The fire from the skies

When I was a kid at school in the 70s a lot of the music we listened to was blues-based stuff and prog rock.  I don’t listen to much of that now -the music from then that stands the test of time for me is from quite different genres- but here is a little prog rock classic that still works for me: the extended piece by Genesis called Supper’s Ready.  I specially love the section that breaks out at about 15:30 in a burst of sheer exultant energy, with imagery straight from the Book of Revelations:

With the guards of Magog, swarming around
The Pied Piper takes his children underground
Dragon’s coming out of the sea
Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me
He brings down the fire from the skies
You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes
Better not compromise, it won’t be easy

666 is no longer alone
He’s getting out the marrow in your backbone
And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll
Gonna blow right down inside your soul
Pythagoras with the looking glass reflects the full moon
In blood, he’s writing the lyrics of a brand-new tune

Why is it that the destruction of everything we know can be such an exhilarating idea?  Is too fanciful of me to say that being human is only one thin layer of what we are, and that (as the Jeff folk put it in Eden) before anything else, we are simply the world looking out at itself?  From that perspective, after all, nothing can ever be finally destroyed, only thrown in the fire to be cast anew.

Angie Redlantern speaks

Daughter of Eden is now out as an audiobook from Audible.   It’s read by Imogen Church and, listening to the sample, I think she’s done a really wonderful job of it.  I felt I was listening to Angie Redlantern herself telling the story.  Which was a strange and rather moving experience, given that Angie (possibly my favourite Eden character) came out of my own head.  Click on this link for the free sample and judge for yourself.

Problematic (Words I don’t like #1)

A Canadian student group apologises for including he Lou Reed song Walk on the Wild Side in a playlist, on the basis that the lyrics of the song are transphobic and therefore ‘problematic’.   Transphobia seems a pretty weird charge to lay against this particular song -a song which actually celebrates a transexual character in its opening verse- but let’s leave that aside.  What I find actually creepiest about this story is the use of the word ‘problematic’.

To be clear about this, I don’t mind people strongly objecting to what other people say.  ‘I find X’s views utterly obnoxious’, is fine.  So is ‘X’s views are racist” (and indeed so is ‘ X’s views are transphobic’, whether or not it happens to be a reasonable charge in this particular case).   But ‘X’s views are problematic’, which in a way sounds more polite, less confrontational, I find quite nauseating.

I’m trying to figure out why.   I think in part it’s the very politeness that I object to, the tight, anal, priggish, self-control that is implied. But I think perhaps also it’s the implication that there exists a single correct account of the world, which the speaker possesses and others do not.

Not so pretty things

My son was playing old David Bowie tracks recently and one of them was ‘Oh You Pretty Things,’ from Hunky Dory, an album which I adored and must have listened to thousands of times in my teens.  ‘Pretty Things’ is a paeon to a new generation shouldering aside a stale old one:

Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race…

You gotta make way for the homo superior

It was a common theme in the late 60s and 70s.  See Joni Mitchell’s lovely ‘Woodstock,’ for instance, or Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Volunteers’ (‘…One generation got old/One generation got soul…’)   But as I listened to it, it struck me with a mixture of sadness and wry amusement that the generation Bowie was thinking of were the Baby Boomers, the very people, now at the threshold of old age, who many in a new generation are blaming for the current dire state of the world.

Optimism, Stories and The Switch

Science fiction is usually set in the future.   It’s true that quite often it is only nominally the future -much science fiction is set in worlds that are no more plausible as a depiction of a real future than, say, Arthurian romances are plausible as depictions of a real past-  but even so, one of the functions that SF performs is providing an imaginative way of thinking about where we may be headed.

An SF writer must primarily be a story-teller, though.  There has to be tension and jeopardy in the imagined world, in order to generate a story.  Fictional utopias, worlds where all humanity’s problems have been solved, are notoriously screamingly dull.  (Which sometimes makes me wonder if we would really even want to live in a utopian society, or whether, like David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, we’d feel compelled to destroy it in order to get away from the tedium of it all?)  It’s much easier to set an interesting story in a dystopia, or at least in a world which is at least as flawed as the present, and I’m not sure its even possible to set an interesting novel in a utopia unless the utopian society is placed under some kind of external threat ( as in Huxley’s Island, or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

I mention all this because I like to read about positive developments that might improve things in the future, and as someone who writes about the future (and worries about it, as we all do), I always feel that I’d like to disseminate what I read, but in fact it is very hard to do so through the medium of SF.  I think maybe I just need to accept that non-fiction is a better medium for writing about such things.

the switch cover

The Switch (by Chris Goodall) is a very readable book about the hopeful possibilities arising from the fact that solar power is becoming cheaper year on year, to the point where it will soon be a much more cost-effective source of energy than fossil fuels.  Early solar panels cost many thousands of dollars per watt of power,but ‘by the mid 1970s the figure had fallen to $100 a watt.  Now the cost is about 50 cents and the decline still continues’ and ‘in the sunnier parts of the world, photovoltaics already offer electricity at lower total cost than other forms of power’.  Even in more northerly countries, PV [photovoltaics] is dramatically reducing in cost: ‘In Britain the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels has already pushed PV almost to cost parity with planned gas-fired power stations’.  And ‘because PV is so utterly reliable and almost maintenance-free, it is a perfect investment for pension funds seeking consistent yearly returns for the thirty-five years of a panel’s life.’

But there’s an obvious problem with PV which is that sunlight isn’t constant and can’t be turned on and off to meet demand.   Actually no other source of power can be turned on and off at will like that without at least some cost, but clearly PV doesn’t work at all in the night,  generates power in the middle of the day whether it is needed or not, and generates less power when the sky clouds over, even if more is actually needed during those times.  Most of the book is therefore about developments around the world aimed at addressing this problem, which the author sees as eminently surmountable.

There are a number of layers to this.  One is to manage demand more effectively.   There are already schemes whereby companies are paid to enter into an agreement to cut energy use at short notice when there is a spike in demand, which can often be done without affecting productivity.  For example, a papermill produces pulp and stores it, and then turns the pulp into paper.  Provided there is a sufficient store of pulp, pulp-making can be paused at any point, without reducing the overall output of the mill.  In the same way domestic fridges and freezers can be turned off for short periods without ill-effect and chargers for electric vehicles can be set to stop charging at periods of peak demand, and resume charging at periods of lower demand.

Another way is to store the energy.  Pumped storage – that is: using surplus power to pump water uphill, and then allowing that water to flow down through a turbine to generate power at times of energy shortage- has been the main means of doing this on a large scale, but there are a limited number of suitable sites for this.   There are also new solar powerstations being built which, instead of using PV, concentrate solar energy to generate heat that can be used to power turbines even when the sun is down (Morocco has made a big commitment to this approach and is currently developing the largest such scheme in the world).  Increasingly though, large-scale storage in batteries is becoming an option, because batteries are reducing in cost year on year, much like PV, albeit not quite so quickly.   In countries where there is steady sun throughout the year, this book suggests, a combination of PV and banks of batteries may on their own be able to provide sufficient power for household use.

However in countries with long, relatively dark winters, batteries will not be sufficient.  The later chapters of this book explore emergent technologies, not yet as far advanced as PV or batteries, which can use surplus power to synthesise  fuels, by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with carbon dioxide to make methane or ethanol.  One of the attractive things about this approach is that there is an existing infrastructure of storage tanks and pipelines which are currently used for fossil fuels, as well as gas powerstations that could equally well run on synthesised fuel.   The book describes a range of different approaches being taken around the world towards mimicking what plants do naturally, using sunlight to make fuel, and doing so on a commercial scale.

I couldn’t make a novel out of all this -perhaps some people could, but I couldn’t- and yet it is a fascinating story.  I guess the truth is that the really creative people here are not story-tellers who imagine worlds, but the scientists, engineers,  entrepreneurs and politicians, who actually make things happen in the real world that we all inhabit.  I know that a lot of people would argue that the rate of change towards these new technologies is still far too slow to tackle climate change, but that’s a question about political will.   The political choice to shift away from fossil fuels is only even theoretically possible if viable alternatives are available.  The encouraging story this book tells is that they are, and getting more viable all the time.  The other encouraging point -and I’m simply not qualified to judge how realistic it is- is that a time is arriving where market forces themselves, regardless of politics, will pull us in the direction of solar power and power storage, and away from fossil fuels.

The stories of stories

I’ve always loved the way that stories themselves have stories, changing and evolving over time, so I liked the the idea reported here that some of the traditional fairytales we all know may go back many thousands of years.  The research which the article refers to uses similar techniques to those used by biologists and linguists to trace stories back to common ancestors, and concluded, for instance, that ‘the story known as ‘the Smith and the Devil was estimated to date back 6,000 years to the bronze age’.  (A smith sells his soul to the devil, but then outsmarts him: I’d say that the song ‘The Devil went down to Georgia‘ is an example, albeit with a fiddler instead of a smith.)

But I reckon some stories must go back a lot further than that.   There’s a Native American story from the Northwest coast of North America about a magical, shape-shifting Raven who stole fire, as well as the sun and stars, for humankind, who until then had lived in cold and darkness.   This is surely strikingly similar to the story of Prometheus in Greek myth, who also stole fire for humankind*.

But how far back would you have to go back to find a cultural common ancestor of Greece and pre-Columbian America?

*Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, while Raven stole from an eagle.   But it was eagles that were sent to punish Prometheus.  There is also a Norse story, in which Loki, a subversive shape shifter like Raven, steals from the giant Thiassi and escapes in bird form.  The giant pursues him in the form of an enormous eagle, and dies when fire sets light to his feathers. (Raven is scorched too: his feathers used to be pure white, but are turned black by the fire he stole.)

David Bowie

I was 15 when Hunky Dory came out, and it completely enchanted me.   Lush, lavish, at times almost operatic, it was wonderfully different from the earthy bluesy music people around me were listening to at the time, and I couldn’t  get enough of it.

So taken with David Bowie was I, in fact, that I actually risked expulsion from school to see him.  Discovering that  he would be playing at Oxford Town Hall one Saturday night, as part of his Ziggy Stardust tour, I bunked off from the boarding school I was at in Dorset, and hitchhiked 70-odd miles to Oxford.  I was an odd, solitary kid at that time and had run off from school on a previous occasion to wander for four days round the Dorset countryside by myself, oddly indifferent to the worry I was causing.  It had been made pretty clear to me that, if I went missing like that again, the school would ask me to leave.

Bowie still wasn’t famous enough then to fill a town hall, and I just bought a ticket at the door.  I sat in one of those brown metal chairs with canvas seats that you get, or used to get, in village halls, with empty seats all around me.  It was a fairly ragged performance as I remember (perhaps simply because I missed the lushness and artifice of Hunky Dory) but it was certainly a spectacle.  Bowie was in full Ziggy Stardust regalia, kneeling to perform musical fellatio on the guitar strings of his beautiful blonde guitarist, Mick Ronson.   (I wonder if his biggest achievement might turn out to be that he opened up the possibility that gay sexuality could be stylish and cool?  But I think the pull for me was the way that he made loneliness and outsiderhood seem cool also.)

Although Oxford was actually my home town, I didn’t think my parents would appreciate the fact that I was playing hookey from school, so after the concert I spent the night on the streets.   When it got too cold in the early hours of the morning, I huddled up in a cubicle in a public toilet.  (A trick I’d learnt from the previous escapade was to sleep in the Ladies. The Gents had urinals that suddenly flushed every few minutes, jerking me out of whatever level of sleep I’d managed to reach.)

When dawn broke, I hitched back down to Dorset.   I guess this was about 4 or 5 in the morning.  I remember the first driver to pick me up was so tired that he nodded off and drove right over a roundabout rather than going round it. Luckily there was no other traffic on the road.

Back at school I’d got someone to ruffle up my dormitory bed to make it look like I’d slept in it, and no one had noticed my absence.  This was probably a good thing, because my happiest time at that school was my final year, and I made some friends then who’ve remained friends to this day.

Though who knows?   Perhaps if I’d been expelled, I would have been forced to have the showdown with my parents that I really should have had, but which boarding school – and perhaps this is one of the purposes of this peculiar English institution – had helped me and them to sidestep.  In which case Bowie really would have changed my life.  As it was, a previous Bowie album, The Man who Sold the World, darker and more druggy, was to become the soundtrack to my memories of a time when, in place of open rebellion, I and my new friends retreated into our own subterranean world.

Here’s a Bowie song (actually a cover by him of a song by Iggy Pop), from a much later period, which is associated in my mind with that feeling of freedom and breaking away that comes with a sudden impulsive journey.

The Wichita Lineman

I consume music in a spasmodic kind of way.  I might go for months without deliberately listening to any music at all, and then will latch onto some song or fragment that fits my mood and play it to death.  Right now it’s this, “The Wichita Lineman”, not as most famously recorded by Glen Campbell but by the man who wrote the song, Jimmy Webb.

I’ve had to do some driving these last couple of days and have been listening to it over and over in my car on the album “Ten Easy Pieces”.  It’s a little fragment of a song – I gather that Webb hadn’t even finished writing it when Campbell first recorded it – and in one way it’s almost about nothing at all, just a tiny snatch of the random thoughts of the lineman as he wanders the roads by himself and climbs up the phone lines: about his job (“if it snows that stretch down south will never take the strain”), and how he could do with a vacation, and how he rather desperately loves someone.

What’s so clever is how the music fits so perfectly with the words. At the beginning and end, and in between the verses, it comes back to this morse code-like motif, like the signals going back and forth along the lines.  It’s as if, up there on his pole, silhoutted against the sky,  he stands apart from our busy human attempts to communicate, to keep in touch, to stave off aloneness.

There’s immense loneliness in the song, it seems to me, but it’s achingly beautiful too.  I see in Wikipedia that someone or other described it as “the first existential pop song”.  I’m not sure about that.  It’s predated, for instance, by Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the dock of the bay”  (another of my favourites, which surely could also claim that title), but it’s a truly great song.

Room full of mirrors

I’ve always liked the lyrics of this song by Jimi Hendrix.

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
I said the whole world is here for me to see
Now I’m searching for my love to be…

It’s a hard and scary thing to give up the company of one’s own projections, and to step out into a real world which you can’t control, and in which will only ever be a small part.  But unless you make that step, you will never grow up and you will be forever alone .

Roughly speaking, that’s the idea behind The Holy Machine, though the influence of this song is more obvious in Marcher, whose main protagonist actually does live in a room in a room full of mirrors.

Marcher New Cover
Room full of mirrors. Ben Baldwin’s cover image for Marcher.


Through endless skies

My son Dom and I have a habit of sending each other interesting songs that we come across, and he recently sent me this one, ‘Planet Caravan‘ by Black Sabbath, about the singer wandering through the universe with his lover.

Listening to it reminded me of one very simple reason why I write science fiction rather than realist fiction.  If you are going to make stuff up, why confine yourself to the narrow and parochial limits of our little patch of space and time?