Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

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Weekend Music Break: Limestone Chorus, “Woods & Water”

Limestone ChorusLet us consider, first, the name “Limestone Chorus.”

Limestone sounds rugged to me, rugged and roughcut. It suggests quarrying, of course, and it suggests caverns carved by underground rivers. It’s a sedimentary rock, so it crumbles and dissolves rather easily on its own — unlike (say) granite, basalt, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks… and it is everywhere. Wikipedia tells me that it makes up 10% of the volume of all sedimentary rocks. While it is inarguably rock, unlike (say) sandstone, limestone is curiously organic: “Most limestone is composed of skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs.”

Think about that a moment: limestone is a “living” rock — a common building and construction material comprising the remnants of a gazillion creatures. (Think about that the next time you’re inside a building of concrete: you might as well be undersea.)

So here we’ve got a band pursuing one of the longer threads — a sub-genre: folk, soul, and Americana — of (yes) rock history, a band named for this curiously-organic inorganic material. If the name had instead been constructed from the word “granite” or “quartzite,” the effect would have been totally different — calling to mind not the flowing of water and the whisper of grains, but hammers and chisels and bang-bang-bang.

And then there’s chorus: voices twined together, harmonizing…

Yeah. Now you’re getting the idea.

The name “Limestone Chorus” apparently represents a recent name change; the group (in a slightly reduced configuration) had previously been called “Shore Thing.” Okay, the latter was clever(ish), with the pun. But it was also easy, glib, and really wasted an entire word — thing — which communicated nothing at all. I have no idea how much thought and anxiety went into the name change, how much conscious vs. unconscious decision-making came into play, but as a band name, “Limestone Chorus” is leagues beyond “Shore Thing.”

So then there’s this song. Again, look first to the name: “Woods & Water.” When you hear a song title like that, do you imagine you’ll find headbanging within? Will the musicians assault their instruments and their amplifiers — and the audience’s ears — with an avalanche of sound? Will the lyrics preach, insult, rebuke?

When I opened the email announcing the upcoming debut of Limestone Chorus’s album Deer Friends*, and of “Woods & Water” in particular, I had no expectation of noise, electronica, trance. Indeed, I found almost exactly what I expected: luscious three-part harmonies overlaying and interleaved with acoustic instruments.

(With the obvious exception that Gordon Lightfoot sang solo, of course, the overall effect to me strongly recalls his “Did She Mention My Name.” Not a bad forerunner at all — again, no matter how conscious or unconscious the choice!)

The band is on record asserting that the song “describes the search for familiarity: the rediscovery of people and places who make us feel whole, safe and grounded. The song is driven through memory and nostalgia, pulling on emotional connections that shape a person.” This all comes through in the video, too, which I found oddly moving… Even though it’s not a “static” video, with a fixed image, pretty much nothing at all happens. And yet there is stuff happening, after all: the words (and their meanings and connotations) run over and through the music, and all of it runs over the visual, just like — well, just like water over and through limestone.

[Lyrics]

__________________

* Yes: Deer Friends. The album cover art even depicts the hallucinogenically colored head-and-shoulders of an antlered buck. Maybe they’re not quite over the punning impulse under which they first organized as “Shore Thing.”

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Seeing (and Knowing It)

'I Know I See You, I Just Don't Know When,' by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

[Image: “I Know I See You, I Just Don’t Know When,” by Thomas Hawk; found on Flickr.com, used here under a Creative Commons license. The photograph shows one view of the Stata building at MIT, designed by Frank Gehry. The building houses various facilities in support of research into computers, information science, intelligence, robotics, and related topics. More in the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity—yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre) creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.

(Walt Whitman [source])

and:

It would be an endless battle if it were all up to ego
because it does not destroy and is not destroyed by itself
It is like a wave
it makes itself up; it rushes forward getting nowhere really
it crashes, withdraws and makes itself up again
pulls itself together with pride
towers with pride
rushes forward into imaginary conquest
crashes in frustration
withdraws with remorse and repentance
pulls itself together with new resolution.

(Agnes Martin [source])

and:

To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen.

(Linda Hogan [source])

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Sky and I, Sharing

'Dream,' by Mikko Lagerstedt

[Image: “Dream,” by Finnish photographer Mikko Lagerstedt (Facebook/Instagram); one of several in his “Edge” collection.]

From whiskey river:

The Mockingbird

All summer
the mockingbird
in his pearl-gray coat
and his white-windowed wings

flies
from the hedge to the top of the pine
and begins to sing, but it’s neither
lilting nor lovely,

for he is the thief of other sounds—
whistles and truck brakes and dry hinges
plus all the songs
of other birds in his neighborhood

mimicking and elaborating,
he sings with humor and bravado,
so I have to wait a long time
for the softer voice of his own life

to come through. He begins
by giving up all his usual flutter
and settling down on the pine’s forelock
then looking around

as though to make sure he’s alone;
then he slaps each wing against his breast,
where his heart is,
and, copying nothing, begins

easing into it
as though it was not half so easy
as rollicking,
as though his subject now

was his true self,
which of course was as dark and secret
as anyone else’s,
and it was too hard—

perhaps you understand—
to speak or to sing it
to anything or anyone
but the sky.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

Peridot

I awoke in an ecstasy.
The sky was the color of a cut lime
that had sat in the refrigerator
in a plastic container
for thirty-two days.
Fact-checkers, check.
I am happy.
Notice I speak in complete sentences.
Something I have not done since birth.
And the sky responds.

(Mary Ruefle [source])

and:

Many people used to believe that angels moved the stars. It now appears that they do not. As a result of this and like revelations, many people do not now believe in angels. Many people used to believe that the ‘seat’ of the soul was somewhere in the brain. Since brains began to be opened up frequently, no one has seen ‘the soul’. As a result of this and like revelations, many people do not now believe in the soul. Who could suppose that angels move the stars, or be so superstitious as to suppose that because one cannot see one’s soul at the end of a microscope it does not exist?

(R. D. Laing [source])

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Real-Life Dialogue: Men Are from Illinois, Women Are from Manhattan Edition

[The setting: a Saturday morning at a suburban home in North Florida, USA. He has been experiencing back pain for a few days; she approaches him in the kitchen, question marks in her eyes.]

She: How’s your back?

He: Still not normal.

She: Where is it? What sort of pain is it?

[He has been expecting and preparing mentally for this line of questioning, but hasn’t quite nailed down his metaphors yet.]

He: I don’t know — it’s hard to describe…

She: Try anyway.

He: It feels, well, wobbly. It’s like when you take a… a dozen Lincoln Logs, say, and they’re stacked end-to-end in a, like, a tower, and you’re trying not to let ’em topple but—

[She holds up the palm of her hand, stopping him.]

She: Wait.

He: But—

She: Wait. You need to use terms I can understand.

He: Such as—?

She: Well, say my martini glass is too full, up to the brim, and you’re carrying it to me while holding the base of the stem…

[A momentary pause, giving him time to recognize his confusion as such.]

He: [rolling his eyes] Yes. It’s exactly like that.

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Attentive to Sights Unseen

Slide from 'What Alice Saw' presentation

[Image: a slide from the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s presentation What Alice Saw, by Don Long. (And no, it wasn’t that Alice, and she didn’t see the takahē-that-wasn’t down a rabbit-hole.) For more information, see the complete presentation (it’s brief, and not a difficult read).]

From whiskey river:

Swimming

Some nights, I rise from the latest excuse for
Why not stay awhile, usually that hour when
the coyotes roam the streets as if they’ve always
owned the place and had come back inspecting now
for damage. But what hasn’t been damaged? History
here means a history of storms rushing the trees
for so long, their bowed shapes seem a kind of star —
worth trusting, I mean, as in how the helmsman,
steering home, knows what star to lean on. Do
people, anymore, even say helmsman? Everything
in waves, or at least wave-like, as when another’s
suffering, being greater, displaces our own, or
I understand it should, which is meant to be
different, I’m sure of it, from that pleasure
Lucretius speaks of, in witnessing from land
a ship foundering at sea, though more and more
it all seems related. I love the nights here. I love
the jetty’s black ghost-finger, how it calms
the harbor, how the fog hanging stranded just
above the water is fog, finally, not the left-behind
parts of those questions from which I half-wish
I could school my mind, desperate cargo,
to keep a little distance. An old map from when
this place was first settled shows monsters
everywhere, once the shore gives out — it can still
feel like that: I dive in, and they rise like faithfulness
itself, watery pallbearers heading seaward, and
I the raft they steady. It seems there’s no turning back.

(Carl Phillips [source])

and:

Recently I was walking to the park and, as I dropped the letter I was carrying into the mailbox, I was stilled by the notion, almost a prediction, that I would find a reindeer, a really tiny one, the size of, say, a lemon. This is the way the image came to me: it “popped in” (maybe fell? down from some nest?). Maybe the weather, a very cool June afternoon, encouraged the image’s weird arrival. I attempted to exchange the reindeer for something more seasonal, more discernibly trinkety and likely to surface (clover, penny, bottle cap), but the reindeer was stubborn. It was meaning to be found.

I suppose I might dig around a bit, psyche-wise, and find the reindeer representing/standing in for something delicate and hidden, meaningful in some way I cannot yet understand.

Along the way there were white tulips so robust they reached to my waist. I saw some kind of evergreen whose uppermost branch shot out, like a hooked cane, into clear sky. Pink azaleas were dulling to brown and looked more like colonies of coral. And the place the reindeer sprang from, that swampy, rampant, tundral field, offered this image, too: a cleanly flensed frog. Now the two images were overlapping, the frog’s empurpled and milky-blue, skinned legs — and the whole and intact tiny-frog-sized reindeer.

Then came the smell of gingerbread, though maybe I’m misidentifying some flower’s perfume, and while this whole sensation/ eidolon/charm wasn’t about winter at all, many wintry things kept adding up.

To what, though? To what?

I am of two minds about knowing.

What if I thought about the images differently: simply, that they exist. Are out there embedded in shifting forms, and enter me, the moment’s site of odd happenings. No irritable reaching, just Hello, Reindeer. Hello, Frog. Your absolute smallness. Your unexplained blues. All fact and reason just let go of.

These images are meaningful/I have no idea what these images mean. And what do I get if I push these very real-but-odd pictures up against the nothing-in-hand?

(Lia Purpura [source])

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Void, Not-Void, and Everything in Between

Figure 5 from US Patent #US 20140215949 A1: '65 db SOUND BARRIER INSULATED BLOCK'

[Image: Figure 5 from US Patent #US 20140215949 A1: “65 db SOUND BARRIER INSULATED BLOCK.” For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

When I was younger I thought my knowledge would increase with years, that it was steadily expanding like the universe. A constantly widening area of certainty that correspondingly displaced and diminished the reach of uncertainty. I was really very optimistic. With the passage of time I must admit that I know roughly as much as then, perhaps even slightly less, and with nothing like the same certainty. My so-called experiences are not the same as knowledge. It is more like, how shall I put it, a kind of echo chamber in which the little I know rings hollow and inadequate. A growing void around a scant knowledge that rattles foolishly like the dried-up kernel in a walnut. My experiences are experiences of ignorance, its boundlessness, and I will never discover how much I still don’t know, and how much is something I believed.

(Jens Christian Grøndahl [source])

and:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

(Annie Dillard [source])

…and:

In That Great River: A Notebook
(excerpt)

So a little spring prays to the ocean, so the beating heart prays to the heart of the universe, so the little word prays to the great Logos, so a dust speck prays to the earth, so the earth prays to the cosmos, so the one prays to the billion, so human love prays to God’s love, so always prays to never, so the moment prays to eternity, so the snowflake prays to winter, so the frightened beast prays to the forest silence, so uncertainty prays to beauty itself.

And all these prayers are heard.

(Anna Kamieńska [source])

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The Hidden, the Hiding

'comfort in shadows,' by user 'JustCallMe_Bethy' on Flickr

[Image: “comfort in shadows,” found on Flickr. The photo is by a user whose display name there is JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) She (assuming it is indeed a woman) says she was inspired by another Flickr user, Brooke Shaden, who has done several photos of herself wedged into various tight corners in the kitchen.]

From whiskey river:

Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but “steal” some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.

(Albert Camus [source (etc., none canonical)])

and:

We will never be the same again. But here’s a little secret for you — no one is ever the same thing again after anything. You are never the same twice, and much of your unhappiness comes from trying to pretend that you are. Accept that you are different each day, and do so joyfully, recognizing it for the gift it is. Work within the desires and goals of the person you are currently, until you aren’t that person anymore, and everything changes once again.

(Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (October 1, 2015) [source])

and (highlighted excerpt):

Forbidden City

Asleep until noon, I’m dreaming
we’ve been granted another year.

You’re here with me, healthy.
Then, half-awake, the half-truth—

this is our last day. Life’s leaking
away again, and this time, we know it.

Dear body, I told you, pleading,
Don’t leave! but I understand you

can’t say anything. Who are we?
Are we fictional? We don’t look

like our pictures, don’t look like
anyone I know. Daylight

flickers through a bamboo grove,
we approach the Forbidden City,

Looking together for the Hall
of Fulfilling Original Wishes.

Time is the treasure, you tell me,
and the past is its hiding place.

I instruct our fictional children,
The past is the treasure, time

is its hiding place. If we told him
how much we love him, how much

we miss him, he could stay.
But now you’ve taken me back

to Luoyang, to the Garden of Solitary Joy,
over a thousand years old—

I wake, I hold your hand, you let me go.

(Gail Mazur [source])

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Potpourri, June 18th (2016 edition)

1959ish, I'd sayIt’s been a few months of hardware madness here — and if you know my tastes in computer stuff, you know they lean towards the software rather than the hardware side of things. So I haven’t been entirely happy during that time…

Back in mid-April, my two-terabyte (2TB) hard drive abruptly failed. It took me several weeks — educational ones, to be sure — to admit that I probably could not resuscitate the thing. I replaced it with a 3TB one, and all went swimmingly at first…

…at least, until I installed Windows 10 on it.

Here’s how my computer at home has been set up, now going back maybe five-six years:

The hard drive is divided into two (main) partitions, running two entirely different operating systems: Windows in the first partition, and Linux in the second. This is called a dual-boot setup: when you boot the computer, you’re prompted to select which operating system you want to run for this session. The default for me is Linux, but I do occasionally (rarely, actually) use Windows for one specific program or another.

The Windows side has moved progressively from Windows XP to Windows 7 and then finally to Windows 10, via the automatic (i.e., forced) upgrade which Microsoft “offers” to users of older versions. When I installed Windows 10 on the new hard drive, I was actually restoring it.

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Present But Unaccounted For

'Absence,' by Derrick Tyson on Flickr

[Image: “Absence,” by Derrick Tyson on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.)]

From whiskey river:

Sometimes I get mail for people who lived in my home before I did, and sometimes my own body seems like a home through which successive people have passed like tenants, leaving behind memories, habits, scars, skills, and other souvenirs.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

We are not idealized wild things.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

(Joan Didion [source])

and:

Standing Alone

Empty skies. And beyond, one hawk.
Between river banks, two white gulls
Drift and flutter. Fit for an easy kill,
To and fro, they follow contentment.

Dew shrouds grasses. Spiderwebs are still
Not gathered in. The purpose driving
Heaven become human now, I stand where
Uncounted sorrows begin beginning alone.

(Tu Fu [source])

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