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InSight

Nothing quite like silent apprehension bursting into raucous celebration when a lander touches down on another planet. This is the first image, a couple of minutes after landing, dust-cap still on the camera, wide-angle distortion, horizon cutting a slice at the upper edge, a single rock centre-bottom, above the shadow of InSight.

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Panda’s Australian Care Package

As Onyx said, “Oh panda repping the colours! 🖤💛❤️”. Currently reading The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage, picked up along with [-o-] t-shirt at Bunjilaka on that last day in Naarm, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, which was waiting for me when I got back.

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Naturkundemuseum — Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: Beryll

Beryll
5.940 Karat (1,180 g)
Malacacheta bei Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brasilien

Dieser große Beryll-Kristall stammt aus einem Edelstein-Pegmatit in Brasilien.
Die Edelsteinpegmatite von Diamantina sind seit dem 17. Jh. bekannt.

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Naturkundemuseum — Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: Astrohistory Shadows

Around the iron staircase, sunset shadows on ascending descending voyage into the universe, on meteorites that hit Germany.

Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.

I started with him in 2010 with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, followed that up a few months later with the first proper of the trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, then The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 in 2013, and finally this. Unlike Mao’s Great Famine, or The Tragedy of Liberation, the Cultural Revolution has been covered by far more historians, and sits fresh in the memories of people in their forties. Writers like Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs) and others of the large crop of early-’00s writers covering Tiananmen Square and post-Tiananmen politics if not explicitly writing about this period nonetheless reference it. And if anything this is its weakness.

It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.

One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.

What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.

Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”

I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.

Reading: N. K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season

Another one I’d finished a while ago and haven’t gotten around to writing anything about. And I should probably reiterate — if I haven’t already — that even though these posts were supposed to be about why I was reading a particular book, too often I’m writing after I’ve finished, and it becomes something of a review.

So, I’ve heard about N. K. Jemisin a lot, and her name stuck because she’s been on the Tiptree Award Honour and Long Lists. As for why someone I’ve heard about so much has not been read until now, well, she’s written a lot of short stories, and that form isn’t my gear unless I already like an author a lot; and her novels are all series, and I’m not so into series, I don’t enjoy feeling obliged to buy another book if the preceding one finishes on a cliffhanger, nor going back years or decades in time to start at the beginning.

The Fifth Season is the first of a new series, and published in 2015, so as far as not banging up against my “Series? Fuck off!” monster, it didn’t. I quite liked it too, it’s all geology and geomorphology and plate tectonics, and volcanos and igneous provinces, and earthquakes, and supercontinents, all totally my gear. And the three-fold story of the same person across half a lifetime who is one of those few on this planet with ability to control geology.

It’s fantasy-ish, though could almost be sci-fi of the ‘augmented bodies who don’t know it because their civilisation forgot’ type, reminds me of Alastair Reynolds’ third in his Revelation Space trilogy, Absolution Gap, where the geology of the planet is as much an active participant and character as any of the people. Come to think of it, there’s quite a few writers I like who’ve done this: Charles Stross in Saturn’s Children, Kim Stanley Robinson in 2312, Iain M Banks in (among many) The Hydrogen Sonata or The Bridge, and I am totally up for this.

About now I would be writing how much I liked this and all, but there’s an elephant in the room, a transgender elephant. A trannyphant. Cisgender sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction writer writes ‘trans woman’ character in the 2010s, cringes ensue.

I think the fundamental reason why I’m reduced (or elevated) to monosyllabic swearing instead of proper eloquence and dispassionate analysis is I’m tired as all fuck of bullshit writing, and Jemisin’s attempt at a tranny character for me is that. And if right about now you’re all pissy over the word ‘tranny’ you can fuck right off. That’s Australia’s hectic and shining contribution to gender studies and it’s shitloads better than trans-fucking-asterix.

Jemisin proposes a planet in which gender is unremarkable, yet when the main character arrives at geoengineering training school and jumps into her first communal shower, she’s remarking on the trannys and their genitals, and then telling us how it’s unremarkable. Later, a main secondary character in one of the three sections is revealed to be a trans woman by reference to hormonal withdrawal mood swings, facial hair, and more penises. If only she’d thrown in some big hands. Obviously it’s not that she wrote a trans woman character that I’m frustrated about, it’s that she resorts to tropes or descriptors that aren’t so removed 1990s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective fuckery. I get the feeling it’s supposed to be a sensitive and caring portrayal of a trans woman, but it comes off as yet another cis writer who really doesn’t understand how little she gets it. When the majority of genitals discussed in a novel belong to trans women, it’s probably a problem.

What also frustrates me is how many hands and eyes this book (and others with the same issue) would have passed through and yet this is the best we got. Either no one went, “N. K., mate, yeah, we might wanna discuss this,” or if they did that presupposes a earlier version even more dodgy.

I’ve been reading sci-fi/fantasy solidly for over a decade now, and this recent need for cis writers to throw in a tranny character almost universally comes off like I’ve eaten something foul. Which is a shit, cos I want to read Iain Banks levels of skiffy with main characters whose identity I can feel an affinity for (and parenthetically, Banks’ imagining of gender in the Culture remains one of the most consummate and accomplished I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction).

I enjoyed The Fifth Season enough that — anti-series monster and all — I was up for reading the second part due in a month. I lay in bed devouring it, loving the geological life, the travelling through such landscape, the lives of the main character. But the withering look I must have had when the penis reveal rolled around, I dunno. Not sure I can.

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Muzeum Geologiczne Instytutu Nauk Geologicznych PAN w Krakowie

Wandering down a side street in Kraków Old Town, I see a Geological Museum. I knew there is a mineral museum somewhere. This wasn’t it. I was a little chafed at both museums housing the large mediæval art collections were closed for restoration, and having no real aim in mind and liking all things geo and tectonic, decided to go in. The archæological museum as well was directly around the corner.

It’s a really small museum, more of an exhibition, a room about 60 square metres. What it doesn’t have in size, the Muzeum Geologiczne makes up for with an utter lack of wasting of time. There was a really nice guy on the desk who gave me a folder for english translations of everything … everything, but wow if every museum took attention to detail like this one did. Information overload? Yes! And! “The rocks. You can touch, also.” Excitement!

A clarification, it’s a museum of the geologic history of Kraków and neighbourhood predominately, with some general Poland and Carpathians thrown in as required. It starts with a nice geologic map of the area and NS and WE cross-sections. Then it throws a wall-sized map of all the impact craters and other stuff that’s slammed into Poland from above.

The main room is split into three areas: the left wall with covering several geologic periods from Precambrian to Holocene, the right covering plate tectonics in the region (with some tasty photos of limestone cliffs), and the centre display cases of wood, plant, and shell fossils from the various epochs. Plus a monstrous cubic block of salt.

It’s brief, consistent, and comprehensive for such a small exhibition. Each period has a stratigraphic log, text explaining the different processes at work and the resulting rocks, minerals, landforms, samples of minerals, rocks, ore, crystals, all in a glass case, and then a few bits to pick up and turn over. It sounds a little dry but for me it wasn’t. Probably because it wasn’t 3 hours of room after room of this. It’s obviously been assembled by knowledgeable and passionate geologists, who don’t dumb down the information, yet also present it carefully and attractively. And yes, nicely lit. Actually, it needed about half a room more, to give more room for information to the fossil display cases and the geologic maps.

I wasn’t sure what to blog; I photographed almost everything. So, a few samples and minerals because it’s been a while since pretty invaded supernaut. And that block of crystal salt? It’s about the size of a small person. (And some of the translations I did myself as the fossils weren’t translated in the folder.)