29 June 2009

‘I was there’

Just over a week ago I took part in my first serious sing for nearly a year. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra organized a morning workshop on Haydn’s Creation. We had a chance to sing several of the choruses from Creation with members of the BBC Singers leading some of the rehearsals and then singing the solo parts.

Great fun was had by all. On a personal level, it persuaded me that I am once again well enough to cope with singing seriously again on a regular basis. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that my sightreading hadn’t degenerated as much as I had feared.

To get a taste of what the morning was like, go to this page on the BBC website for a video of how the morning ended.

The Tunguska Event was probably caused by a comet

The Tunguska Event of 1908 has fascinated astronomers, UFO hunters and many others for the past century. What caused the explosion that flattened over 800 square miles of Siberian forest?
Was it a meteorite impact? Or was it an exploding alien spaceship?

Personally I have always favoured the cometary hypothesis: that the explosion was caused as the nucleus of a comet collided with the earth and broke up in the atmosphere. Recently Michael Kelley et al. of Cornell have offered further evidence in favour of this hypothesis. They argue that the noctilucent clouds visible for several nights after the event and as far away as Britain are consistent with the presence of water vapour due to the break up of a comet. (See ‘A Mystery Solved’.)

22 June 2009

The City and the City

Some weeks have passed since I last added anything to my blog. But I have been silent for the best possible reasons: lots of interesting work (including a couple of big volumes of essays from folk more or less all aligned with Radical Orthodoxy) and getting started at last on the revision of the novel.

Since my last entry, I have also found time to read the book mentioned there (The City and the City by China Miéville), which I found among the new books at my local library the other day.

Ostensibly the story is a murder mystery, but what really maintained my interest was the setting, which provides the story with all the strangeness that one could wish for. Located somewhere in a liminal space between Europe and the Middle East, the city states of Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space. But their inhabitants are separated by centuries of cultural conditioning – a kind of internalized apartheid which means that the citizens of one city habitually ‘unsee’ those of the other. The deepest social taboo is breach: any action that causes someone in one city to interact with the people or artefacts of the other.

The murder at the beginning of the story sets the narrator (the detective Tyador Borlú) on a quest that takes him from one city to the other (there are legitimate ways of making the crossing) and ultimately into the ranks of Breach, the shadowy organization that polices the taboo.

Characterization is about what you would expect for a murder mystery. But the descriptions are superb, particularly the way Miéville has managed to get inside the heads of people living with this peculiar cultural conditioning. As you read, he manages to draw you into a culture that in some ways is far more alien than many of the alien cultures found in science fiction. And for me the climax was his description of the foreigner who having carefully studied Besźel and Ul Qoma for many years has perfected the art of dressing and moving ambiguously so that those looking at him cannot tell which city he is in.

Definitely worth reading more than once!