twenty years ago

i lunch with a mover and a shaker

saving time, by jenny odell

Cynicism and nihilism will make you dry up, like soil compacted by neglect and abuse. But soil holds the memory of life, and with some water and a garden fork, you might be able to bring it back. It helps to remember that you’re not alone. Look around. Is it really true that everyone sees time as money?

how to suppress women’s writing, by joanna russ

To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner.

we who are about to, by joanna russ

The old monks: “Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all things.” Helps if you’ve got a cell in the middle of downtown San Francisco.

visiting the mining asteroid where i grew up

After a brutal flight (migraine all the way across the Pacific) I walked off the jetbridge into a familiar wall of humidity, stepping around a giant crushed cockroach in the arrivals hall. Our AirBnB is a tiny cottage with five bedrooms, a miracle of small-space design. We are sitting in the carport-turned-patio. Above us are rainbow lorikeets and sulfur-crested cockatoos and the rain falling on the corrugated polycarbonate roof.

I need to set myself small side quests. I’d like to find a copy of Shady Acres: Power and Vested Interests in the Government of New South Wales and the Shaping of Sydney. I’d like to eat a really good sausage roll. I’d like to eat a really good vanilla slice.

with love from cold world, by alicia thompson

…a quote from John Waters—“True success is figuring out your life and career so you never have to be around jerks.”

some books i loved in 2023 that might also interest you

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire

Okay, maybe “love” isn’t exactly the right word for this one. Caroline Elkins is a fucking badass whose archival research helped secure reparations for 5,228 Kenyan Kikiyu people who survived British gulags during the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau movement. It’s quite the story:

When Elkins’s book came out, her findings – partly based on the testimony of Kikuyu survivors – were widely dismissed as, at best, exaggerations by a generation of historians wedded to stubborn ideas of Britain’s “enlightened” and “benign empire”. Her history was dramatically vindicated, however, when an unknown cache of 240,000 top secret colonial files, removed from Nairobi at the time of Kenyan independence in 1963, were disclosed on the eve of the 2011 trial. The files had been stored in a high security foreign office depository at Hanslope Park, near Northampton. At the time of that high court victory, Elkins noted that she had for years put on hold a wider inquiry into the methods of British colonial governance in the years after the second world war, in order to substantiate the survivors’ case, research that would now be illuminated by the fact that the secret document store also held “lost” records from 37 other former colonies. She was both vindicated and outraged by the discovery: “After all these years of being roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career.”

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins review – the brutal truth about Britain’s past

It’s taken me most of a year to get through the audiobook version, not only because it’s 31 hours long but because it’s heavy, heavy work. It draws connections between stories I know well, like British lies and cruelty during the Troubles in Ireland; stories I know less well but that have become hideously topical, like British cynicism and racism during Mandatory Palestine; and stories that to my shame I barely know at all, like British duplicity and violence in the Malayan Emergency. It describes, in painful detail, the contents of those “lost” records, including suppressed evidence of multiple extrajudicial murders by British officers.

And it’s my legacy. My grandfather is somewhere in these pages, in Mandatory Papua New Guinea after the war, with his wife and their children, my aunt and uncle and father. Not, I hope, committing the most egregious crimes, but certainly acting as a tool of Empire.

Despite all this, this book deserves its place as the most important thing I read in 2023. It may join Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity on the short list of books I think about almost every day.

Prophet

On a much cheerier note, the amazing Helen MacDonald of H is for Hawk spent the early part of the pandemic (how is this a cheerier note, Rachel) collaborating with Sin Blache on this irresistable book. As I said to my secret coven, imagine late Douglas Adams and mid-career William Gibson writing a scaldingly hot queer love story together. Get it in your eyes posthaste.

Ghosts of the Tsunami and San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History

Feels like cheating to include Beth Winegarner’s exquisitely researched investigation into the graveyards on which the City was built, given that I read it in draft and am thanked in the acknowledgments, but it would be equally dishonest to leave this one out. It’s even better than her Sacred Sonoma, and was written for the same reason: to try to understand and navigate the spiritual geography of place, its holy places and corpse roads. Parry’s book is an effort to do the same for the devastated landscape of the 2011 Japan earthquake.

My archaeology professor Alexander Cambitoglou impressed on me that we measure civilizations by how they dispose of their dead. Hit middle age and you realize every house is haunted; you realize that you yourself are a haunted house. We channel the voices of our dead for our children, because we knew and loved them when they were alive. Just as safety regulations are written in blood, institutional memory is a set of ghost stories, and that’s if you are very, very lucky.

(I forgot my best story about Beth’s book: she wound up her launch events with a Halloween reading at the Neptune Society’s beautiful Columbarium in the Richmond. I’d never been and it was atmospheric enough even before the quite strong tremor that rattled the stained glass windows and interrupted Beth making a very cogent and spooky point. Memento mori much?)

System Collapse

The latest Murderbot would be a shoo-in for the list even if it had not come out on the birthday shared by my younger kid and the Guide Dog puppy I’m currently raising. The younger kid was equally thrilled, having fallen for this series as hard as I did, with the delightful result that we can use deep cuts to communicate, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra-style, about our neurodivergence and misanthropy. Beloved author Martha Wells is responding well to cancer treatment; long may it be so.

Honorable mentions (because otherwise this post is getting too long)

The Animators and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – charming and engaging litfic about love and creativity

The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy – I texted my friend Danny, who had recommended it, to say Why don’t I heed your recommendations all the time? To which he responded You should! Another that reminds me of The Dawn of Everything

When We Cease to Understand the World – this year’s Vita Nostra, an entirely unexpected and mind-bending delight

a city on mars, by kelly weinersmith and zach weinersmith

So. Space settlements. Have we really thought this through?

after golden hour

The city is strange and gorgeous at the dark end of the year. Summer lingers into September, and then on October first, as if someone had flipped a switch, it’s suddenly and irrevocably fall. You crave soup and pie. By November you are riding your bike to yoga in a dry sunlit cold that makes your bones ache.

Last week Lenny and I had a private lesson with the boss trainer to work on our canter depart. I’ve been riding for forty years but this program demands absolute correctness, and it’s fiendishly difficult. To canter, you sort of pick the entire horse up with your thighs and put him back down on his outside hind leg. Oh, and you sit perfectly still while you are doing it. Sound impossible? It is.

And then Lenny and I came around a corner and I saw where our canter depart should be, and I showed Lenny, and he stepped into it, soft and round and through. For a blinding instant I felt superpowered. We have yet to reproduce our feat.

On the drive home the marine layer rolled in with the early sunset. 280 was a freeway through giant trees – not mere redwoods, but dense black trees so huge they blotted out half the sky. 21st century cars zooming through a primeval forest, the landscape of the reptile brain.

Riding – not even bothering to compete, just riding for its own sake – is the most ephemeral of arts, there and gone almost before you can acknowledge its presence. Like the city circling the sun as the planet spins on its axis, that scrubbed-clean sky, those ghosts of monstrous dawn sequoias; I write them down because memory is the only trace they leave. As John Darnielle sings, “All of this will disappear in the twinkling of an eye.” To live is to bear witness.

the heat will kill you first, by jeff goodell

If you’d had the right kind of microphone, scientists say, you could have heard the trees screaming.

barbie

My auntie Barb has died. My Dad’s older sister. Sharp as a needle, funny and profoundly kind. Maybe my first role model and a person who saw me and loved me as I am from when I was a chaotic disaster youth all the way to middle age. She made 93. A life well lived. I will miss her always.

hither page, by cat sebastian

Theirs was a world of fear and chaos, with tiny islands of goodness and hope.

how high we go in the dark, by sequoia nagamatsu

“It is imperative you exude merriment,” he stressed.

seeing with different eyes

We’ve been going to Benjamin Dean lectures on and off since the kids were tiny. It’s pretty cool that our youngest, nigh-adult child now enjoys coming with us. Last month we looked at the Galilean moons, including Ganymede with its own magnetosphere and our beloved Europa. This month Stanford professor Susan Clark walked us through the magnetic fields in the interstellar medium (ISM), the dust and gas between the stars.

She was charmingly annoyed about this name. “I’m pretty sure oceanographers don’t study ‘the stuff between the whales.’ I don’t think atmospheric scientists study ‘the stuff between the birds.'” To be fair, she acknowledged, the parts of ISM that are dust show up as black blobs in visible light, like Barnard 68. But if your eyes could see into the infrared spectrum, you would see the stars beyond.

One cool thing about the dust is that its particles are amorphous; another cool thing is that they spin. As they spin, they align with magnetic fields. Because they’re aligned, they polarize the light from the stars behind them, and the heat radiation they emit. So that by examining the polarization of that distant light and heat – by seeing with different eyes – amazing observatories like Planck and Arecibo and SOFIA can map the magnetic fields between the stars. (That main image got projected onto the dome of the Morrison Planetarium. It was astounding. Collective intake of breath.)

Of course the Planck and SOFIA missions have ended, and Arecibo suffered catastrophic mechanical failure. “Everything I love…” said Professor Clark sorrowfully. All eyes turn to the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Space Telescope. There is so much more to learn! Very good science lectures are like being at a party listening to someone absolutely fascinating hold forth on their field of special interest; they’re like touching grass, except the grass is interstellar space. They’re delightful.

the visitors, by jane harrison and wesley enoch

…there is no exclusively ‘white’ history of Australia—when we—First Nations people—have always been here. There is no ‘Black’ history of Australia in the last 240-plus years, either. We are each other’s shadows. To make sense of our shared history, we need to go back to the very beginning.

ten years ago

“For Rachel
Gwen Harwood
Poet
Bone Scan”

burn it down, by maureen ryan

What the industry wants to do is revert to the mean—always.

a ray of hope, a shining light

It’s golden hour and the last sunlight is drenching the trees around our little treehouse. I just ran to the shops and on the way, had an overwhelming urge to listen to what is maybe the Alan Parsons Project’s weirdest song, certainly one that has stayed with me these forty years: Ammonia Avenue. Eric Woolfson wrote it after visiting the ICI petrochemical plant in Billingham, in the UK. It’s a hymn to science and progress, of sorts: “And who are we to criticize or scorn the things they do?” It might have been reading Lydia Kiesling’s excellent Mobility that brought it to mind, or driving past enormous industrial facilities dropping C back at college. But it was probably gazing into the heart of a nuclear reactor.

It’s a small General Atomics training reactor, the only one in the world operated by undergraduates. In the chemistry lobby where we met for a tour there is a small museum exhibit. This includes one of the hunting decoy ducks removed from the cooling pond in 2012 because the NRC found them unprofessional (“I tend to agree,” said our guide) and a chipped piece of orange Fiestaware beside the clicking Geiger counter it was setting off.

The reactor itself is in a small brick building behind the chemistry building. It looks like a garage. You enter via a hallway with a glass window looking into the reactor room, which looks like a weirdly industrial small indoor swimming pool. In the control room we met the operators on duty. There are the deadly serious panels from the 60s and 90s and 2020s tracking the reactor behavior, and there are the Homer Simpson mousepads and the joke tchotchkes like a switch labeled “Fission” and “Fusion.” Our tour guides and the operators all had jewel colored hair and facial piercings and badges with their pronouns beside the dosimeters above their hearts.

In the reactor hall we leaned on the railings and gazed thirty feet into the aluminium-lined pool. Long control rods descend into a squat dark cylinder with dozens of narrower cylinders running through it like wires through a cable: the graphite containment, the uranium fuel rods. The core. It’s cooled by a closed loop of water that runs into a heat exchanger where city water takes away the excess heat. If the system lost electricity, the control rods of boron silicate, a neutron poison, would drop into the core via gravity and stop the reaction. That’s the theory, anyway. The operators can also drop the control rods by hitting the big red SCRAM button.

Our tour guide turned off the lights and we saw a miracle, Cherenkov radiation, generated by neutrons moving faster than the speed of light in water and creating a visual equivalent to a sonic boom. It is the most beautiful blue you can possibly imagine, like Yves Klein blue but made of light. It’s like gazing into the unknowable quantum essence of the universe. And then the operators hit the scram button and the core lost criticality and the blue faded away.

That night I read Serhii Plokhy’s Atoms and Ashes, a followup to his excellent Chernobyl that looks at all six of the major nuclear accidents and their causes. I’m a Gen Xer still astonished to have outlived the Soviet Union. I grew up almost equally terrified of atoms for war and for peace. But the idea of powering our cities with magical hot rocks is arguably no worse than doing so with necromantically resurrected dead dinosaurs. How do you weigh six major atomic catastrophes against the ongoing invisible disaster of climate change? How do you reconcile all of that with the knowledge that nearly everyone who got us into this predicament was acting in good faith? I honestly have no idea.

mobility, by lydia kiesling

Her family had been happy here, at least in her memory.

true biz, by sara novic

More than a few times she’d even prayed, selfishly, for The End to hold off until after she was dead and buried, so that she might be spared the pain of bearing witness to it.