There are many science fiction stories published each year with wild speculation, and usually few details. It’s not unusual, therefore, just by the law of averages, for sometimes the SF to be followed by the  a discovery of (somewhat) matching science. An interesting piece on anti-agathic (delaying or removing the effects of ageing) work I saw today reminded me of a piece in a Heinlein novel. In “Methuselah’s Children” where a secret bunch of families with naturally bred longevity flee the Earth in an early spaceship because of the threat of a pogrom and/or being the subject of vivisection to discover the secret of their longevity. Returning to Earth after some interstellar adventures and with time dilation having kept them even younger than ever, they find that their existence spurred Earth to invest in anti-agathic research and discover a “blood cleaning” process which seriously reduces ageing. Not a novel idea, actually, as this Guardian article points out, the idea was proposed by Libavius in 1615. It’s looking like it might have potential, though. The work of Wyss-Coray on the effects of young mouse blood on old mouse brains (and vice versa) shows that transfusion of young blood into an old mouse causes a revival of neuron birth, while old blood in young mice retards such development.

There’s a horror story in here about, say, the Chinese communist party using both sides of this – harvesting young blood to keep their gerontcratic leaders healthy, while deliberately transfusing older blood into younger dissidents to dumb them down.

As that very good Guardian article mentions (it’s an in-depth and very well-written science piece, a rarity in modern journalism) though, it’s not just the idea of transfusions – we can hardly keep up with other demands for blood for transfusions in most societies. The idea that we could track the protein components of blood plasma as we age and filter out the ones which contribute to ageing and synthesise and add back the ones which promote health and youth, are interesting. Of course there’s also the idea that’s been used by a number of SF authors where by tinkering with ageing and encouraging bodily regeneration, we “use up” our body’s ability to regenerate and instead of gaining (near)immortality we die quicker (sometimes very quickly) though with amazing powers of regeneration in the (usually short) time. Again, this is perhaps a worry with these real science ideas.

We lost Iain M. Banks last year and now we’ve just lost Terry Pratchett as well. Both taken well before their time and both still writing amazing work until the end.

Bright Burning Lights
Illuminate Life
Death Extinguishes Not
The Brilliance Of
Words Writers Wrote
Nor Crosses Off
Party’s Soul
Though Too-short Whole

(CC-BY-SA Andrew A. Adams)

Almost a year since my last blog post. Very bad of me. The last one was a report that I’d finished Kiki’s Delivery Service Book 2. It’s taken me ten months to finish books 3 and 4, but I’ve now done so. I’m just over half-way through Book 5 (which I’m racing through, having read the first 150 pages of 280 in just over two weeks). I’ve also now seen the recent live action Kiki movie. This is definitely derived from the first book, rather than from the Ghibli animation. In some ways it sticks closer to the book. For instance Kiki cannot accept money in return for her magic services. It’s never quite explicit in the book, and the “economics” of this are somewhat glossed over in terms of how she manages daily existence if she can’t earn money (or possibly can’t even deal with money directly). There’s something of an implication of receiving services in “barter” for her own and she can certainly accept gifts in kind in exchange for her services. Although this bit is closer to the book, and some of the scenes/sequences in the movie are heavily inspired by chapters in the book, it’s still quite a departure from the book in many terms. In the book there’s a sequence with a girl asking her to deliver a black envelope to another girl, which it turns out is an old tale of witches cursing people. In the book this is dealt with on the small scale of the girls involved only, whereas in the movie it’s part of the plot whereby after this incident people start distrusting Kiki and even returning things she’s delivered to them, back to Kiki instead of back to the sender.

I watched the movie in Japanese (no choice – there doesn’t seem to be an English subtitle version available – but I wanted to do that anyway). Since I know the story pretty well and it’s a kids/teen movie, I was able to follow much of the dialogue well enough, but I certainly wasn’t understanding every sentence in detail. Harder than the book, of course, since spoken word is harder to follow because of speed and difficulty to re-tread (I was watching it with $DAUGHTER so could hardly stop every thirty seconds and re-play to get the dialogue, though I may do some of this later to try to improve my Japanese listening).

As I noted in March, I had the second book of the Kiki’s Delivery Service series on order having finished the first book. I didn’t makea precise note of the day it arrived, but it wasn’t long after the 9th of March when that post was made. Tonight I finished book 2. I made much more of an effort to read at least six pages a day of this one, and to catch up if I missed a day. The book is 380 pages, although that seems longer in some ways than it is since it’s got a number of illustrations, some of which are full page or half the page. Japanese literary typesetting is also quite different to English in that it’s set vertically. Just as with English texts, this means much of the dialogue only takes up part of a line. However, since japanese books, like English ones, are taller than they are wide, the resulting white space in Japanese is a larger proportion of the page. For dialogue-heavy sequences with  lot of short statements, this can mean a page using less than half the space.

I have book three on the shelf, so it’s on to that, tomorrow.

Many may know of Studio Ghibli’s movie “Kiki’s delivery service”. What many may not know is that this is based on a series of books by a Japanese author (although set in a fictional Eastern European country [one with a coastline]). The books are really sets of short stories rather than novels per se, or so $WIFE tells me. Having watched Kiki (in Japanese 魔女の宅急便 or Witch’s Home Delivery Service) too many times lately due to $DAUGHTER, and having had $WIFE explain that the author had finally finished the series of books of tales with a finale in which Kiki’s daughter (by Tombo) heads off for her “year away” at 13, I asked $WIFE to get the books for me. It seemed to me that I should be up to reading teen literature in Japanese. She picked up the first book earlier this week and I’ve now started reading it, which is quite hard going but so far just about feasible for me. I’m reminded of an experience in the mid-90s though. A friend of mine was a nurse in London at the time and I used to visit her whenever I was there. At first she was staying in the nurses’ accommodation – multiple occupancy apartments owned by the hospital, and quite nearby (in this case right next door). She had a roommate who was a fairly nice guy but not really the intellectual type. My friend is an SF reader, though not an active fan. She told me on one visit that her flatmate had borrowed one of the early Terry Pratchett Discworld books from her and finally returned it a month later saying he’d really enjoyed it. it wasn’t that he’d taken a month to get around to reading it. He’d taken a month to read it. Being both heavy readers my friend and I found this rather alien. We figured he must be having to read every word as an individual word and then figure out the meaning of each sentence before moving on to the next. I’m feeling a bit like this with starting to try to read Japanese for “pleasure”, though of course part of the purpose is to improve my Japanese, but I’m also reading it because I want to know the story. I think I may be already ahead of friend’s flatmate’s English reading ability, though.

A non-Culture SF book by Iain M. Banks. According to something I read online there were some claims by non-M fans that this should have been an Iain Banks novel, becase it was mainstream not SF. Clearly the Margaret Atwood school of genre-definition – if it doesn’t include spaceships and space squid then it’s not SF. Rubbish of course. While a non-Culture novel, this is an SF novel in a grand tradition. Parallel universes have been a staple SF trope for many years. There are more than a few hints of Richard Meredith’s Timeliner Trilogy here, though with Banks’ take on it. There are multiple viewpoints, though only one told in first person, the rest in over-the-shoulder third person. There’s a complicated temporakl structure with flashbacks and time-skipping (of some kind, perhaps just moving to a near-identical parallel world which lagged behind the rest in time progression). This jumping around in time and viewpoint is perhaps a little over-contrived to turn what is actually a fairly simple story into something more complicated. Worth perservering with, but not his best non-Culture SF novel.

Having finally figured out how to approach a book featuring Minds as the primary protagonists in Excession, here Iain M. Banks approaches another of the difficult elements of his Culture universe: the Sublime, that step off into another reality, or retreat into the tightly wound other dimensions that are one of the models of the universe we have now. Following a society at a similar tech-level to the Culture (a potential Culture founder, in fact, which decided not to join) as they approach their entry into the Sublime. The sublime itself remains an unexaplained, in fact pretty much unexplainable mystery, but the way a civilisation approaches it and the general attitudes of the Culture towards Life, the Universe and everything non-sublimed is explored using this mechanism. The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is a piece of music written for an unimagined instrument, which had to be invented in order for the piece to be played. The reasons for and structure of the piece and instrument are described in the book, as is the principle character, a member of the race approaching sublimation, who has set herself the highly difficult task of playing the piece “perfectly” before the sublimation. She is torn away from pursuit of this by the major events chronicled in the book, featuring the deep secrets behind the holy book of the subliming race. The Sonata is an interesting reflective sphere within the book, much as the play is within the Book of the New Sun, providing a microcosm of the overall situation and its eventual denouement. Along the way we are treated to Banks’ peculiar imagination, though not much of his trademark gut-churning.

A good addition to the Culture stable, though not receommended for first-timers to that universe.

Yet another Harry Dresden installment. Having recovered from being dead (hey, this is a fantasy novel after all) Harry is plunged into his role as the Winter Knight withhout much in the way or mercy (well, what did you expect from the Winter Court). He’s also thrust into a wider world of magic in which a bunch of the previous threads going all the way back to Book 1 are either explained, or even have their apparent original explanations yanked away and a deeper truth revealed. It’s pretty skillfully done, though, so I think quite a lot of the stuff here was in Butcher’s mind from way back (not necessarily all the gory details but the general thrust of things at least). There’s some nice twists in this tale and a brilliant sense of impending doom, only slightly averted by the denouement here. Lots of excretory intersections with air moving devices still to come from this and doubtless further threads to be explored. IMHO Butcher is doing a pretty good job with the levelling up issue and isn’t shying away from the character implications for both his hero and the supporting characters.

The umpteenth Harry Dresden novel by Jim Butcher follows up on the previous one titled “Changes” by exploring that changes made in the universe in the last installment. Harry’s back, but after being assassinated he’s back as a ghost, with the task of solving his own murder as well as helping his friends with the fallout from his previous apocalypse. Things have got darker in Chicago in his absence, and his friends are not faring so well in this not-so-brave new world. Meanwhile, most of them can’t see Harry and even if and when they can, they don’t all believe in his identity and/or good intentions. I’ve seen some criticism of this from people who feel the series has jumped the shark but I think he’s dealing well with the inevitable levelling up that Harry’s been going through n the previous books, setting new challenges, all tied in to earlier plot threads that he’s dropped along the way.

A one-off collaboration between Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm. A mixture of police procedural in Lakota, Ohio and Gypsy/Celtic mythology. Written well before the modern trend for urban fantasy, though after De Lint’s Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon. An interesting set of authorial voices (a both Burst and Linholm tend to create) combine with a deep twisting of European folklore in a lovely little tale of murder, good, evil, temptation and redemption.

This is one of those books that’s sat on my shelf unread for many years and I’m glad I finally got round to it.

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