Archives » 2012 » May

Europa’s Water

This picture (from Astronomy Picture of the Day 14/5/12) shows all the water of Jupiter’s moon Europa as if gathered into a ball and a similar depiction is done for Earth.

Europa's water

If you look at the sizes of the two spheres of water you can see Earth actually has comparatively little. It’s just spread over a large area (the oceans.) Europa has more water in total. A good place to look for extraterrestrial life then, perhaps.

Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon

Carroll & Graff, 1988. 210p.

Venus Plus X

Charlie Johns wakes up in a place called Ledom, where the inhabitants’ clothing is strange and their sex indeterminate. He is introduced to various aspects of Ledom culture, mainly by a historian called Philos, and comes to understand he is in the future, homo sapiens is extinct and the Ledom are hermaphrodites. (Johns muses whether to consider the Ledom as men, Mars plus Y, or women, Venus plus X, hence the book’s title.) During the explication process much emphasis is placed on the similarities between men and women as opposed to what are the very minor differences between the sexes, many manifestations of which are culturally determined in any case and, moreover, change over time.

The chapters in Ledom are alternated with others set in a human society with very 1950s attitudes to reproduction and gender roles. (Venus Plus X was first published in 1960.) These serve to underline the contrasts Sturgeon is seeking to make with the mores of his time and the unthinking cruelties perpetrated by those attitudes. In one of these a male character says (shockingly,) “Men are born out of the dirtiest part of a woman.” Misogyny and what perhaps gives rise to it have never been so effectively skewered.

Ledom technology, though explained, is almost indistinguishable from magic – for example there is a teaching device, a cerebrostyle, which works almost instantaneously but nevertheless instils the sequence of arguments/antitheses which lead to a conclusion. The history of human religion, the conterpointing of male and female dominated religious strands, its (male) warping to demonise sexual relations is unfolded to Johns in a session under the cerebrostyle. The human pathology of needing someone to look down on is laid out.

The essence of the Ledom is passage – movement, growth, change. In an expression of their philosophy Philos tells Johns, “You don’t love, nor gain love, by imprisonment or command, or by treachery and lies.” Their near-idyllic existence is not dominated by their technology, which instead enables them to express themselves creatively and artistically.

Yet, inevitably, not all is what it appears. And the Ledom, while bemoaning humans’ need to feel superior to others, are not immune to it themselves.

Despite its age this is a book that, perhaps depressingly, still has lessons for the world but the manner of its telling has, I’m afraid, dated. The characters are too often ciphers and its didacticism overwhelms any sense of story telling. The little bit of plot tacked on towards the conclusion feels rather forced.

The necessity for the depiction of a scantily clad female on the cover totally escapes me. That sort of commodification is part of what the novel implicitly argues against.

Overall, though, I’m glad I read it.

Crescent Sun With Figures

Despite its appearance this isn’t a crescent Moon.

Partial eclipse

It’s actually a partial eclipse of the Sun, with the Moon cutting into most of the Sun’s disc. The eclipse took place on 20/5/12.

The image is from stevethatsmyname’s photostream on flickr via Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Quite why it reminds me of the Jazz Age I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because the figures look a bit like musicians silhouetted against a curtain. There is an Art Deco quality to it somehow.

Excelsior Stadium, Airdrie (New Broomfield)

This is the Excelsior Stadium,* home of Airdrie United FC (or, as some of us like to remember them, Clydebank.)

Main entrance to Airdrie United’s stadium. (Stitch of two photos.)

Excelsior Stadium, Main Stand

It’s a tidy ground but a bit soulless. The capacity is way above what Airdrie can attract as a crowd.

This is the view of the ground from the east car park.

New Broomfield, Airdrie (Excelsior Stadium)

Main Stand from East Stand

Excelsior Stadium, Main Stand from east

AFC crest at back of main stand.

AFC Crest

The North Stand:-

North Stand from east, New Broomfield.

Its main purpose, like its mirror image to the south (both are rarely, if ever, occupied) is to house an electronic scoreboard.

*So why New Broomfield?

Broomfield was the home of Airdrieonians FC who shortly before their demise moved to New Broomfield or, as it was known then for some sponsorship reason, the Shyberry Excelsior Stadium.

Broomfield was an idiosyncratic ground which had an old pavilion.

Broomfield

Compare Fulham’s Craven Cottage.

The reincarnation of a football team in Airdrie (Airdrieonians went defunct in 2002) was due to the fact that a local businessman, after failing to achieve election to the SFL with his new entity Airdrie United, took over the ailing Clydebank FC and moved it lock, stock and players to Airdrie, thereby effectively killing off the team who had been for 37 years Dumbarton’s local rivals.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Bloomsbury, 2012. 352p plus acknowledgements.

 The Song of Achilles cover

I would not normally have read this perhaps but the good lady had just finished it and I caught Natalie Haynes, when reviewing the Orange Prize nominees on BBC 2’s Review on 11/5/12 saying it had made her cry!

Well there were no tears from me but I must say the book is very well written. In many ways it is a standard historical novel such as has been written about Roman emperors or Julius Caesar but what marks it out as slightly different is the viewpoint. The narrator, Patroclus, is not a warrior, nor a great shaker; he is not an attendant, nor a scribe. Though he is present at the crucial events – including the fateful occasion when all suitors agree to abide by her decision and to combine against anyone who tries to overturn it as Helen chooses Menelaus for her husband – he is a bystander, powerless to affect them. But then, that is by and large the human condition; even Achilles, half-human son of the sea goddess Thetis – a pale, chilling presence throughout the novel – is unable to change his own fate. Her antipathy to Patroclus is not merely because he is Achilles’s lover but that it makes her son vulnerable. (Miller would have written “Achilles’ lover,” why she attributes plural characteristics to singular nouns whose spelling ends in “s” escapes me.)

We do of course encounter characters such as Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Odysseus. These are figures of myth, or if not they may as well be. Some of them claim descent from the great god, Zeus. Fair enough if the Greeks thought so. To render them human rather than plot enablers is one of Miller’s accomplishments. But when it comes to centaurs (Achilles and Patroclus are trained by one) we have strayed firmly into fantasy territory, hence my categorisation above.

Yet did the ancient Greeks really believe these tales they told themselves? There is an uneasy match here between their apparent acceptance of the living presence of gods, their literal presence as forebears and as agents in the story, and the necessity of their propitiation, which perhaps makes the latter more urgent.

Patroclus has what feels like an anachronistic anti-war sensibility but he is given a rationale for it; when young he accidentally killed another boy and, despite being a prince, was disgraced and exiled for it. Thereafter he has an aversion to the spilling of blood. In illustration of his compassion he even becomes a medic as the Trojan War drags on. It doesn’t stop him, though, from donning Achilles’s armour and joining battle to save his lover’s honour after Achilles has a disagreement with Agamemnon.

There are a few other niggles.

The Achilles at the start of this story has not been in battle, not killed anyone, yet his reputation as the best of the Greeks precedes him. He is sought out by the Greek army, greeted by the Myrmidons as an all-conquering hero. And he has done nothing to justify this. We, as readers, know his legend; they could not. Would they have set quite such store by prophecy? (And would these mythical creatures really call a midday meal lunch?)

It wasn’t at all Miller’s focus as, paradoxically you might think, the Trojan War was mainly in the background but the mechanics of this conflict nagged at me. In the book it lasts ten years! All that time with men being killed left, right and centre. The Trojans are reinforced from their Anatolian hinterland – but in that case the Greeks weren’t making a good fist of their siege. The logistics of it all are troublesome. How were the Greeks reinforced and resupplied? How were they fed? From where would they have found the hundreds of sheep and cattle for the necessary sacrifices to the gods when things did not go well? The surrounding farms would have been stripped bare rapidly.

This is by the by and a problem with the source material, not its treatment. The novel is excellent – though structurally a bit off-kilter in its flits between past and present tense narration; and the final chapters do strain somewhat against suspension of disbelief. Despite its mythic connotations it is rooted in human concerns; the love of Achilles and Patroclus for each other, the ties that bind, the actions they drive us to. About life, in other words. And of course, death.

Promotion Celebrations

This was the first time I’ve seen Sons fans do a conga. (To be fair we don’t get promoted very often.)

Conga

This is the scene just after the final whistle.

Final Whistle

Seconds later the pitch was invaded by Sons fans.

Fans Are On The Pitch

Mutual rejoicing:-

Fans and Players

The ritual press photos were taken after the pitch was cleared:-

Press Photos

The players salute the fans:-

Players Salute the Fans

Friday On My Mind 69: Non Ho L’Età (Per Amarti)

It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this week so I’m posting one of my memories of it from the 60s. Gigliola Cinquetti was only 16 when she sang this for Italy.

This recording is apparently Cinquetti’s actual performance from the Eurovision night in 1964. It’s from the radio broadcast, though, as the TV tapes were wiped apart from the (short) reprise the winner then gave which is where the pictures come from. She is given a great reception afterwards.

The song received the highest ever percentage of Eurovision first place votes (8 out of the 15 available – equating to 53.3%.)

The title means “I am too young (to love you)” – the literal translation of non ho l’età is “I have not the age.” It’s about waiting for fulfilment, rather than rushing into things.

It’s fair to say the Eurovision standard has fallen since then.

Gigliola Cinquetti: Non Ho L’Età (Per Amarti)

This video has 40 secs worth of footage from the night (which starts at 2.39 in.)

The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

Golllancz, 2011, 406p.

 The Cold Commands cover

In Morgan’s last novel, The Steel Remains, the previous in his Land Fit for Heroes sequence, it was the differences between it and the usual fantasy opus that stood out. In The Cold Commands what struck me instead were the similarities.

For we have a mediæval type setting, an emperor, background wars, Dark Lords, sword wielding and sorcery, eldritch enemies from out of time; all soaked in blood and guts. The swearing also seemed a little overdone this time. There is, though, a hint at a science-fictional gloss to it, but only a hint. Yet unlike a fair swath of fantasy it is a convincing world Morgan has created here. But I wouldn’t want to live in it.

It is all revealed in the same gritty way as in The Steel Remains. We still have two gay agonists – though neither of them actually gets much sex here – and there is fine writing, if a touch too digressive at times. Morgan is at pains to describe his world, and it is a very detailed setting, every minor character has a credible past, and his or her own motivations, every muddy environment is suitably filthy.

Deep in the mix are musings on the impossibility of determining the difference between a demon and an angel except by their actions and on the inefficacy of torture.
The ending, when it came though, was rushed, the final confrontation over quickly. A pity, after nearly 400 pages.

It was only a minor scene in the narrative, but I found the gang rape problematic. It is not enough to have one character tell another, “Soldiers rape.” Perhaps they do. It is quite another matter to have your protagonist abet the act – encourage it even – whatever sins the victim may have committed against him or his family in the past; and for her to reveal that she has been raped before (as if that ameliorated anything) – and not just the once – whether she is being truthful to her past or only defiant. Yes, this reveals a degree of ambiguity in our identification with the protagonist, and at his moral complexity but…

Our heroes may have feet of clay and may have to do unspeakable things out of necessity, but when given a choice, don’t they still need to be better than the bad guys?

RIP Robin Gibb

The Bee Gees‘ headiest days were in the late 1970s when they started to sing falsetto and had hits with Jive Talkin’ and a huge success with the songs from Saturday Night Fever. I preferred their earlier incarnation in the 60s.

So this is the late Robin Gibb – without his brothers – performing To Love Somebody, one of those early songs.

Robin Gibb: To Love Somebody

Robin Gibb, 22/12/1949-205/2012. So it goes.

Virtual Vesta

This is from You Tube via Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Its an animation using images and height data from NASA’s Dawn mission to give an illusion of overflying the minor planet (or asteroid as they used to be called) Vesta.

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