Vandercloot

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“It’s living between the folds in your cerebral cortex.”
–   Dr. Vandercloot

Dr. Vandercloot is a 19th century exorcist, scientist, and collector of strange artifacts. He will appear on stage next month – Friday the 13th – October.

Info here: Seattle Playwright’s Salon

Vandercloot’s first name is Randolph, but you won’t know that from watching him on the stage, because no one is on a first-name basis with the doctor.

(He’s part of a Halloween-themed show presented by the Seattle Playwright’s Salon.)

His assistant, Alba, will accompany him. She enjoys the doctor’s occult science, but is a bit numbed from years of serving as his guinea pig.

(Remember that Friday night parking in Georgetown can be horrifying, so please appear earlier than the 7 p.m. start time.)

In this short adventure, Vandercloot endeavors to help his local dentist, named Florian, who has a terrible malady. In the process, we’ll seen some ghastly items from the doctor’s peculiar collections.

 

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excise these words from your memory

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This is another in a series about words and phrases that must be disintegrated for the good of us all. Kill these words:

Dramedy
Rom-com
Shillary and all variations thereof.
Donald Shlump, T-Rump, and variations
Libtard, Rethuglican and similar stupid epithets.

Some may think I’m dispensing with useful labels, but we also need to destroy:

millennials
gen X
gen Y
baby-boomers

Just say what you mean, dammit. Use the age-range of the people you are talking about. Also, let’s delete

tweens

What does this word mean, anyway? Pre-adolescent? Early teens? Ages 9 – 13? Then say it. No one wants a label that starts with “twee.”

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never suppress your paradoxes

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Writer and blogger Matthew Wright posted the photo below and challenged readers to write a 150-200 word story inspired by it. His post is here. My story squeaks in at 196 words, plus the title. I carefully carved away words one at time to bring it down to this svelte size.

It’s silly science fiction. I think it’s kinda lame, but there’s a wonderful outside-the-story twist. Matthew posted his prompt on February 2, and I’m responding on February 1 (different sides of the dateline, you know). Perfect for the theme of my story.

A Monument to Martha

This was Martha’s greatest creation. That says a lot, because she’d also invented the fusion incinerator and the matter blender; two conveniences that are now taken for granted, but once seemed miraculous. The newest miracle — the Reverse Temporal Vehicle.

It was just like her to put it in an art deco frame on wheels. As if the first time-displacement device wasn’t grand enough, she had to wrap the machine in elegant steel stripes and boastfully drive it.

Martha announced that she would drive backwards in time to 1931 New York City for the grand opening of another art deco classic, the Empire State Building. Before departing, she showed reporters her amazing invention, emphasizing the beautiful detailing and anti-paradox shielding.

No one knows what went wrong, but to this day we see her gorgeous machine protruding from the 23rd floor of the famous building. The rear is visible from the street. The front, where poor Martha sat, is fused with the building’s steel and limestone.

The paradox shielding had prevented her from ever learning about the silvery, wheeled outcrop in the building that mysteriously appeared in 1931. If known, it might have given her second thoughts.

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aurora, by kim stanley robinson

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aurora

When I read the outlines of the story behind Robinson’s book, Aurora, I expected something on the order of his Mars trilogy. That justly famous saga, composed of the books, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, tells the story of nothing less than the multi-generational colonization of Mars. It has memorable characters, and is full of politics, ecology, and economics, as well as technology.

Aurora concerns a multi-generational ship bound for a “nearby” star system, to colonize a world there. But this time Robinson had something entirely different and very interesting in mind, and it’s one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in a while. Spoilers ahead. Like the Mars books, this novel also supplies the likely technology along with some interesting characters and social structures. A big difference is that this colonization project doesn’t quite work.

Over the decades, it becomes increasingly difficult to balance the fragile ecology on the ship. Though the destination is finally reached, problems arise there, as well. Some travelers decide to return home, and a harrowing journey awaits them as technological fixes start to fray and social tensions magnify. I suspect the entire book is leading up to a single event back on the Earth. At a scientific conference about star colonization, a somewhat fatuous lecturer quotes the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever,” and for this, one of the returnees from the doomed expedition punches him in the face.

The book can be like a punch to the reader’s face, because you find yourself rethinking common science fiction tropes, and reality-checking many assumptions along the way. Is It really inevitable that humans move to the stars? Is it even possible? Is the Fermi Paradox really all that surprising? In light of these questions, how critical is it that we maintain the health of our home planet?

For long-time science fiction readers, and probably for many others in the nerd-techno culture, this book is subversive. It was fun to read some reviews on Amazon that were complaining along the lines of “What? After all that, they just came back?” or “Well, those people just needed a strong leader to pull them all together and make things right.” In other words, it didn’t have the requisite space battles, important cosmic occurrences, smart aliens, or a heroic captain. It told some hard reality-based truths, which is not what many SF readers are looking for.

 The book is not perfect. It has some “dead zones” and small problems, but it’s well worth the read.

One last note. In the Mars trilogy, an unexpected favorite part involved a description of a lifelong Mars resident coming to Earth for the first time. The description of that person’s sensory overload, his dealing with earth gravity, his wide-eyed descriptions of the lush environment, were terrific. In this book, at first I didn’t like the character of the ship’s AI computer. It seemed a little trite. But I came to enjoy this character as it grew and gradually expressed desires and feelings. In fact, I was fairly transfixed and emotionally moved when, towards the end, it seemed to gain a full-fledged selfhood and a heart.  

ta-nehisi coates

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Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the black experience in America with clear, compelling prose. Here are small excerpts from “Letter to My Son,” published in The Atlantic. These two quotes are designed to persuade you read the whole article. Better yet, get the upcoming book from which this is adapted, Between the World and Me. Critics are favorably comparing his work to that of James Baldwin.

It had to be blood. It had to be the thrashing of kitchen hands for the crime of churning butter at a leisurely clip. It had to be some woman “chear’d … with thirty lashes a Saturday last and as many more a Tuesday again.” It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights, or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation. The bodies were pulverized into stock and marked with insurance. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer home in the mountains.

The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this.

When Coates says, “Enslavement was not destined to end,” I know the same is true for the horrors that have continued since emancipation including the ones we see in the news on a regular basis today. Liberty isn’t a destiny, it’s an endless struggle to achieve and maintain.

lewis & clark: last interesting items

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I’ve finally finished my volume of excerpts from the Lewis and Clark expeditions. Here are my last highlights.

Buffalo horns and goat heads:

“We save all the buffaloe horns we can find to take to the States as they would make excelent kife and fork handles.”

“nothing to eat this evening but the head of a goat or antelope which the party had droped on the road.” (The party is another group from the expedition.)

The expedition had many run-ins with grizzly bears. One involved Lewis being chased by a bear and running into a river to escape. He expected the bear to follow, but it unaccountably ran off. Another story features a man named McNeal, who returned to camp after a solo trip into the woods:

“… returned with this musquet broken off at the breech.” Turns out he had approached within 10 feet of a grizzly bear without seeing it. Upon spotting it, his horse reared and threw the rider, and he landed next to the bear. “… this animal raised himself on his hinder feet for battle,” whereupon the man clubbed the bear over the head with his musket, breaking the gun, and stunning the bear enough to allow him to climb a tree, where he waited for hours for the bear to go away.

Indian fireworks:

“the indians entertained us with setting the fir trees on fire … creates a very suddon and immence blaze from bottom to top … they are a beautiful object in this situation at night. this exhibition reminded me of a display of fireworks.

Whenever the entries to turned to medical treatment, it was often like an unintentional recurring joke in a sketch comedy. While ministering to a sick indian chief, Lewis wished he had an electric current to apply to the patient’s body.

“I am confident that this would be an excellent subject for electricity and much regret that I have it not in my power to supply it.”

The expedition did an amazing job of recording the geography of their travels, drawing maps, describing plant life and wildlife, and writing about the names, customs and languages of various tribes. It was very much a scientific expedition. No less surprising is that these records and many artifacts were brought back intact through all kinds of inclement weather and river travel. Much of the time was spent in canoes they built themselves along the way.

The physical hardships endured were considerable. Many times Lewis or Clark would describe having to sleep in rain-soaked conditions. They talked of mosquitos so thick that breathing in would result in a mouthful of them. There was frostbite, sickness, accidental falls, cuts, and one case in which Lewis was accidentally shot in the leg by one of the men. More than once they mentioned someone had pulled a shoulder out of joint, and they had to yank it back into place. They hauled boats up and around rapids and falls, and each winter they built a walled fort with individual huts.

In hindsight, we can view this trip as part of the end of traditional native American life. The tribes had already been greatly reduced by smallpox bought by Europeans. Coming soon would be waves of settlers pushing them off their land, swindling them, and killing them. The natives were no innocents, they warred on each other and often treated women as slaves; but there’s no excuse for the atrocities that were about to be visited on them.

You can’t help but think of what was to come when reading the journals.

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