Reading: Hannu Rajaniemi — Collected Fiction

The third from my recent sci-fi fantasy fiction adventures. I’m on somewhat safer ground with Hannu Rajaniemi than the other two. I’ve read all his works and—well, nothing’s quite measured up to his first, The Quantum Angel but Collected Fiction has some fine moments. I bought this because for the moment he’s still on my list of “will always buy.”

The cover! I haven’t had a good cover conversation with myself in a long time, mostly unmemorable, or in the case of almost all non-fiction, not applicable (“blue-grey cloth hardback with gold-embossed serif type … mmmhuh.”) Collected Fiction, he got a good typeface finally, two in fact, nice mix of condensed serif (with drop shadow) and monospace. And then there’s the Alien/Borg/Ex Machina/face of hot white chick attached to spiky cyborg body with boobs. And arse! On a sort of Asian/Japanese-y sunset-red disc and swirly blue-green background. Plus a couple of Egrets flapping their feathers loose. Definitely in Questionableland. Kinda like it. Still questionable.

So I was reading, reading … thinking, yeah some of this is pretty smart, but I really wish there was a bit more, you know … always having to define it in terms of what’s there, not so hetero, not so blah, not so other blah. And I read Tycho and the Ants, and The Haunting of Apollo A7LB, and His Master’s Voice, and Elegy for a Young Elk, and I’m thinking, ooh yeah, getting there, some nice and smart and funny and beautiful stuff, more like this, please. That thing of diversity, representation. Reading stories that could only come from Finland is part of this, it’s the geography and culture shaping what would otherwise exist within a narrow and predictable worldview into something that can only come from this place. It’s specificity: Not any place, this place … still not quite though … still wanting …

And then I read The Jugaad Cathedral. This story is up there somewhere with Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice in its simplicity and sheer radicality. It has ideas I’ve read before (possibly in other Rajaniemi works, maybe in Charles Stross’ Rule 34 or Halting State), but it’s what he does with these, the outcome, that’s critical and glorious, and I wanted a whole novel of this, not just a mean barely score of pages. I often question the reality or substantiality of the internet, doing things like building websites, it often seems low on meaning or value or realness. It’s a question of perspective. To use what is there to affect physical things, to gain agency and control of one’s self through an abstract chain of seemingly trivial, childish, imaginary things, this makes it as real as any engine or apparatus.

I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say it made me smile and laugh and filled me with such happiness, and when I blab the fuck on about diversity and representation, it’s this kind of story I mean.

What else? The collection got a bit floppy towards the end though Invisible Planets, Paris in Love, Topsight, quite a bit of Skywalker of Earth, all brilliant. Not quite as remarkable as The Quantum Angel, but high on my favourites for this year.

Reading … A 7th Anniversary

It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.

Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:

The non-fiction, serious stuff:

Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.

Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.

Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.

Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.

The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.

Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.

And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!

The fiction, also serious stuff:

I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.

Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.

Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.

Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.

I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.

The two big ones then, and colossal they are.

One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.

I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.

An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.

There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.

This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.

Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.

Reading: Hannu Rajaniemi — The Causal Angel

I have no idea what I’m reading. The Causal Angel is Hannu Rajaniemi’s third (and possibly final) in the Jean le Flambeur series, starting with The Quantum Thief, and followed by The Fractal Prince, and it would probably benefit any intending reader to read those two in chronological order before embarking on this one to have the slightest chance of comprehending what’s going on.

If it was written in the ’60s or ’70s, it’d be all hard engineering, but this is hard sci-fi of the post-LHC era and it’s all string-theory, brane, quantum theory, uploaded bits and pieces hurling around the solar system in virtual realms running on fist-sized blocks of diamond and more esoteric materials. It’s heavily influenced by game and gamer culture also, though only occasionally pop-cultural. Another comparison is Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, that is to say, The Causal Angel is contemporary theoretical physics to Ahmed’s contemporary Arabian fantasy.

It’s very good, though I think most people who don’t have a passing understanding of theoretical physics, game culture, and even more obtuse topics will see almost every page full of blllrrrblllrrrblllrrr and wondering what Rajamiemi is talking about. I didn’t read the first two before embarking on this one and have only the barest memory of them, so there was a lot of drowning in incomprehension. Nonetheless I think returning to read all three to experience them as a single work is a good later-this-year project. It isn’t going to beat Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for fiction book of the year, but it’s highly improbable any book I plan to read before October will.

Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit

This morning I was reading once more about Stephen Hawking’s misinterpreted statement on the existence of black holes, which led to a blog I’d not read before. My great loss. I’ve since spent several hours catching up, and Backreaction is definitely my new favourite blog for all things physics, astro~, quantum~ or otherwise. And philosophy!

I’ve also been swirling around thoughts on Parsifal, which I haven’t blogged about as much as I’d hoped, and then read her post, A moment of silence replaces the big bang. She says:

A completely different approach to quantum gravity that we discussed recently is Causal Dynamical Triangulation which avoids singularities by discretizing space and time into chunks of finite size. In this approach it was recently found that space-time can exist in different phases, much like water exists in different phases. In the early universe, temperatures were high, and space-time might have been in a different phase, one in which space-time falls apart into causally disconnected pieces.

And then summarises the main conclusion from a paper by Jakub Mielczarek, Asymptotic silence in loop quantum cosmology:

The higher the density, the slower the speed of light. At half the critical density, the speed of light reaches zero – this means points become causally disconnected. But things become even more interesting when the density becomes larger than half the critical density and increases towards the critical density. In this range the speed of light becomes an imaginary number and its square becomes negative. This means that time stops existing and turns into space. Physicists say space-time becomes Euclidean.

“… time stops existing and turns into space.”

Parsifal: Ich schreite kaum, – doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit.
I barely step, – yet believe myself come far.
Gurnemanz: Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
You see, my son, time here becomes space.

on science and ethics

Many of you who read my blog or know me personally know I am a bit of a lush for science. The astrophysics of monadologie came from my residency at Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, which in itself is part of a lifelong interest in astronomy in particular and other natural sciences.

My love of physics naturally leads into astrophysics at one end and particle physics, quantum physics and so on at the other, and to a slew of scientists and philosophers from Leibniz to Michel Serres, Isabelle Stengers, others… Geology and geophysics take me into my love of climbing, mountains and so into Central Asia and China, geography, culture, history, maps and topography… anthropology… names keep recurring in different disciplines, braids between the disciplines inside and out of science–the arts, philosophy are twisted upon themselves over and over; ah and the joy is the same.

Some people might find through religion some sense of marvel in the universe. I do not. To me, looking at the stars or the earth and forcing interpretation through faith is perhaps at best an elegant metaphor or story to be studied through anthropology (I do find of course the pantheon of demons in all religions quite fascinating), but mostly craven superstition that is no different to a perverse choice in favour of the detritus littering the floor, when a banquet lies upon the table above.

Over the years of blogging and reading blogs, many of the ones in the sciences had coalesced around Discover Magazine Blogs and the Scienceblogs communities, which of course has led me to new blogs, furthering my wanderings through the sciences. Volcanology and deep sea oceanography with excellent blogs written by passionate working scientists are two of the fields I currently have a fascination for.

Yes, there is a but.

Mostly I don’t reblog. As much as I’d like to–and have tried in the past to make weekly reading lists of whatever has really grabbed my attention, the most obvious place where my love of science is displayed is in the sidebar (yes, needs updating…). But the last couple of days have brought some troubling developments.

Scienceblogs allows their writers complete freedom, in exchange for advertising in the right column and above the banner–most of which I don’t see because I use adblocking. This division allowed for an integrity in the science bloggers’ often coupled with disclosures either by naming themselves or when anonymous listing where their funding comes from.

As a non-scientist and being aware of the deluge of pseudo-science — homeopathy, new age therapies and so on under the misleading guise and banner of ‘alternative medicine’, the constant misrepresentation of climate science by the media, corporate manipulation of public perception and outright lies, or just simple things like why would a volcano cause air traffic across europe to shut down – all these things in small ways I find myself talking about.

But when a community such as Scienceblogs provides a platform to a corporate entity under the guise of a blog like others, when it is patently advertorial, massaging of public image, when it is Pepsi given space to write a blog (I use that in the very loosest of senses) on nutrition science and how they are making the world a better place through their foodstuffs research…

Yes, the science blog world is in an uproar. It is a crucial issue of ethics, impartiality and most importantly authenticity and integrity. When science is routinely denigrated, used against the wishes of scientists for political manipulation, misrepresented in the media, when vital issues for the our immediate future are at stake, it is imperative scientists are able to be seen as trustworthy and respected.

Many of the science blogs I read are in the process of leaving Scienceblogs. Funnily enough it has also introduced me to new blogs–which are also leaving. The story in itself is worth an afternoon’s reading, but summarised at The Loom, along with a list of blogs on the move, and by GrrlScientist in Sucking Corporate Dick (read the comments to enjoy scientists enraged).

Maybe this is also to say for those of you who get as much pleasure as I do in reading and in reading science, there is a wealth of extraordinarily talented writers in many fields who I’m sure you’ll greatly enjoy. And perhaps too, this diaspora is a good thing. Blogs and blog communities have progressed to the point – thanks to the code they run on – where ad hoc communities are simple to set up and there is no real need to belong to somewhere like Scienceblogs if they fail to meet the requirements of their bloggers.

I shall update my links in due course.

monadologie – cosmos magazine

The bubble-quote of my traipsing through a park in Sydney, the endless, vertiginous blackness crisp with infinitesimal points, and there knowing the universe itself is enough, I didn’t elaborate on the minutes prior. Why was I walking through University of Sydney at night, alone? Why was I doing even in Sydney? And why is this memory so often recalled.

In this moment, looking up at the vast emptiness somewhere we are in, I knew absolutely there is no god.

I didn’t want to bring atheism so forthrightly into any discussion about my residency or monadologie, for many perhaps not so justifiable reasons including not-stepping-on-toes etc. I know from growing up very religious that people like to hold onto their faith with determination.

I was at a conference in Sydney, the Queen’s Trust Programme for Young Australians, and after a long day assumed the gathering I was sitting around in was for queers. Somehow I realised it was for Christians. I was already tired and emotional, the point of the structure of the week was to induce this, and sitting there was jolted into remembering just how messed up I’d been because of religion. And also, feeling peculiarly betrayed, suckered in, deceived. I was thinking we were going to talk about being queer and somehow that night I really wanted to… oh it’s elusive to remember…

I left. I said something like, “Oh, I’m in the wrong place”, and felt regarded as, well you know, a not quite as worthy person. I walked out, angry, certainly, upset also, this small gathering reminding me of the great villainy of religion that caused me to see every bad thing that happened as I grew up as god’s punishment for me being a sinner, for being queer.

I walked. It was inky in that way only standing in the midst of an unlit park can be, the horizon dotted by lights. I looked at the sky and god stopped. Gone.

I’d stopped believing years before, and praying, but in this moment if I can say I ever ‘became’ anything, I became an atheist.

I wrote this in the middle of the night, the witching hour, and all to say that for me in science i find an imagination far more worthy and joyous than religion can ever provide.

Tim Thwaites came along to one night of monadologie, stayed around for the discussion and later we spoke on the phone for an hour about the residency. I think it’s a really quite beautiful piece about the whole process that he wrote for Cosmos Magazine, and dance, art collaborating with science, especially for the last sentence:

monadologie is an answer to those who are unable to see how close is the link between the aesthetics of science and the intricate patterns found in art.”

I’m also quite honoured and proud, maybe a little bewildered to be in the middle of a magazine full of scientists talking passionately about their work. Photographed with my camera phone for your blurry enjoyment…

MEL-ADL … finish

Days of nothing over the weekend, seeing Bonnie for the last time in a while, breakfast at Mario’s on Brunswick St, warm croissants and fresh jam, muesli and poached fruit, rhubarb and yoghourt, wandering the city and other streets on my own, bookshops visited, finishing…

Packing…

The careless, careful folding on my life into one sealed volume. One last, short sleep and then…

Adelaide tomorrow morning. All this time since early December is finished. A new project about to start, butterflies in my stomach.

monadologie … last days and finish

The previous week has been on of quite small scale. I’ve been trying to learn everything I can on absorption spectrums and more importantly what electrons and photons do when and how as they get excited or … dwindle. This has led me in the last couple of days to things stars do, like eject vast gouts of corona or have all kinds of magnetic excitement around sunspots.

There is a point to this. I have no idea what it is.

Among the myriad things that never, for equally various reasons into the showing were the sublimely beautiful Hinode (Solar-B) videos of the sun in X-ray or Extreme Ultra-Violet, we’d talked about being projected on a suitably awe-inspiring scale at the end of the piece…

It’s been some weeks of just thinking about what we have done so far and where to go, and so for me the next stage, besides more funding applications is working on this new stuff for a solo. Also editing of the video into a 3D stereoscopic film.

My last days were spent on occasion doing tests for this, as single frames, and then as short bits of video, getting the separation right, working out how to assemble a stereo film in Final Cut, seeing what peculiarities and oddities emerged when the video was played back through the VR Theatre projectors, and repeat.

Aside from some weirdness, like frame rate irregularities, possibly due to how I exported it from Final Cut, and some unwanted up-scaling in the projection process, there’s nothing that doesn’t look atrocious and Chris is quite keen for us to continue. So while he works on the weirdness, I get to do the cutting. I haven’t done much in editing for a while with my old laptop so geriatrically incapable of rendering at a speed measured faster than frames-per-day, and the precarious assemblage to get it to boot in the first place, but with my new new!!! MacBook Pro rendering to m2v almost in real time, I’m all trembling with anticipation at getting fluent in all the fun graphics and processor intensive editing things… mmm excitement.

But… sadness.

Yesterday was my last at Swinburne. I’ve been there since early December when I had so little comprehension beyond nervousness at what I could possibly do, and in these tumultuous months, for so many reasons, personally, artistically, intellectually such a bone-crushing shove into a precipice, and somehow found it much more to my liking than the fear and nausea on its lip, and then yesterday to say goodbye to Chris and walk down beside the railway lines hummocked above, past Max and Alley Tunes and our small French café, the now autumn sun leaking long shadows through denuded trees, this last time.

And to pack, to entomb these months in boxes that, along with me though via different carriers will arrive in Adelaide next week, to finish. My room in Collingwood soon to be vacant, my life again designed around a suitcase. How unexpected and glorious this all has been.

Gallery

monadologie photos

I do have much more to write about these last days at the centre, and I’ll make excuses elsewhere. I got some photos yesterday from Chris of the performance, Saturday night, taken by Paul Philipson.