plague novels: a scent of new-mown hay

While Andromeda Strain is the most bloodless science fiction – the microorganism is a solid hexagonal crystal, no messy fluids here – A Scent of New Mown Hay (John Blackburn, 1959) is a work of horror. Every other chapter ends with people people running screaming, or averting their eyes from the plague-stricken bodies, which are never fully described. As in John Wyndham, cosy domestic scenes and orderly meetings leaven the grisliness.

The scientific premise is reasonable: a fast-spreading fungus that forms a symbiosis with humans, arising from madura mushrooms. There is an actual condition of this type called “Madura foot” that produces bulbous execrescences and was, before medical advances controlled by amputation. The fictional strain has been juiced with radiation to spread more aggressively, merging inevitably with women’s bodies in particular (!) to form an elephantiasic lumpy mass, just jointed and sentient enough to show it began as human, otherwise as layered and vegetal as something you’d find in the back of the fridge.

Similar to Wyndham’s books, the protagonist is a decent, uxorious young scientist testing his skills against the clock, and unlike in Crichton’s, his wife is an important player as well. She earns her team status by remembering a fact nobody could have forgotten, and cements it with independent detective work.

As a child I found the book acute and frightening because the spores, originating in Russia, spread on the wind – akin to the nuclear bombs and fallout described in civil defense manuals from the local Air Force base. But the novel’s solution depends not on science, diplomacy or defense but on small-group psychology: on psyching out the scientist who doctored and released the spores. And that scientist had local help; in the end, horror also lives in the presence of moles and traitors at home.

CW: classism, homophobia, ageism and reverse ageism, ableism, racist talk, WW II never ended.

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plague novels: the andromeda strain

In Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, a microorganism of apparently extraterrestrial origin manifests as a cloud that saturates the air like nerve gas and seems to kill on contact.
The best part of the book, the only part I remember from an earlier reading, is the descent through the five circles of decontamination to an underground laboratory, with a nuclear detonation device at the level below that in case the precautions fail – a magnificent piece of worldbuilding.

The protocol includes showers in disinfectants, baths in antimicrobials, saunas, extreme-wavelength light, disposable garments incinerated after use – everything short of DDT and radiation is used to produce “clean” bodies in a “clean” environment. The procedures are described first in a planning document, part of an extensive set of realia distributed through the book: dossiers stamped Top Secret, transcripts, maps, computer printouts, and even a list of references to invented scientific literature.

The underground laboratory for investigating microbes from space operates on a wartime model: it was designed top down by a group of “wise men” and is staffed by a group of hero scientists who subordinate their bodies to the mission. Science also routinely consumes the bodies of animals and penitentiary “volunteers.” The four heroes are exemplars of the usual demographic suspects, competence pornstars whose acclaimed brains bring them the expected disproportionate rewards. The men lack distinct personalities: all we get is that one is the alpha, one can be a cowboy if needed, one is “sloppy,” and one is a bachelor surgeon. According to editor Robert Gottlieb, in a Paris Review interview, in early drafts there was even less difference: “The only thing that distinguished some of [the charaacters] from others was that some died and some didn’t … It occurred to me that instead of trying to help [Crichton] strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it–I think he felt relieved.”

In mid-century military tradition (Catch-22), women are possessions and rewards; the alpha is already on his fourth wife. The bachelor surgeon, Mark Hall, is assigned the task of controlling the nuke, because the “odd man hypothesis,” supported by computer printout of test results, says a single man will make more “correct” decisions, according a computer simulation. If a broken seal triggers a nuclear countdown, Hall has just three minutes to get to one of the few key stations and stop it. (But what if he’s asleep when it starts?) Editor Gottlieb’s other contribution to the book was changing the odd man’s job from turning the nuke on to turning it off.

Although Hall is unpaired, his readiness for normative pairing is made clear that he responds to a sensuous female intercom voice – which belongs to an older spinster named Gladys. This is Crichton’s idea of a joke. A bit later Hall meets a “girl who was to be his assistant,” but she disappears after a scene or two of animal experiments conducted in space suits. Most support for these man-gods comes from computers, which can even replace doctors.

The minimal use of humans helps keep everything top secret: even in the sparsely populated area downwind of the first town wiped out by the microorganism, the public cannot be told because there is nothing they can do to check the spread and they may panic. The region is inspected with satellite cameras while the scientists race against the wind’s inevitable turn. Their experiments gradually prove that the cloud can disperse and corpses are not infectious. But the final solution is deus ex machina: the bug is found to have mutated into a harmless state taken as its final form – to the point where its ability to “convert matter to energy given only carbon, oxygen and sunlight” suggests a future energy source. Apparently the only thing wiser than a scientist is an alien.

CW: Grammatical sexism, which comes out in expository phrasings like “in fact, man lived in a sea of bacteria,” “a job that would take a man days to work out,” “both man and organism have adapted,” “public health was a young man’s game,” etc.

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freeze the bern

(Written for the Language and New Media class blog network)

Excited to say – people on the Internet are always excited, aren’t they – that I have contributed to a meme for the first time in my life – that is, I’ve made a new image that is an instance of a meme. I am no longer a passive consumer of memes! I am a producer!

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The kernel image of course is Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate, at the inauguration with coat, mittens and envelope, which is going to be by far the longest-lived image from this historic event. (Sorry, President Biden, Madam Veep, Poet Laureate Junior, Gaga from District 10022, and the rest.) The memes began exploding on my Facebook yesterday – someone had already assembled a thread of 40+ images – and rolled throughout the day there and on Twitter. Related materials as well – a news piece on the crafter who makes the mittens from recycled plastic bottles, a pattern for the mittens, an embroidered version of the image – but mainly this meme.

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what journalism is

One day on the subway to Boston, a well-meaning friend of mine asked, “How can you waste your fine mind on a trivial pursuit like journalism?”

At that moment, I realized why I loved journalism and always would. “It is a challenge, even to my fine mind. You witness disordered reality, and impose order on it. You are presented with a mélange of facts too large merely to record and regurgitate. So, you impose order on disordered reality, and do so in the correct written form within the time allotted. I believe that is a challenge I will wish to accept, the accomplishment of which will satisfy me, for a lifetime.”

Paul E. Schindler, Jr. (permalink)

I have things to say about this, but they do not fit in this space. Or this moment. News is happening.

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la lucha continúa


In the ninth month of March, the vaccines arrived, but of course could not be broadly and evenly distributed, just as testing was not broadly and evenly distributed before.

This week, new cases in the UK rose from 40,000 a day to 50,000 a day, between Monday and Tuesday, the biggest one-day jump so far. Hospitals are maxed out.

Nobody had a happy Christmas, because either they were missing the people they would normally see, or they were guiltily breaking what they knew was best practice (if not the actual government restrictions) to be with them. Or they were on duty coping with the flood of sick and dying. Not to mention processing the turnabouts in government messaging and continuing inadequate support for those who have lost their livelihoods.

One in 1000 Americans has died of Covid. Slightly more than one in 1000 Britons has died of Covid. The virus has now claimed someone I knew personally, one of the wonderful Bedford Free Public Library librarians from my childhood. (Are there two sweeter words in the language than free and public, especially together?) Dorothy Carter Ahearn was 102, which meant she survived the 1918 pandemic. But not this one.

Still downtowns are full of unmasked people, and still some people feel free to travel for fun, as if all these limits and cautions were meant for someone else. Most conspicuously, hundreds of British ski tourists went to Verbier, and then fled in the dark of night as quarantine regulations came down. Classy.

The most salient memorial currently is the ordinary-person obituaries in the Guardian (Lost to the Virus). Every one of these people sounds great and so do their families.

In the last month since the November lockdown lifted, I completed the term’s teaching, returned to Friday breakfast radio (distanced, gloved, wetwiped), did a little more shopping than in November, posted some Christmas cards, and met one person for the monthly Bookcrossing meeting.

Some of these might still be at Coffeelink if you want them
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faraway lights

Ipswich by night

“The Nutcracker serves up an idealized Christmas on a platter full of treats that everyone has been promised at one time or another – by our parents or by books and movies and TV specials. Christmas can be a joyful and problematic holiday for nearly everyone; it’s not religious enough for some, it’s too religious for others; it’s lonely for those without family, and it’s too full of relatives for those who have had enough of being known by a childhood nickname. There’s pressure to spend money, to commune, to be festive, and ‘the holidays’ can be a time of heightened expectations and recurring disappointments. The Nutcracker, however, is simpler. Like Christmas, it always comes around in December, but no one expects so much from a ballet, so its gifts can be discovered in a more relaxed manner.”

— Jennifer Fisher, Nutcracker Nation

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due diligence

Zoom-style logo by Sue Jones

November Bookcrossing was a Zoom with just a few people. I volunteered to arrange it, then decided I’d rather be at Punctuation, then E arranged it and I joined anyway. It was nice to see BCX people. Obviously no takeaway coffee was drunk and no books were exchanged.

At Punctuation, we had an excellent session on books we thought deserved to be better known. I presented Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Here is an excellent podcast about it, if you’re curious. The convenor presented Kirsten Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs, which I also love (and once used a text from in making up an entrance exam for the University of Helsinki). In other book group news, I plan to host a readalong of Dan Abnett’s Embedded for Eastercon, or rather pre-Eastercon, since he is a GoH there.

Not a banner con for ribbon collection, but we did have special punctuation “houses.” The others were quasiquote, interrobang, and hemidemisemicolon.

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a little older, a little more confused

It’s October and we still don’t have a vaccine. We still don’t have a clear and easy testing regime. We still don’t have contact tracing in the UK, just tattered signs with square barcodes posted up in food places for phone scanning. I have yet to scan one successfully. We still don’t have a proper description of the virus and all its variants, pathways and prognoses. We still don’t have a workable plan.

The Ipswich Bookcrossing meeting was held again in person, split up into groups of regulation pod size. You can see I’m still trying to give away Mary Ann in Autumn, whose beautiful cover does not make up for the Dune-like decline of the Tales of the City gang across the series. Other than monthly Bookcrossing, and weekly radio when I’m home, and trips to the shops for necessities, I have not been going out in town.

I have however begun weekly trips across the UK for teaching, via much depopulated London. The number I pay attention to now is the cases reported by the university. Today it is 68. The rate of doubling is a bit slower than weekly. At least one student in my classes has had to quarantine because of a housemate’s contact and another has gone home, and those are just the ones who wrote to me. We’ve gotten off very lightly so far compared to other universities. Every time I come home I have a migraine or stomach upset, but it’s quite likely this is due to eating garbage on the road, whereas in my flat with a stove twenty feet away I can eat like a Buddhist nun.

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a distant mirror

I, too, could not believe that they would railroad Nixon through until I read a [Walter] Lippmann column a few days before they did, who explained to my satisfaction how it had all been planned for weeks and months ahead; and all the power boys like Dewey were rallying around behind him, and jockeying for their eventual position when he takes over. I wonder how much any of this affects the true believers; or those who might have doubts. One of the phenomena we find incredible and disturbing, having now met 4 Republicans from the US who are visiting around here, is their flat-out refusal to think about anything happening to their symbol of safety. “I am willing to take the chance, if there is one. I am his. He is mine.” Etc. I don’t remember having run into this before, but imagine there was a great deal of it during the Roosevelt days … and he and his certainly did a great deal of railroading through conventions. I keep feeling, as you do, that there is a fighting chance for Adlai and Kefauver … but can they break through that idolatry onto solid ground?

— Julia Child to Avis DeVoto, Oslo, 27 August 1956

A recent joy has been Joan Reardon’s edited collection of the Child-DeVoto letters. Julia Child, of course, was The French Chef on the black-and-white television of my childhood, “a tall loopy Smithie who dropped steaks on the floor and swigged red wine while she cooked,” in the words of the early online journaler known as Edith Pilaf (the approximate words, recalled from memory).

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the 200th of March

Six months into the Covid era. It is now 193 days since we were sent home from campus on 6 March, and 183 days since the UK lockdown took effect on 16 March. We are in a twilight regime where the only enforceable directives are the group limit of six (unless it’s for school or work or grouse hunting where anything goes) and the requirement to wear a mask in enclosed public areas “unless there is a reasonable excuse for removing it.” Even these are not being enforced. Everything else is a recommendation – the usual strategy in this pandemic when a rule would make human sense but someone, usually business, objects.

Bookcrossing books on the table

I sat on the Waterfront with four people and a dog at the monthly Bookcrossing meetup on Saturday, will be going into London shortly to collect books and papers the office at my last gig, and am contracted for some in-person teaching this term, if we’re not sent home from that. It’s been nice knowing you all.

Official figures are 41,637 deaths, plus up to 20,000 extra deaths that might have been related to Covid. There are officially 371,125 confirmed cases, which is meaningless because everyone knows many people with it have not been tested and now we don’t trust the tests. The government has stopped reporting the number of tests and people tested, and it is clear that many tests have not even been read.

Covid tweet about testing backlog by @chrischirp @Gabriel_Pogrund
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125 days

125 days since the red alert sent us home from work. 115 days since the lockdown order. There have been soft openings in sector after sector over the last six weeks but our public and private lives are by no means returned. Lockdown measures are now differentially distributed between city and country, “hot spots” such as Leicester and others. The Leicester council is making an argument for even smaller, neighborhood-based lockdowns.

There have been more than 12 million tests in the UK. 189,438 people were tested yesterday, including regular tests of health workers. The number of cases discovered or confirmed by testing has reached 291,911. At least 45,053 people have died of coronavirus here, with reported daily counts lately fluctuating between 35 and 200. The virus is responsible for approximately 10,000 more deaths if other death certificate mentions are counted, and counting excess deaths means about 10,000 more can be attributed to the pandemic. (Public Health England / BBC)

Travel around England is now allowed and hotels, campsites and other holiday dwellings will be permitted to open under new rules. National Express coaches began operating July 1 on a reduced timetable. Trains have operated throughout, at an added cost said to be £100 per passenger per trip because of overcapacity. London transport is running at 20% of last year’s passenger numbers. Today’s Guardian reports on a “travel safe” campaign to “tempt people back” to transit. As usual policy is not about whether it is safe for people to travel, because we can’t calculate that, or how to make it safe, because we don’t know, but about how to sell them on it.

Government messaging remains fuzzy and the subject of many explainers. Face coverings on mass transit were made mandatory from 15 June, though National Express describes them as only recommended. NX does reserve the right to take customer temperatures before boarding. Masks in shops are recommended, but in the end have not been mandated. The 2m distance has been reduced to “1m plus,” although aerosol scientists think 10 feet (3 m) would be safer. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that proposed rules are dialed back as soon as members of the government realize how difficult they are to keep and how likely they are to be caught not keeping them. To use an Australian expression, measures that could save us get put in the “too hard basket.”

Dr Kimberly Prather, atmospheric scientist at UCSD, prefers 10 feet and says masks should fit snugly enough that you can see them move when you breathe. Also, pay attention to wind direction.
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a knife, a pot and a cooker

I may not have homeschooled children, learned Spanish, or made a film in lockdown, but I have certainly leveled up in cooking. This was unexpected, since my usual position on food is, “It’s all right, I guess, but I don’t know why people make such a fuss over it.”

To be fair, there are reasons. My rooms in Boston and New York had terrible cockroach infestations which put me off home cooking. In fact, it was best to think about what you were eating as little as possible. Canned soup was a godsend, as was oatmeal in packets. The only other period I spent this much time cooking from scratch was the early postgraduate phase at Antti Korpin tie, where I had a clean uninfested basic kitchen and an audience of eaters for the first time in my life. There I mostly learned to bake from my mother’s recipes, which she sent. I also made a lot of chicken and rice.

Staying home this spring meant I had complete control over my intake – no more eating whatever was in the vending machine at work or whatever was least unappealing in the cornershop or Pret on the way to the evening train. Tins of grape leaves on the office shelf, samosas at Stratford eaten on the platform. Until March, if I bought fresh supplies, I wouldn’t be around enough to finish them.

Now over these four months, I have arrived an almost zero-waste kitchen: mostly pescatarian, mostly gluten free (no sourdough starter stories here), and shifting toward a low FODMAP diet. Surprise: when not constantly suffering from mild indigestion, I don’t feel hungry all the time.

The staples are a lot of brown rice and steamed vegetables, in ad hoc combinations; also gluten free pasta with vegetables, tofu and other soy-based vegetarian foods, and oatmeal porridge. More excitingly, each week I’ve tried to learn a dish that a friend had made. Some results are presented after the jump.

Click in and through to Hannah for multiparty thread about recipe discourse.
People especially loathe cup measures.
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