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Posts from the ‘Science and Nature’ Category

Strandbeest

Strandbeest

I have to thank Sean Williams for alerting me to this video about the astonishingly beautiful work of Dutch sculptor, Theo Jansen. Called Strandbeest (Stranbeests? Strandbeesten?) they are crafted from plastic piping and walk and move using systems of sails to harness the wind.

Even on video they’re extraordinary things: marvellously intricate, improbable, strangely weightless, but what really fascinates me about them is the quality Jansen himself is alert to, which is the way their motion and delicate skeletal structures seem to elide the boundary between the biological and the mechanical. Nor is this just a matter of appearance: Jansen designs them using  a computer program that utilises genetic algorithms to improve their design and selectively “breeds” them to improve their performance. Little wonder that as they shimmer along the beach it’s so easy to believe you’re seeing some form of alien life possessed of its own presence and purpose.

This quality is also present in many of the creations of roboticists at places like M.I.T. (or this robotic pack mule designed for use in Afghanistan and other mountainous areas (and indeed drones like the ones featured in the final moments of the same video)), and, in rather different form in the work of artists such as Patricia Piccinini (whose bizarre Skywhale has been hovering over Canberra for the past week or so) and Miyo Ando’s beautiful work with bioluminescence, all of which seek to grapple with the way the once clear divisions between life and non-life, biological and artificial are breaking down (interestingly Jansen’s creatures are created from plastic tubing, itself, and artificial substance made from organic compounds). These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, partly because the novel I’m working on is set across the next century, and is very much concerned with many of these questions and the intersecting notion of the Anthropocene (as was my Aurealis Award-shortlisted story, ‘Visitors’), partly because I’m hoping to write something rather longer on the subject later in the year. But in the meantime you should take the time to watch the videos below, and to visit Jansen’s website, which has more information about him and the project.

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Encounters with the Uncanny: Postscript

Last week I mentioned that the September Meanjin has an essay by me about ghosts and ghost stories. At the time the piece was print-only, but I’m delighted to say it’s now available online in its entirety.

Obviously I think you should read it right away, but once you have I think you should come back here, because in the week since it was published it’s acquired an extremely unsettling postscript …

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Encounters with the Uncanny: Ghost Stories and the Brain

Bronwyn Rennex, ‘Safety Pin’, © Bronwyn Rennex, 2004.

The new Meanjin is out today, and as well as being an incredibly gorgeous physical object, includes a piece by me about ghost stories and recent research suggesting many of our encounters with the uncanny may have a physiological basis. You can buy the issue in good bookshops, online or you can subscribe (a particularly good deal at present because Meanjin are offering five issues for the price of four during September), but if you’d like a taste, here are the first few paragraphs:

In 2007, while on a residency in Paris, my partner and I took time out to visit friends in London. It was August, and we were fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to mind a friend’s mother’s house in Balham Hill. The first night we stayed we were tired; it had been a long day, travelling on the Eurostar with our fifteen-month-old, and so we ordered a pizza, watched television and went to bed early.

I have never been a good sleeper, especially in unfamiliar places, but that night I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. For a time I slept undisturbed, but then, sometime deep in the night, I woke, falling out of a deep dreamless sleep into the sort of strange wakefulness jetlag induces. At first I was disoriented, the room unfamiliar in the darkness. Next to me I could hear my partner breathing. Gradually I realised where I was, but even as I did
I was gripped by the certainty I had not woken of my own accord, and that something, somewhere, was wrong.

And then, quite suddenly, I heard a child cry …

Update: the piece is now online, so you can read it at your leisure. But when you have make sure you come back and read the postscript. Alternatively you can buy Meanjin 71/3 online or subscribe.

Ocean of Life

I don’t often come across books I think everybody should read, but Callum Roberts’ Ocean of Life, which I reviewed for Saturday’s Weekend Australian, is definitely one of them.

My desire for people to read it isn’t because it’s beautiful, or liberating or even particularly wonderfully written. It’s because it manages, better than almost any other book I’ve read, to communicate the sheer scale of the catastrophe that’s taking place beneath the waves.

As I say in my review, I think its contents are likely to prove deeply confronting for many people. Although much of the material Roberts gathers together will be familiar to anybody with an interest in marine ecosystems I suspect the urgency and complexity of the crisis will come as a shock to people who aren’t. I challenge anybody to read the sections on ocean acidification or anoxic dead zones and not feel disturbed, or to feel comfortable reading Roberts’ lucid analysis of the speed with which fish stocks are collapsing through overfishing.

But in a way the most shocking bits of the book aren’t the facts and figures but the allusions early on to the sheer fecundity of the oceans before humans began to harvest them. Early in the book there’s a remarkable pair of excerpts from a work by the Roman writer, Oppian of Corycus (somebody, I have to confess, I wasn’t familiar with prior to reading the book), describing the methods used to catch the huge schools of tuna that once existed in the Mediterranean.

Most of these involve nets, into which the tuna pour, “without end”, but one is more basic, and relies on the use of a heavy log with spikes in it which is then dropped into the water.

I found the idea that fish might have been so plentiful it was possible to catch them with a  spiked log mind-boggling, as I’m sure many others will. But once one goes looking there are many such examples available.

One of my favourite concerns turtles. I have a longstanding fascination with turtles, which have always seemed to me to be creatures of great grace and beauty (I’ve wanted to write about them for years), and some of the most distressing material in Roberts’ book concerns them and the rapid declines taking place in many populations. Pacific populations of leatherback turtles, for instance, have declined more than 95% in the past 50 years.

But the example I’m thinking of doesn’t appear in Ocean of Life and doesn’t concern leatherbacks. Instead it relates to green sea turtles. These days there are estimated to be less than 90,000 nesting female green sea turtles left worldwide, yet when Europeans first arrived in the Americas 500 years ago it is believed there were 100 million in the Caribbean alone.

Exactly how reliable these sorts of estimates are is obviously an open question, and not one I’m in a position to assess. Ocean of Life includes an interesting discussion of attempts to derive historical fishing yields from extant data, while other studies have used at prices at market to estimate the same. But whether the figure was accurate or not, the fact is that turtles were once so common in the Caribbean that when Columbus arrived feeding groups often filled the ocean to the horizon, and as late as the eighteenth century ships that had lost their way to the Cayman Islands could steer there entirely by the noise of green sea turtles returning to nest.

If you’re staggered by that idea I suggest you read Ocean of Life, a book that doesn’t just make clear how much trouble the oceans are in, but goes one step further and offers an outline for a plan of action. And once you’ve read it, buy a second copy and send it to your local member of parliament, or hand it on to somebody else. Because as I say in my review, this is one of those rare books about the ocean that should be read not just by everybody with an interest in marine ecosystems, but by business leaders, politicians and policy-makers around the world.

Update: I’ve just discovered there’s an excerpt from Ocean of Life over at Newsweek. Please read it.

The mouse that roared

My apologies for my silence over the past couple of months: despite good intentions about getting back to regular posting after two months trapped in the time vortex of school holidays I’ve ended up swamped with work, which has rather slowed me down.

I suspect that situation isn’t going to change any time soon, not least because I’m now working on a new book and at least two sets of short stories on top of my usual reviewing commitments (which is exciting but more than a little consuming) but with luck I’ll still be able to keep things at least ticking over here.

I’ll link to some of those stories as they appear (in case you missed it I had one in Get Reading’s 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011, I’ve got one in the next Overland, another in a forthcoming anthology designed to raise funds for The Sydney Story Factory, and two which are being published as part of digital initiatives: a story in the second volume of The Review of Australian Fiction and a novelette which will appear next month as part of something I’m not really allowed to talk about yet).

In the meantime you might want to check out a few of my recent reviews (though many are now hidden behind The Australian’s paywall), in particular my pieces on Colson Whitehead’s terrific zombie novel, Zone One, Dana Spiotta’s electric Stone Arabia and Margaret Atwood’s deeply flawed In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

And finally, if you haven’t seen this outstanding video of the savage grasshopper mouse, I recommend you watch it now. Apparently they’re carnivorous mice that let out their piercing shrieks before moving in for the kill, and you can read all about them over on Wired’s Laelaps blog, but basically they’re just made of awesome.

Two of the most extraordinary things you’ll see this week

I’ve not seen Oceans, the most recent documentary from Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the creators of Travelling Birds, but after seeing the two videos below I think I need to. The first is of sleeping whales, and is just luminously beautiful, while the second is of one of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen, the Blanket Octopus (while we’re on the subject of octopi, you might also want to check out Sy Montgomery’s fabulous piece about octopi in Orion).

And in case it’s driving you crazy, that very sexy voice you can hear is Pierce Brosnan’s.

Thanks to io9 for the heads-up.

 

 

The Alien Within

Somewhere in my second novel, The Deep Field, there’s a description of an alien fossil found on Mars, and the instinctual revulsion it provokes from humans. When I wrote it I was interested in evoking something of the feeling of visceral wrongness we tend to feel confronted by images of insect life enlarged.

The winners of this year’s Olympus Bioscapes Award, which celebrates the best of microscopic photography, are things of beauty, not horror, but that sense of alienness is still there, shot through this time with both wonder and something like the unnatural vividity and fleshiness of orchids. The image above, which took sixth place, is by Haris Antonopoulos, and shows stink bug eggs, but you can check out a gallery of the winners and honourable mentions, together with videos and more information on the competition website.