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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

Nothing dates faster than the future, which is why I think Arthur C. Clarke does indeed deserve to be called one of the greatest science-fiction writers. Despite his cardboard characters and his adolescent psychology, his futures are still plausible, still capable of suspending disbelief, decades after he created them. At his best and boldest, he was a kind of optimistic, neurosis-free Lovecraft: Rendezvous with Rama (1973) has gigantic themes and images, but with irony and understatement too.

Man’s first encounter with an alien civilization doesn’t work the way it should, but that adds to the interest and the fun. Clarke wrote with gusto and seems to have lived that way too. He might have moved to Sri Lanka partly to indulge his paederasty, but he also liked the sunshine and sea he found there. The sea is a frontier, something that challenges and sometimes punishes the men who want to explore and exploit it, and Clarke’s writing is always about frontiers. His characters are always explorers in some way, part of an effort to expand into the unknown. Where J.G. Ballard dove into the head and explored the endless possibilities of mind, Clarke dove out of it, away into the universe, and explored the endless possibilities of matter. A Fall of Moondust is about a very simple form of matter in a very strange setting:

No one could have told, merely by looking at it, whether the Sea [of Thirst] was liquid or solid. It was completely flat and featureless, quite free from the myriad cracks and fissures that scarred all the rest of this barren world. Not a single hillock, boulder, or pebble broke its monotonous uniformity. No sea on Earth – no millpond, even – was ever as calm as this.

It was a sea of dust, not of water, and therefore it was alien to all the experience of men; therefore, also, it fascinated and attracted them. Fine as talcum powder, drier in this vacuum than the parched sands of the Sahara, it flowed as easily and effortlessly as any liquid. A heavy object dropped into it would disappear instantly, without a splash, leaving no scar to mark its passage. Nothing could move upon its treacherous surface except the small, two-man dust-skis – and Selene herself, an improbable combination of sledge and bus, not unlike the Sno-cats that had opened up the Antarctic a lifetime ago. (ch. 1)

There you can see Clarke’s greatness as a science-fiction writer. He took his scientific knowledge and created something new but entirely plausible from it: a sea of dust where a ship called the Selene sails for the entertainment and edification of tourists. It’s a frontier, a new place for man to test his engineering and his ingenuity. And the test gets very big when Clarke arranges for the Selene to sink. I won’t describe how he does it, but again he’s creating something new but entirely plausible from his scientific knowledge. His stories often creak psychologically and sociologically, but they’re always technically solid.

And he can mix macrocosm and microcosm. When the Sea of Thirst gapes and gulps down the Selene, her captain Pat Harris is overwhelmed by a childhood memory:

He was a boy again, playing in the hot sand of a forgotten summer [back on Earth]. He had found a tiny pit, perfectly smooth and symmetrical, and there was something lurking in its depths – something completely buried except for its waiting jaws. The boy had watched, wondering, already conscious of the fact that this was the stage for some microscopic drama. He had seen an ant, mindlessly intent upon its mission, stumble at the edge of the crater and topple down the slope.

It would have escaped easily enough – but when the first grain of sand had rolled to the bottom of the pit, the waiting ogre had reared out of its lair. With its forelegs, it had hurled a fusillade of sand at the struggling insect, until the avalanche had overwhelmed it and brought it sliding down into the throat of the crater.

As Selene was sliding now. No ant lion had dug this pit on the surface of the Moon, but Pat felt as helpless now as that doomed insect he had watched so many years ago. Like it, he was struggling to reach the safety of the rim, while the moving ground swept him back into the depths where death was waiting. A swift death for the ant, a protracted one for him and his companions. (ch. 2)

Death will be protracted for the crew and passengers of the Selene because they survive submersion, but have no way of making contact with the outside world: the dust, “with its high metallic content, was an almost perfect shield” for radio waves. So nobody knows what has happened to them or where they are, and for a time it seems as though nobody ever will. Then a clever but socially clumsy scientist discovers a way to detect the Selene. Rescue gets under way above the dust while the social dynamics of living entombment work out below it. Clarke is much better with technology than he is with psychology and the social side of A Fall of Moondust isn’t what makes it worth reading. There’s some disturbing and even disgusting sexism: one of the passengers is a trouble-making “neurotic spinster”, for example – and yes, Clarke actually uses that phrase.

And the private technology of the novel, as opposed to the public, is no good. In fact, the private technology is non-existent. The trapped passengers ward off boredom by pooling their reading matter: “the total haul consisted of assorted lunar guides, including six copies of the official handbook; a current best seller, The Orange and the Apple, whose unlikely theme was a romance between Nell Gwyn and Sir Isaac Newton; a Harvard Press edition of Shane, with scholarly annotations by a professor of English; an introduction to the logical positivism of Auguste Comte; and a week-old copy of the New York Times, Earth edition.”

The story is set in about 2040, but Clarke didn’t anticipate iPads and Kindles, so A Fall of Moondust is a curious mixture of visionary and vapid. You could see it as a thought-experiment: what happens scientifically and psychologically when a ship is submerged in a sea of dust? His science works well, whether the Selene is overheating or suddenly and almost fatally settling deeper in the sea. And there’s a characteristically clever and concise Clarkean touch right at the end, when the Selene has been successfully evacuated:

“Is everyone out?” Lawrence asked anxiously.

“Yes,” said Pat. “I’m the last man.” Then he added, “I hope,” for he realized that in the darkness and confusion someone might have been left behind. Suppose Radley had decided not to face the music back in New Zealand…

No – he was here with the rest of them. Pat was just starting to do a count of heads when the plastic floor gave a sudden jump – and out of the open well shot a perfect smoke ring of dust. It hit the ceiling, rebounded, and disintegrated before anyone could move.

“What the devil was that?” said Lawrence. (ch. 30)

If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to read this book. And I can recommend it. Clarke was not a great psychologist or a subtle wordsmith, but he was a great science-fictioneer. This book published in 1961 still retains its scientific and technical interest more than half-a-century later. A Fall of Moondust isn’t his best work, but it’s impressive all the same.

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Forthcoming Fetidity / Future Ferality from TransVisceral Books…

Slo-Mo Psy-Ko: The Sinister Story of the Stockport Slayer…, Zac Zialli — fetid-but-fascinating investigation of a serial slayer who has flown under the police radar for decades…
Not Just for Necrophiles: A Toxic Tribute to Killing for Culture…, ed. Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Joshua N. Schlachter — 23 Titans of Trangression come together to pay tribute to the seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture
Opium of the Peephole: Spying, Slime-Sniffing and the Snowdenian Surveillance State, Norman Foreman (B.A.) — edgy interrogation of the unsettling parallels between state-sponsored surveillance and the Daily Meal


TransVisceral Books — for Readers who Relish the Rabid, Rancid and Reprehensibly Repulsive
TransVisceral BooksCore Counter-Culture… for Incendiary Individualists
TransVisceral BooksTotal Toxicity… (since 2005)…

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Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons RobertsEdgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Chivers 2011)

Many people will open this book and think: Ballardian. I certainly thought that. But I also thought: Simplish. That’s an adjective for something reminiscent of the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple, who wrote about the “mysterious urban poetry” of litter-choked ponds and abandoned power-stations. So do Paul Farley and Michael Roberts. They write about literal poetry too, quoting Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes to illustrate their ideas about the places that exist on the edges of towns and cities, that service our civilization while being ignored, overlooked or despised: industrial estates, cooling towers, rubbish dumps, mines, reservoirs, sewage works, recycling plants, warehouses, self-storage depots, airports, conference centres, and so on.

These are places that are often deserted by night or visited rarely by day, that sometimes shelter wild animals, birds and plants, preserve out-dated machinery and out-moded fashions, provide spaces for roaming children, inspire artists, poets and writers. J.G Ballard was one of those writers: Crash (1973) is a book about edgelands, both literal and psychological: airport hotels, mecho-fetishism. But Ballard was writing about edgelands from the beginning of his career, returning again and again to crumbling buildings and obsessive lives:

Outside his room, steps sounded along the corridor, then slowly climbed the stairway, pausing for a few seconds at every landing. Bridgman lowered the memo-tape in his hand, listening to the familiar tired footsteps. This was Louise Woodward, making her invariable evening ascent to the roof ten storeys above. Bridgman glanced at the timetable pinned to the wall. Only two of the satellites would be visible, between 12.25 and 12.35 a.m., at an elevation of 62 degrees in the south-west, passing through Cetus and Eridanus, neither of them containing her husband. Although the sighting was two hours away, she was already taking up her position, and would remain there until dawn. (“The Cage of Sand”, 1962)

So this from Edgelands is like one of Ballard’s short stories come to life:

One of the strangest encounters we had in the edgelands was following a visit to a breaker’s yard on an industrial estate near Morecambe. … We found a man standing by his car looking into the evening sky with binoculars. The sky to the west was still a bright indigo, touched with reds and turquoises, the last embers of a typically spectacular west-coast sunset. But this man wasn’t interested in sunsets. Or birds.

He had come to watch for an Iridium flare. Iridium satellites are a constellation of relatively small communications satellites, set in low earth orbit for over a decade. They have highly reflective, silver-coated panels that can catch the sun’s light, producing a reflection tens of kilometres wide at the earth’s surface, and if you’re standing at the right spot, they’re often easily visible. (“Cars”, pg. 26)

You can buy an iPhone app that tells you where and when to watch for one. The authors stand with the man and see “a slow and languorous brightening … flashing suddenly into brilliance for a moment, before fading away.”

Ballard would also have liked the section about “golf driving ranges”, where people pay to hit balls out into an open space. This “silent ritual” is odd by day, even odder after dark: as rain pelts down on a corrugated roof above the club-swingers, “out there, slow white bullets trace an arc across the sky, spinning right to left or left to right, crossing each other in the air. Six, seven, ten at a time, out into the night” (pg. 299).

An abandoned factory

An abandoned factory

The book is full of oddness like that, describing strange situations and surreal juxtapositions, mixing obscure history and miniature travelogue, introducing you to artists and writers you’ll want to investigate further, celebrating technology and questioning it. The writing could easily have been pretentious and Guardianista, but it never is. Perhaps that’s because Farley and Roberts are both northern and both poets. That doesn’t guarantee graceful or down-to-earth writing, but you’ll find both here. They can discuss horror vacui and industrial pallets with equal ease, celebrate the pleasures of tree-houses and the beauty of wild flowers.

And not-so-wild ones. One section I particularly enjoyed was their description of how English cities, homogenized by big business, are still distinguished by the flora that grows in their edgelands. Bristol is a “Buddleia city”, Swansea is “dominated by Japanese knotweed”; Sheffield is home to garden escapees like “feverfew and goat’s rue, tansy, soapwort and Michaelmas daisies”, Swindon has “extensive stands of St John’s wort, with wild carrot, welted thistle, great burnet, crow garlic and ploughman’s spikenard” (pg. 185-6). But in every city there are “branches of Starbucks, Carphone Warehouse, WH Smith, Dixons, Currys and McDonald’s”.

That commercial list becomes a refrain, a banal repetition heightening the richness and strangeness of the flower-names filling the spaces in-between. But then they’re talking about CCTV or floodlighting and finding something rich and strange there too. I learnt a lot from this book and re-thought some of my ideas. I enjoyed it a lot too. If you’re a fan of J.G. Ballard or Peter Simple, so might you.

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Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World by Alex NewsonFifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Bicycles are good things. They’re cleaner, quieter and compacter than cars, but I understand the irritation that many people feel towards them. Bikes and pedestrians often compete for the same space and not all riders are considerate. But bike-ophobia isn’t a rational prejudice: for destruction and deadliness, bikes are to cars rather as the common cold is to cholera. Like trains, they’ve changed the world for the better, not the worse, because they don’t impose huge changes on cities and the countryside or poison the psychology of those who use them.

This book is a celebration of man-powered two-wheeled transport. It looks at fifty world-changing bikes, from the Laufmaschine of c. 1817, which had two wheels but no pedals, to the electric bikes of the early 21st century. These bikes, with their sophisticated long-life batteries, have finally ended what might be called “bicymplicity”. Bicycles were a machine that people could understand at a glance and repair for themselves in a few minutes. They’ve been a cheap and reliable form of transport right around the world for well over a century.

But how much have they actually changed the world? One big way may have been that they expanded the horizons not just of travellers but of suitors too, particularly in a big country like France. Exogamy became easier, so bikes may have changed our genetics and not just our muscles. Perhaps that exogamic assistance helps explain the popularity of cycling in France. But Great Britain has dominated the sport in recent years, as this book describes and illustrates: there’s a photograph of Chris Hoy, insect-eyed in a cycling helmet, celebrating his gold medal in the “London 2012 Olympic Games men’s keirin final” (pg. 103).

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics


Where has this British success come from? The book doesn’t have much text and doesn’t provide much of an answer. Nor does it explain some other patterns that are obvious as you look through it. Cycling is a very white sport, even though bikes are very popular in China:

The Flying Pigeon is synonymous with China. Since the first Flying Pigeon was produced in 1950 more than 500 millions units have been made, making it not just the most popular bicycle ever produced, but the most popular vehicle ever. (“Flying Pigeon PA-02, c. 1950”, pg. 34)

That page also notes that “China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping defined prosperity as ‘a Flying Pigeon in every household’.” The definition of prosperity has changed in China since then, which is why the country has such a bad problem with pollution. Bikes don’t pollute and don’t cut us off from the natural world. In fact, they have almost become part of it. As you’ll see reading through this book, bike frames have evolved almost like skeletons and in the extreme environment of BMX competition they’ve even lost their seats, becoming a minimalist combination of wheels, pedals, chain and handlebars.

Bikes can take us further out into the natural world too, as the page about mountain biking describes. Like skateboarding, mountain biking began in California and there’s a good picture of two young men, bikes at the ready, gazing down into a mist-filled, pine-covered valley. But I don’t think bikes are the best way to travel through a wilderness. They churn up the ground less than motorbikes but more than boots. Walking is still the quintessentially human way of moving about on the earth’s surface. Or perhaps you could say quintessentially hominid. In which case, perhaps we’re at our most human on a bike.

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The Future of Architecure in 100 Buildings by Mark KushnerThe Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings, Mark Kushner (Simon & Schuster 2015)

A little red book about contemporary architecture. As I’d expected before opening it, there is a lot of ugliness here – architecture that reminds me of a phrase in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942): “the vast bulk of London University insulting the autumnal sky.” There are buildings here that insult the sky, the eye, and everything else. They look like bricks, kitchen utensils or nerve-gas factories.

But there are also buildings that look like jewels, waves or sea-shells. The Bvlgari Art Pavilion at Manarat Al Saadiyat, in Abu Dhabi, is literally jewel-like: “Off-the-shelf acrylic tubes are assembled to create a rigid pavilion whose shape is inspired by a rough gemstone” (pp. 44-5). Elsewhere, the columns at Terminal 2 of the Chhatrapati (sic) Shivaji International Airport in Bombay look like a cross between lotus stems and stalactites. But the Aqua Tower in Chicago doesn’t so much achieve beauty as avoid ugly. It’s “really just a traditional rectangular skyscraper”, but the architect made the balconies into “curvy and changing platforms”, so it harmonizes with the sky and clouds rather than clashing with them (pp. 76-7).

Bvlgari pavilion

Bvlgari Pavilion, Abu Dhabi

A “five-story” wall on Le Oasis d’Aboukir in Paris is harmonious in another way: it’s covered in plants that grow “without soil” in a “metal, PVC and nonbiodegradable felt structure” (pp. 96-7). Turning cities into vertical forests is a good idea. And it may please the palate, not just the eye: why transport food long distances when it can be grown in citu, as it were? Another new idea is “Flight Assembled Architecture”, using robot helicopters to lift building materials into place. As Mark Kushner says: “No cranes. No ladders. No limits.”

Aqua Tower, Chicago

Aqua Tower, Chicago

To date modern architecture has certainly challenged the limits of ugliness and abhumanity, but this book suggests that advancing technology is allowing older ideas to re-emerge. Buildings should be like bodies: full of curves and small details, not straight lines and sharp corners. They should defy the lifelessness of stone, metal and plastic, not emphasize it. Some of the buildings here defy it, some emphasize it. I hope the defiance wins.

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Dream Cars by Sam PhilipDream Cars: The Hot 100, Sam Philip (BBC Books 2014)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The UK would be much better off without the Three C’s: cars, canines and coos (i.e., pigeons*). I don’t like cars and I’m not interested in them. But I’m interested in why I’m not interested.

One reason is that I don’t find cars attractive. For me an attractive make of car is like an attractive breed of dog: it’s unusual. Ugliness is the rule with cars and dogs, not the exception. Planes are more like cats: ugliness is the exception, not the rule. But I can still find an ugly plane (like the A-10) interesting. And I like tanks, which are much more brutish than cars. However, tanks can be elegant too and they do something interesting: kill people and blow things up. And they have tracks, not large and obvious wheels like cars. The wheels on a car put me off. I think part of it is the way they contradict the chassis. A chassis points somewhere and looks purposeful. A wheel doesn’t, because it’s circular.

A-10 Thunderbolt

A-10 Thunderbolt


So this book did nowt for me. I don’t find cars attractive or interesting, I never have and I hope I never will. For me, the best thing in this book was linguistic, not locomotive: the two words “Lamborghini Murciélago”. They’re almost incantatory. But I have to admit that the car lives up to them: a “bewinged, four-wheel-drive beast capable of hauling from nought to 60mph in 3.2 seconds and running all the way to 212 mph” (pg. 139). I think “hauling” should be “howling”, though. That’s what beasts do, after all, and in their “promotional bumf, Lamborghini proudly boasts” that the car “emits a range of noises from ‘the trumpeting of mighty elephants to the roar of a raging lion’”.
Lamborghini Murciélago

Lamborghini Murciélago


But men make the beast. Italians, in this case. They’re one of four nations whose cars get sections to themselves: Great Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. Everyone else, from Sweden to Japan, is filed under “Rest of the World”. Like guns, cars demonstrate the importance of genetics for technology. Light-skinned races living at high latitudes are the only ones that matter, because they have the necessary intelligence. But the invention and innovation come from Europe. Within Europe, the art comes from Italy. I don’t feel it much myself, but I recognize that cars can be works of art. Lamborghini would make good use of Leonardo if he came back to life.

So I don’t agree with the claim that “when it comes to cars, Britannia still rules the waves” (pg. 7). But this book is aimed at fans of Top Gear and provocative opinioneering is part of TG’s USP. And it later notes that: “Top Gear has long maintained that you can’t be a true petrolhead until you own an Alfa [Romeo].” Being a petrolhead isn’t one of my ambitions, but that’s an interesting observation for a British programme to make. The presenters don’t write here, but there are constant references to “Clarkson” and his sidekicks Phil Hammond and James May. Sam Philip successfully mimics their slangy, ironic/hyperbolic, public-schoolboy style, presumably because he has the same background. And again I have to admit: though I hope I never see it again, Top Gear is an entertaining programme and I enjoy Jeremy Clarkson’s political incorrectness.

But he’s still a yob and an example of something I do find interesting about cars: their effect on human psychology. The late great Peter Simple prophesied Clarkson long ago when he invented J. Bonington Jagworth, who leads the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front and defends “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases”. Jagworth would have liked Dream Cars, although even he might have thought the cardboard 3-D glasses and blurry 3-D double-spreads were a bit undignified.

The 3-D photos didn’t work for me when I tried the glasses, so they went well with the glossy normal photos, which didn’t work for me either. Sleek shiny machines for driving fast in. Yawn. Give me planes any day. Or tanks. Or cats. But petrolheads will feel differently. As the introduction says: “If you love cars – and if you don’t, what are you doing here? – there’s never been a better time to be alive.” What was I doing here? Trying to understand better why I don’t love cars. I’ve succeeded.


*No, seriously.

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