Sunday, November 5, 2017

Consideration of Works Past: The Godwhale

First a heads up on happy information.

Recall earlier this year my story, The Sweet Warm Earth, was published in F&SF. It was picked up by The Best American Mystery Stories.

Well, it’s out. Here it is.

Okay, now that shameless self promotion is out of the way, let’s talk about The Godwhale.

TG was published in 1974 by T. J. Bass. Bass is one of those extremely interesting writers of which there’s not a lot of material to read. There were a number of these in the sixties and seventies. Bass’ isfdb page has two novels, a novella or two and perhaps four short stories. I read TG back when it was first published and read its prequel, Half PastHuman. I haven’t read HPH since so I can’t comment on it. Not that it matters. TG stands on its own.

TG begins a few hundred years in the future where there is a population issue but it is largely managed. The book follows the life of Larry Dever, a human that gets caught in an accident where the lower half of his body from the navel on down is amputated. He is put into suspension which introduces him to some intervening cultural periods, setting the stage to where he ultimately ends up. As he stays in suspension his genes become more and more valuable, being more ancient and primitive. In effect, he becomes a “wild type” human—a rich genetic source for future domestic crops (like humans) that have lost variability over time.

Dever ends up several thousand years in the future where there is nothing but the Hive, a continent spanning city-state containing a trillion human beings who term themselves Nebishes. Nebishes have been selected for this existence. They are small. Their calorie requirements are low. They have four toes. The Nebish city state is completely consumed with its own survival without regard to the cost to the rest of the world. Anyone who does not contribute or fails at his role may forfeit their right to active life and end up in suspension or demoted.

Bass has an interesting style. Reading him almost feels as if you’re reading dispassionate journalism. This happens. That happens. This person feels this. Truly horrible events are described without heat. It is the events that he relates that have a tinge of horror but the author doesn’t let the language be the vehicle. Not to say his prose is not compelling. It is.

There’s a lovely scene where Dever is resuscitated into the Nebish world in which, as a cripple, he cannot belong. But their ethics are strong where other humans are concerned. He cannot belong but they cannot kill him. Instead, they give him a painless poison in place of food. A citizen follows him around telling him how he has ruined her day. How miserable she is seeing him and he should just take the poison and die. Later, she is traumatized when Dever assaults her, takes her food and escapes.

The Godwhale of the title does not show up for some time. This is the plankton rake the Rorqual Maru. She is a whale that has been repurposed into a floating harvest factory. The Hive has left the entire outside world barren so she has no plankton to harvest. She sends her compatriot, a small unit named Iron Trilobite, to seek people for her to serve again. Instead, Trilobite becomes incorporated into the Hive. Where he eventually meets Larry Dever.

There are a few primitive people (the Benthics) that are stealing the sterile fruits of the Hive gardens. They survive by living in the sea.

Bass brings Dever, the Benthics, Iron Trilobite and the Rorqual Maru together deftly and they mysteriously bring about a reseeding of the oceans. Which, of course, puts them in conflict with the Hive for the same resources. This conflict occupies most of the book.

Bass was very interested in the nature of utilitarianism and over-population. One recurring theme in both of his books is the devaluation of human beings. While Bass never really states this issue in economic terms, in effect he proposes that as the number of humans increases to the point of resource contention, the individual value of human beings goes down.

While he never uses these terms, the Hive model is essentially a zero sum game system and the Benthics a non-zero sum game system. But this is not political ideology—the Hive is bound by its eternal struggle to match needs and resources. Once it’s made that decision, the zero sum game is the only game in town. The Benthics have scarcity but it’s driven by enabling barriers to the resources, not the limits of the resources themselves. Once the ocean is reseeded, the two methodologies square off and the Hive is the worse for it.

I want to be clear here. TG is not an ideological book. It’s a book with a strong plot and compelling characters that acts out aspects of ideologies because of logical necessity, not because of the invisible hand of the author. It really is an example of SF at its best: good characterization, an interesting world and circumstances that force the characters, and the reader, to grapple with complex ideas.

That said, there are some significant differences between the point of view of 1974 and the point of view of 2017. This is a good book but it is a book that is over forty years old. Two generations make a difference. Some might be feel a little squeamish on women’s roles in the book. Women are not trivialized as when presented under the auspices of Evil Heinlein. (As opposed to Good Heinlein.)

Like Cordwainer Smith, The Godwhale and other T. J. Bass work occupy their own little niche. I just wish there was more of it.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

State of the Farm, Fall 2017

(Picture from here.)
You recall last year when we had the worst drought I’d ever seen since I moved out here. Parts of our garden just twisted themselves out of the ground and we lost a couple of trees. Sections of grape arbors died and never came back. The birds, in their desperation, stripped one whole arbor of every grape that was there. The hornets and yellow jackets fought each other over left over orange rinds.

Everybody prayed for rain.

You recall that old adage, be careful what you wish for?

Well, it’s been a wet 2017. I mean, we’re not in hurricane class, but we got all the rain we needed. It was a cold rain, too. None of the melons set at the right time. The grapes came to fruition but they never got enough light or heat to really sugar up.


It was a good year for some things and a bad year for others. This was the best year we’ve ever had for apples. However, that’s not a high bar. Some folks would say that the measure was more a paint strip on the road than a bar. We got a bout thirty of the ugliest Granny Smith apples you’ve ever seen. I mean, these made those ugly dried face looking cabbage patch kids look positively handsome.

They made good apple tarts, though.

Back to the grapes.

I held off harvesting as long as I could, hoping against hope, they’d sugar up. We harvested the Concords and got an adequate harvest—maybe 15 pounds or so. Not much for that vine. They had a Missouri interesting flavor. (“My. What an… interesting looking baby.”) Not bad but  not too sweet, either.

Over the years I’ve moved to freezing the grapes before I press them. This has the interesting effect of making more of the juice available. But, since it ruptures the cells, other things come out in higher concentration. It gives a little something extra to the flavor. Sometimes it works as a wine. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So I froze the Concords and started up primary fermentation. I’ll get a hint when I rack the batch.
To make room for the Concords, I had to pull up some frozen peaches from earlier this year. (We had a good peach harvest.) That’s just finishing up primary so I don’t know how it came out.

We have two primary grape producing vines: Concord and Marechal Foch.

The M/F was the arbor that got nailed by the birds last year. Like the Concords, I held off as long as I can. Until I saw the birds paying too much attention to one corner. Okay. I attacked it last weekend. We got about 30 pounds of grapes.

It was interesting. The birds didn’t bother me but yellow jackets know no fear. I’d be working on a section when two wasps would decide that they wanted that bunch. No problem. I’d go working on another section. It reminded of a Leonard Wibberley quote from (I think) The Mouse that Roared.  It went something like this: “The pen is mightier than the sword but the sword is mightier than the pen at any given moment.”

I coexisted with the yellow jackets as the total amount of grapes gradually decreased. They flew near me once or twice but more as a sheathed threat than an active menace. Until the last bunches at the very top of the arbor.

I started pulling at the bunch and got seriously buzzed. This time one of them bounced off my head.

I figured I could do without that last bunch of grapes.

As I said, we got a good peach harvest earlier in the summer. Ditto the pie cherries. I hoped to get a few sweet cherries but, as always, the birds got there first. We did get a few plums.

The apples are always the last fruits of the season so we’re talking about what to do next year. We planted several new bushes and small trees: blue berries, sea berries, some paw paws. The nectarine has never produced well. The fruit is prolific but it splits and tears up the tree. It’s a dwarf. We got a volunteer nectarine across the yard. (Thank you, squirrels.) Its fruit didn’t split but the chipmunks got to them first. So I think it might be the base graft upon which the fruiting tree rests. Likely we’re going to tear it out and put something else in.

Ditto the prune plum and the pluot. Both appear to be reservoirs of black knot. We’ve been tip toeing around the problem for years because the prune tree has been with us for years. But no longer.

Likely, we’ll save the wood. We’ve been doing that this year. We had to cut down a birch and lopped the limbs off a cedar. Instead of just burning the wood, we coated them so they wouldn’t crack while they dried. When they’re dry enough, I’m going to pull out the lathe and see what I can make.

Musn’t waste things.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Ammonites, Allosaurs and Sauropods. Oh, My.

(Picture from here.)

It has been a while since I put up a post-- nearly two months. A lot of things have happened in that time, including a two week vacation for the eclipse and a visit to Dinosaur National Monument.

There's been enough discussion of the eclipse that anything I can say about it is probably redundant. People have asked me what I thought. I have said, "It's an hour and a half of, hey, that's really interesting, followed by a minute and a half of transcendental ecstasy."

 But enough of that. Except to say if you get a chance to go to a total eclipse or the monument, don't even think about it. Just go. The difference between totality and 99.999% totality is, literally, night and day.

Instead, I'm going to talk about what we did with the rest of the vacation: rocks and fossils.

Steamboat Springs was the center of our operations. From here we went north to Casper to see the eclipse but hung around Chalk Mountain in the afternoon looking for interesting rock. This is what we do: go some place and look at interesting rocks.

Chalk Mountain is a very strange place. It has land of the normal color surrounding a mountain made chiefly of black and white. It's like a strange composite photograph. There we found jasper and olivine. Ben found a single piece of turquoise the size of the tip of my little finger. No crystal material to speak of but some fossils. Nothing terribly identifiable but interesting none the less.

Here I want to talk about the Bureau of Land Management, one of my favorite parts of the federal government.

The feds own a lot of land. Some of it is of obvious use: parks, wildlife refuges, etc. But the vast majority the feds just hold in trust. They let cattle graze on it for a nominal fee. Sometimes they let miners use. Mostly, they just leave it alone.

This is not to say the public can't use the land. The public can and does. We have driven over hundreds of miles of BLM land, collecting minerals and fossils, looking at the views, taking pictures of the wildlife, watching the stars miles from any city.

There is some controversy about the BLM. It administers about 1/8 of the land of the country. There are a lot of people who don't believe in public ownership of any land much less that much. I'm not one of them. The whole idea of sequestering land for future possible use means that the land must be sequestered: not developed. Not reapportioned. Not sold.

The land within a particular state is administered by that state's BLM office and the rules change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We've explored land in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. The rules are significantly different between states. Some states allow collecting of petrified wood. Others do not. Nationally, you can't collect vertebrates without a permit but this is somewhat elastic in that no state has a limit on collecting shark's teeth and sharks are definitely vertebrates.

Anyway, so we collected on BLM land in Wyoming, looking for jasper and agates and found a few. Nice stuff that I might tumble.

Tuesday, we went to Dinosaur National Monument.  (And here.) This place is like the eclipse: if you get a chance, go. Don't wait. Don't think about it. Go.

No rock or fossil collecting is allowed in any national park. But that's fine. We went to see the dinosaurs.

Picture from here.

Way back in 1909, the dinosaur fossil beds were discovered by Earl Douglass working for the Carnegie Museum. There were three rough pinnacles and they excavated down, exposing one bed after another.

Eventually, they decided (and possibly lost funding) that they had excavated enough. The bed reflected what looks like a massive death of dinosaurs from a flood. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson declared it a national monument. When he did so, a whole wall remained unexcavated. It is still unexcavated. But the entire wall is housed. It's about 70 feet long and about forty or so feet tall: a solid wall of dinosaur bones. Stegosaurus. Apatosaurus. Allosaurus. All right there for you to just observe.

Which we did for about three hours.

Afterwards, we drove across Echo Park Road, which is not for the squeamish. It was only chance that we ended up with a 4wd vehicle. At one point I looked down and there was a chunk of road missing beyond which was a 90 foot drop. Supposedly, it's one way but we met a Honda Fit coming the other way later in the trip. I have no idea how they navigated the road.

One should question one's mortality every good trip.

(Picture from here.)

The next day we went from the big vertebrates to the big invertebrates. We explored the ammonite locality in Kremmling, Colorado. (Also, see here.) Ammonites are extinct molluscs that resemble nautilus.

That vaguely spiral shape in the picture is about two feet across. It's the imprint a the ammonite shell. The Kremmling site has the largest fossil ammonites in the world.

This is a protected site with a fence all around it. But it is surround by BLM land. So we walked around the edge of the site but safely on BLM land and found a few good fossils to take home. The rules say we can take a small amount (a 5 gallon pail's worth) which is far less than what we collected. Thank you, BLM.

(For a really good artistic perspective of ammonites, see "Night of the Ammonites" by Ray Troll and can be purchased here.)

This is a wonderful country and there are wonderful things in it. Turns out 1/8 of them are on BLM land.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


I took this picture on the train station on my daily commute. There are four problem species in the picture: Asian bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, bamboo and Concord grapes. Of the four, only the grapes are native.

For us, this year is a particularly bad one for bittersweet. We’re finding it everywhere. They Gypsy moths, which seemed to like everything, leave bittersweet alone. We’re finding it pretty much anywhere there’s any kind of shrubbery.

Different vines use different methods of gaining a foothold. Grapes have tendrils that curl around a base. Poison ivy—one of my particular favorites—actually bores its roots into the barks of the trees it parasitizes. I don’t know if it actually vampirizes the tree but it’s creepy to watch a poisonous plant stick itself right into the bark like some snarling alien.

Bittersweet is just as nasty. It grows around whatever it’s based on, encircling and eventually strangling it. It’s quite prevalent up here in the northeast. I’ve driven sections of highway where both sides are covered in rounded mounds of bittersweet, their searching tendrils sticking out like triffids.

The good news is they’re non-toxic so you can pull them up by hand—and you have to pull them up. They’re like Hydra: cut off a limb and two more shall take its place.

But these are just the visible aspects of a larger problem. The US has a real problem with invasive organisms. In large part, it’s a self-inflicted wound.

This goes back to the very beginning of the United States. Earthworms were not native to the northern US since the last ice age.  The result was deep beds of leaf litter and a rich understory. Enter the lowly earthworm brought over by English colonists in their fruit trees. Notice the lack of deep leaf litter in the area.

Not to mention sparrows and starlings. Sparrows were at least introduced here in an ill conceived attempt to control the linden moth. Ah, but the starling, a relatively ugly bird with noisy habits, was introduced because the American Acclimatization Society thought the USA should have all of Shakespeare’s birds. 

There is also the Burmese python. Who would have thought it would have thrived in Florida? I used to have a Burmese but I, like a lot of other people, found it got too big and so I gave it back to the guy I bought it from. He had a 23 and 24 foot pair. They lived in the first floor of his house. These were big enough to eat him.

But my own personal favorite is pampas grass—which you can still buy! Up here if you drive by a marsh that should have an abundance of native grasses and cattails, you’ll see unbroken pampas grass. Nothing eats it. Nothing nests in it. It’s the Styrofoam of the plant kingdom.

It’s interesting that we in the New World seem to get the short end of the stick with invaders. It turns out that the New World has a significantly shallower evolutionary history than the Old World. See here and here.)  I’m not sure why that is. When I read the original article I didn’t see an explanation. Could it be that the New World is the site of the Cretaceous meteor extinction event? Is it size—the Old World has Europe, Asia and Africa. We have North and South America connected by a fragile thread. Not clear.

Invasions are rarely pleasant for the invaders. For example, the brown marmorated stink bug destroys fruits and vegetables because it can reproduce without problems. Why? Because back in China, the bugs original home, there’s a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs on it. The larva hollow out the bug like United Fruit did Central America. 

This is a pattern. Species get transported here and do well because they do not have the same predators they did back home. Birds and turtles will eat Gypsy moth larva but with the numbers produced, they can’t keep up. Thank you, √Čtienne Trouvelot

Sometimes, I find this sort of thing discouraging. Okay, we’re poisoning the planet but putting out CO2, methane and mercury introduces passive problems into the system. Sure, it’s bad. But the CO2 molecules don’t go out there and make more CO2 molecules. Starlings and pythons are active agents. They’re the equivalent of Von Neumann  or Berserker machines. 

But from bittersweet to buckthorn to bullfrogs, human beings are one of the most successful couriers in biological history.  We’re just going to have to live with it.

Interesting side links