msb ~039 The truth? Dream on

The truth? Dream on

Mapping certainties

Following Philip Dick, here’s another favourite speculative writer: Christopher Priest. I just finished the Ordnance Survey ‘Britain’s islands’ quiz after rereading Anticipatory History‘s Dream-map entry, so it’s no surprise that Priest’s Dream Archipelago came to mind. There’s a slipperiness to his decades-long project of stories set on these fictional-but-familiar islands on a world (un)like ours. In a 2011 interview ahead of The Islanders he’s asked, “Creating the climate, topography and various customs of the islands must have been quite challenging … Did you use a map or some other technique?” Priest: “No map is allowed. Not even to me … Living in the islands, or trying to travel through them, you almost always get lost. No one knows the way, everyone is a bit muddled.” Continue reading “msb ~039 The truth? Dream on”

msb ~038 “Let’s hear it for the vague blur!”

“Let’s hear it for the vague blur!”

Philip K Dick: no vague blur

I consumed Philip Dick’s novels by the handful as a teenager: just part of my science fiction diet. Many of his stories sit well with that other fare, but the shock of A Scanner Darkly, VALIS and The Divine Invasion comes into sharper relief away from the glare of rayguns, hyperdrives and aliens. Dick wrote his experience, not ‘fiction’. In BBC Radio’s Great Lives, actor Michael Sheen discusses Dick’s influence on him: “the moment where the central character begins to discover that maybe the reality he’s taking for granted is not what’s going on, maybe there’s something else going on behind it. That is a very frightening moment.” Continue reading “msb ~038 “Let’s hear it for the vague blur!””

msb ~034 Our Plastisphere future?

Our Plastisphere future?

Plastisphere soup

When I was an environmental student in the early 90s, I chose the Mediterranean for a study on transboundary pollution. From memory, oil pollution into that sea worked out at over 17 Exxon Valdez disasters every year. That Alaskan tanker spill was still big news back then, driving a lot of environmental awareness. In contrast, 17 equivalent marine disasters in the Mediterranean, year on year: barely commented on. Of course, oil pollution’s just one facet of what we’re now learning to call the ‘plastisphere’ – the planetary zone that encompasses the discarded petroleum-based products and packaging that’s smothering rivers and swirling in ocean eddies, but also the leaked, spilt and spewed fossil fuels with which we make the plastics and push them around the world. Continue reading “msb ~034 Our Plastisphere future?”

msb ~029 Beyond the background wild #1

Beyond the background wild #1

Fox time

Thinking about those moments when I’ve really encountered wild animals, I realise there are very few true moments. Beyond the ‘background wild’, I mean. Yes, crows call from trees as I pass beneath, a deer runs from me in the woods; or I spy a fox just sitting in the sunlit field, watching its world. The spiders and flies and (when there was a cat) fleas in the house. Very few true moments: encountering something wild encountering me, when we break through the veil and see each other across the divide. Continue reading “msb ~029 Beyond the background wild #1”

msb ~028 Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

David Malone, Metamorphosis

No one does interesting, thoughtful science films quite like David Malone. So it’s great to see again 2013’s Metamorphosis: the science of change. There’s the familiar but fascinating science of insects shape-shifting from one form to another — caterpillar to butterfly — or taking on completely new behaviours — locusts switching from loners to swarms. Explanations of tadpoles interpreting environmental cues to trigger their transformation into frogs. And there’s the disturbing, radical story of creatures that are two life forms simultaneously: genetically identical but morphologically distinct, radically different. Continue reading “msb ~028 Metamorphosis”

msb ~027 Breakthroughs from left field

Breakthroughs from left field

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Wonderful to see Jocelyn Bell Burnell rewarded now; her ground-breaking discovery should have brought her 1974’s Nobel Prize. Her male collaborators received that, though she did the hard work on pulsars: supercondensed end-of-life stars that emit intense radio beams. Radically expanding our understanding of the cosmos, such breakthroughs also helped fuel my own interest; ten years later, I embarked on my astrophysics degree). Now she’s been awarded the Breakthrough Prize for her landmark work. Continue reading “msb ~027 Breakthroughs from left field”

msb ~021 Tune in, all senses on

Tune in, all senses on

Fox and Woods

How many signals from ‘out there’ do we miss? Our animal senses — already selectively filtered to the exacting ‘survive-and-thrive’ demands of our species-niche within the more-than-human world — have become blunted by the restricted environment we’ve created for ourselves. Can our de-tuned faculties of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling still reach out beyond the ‘low bandwidth, high volume’ saturation of 70+ years of Great Acceleration? Very probably yes — with practice and attention. Imagination is the greatest technology we can deploy in our favour here, humility its renewable fuel. Continue reading “msb ~021 Tune in, all senses on”

msb ~020 Terra Antarctica, terror incognita

Terra Antarctica, terror incognita

Antarctica: The Why Factor

What knowledge does land possess? Should we fear what unknown lands might discover of us? Of all the places I’ll never go, never know, Antarctica stands out. Coldest, highest, driest, windiest, least inhabited, most alien. One vast desert boasting half of Earth’s fresh water. A whole continent 98% under ice up to 3km thick. Untouchable? Far from unreachable by the global, heating and polluting human footprint.

Paradoxically, even its unknowability is now contaminated, eroded, domesticated by a human presence that travels there even when we don’t. Its alien knowledge of us grows: parts per million, year by year.  Continue reading “msb ~020 Terra Antarctica, terror incognita”