This is me returning to some hard space opera sci-fi, ’cos I’ve read almost all of Iain M. Banks again and I’m not sated. Alastair Reynolds. I first read him before I even blogged about reading, giving Pushing Ice a go. All his novels I’ve read have this grim, lightless hopelessness, like tiny insects flitting around a single, weak light source in the unbroken countryside darkness. You’re glad the light is there, and huddle to it, find it comforting even, but it is powerless against the inexorable blackness pushing in. I went, “yeah, nah,” about Pushing Ice. I like at least a little hope or levity in my universe.
Much later, I gave the novella Slow Bullets a go. Farking brilliant. That gave me the shove to tangle with the Revelation Space trilogy. Moments of utter insanity there. Things that bothered me too, that I remembered from Pushing Ice. Then came Revenger. Really one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so starkly, unexpectedly violent and cruel, winding itself tighter to a savage, sadistic ending. A book for teenage girls with aspirations. Probably going to be my book of the year, and have a re-reading before October.
So I wanted more. And there’s not much sci-fi at the moment reeling me in (waiting for Ann Leckie’s new one), so I decided on The Prefect, set in the same universe and timeframe as Revelation Space, on the habitats of the Glitter Band around Yellowstone, an outer-system planet orbiting another sun, Epsilon Eridani, ten light years distant.
It’s like reading a novel of the TV series, The Expanse, which itself is an adaption of a series that seems to me to owe plenty to Reynolds. Like first season of The Expanse there’s a disappointment for me in the narrative being driven by a sad hetero man chasing and pining for a vanished woman. In The Prefect, this trope tied up with the main character’s wife and his actions eleven years prior. I gotta say I don’t care for this thread in the story, either in engendering empathy with him, or as a needed plot element. Nor do I care for the treatment of his junior partner, a young woman trying to prove herself in what seems to be a still misogynistic heteronormative culture a few hundred years in our future. There’s this one old codger on the habitat she’s marooned on who pompously calls her girl over and over. I do, I do, I do want to punch him in his nuts. She primarily exists to set in motion a specific plot element and flops around on the periphery for the entirety, adding not very much at all.
On the positive side, Reynolds has really nailed writing and understanding women as central characters in Slow Bullets and Revenger, so here’s to growth.
And, the same day I decided to order The Prefect, Reynolds announced a sequel, Elysium Fire. Which I have to wait until next year for. Reckon Chasm City is next, then.
If I was to say, “Read The Prefect — I mean, Aurora Rising, ’cos he renamed it,” it’d be with these caveats: Read Revenger and Slow Bullets first. These are fucking superb stories. Then, if you want to continue, reading The Prefect prior to Revelation Space would put it in the right chronological order, but might not be a compelling enough work on its own to draw you into that trilogy. So, get into Revelation Space and commit to the trilogy and bounce between all the novels in this universe in any order you like: somehow I think breaking that temporal flow suits his stories.
… there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
Probably going to be my Book of the Year. There’d have to be something fucking exceptional to eclipse this monster of a story.
I first read Reynolds in Australia, when I was trying for an Iain M. Banks substitute while waiting for his next skiffy piece. Reynolds does hard sci-fi / space opera up there with the best of the current generation, but there’s something dark and frankly despairing in his work. I wasn’t being glib when I said it’s like the heat death of the universe. Humanity or who- or whatever passes for humanity in the near or distant future of his novels is like a lost child in a vast, abandoned factory at night, with the dimmest of torches on a dying battery for light. There are monsters in the blackness, and the blackness is all there is. It’s existential terror upon which his novels are written. And it’s the cheerless antipode of Banks’ Culture utopia. You don’t come out the other side going, “Woo! That was fun!”
I took a long break after Pushing Ice before giving him another whirl with Slow Bullets. Still grim as teeth being pulled but bloody masterful. Which convinced me to read his Revelation Space trilogy (now a quintet), Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. Go read what I wrote about all those because I’m not going to summarise here. And as uneven as those were — brilliant and uneven — I’ve nonetheless let Reynolds into my exclusive world of Authors I Will Always Read. Magnanimous I am, for sure.
Which brings me to Revenger. Still the best title. He fucking murders titles. He’s probably got a list of them and periodically pulls it out and reads them, and is all, “Yes, I am God.” He could do an exhibition of just paintings of titles and people would bleed out under their awesome majesty.
The weird thing is this is marketed in that well dodgy category of Young Adult. You know, the one filled with dystopian futures for the last decade. I’m not sure whose idea that was, because Revenger is a slaughterhouse. Here’s a crew we’ve come to enjoy the company of on a small interplanetary pirate-y type ship. Here’s them getting massacred. Here’s a story of two girls who run away from their Little Prince-sized planet with a black hole at the core to have adventures and save the family from ruin. Here’s the younger cutting off her own hand and replacing it with an ancient and cryptic metal one. And I know I’m slow on the uptake, but when Reynolds revealed what she was writing her story on and with: it’s called Revenger for a reason.
Though it is neither the ironic violence of the Starship Troopers kind, nor the morally vacuous Marvel/DC superhero movie kind. As much as I love a tasty morsel of well-written violence, it needs purpose and justification. This is one of the two things I can rely on Reynolds for: he’s serious in the morality of use of force. His characters are changed by using it, often cut off on some existential level from the rest of humanity. He seldom reaches for it, so when he does it carries a far weightier brutality than if it were merely the full stop on every sentence.
The other is his commitment to a universe bound by the laws of physics as we know them. No faster than light travel (except for Slow Bullets), even if other technology is as incomprehensible as tools of the gods. There’s a whole battered solar system of that here, spanning successive waves of technological progress and decline. He builds a formidable world up in it, and could easily write a series of the scope of Revelation Space here. I’d read the shit out of it.
Lucky last of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, the first getting me hooked enough to plough through the not-so-astounding second, but good enough to push on into the rather bloody good third, Absolution Gap. All because Ann Leckie has nothing new coming out, Iain Banks is dead (with or without an M.), China Miéville has nothing out either (though is alive), not Charles Stross (also alive), and because Reynolds’ novella, Slow Bullets was one of my favourites from last year.
Sci-fi. Skiffy. Apocalyptic Hard Space Opera. He does this stuff well. Almost as good as Banks. Almost. It’s not for lack of quantity of imagination, which Absolution Gap runs wild with – there’s plenty of similarities as well between the two writers. Maybe it’s just Banks affects me in a way no other writer does, as well as being pretty much the first writer I read when I returned to sci-fi, and so had my brain comprehensively transformed by his consummate virtuosity. I also know it’s not fair of me to compare every writer to Banks, and I’m reading this one at the expense of doing things like going to ballet (I know! I bunked off training to read a fucking book!).
Some of the things which bothered my in the Revelation Space remain here. It’s difficult for me to pin down exactly, to point at something concrete and go, “That, right there, is what I mean,” but it’s to do what I scare/air-quote as ‘diversity’. He gets it right with plenty of central roles for women (human baseline or otherwise) yet somehow they remain less imperative (in both senses: important and peremptory), that it’s the men who are driving the action – whether by weight of numbers in central roles, or by a subjective quality that first-person narrative induces. It may simply be in how Reynolds thinks about these characters as he writes them causes this inflection. A game to play then is changing one of the characters, let’s say Scorpio (a Pig, but I’m choosing him for his violent hypermasculinity rather than because he’s not human, and because he’s a main character in two of the three books), to female and seeing how that reads. Which I shall do for the remaining tenth of this book.
I’m pretty sure I’ll read at least one of the remaining works in the Revelation Space universe (but not part of this trilogy), and probably give at least the first of his recent Poseidon’s Children series a go, though for me Reynolds veers between a writer I want to read more of, and one whose stories simply don’t work for me. There’s something of a pervasive existential pessimism in his works that occasionally is too grim for even me (especially at several hundred pages a go); I’m nonetheless enjoying this one and him enough lately to keep throwing euros his way.
The sequel to Alastair Reynolds’ rather bloody good Revelation Space. He’s a dependably hit-and-miss for me: Pushing Ice I seem to have found deplorable (pre-book blogging, and only vague, obnoxious references in a couple of old posts); Slow Bullets I loved everything except its too short length; and Revelation Space, well that had much to do with the chronological format, and reminded me of Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, with narrative streams spliced together actually in chronological order but accounting for slower than light travel, without such a device the story would have probably had me not so committed to the very small type of the mass-market print; got enthusiastic enough to order the sequels before I was finished.
Redemption Ark, then. Not as good. If Reynolds had kept the subjectively non-linear narrative order, I’d have liked it more. As it was, the linearity didn’t give me a sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going on. Things marched predictably towards the inescapable end—which was jumped over and merely in the epilogue summarised, a better choice than pages of planetary destruction—an end which marked the conclusion of the dark Act II, setting up things for Absolution Gap. (Yes, ordered. At least I want to know how it ends.) Plenty of morally ambiguous female characters I was happy to see a return of; a bit of a tendency for heteromonotony; no denying the civilisation-chewing billion year old robots swarm’s stated justification for said chewing doesn’t make sense: is it to annihilate all interstellar life to prevent war (or something) or to save life when Andromeda and the Milky Way merge in 4 billion years. The former is the claimed reason for a dandruff of extinguished cultures across the galaxy, but the latter, a subsequent rationale that never seemed plausible, took over somewhere in this novel.
I unpacked all my books a couple of weeks ago, re-boxed a tenth of them to send off to the book slave markets and exchange for a better class of book. I’m keeping this one for now but can easily imagine sending it off also. I’m not used to reading an author who goes from absolute fave in one book to wtf in the next, but Alastair Reynolds dependably manages that.
Ooohyess, thank you very much. Exactly what I was looking for, a bit of hard skiffy space opera with solid astrophysical underpinnings. As usual written by one of those British Isles dwellers, and as usual not of England. Iain Banks, Charles Stross, both of Scotland, and now Alastair Reynolds of Wales.
His Slow Bullets was one of my faves from last year. Could have been longer. Well, Frances, here’s Revelation Space. Is that long enough for you? Why yes, it is. Little bit on the tiny side though. Really not a fan of mass market books, and yes, I’m fucking snobby about it. I like the bigger size, better paper and printing of trade paperbacks. (Incidentally, either/or for hardbacks. For non-fiction, sure, it goes with the territory, but for fiction, a well-organised large format paperback kinda thrills me.) This one was both small and thick, and maybe my eyes have reached peak-buggered but I swear I could not read that shit when I was in bed at midnight, all squinty and whuuh?
Finished it though, all 576 pages or something. And it kept it together ’til the end. I was about half-way through and thinking, “Where exactly is this going, Mr Reynolds? ’Cos you’re doing a fine job of leading me by the nose through all manner of strangeness.” Usually if I get halfway through having those thoughts, it’s not gonna work for me. This time it was reasonably clear where things would end up, classic Chekhov, Hell Class Cache Weapons all set up, but getting to that, and what happened when everyone did. Most satisfying.
Reynolds was an astronomer with the ESA, and one of his things is space operatic plausibility—unless the plot demands faster than light travel. So things like colonising and travelling in local neighbourhood planetary systems happens over decades rather than popping in for tea and bikkies at Epsilon Eridani then back to Delta Pavonis for dinner. Of course we also get the wonders of neutron star-appearing atemporal computational black holes, plus mad physics skillz to explain it all. It’s the good space opera porn.
One of the other things: This was his first novel. It’s grandiose like Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Consider Phlebas or Stross’ Iron Sunrise or Singularity Sky, fully-formed, sophisticated, smart (ok a little repetitious on adjectives at times, but that’s my own personal irritation), and, and!
Written in 2000, it passes the (spectacularly low) bar of the Bechdel-Wallace Test so comprehensively it’s not even worth talking about it in those terms. I’m forever blabbing on about representation and ladidah, and here’s a sci-fi work from fifteen years ago—a good ten years prior to when all the current discussions and ‘progress’ around these issues began—that is so exemplary it’s like it wasn’t even trying. It’s like Trudeau being asked why is his Cabinet is half women and he’s all, “Dude, because it’s 2015, duh!” Of course Revelation Space is the way it is, because that’s the self-evident future if we don’t wipe ourselves out and get to interstellar planet-hopping.
Contra all that, the primary relationship is straight, the character the events revolve around a hetero male, and a contemporary reading might see him as the embodiment of obnoxious white male entitlement, which is unambiguously how Reynolds writes him. Besides him though the other three of the central quartet are women, who spend plenty of time talking with each other, saving each other’s lives, generally being fantastically interesting, complex, nuanced individuals, without the unnecessary mediation of a male character. (By which I mean the various ways contemporary speculative fiction in all mediums requires a white, hetero male front and centre for the audience to ‘identify with’ to experience the story through his eyes. Mainly because the story is boring as old shit.) And when they do interact with Sylveste, it’s again as equals, first and third person perspectives shift between each of them.
Sure I would have loved some of the brazen fuckery of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy in how identity is presented. (Let’s be clear here, it caused a lot of people to throw a sad tantrum, even self-proclaimed feminists and queers. WTF, Frances? I know!) I also know that’s a bit of a stretch, even for say Iain M. Banks who I think had a far more cognisant understanding of corporeality and identity than even most theorists of gender and identity, there was an impulsion towards reductive ‘he’ and ‘she’ appellations. It’s fucking hard to use language outside that framework, and it’s undeniably easier to create diverse biologically and technologically augmented and evolved human species than it is to do the same to gender.
And I’ve already ordered the remaining two in the trilogy.
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.)
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.
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.
Another Sunday and my first Berlin museum for the year. I’ve been remiss. Since before Bologna, I’d planned for my next museum visit to be the Museum für Naturkunde, or to give it its full title, Museum für Naturkunde — Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, otherwise more succinctly known as the Naturkundemuseum. Sunday probably isn’t the most clever choice for a day to go there, packed to the atrium’s glass ceiling with kids going bonkers and their attendant families, causing the building to ring and vibrate in sympathy.
First stop once bag and impedimenta were dumped is the audio guide booth. Free! In English also! And a special version for kids 6 and older. I feel somewhat like a nouveau dilettante with my appreciation for audio guides, partly, “What use can this guide be? To me?” and quite a lot, “Excellent! Audio Guide!” The Naturkundemuseum falls so entirely into the latter it goes on to previously untravelled regions of brilliance, so much so that I had to dispense with it in some rooms if I wanted to leave the museum the same day — and that even before I pushed the ‘more info’ button, available in addition for around a third of the audio items. As an illustration, it took more than a hour to get around the first World of Dinosaurs room even missing a couple of the audio accompaniments.
Dinosaurs! The Giraffatitan brancai (which I have in my head from childhood undifferentiatedly for all such Sauropods as Brontosaurus) or Brachiosaurus brancai, is exactly Giraffe-ish, or Elephant with Giraffe neck stuck on each end, the forward one with the head about 13 meters above. The audio guide said there is some hypothesis based on the skull shape it may have also had an Elephant’s trunk. All that plus feathers sounds indeed preposterous, though it was only a couple of decades ago the entire skeleton was revised, giving it an entirely different appearance, so perhaps not.
Masses of fossils from the 150 million year old Tendaguru Formation in Tanzania surround these giants, acquired from when Tanzania was known as German East Africa, which is something that always taints museums for me, the circumstances under which such exhibits were obtained and the complete lack of acknowledgement of them. Nonetheless, Pterodactyls! Including the incredibly famous Archaeopteryx, which I forgot to photograph and like the Mona Lisa is far smaller than one would imagine.
Making it out of Dinosaur land (after the beautiful Kentrosaurus aethiopicus), I arrive in System Erde, great pieces of Gniess, Granite, and other high-pressure metamorphic rock, volcanoes, black smokers, plate tectonics, and Chicxulub, or more generally, Earth getting the buggery whacked out of it by cataclysmically huge meteorites. There are a couple of large shatter cones also, as well as a map of Germany showing the Nördlinger Ries impact crater.
From there, I wandered into the vast room of Evolution in Aktion, confronted first by the two-storey high and around ten metre wide Biodiversitätswand, around where I heard an innocent young thing ask, ”Daddy, where do they get all the animals?” and the panicked scramble for a reply that wouldn’t cause an Outside Context Problem, “Well … people … probably give them to the museum … when they’ve died …” It was beautiful and horrific. On the glass wall forward of a Black Panther that blended tail-wards into a Leopard spots (possibly a melaninistic Black Leopard) it said, “As an optically oriented species, humans are trained to recognise visual differences as edges. This is sometimes a trick of nature, since not everything that looks different really is something different.”
I paused on the audio guide around here, it was simply too full of people, and facing several more unknown rooms, I decided to accelerate. One of the grand stairwells has had its height made use of for the Kosmos und Sonnensystem exhibition, with a video of the formation of the universe playing far above for the lucky ones lying on the very comfortable looking circular sofa below. Planets, yes. Much better is a superb collection of meteorites. Part-way up the first flight of stairs is a display of Meteorite classification, Chondrites, iron meteorites; the next landing has a display of meteorites that have pockmarked Germany.
Here things got disorganised. Parts of the museum are closed for repairs and rebuilding. This breaks the circular progress through the museum, instead it becomes a retracing of one’s steps before continuing, then doubling back again. I doubled back and landed in the Mineraliensaal.
Oh, this is beautiful! It’s huge, vast high ceiling, scores of metres long and a dozen wide, full of vertical cabinets interspersed with display tables all, all of them stuffed to the gullets with mineral samples. It’s like an entire, living ecosystem in itself, representing some 75% of the world’s known minerals. I could have really remained in here for a whole day alone. Unlike the other exhibitions though, this one is decidedly 19th Century in form, simply those endless cases with tiny labels and no context, no audio guide. I do though prefer that in this instance, as the alternative would likely be a drastically reduced selection, rather than several rooms of this size each deliriously full and sumptuously arranged. I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back just to spend a day in this room.
On to the Wet Collections, the Alkohol-Forschungssammlungen, another two-storey high hall, this time full of eerily glowing glass receptacles fixing amphibians, fish, mammals, spiders … it’s the stuff of horrors for me. It’s also only viewable from the outside circuit, so I took off to the Einheimische Tiere exhibition, also dead animals, taxidermied, rather than preserved. I liked the Nebelkrähe — the Hooded Crow — because there is a large gang of them in Uferstr, and it looked a little sad, lost, and underdressed in the museum next to all the ~geiers, hawks and other splendid aviators.
I was getting tired by now, so the bird section was somewhat perfunctory. I stopped by the Museum shop on the way out. They had Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday on the shelves, which caused me to doubt the seriousness of their (the Museum’s) engagement with its public; it’s almost like giving genuine consideration to Intelligent Design. They did have nice breakfast bowls with Archaeopteryx on them, and besides the bizarre inclusion of Diamond, quite a few books I’d throw Euros at.
So, Museum für Naturkunde! Go on a non-weekend day (though week days are probably rife with school groups); use the audio guide, I think it’s the best I’ve heard; take supplies (there is no café at present); go early and leave late; go again, it’s a little uneven with the renovations and it’s not the American Museum of Natural History, but it’s bloody good, especially the minerals.