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Cybele, with Bluebonnets by Charles L Harness

The NESFA Press, 2002, 155 p.

How could I resist a novel with an illustration of the Periodic Table on its front cover? Still less “a book for chemists who might appreciate magical realism” as the publisher’s prefatory lines have it. It could have been designed for me.

Don’t let that put you off though; it’s also a very powerful and intricate novel exploring those eternal themes of love, sex and death – with a very unusual ghost.

Charles L Harness is one of my favourite SF writers of the last century but due to the fact that it’s quite rare I only bought this book recently. It was, then, a little disconcerting that in the first page we find narrator, Joe Barnes, mentally undressing his female Chemistry teacher Miss Wilson (Miss Cybele Wilson) down to nothing but stockings, garters and low-heeled shoes as she enters class. Adolescent male fantasy no doubt but a bit much for page one.

There is a plot strand relating to a cup said to be the Holy Grail (the “real” one was lost in the Atlantic in its evacuation from Europe during the Great War.) Joe takes a job modelling for artists and recognises, though the face is turned away, one of the pictures the tutor rotates on the studio’s walls as being a nude Cybele holding the cup. A mystery about the cup’s disappearance from the religious institution where it is held is resolved by Joe’s knowledge of the refractive index of borosilicate glass.

Cybele becomes the love of his life and a major influence on it, her characteristic scent of bluebonnets (the State Flower of Texas apparently) coming to him at significant turning points. She inspires him with a love of Chemistry and encourages his thirst for knowledge.  She is a strong character but her prognostications about the future invite suspicion from the school authorities. It is not until well after he has left school, however, that they get together and that not for long as she has cancer. Here Harness inserts Joe’s thoughts on his loss. “And life goes on. It goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere. We begin, and end, in the middle.” At this point there is still half the book to go with many more opportunities for Cybele to affect Joe’s progress through life.

Joe was growing up in the 1930s and there is a lot of incidental detail about life in small town US in those times. Cybele’s background was unconventional, her mother was a madam in a local house of ill repute whose activities are policed by arrangement of times to raid the premises. A fair amount of Chemistry adorns the pages but I’m sure the details will not faze the average reader.

All of this is interspersed with incidents of what can only be termed magical realism. Young Joe’s discovery of a millions of years old skimming stone which skips from the river into a cave where something spooks him as he goes to retrieve it, the panther which saves his brother from a snake, the voice which he hears warning him to run from a lab accident, the unusual circumstances surrounding his daughter’s birth.

Almost innocent at times, Cybele, with Bluebonnets is a wonderful book; insightful, humane, knowledgeable, rueful. Here is a human life in all its glory and pain.


Pedant’s corner:- “into the gaping white maw of the snake” (maws do not gape, they are stomachs,) clear is used as a synonym for colourless (it isn’t, clear means ‘see-through,’ which many coloured things are,) barring one, all chemical formulae in the text are rendered correctly – even the subscripts are correct – however bicarbonate is given as having the formula -HCO (bicarbonate – now known as hydrogencarbonate – is actually HCO3,) focussed (focused,) “Munch’s The Shriek” (usually known, at least nowadays, as The Scream,) miniscule (several times, minuscule,) “a unisex washroom” (in the 1930s I wondered? Apparently separate toilets only came into being in the US in the 1920s as a response to more women entering the workplace,) “a few less bullets” (a few fewer bullets,) spit (USianism for ‘spat’,) cartilege (cartilage.)

Circles, Talbot Rice Gallery

Several of the exhibits at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, when we visited in February featured circles of different sorts, mostly of natural origin, but some not:-

Circles 1, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

Thios one has a depiction of Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system in the book at the centre:-

Circles 2, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

This was on the wall. It looks like the trace of an eccentically orbiting comet or something of that kind:-

Polished Stone 1, Talbot Rice Gallery

Liesegang Rings. I confess I had only heard of Liesegang Rings in a chemical context before this but I now know they occur geologically too, as evidenced below:-

Liesegang Rings, Talbot Rice Gallery

Fire in Free-Fall

Fire is an odd, complicated chemical phenomenon. When in orbit round Earth it becomes even odder.

In a gravity well gravity shapes the flame to the familiar cone-like contours we can see flickering, ushering oxygen to the bottom of the fire, the product gases rising from the flame due to their lower density.

In orbit, when bodies are in free-fall (not “weightless”: the gravity is still there, only cancelled out by forward movement round the Earth, the link calls that situation microgravity) there is no bottom to the flame; oxygen is attracted from all sides and the fire becomes spherical.

Thsi image is from Astronomy Picture of the Day for 10/8/21.

Fire in space

I wouldn’t have liked to try that out, even if it is in a controlled environment. Fire in a spaceship must be like one on a sea-going vessel; the crew’s worst nightmare.

Bookshelf Travelling for Even More Insane Times

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times was started by Judith and is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

The main thrust of this week’s post is to focus on books by Primo Levi.

The times Levi lived through were even more insane than these. An Italian Jew, he was rounded up in February 1944 and transported to Auschwitz, where his experience as a Chemist allowed him to gain a position as assistant in an I G Farben laboratory there. Ironically he was saved from almost certain death by being ill with scarlet fever and in the camp hospital when, on the approach of the Red Army, the SS evacuated the camp and forced the prisoners on a death march further away from the front.

He translated his experiences into a very readable series of books, nine of which are on these shelves (ten if you count This is a Man and The Truce as two.)

Primo Levi Books

Levi’s death forty years later was ruled a suicide by the coroner but he may have fallen from his flat as a result of dizziness.

This photo also shows Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, a Graham Greene omnibus, Mary Somerville‘s personal recollections in Queen of Science (which is the good lady’s and I have not yet read) plus Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits.

Where Elements Come From

I just love this.

Then again, as a chemist you would expect me to.

I got to this Periodic Table via Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for 9/8/20. It shows the origins of the chemical elements as percentages of how the total number of each elements’ atoms were formed.

Periodic Table of Elements' Origins

Those parts in blue were formed in the Big Bang or by nuclear fusion in stars, green came from dying low mass stars, pink from cosmic ray fission, yellow from the explosions of massive stars, purple from neutron stars merging, light grey in exploding white dwarf stars.

There are areas of darker gray. The elements these refer to are mostly not found naturally – Technetium (Atomic Number 43,) Promethium (Atomic Number 61) and all the transuranics (Atomic Numbers greater than 92) can be made artificially in particle colliders or nuclear bombs and reactors, though I note that Neptunium (93) and Plutonium (94) seem to be produced by merging neutron stars. All elements with Atomic Numbers greater than 82 are radioactive and so decay away over time which is why the transuranics are not found on Earth and only some atoms of elements 82-92 are.

Quite why the version of this table that appears on APOD also has elements numbered 84-89 plus 91 in dark gray puzzles me a bit.

Star Eta Carinae

This is from Astronomy Picture of the Day for 20/2/19.

Eta Carinae is set to explode in a supernova – sometime.

Eta Carinae

The unusual nebula that surrounds it puts me in mind of a one of the sets of atomic orbitals wherein electrons occur round the nucleus of an atom. Specifically a p orbital.

p orbital

The Origins of Atoms

Here’s a Periodic Table with a difference.

Yes, it lists the elements in the usual way but the information within the boxes is distinctive. It tells where the atoms of each element first came into being whether it was in the big bang – for hydrogen and hydrogen alone – or, for most elements, in stars of varying types, or else by human activity.

From Astronomy Picture of the Day for 25/1/16:-

APOD 25/1/16

Edit:- I’ve just noticed the table has helium also being produced by the big bang. I’m sure it’s made by fusion in stars, though.

William Henry Bragg Memorial Plaque

Bragg was, along with his son, Lawrence, a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, which helps determine the chemical structure of solid compounds.

I found this on a wall in Market Harborough, Leicestershire:-

William Henry Bragg MemorialPlaque in Market Harborough

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Canongate, 2007, 164 p.

Not borrowed from a threatened library but returned to one of them.

 Girl Meets Boy cover

This is part of Canongate’s Myths series and is a retelling of one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses wherein Iphis (a name used for both sexes) was born a girl but on the gods’ advice is brought up by her mother as a boy as her father said they couldn’t afford a girl. As a young adult Iphis falls in love with and is set to marry Ianthe but has to appeal to the gods to resolve the dilemma of how to do this as a girl.

Told in five chapters titled “I,” “You,” “Us,” “Them,” and “All Together Now” Smith adapts this to a story of Anthea falling for Robin Goodman whom at first sight she thought, “He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen,” rapidly amending this to, “She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.”

Mixed in with this is the story of Anthea’s sister, Imogen – at first shocked by Anthea’s relationship (Oh my god my sister is A GAY,) but later reconciled to it – and both their experiences of working for a rapacious company called Pure which sells bottled water. Office politics and the vacuousness of “creative” meetings are well skewered.

Many of the scenes take place in Inverness, Smith’s birthplace, but the book’s concerns are never parochial. Smith works in an account not only – in Imogen’s trip down south – of the Englishness of England but of the many ways in which women are disadvantaged in the workplace and life generally and also provides a more satisfactory resolution to the “problem” than would have been available to Ovid. As Robin (another name used for both sexes) tells Anthea, “It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters.”

The book is typographically idiosyncratic in that the author’s name on the title page, the page headers (Smith’s name on even pages and the book’s title on the odd,) the names of the dedicatees and the authors of the epigraphs are rendered in a fetching pink and as in most of Smith’s books the right hand margin is unjustified but, in this case, not in a distracting way.

This may be a short novel but it is perfectly formed, the best by Smith I have read.

Pedant’s corner:- back and fore (maybe it is an Inverness thing;) and in the acknowledgements, H2O (H2O.) Here Smith also seems to find it noteworthy that ‘water is bent,’ but that isn’t news to a chemist.

Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh

Orbit, 1999, 385p.

On a planet whose name we don’t learn until the seventh last line of the novel (“What a foolish thing, to name a world”) there are three kinds of things: “onworld that will fill you up but not feed you, in-between things like renndeer and potatoes that we can eat but can live on onworld things; and offworld things like dogs and people.” (In its first appearance onworld was rendered as aunworld.) The onworld life, then, can variously be eaten for sustenance, for bulk with no sustenance, or is poisonous. Its amino acids are right handed – the opposite chirality to Earth’s.

Janna of Harma clan is the titular Mission child, brought up in an appropriate technology mission in a polar area where the main source of food is herded renndeer. To trade, her clan makes whisky (spelled whiskey.) Another clan called Tekse is becoming over powerful. Tekse outrunners arrive at the Mission as the novel starts. They have rifles whereas Harma do not. The inevitable destruction of the Mission and the clan follows. In the meantime Janna has been given implants by former offworlder Wanji. These help her survive the trek to other clan grounds and her subsequent adventures wherein she manages to roam far over her home world. Early on she has to put on a dead man’s clothes as hers are ragged. To protect herself in an offworlder run refugee camp, where she subsequently takes up with a shaman, she decides to stay dressed as a man, calling herself Jan.

The novel is episodic and as a result does not feel like one story but a fix-up. For example the shaman is only present for the middle portion and may as well not have appeared in Jan’s life as far as the last chapters of the book are concerned – except in so far as Jan tries to help people affected by a plague. What stays with Jan is hir background in the clans of the north, hir middling sense of gender and hir mistrust of offworlders, though these are almost always a benign influence on hir life. (My use of the indeterminate pronoun hir.)

It did seem strange that humans would bother to travel so far that it is all but impossible to return to Earth and then display the same sorts of follies they had left behind, in many ways living worse lives in this new world. Then again that may simply be an allegory of the European migration to the Americas. We are told, though, Earth still has many problems such as pollution.

The societies Jan lives in are observed only obliquely, the only one which is fully fleshed out is the Lapp-like existence of the renndeer herding clans. McHugh’s interest in Earth’s oriental cultures (as in China Mountain Zhang) comes through, though.

Pedant’s corner:- I spotted only one typo (abut for about) but there was a “lay” for “laid”, and (twice on one page) “shined” for “shone” where shoes were not concerned.

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