Gaia 2005

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter


Charles Partington was overheard (2004) giving retrospective advice on what to call the 1994 European SF convention held in Romania.   Having won the Eurocon bid at the Jersey Eurocon in 1993 (one-year bidding back then) the Romanians' first international committee meeting devoted much time, and heat, arguing as to what to call the Romania convention. The official name became 'EuRocon'.   Charles' suggestion was to use the end of 'Romania' in the convention title and not the beginning. So he proposed 'ManiaCon'. (Actually EuRocon ended up being quite good.)

Gaia's counterpart in the Bookseller is 'Bent'. Last year Bent reported on authors' suggestions as to what an editor's reject pile may be called. Traditionally it is referred to as the 'slush pile'.   'Dung heap' was one suggestion.   However Bent prefers (and Gaia is taken with it too) the notion of it being a 'haystack'. Haystack because who knows what needles lie therein that may be highly commercial.

Bent also revealed one proofing disaster which reminded Gaia of another. Bent reported on author Vivian Cook who had to go through the proofs of his latest book putting the errors back in after an enthusiastic proof reader failed to take in the title of the work being checked: Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary: Or Why Can't Anyone Spell English?.   This going around in circles neatly leads us neatly on to my related recollection...

A brief history of medicine has been doing the rounds. One of those witty, but true, aphorisms whose attribution is anonymous:-
2000 BC - Here, eat this root.
1000 AD - This root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 AD - That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1920 AD - That potion is snake oil. Here, take this pill.
1945 AD - That pill is ineffective. Here, take this penicillin.
1955 AD - Ooops... bugs mutated. Here, take this tetracycline.
1960 - 1999 - [39 more 'ooops....'] Here take this more powerful antibiotic.
2000 AD - The bugs have won! Here, eat this root.

Gaia's counterpart in the British Medical Journal is Minerva. Last year Minerva in turn reported a snippet from the Emergency Medicine Journal ( 2004, Sep, supple':2) - well at least in this internet page you are getting close to the source of these urban science myths.   Anyway, it is often a matter of perspective in medicine (or indeed in science and SF).   A patient undergoing a rectal examination was overheard to say, "That's where it hurts, doctor, just inside the entrance." The clinician's swift response was: "In medical circles, sir, we prefer to regard that as the exit."

Minerva's own column is not all whimsy but contains interesting factoids, some of which appeal to equal opportunities Gaia. Apparently (BMJ 329:580) the first British woman doctor to practice in the UK had to change both her name and gender.   James Barry qualified in 1812 and worked for 40 years, as a medical officer and surgeon, of all places, in the British Army.   During this time she even fought a duel and was up for more. Her true identity was revealed only on her death in 1865; which happened to be the year in which the first official female medical student , Elizabeth Garrett, graduated.

An article in the medical journal The Lancet 'The lesson: even in the World's richest country, the right price for condoms is zero' (Lancet v346, p13) prompted a tongue-in-cheek, if not yucky, response from the British Medical Journal 329:1053. If free condoms were made available to the world's 1.2 billion males capable of sexual activity with each capable of 25,000 copulations during their lives, there would be an environmental need to recycle the contents... No more: too much information already.

Continuing the medical theme, last year saw Norwich University Hospital announce that toast was back on the menu. Toast had been banned because a risk assessment had deemed that making it ran the risk of setting off the smoke detector and sprinkler system.   Gaia knows there is nothing worse than soggy toast.   Now a new alarm system allows the canteen staff to burn away. (That's burn the toast and not the staff.)

Clinicians and cookery came together in a new Canadian TV series last year, Close to the Bone. It blends cookery with surgery and is anatomically educational.   An ear, nose and throat expert offers calf tongue, the hand surgeon prepares pig trotter, while the urologist makes lamb's kidneys.   All of which prompts Gaia to wonder, after one and a half decades following the BECCON run of UK book and film SF conventions, whether there might be a new edition of their cookbook of committee's recipes There Are Never Enough Mushrooms (1983). This time perhaps based on SF dishes? (Apparently our Tony is inquisitive as to soylent green (the purported not actual recipe hopefully).)

Reportedly Jeffrey Archer hankers after the Nobel Prize. The tale goes back to the days before Archer was a successful pulp novelist, or a criminal. (Non-Brits might not know it was revealed - in the run-up to the Mayor of London election - that the former darling of the Conservative Party previously lied in Court and so was jailed.)   Apparently Archer took a publisher out to lunch, during which he let slip that he was thinking of writing a book.   The publisher waited for the inevitable, 'so will you publish me?' Instead he got: 'After writing several novels... do you think I might ever win the Nobel prize for literature?'

Former BBC boss, Greg Dyke, who resigned in 2003 because one of his reporters, Andrew Gilligan, said that, "Downing Street ordered [a weapons of mass destruction report] to be sexed up to be made more exciting," last autumn, got new number plates for his car. Gilligan may have been in-correct on that specific point, which might be effectively summarised as Blair deliberately misleading Parliament (undermining the British constitution) in the debate prior to the Iraq war vote.   This was unproven at the time so Dyke accepted responsibility, resigning from the BBC.   But subsequent developments have shown that Gilligan (hence the BBC) was in essence correct. (No weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found. There was no WMD delivery system to the UK. And the British security services had apparently told Downing street that the WMD report was based on 'patchy' evidence.) Of course Parliament still may have voted for war, but not on the shaky evidence presented at the time.   The argument is purely one of constitutional principle.   Does Dyke bear a grudge?   The man is probably too intellectually mature for such base thoughts, but Gaia hopes he gets appropriate redress.   Meanwhile Dyke's new car number plates show that he has not forgotten.   What are the new number plates?   Didn't I say? 'MI5 WMD'.

Nearing the end of the calendar year now. In the run up to last year's (2004) Halloween, Prestopans, East Lothian, UK, pardoned 800 witches executed more than 400 years ago. Sometimes better late than never doesn't quite hack it.

Now, one from the new year. Hiccups, or hiccoughs, formed another post-Christmas Minerva topic. A doctor needed to find a hiccup cure but apparently they don't teach this sort of thing in Med school!   However a quick Medline and internet search revealed numerous treatments, including conventional drugs such as chlorpromazine, phenytoin, and atropine, but also granulated sugar, phrenic nerve crush, hypnosis, and folk remedies such as sneezing induced by black pepper and the induction of sudden fright.   In the end what worked was vinegar, supplied by the hospital canteen. The mechanism remains unclear.

Not SF, but almost a Pythonesque fantasy laced with Fortean humor, Gaia was quite delighted to learn that two Brit students are planning a crime wave across the US this summer (2005). So, those of you in the land of the free, look out for Richard Smith (not the former BMJ editor) and Luke Bateman. Their odyssey, and criminal acts, will begin in California, take them through Long Beach, Globe, Salt Lake City, South Dakota, Oxford, Albany, Jonesboro and Hartford.   As for examples of the 45 laws they will break: in California they will try to ride a bike in a swimming pool; in land-locked Utah they will hire a boat and attempt to go whale hunting; and in South Dakota they will have a nap in a cheese factory. Unfortunately biology will defeat them on one possibility in Florida where it is illegal for a widow to parachute on a Sunday Both students have 'y' chromosomes... A book deal is hoped for to cover legal costs.

Talking of witches, some of us on the Concat team have had a peruse of our Jonathan's forthcoming book, (working title) The Biology and Human Ecology of Climate Change. Apparently the Little Ice Age (LIA) made witch persecution worse. The LIA represented a cooling of the world (noticeably especially in Europe and high northern latitudes) from the 16th to 19th centuries and is among other things responsible for the Dickens style white Christmas imagery.   The LIA also supposedly helped spur witch persecution. After all, it is easier to take one's frustrations of a run of poor crop yields out on a person than climate change.   According to Jonathan's new book, this is one of the main reasons why witch executions were worse in cooler mid-European countries like England and Germany than in the warm southern nations such as Spain. This runs contrary to popular belief when one thinks of the Spanish Inquisition.   Apparently in reality after a bit of torture, the Inquisition was more into conversion to Christianity and the comfy chair than confession and execution.

Our Graham prides himself on covering the real science for Concat'. He noted that the BBC claimed that their autumnal, super special effects, pop-science docu-drama Space Odyssey was 'made without breaking the laws of physics'. Something, Graham said, that was obviously true.   More recently the BBC made a 2-part docu-drama of what might happen if the Yellowstone supervolcano blew. They billed it as 'a true story, that just has not happened yet'.   BBC please note. Only call us if you break the laws of gravity, or go faster than light or some such, when making a programme.

Talking of team-members, Gaia can not resist an unashamed plug for the latest guide to science fiction. The new year saw the arrival of pre-launch copies of Essential Science Fiction: A Concise Guide by some of the others on the Concat' team led by our Tony and Jonathan. While John Clute's encyclopaedias will always be among the top references on Gaia's shelf. Other guides claim to be all-encompassing but fail to come close to Clute even though its second edition is now a decade old. Nonetheless, these other guides do have their individual strengths: Mammoth's Encyclopaedia (2001) is good on the book front, while the Radio Times Guide to SF (2001) gives reasonable TV and film coverage, and Fulton's Encyclopaedia of TV SF (1995) has useful TV episode guides though now needs to catch up on a decade of SF. Brosnan's The Primal Screen remains one of the best reviews of the history of SF movies from its beginnings through to the 1980s, while Aldiss' excellent Billion (1973) and Trillion Year Sprees (1986) charts the development of SF's main tropes. These then are among the best reference works of recent decades should you wish to look up specific facts.   All well and good, but these do not tell you, or the comparative newcomer to the genre, what aficionados consider the 'best' of SF, books, film and TV that one might make a positive effort to seek out for one's collection. Enter Essential Science Fiction: A Concise Guide.  It is not an encyclopaedia but does provide an eminently useful, cross-referenced, summary of the best the SF landscape has to offer. The editors have not relied on their own favourites but have used buff surveys, longevity of being in print, and fan-voted SF Awards to ascertain which books, films and TV programmes should be included. Furthermore if an author, or TV/film franchise, has a number of works included then there is either an article on that author, or franchise, or an expanded entry with reference to secondary works.   Gaia found the collectors checklists at the guide's end a bitter-sweet experience. Sweet, because it was delightful to see how many films and books I had seen or read, but bitter because I did not realise how many were absent from my personal collection. (Must have borrowed them from friends or libraries or rented the video/DVD.) Let's hope that Essential Science Fiction will be viewed as essential by many SF fans, and indeed that someone else does something similar for horror and fantasy genres.
Overseas visitors to the Concat site can pick up a copy (or get a friend to) from the Porcupine Books stand at the 2005 Glasgow Worldcon but, Gaia is warned, e-mail them first so that they have enough copies and reserve one for you.   Apparently Porcupine says that copies sold at the 2005 Worldcon will be at a discounted price and in addition such sales avoid a postage and package charge.

Here endeth the team-mate plug, and indeed the end of the year to Easter 2005.   See you around for more exotica and whimsy in 2006?

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