the cyclist, with cars to the rider's left.

Well. You can imagine what happens when someone parks, opens their car door to get out and WHAM! over the handlebars the rider goes. This type of collision is common enough to have its very own name, ‘dooring’. Like telling people backing out of their driveways to watch for cyclists (or kids on those really speedy scooters) informing cyclists that they should ‘just watch for drivers’ is not terribly helpful—the last time it nearly happened to me, the car was murdered out (had all darkened side and rear windshield windows); even without that additional problem, it can be surprisingly difficult to tell whether a parked vehicle is occupied. (I usually can't: tail & brake-lights turning off are a more reliable clue, but not one I always catch.)

But the Dutch, who take their commuter cycling seriously, came up with a simple and very elegant hack to prevent this problem. The catch? It has do be done by the driver of the car, not the cyclist. Nevertheless it's so simple I thought I'd spread the word, because doing this could save a cyclist's life, or spare them a world of pain. Are you ready?

When in the driver's seat, open the door by reaching your right hand over to the door handle. This automatically causes you to twist your body so that you look behind you. Even if you're not very limber, you're more likely to notice your driver-side mirror, which can help cue you as to oncoming traffic. —That's it. (And you get a nice little shoulder & neck stretch into the bargain;)

Via boingboing, here's the Dutch Reach. Do please consider incorporating this into your driving routine. Aside from being less likely to door cyclists, it also strikes me (ahem) as a safer way to exit a car when traffic and on-street parking are uncomfortably tight (as for example on one of main streets.)

Oh, and continuing with the green theme, another green piece, a cat-head dead-mouse...