Thursday, June 28, 2007

Purity Control - Quatermass and the Pit

Purity Control - Quatermass and the Pit

When mentioning space colonization, as I have done recently, it's worth noting that not everyone wants to commit their own descendants as colonists. If you can't go yourself, then your biological children are a poor substitute. If they're not you, there's no point sending them. It's faster, cheaper and easier to colonize cyberspace and forget the irritatingly intractable galaxy. Upload yourself.

Or, in the case of an early but very powerful science fiction scenario, why not find some creatures who already live on the new world – and make them into you?

I've seen Quatermass and the Pit several times in the dim and distant past. I have a persistent vague feeling that I saw the original British TV series, but that's unlikely as it was only shown the year I was born (1958) and seems not to have been disinterred from the BBC's legendary crypts until the Eighties. I most likely remember my dad talking about it so often that I have a false memory of it. Why was dad talking about it so much? Well, he was a big science fiction fan and talked about the good ones spontaneously - but he also stepped up the volume when the Hammer film came out in 1967 -- that's the version I remember seeing several times, and the one I saw again recently. Americans will remember it, if at all, under its original release name of "Five Million Years to Earth". It is, according to Wikipedia, a relatively faithful retelling of the original story.

It's one of the rare serious, well-thought out and straight science fiction movies to be produced in those dim and distant days. The movie industry was transitioning from the pie-plates-on-fishing-lines-plan-nine-style "sci-fi" to the more modern Zardoz and 2001 type of movies, which the medium achieved somewhere around 1969 (and then, as we know, coasted a bit until George Lucas decided to spend his American Graffiti money on a movie called Star Wars). The writer of the Quatermass films, Nigel Kneale, was considerably before his time in trying to address familiar human themes with a muscular science-fictiony, thriller flair, and Quatermass and the Pit is perhaps his most accessible.

The film opens in Knightsbridge, London, where Hobbs Lane Underground Station is being expanded and major excavations are underway. In the clay, the workmen find several man-ape skulls, which with gratifying rapidity and lack of spurious sub-plots, are sent to scientists who proclaim them man's ancestors and yet too old - five million years - to be in the normally accepted line of evolution.

Almost immediately, the Hobbs Lane workmen strike a piece of metal lodged in the clay and send for the bomb squad, believing it to be an unexploded bomb from World War II. Julian Glover enters as Colonel Breen, commander of the UXB squad. Breen immediately notes that the craft is not made of steel, or any kind of iron, but continues to believe it is a V2 of German origin. Quatermass and the anthropologist discover that the missile is actually a craft, and that the anthropoid bones are of creatures which were in the hold of the craft when it crashed. Cue the major sub-plot of the film, the scientists struggling with the military over access to the craft and its secrets.

Eventually, the craft is breached and the remains of giant horned locusts are found inside. As more power lines are fed into the pit for lighting and cameras, poltergeist-like activity begins to pick up. People in the area begin seeing things; things begin to move on their own; strange sounds are heard in the streets above. Plucky Research Scientist and Exposition Fairy Barbara digs up reports that evil horned goblins have been seen periodically in this area for hundreds of years, each time accompanied by major panic amongst the locals. In fact, the original name of the area, "Hob's Lane" refers to the old name for the devil. Our heroes scan the visual centers of people while they are hallucinating, which reveals that there was once a hive of horned locusts - under a different colored sky. The creatures had apparently been genetically engineering pre-human life five million years ago on a dying Mars, and were bringing some new humans back to Earth when this particular shipment crashed. Breen's meddling has re-activated a hive-cleaning circuit that makes their proxy descendents – us – kill and remove anyone not carrying the Martian genes. Breen continues to feed the Ministry of Defence a line about the excavation being safe and the missile being harmless old Nazi propaganda while Quatermass digs in for the major riot and mass killings he knows is coming. Will London survive this programmed psychic swarming?

As a Star Wars fan, I had my eye on Julian Glover (General Veers) in this movie. He has a lot of screen time and gets to act rather than recite. His role as Breen is not likeable. He's similar to Jason Isaacs in "Soldier", a handsome actor in a spiffy uniform with a terrible mustache who is there for the viewers to hate and wish someone would strangle him or otherwise have him die in an amusing accident. Kneale is too good a writer to make him one-dimensional, however, so he has a few sympathetic touches - he invites the scientist to "join me at my club" at one point, which made me wish we could just cut to another movie where we could watch all these tweedy, masculine, intelligent Brits sit around in nice leather wing-back chairs at their gentlemen's club and chew the fat for a while. But as I said above, Kneale set a fairly brisk pacing for the movie and so we never actually digress to the club.

One odd thing about re-watching it was that I realized I'd misunderstood it completely the first time. I remembered the "periodic outbreaks of racial cleansing" thing and assumed it was making a point about Nazis, as so many British productions of the fifties were prone to do. There isn't the tiniest hint of that in the film, and I'm not sure where I came up with it. Breen does mention V2s, Von Braun, Nazi propaganda and so on and so forth but his take on things is that the Germans sent the rocket filled with fakes in order to make England believe it was being invaded by aliens, and that's all he says.

Once I realized that, I was left grasping for *why* we have a racial cleansing theme. Rather late in the movie, in my opinion, Kneale has a couple of lines that suggest that the locusts were dying out on Mars and wanted "descendents by proxy" - us – and so our ancestors were shipped off for re-engineering. To stop the early humans reverting, the Martians, thinking like insects, installed their default way of keeping the hive clean. They implanted a psychic trigger in the genetically engineered apes that cause them to kill off animals that do not contain the Martian genes[1] - including other humans that are insufficiently pure.

When it comes down to storytelling basics, the purity aspect is just a plot device so that we can have scenes of masses of Londoners rioting and smashing up British institutions like pubs and bus stops in a way that's still frightening and evocative forty years after the movie came out. However, the implications of the act of engineering – my fingers keep wanting to type "making man in their own image" – are remarkably interesting. Does your culture really have continuity and any sort of "purity" when it is being carried on in bodies of an entirely different type? In what way is this survival? Then again, we all will die. Is survival of a meme a partial survival of the bearer of the meme?

With the emphasis on the alien origin of humans and purity control, and the World War II aspect backgrounded, I can see more clearly why so many critics of the X-Files said that it was ripped off wholesale from Nigel Kneale's Quatermass. I don't think that's entirely true, but it does look much more likely. It's particularly similar to the X-Files movie Fight the Future. Chris Carter, the X-Files founder, took some much more interesting detours in his version of the story, but then he had 8 years to tell it all. Quatermass and the Pit whips you through some very interesting territory and then leaves you to put it all together in your mind at your leisure.


[1] The humans in the film are both genetically *and* memetically engineered, but neither term existed in 1958, or to any real-life extent by 1967.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Iggy Live

I'm a bit late with this, but the BBC is carrying this year's Glastonbury Festival live on the internet. I don't know how long the streams will stay up, but I'm currently watching Iggy Pop. There's hundreds more bands at their site.

I like teh intarwebs. The stream is at

Saturday, June 23, 2007

L-J Cut on Blogger

I get a fair amount of traffic from search sites because I mentioned being able to do a sort of LJ cut on blogger. At that post, though, I didn't say how I did it. I don't like to disappoint, so if you're surfing here to find out how to do a split or cut post, they're called Selective Expandable Posts. The instructions are here at Hackosphere, posted by Ramani. I just followed the instructions.

I hate to spend a whole post not mentioning my own obsessions, so here's a nice picture of Page and Plant singing to each other.

Edit: A commenter writes that Blogger now has its own, much easier, cut. (04/17/2012) Thanks!

Hello! I also found your post by googling "lj-cut on blogger" and it was one of the top hits, so I thought I would mention that Blogger now has this thing called a "jump break". It looks much easier to use and more similar to an lj-cut!

It doesn't say on that page right now, but if you're in HTML mode, you just type !--more-- as a tag (between less than / greater than symbols). 

Man! Shows how often I use Blogger!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lucius Malfoy, up to no good

There's a new picture of Lucius Malfoy at Hpana. He's got the look. I think Order of the Phoenix is gonna be good . . .

Here's a thumbnail for a teaser.

Fanatical and yet hot. That's Malfoy.

The uncropped, full size original is at Hpana above, or there's a copy here with the color cast taken off.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." (Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

When I was little, I used to live in the Yorkshire dales, near Feizor. I used to stand on the rift between the limestone and the shale – the Craven Fault, though I didn't know it then – and look over at forbidding Moughton or the lonely, beached-looking Pen-Y-Ghent. They were a long way away. And worse, over that next hill was another dale, and beyond that further dale, there was another hill. They were all the same (to me at least) and almost endless. In the car, a trip between dales took almost as long as the fell-walker, because you can't motor over the hills, you have to detour around them. And everywhere you went was a village, and everywhere you went the dry stone walls ran over the landscape, up hill and down dale and up to each river or pot hole or scar or foss. There's a Brigante fort on Ingleborough, where the tribe made preparations to repel the Romans. People filled those endless waves of dales a long, long time ago.

Pen y Ghent

I never understood why anyone had made the initial trek from one dale to another and from there to the next, a futile quest that had no purpose or end except the relieve the pressure of not moving. I imagined them looking around, deciding something was wrong with one dale – too crowded, too deforested, too many sheep, not enough water – and packing up, moving to the next dale. And then the next and then the next, even though, ultimately, it's pointless because they're all alike.

But life is ultimately pointless. What's it for?

What use is a new born baby?

I don't know. But when I lived in London, I remember several people telling me they were "getting out" because London was no place to raise a child. The fact they went to places like Slough is neither here nor there; they left for an unborn baby. And now, in California, there's a tide of people leaving because it's not what it used to be and although flocks are still entering (and may be why it's not what it used to be), there's an efflux away, to new lands.

No one ever told me why people moved on from dale to dale, even though it ultimately would do no good. After a while, though, I understood it. Something clicked. That bit of DNA switched on. I stopped wondering.

Charlie Stross, one of the most imaginative SF writers out there, put something on his blog recently about the impracticality of space colonization. He put numbers in it. It sounds difficult. Almost impossible. Expensive, fraught with danger and liable to go wrong. He says people will not make the effort. I think they will.

In Charlie's assumptions, he says up front:

"And I don't want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they're there, that the case for space colonization isn't usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. "We can't afford to keep all our eggs in one basket" isn't so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern."

He says that again, later, in the comments. "[16] you interest me: would you like to explain why "the argument of not putting all our eggs in one basket" is so powerful? That is, what can it do for you, for me, or for anyone else on this planet today?
(Hint: I think it boils down to a category error we often make, in confusing our own self-interest in not experiencing personal extinction with the existence of a species-wide collective self-interest in not experiencing species extinction. But I'd be interested in hearing other explanations.)"

A category error we often make? Someone else tries to prompt him, dangling the prospect of science before the science fiction writer. "28: Charlie, have you had a look at the newer multilevel selection theories? I know Dawkins isn't persuaded by them, but there are some aspects of e.g. Wilson's work that I find intriguing." But Charlie hasn't – he said earlier, "Stephen @19: I'm deeply suspicious of appeals to biological drives, because as a species we seem to exhibit rather a remarkable degree of behavioural plasticity. I know Richard Dawkins has taken to stomping on lots of peoples' bunions recently, but I would still strongly recommend reading "The Extended Phenotype" to anyone who still believes in group selection arguments. As for teleologists and believers in some numinous destiny, that's basically a religious argument and not falsifiable (or worthy of airtime, IMO)." And later, he answers, "Stephen @28: Nope, I'm woefully out of date in evolutionary biology."

Yes, he is. Not that going to space actually requires group selection: it only requires enough people to be fanatical enough about something without practical benefit to keep it up for a thousand years or so. Look at the fighting around Jerusalem and tell me that never happens.

And before anyone asks, I am aware that space is larger than Yorkshire (hard though that may be to grasp). I am also aware that you don't need to take your wife, sons, sheep, ploughs and collection of horse brasses into space. You don't even need to go yourself; you just need to know it's a better place to bring up kids than where you are right now.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Marshes and Lotuses and Kythara

The people I went to college with were descended directly from Ancient Egyptians. At least behaviorally.

According to a summary of Betsy Bryan's work on MSNBC, , rites at the Temple of Mut included "getting drunk on barley beer, then "traveling through the marshes" (a euphemism for having sex), then passing out, then waking up the next morning for religious services."

In defence of the women, they may be throwing up because they've done a whole bunch of lotus root, not just beer. And at least they aren't being carried home like the men.

The theory is that the revelers were reenacting an earlier religious incident when mankind was almost wiped out by Sekhmet. Quick thinking gods got Sekhmet plastered, and she passed out before finishing the job.

Here is E. A. Wallis Budge in his Legends of the Gods, describing the destruction. He calls Sekhmet "Hathor", because he does not distinguish between her terrible aspect as Sekhmet and her motherly aspect as Hathor:

"When Ra entered the Great Temple, the gods made obeisance to him, and took up their positions on each side of him, and informed him that they awaited his words. Addressing Nu, the personification of the World- ocean, Ra bade them to take notice of the fact that the men and women whom his Eye had created were murmuring against him. He then asked them to consider the matter and to devise a plan of action for him, for he was unwilling to slay the rebels without hearing what his gods had to say. In reply the gods advised Ra to send forth his Eye to destroy the blasphemers, for there was no eye on earth that could resist it, especially when it took the form of the goddess Hathor. Ra accepted their advice and sent forth his Eye in the form of Hathor to destroy them, and, though the rebels had fled to the mountains in fear, the Eye pursued them and overtook them and destroyed them. Hathor rejoiced in her work of destruction, and on her return was praised by Ra, for what she had done."

But Ra became worried that she would destroy the whole of mankind. He did not have the power to stop her. He would have to make her incapable of feasting on men. He sent runners to bring red ochre, which was "given to Sekti, a goddess of Heliopolis, to crush and grind up, and when this was done [it was] mixed with human blood, and put in a large brewing of beer which the women slaves had made from wheat. In all they made 7,000 vessels of beer. When Ra saw the beer he approved of it, and ordered it to be carried up the river to where the goddess Hathor was still, it seems, engaged in slaughtering men. During the night he caused this beer to be poured out into the meadows of the Four Heavens, and when Hathor came she saw the beer with human blood and mandrakes in it, and drank of it and became drunk, and paid no further attention to men and women.

In welcoming the goddess, Ra, called her "Amit," i.e., "beautiful one," and from this time onward "beautiful women were found in the city of Amit," which was situated in the Western Delta, near Lake Mareotis. Ra also ordered that in future at every one of his festivals vessels of "sleep-producing beer" should be made, and that their number should be the same as the number of the handmaidens of Ra. Those who took part in these festivals of Hathor and Ra drank beer in very large quantities, and under the influence of the "beautiful women," i.e., the priestesses, who were supposed to resemble Hathor in their physical attractions, the festal celebrations degenerated into drunken and licentious orgies."

Ra was sick at what had transpired, and shortly afterward left the world to live in heaven.

The scans are taken from Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Volume I by Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson, 1854.

Oh, look, chitarras! We've talked about those before!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pretty Things: Come See Me

Well, I'm sad to report I can't find a video of the famous incident with Led Zeppelin, a succulent young lady and a mudshark, but I did find a video of The Pretty Things, a very fetching young lady and a goat. (And a drummer who clearly has too much energy for one person. ) They are all together in an alley singing Come See Me, as shown on Popside. It's part of the same 1966 Swedish TVshow I mentioned earlier.

I have no idea why the Pretty Things were not famouser than they actually were. I'm sure there's one of those biographies out there, where in among all the standard 60's pop boilerplate text about being war-babies, taking pills, Transit vans, exploding drummers, naff gigs in Stevenage, split trousers and pie and chips at motorway service stations, there's a paragraph or two about why. If anyone has such a book, perhaps they can look up why the song's called Come See Me rather than I'm Your Man. Answers in an envelope, please.

Edit: Link updated 06/06/08

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I Don't Know, But I've Been Told . . .

I was watching the Led Zeppelin DVD today, and for the first time I think I made out the lyrics of Dazed and Confused. I always thought it went, "Take it easy baby, let them say what they will. Will your tongue wag so much when I send you the bill?" (and the web agrees with me), but Percy sounds to be singing, "Will your tongue wag so much when I send you to Hell?"

Shock Horror. Does this mean they really were misogynists like everybody said at the time, and I have to rethink my entire childhood identification with Jimmy Page?

Hell, no. (Oops.) Anyway, who can fault a band where the two leads look as good as this together?

Is it warm in here or is it just me?

I'm one of those old fashioned types who thinks there something not quite right about boyband RPS - because let's face it, you mustn't shouldn't just make up stuff about real people - but in Zeppelin's case the RPS stuff pretty much writes itself. Why ever did two of the best looking people in the world ever bother with groupies when they could have had each other? Laziness, I guess.

If you want a less hormonal and more considered opinion on blues lyrics and misogyny, pick up a copy of Greil Marcus' Mystery Train. The section on Robert Johnson is a masterpiece. At one point he quotes Johnson's line, "If I had possession over judgment day, the woman I've been loving wouldn't have no right to pray," and it evokes almost a splutter of indignation; but this being Greil Marcus, it is more articulate than that. I enjoyed the hell out of that chapter. (Oops.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


I saw Apocalypse Now Redux over the weekend.

It turned out not to be about TEOTWAWKI, but it was a muy muy brisky video. No point in reviewing it or describing it as I was the last person on the planet to see it, so I drew a pitcher. Here's the LOLCAT version.

You can see the whole shebang at this Boto Phuket link. [link is breaking shortly]

I'll probably stick to writing in future. This thing only used like one intermediate Photoshop trick four times, and it still took about four hours . . . I just looked up and it was midnight. Sheesh.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Weeds I have known: Oxalis

Sorrel can take over anyone's garden, and a characteristic of it is you can't generally pull out the whole root system. For some reason, this one came up whole and it's fascinating. The plants look like Oxalis violacea - pinkish flowers - but who knows. There are about 800 Oxalis types.

The tap root was damp and completely translucent. It didn't seem uneven enough to be a nitrogen-fixing nodule that had grown over the root, and I can't find anything like it on the web. You can see the bulblets around the top of the tap root. These bulblets stay in the soil after the main plant dies back and each one grows a new plant. The seeds are also explosive and shoot several inches, so one flower can reseed a whole area. Many Oxalis can also form rhizomes that run along horizontally, but this one hadn't (yet).
My iguanas eat the leaves occasionally - even after I've carefully explained to them that sorrel is high in oxalic acid, which is a minor annoyance to humans but can be a danger to iguanas. "Sorrel" means sour, and the sourness comes from the oxalic acid. That's the same sourness that's in rhubarb - and for that matter, the one that's in the generally-regarded-as-poisonous Dieffenbachia, Dumb Cane.

I've put a larger picture of it here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

State of the Nation Address

I haven't had much to say recently, but I think it's worth mentioning this:

Yesterday we went to the second-hand bookstore to buy second-hand books. Being part of the local library, the store has volunteers working there. The young woman personning the cash box (there's no automatic till) looked to be about 17 or 18, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear she was actually 15. Whatever. Hardbacks are $1, paperbacks are 50c and some more sought-after books have prices in round dollars on a special price tag.

We got a bunch of books and the girl added the pile up to $9.50 in her head. We gave her a twenty dollar bill. She said (and I am not making this up), "If it comes to $9.50 and you gave me $20, how much change do I give you?"

SO was speechless and withdrew from the fray. I said, in my trying to be helpful manner, "Add 50c and that's ten dollars, then add ten dollars to that and it comes to twenty. So the change is $10.50."

I knew she could add - she'd just calculated the price - but nevertheless this seemed to go over her head. She looked at me as if I'd just done some clever trick in Vedic Mathematics. But she gave us the $10.50. On the way out SO said, "How do you know we were telling the truth?"

She smiled enigmatically, like the eternal sphinx, only with less facility in math.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

OK, I give in. It was 40 years ago today . . .

Everyone's pointing out that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper is 40 years old this weekend.

Most people seem to begin, "It was 40 years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play," which is complete bollocks. The record says "it was 20 years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play," so clearly "it was 60 years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play."

Anyway, if I have to jump on the bandwagon, I'll give you something relatively useful – the URL to a nice website that tells you who all those people on the cover are – the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography site. It only gives you their names, not why they're famous. This is actually part of my cunning plan. If you look them all up on Wikipedia and find out who they all are, and think about it a bit, then you'll actually become one of the sixties generation in a kind of Sapir-Whorf, viral-memey sort of way. Your brain will reform along new lines. Not that being a sixties generation person is the be-all and end-all of civilization, but let's face it, no one who was there can remember it, so having new recruits is the only way to keep on.


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