What might have been?

So much of the built landscape of the Australian bush stinks of what might have been, even some areas quite close to major cities.

It’s like we lost the fight against a harsh unforgiving environment, and an almost genetic apathetic indifference. It seems that for most Australians okay is not only good enough, it is the absolute height of their ambition.

Let this frustration temper our ambition, not lower it!

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A to Z Challenge – a retrospective

I have had my blog for over three years and have posted iregularly whenever I was inspired by something I’ve read, seen, heard, or thought but taking on the A to Z April Challenge meant writing 26 posts in one month.

The concensous is that writers write everyday and don’t wait for inspiration

When I decide to try something I do it wholeheartedly and for me and the A to Z April Challenge that meant that I approached each post as stream of consciousness, with little or no preparation apart from a list of A-to-Z with potential topics. I know that some people have prepared their posts in the weeks before April and although I admit that I may have finished on time if I had taken this approach I am unsure if I agree with it.

I tried to write each post in one session, dropping my thoughts almost unedited from my heart/mind and on to the page/screen.

This doesn’t mean that I was flippant in my writing but it did teach me to edit once and then let it go. I did fix typos in the minutes and hours after each post.

The Stats for April:

  • Followers: increased from 11 to 219
  • Views for April: 11,589
  • Comments: 260
  • Most popular post: What is the Beginners’s Mind?
    • 4,379 views
    • 241 likes
    • 116 comments

WordPress – Freshly Pressed

Although I’m tempted to claim the highlight of the month was having my “B” post promoted on the WordPress Freshly Pressed page but it has actually been the amazing blogs that I’ve discovered and the wonderful and inspring comments I’ve received, especially when posts have been re-blogged.

Thanks to everyone at A to Z Challenge, to all my followers, and the the blogs I now follow and am regularly inspried by.

The Posts:

Thanks again…


Where does Nationalism end and Xenophobia begin?

"Fight racism!" - Campaign against Racism and Xenophobia - 1997

Theorists are divided on whether nationalism is a result of our evolutionary tendency to live in communities or tribes, or it is a more recent behaviour caused by the way modern society is structured. Either way ethnicity tends to incorporate itself in some manner, whereby you may live in the nation from a geographically extent but are excluded from “nationhood” as a result of ethnic, cultural, religious reasons.

Then there is xenophobia. Dictionary.com defines this as:

“an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.”

This human trait manifests itself in sport too. Sometimes this is acceptable for example a cross town rivalry between teams, or old nation “friendly” competitions between nations such as cricket’s “Ashes” battles between England and Australia. In these though there is a at least a small commonality; either a shared heritage or at least a common love of a particular sport.

Why do we need to have “our” team though?

The Brisbane Lions win their first premiership in 2001

A couple of years back I wrote a short, sharp post “The rising sun as an analogy for nationalism” to highlight its absurdity:

The notion of a rising sun is a misnomer. The sun itself does not rise or set. If I am on the east coast of Australia and see the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean, it is the same sun a person in the United States would see at midday. The difference between my “rising sun” and that observed by my American cousins depends solely on the location on the surface of the planet on which we stand. To an observer out in space, looking at our pale blue planet, the concept of a rising sun is absurd; it is rooted in our past when we believed we were the centre of the universe.

Nationalism is like this; it only exists when we allow our perception to be limited by our location. If we let go of this outdated notion, our minds can break free from their terrestrial bonds, allowing us to focus on solving the real issues of our time.

It turns out that both nationalism and xenophobia are key themes of the novel I’m writing so I’m trying to come to terms with the subtle differences.

I’d love to hear what you think about them?

“X” is for xenophobia

The Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson

Although Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning Mars Series , written in 1992, has been criticised for some failings for forsight, such as the exclusion of China from the multinational venture, and the larger than expected role of the Russian team following the real world collapse of the USSR. However, twenty years on the story does not feel dated as many other science fiction titles do.

The three original three volumes, Red, Blue, and Green Mars received acclaim (Nebula, Hugo, and BSFA awards) from both within and without the science fiction genre, and like the Apollo missions of NASA in the 1960’s this story of the colonisation and terraforming of Mars has inspired a new generation of scientists and philosophers to look towards our neighboring red planet with longing eyes and big dreams.

The Mars Series tells the story of the first one hundred humans to permanently settle on Mars.

It is the red planet itself though that drives the story forward, as both a character and the sense of “place” it provides.

Kim Stanley Robinson: science fiction's realist - The Guardian UK

Red Mars, the first book in the series, begins with a speach given by John Boone, the default leader of the multinational venture and “the first man on Mars”, at the opening of the first “tented” city of Nicosia. But then moves back to the selection of the first one hundred team on earth and then the departure of the Ares of the from earth orbit where it had been constructed.

The series contains all the admirable tropes of the science fiction genre but it is no “Space Opera” and it has received some negative criticism from with the genre because of this. It was with this series that new sub-genre of science fiction was coined; Future History. It reads like a novelisation of well known historic events rather than pure invention and this only enhances it realism.

In addition to the red planet itself as the driving force of the story, it is the extraordinarily detailed characters that stay with you. The structure of the books, particularly the narrative mode of third person subjective, lends itself to this end with the POV set with the one character for each chapter. Robinson’s writing is of such high quality that the reader cannot help but sympathies with these POV characters even when they could be considered antagonists.

I always feel a sense of loss when one chapter ends and I am summarily evicted from inside the head of the POV character who led the chapter. But this loss is more than balanced by the welcoming feeling when returning to a POV character that I’ve come to know intimately.

In 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the release of Red Mars, the series reads as fresh and thought provoking as it did when first published.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest work 2312 is due for release in late May 2012. Orbit publisher Tim Holman described the setting of this novel thusly:

2312 will be set in our solar system three hundred years from now; a solar system in which mankind has left Earth and found new habitats. This will be a novel for anyone curious to see what our future looks like – a grand science-fictional adventure in every sense.

It is number one on my list of recommended reads for both readers of SCI FI and fiction in general.

“M” is for the Mars Series

Humanity, how do we ensure the survival of our species?

It’s to dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out… Sax Russell, from Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is top of my “Recommended Reads” list and I am featuring it and an authorial review on day M of the A to Z April Challenge (14 April).

In the first volume, Red Mars, Sax Russell, a scientist and one of the first 100 people on Mars has a long and thought-provoking monologue that I found life changing. I’ve included just an excerpt of it in this post; it was in response to Anne Clayborne’s case for leaving Mars as it is – too beautiful to risk loosing.

The beauty of Mars exists in the Human mind , … Without the human presence it is just a concentration of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe.

It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning…

But science is more than that. Science is part of a larger human enterprise, and that enterprise includes going to the stars, adapting to other planets, adapting them to us. Science is creation. The lack of life here [on Mars] and th lack of any findings in 50 years of SETI indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer.

And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread tha around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out…

We can transform Mars and build a cathedral,  as a monument to humanity and the universe both!

This is more “one hand clapping” stuff I know but read in its entirety, and using the terraforming of Mars as a literary example, it makes a compelling argument, and one wonders why this argument is brushed aside by our nations’ leaders.

“H” is for Humanity

The strategic game of Go

The Japanese game of Go has fascinated me for many and I have included it in a scene in the novel I’m writing. In the scene, set in May 1917, the main point of view character Lieutenant “Wilkins” has been granted passage on the Japanese battle Cruiser Kasagi from Cape Town to England. On the ship he meets the ethnologist Yanagita and they begin a life long friendship.

"Go" a type of Asian chess

"Go" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was after midnight and only a minimal crew were on duty. Wilkins stepped through the hatch leading out onto the deck and inhaled, through his nose, the crisp air into his lungs. He held this breath, for a several long seconds before exhaling audibly and headed forward along the starboard deck.

The stars shone as brilliant pin points in the dark sky—perfect for navigation; clear skies and negligible swell would make taking readings from the sextant child’s play. The only sound was the quiet whirl of a breeze in his ears and an intermittent clicking sound coming from up forward.

Wilkins had always enjoyed walking, particularly early in the morning and again late at night just before sleep. Since his bout of influenza he had not returned to the habit. Maybe this was why he felt so constrained. The ship was just coasting along as if the world were not at war.

He maintained a solid pace around the perimeter of the ship. His body had grown accustomed to his enforced docility and soon his shins ached with every long stride. He had made about three circumnavigations of the ship before he heard a familiar voice call out.

‘Wilkins-san, please come and join us,’ called Yanagita from the shadows of the guns on the foredeck.

Yanagita sat cross-legged on a thick cushion, and opposite him was a grey haired man. Between them, in the moonlight, was a low wooden table—about knee height. Their eyes were bright and smiles wide.

‘Come sit with us a while,’ Yanagita said, raising his arm to welcome Wilkins to their table.

Despite the cool air, both the Japanese men were naked to the waist. Wilkins stood for a moment.

‘I’m sorry Yanagita-san, I’ve disturbed you both,’ he said and nodded to the older man.

‘No, do not worry, please, let me introduce Kawabata-san, ni go-shokai shimasu,’ Yanagita said nodding towards the grey haired man.

Wilkins put out his hand.

‘Good evening Kawabata-san, komban wa,’ he said and glanced to Yanagita to check his pronunciation.

Kawabata looked to be in his late fifties. His grey hair was cropped short and rough. He reminded Wilkins of the veteran sailors he had met in northern Canada and the Arctic.

Kawabata nodded his dark tanned head and motioned for Wilkins to join them.

‘Dozo,’ he said.

‘Thank-you, arigato,’ Wilkins said realising that Kawabata may not speak English.

He lowered himself to the ground and sat between them at the small low table.

‘Wilkins-san, you have walked passed us several times. You are, in a hurry, to get to this war?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s a dire time for the Empire and our Allies.’

‘All the more reason to use this respite to recover your strength properly.’

‘I know,’ Wilkins sighed, ‘but I need to play my part.’

Wilkins was aware of Kawabata watching him. Did the old man understand?

Yanagita continued, ‘We all have a part to play but it is rarely what we expect.’ He paused and then gestured at the table. ‘This is Go.’

The table top looked to be one solid piece of wood about ten inches thick, and it had a square grid of lines etched upon it in black. Many small black and white stones had been placed haphazardly across the table, but always at the intersections of the gridded lines.

‘A cousin to the game of Chess,’ Yanagita continued.

Wilkins nodded.

‘Yes, checkers, Chinese Checkers I think we call it.’

‘Ah no, Wilkins-san, not Chinese Checkers, this is Go. It is a game of strategy, some say, invented by the Chinese Emperor Shun almost forty-one centuries ago. But I think an Emperor would have too many things on his mind to invent such a game.’

Wilkins’ travels had given him the opportunity to discover the customs of many indigenous peoples and he had learnt many Inuit games; becoming adept at seal fin puzzles.

‘What are the rules Yanagita-san, can you teach me to play?’

Yanagita smiled.

‘Samimasen, I am sorry Wilkins-san, not tonight. But you are most welcome to watch. You see Kawabata and I have a wager on this particular game.’

He picked up a black stone from the wooden bowl on the table closest to him and placed it with a click at the intersection of two lines in the grid.

Over a hundred of the black and white stones already lay on the board. Looking closer Wilkins began to see patterns in their placement; less like chess—where the pieces represented men on a battlefield—and more like the cities and borders of a continent, where areas of the board were encompassed by either black or white stones.

‘Who is winning,’ Wilkins asked without looking up at either of the Japanese men.

‘I am ahead by two,’ Yanagita said, ‘but it is not so simple. You see this is part of a long standing argument between us. We are re-enacting a game played over ninety years ago on the 19th of July, 1836, between Go Masters Yasui Shintetsu and Mizutani Takuma. Kawabata-san believes that Yasui made an error early in the game that eventually cost him the match. And so we test this theory.’

‘So you just take over from that point, to see who is right?’ Wilkins asked.

‘In a way yes,’ Yanagita explained, ‘but we must keep to the original strategies they used in that game.’

Kawabata then bowed to Yanagita and placed his white stone on a different section of the board. They then placed several more stones in quick succession without seeming to watch each other’s movements.

A doorway opened behind Kawabata and a swath of light flooded the deck. A young Japanese Ensign carried an exquisite wooden box toward them.

Kawabata jumped to his feet and looked up and down the ship.

‘Iie,’ he whispered, trying to take the box from the young man.

‘Dozo, dozo,’ the young man responded, turning his body to ensure Kawabata could not wrest the box from his grasp.

He bowed once, and then again, even deeper, until Kawabata returned his seat. He placed the box on the deck between Wilkins and Kawabata, nodding to Wilkins and then looking to Yanagita for reassurance. He opened the double sided top of the box to reveal a small kit stove.

‘Would you like some tea, Wilkins-san,’ Yanagita said.

Wilkins nodded to Yanagita and again to the young man, who responded with a cheerful grin. Wilkins now noticed the young man’s swollen jaw and several bruises on one side of his face.

‘Arigato, Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said bowing to the young man.’

The game of Go resumed as the young man built a small fire with kindling wood and heated some water in a blackened steel kettle.

‘Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said, ‘is one of Lieutenant Obata’s men, as is Seaman Kawabata. Kawabata was Takeshi-san’s Kenjitsu Sensei when he was a young boy.’

The game progressed and Wilkins began to comprehend some of the strategy. The object was to secure sections of the board for your colour. But unlike chess, once the pieces were placed on the board, they were not moved again; unless they were surrounded by an opponent’s stones, and then they were removed and placed alongside the playing area.

‘Was this a famous game?’ Wilkins asked.

Steam rose from the kettle and Takeshi took it from the stove and placed it on a small cloth he had laid out upon the deck.

‘Yes,’ Yanagita replied his speech slowing as Kawabata placed one of his gleaming white stones on the board.

Kawabata looked up to Yanagita with a rye smile.

‘Yes Wilkins-san, it was a famous game. Not one practiced by beginners, but famous.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘Kawabata-san has provided me a great lesson tonight,’ he said bowing low. ‘And well timed,’ he said receiving his tea from the young Takeshi.

In this low light the bright green powdered tea had a pleasant contrast to the pale interior of the old tea cups. They looked like they had been bouncing around in Kawabata’s kit bag for decades. The cracks, chips and heavy stains on them gave tribute, like proud medals of honour, to their passage through time. The tea was tepid and very bitter. When Takeshi had served all three men, he put out the fire and packed up the stove, bowing to each of them; last of all to Kawabata who squirmed in his seat, and again looked about nervously. Yanagita and Kawabata continued to place stones on the board but now with little concentration.

‘So Kawabata has won the game?’ Wilkins asked.

‘Yes, he will win,’ Yanagita replied.

‘So he has the advantage and you are just playing it out.’

‘Iie, no Wilkins-san. I am still ahead but Kawabata has found suki—an opening—in the strategy played by Master Mizutani and will eventually win.’

He smiled towards at Kawabata.

‘We will try again another time, though, I am not convinced that Master Mizutani would have left this suki. Tonight it is my own skill that has been found wanting.’

G is for the strategic game of “Go”

Why can’t revolutionaries get their people to the end state?

Remember Those Who Starve! - 1921

Remember Those Who Starve! - 1921 Russian Poster by Ivan Simakov (1877-1925). Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

Wilkins was shocked by the devastation inflicted upon the Russian people when he visited there in the 1920’s. In a letter to his friend Yanagita he wrote:

Revolutionaries see only the end state. Their minds are rarely big enough to see how the people they hope to save cannot reach this place alone. They have to be carried. It’s like a parable my father once told me about: how Jesus carried a man through his most difficult times. We have to be the people’s Jesus if we want them to make it safely from where they have been to where we want them to be.