World Poetry Day Redux

by Maria on March 21, 2017

Five years ago, Ingrid wrote a post here for World Poetry Day. Many of CT’s commenters took her up on the invitation to “post poems, with or without translations, of our own making or borrowed from someone else.” The thread was one of the most remarkable we’ve ever had, including people’s favourite poems, own poems and own translations, and in several different languages. Here it is: Poems to Celebrate World Poetry Day.

Poetry can be so nationally-bounded, it’s always good, and quite revealing, to find other people’s geniuses. It often seems to travel abroad with a delay of a few decades, even between quite closely aligned cultures. For example, I’ve only seen Mary Oliver sold prominently in the UK in the past few years. Well known to many Americans, this one of hers is a jewel box of image and emotion, and continues to be both revelation and consolation to me.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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Ada Palmer’s Great Conversation

by Lee Konstantinou on March 20, 2017

Around a third of the way through the first book of Terra Ignota, Too Like the Lightning, we finally learn something of substance about the philosophy of the Utopians, one of the seven global Hives that dominate the Earth in Ada Palmer’s imagined twenty-fifth century.

There were hints before, but the truth finally struck me when Mycroft Canner meets two oddly named Utopians: Aldrin Bester and Voltaire Seldon. “Aldrin Bester,” Mycroft informs us in an aside is “a fine Utopian name lifted from their canon, as in the olden days Europe took its names from lists of saints.” The Utopians’ canon, of course, is the canon of science fiction. Voltaire belongs in that canon, Mycroft scrupulously reminds us, because of his 1752 novella “Micromégas,” which “makes him a candidate for the title of world’s first science-fiction author.” The Utopians, it turns out, are SF fans of the future, organized into one of the most powerful political organizations on the planet. A few years ago, Neal Stephenson called for a return to the “techno-optimism” of Golden Age and space age science fiction, expressing fears that we now live in “a world where big stuff can never get done.” (Where are our flying cars?) Palmer’s Utopians have turned Stephenson’s lament into an ideology, a way of life, and an identity. They control the Moon. They’re planning to colonize Mars (which turns out to be something of a big real estate grab, a threat to Mitsubishi, which owns most of the Earth). But more importantly, the Utopians are avatars of the imagination, ideologues of the future. [click to continue…]

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Raphael Crucifixion

by John Holbo on March 19, 2017

I want you to look at a picture and give me some responses to questions. The picture is Raphael’s so-called Mond Crucifixion. Here’s a large version. Kindly open it in another tab. Admire it for a minute in a mood of sophisticated discernment. (It’s a nice painting, so this shouldn’t be too painful.) Now stop looking at the picture and answer a few questions for me. Close the tab. Put the image from view. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Kingston Road, BS3

by Chris Bertram on March 19, 2017

Kingston Road, BS3

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Heroes and Aliens

by John Holbo on March 17, 2017

“I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.” – Thomas Carlyle [the real one, from an 1820 letter]

“So there I was, thinking: is this a space alien? Is this kid insane?” – Too Like The Lightning

‘¿How is the world weird lately?’
< you wouldn’t understand. > – Seven Surrenders

“You know I’m sincere, Caesar, in my way. I love the Eighteenth Century. I fell in love reading about it at the Senseminary, that great moment when humanity realized experiments didn’t just have to be done with the sciences, they could be done with morals and religion, too. I wanted to do that, run an experiment like the American experiment, or greater. I couldn’t resist the chance to finish what my heroes started, not just the humanitarians like the Patriarch and the Romantics like Jean Jacques, but the underbelly, La Mettrie, Diderot, De Sade. The Enlightenment tried to remake society in Reason’s image: rational laws, rational religion; but the ones who really thought it through realized morality itself was just as artificial as the artistocracy and theocracies they were sweeping away. Diderot theorized that a new Enlightened Man could be raised with Reason in place of conscience, a cold calculator who would find nothing good or bad beyond what his own analysis decided. They had no way to achieve one back then, but I did it. I raised an Alien.” – Seven Surrenders

This post will be something like a Thomas Carlyle style sampler – (un)commonplace book – for potential readers of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota novels. (You’ve never read Carlyle? That’s quite normal! We shall remedy the defect, slightly.) The Palmer-related point will be something like this. These novels are great! But very weird. She writes like she thinks she’s … Thomas Carlyle or something. That, or I don’t know what. (She doesn’t mention Carlyle by name in her “Author’s Note and Acknowledgement”, but she keeps naming characters after him.)

I don’t propose this as some secret key to the novels. I am sure there is no one Code at the root of it, waiting to be named ‘Carlyle’ (or anything else). But I am only one voice around the table here, so I hope a spot of overemphasis shall not be taken amiss. (Seldom have I read sf novels with so much philosophy packed in, which I’m not inclined to describe as having a philosophy, or being attempted thought-experiments. I mean that in the nicest way.)

I myself have a bit of a Carlyle bug in the ear — sf related one, even. When I teach “Philosophy and Science Fiction” I talk about H.G. Wells, The Time-Machine. (By the by, I must mention that Adam Roberts has been tearing it up, Wells-wise.) I talk about why there’s a sphinx. I talk about Oedipus and the Riddle. I have a bit to say about how maybe Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present — that chapter, “The Sphinx” — is of interest to students of the history of science fiction. Cosmic vision of looming, long-term Truth behind curtain of present life!

“How true … is that other old Fable of the Sphinx, who sat by the wayside, propounding her riddle to the passengers, which if they could not answer she destroyed them! Such a Sphinx is this Life of ours, to all men and societies of men … Nature, Universe, Destiny, Existence, howsoever we name this grand unnameable Fact in the midst of which we live and struggle, is as a heavenly bride and conquest to the wise and brave, to them who can discern her behests and do them; a destroying fiend to them who cannot. Answer her riddle, it is well with thee. Answer it not, pass on regarding it not, it will answer itself; the solution for thee is a thing of teeth and claws … With Nations it is as with individuals: Can they rede the riddle of Destiny? This English Nation, will it get to know the meaning of its strange new Today? Is there sense enough extant, discoverable anywhere or anyhow, in our united twenty-seven million heads to discern the same; valour enough in our twenty-seven million hearts to dare and do the bidding thereof? It will be seen!—”

We have Nietzschean science fiction, of course; Hegelian science fiction — Olaf Stapledon oughta hold you. Why not Carlyle-style sf?

Let’s start with my epigraphs, above. [click to continue…]

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Deal or No Deal

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2017

I was planning a post, looking at the Brexit negotiations in terms of game theory (more precisely, bargaining theory), but Frances Coppola has saved me the trouble. One reason for my hesitation was concerns similar to those expressed by Ariel Rubinstein, in a 2013 piece that seems to be having a bit of a revival lately. Still, whether or not game theory helps, I think Coppola has it about right.

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Hugo Suggestions 2017

by Henry on March 16, 2017

Time again (seeing as nominations close in a couple of days), for Hugo nominations suggestions, or, more precisely, an excuse to briefly talk about books that I read in the f/sf genre last year and liked a lot.

Best Novel

  • Paul McAuley – Into Everywhere. People in the US don’t read McAuley nearly as much as they should. This, together with his Something Coming Through, is as good as straight science fiction gets these days. I didn’t like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books nearly as much as his other work – these two books are less ambitious, but seem to me to capture better some of what Harrison was trying to do, in using near- and middle-far future science fiction to get at the tropes of consumer society. Sharp, drily funny if you read closely, and does for Childhood’s End what his Confluence books did for The Book of the New Sun. There is infinite hope, but not for us. If you haven’t read any McAuley, try his short story Reef, available for free online. If it gets on with you, the rest probably will too.
  • Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter. Again, I don’t think Hutchinson gets the attention he deserves in the US. But this – and the other two books before – are really quite brilliant about Europe, and England’s complicated attitudes to it. The first book, Europe in Autumn is still my favorite of the three, but this is extremely good too – spies, a Europe that has split up into hundreds of odd microstates, and an alternative universe in which the Home Counties have extended in a manner both sinister and avuncular to take over large parts of the globe.
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories. I really liked this for its combination of large scale politics and small scale personal history. It reminded me (despite differences in writing style, subject etc) of Maureen McHugh’s wonderful China Mountain Zhang in the interest that it takes in people’s lives.
  • Max Gladstone – Four Roads Cross. The latest in his Craft sequence of novels, which is available in its entirety for $12 on Kindle – a bargain that you probably won’t regret. Enormous fun, but also very interesting in its take on the politics of globalization (the previous book, Last First Snow very deliberately takes on the question of how the insights of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State could be transferred into a fantasy setting).

Also, two books that I don’t want to see nominated for Best Related Work, if only because they were both published in the UK in 2016, and US in 2017, and probably have better chances next year.

  • Edmund Gordon – The Invention of Angela Carter. I’ve loved Carter’s work since I first came across it – she’s one of the very few supserstars whom I would have loved to meet (I remember plotting as an undergraduate to go to a talk that she was going to give in Dublin; it was cancelled at short notice, because of what turned out to be her final illness). It’s surprising that we’ve had to wait so long for a biography, but this is a really quite wonderful one. It isn’t at all hagiographical (as the title suggests, she happily reinvented facts about herself and her family to come up with an identity that she felt she could get on with), but it conveys her strength, her intelligence, her contrariness and her warmth. I hadn’t realized that David Hume was such an influence on her work (not having read the novel that takes an epigraph from him), nor would I have ever suspected that William Trevor was an admirer of Carter’s work, given their differences of subject matter and style. If Carter wasn’t often formally identified as a genre writer, she was emphatically a fellow traveller, whose work both spoke to fantasy and borrowed from it.
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie. I only figured out who Mark Fisher was after he died last year. I’d read a couple of pieces he had written (especially his interview with Burial), and encountered many of his ideas at second hand, without ever properly realizing that there was a single person behind them. Now, I’m very sorry. This is a wonderful, odd, individual book, which brings together Alan Garner, the last series of Quatermass, M.R. James and others. I desperately want to argue with him, and write at him (it seems to me that his concept of the eerie is very helpful in understanding aspects of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which isn’t nearly as cosy as it appears to the superficial glance), but can’t.

As always, feel free to carp, disagree and (especially) make other suggestions for books worth reading in comments.

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In Good Hands

by Maria on March 16, 2017

You know that feeling about fifty pages into a novel you can tell you’re going to get along with? When you’re confident the various elements – character, plot, style – are going to be handled well, and the material is the right mix of familiar and challenging. When it’s about things you just find interesting. It’s quite a rare feeling, as an adult reader. It’s a call back to the cocooned and all-encompassing stimulation in the embrace of the books William Gibson calls a person’s native literary culture. That mix of feeling held and also working quite hard at it, but happily so. I had it recently, reading Becky Chambers’ The long way to a small, angry planet*. It was such a strong feeling that I took a pencil to write ‘in good hands’ in the margin.

I had the ‘in good hands’ feeling by page three of Too Like the Lightning (TltL). It begins at a brilliantly chosen moment of crisis that introduces great characters on the horns of a dilemma that underpins the story; how does a studiedly irreligious society cope with a miracle? TLtL also has a sweet boy, both old and young for his age, with an utterly magical power. Bridger can make objects or drawings real, be it into living creatures with all the characteristics of ensoulment, or horrifying abstract concepts with the ability to end the world. [click to continue…]

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Trumpism and religion

by John Quiggin on March 16, 2017

One of the striking features of Donald Trump’s election victory was the overwhelming support he received from white Christians, rising to near-unanimity among white evangelicals, where Trump outpolled all previous Republican candidates. In thinking about the global rise of Trumpism, I’ve been under the impression that the US is a special case, and that the rise of Trumpism in a largely post-religious Europe suggests that the link between Christianism and Trumpism is a spurious correlation.

But, on reading a bit about the Dutch election, I found the suggestion that there is a long tradition of confessional politics in the Netherlands (maybe Ingrid could explain more about this) and that support for the racist PVV is centred on Limburg, and inherited from the formerly dominant Catholic party there. And, re-examining my previous position, it’s obvious that being “largely post-Christian” does not preclude the existence of a large bloc of Christian, and therefore potentially Christianist voters.

So, I’m now thinking that Trumpism can be seen, in large measure, as a reaction by white Christians against the loss of their assumed position as the social norm, against which assertions of rights for anyone else can be seen as identity politics, political correctness and so on. As is usual, as soon as I formed this idea, I found evidence for it everywhere. Obvious cases are Putin and Russian Orthodoxy, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Fillon in France. Looking a bit harder, I found that British Christians voted strongly for Brexit. And, in my own backyard, all the Trumpist parties I described in this post (except, I think, Palmer’s) are strongly Christianist.

Of course, there’s nothing distinctively Christian in the actual politics of Trumpism, so the analysis applies equally well to Islamists like Erdoganhat (and al-Baghdadi for that matter) and Hindu nationalists like Modi. In fact, looking over the recent upsurge of Trumpists, the only counterexample I can find to the analysis is Duterte in the Phillipines, who has been denounced by the Catholic Church and has returned the compliment in spades.

What does this mean for the future of Trumpism?

[click to continue…]

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Gods of This Fictional Universe

by Belle Waring on March 15, 2017

First let me say that I recommend Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders to all of you quite fervently; they are the best sci-fi books I have read in ages. John says they are weirder than Miéville, though I’m not sure about that. Less weird than Clute’s Appleseed, anyway (what isn’t?). Second, I am going to talk about both books, though not indifferently, because they are more like the continuation of a single book than most originals and sequels. Third, I am about to reveal what I consider the antepenultimate spoiler for Seven Surrenders. That is, there are two, yet more shocking revelations/events that follow this one—and to be absolutely fair the main point I discuss was quite clearly stated in Too Like The Lightning, but in a way difficult to credit. There are many other spoilers too though, so, if you don’t like spoilers you will hate this and you should not read it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW GEE WHIZ THAT’S AN UNDERSTATEMENT, BELLE WARING.
[click to continue…]

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Elections in the Netherlands

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 15, 2017

Today are elections in the Netherlands. They are labelled ‘historical’ elections, for both national and international reasons. The most important international reason is that this is a first of several national elections in Europe taking place this year, and the question is to what extent (right-wing) populist parties will win the elections. The fear is that this could lead to more countries being led by parties who want to pull out of the EU, and have more nationalistic and populist politics – closing borders, pulling out of international treaties, and perhaps even eroding the rule of law. The worry is that the Netherlands may be the first in a row of right-wing populist victories. [click to continue…]

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So This Is What The Volume Knob’s For

by Belle Waring on March 15, 2017

Do you want to look at a wobbly video of someone’s record player, someone who doesn’t know how to position the arm over the groove in between the songs before letting the needle fall to the LP? (Or barring that start the video later.) Yeah, well too bad suckers, because that’s the best video I could find for the best song ever this week month, The Mountain Goats’ “Dance Music.” (The song is more than ten years old; it’s just the best song ever to me this month.) You know, why am I harshing on the person who hooked me up with this video. Thanks random person, I owe you one. Also, new vinyl, woo! Most all of my records sound like someone is frying a pan of bacon on every track.

I find this whole album very relatable which is kind of a bummer in the larger sense because it’s sad. But this is real life that’s happening now, and right now this song makes me so happy I will run when I was exercising by walking before, and run with a smile on my face. No one looks happy when they run. Literally no one.

Joggers uniformly look like they are about to pass their last painful bowel movement before inevitable death by fire ants. Longtime joggers can be picked out easily because they also look shriveled-up, raisin-like, by the exigencies of their alleged fun hobby. I have run before BTDubs, ever, it’s just you hate it almost all the time. If you get to where you don’t hate it you run to where you’re miserable again. That’s how it works. I mean, you get some exulting in the power of your body moments at the beginning of a run when you’re young, but otherwise it’s steady misery. Right now I sprint and then walk. Way better. Except it’s hot as balls 100% humidity outside and the jungle is creepy. Winter in Arizona I’m like, 4 or 5 miles, cool. Singapore: 2.1 miles. Dying.

We joked that seeing a runner smiling might trigger the “if you see a suspicious person or article, notify the authorities” principle and some concerned Singaporean would call to say they had seen such a person. “This ang mo woman with blue hair was running and smiling. Very suspicious one.” “Maybe she is simply catching the bus?” “No, this one is jogging.” Police: “we’re coming now.”

The king of all happy sad songs is Neutral Milk Hotel’s Holland 1945, right?

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Falling Into the Cracks of Identity

by Ruthanna Emrys on March 13, 2017

The hive system invites casual games of identity. The common meme of the multiple choice internet quiz: “Which Hive Are You?” Do you value loyalty, science, personal excellence, or obedience? Would you rather paint a masterpiece, or write science fiction? Do you approve of the death penalty? Where does power come from? If you wrote a poem titled ‘The Source,’ what would be its subject?

The questions quickly grow deep. Yet just as with the blandest quiz about Star Trek captains, some people will fit their assigned answer better than others—and all must be made to fit somewhere. Such quizzes shape our real lives, too. What’s Your MBTI Category (early and untrustworthy ancestor to the Brillist numbers)? What Political Party Do You Belong To? What’s Your Gender?

Two choices or sixty-two, the full range of human variation is never represented, and some people suffer for it. And as Palmer points out, unspoken categories—class in modern America, for example—can shape and constrain as much as those shouted from the rooftops. Our oldest and sharpest divisions, defended by pseudo-invisibility, deserve more open examination.

Palmer’s world has buried the gender binary and offered in its place a new septary, very nearly as constraining. When Heloise announces that it’s impossible to articulate the values of caregiving, hospitality, affection, and nurture, without modifying them with the feminine association, she revives a half-truth that fosters toxic masculinity in our own time. Yet even without the binding cords of gender role, the hive system does the same thing. The Cousins claim caregiving and parental affection—and run all the hospitals. What place is there for someone drawn to the medical profession, yet desperate for the sort of strong ruler that only the Masons provide? For a Brillist who wants to use their psychological training to heal rather than merely understand? [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: building and wires, Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on March 12, 2017

Pézenas: wires

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On Saturday, a state election was held in Western Australia, resulting in a big win for the Labor party, after two terms out of office. The election turned in part on declining economic conditions and in part on the incumbent government’s proposal to privatise the electricity industry, an idea that has almost invariably proved electoral poison (it keeps coming up because of the massive financial and career benefits to those who can push it through). But the biggest factor was a deal done between two Trumpist political parties (a guide to our many versions of Trumpism here), the governing Liberal party (selling a combination of Trumpism and neoliberalism in the manner of the US Republicans) and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. (The Liberals cut out their current coalition partners, the National Party, which had only one representative).

The result has been a disaster for both Trumpist groups. After polling near 10 per cent, One Nation got less than 5 per cent of the vote, and Hanson repeatedly made a fool of herself. The Liberals dropped 16 per cent, the biggest swing in WA history.
[click to continue…]

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