Friday, December 19, 2014

Layers

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day takes us into the 1970's, NGC 1977, NGC 1975, NGC 1973, deep in the heart of Orion.

While we're reflecting on the 1970's, how about reflecting on the NGC itself? Or the earlier catalog, the Messier?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

They're Back!

The Three Hoarsemen are back with their first episode featuring their first guest, a very special appearance by two-time Hugo Award winner Patrick Hester!*



















*There's a joke here. You have to be in the know to know, you know?

It's A Big Universe

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows NGC 7331, a nice spiral galaxy in the constellation of Pegasus. "Just" beyond lie a number of galaxies that are probably roughly the same size as NGC 7331 (which is roughly the size of our home galaxy) but are ten times as far away.

Humans are generally incapable of understanding astronomical distances and geological time. Especially Hollywood executives and religious fundamentalists.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Geminids

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows a meteor coming from the periodic meteor shower called the Geminids in the skies over Mount Balang, China.

This shower is called the Geminids because it seems to originate, or radiate, out from the constellation of Gemini. Meteor showers occur during set times of the year, and "peak" at one particular time. However, if you want to catch the Geminids (or another shower), you should observe before and after the peak—they just don't occur at that peak time! (Consult a decent observing guide for other hints, for example, the best time to observe is actually usually after midnight local time, not before!)

I stepped out Sunday night to walk our dog, well after the "peak" of the Geminids. As I looked up, I observed a very bright (maganitude 1 or better) Geminid falling from above Orion, through Orion, definitely radiating away from Gemini. So, there you go. Look up, look up around the peak, ot only at the peak, and you will be rewarded!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brothers In Arms

An interesting look at the U.S. infantry...from the perspective of a French unit.

Arches of the Sky

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows star-forming regions in W5 (better known as IC 1845 and IC 1805) in the constellation of Cassiopeia. Download a high resolution copy of this and spend some time going ove the fine details!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Donald Moffitt

News is circulating that author Donald Moffitt has passed away. My first encounter with his work was The Jupiter Theft as a Del Rey original paperback in 1977. It was a rip-roaring Golden Age tale with strange aliens, planetary engineering and more. Following that were four more books, both linked duos: The Genesis Quest and Second Genesis; Crescent in the Sky and A Gathering of Stars.

I have many fond memories of The Jupiter Theft, possibly as it came in a period of relative scarcity for hard SF and a college career of many night shifts as a security guard (so I read and re-read the books I owned). Many thanks, Donald Moffitt.

The Nape of the Year

Another issue of Ansible from the flying fingers of Dave Langford to end the year!

Um, what?

Winnie-the-Pooh was considered as the patron of a playground in Tuszyn, Poland, but rejected by councillors outraged by the teddybear's lack of 'a complete wardrobe' (this being the mini-t-shirted Disney animation rather than the unclad original) and possibly hermaphroditic nature. 'The author was over 60 and cut [Pooh's] testicles off with a razor blade because he had a problem with his identity," expostulated councillor Hanna Jachimska. (Independent, 20 November)

Perfect Sphere

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows a "gravity map" of our blue marble, popuarly known as the Potsdam Gravity Potato.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Black Cloud

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Barnard 68, a molecular black cloud in the constellation of Ophiuchus. A hole in space? No, a cloud of darkness leading eventually to light.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Red Andromeda

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Messier 31 in a combined image showing both the light frequencies we can see and cannot see. Ground-based and space-based equipment working together!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Structures

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day gives us a closeup of a rock. On Mars. Which shows evidence of crystals formed as a result of the evaporation of water that lay in...can we say it...Lake Sharp (?).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dogging It

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows moondogs shining as a result of a waning quarter Moon plus cloud-borne ice crystals.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On the Vanceian Plane

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Messier 71, in the obscure constellation of Sagitta. "Mouseover" to have the image "corrected" for the amount of dust that lies between us and it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Winter Flames

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula in the constellation of Orion. Not as recognized as it's neighbor, Messier 42, a beautiful sight well worth the visit.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The House on the Borderland



From the Manuscript discovered in 1877 by Messrs. Tonnison and Berreggnog in the Ruins that lie to the South of the Village of Kraighten, in the West of Ireland. Set out here, with Notes.

In the current episode of the podcast I am one with Jeff Patterson and John Stevens (The Three Hoarsemen), we are joined by Karen Burnham, a real rocket scientist to discuss The House on the Borderland, a short novel by William Hope Hodgson.

Hodgson lived from 1877 to 1918 and wrote a number of works of horror and fantasy, mostly short stories, but also a few novels, of which this is one. Hodgson was an interesting character, he ran a physical training center that attracted the interests of other authors. He took up a challenge by Harry Houdini to trap Houdini. He traveled and even lived in France for a time. He joined the Army at the outbreak of the First World War, was injured and discharged, but recovered well enough to join again where he was killed (helping a group of his fellow soldiers escape while under fire, one report indicates).

Many of his stories were influenced by his experiences on the sea (From the Tideless Sea, The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig'). One of his most famous characters is that of Carnacki, an investigator of the supernatural who uses deduction, research and science to investigate (and defeat) the supernatural. Anybody who has ever played the roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu will find enjoyment in these stories.

The House on the Borderland is a relatively short novel. It's somewhat archaic in form for today's readers, but I urge you to persist and I think you will be rewarded. There is almost no development of character, little dialogue, even relatively little action. The story is mostly one long narration, and is very disjointed. It is almost as if the narration was intended for a serial (as Jeff Patterson suggested), as there are parts of many different stories here: exploration, an attack by supernatural beings, travels through time and space, visions of heaven and hell and more.

Many are the hours in which I have pondered upon the story that is set forth in the following pages. I trust that my instincts are not awry when they prompt me to leave the account, in simplicity, as it was handed to me.

The book is a nested story. We start off with Hodgson describing how the book came into his hands and the scene shifts to Tonnison and Berreggnog, the two men who found the manscript and sent it to Hodgson. They are spending some time in Ireland fishing. After several days of fishing in the river, they spend one day exploring. It is then that they find what appears to be a long-disused garden, a strange lake and what appears to be the ruins of a house. They also find a book, hand-written, under some debris from the house. They spend the next day reading the book.

And the MS. itself—You must picture me, when first it was given into my care, turning it over, curiously, and making a swift, jerky examination. A small book it is; but thick, and all, save the last few pages, filled with a quaint but legible handwriting, and writ very close. I have the queer, faint, pit-water smell of it in my nostrils now as I write, and my fingers have subconscious memories of the soft, "cloggy" feel of the long-damp pages.

The book tells the story of an unnamed narrator (sometimes called The Recluse by other people in talkign about the book) who lives in a castle with his sister, Mary and a dog, Pepper. The house, more a castle, is in a desolate, underpopulated section of Ireland. It had been unoccupied for many decades and he was able to purchase it very cheaply. He starts the journal in order to tell of hs odd experiences in the house, the first of which is an out-of-body journey to a place he calls "the plain of silence", where he sees an apparent duplicate of his house. The plain is surrounded by huge statues of various deities (Set and Kali are mentioned) and both the house and the narrator are menaced by a large being that has both the appearance of a swine and a human.

Silently, intently, I watched this horrible creature, and forgot my fear, momentarily, in my interest in its movements. It was making its way, cumbrously 'round the building, stopping as it came to each window to peer in and shake at the bars, with which—as in this house—they were protected; and whenever it came to a door, it would push at it, fingering the fastening stealthily. Evidently, it was searching for an ingress into the House.

He suddenly awakens back in his study. Shortly thereafter, he is exploring a pit near his house when he is attacked by beings that have both the characteristics of a swine and a human. The creatures take the house under siege and the narrator spends several sleepless nights repelling attacks as the swine beings try to get in.

Immediately after this, I heard a loud squeal, in the direction of the Pit. It was answered, a hundred times, from every part of the garden. This gave me some notion of the number of the creatures, and I began to feel that the whole affair was becoming even more serious than I had imagined.

The attacks stop and after some time, the narrator goes back out to the pit to see if he can detect them and finds that the landscape has changed: the pit is now a chasm that is being filled up with water. He explores a cave to the side of the chasm and finds that it seems to lead in the direction of his house but terminates in a large hole. As he tries to determine the size of the hole, water flows from the lake into the cave and into the hole and nearly drowns both him and his dog.

A short examination showed me that the water reached right across the passage, and was running at a tremendous rate. Already, even as I stood there, it had deepened. I could make only a guess at what had happened. Evidently, the water in the ravine had broken into the passage, by some means. If that were the case, it would go on increasing in volume, until I should find it impossible to leave the place. The thought was frightening. It was evident that I must make my exit as hurriedly as possible.

After recovering from this ordeal, narrator has another out-of-body experience where he seems to travel to a place called "the sea of sleep" where he is reunited by the spirit of his lost love.

I entered into the gulf that separates our system from the outer suns. As I sped across the dividing dark, I watched, steadily, the ever-growing brightness and size of our sun. Once, I glanced back to the stars, and saw them shift, as it were, in my wake, against the mighty background of night, so vast was the speed of my passing spirit.

The next-to-last experience in the book starts again in the study, where the narrator find times moving at a faster and faster rate. Pepper dies and crumbles into dust, the narrator himself dies, but his spirit goes on and observes the end of the Sun and the Solar System. He encounters other spirits, angels, and more before finding himself back in his study with no apparent time having passed; but Pepper is still dead.

Far below me, I saw the earth, with the burning house leaping into an ever growing mountain of flame, 'round about it, the ground appeared to be glowing; and, in places, heavy wreaths of yellow smoke ascended from the earth. It seemed as though the world were becoming ignited from that one plague-spot of fire. Faintly, I could see the Swine-things. They appeared quite unharmed. Then the ground seemed to cave in, suddenly, and the house, with its load of foul creatures, disappeared into the depths of the earth, sending a strange, blood colored cloud into the heights. I remembered the hell Pit under the house.

The final sequence of the book has the narrator being hunted by a more supernatural form of one of the swine creatures, perhaps the one that he first encountered at the duplicate of his house. The creature kills his sister's cat, kills a dog that replaced Pepper and has infected the narrator before coming for the narrator.

Pad, pad, pad—Something passed down the garden path, and a faint, mouldy odor seemed to come in through the open door, and mingle with the burnt smell.

The narration ends abruptly and we're back with Tonnison and Berreggog. They are both greatly affected by the story. When their driver returns to pick them up, they ask him to talk to the villagers about the house. They learn that a man and a woman moved there years before, the only person to visit was a man bringing supplies. Eventually the supplier came with the story that the house had disappeared and was replaced by a pit.

Sometimes, in my dreams, I see that enormous pit, surrounded, as it is, on all sides by wild trees and bushes. And the noise of the water rises upward, and blends—in my sleep—with other and lower noises; while, over all, hangs the eternal shroud of spray.

Little is written about where Hodgson got his ideas for the story or who he might have influenced. Many of the passages indicate that he was familiar with the scientific knowledge of the day. One inspiration, I think was H.G. Wells, specifically, The Time Machine (1895): Several time travel sequences that read as if they were the inspiration for the travels of Hodgson's narrator through time, especially as the Sun moves faster and faster until it travels in a continuous line across the sky. Also, the sequence at the end of the The Time Machine where the narrator jumps 30 million years into the future to see an Earth with a dying Sun definitely feels like several set pieces in the Hodgson work.

As for who was inspired by Hodgson, H.P. Lovecraft is specifically mentioned and one of his quotes about Hodgson often appears on the covers of various editions of The House on the Borderland, although slightly modified (much in the same way that a review of a movie is quoted out of context). However, while modified, it is clear that this work by Hodgson (and others) had a deep effect on Lovecraft.

An author that I feel was inspired by Hodgson (and one reason for inviting Karen Burnham onto the podcast) was Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (1930), Last Men in London (1932) and Star Maker (1937): A somewhat linked set (thematically if not actually) of books where an unnamed narrator travels forward in time on an increasing scale (all of Last and First Men could fit into one chapter of Star Maker and Last Men in London could fit into one chapter of Last and First Men). The scale of the travels through space and time, the nameless (and almost devoid of characteristics) narrator, who travels outside his body (in Star Maker) are also very reminiscent of Hodgson.

There are differences in philosophy: Stapledon was an atheist or agnostic (depending on who you read), whereas Hodgson was the son of an Anglican priest and had, at the very least, a religious upbringing if not an ongoing religious practice. But both write of cosmic intelligences (indifferent and malign), a "modern" view of the cosmos (modern for the time), vast expanses of time and space, disembodied travel, etc. Whether it is a spiritual journey or a journey propelled by cosmic intelligence, it seems to be the case that Stapledon was influenced by Hodgson (even though I can't find specific evidence!).

I read, and, in reading, lifted the Curtains of the Impossible that blind the mind, and looked out into the unknown. Amid stiff, abrupt sentences I wandered; and, presently, I had no fault to charge against their abrupt tellings; for, better far than my own ambitious phrasing, is this mutilated story capable of bringing home all that the old Recluse, of the vanished house, had striven to tell.

Of the simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters, I will say little. It lies before you. The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.

I hope that you enjoyed this description of the novel and that you enjoy our podcast discussion. If you give The House on the Borderland a try, please leave a comment here or at the podcast episode page!

Wanderers



Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is the short video Wanderers. Shall we go explore?

"...listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go..."

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shimmer

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the shimmer of the aurora over Norway. While the camera was capturing the activity, it also caught a meteor!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Weird Worlds of Klarkashton



This year, as part of my attempt to read more short fiction (I think I over succeeded) and to clear out some backlog off of Mount Toberead, I tackled this collection from Night Shade Books (available, by the way, in paper, electronic and audio—and I read these using all three methods!).

Smith was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, corresponded with Lovecraft and other members of the "Lovecraft Circle" and even dabbled in the Cthulhu Mythos that Lovecraft is probably best known for. This is both a positive and a negative: a positive in that this probably helped Smith's works stay in print, but a negative in that everybody associated with Lovecraft is in the shadow of Lovecraft and seems not be be able to exist independently.

While I sometimes jokingly say that Smith never met a two syllable word that he wouldn't toss out of the story in order to use a four to six syllable word, in many ways Smith was a better writer than Lovecraft. I think his series work (see the Averoigne cycle as an example) hangs together better in terms of background, plotting and the like. However, since he has been associated with Lovecraft, people, I think, haven't appreciated this.

This series should go a long way towards correcting this. Night Shade has gathered together all the stories: seek out the poetry (available in several print and electronic editions) and seek out his early novels (only in paper, as far as I know) plus the famous Black Book if you want the rest. Honestly, if you try these you'll probably have more than enough of a taste of his style.

Erudite, yes. But some good stories, some nice mythologies and your vocabulary will grow!




The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith 01: The End of the Story (made up of Introduction by Ramsey Campbell; A Note on the Texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; To the Daemon; The Abominations of Yondo; Sadastor; The Ninth Skeleton; The Last Incantation; The End of the Story; The Phantoms of the Fire; A Night in Malneant; The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake; Thirteen Phantasms; The Venus of Azombeii; The Tale of Satampra Zeiros; The Monster of the Prophecy; The Metamorphosis of the World; The Epiphany of Death; A Murder in the Fourth Dimension; The Devotee of Evil; The Satyr; The Planet of the Dead; The Uncharted Isle; Marooned in Andromeda; The Root of Ampoi; The Necromantic Tale; The Immeasurable Horror; A Voyage to Sfanomoe; Story Notes by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; Alternate Conclusion to 'The Satyr'; From the Crypts of Memory; Bibliography by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.)

Counts as thirty (30) entries in 2014: The Year in Shorts.

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith 02: The Door to Saturn (made up of Introduction by Tim Powers; A Note on the Texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; The Door to Saturn; The Red World of Polaris; Told in the Desert; The Willow Landscape; A Rendezvous in Averoigne; The Gorgon; An Offering to the Moon; The Kiss of Zoraida; The Face of the River; The Ghoul; The Kingdom of the Worm; An Adventure in Futurity; The Justice of the Elephant; The Return of the Sorcerer; The City of the Singing Flame; A Good Embalmer; The Testament of Athammaus; A Captivity in Serpens; The Letter from Mohaun Los; The Hunters from Beyond; Story Notes by Ron Hilger and Scott Connors; Alternate Ending to "The Return of the Sorcerer"; Bibliography by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; About the Editors.)

Counts as twenty-five (25) entries in 2014: The Year in Shorts.

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith 03: A Vintage from Atlantis (made up of Introduction by Michael Dirda; A Note on the Texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; The Holiness of Azedarac; The Maker of Gargoyles; Beyond the Singing Flame; The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis; The Eternal World; The Demon of the Flower; The Nameless Offspring; A Vintage from Atlantis; The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan; The Invisible City; The Immortals of Mercury; The Empire of the Necromancers; The Seed from the Sepulcher; The Second Interment; Ubbo-Sathla; The Double Shadow; The Plutonian Drug; The Supernumerary Corpse; The Colossus of Ylourgne; The God of the Asteroid; Story Notes by Ron Hilger and Scott Connors; The Flower-Devil; Bibliography by Ron Hilger and Scott Connors.)

Counts as twenty-three (23) entries in 2014: The Year in Shorts.

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith 04: The Maze of the Enchanter (made up of Introduction by Gahan Wilson; A Note on the Texts by Ron Hilger and Scott Connors; The Mandrakes; The Beast of Averoigne; A Star-Change; The Disinterment of Venus; The White Sybil; The Ice-Demon; The Isle of the Torturers; The Dimension of Chance; The Dweller in the Gulf; The Maze of the Enchanter; The Third Episode of Vathek—The Story of Princess Zulkais and the Prince of Kalilah by William Beckford and Clark Ashton Smith; Genius Loci; The Secret of the Cairn; The Charnel God; The Dark Eidolon; The Voyage of King Euvoran; Vulthoom; The Weaver in the Vault; The Flower-Women; Story Notes by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; Alternate Ending to "The White Sybil"; The Muse of Hyberborea; The Dweller in the Gulf—Added Material; Bibliography by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.)

Counts as twenty-five (25) entries in 2014: The Year in Shorts.

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith 05: The Last Hieroglyph (made up of Introduction by Richard A. Lupoff; A Note on the Texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; The Dark Age; The Death of Malygris; The Tomb-Spawn; The Witchcraft of Ulua; The Coming of the White Worm, Being Chapter IX of the Book of Eibon; The Seven Geases; The Chain of Aforgomon; The Primal City; Xeethra; The Last Hieroglyph; Necromancy in Naat; The Treader of the Dust; The Black Abbot of Puthuum; The Death of Ilalotha; Mother of Toads; The Garden of Adompha; The Great God Awto; Strange Shadows; The Enchantress of Sylaire; Double Cosmos; Nemesis of the Unfinished; The Master of the Crabs; Morthylla; Schizoid Creator; Monsters in the Night; Phoenix; The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles; Symposium of the Gorgon; The Dart of Rasasfa; Story Notes by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; Variation Temptation Scenes from "The Witchcraft of Ulua"; The Traveler; Material Removed from "The Black Abbot of Puthuum"; Alternate Ending to "I Am Your Shadow"; Alternate Ending to "Nemesis of the Unfinished"; Bibliography by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.)

Counts as thirty-eight (38) entries in 2014: The Year in Shorts.

The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith (made up of Foreword by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger; The Sorcerer Departs by Donald Sidney-Fryer; The Animated Sword; The Red Turban; Prince Alcouz and the Magician; The Malay Krise; The Ghost of Mohammed Din; The Mahout; The Rajah and the Tiger; Something New; The Flirt; The Perfect Woman; A Platonic Entanglement; The Expert Lover; The Parrot; A Copy of Burns; Checkmate; The Infernal Star; Dawn of Discord; House of Monoceros; The Death Will Cuckold You—A Drama in Six Scenes; The Hashish Eater—or—The Apocalypse of Evil; Bibliography; O Amor Atque Realitas!—Clark Ashton Smith's First Adult Fiction by Donald Sidney-Fryer.)

Counts as twenty-four (24) entries in 2014: The Year in Shorts.

Flight of the Fireflies

Can a tiny start up company in Texas bring more access to space? "Once you're in orbit, you're halfway to anywhere" is what Robert A. Heinlein said (and a lot of people have grabbed on to that phrase). Cheap access to space + cheap powered habitats (inflatable modules plus ion engines) = a solar system wide civilization?

Fingers crossed. It's a long way from a Texas field to the asteroid belt...

That's No Moon...

...that's Moon Valley on our blue marble! Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day brings us to Valle de la Luna in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Spreading overhead is the amazing southern hemisphere Milky Way.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Consumption

On the latest episode of The Three Hoarsemen, Jeff Patterson, John Stevens and I go guestless and discuss (among other things): the World Fantasy Convention, Schlock Mercenary, The Three-Body Problem, Ursula K. LeGuin and more!

The Greater Black Lake

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day concentrates on the crater Plato near Mare Imbrium on the Moon. Plato has been an area of mystery for observers, mostly due to it's color and apparent smoothness. It's located near some spectactular mountain peaks, Pico and Piton and has been the scene for multiple science fiction stories, Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke and the early installments of Hugh Walters' Chris Godfrey of UNEXA series.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014