Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sudden realisation

I really like macaroni and cheese.

Actually, I knew that all along, but I suddenly realised it again tonight.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Frequently asked question time in the house

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Order! Order! (Bangs his gavel officiously on whatever the thing is that gavels get banged on). The house will come to order!

I call on the Honourable Member for Bludgford, Mr Glowral Slurgemstein, Minister for the Opposition.

GLOWRAL SLURGEMSTEIN: (Approaching the question place) Thank you, Mr Speaker. My question is directed at the Energy Minister for the Federal Government, Ms Jernelle Traglebumster.

Hi. Haven't seen you in a while. How's it going?

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I call on the Energy Minister for the Federal Government, Ms Jernelle Traglebumster, to answer.

JERNELLE TRAGLEBUMSTER: (Approaching the podium) Well, that's just about the usual standard of questions I'd expect from the Opposition. Mr Speaker, the Government has a clear cut plan for Australia, and here the Opposition is wanting to drag our conversation down into gutter civilities. Well, I tell you, the Government is determined, absolutely determined to go ahead with our plan, despite - yes, despite - what the Opposition ask of us. I further call upon my Glowral Sturgemstein, the so-called 'honourable' member for Bludgford, to withdraw that question.

MEMBERS OF THE OPPOSITION: Oooh! Ah! Yargh! Hwooooooar! (Waving their papers around in the air in an outraged fashion.)

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Order! Order! I call this house to order! Order, everyone, order order order!

Calling to speak, the Opposition's Honourable Member for Sluginthebum, Mr Topsulin Blackwater.

TOPSULIN BLACKWATER: (Coming up to speak) Your honour, Mr Speaker, this question is directed at the Minister for Infrastructure, Mr Globulins Globulins. Mr Globulins: I like milk with my tea. What about you?

MEMBERS OF THE GOVERNMENT: Yark! Faaaaarg! Huuuuurgh! (In a similarly outraged fashion to the opposition moments before.)

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: ORDER! ORDER! There will be ORDER IN THE HOUSE! Are we going to act like the federal parliament, or a bunch of petulant schoolchildren?

MR GLOBULINS GLOBULINS: (Coming up to speak) Your honour, Mr Speaker, thank you. But I am quite happy to answer those questions of both the previous members of the opposition. Yes, it is a nice day, isn't it? And my wife's fine, thanks for asking. And that is why, THAT is why, Mr Speaker, the Government has a clear plan for Australia...

MEMBERS OF THE OPPOSITION: Glooog! Baaaaah! Flumbug! (Outraged, as before, for no discernible reason)

MR GLOBULINS GLOBULINS: ... and intends to keep acting on it! (Sits down.)

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: ORDER! ORDER! (Bangs his gavel, bang bang). Order! Order! (Bangs his gavel, bang bang!) Order, order! (Bangs his gavel, bang bang!) Bang bang! Er, I mean, order, order!

Ahem. Calling the last speaker for the opposition, Ms Maria Terrentius Splivulum, member for Glimbo.

MARIA TERRENTIUS SPLIVULUM: Thank you, Mr Speaker. My question is directed at the member for Laggerty, Mr John Fogerty-Fogerty Fogerty. Did you leave your mobile phone in my office today? And would you like to come and collect it after question time?

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Order! Order! (Seeing nobody is making any noise) Er, yes. I call to answer that question the member for Laggerty, Mr John Fogerty-Fogerty Fogerty.

JOHN FOGERTY-FOGERTY FOGERTY: I did. I will. And thanks.

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: That concludes today's session of frequently asked question time in the house.



SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I say, that concludes today's session, no matter how much the government or the opposition may object to it! And that is an order! Order, order! (Bangs his gavel repeatedly, to no effect)

Ruth Manning-Sanders, revisited

I'm currently reading Folk and Fairy Tales, as retold by Ruth Manning-Sanders. Right through infants, primary and high school I can remember reading books of fairy tales retold by her: she was a prolific reteller of other people's stories. Check out the selected bibliography of her works on Wikipedia - and it's just a selected bibliography! - including such curios as A Book of Magic Horses. I lost touch with Ruth there for a while, but I'm glad to have got this book of Folk and Fairy Tales from the Flinders Street bookstore. She comes across as an affectionate aunt - a little prim and proper, but never trying to educate her readers. Unlike other writers - say, Thurber or Kipling - she never looks for the 'moral of the story'. In the introduction she writes:

It is the prime requisite of the fairy tale that it should end happily. I remember as a small girl hurling the book I had been reading across the floor in a rage, because the heroine, instead of marrying the hero and living happily ever after, just went and died. A thing she had no right to do.

Manning-Sanders is the sort of person who, when writing about Hansel and Gretel would have the cranky old witch crawl out of the oven again after her heroes have escaped. When writing about Little Red Riding Hood, she'll end with the kindly woodsman opening up the wolf's stomach, and letting grandma leap out again, none the worse for her experience. She'd save the wolf's life, too, if she could. At the end of the fifth story in this current anthology, she recounts something very like this:

'Ah, but I will show you something still more wonderful,' said the prince. And he waved his rusty sword and ordered it to cut off every head except the king's head and his own.
The sword clanged. There lay the army: heads in one place, bodies in another.... And he took the whistle out of his pocket. 'Heads on shoulders again,' said he. And he blew the whistle.
Then every soldier's head leaped on to its body again, and the whole army stood up, alive and well.... Nor did the king ever find fault with him again. Indeed, the king was now rather afraid of his son; though of course he did his best not to show it.

Now that's the sort of happy ending that Manning-Sanders did allow. As you can see, her definition of 'happy' ending is somewhat generous!

I never quite warmed to the pictures in Manning-Sanders' books, by Robin Jacques, in the same ways as I warmed to the stories. The pictures always seem to be slightly too statuesque: the devils always have ridiculous ears, the gnomes always have warts on their noses, the beautiful princesses look slightly too young, and the noble princes always look slightly too muscular. I like the attention to detail, though it often seems to be attention to the wrong detail. I get the feeling with his pictures that, instead of looking into the 'once-upon-a-time' world of fairy stories, I'm looking into the world of the 1950s and 60s, when garden gnomes, and cute and kitsch images of fairies proliferated. Then again, I like the pictures being there; it seems to me right that a book of folk and fairy tales should have sketches like this.

Of course, I love folk stories and myths, and have several copies of the same, by various authors and retellers, on my shelves. So perhaps I'm not an objective reviewer of Manning-Sanders' work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A community message

Let's face it, we all like to moralise from time to time, and reflect upon how we're better than others. I personally indulge in a good homily every evening, and sometimes I like to go out to a cafe or bar with a few other friends where we pass a few quiet parsimonious reflections on the actions of others. Self-righteous moralising can be a fun, and healthy activity, and it doesn't harm anyone.

But what sort of effect could moralising have on other people if done in excess? Parents in particular need to learn that the cumulative effect of their lectures and homilies on their children could be particularly devastating.

Studies have shown that:

- Nine out of ten children whose parent/s have passed judgement or made pious reflections, at length, in the home, have turned into sanctimonious bigots.
- 66 per cent, or two thirds, of adults who currently experience depression or other mental illnesses, do so as a result of an early encounter with a parent or guardian with a sermonising habit.
- Addiction to homilies can be easily acquired in childhood years, and hard to wean oneself off.

Parents, please consider the effect of your sermonising on your children! Just look at the following people who are currently suffering from addiction to moralising. They all learnt the habit as children:

Please. Don't let this happen to your children. Moralise responsibly, and in moderation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Budgetary announcement

In this time of fiscal constraints and environmental responsibility, it is obvious that the world of poetry and lovers will have to suffer some setbacks as well. It is no longer acceptable that certain young men who may just happen to be called Henry, and certain young women who are in all probability called Daisy, be seen riding around on a Bicycle Built for Two. From now on, instead of riding a Bicycle Built for Two, these winsome young women and sentimental young men must ride on a specially designed Unicycle Built for Two.

Failure to comply with these new regulations will result in certain young men called Henry, and certain young women called Daisy, being penalised. As a matter of fact, failure to be penalised for complying with these new regulations will also result in certain young men called Henry, and certain young women called Daisy, being penalised. So you can see we certainly mean business.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rapacious capitalism, coming to loot and plunder you!

I've set up an online store for my zine. Here's what the zine looks like:

I'm very proud of this zine - it comes complete with a pop-up toilet! (Well, sort of - you lift the toilet lid on one page and you get a gruesome visage of a toilet monster from the next page. That toilet monster, by the way, was modelled after me.)

I don't come with the zine. Unless you pay extra.

I'll be fiddling around with the settings in the next couple of days (at the moment, the price is set in US dollars. I'm not sure if I can do anything about that.)

UPDATE! - Still fiddling around with the settings. It should be ready by tomorrow morning. I'll let you know.

Thing hath sprung!

(For all of my northern friends!)

Now is the time for half the world
To shout and dance and sing,
As they prepare to welcome in,
To welcome in the spring!
Whilst half - the other half - prepares
To greet - the other thing.

Ah! March! The time of melting snow,
Of budding hedge and flowers!
Oh! March! The month of chilly nights,
And slow-increasing showers!
While every day the sunshine marks
The longer shorter hours!

Cold Winter's dead and buried,
And also coming soon;
Warm Summer's gone but comes again,
As of the first of June:
The year continues dancing to
The changing changeless tune.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Just imagine if...

Just imagine if... commercials for pet food were children food commercials!

SCENE: The backyard of a suburban house. JAMES and TROY are chasing one another around the backyard, squealing and giggling. Suddenly, they hear a noise from inside the house...

CUT TO: Mum in the kitchen, taking a bowl from the cupboard.

(JAMES runs to the window.)

JAMES: Mum, is it...

MUM: (Smiles and nods)

TROY: (Runs to the window) Woooooah!

JAMES: Oh wow! Dog biscuits again! Mum, can Sharon have some too?

MUM: Of course! There's plenty for everyone!

(Sets down the two bowls in front of the boys)

VOICEOVER: Doesn't your best friend deserve Good O?


SCENE: A shot of a city. As cheerful, morning music plays, the camera pans out over the city, taking in the rolling hills and the plains and the trains and the buses, before zooming in to a series of individual houses. In each of them, we see children waking up and rubbing their eyes and stretching their arms while the music becomes gradually more energetic. The camera CUTS to the kitchen , where mothers and fathers are taking out breakfast bowls and calling for their children to come out. The camera follows the children as they have a shower, come out into the kitchen, and, one by one, take out some bowls from the cupboard, and proceed to fill it up with a box whose title, however, remains obscured. As they finish their meals, they throw school bags on their back and hurry off to school.

CUT TO: A series of shots of boxes being placed on a table surface, revealing the titles of the boxes, while the VOICEOVER says:

VOICEOVER: Nine out of every ten children prefer Snappy Tom for breakfast!


SCENE: A large factory. A father is leading his children past the machines, and the air is full of steam and smoke and whirring and hammering and crashing and thumping sounds. They walk past a meat grinder, that continually grinds and produces a mince consisting of a number of weird ingredients, including tails and ears. This mince falls onto a chute, and is conveyed downwards into a large vat. A series of large beaters continuously whirl the meat around the vat, while a series of pipes continuously spew different-coloured liquids into it. The meat mixture is sucked out of the other side of the vat by another pipe, operated by a vacuum. The father and the children follow the pipe with wondering eyes, up and down and around, as the meat travels through the pipe. Finally, they come to the end, where the meat is squeezed out in a continuous cylindrical shape.

FATHER: Ah! (Takes a kitchen knife out of his pocket and cuts some of it off, putting it into a bowl.) Who wants a piece?

VOICEOVER: CHUM! It's just so chunky - you can carve it!

I'd like to thank me for inviting myself and all of the other me's over

WASHINGTON - Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen was just a few paragraphs into an address at a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the White House when he realized something sounded way too familiar. Turns out, he was repeating the speech President Barack Obama had just given.... Obama laughed and returned to the podium to offer what might have been Cowen's remarks. In doing so, President Obama thanked President Obama for inviting everyone over.

- The Star Tribune
I'm not so sure that this story is as simple as they make it sound. Then again, is this story as simple as they make it sound? Was President Obama really reading Prime Minister Cowen's speech? Or was President Obama really reading Prime Minister Cowen's speech? Anyway, who's to say that the speech the second time over would be any less meaningful than the speech the first time over? And who's to say that the speech the second time over would be any less meaningful than the speech the first time over?

Perhaps in future all speeches will not only be delivered by teleprompters but read by teleprompters, to an audience of teleprompters.

(Via Tim. Via Tim.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Comment extremism

Just for once, I'd like to see something like this appear in blog comments.

It would certainly encourage the readers to be creative.

The great books, as I remember them

Apparently I have a giant memory. Humungous. My pinkly pulsating cerebral organ is so powerful that it puts all other brains to shame. Sure, I may make a few mistakes - I might say 'Hi Frank' to a person whose name really is Joe, or is it Fred - but these mistakes are nugatory. They are perfunctory. They are hugely inconsequential, or, to put it another way, they matter not. Such are my cerebral powers that even when I don't seem to remember a person's name, that is merely because that person themselves have forgotten their name. Or perhaps it is because I remember so much that I not only remember what that person's name is, but what that name might be as well. Or perhaps I have simply remembered to forget.

Anyway, the literature of the centuries is nothing to me and my fearsome mnemonic powers. The merest detail about a character's facial expressions is all stored in my memory, alongside the great overarching facts such as plot, climax, scene setting, and so forth. Observe! I shall set forth, on this page, as evidence of my brilliant brain, details of many of the great books in the literary canon.

I present: The Great Books, as I Remember Them.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
This is the story of Pippi Longstocking, who is raised in the English countryside by her cousin, Flo Gargery, a kindly dentist. At first it looks like Pippi will follow Flo and become a dentist herself, but Chris Havisham, an old and wealthy bachelor, has other ideas, and in a climactic scene the Gargery dentures are burnt and Pippi goes off to London. There, she falls in with Michael Jaggers, a lawyer who dreams of earning his fortune as a famous international rock sculptor; and Mr Wemmick, who lives with his kindly parent, Aged Q. A book that has been loved by many generations of readers.

Crime and War and Peace, Fyodor Dostoevsky
When the main character of Crime and War and Peace, Raskolnikov, is killed by his kindly old landlady, Madame Bovary, in the first chapter, things look grim. And they only get worse after that. This is an important late-romantic work by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Pride and Punishment, Jane Austen
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a wife must be in want of a fortune." With these famous first words, Austen opens her witty novel about the life of Elizabeth II, Queen of the Bennets, and her struggle to choose between two suitors, Darcy Fitzroy, and Sir Walter Scott, of the Raleghs.
Pride and Punishment is number 2016 in Mr Grub Fotheringham's 5001 books you might like to read.

Love in a Cold Comfort Climate, Stella Mitford
Stella Mitford was by far the least known of the Mitford sisters (Emily Barret-Mitford, with her novel Wuthering Bottoms, is far better known.) But with her first novel, Love in a Cold Comfort Climate, she earned a lasting place in history. It concerns Pollyanna Post, the daughter of rich parents, who is forced through circumstances beyond the control of whoever is responsible for such circumstances, to go and live in Cold Comfort Climate, actually a farm owned by her distant relatives. Here, the plot ends, if not the novel (that goes on for another 100 pages.)

In Rememberance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
I actually can't remember what this one's about, sorry.

Lucky Jim, Martin Amis
Lucky Jim is the story of Arthur Phillip Dent, an innocent schoolgirl at St Trinians who longs after something more. When the earth is attacked by the Martians, Arthur is rescued by the four horsemen of the apocalypse in a Corvette. They then drive down the river Mississippi in search of freedom and a mythical city of gold known as The Big Sleep. A curious tale told with great relish by Martin Amis, son of famous older novelist Kingston Amis.

The Wasps, Archimedes
A book of geometric theorems - not actually fun to read, but they remain useful in school even today.

Grimm Stories, John Donne
Folk stories collected by a master poet, including the famous 'The Three Billy Goats Grim' and 'The Story of the Three Bears and Bluebeard', as well as less known stories such as 'Goldilocks' Castle', 'Jack and the Magical Seven League Red Dancing Shoes', 'Honest Hansel and Clever Gretel', 'East of the Goose Girl and West of Rumplestiltskin'. This book makes easy and pleasurable reading for all people aged 1 or below, or 99 and above.

Midsummer Night's Children, Salman Rushdie
This classic Shakespearean comedy, written by Rushdie, is set in the jungles of India during the time of independence. Oberon Waugh is set to wed Titani, but matters go awry when Puck, Goodfellow, Bottom, and Mahatma Gandhi rush on to the scene. Meantime, things are brought to a head when Tybalt slays his nemesis, Romeo, before the magician Prospero resolves all difficulties in his famous speech 'we are such dreams as stuff are made on'.

The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
I can't be sure of all the details of this one. It concerns D'Artagnan, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and one other Musketeer whose name escapes me at the moment, whose purpose in life is to rescue Louis the XIV, XV, XVI, or some other number, from being beheaded by Madame Defarge. However, they are distracted from their task when Captain Ahab kidnaps Marie Antoinette, or Marie Antoinette kidnaps Captain Ahab, I'm not sure which. This ripping, if ambiguously-plotted adventure story is as much a thrill to read now as it was two days ago.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Arthur, Crown Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare
Another brilliant tragedy by Shakespeare, whose masterstroke was to set Denmark in the middle ages in England, in the dark ages. This work was so powerful that it changed the course of literary history even before it was written.

Bridget Jones Diary of the Plague Year, Helen Defoe
A classic historical account of the black plague in 17th century England, from a 20th century 30-something woman looking for love, who just happened to be there at the time, except in person.

Alice, The Betrothed, in the Heart of Midlothian's Mysterious Udolpho, and Vathek of Otranto, have a Christmas with Carol in a Midwinter's Wonderland Tale (with Jolly Old St Nicholas Nickleby), by Charles Scott-Burns Radcliffe
I haven't actually read this one, but I assume the author put all the plot into the title, and the rest is just padding.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, by Bram Stoker
In this chilling horror tale, Victor Frankenstein contrives to resurrect Count Dracula from the grave of Mary Shelley, or possibly Mary Shelley contrives to resurrect Victor Frankenstein from the grave of Count Dracula, or possibly Count Dracula contrives to raise Mary Shelley from the grave of Victor Frankenstein, or maybe it's just Mary Shelley contriving to raise Mary Shelley from the grave of Mary Shelley. Actually, I'm a little hazy on all these details, but rest assured it all ends happily never after, in the manner of all bad folk tales. The end.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Grandeur, delusions of

Seems to me that all these predictions of the imminent death of the printed newspaper are entirely too shortsighted. One historical parallel that comes to mind is the competition between cinema and theatre (an established form of entertainment since the early 20th century) and the forms of home entertainment that sprang up from the 1950's onwards (video, beta, DVD). Cinema and theatre never died, but they did change, and in time came to have an co-dependent relationship with television, video, and DVD. Perhaps a similar fate awaits newspapers, with all the hard reporting being done online, while a wide array of magazines and pamphlets are distributed in the printed form by a succession of poets and humourists and spruikers and authors. I'd personally love to see a return to the good old 18th century style of pamphleteering, though I suppose that the time for that form of publication has passed.

On a completely unrelated note, would anyone like to buy my poetry zine? I'm taking some copies in to Sticky this morning. It's called A Child's Garden of Hearses, and it's been illustrated by Alexis, with cover art by Kingsley. I can't give it out, because it cost two dollars to do the cover alone, aside from the other 23 pages. Also, I have to pay my artists, who are currently beating down the door baying for my blood (that's what they ask for in terms of minimum wage these days, I hear.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Actions send out the wrong message louder than words

We get told, almost every time a certain person, A, does something about a certain group of people, B, that another certain person, C, doesn't like, then that the action of A 'sends out the wrong message'.

Who decided that actions send out messages in the first place? Why is it so easy to send out the wrong message and so difficult to send out the right message? We can certainly guess, from the frequent comments of C on the matter of sending out the wrong message, that their opponent (A) never does anything but send out the wrong message to the wrong people (B). Is it actually possible at all to send out the right message, or just the wrong message to the right people?

Indeed, I'm starting to get mixed messages about the sending out of wrong messages by the wrong people. Why does C get to decide what messages the actions of A is sending out, and why that message being sent out is the wrong message? If A can't send out the right message to the wrong people, can they perhaps send out the wrong message to the right people? Or is it always going to be the wrong message to the wrong people? And, for that matter, who is to say that the actions of C, in sending out the message (to A) about the sending out of the wrong message (from A to B), are not themselves sending out the wrong message to the wrong people (D, E, and F)? Just what sort of wrong message does C think they're sending out (to D, E and F) in sending out the right message (to A) about the sending out of the wrong message (to B), anyway? And what do G, H, I and J have to say about all of this?

Or is it just a case of the media is the wrong mixed message?

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Chocolate Review

The Chocolate Review: Ice Magic Choc Honeycomb
It's not very magic, is it? A liquid substance that has been designed to stay liquid when kept in a container at room temperature, but to quickly harden when exposed to air and ice cream: that's pretty damn scientific. If it was really magic, wouldn't it at least be materialising rabbits in strange places, or something like that? Also, I can't taste the honeycomb at all. Perhaps they forgot to put that in? The chocolate's all right, though. I was pretty satisfied at the chocolate. The chocolate was definitely there.

All in all, this lacklustre condiment fails to excite, and although it does deliver on the chocolate front, it fails to extend on the basic idea, making me wonder if the makers of Ice Magic Choc Honeycomb were paying attention when they made this particular condiment. One and a half chocolate buttons out of five.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Slight annoyance at Distress

The first book I read by Greg Egan, about ten years ago or so was a collection of short-stories called Axiomatic, and I was addicted. Withdrawal set in later when I read two of his novels, Distress and Diaspora.

Egan's style is not dissimilar to that of other science-fiction writers; stories are based on a hard core of two or three science-based speculations, around which the drama, dialogue, and conflicts between characters centre. Axiomatic was based around several related speculations about genetic science and neurotechnology. What if we could upload our personalities onto microchips? And how would we react in those circumstances? What if a mother and father decided to use all the genetic tools at their disposal and create a child who really was perfect, in every way? How about a Christian fundamentalist geneticist who creates, in perfect sincerity, a sexually-transmissible disease that kills everyone who does not have heterosexual sex with a single partner for their whole life? Why would he do it? In what ways could the creation of this virus turn against him? Egan wrote brilliantly about these ideas, imagining the extreme reactions of different groups of people to technological developments, and sympathising with the moral anguish encountered by people confronted, thanks to technology, with choices that had previously been unthinkable.

But his novels are disappointing. They suffer from some typical problems of science-fiction - they are overdetailed but often lack the important details. Egan doesn't use a simple, obvious word when a complicated, obscure word will do - there are pages and pages of scientific jargon that are superfluous to the plot. In Distress, I've just read a full-chapter interview with a character that could be summarised thusly: 'some people are different from others. Some people are more capable of imagining what the thoughts and feelings of other people are like, than other people. People react to this in different ways.' Egan throws words about like 'hypothalamus', chucks in several brain scans, and invents a scientific name for a region of the brain that deals with recognition of personality traits - but really, he could have summed the entire chapter up in those few sentences above, along with a little scene-setting.

Egan is better at devising situations for his characters than characters for his situations. For instance, I've just read in Distress a break up scene that makes less sense than it should: "I closed my eyes. I didn't want to hear this... Tears were streaming down her face." I can believe the reasons for the break up, the angst experienced by the characters, the closing of the eyes, the not wanting to hear things, the tears, the description of the situation - but not all at once. The truth is that the characters break up because Egan needs them to break up at that point for his plot - they're the sort of people that would have that sort of thing happen to them in this sort of book. In Distress it's fascinating to read that transexuals can choose to have their brains operated on to become more fully the sex that they want to be, or that there can be a group called the 'Voluntary Autists', who want to have their brain operated on to become a different type of person. But they are hardly any different from any other of his characters; they serve a plot purpose. His characters are generally acted on more than actors; they are the victims of scientific law, or fate, or a historical movement, and if they are sometimes willing participants in scientific changes, Egan often writes as if this willing participation is an illusion.

Not that the ideas are bad at all. In Diaspora, he imagines a human society in which individual consciousness has been mapped and uploaded into a computer database. With their minds extended by the computational possibilities of computers, and perfected according to neuroscientific discovery, these characters are pretty much supergeniuses, with the potential for achievements far beyond the realm of human possibility in the present day. And what do they do? They dick around on the internet and play mathematical games: they lead lives slightly less interesting than my own. Egan's imagination fails him because he lacks the superhuman potential of his characters - which is fairly understandable. Other authors have encountered similar problems: in his Cities in Flight novels, for instance, James Blish's character's lead infinitely long lives of infinite dullness.

There is a large problem with Egan's novels, too. The general theme that he develops in Axiomatic and Distress is that people become frightened and paranoid about technological change, and that their reactions to technological change is extreme and sometimes divisive. That's fair enough, but in order to describe the effects of technological change on people, it's hardly necessary to describe, in detail, all the technological changes that are happening - as he does in Distress. There, we get whole chapters which consist simply of extended scientific descriptions. The words he give to characters often read like a press release, or a snippet from the New Scientist. Aside from anything else, it ruins the illusion he is trying to create. It's hard to imagine feeling paranoid about the technological changes he describes; we've encountered similar changes in our own lifetimes and haven't been fazed by it. Also, the emotions of paranoia, horror, and anguish that Egan describes are interesting, but are often a good deal less interesting than other, less extreme emotions: boredom, wry amusement, pleasure, slight annoyance. Like, for instance, the slight annoyance I encounter on re-reading Distress; almost enough to offset the considerable pleasure I get on uncovering Egan's ideas.

What Egan's novels lack, I think, is a good metaphor, an idea large enough to subsume the entire plot. In Distress, Egan does attempt to sum things up with a mysterious new mental illness named 'Distress' - but it's less convincing than it was meant to be. The stories in Axiomatic were far more convincing, possibly because they never took an idea too far. It was almost always possible to believe the anguish of the characters because the stories were restricted; you very rarely had to consider situations outside the immediate one. But also, some of the ideas there were just so full of potential - as in, for instance, The Infinite Assassin (a detective story in a multiverse), or Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (which draws inspiration from fractal imagery like the famous Mandelbrot set).

Fussy of me to demand this of Egan? I guess so, but that's what readers are supposed to be like. You can keep expecting a perfect novel - War of the Worlds - but that book has only ever happened once in science fiction's history. More often, you get books like The Great Brain Robbery.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The association, disassociated

(In memory of Uncle John)

What will they do who are the last of an Association,
When all their old associates have passed?
When the old faithful members will no longer be remembered,
Save in the minds of those who are the last?

That coterie of balding men, that shuffling brigade
Who meet at local Leagues Clubs every week,
Who represent an interest in Taxis or the horses:
Which man will speak for the last man to speak?

As numbers dwindled year by year at E or AGMs,
As old friends died or left them year by year,
Did that single ageing member who was fated to be last
Look forward to the future with much fear?

After the final secretary stands down from the board,
The minutes of the final meeting done,
Who will now draft the letters to commemorate their life
Now the final horse has bolted; it's race run?

Perhaps a final dictum laid down in the final meeting,
Before the minutes finally become
The still and mum reminders of a world that once was lost,
Will lay out the procedure to be done:

A small, pro-forma email sent out to the family
And automated by something... someone...
About the last associate of that Association,
Who no-one else would speak for - who spoke for everyone.


I went to my Uncle John's funeral in Newcastle yesterday. During the funeral there was a letter read out from the local jockey club, and a guy got up speaking for the taxi industry, which gave me the idea for this poem. The minister asked us all to hold an 'image in our heads of John', and think about all the good things he did for us. Mum and I couldn't think of any other image than Uncle John lying on the couch in his Merewether home, watching the telly, just wearing his singlet and trousers - hilarious but appropriate, I think. It summed up his 'fuck you' attitude to life. The poem doesn't actually represent what Uncle John was like, but I'd like to dedicate it to his memory anyway.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Prone to fafflatus, but still faffable.

After umpteen months at this typing and transcribing gig, I have finally put together a list of grammatical terms that may be used to described the great World of Wrong that is the modern media:

two-person monologue Technically, a two-person interview, in which, however, the interviewee doesn't even bother with the questions and just talks non-stop for the duration of the interview. They may occasionally pause for breath, or to give the interviewer time to ask further questions which the interviewee will then ignore.

public creaking An extremely tedious speech given by an extremely boring old politician or public servant (eg, Wilson Tuckey)

English as a second-hand language Dull talk given by an executive in the private sector in which they persistently substitute meaningless acronyms and ugly neologisms for relatively simple English terms and concepts.

fafflatus A politician with a high opinion of themselves but with poor intellectual and communication skills suffers from Fafflatus. This is, sadly, an all too common condition in the modern Australia.

in two absent-minds about When two vapid people are placed in the one radio studio together and proceeded to blab on (see Blabomination, below) about nothing in particular, they are said to be in 'two absent-minds about' the subject.
Variation: if the vapid people are in agreement, it is said that their 'two absent-minds are as one'.

blabomination A particularly terrible example of talkback radio. (Alan Jones is the Blabominal Bloman.)

squawkback A meaningless, but loud, argument between a caller and a presenter on talkback radio.

speaking in worst-person An egotistic politician or publicist who inserts the pronouns 'I', 'me', 'myself', into every sentence.

when Yoda meets Kent Brockman (also: Imperfect Unpresent tense) Phenomenon that occurs on country commercial television. The reporter begins to talk in half present-tense, half past-tense about events or people, often omitting crucial words and phrases.

A driver remaining trapped in the twisted metal that was her car.

Emergency crews still very happy with the results of their work, considering what might have happened.

That Big Thing Near Spencer Street Wot They Kick The Ball Around In

AFL refuses to acknowledge Etihad Stadium

TELSTRA DOME will be officially renamed on Sunday, but as far as the AFL is concerned, don't mention the war.

The league is refusing to call the stadium by its new moniker - Etihad Stadium - after a dispute about pourage rights, sponsorship and club stadium deals.

The league is set to sue Telstra Dome management because the name conflicts with AFL sponsor Qantas, although no court date has been set.
Let's try and get this straight. Basically, a place that used to be called the Telstra Dome will now be called Etihad Stadium, except to certain people who for commercial reasons will be calling it the Qantas Park. Previously, most people had called the place the Colonial Stadium, or possibly the Commonwealth Oval.

They couldn't make this any clearer, could they?

It must be awfully fun for fans, going along to a place whose name changes day by day, and depending on the person you are hanging out with.

Maybe they could just call it That Big Thing Near Spencer Street Wot They Kick The Ball Around In.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Another day, another visit to the dentist. I've become a regular at the dentists in the city, so much that it's like attending a theatrical or social event. "Anyone else here yet?" I ask, walking comfortably in through the door. "Take a seat," says the receptionist. "How are you?" I say, settling myself easily into the chair. "He'll be 10 minutes," says the receptionist in a friendly voice, tapping away at the computer. "Did you see that show on television last night?" I ask the dentist as we go into their room and he pushes me down into the chair. "Sit still and open your mouth," he says calmly, forcing a cold metal implement into my mouth. "Ohhay", I say, doing my best to smile and nod without getting the metal implement jammed up through my upper palate. "Wider," says the dentist, at which point we all crack up at the joke.

Now, I've reached the point at the dentists where, having had their fun and extracted several offending calcite bodies from my mouth, they're figuring out ways to keep me coming back. This Saturday, I attended a scheduled appointment that had been scheduled following a previous scheduled appointment, during which current scheduled appointment, the dentist I had scheduled to meet with scheduled another scheduled appointment in two weeks time, during which there may or may not be another appointment scheduled to perform more acts with cold metal implements in my mouth.

It could be worse. I could take to hanging out in the pub, where, I'm told, they also extract calcite bodies from your mouth - but with bare hands and broken bottles. I'm not quite ready for that - not for several sessions at the dentist, at least.
Email: timhtrain - at -

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