The Promise of the E-ELT

paranal

Great article in the Guardian about a massive telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT, being built in Chile (once they’ve blown the cap off Cerro Armazones). The first thing that got my attention was the description of the existing observatory complex at Paranal:

More than 100 astronomers, engineers and support staff work and live there. A few dozen metres below the telescopes, they have a sports complex with a squash court, an indoor football pitch, and a luxurious 110-room residence that has a central swimming pool and a restaurant serving meals and drinks around the clock.

Sounds swank. I could definitely imagine a satisfying stay there: eat, sleep, exercise, investigate stellar phenomena, repeat.

The second thing that got my attention was this quote from Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore:

“We can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”

Uh wow. I did not realize this was on the horizon. I’m certainly hoping it’s not just hyperbole.

Quote #19

Riddley-WalkerCounting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fractiont out the Power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting clevverness is what it wer.

When they had all them things and marvelsome they cudnt sleap realy they dint have no res. They wer stressing ther self and straining all the time with counting. They said, ‘What good is nite its only dark time it aint no good for nothing only them as want to sly and sneak and take our parpety a way.’ They los out of memberment who nite wer. They jus wantit day time all the time and they wer going to do it with the Master Chaynjis.

They had the Nos. of the sun and moon all fractiont out and fed to the machines. They said, ‘Wewl put all the Nos. in to 1 Big 1 and that will be the No. of the Master Chaynjis.’ They bilt the Power Ring thats where you see the Ring Ditch now. They put in the 1 Big 1 and woosht it roun there come a flash of lite then bigger nor the woal worl and it ternt the nite to day. Then every thing gone black. Nothing only nite for years on end. Playgs kilt peopl off and naminals nor there wernt nothing growit in the groun. Man and woman starveling in the blackness looking for the dog to eat it and the dog out looking to eat them the same.

- Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker. Pretty much sums us up I guess.

Kingsnorth’s Wake and Its Predecessors

9781908717863This sounds pretty intriguing: a novel about Anglo-Saxon guerrillas fighting against their Norman conquerors in 11th-Century England, written in a sort of ersatz Old English. Adam Thorpe’s review of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake makes the obvious comparison to the earthy, atavistic voice of the narrator in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Thorpe’s review makes the protagonist of The Wake sound gratifyingly brutish and unreconstructed, and not nearly as quirkily sympathetic as the 14-year-old Riddley. But based on excerpts there’s quite a similar stylistic feel — Here’s Kingsnorth:

the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.

And here’s Hoban:

The Bernt Arse pack ben follering jus out of bow shot. When the shout gone up ther ears all prickt up. Ther leader he wer a big black and red spottit dog he come forit a littl like he ben going to make a speach or some thing til 1 or 2 bloaks uppit bow then he slumpt back agen and kep his farness follering us back. I took noatis of that leader tho. He wernt close a nuff for me to see his eyes but I thot his eye bin on me.

Riddley-WalkerIt’ll be interesting to see if Kingsnorth’s novel is as much of a slippery, satisfying, off-kilter epic as Riddley Walker – a near impossibility, given Hoban’s slippery, satisfying, off-kilter genius.

Thorpe also compares The Wake to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another great novel. Red Shift‘s most effective section (there are three eras of British history covered, with a mysterious connection between them) is Garner’s portrayal of a band of Roman soldiers trying to fight their way out of barbarian Britain. It’s a clear analogue to the Vietnam War, as well as to the UK’s own post-colonial police actions, and a murky, truly claustrophobic bit of work.

And, with reviewer’s prerogative, Thorpe also puts a word in for his own novel Ulverton, like Red Shift an episodic journey through the history of Britain. 1219123Ulverton is a fantastic novel as well (strangely, it’s right next to Riddley Walker on my bookshelves, though I’ve never consciously connected the two), covering three hundred years in the life of a fictional English town, each section written in a style reminiscent of the age. Thorpe takes a concept that could easily become a gimmick or a disjointed stylistic exercise and instead uses it to mount a classic exploration of the nature of social history.

I get the feeling The Wake might make a good Anglo-Saxon double-feature read with Nicola Griffith’s Hild — at some point later this year when my reading isn’t so goal-oriented I’m hoping I’ll get to them both.

The William Blake-Peter Venkman Connection

Reading a little William Blake last night, I finally figured out who he reminds me of. From The Four Zoas:

Los was the fourth immortal starry one, & in the Earth
Of a bright Universe Empery attended day & night
Days & Nights of revolving joy, Urthona was his name
In Eden; in the Auricular Nerves of Human life
Which is the Earth of Eden, by his Emanations propagated.

That is pure Louis Tully as possessed by Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer:

During the rectification of the Vuldronai, the traveller came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the Third Reconciliation of the last of the McKettrick Supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!

Seattle, Independents, and Amazon

Interesting article today in the NYT about bookstores vs. Amazon in Seattle — though maybe vs. is the wrong word, since the article’s slant is more about how the two are coming into an uneasy co-existence.

elliottbayThe article pretty firmly triangulates my working life. I worked in independent bookstores, both in California and here in Seattle, for six years before taking a job at Amazon, where I worked for a whole slew of years until I left last July to take some time off and pursue writing. I can confirm, for myself and plenty of Amazon folks I know, that we do indeed shop regularly at local bookstores. I can also confirm that the members of Amazon teams that focus on books (as opposed to diapers, pliers, mascara, etc.) are avid and engaged readers.

Certainly I’ll be shopping at Phinney Books, which, as featured in the article, is my buddy Tom Nissley’s new bookstore, opening in May in Seattle’s Greenwood/Phinney Ridge neighborhood.

Richard Hoggart and the Postmortem Obit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Postmortem obit” may sound redundant but bear with me here.

A few days ago I grabbed Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy from the shelf and leafed through it, then slotted it back in its little line of blue Pelican editions. I’ve been in a mood to read something about literature, rather than literature itself, but Hoggart’s book has always baffled me. It doesn’t feel like any particular sort of beast, fish or fowl or frog or whatever. It’s not quite literary criticism, and it’s not quite memoir — from what I can tell, anyway, as I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. The subject line on the back of the book is “Sociology & Anthropology” which sort of feels like the good folks at Pelican shrugging their shoulders and saying “Ehh?”

Since I couldn’t quite figure out whether the book would scratch my itch, or indeed even what sort of itch it would scratch, I moved on and read a chapter of William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral. No question whether or not that’s lit crit.

I had no idea Hoggart was still alive; but it was a near-run thing, as he died today at the hard-to-argue-with age of 95. In their brief news item, The Guardian validates my confusion about his most famous book, calling it “famously unclassifiable — part autobiography, part social criticism and part cultural history.”

The obituary proper is more meaty than the news item above. Both mention Hoggart’s WWII service with the Royal Artillery in North Africa and Italy (which always seems to me like the quintessential British soldier’s experience in WWII, racing around Libya on Rommel’s heels) as well as his orphaning at eight years of age. But I had no idea he’d been a key witness in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial (the obit has a link to an excerpt of Dr. Who’s David Tennant fluently portraying Hoggart on the witness stand: “Fook it fook it fook it”). It’s also always nice to hear that a successful and respected writer “never found writing easy.” Join the club, buddy.

The obituary is itself a fine piece of writing, being particularly poignant on Hoggart’s childhood travails (a nervous breakdown from overwork at age thirteen!). But it’s the final touch that’s really brilliant: the obit writer died four years ago and has his own Guardian obituary. There’s a Borgesian recursiveness here, almost eerie in its irony: the subject of the obituary outlived the man who wrote it.

My Writing Theory of the Day

Your approach to writing SF is basically determined by which Burroughs you give your allegiance to.

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