Amatka

Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention in 2012, with the publication of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg), a slim collection of quietly disturbing stories. Tidbeck, a Swedish sf writer, manages the difficult task of writing in both English and Swedish, writing in one language and translating to the other as required. Her first novel, Amatka, was also published in 2012, but because it was written in Swedish and published in Sweden it escaped my attention. But earlier this summer an English translation by the author was published by Vintage Books, and it’s no less quiet and no less disturbing.

Amatka is set on a bleak and austere colony world; as it opens a young woman, Vanja, is sent to the outlying community of Amatka to conduct some mundane market research. But we quickly see that for all the flat affect of it and its inhabitants, this is not a mundane world. Objects manufactured on this world, from the raw (fungal) materials, fall apart if they are not “marked” (i.e., named) by their owners on a regular basis, as though they need to be constantly reminded of what they are. Mass-produced consumer goods, toothbrushes and suitcases, each, like golems, brought into being — and kept there — by a word.

There are pre-colonial products that don’t do this — “good paper,” for example — but they’re growing increasingly scarce. There is other evidence that society is beginning to become frayed. Life is tightly structured, disciplined and conformist, especially, Vanja learns, in Amatka, a liminal space where laxity has greater consequences: she could get away with sloppiness in the capital, but not here on the margins. Bored, Vanja begins digging into the truth; she learns that the objects manufactured on this world are not only kept together by their thoughts; on this world thoughts create reality, and uncontrolled thoughts can lead — and have led — to literal destruction.

Tidbeck’s prose is as austere as the world she creates, and it’s devastatingly effective in its control and restraint. She paints a society whose totalitarianism is utterly convincing down to the smallest, lived detail. This novel reads like it was written behind the Iron Curtain; the parallels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be ignored. But Tidbeck is far more existential than Orwell: in Amatka we see a society engaging in rigid self-control, to the extreme of lobotomizing its dissidents, not in an attempt to maintain the political order, but to sustain reality itself. It questions the extent to which reality is consensus-based, and explores the desperation that can lead to authoritarianism. In the end, it is a parable of thought control of startling wisdom and profoundity, one I expect we’ll be reading for years to come.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Photographing the Eclipse

So I mentioned that I might try to get a photo of the solar eclipse, weather permitting? In the end, weather permitted — in fact, everything that could have prevented us from observing or photographing the eclipse failed to do so: clouds were intermittent until after the maximum, the tall trees around our house didn’t block our view, and we were even able to find all the gear we needed in time (some hadn’t been unpacked yet).

I used my usual method for photographing the sun: a digital SLR connected to my 5-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at prime focus, using a visual solar filter. It turned out well: despite the heat (atmospheric shimmer, you see), the filter (Mylar) and the need to focus manually, I managed more than a few clear shots. Above is a shot from the eclipse’s maximum extent (it was a partial eclipse here). I’ve uploaded a few other photos here.

You know, I think this is the first time I’ve done any solar observing or photography in more than five years. I’m glad I found an excuse to do it again.

A Herpetological Roundup

Turtle-headed Sea Snake (Emydocephalus annulatus), Okinawa, Japan, July 2011. Photo by Klaus Stiefel. Creative Commons Licence.
  1. The Christian Science Monitor reports on how the residents of the town of Glastonbury, Connecticut learned to live with—and help protect—the endangered Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).
  2. When cicadas emerge, they’re a plentiful food source for many species—including, as the Houston Chronicle’s Shannon Tompkins learned, Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), which aggregate in large numbers and stuff themselves silly.
  3. Pollution is turning sea snakes black. The Turtle-headed Sea Snake (Emydocephalus annulatus) normally has a banded pattern (see above), but individuals found in polluted waters around New Caledonia are increasingly melanistic. It’s a phenomenon called “industrial melanism”: melanin tends to bind to metal ions of trace elements like arsenic and zinc; melanism and an increased shed cycle allows these snakes to rid themselves of toxic metals. [Current Biology]
  4. Speaking of sea snakes, say hello to the Yellow Sea Snake (Hydrophis platurus xanthos), a newly discovered subspecies of the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake that is found in the warm, turbulent, anoxic waters of Golfo Dulce, off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica [Zoo Keys]
  5. When it comes to invasive reptiles in Florida, Burmese Pythons get all the press, but they’re not the only ones; CNAH lists 65 alien reptiles and amphibian species introduced to North America, most in Florida. Three of those species are chameleons. As invasive species go, they’re pretty innocuous, but still. National Geographic has a look at Florida’s chameleon hunters, who adopt out the chameleons they catch.
  6. Meanwhile, across the Straits of Florida, the Washington Post looks at an unlikely refuge for rare snakes like the Cuban Boa (Chilabothrus/Epicrates angulifer): Guantanamo Bay.
  7. A Manitoba couple caught a Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) in the act of gobbling down an Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum). Small problem: the salamander’s endangered. That snake is in serious legal trouble.
  8. And what is almost certainly the weirdest reptile story ever to come to my attention: a story about turtle boners. No wait, it’s better than you think! It’s really difficult to figure out a turtle’s sex. So researchers came up with the idea of—oh boy—using a vibrator to stimulate the turtle: male turtles would get an erection. So: turtle boners. In the study, the method had a 100 percent accuracy rate. Because: turtle boners. Science is awesome. That is all. [Acta Herpetologica]

Remembering the Eclipse of 1979

I’m outside the path of totality for next week’s solar eclipse, but don’t feel bad for me: I’ve already had my total eclipse experience. I had just turned eight years old when the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979 came to my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 2009, I remembered the event in a blog post:

Some people spend thousands of dollars to see a solar eclipse; I was lucky: the eclipse came to me. But to see it, I had to stay home from school that morning. My father’s recollection is that for some nonsensical reason or other, the schools were going to keep the kids inside during totality. Screw that, said my parents, who had three science degrees between them. So I saw the last few seconds of totality from my front porch.

Since then, video of CBC Manitoba’s coverage of the eclipse has been uploaded to YouTube (see above). I remember watching this. (Even weirder, the meteorologist showing the satellite image at the start of the coverage is a friend of the family.)

If you’re in the path of totality, enjoy the eclipse on Monday (weather permitting). As for me, I’m going to be all nostalgic about the one I already saw.

(I think I might try to get a photo of the partial eclipse—again, weather permitting. I do have the gear for solar photography.)

At The Map Room: Mapping the August 2017 Solar Eclipse.