biweekly links 2-21-2018

David Mack Guest Post–“Beautiful Lies: Facts vs. Story in Secret History Fiction”: “Secret-history stories propose the idea that mysterious events and unknown forces have helped to influence and shape the history we take for granted.” So at last I have a description for my genre! Mack has some sensible things to say about how far histfic authors should depart from fact, depending on how “literary” the fiction and the emotional weight of the facts.

The Magic of Love and Sex: in which supermarket checkout mags’ sex tips aren’t that different from medieval magical tomes promises of love. Mind, Cosmo never tells you how to achieve invisibility and have sex with spirits.

yellow painted cloud on dark blue background
“Vague Intellectual Pleasure” from 1901’s “Thought-Forms” by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, an early, mystically-tinged examination of synesthesiaMore about the book from the Public Domain Review; full book at Project Gutenberg.

Is Humanity Ready for the Discovery of Alien Life?: Scientific American says it depends; I just wonder if aliens are ready for humanity.

weird things in sensible places: the NYT UFO articles

Starting off the new year with a bang. Or is it a fizzle?

Obi Wan Kenobi: From a certain point of view
Both? Via.

After a year of news that beggars belief, I can honestly say that this is one I didn’t expect to see. This past year, or ever. And yet, it’s not as shocking or mundane as it first appears.

The short version: former DoD intelligence officer Luis Elizondo arranged the release of classified Pentagon video of…something before his resignation in October. Articles in the New York Times (on the front page, no less) and Washington Post accompanied the videos, describing the activities of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a small Pentagon effort, from 2007-2012. Much of the $22 million funding the AATIP funneled to Bigelow Aerospace, who claims to have refitted warehouses in Las Vegas to store materials retrieved from these UFOs.

Here are my meandering thoughts:

The initial impulse is to cry “Government confirms existence of UFOs!!” Which isn’t news: A UFO is by definition unidentified, and no one has denied that there’s stuff in the sky we can’t identify. But “UFO” is often conflated with “alien”, which leads us to:

“Government confirms existence of aliens!!” But it’s done no such thing. Careful reading of the articles reveal that the writers back off from the word “alien” at every turn.

“Government confirms interest in UFOs!!” Again, not news. See: Project Blue Book; Condon Report.

“At long last, it’s Disclosure™!” I never expected an unambiguous “yes aliens are here” message coming from anywhere in the government. What elected official would admit a potential security breach which they can’t identify and can’t stop? But those beating the Disclosure drum clearly did so I imagine online/print news articles with fuzzy video must sorely disappoint. So: Maybe? Sorta? “Disclosure Lite“? The irony: most Disclosure aficionados don’t appear to trust the government at all so I doubt anything would satisfy them.*

“Why isn’t this blowing up more?” 2017’s news cycle generated such extraordinary stories all year that it simply slipped under the radar. In the face of sexual assailants finally facing justice, Nazis marching in American cities, and Trump & Co’s constant outrages it makes sense that mere government confirmation of UFO research is mundane by comparison.

“How about those alien artifacts warehoused in Las Vegas?” Scientific American points out the existence of massive databases of metal alloys mean that any “unidentified” alloys won’t remain so for long. As I’m not a metallurgist I withhold judgment on this one but do wonder why Bigelow Aerospace hasn’t shared these materials outside the company, or if they plan to do so.

So what’s the real story here?

    • These articles appeared in well-regarded, mainstream news sources. Moreover, they didn’t appear in the Culture or Arts section accompanied by snide remarks; they were tagged under National Security (NYT) and Politics (WaPo). The NYT in particular attempted to curtail ridicule by describing how they decided to publish.
  • This is the first time a government entity acknowledged that UFOs present a genuine mystery. The aforementioned Blue Book and Condon efforts concluded that most reports were mistaken identity and didn’t warrant further research. This article suggests not only recent but current concern, at least as regarding national security/aviation safety.

If you were expecting the president to come on tv with dead alien bodies and crashed flying saucers this must seem very insignificant. On the other hand, if you never expected any government admission that UFOs are worthy of scientific inquiry, this is huge. I’m not sure these articles represent a permanent about-face of mainstream attitudes towards this particular flavor of weird but I’m happy to wait and see.

*The conspiracy corner has Opinions. Slate provides a rundown of the paranoia-flinging if you’re really interested/masochistic. If I read “false flag” one more time I’m gonna tear my eyes out.

References/further reading:

Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program: the New York Times article that kicked this off.

On the Trail of a Secret Pentagon U.F.O. Program: NYT explains their careful process for evaluating the validity of the story before publication.

Head of Pentagon’s secret ‘UFO’ office sought to make evidence public: the Washington Post gets in on the act.

The Pentagon UFO Study Audio-Video Media Archive: ongoing archiving of mainstream news sources linking to/commenting on the original NYT articles.

The Truth About Those ‘Alien Alloys’ in The New York Times’ UFO Story: those alloys need not be unidentified for long.

UFO-Pentagon Story Reflects Fundamental Problems: some background including Bigelow Aerospace’s connections to MUFON, Elizondo’s connections to Tom DeLonge’s Academy To The Stars, and the problem of taxpayer money paying for materials the public aren’t allowed to see.

A “Secret UFO Office” in the Pentagon? – What Just Happened In the Media: more analysis on the cascading mainstream media response to the NYT articles.

Whitley Strieber’s year-end show on the UFO articles [YouTube]: helpfully broken up into interviewee sections by time stamp in the comments. Interviews include writers of the articles plus various commentators from academia and the UFO research community.

My top books of 2017

‘Cos all the cool kids are doing it. Mind, just because I read it this year doesn’t mean it was written this year. And I’ve mixed up fiction and nonfiction just for giggles.

shelf of books: Daughters of the Witching Hill, The Darling Strumpet, Hanging Mary, Marlene, Ghost Stories of Oregon
I even got through most of this year’s HNS haul!

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: described as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by way of “Cabaret” and it is, in all the best ways. Follow the denizens of Weimar Germany-like Amberlough City’s fringes as they navigate the perils of the hyper-conservative “Ospie” takeover.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn: based on the real WWI network of women spies in occupied France. I love the characters, especially the retired spy Evie, busted hands and all. It’s cliché but this really is a page turner, with a satisfying finish. Run, do not walk.

The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff: recommended for the prose alone-I didn’t know small details could show subtext and stretch tension like this! The story unfolds slowly and is less about Einar/Lili’s transition and more about the supportive marriage that made room for such transition. So very recommended.

Forbidden Science: The Journals of Jacques Vallée 1957-1969: Vallée came in on the ground floor of two mid-century developments: computer programming and government research into UFOs. His journals document a moment in which the government took UFO research seriously while questioning the long-term utility of computer programming – oh have times have changed!-and how he manages to hold both the scientific and the mystical in equal regard. I’m definitely picking up the next volume.

Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in the Digital Age by Kristen Lamb: if you’re an author who’s scared of social media, fear no more. Connecting with readers and potential readers is easy, and [gasp!] fun! Though fluent in Twitter and Facebook this book still provided some good ideas and is a good primer for newbies overall.

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin: come for the fully formed, Ancient Egypt-inspired fantasy world but stay for the murder mystery and conspiracy. A thriller/fantasy in a ‘verse quite unlike any other.

A Song of War: A Novel of Troy by the Historical Fiction Authors Co-op (Kate Quinn, Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Russell Whitfield, Stephanie Thornton, S.J.A. Turney, Glyn Iliffe): how these folks keep taking known stories and infusing them with crazy tension I will never figure out, but every one of these collaborations keeps me on tenterhooks until the very last page.

Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century by Simon Reynolds: I’ve always known more about glam fashion than music and I sought to rectify that. I’ve enjoyed Reynolds exhaustive, entertaining work on rave culture and early 80’s post-punk and this tome (and it is a doorstop) did not disappoint. If you want history and discography and dirt and analysis, this is your one stop shop. Reading it only a year after David Bowie’s death (and Reynolds included a nice eulogy for Bowie in his final edits) made it all the more timely.

biweekly links 11-22-2017

Happy thanksgiving to those who are celebrating! Given that we are now entering what a friend calls the “eating season” this week’s links are food and table themed. Imagine passing these around with the mashed potatoes:

How to Make a Homunculus: “That the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit [a pumpkin-like gourd] for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb”…and it just gets more appetizing from there. This article covers the Renaissance concept and creation of homunculi (including the wild claim that John Dee created some to serve as spies – that’s a new one on me) and winds up with some intriguing YouTube videos of modern homunculi (the contents of which I shudder to think).

photo of small plaster figure under glass, surrounded by alchemical apparatus and tools
Homunculus amidst the other props in the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. I’m guessing they used plaster instead of an, er, period recipe. Photo author’s own.

A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch: it’s no secret that Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” has a folkloric basis but this is the first book I’ve seen that meticulously catalogs food offered by all sorts of paranormal entities. Disclaimer: I’ve not read it (yet).

The Renaissance Knives That Will Have You Singing for Your Supper: “notation knives” combine music, food, and metalwork. Likely created more for presentation than hard use, the Victoria and Albert Museum translated the notation on the knife in their collection and posted the results. If you simply must have one for yourself, an enterprising armorer created a gorgeous reproduction based on the VAM knife.

First (Contraband) Corned Beef Sandwich in Space 50 Years Ago: oldie but goodie about the Gemini 3 prank. Turns out crumbs get everywhere in zero gravity, and food doesn’t taste as good in space anyway – though I can’t imagine corned beef tasting any worse (eww!)

necromancy: why, how, and why not to do it

Coincidentally, it’s just when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest that I passed the point in my book where the Papal Nuncio accuses Dee and Kelley of necromancy. Mind, they probably didn’t do it (or Dee didn’t–too goody goody for that), but why would anyone want to raise the dead, and how would they do it anyway?

Black adn white engraving of two men in a nighttime churchyard standing in a magic circle, a skeletal ghost before them.
Fanciful nineteenth century portrayal of “Edw[ar]d Kelly, a Magician. in the Act of invoking the Spirit of a Deceased Person” from Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, M.D. F.R.H.S., Embellished with Curious Copper-Plates, London, 1806, courtesy Wikipedia

Technically early modern Christian necromancers weren’t trying to raise the dead–that was seen as something only God could do. No, they just conjured demons who looked like spirits, and used them for a variety of things including finding lost objects, telling the future, controlling other people, or creating illusions.

Kind of mundane, considering the spiritual sketchiness of necromancy and the sheer inconvenience of performing it. You had to consider magic circles, moon phases, and offerings before you even got to the incantations. Check out this bit from Reginald Scot’s 1584 best-seller “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”. Though Scot rejected the reality of witchcraft bits of it read like a how-to, with a surprisingly pious bent:

…I conjure thee spirit by the living God, the true God, and by
the holie God, and by their vertues and powers which have created
both thee and me, and all the world. I conjure thee by these
holie names of God, Tetragrmnmaton Adonay Algraniay
Saday Sabaoth Planaboth Craton Neupinaton…

…etc. What happened if you forgot or mispronounced a name isn’t recorded.

But why did Kelley perform necromancy, if he did it at all?

The story goes that long before he met Dee he was arrested in Walton on Dale for conjuring a spirit, but a local squire named Langton managed to get him released. Given that so much of Kelley’s history is legend I’m unsure how seriously to take this, and even the legend doesn’t have much about Kelley’s’ reasoning.

So I’m just making something up. It’s historical fiction, remember?

a sliver of optimism

It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

Like almost everyone else I’m disgusted and sadly, surprised by the outrages in Charlottesville. I say “sadly” because it’s not surprising that Trump’s pandering to racists throughout his campaign emboldened them. The violence in Charlottesville was all but inevitable. And now we all know that we have a Commander-in-Chief who won’t outright condemn white supremacy.

I don’t know about you, but I used to live in a country where every thinking person–liberal and conservative–could agree that Nazis and the Klan were bad. Realizing I don’t anymore has been a shock to the system.

And then I got a ray of light.

orange sliver of the sun obscured by the shadow of the moon.
I tried smartphone + eclipse glasses, but ultimately NASA takes the good photos.

No, I don’t think the eclipse was some sort of astrological “good portent”, but the way it changed mood and focus was a delight. People of all sorts were excited. Joyful. Curious. Delighted to share their glasses and pinhole cameras, gathering in parks and fields and parking lots to point and smile. The constant CNN feed in my office turned away from the national shitshow to focus on this simple, if rare, natural marvel.

It’s over now. While I enjoyed it, I can’t stare at the sky forever–with everything going on in this country I can’t afford to. But the excitement generated by the eclipse, the wonder, the interest in science and astronomy, however briefly, by those who don’t usually consider such things (like me–I’m hardly a star-gazer) was a reminder that the world will keep spinning long after we’re gone.

Did you see the eclipse? What did you think?

every girl remembers her first space probe

Forty years ago this month, the first of the two Voyager spacecraft launched. And one of my first memories is a book of the first images sent back.

I was about five, but it wasn’t a kid’s book. No, it was my dad’s beautiful coffee table book high-resolution color photos. I’d look at Rainbow-hued Saturn and Jupiter and its moons, the tiny black and white image of Death Star-inspiration Mimas, and Io’s volcanoes for hours on end. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the book, but I do remember those photos. Over the years I developed an appreciation for the sheer technological achievement of Voyager 1 and 2. I still marvel that I live in a time when such things are possible.

And then there was the Golden Record, which became even more interesting as I became a record-collecting teenager. Though I didn’t like half the music (hell, I doubt I knew the tracklist), it still struck me as The Ultimate Artifact: the first sounds any alien will hear of earth, assuming there are any to hear.

Picture of man and woman and diagram of the solar system as depicted on Voyager 1. Commentary: maybe aliens don't talk to us because we're creepy. i mean we send them weird mix tapes and we keep trying to find out where they live. Additional commentary: And we sent them some unsolicited nudes with directions to our house
Mind, the aliens might find the sleeve art off-putting. Courtesy MeMe

Imagine my thrill to discover the Voyager Golden Record project (full disclosure: I participated in the Kickstarter). Now on the 40th anniversary there’s this beautiful boxed set of the remastered disc (vinyl or CD) with a new book of even more gorgeous photos.

I know what’s on my Christmas list – for myself and as gifts for others.

unread

Full disclosure: though I’m writing fiction I’ve been more of a non-fiction reader most of my life. It’s only in the past ten years or so that the balance has shifted. As someone who tends to go narrow and deep, I’m surprised and embarrassed to realize my fiction exposure has been wide and shallow:

Much as I loved “Rebecca” I’ve not made time to read the rest of du Maurier’s work.

I’ve only read one each of the “Outlander” and “Lymond Chronicles” series. I enjoyed them but didn’t LURVE LURVE LURVE them enough to continue.

Ditto Margaret George and Philippa Gregory, two other histfic heavyweights. I can’t even tell you which ones I’ve read.

My track record in other genres is no better:

I’ve never read “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings”. I tried the former in both high school and college and found the language too dense to get into. As such I figured LOTR was above my pay grade. I enjoyed the movies though (yes, I am a prole). Maybe I should take another run at these.

Many of the classics of science fiction have slipped under my radar: I’ve never read Heinlein or Asimov, save “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” because I wanted to know what inspired “Blade Runner”.

None of McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series. I couldn’t finish the first because I found it cliché; friends in the know said it’s better if you encounter it at age twelve rather than thirty-two.

No Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle, for no good reason at all.

No Jane Austen. I know, revoke my girl card.

Very little Stephen King because “Pet Sematary” kept me awake for two weeks as a kid. According to one and all he’s a master of suspense, I want thrills, not terror so intense I can’t turn out the lights.

Stack of books; Bagwell's The Darling Strumpet, Sharratt's Daughters of the Witching Hill, Dwyer's Ghost Hunter's Guide to Portland and the Oregon Coast, Smiten's Ghost Stories of Oregon, Hieber's The Eterna Files, Gortner's Marlene, and Higganbotham's Hanging Mary
Top of my fiction “to read” pile (with some non-fic mixed in, natch). Note they are all recent releases: no classics.

I try to catch up with the old but the new is so tempting!

What haven’t you read that you feel like you ought? What classics did you finally get around to only to find they didn’t live up to the hype?

Book to screen: could you? Should you?

Haven’t we all said “that book should TOTALLY be made into a movie” at one point or another?

Black and white ca. 1940-1950 image of a young black woman threading film into an old-fashioned projector.
Susan Baptist, a projectionist, shows training films for the troops as well as more popular motion pictures. From the Library of Congress.

Yep, me too. What’s strange is that I seldom say it about a historical fiction novel. Stranger still(?), I don’t actually watch that much historical fiction.

Of these three historical fiction novels that need to be adapted for TV I’ve not read a one of them. A damn pity because they sound great: Sparta vs. Rome, WWII crime, Tudor conspiracy. When I do watch histfic it’s usually either written for the screen (The VVitch, Bomb Girls, The Americans) or adapted from a book I’ve not read (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the White Princess, Outlander [well, I read part of this but never finished]).

And I’m admittedly terrible about keeping up with TV series. I start many but seldom finish due to time and attention constraints.

That, and I have a kind of reservation about converting books to movies. Two different mediums require two very different approaches to the same story, which is where the desire to be accurate to the original collides with the need to make a textual story visually compelling. Sometimes it’s just best to leave it alone. So when pressed to come up with books that I think would make great viewing I have to strain.

Successful page to screen adaptations exist. I own all of the Sarah Waters tv miniseries: Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity.  Does the The Handmaiden [trailer, YouTube] count? It’s an adaptation of Fingersmith set in 1930s Korea.

Wolf Hall, because I enjoyed the court intrigue and Cromwell’s subtle machinations. And the costumes were pretty accurate too!

I wouldn’t mind seeing Waters’ The Little Stranger (post-WWII gothic horror) put on screen. Possibly Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network (women spies in both world wars).

Don’t even ask me who I’d cast for any of these. I can barely envision my own characters!

What historical fiction would you LOVE to see on screen?

biweekly links 4-19-2017

All Tudor, all the time this week:

Crews damping down after ‘suspicious’ blaze ravages 16th century mansion: it breaks my heart that this is lost. As of this writing no word on whether the fire was intentional or not.

Rare Tudor organ on show at Romsey Abbey / Alumnus Charles Metz to perform Elizabethan music on period virginal April 19: that’s a reproduction organ and extant virginal. This kind of “hands-on history” thrills me.

How The White Princess is a Girl-Powered Game of Thrones: short version: the real Game of Thrones. George R. R. Martin borrowed heavily from the Wars of the Roses but the history doesn’t need much embroidering: woman has to marry man who just killed her uncle – the uncle who may have killed her brothers to take the crown for himself. Throw in conniving relatives and shifting alliances for spice and I’ll be watching.