Diesel-flavored Espresso

I am Swedish and for me, as for many of my compatriots, coffee is serious business. By chance I recently found the blog Literary Starbucks, at which three Minnesotan university students write about famous or fictitious people having coffee at that particular café chain. High-brow humor and plenty of strange subtext and references, of course. The following paragraph captures the dieselretro essence of having an espresso.

Hemingway goes up to the counter and orders one espresso. It’s hot. He drinks it in silence. It makes him remember his father’s cabin. He thinks about the woman he loved once. He does not smile. The coffee reminds him of war – short but painful, swallowed down quickly. One could order worse drinks. He leaves Starbucks and walks out into the rain.

Yatching in diesel-era comfort

M/Y Taconite, built in 1930

This beautiful yacht was built by Boeing Canada for William E Boeing in 1930. A perfect venue for a diesel-retro murder mystery or the focus for an adventurous 1930s Caribbean cruise. Now she is up for sale. The price: $2.5 million.

You can take a good look at her exterior and interiors here — link >>>

The bar on the aft deck.

Review: “The Time Ships” by Stephen Baxter

HG Wells ended his time-travel novel The Time Machine with a figurative question mark, an open door so to speak, when the nameless protagonist heads back to that distant unsettling future he has visited. In The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter lets that chap tell the story of his second time journey. Wells did not go much into the problems with time-travel paradoxes. But Baxter does, and with gusto: the protagonist quickly discovers that his invention leads to causality getting repeatedly punched in the face during the jaunts back and forth in history.

Spoiler alert

Baxter introduces plenty of ideas from the works of Kurt Gödel, Stephen Hawking, Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Arthur C Clarke (for example: the necessary incompleteness of all theories that strive to explain reality; the causality-defying qualities of the Big Bang singularity; the properties of a steady-state universe; the galaxy-affecting capabilities of all-purpose von Neumann machines), and he therefore writes about intermeshed time-streams in ways that would have been inconceivable to Wells with his pre-Einsteinian knowledge of cosmos.

The story moves ahead swiftly in a polished and dynamic prose and Baxter creates well-crafted milieus for the protagonist’s search for the lost Eloi girl Weena: a diesel-retro war-ravaged London in a 1938, a Dyson sphere, a Robinson-style adventure in a Paleocene jungle, etc.

However, my feelings about this book are mixed. To start with its good qualities: The descriptions of the grimy alternate London and the sun-drenched prehistoric jungle are vivid and suspenseful. The protagonist is a man with flaws and qualities: his foul moods and parochial Victorian mindset are contrasted to his inventiveness, adaptability and derring-do. Baxter’s reflections on the human propensity for violence and war are tinged with an appropriate Wellsian bleakness.

On the other hand, Baxter has a bad habit of introducing subplots that just “fall off the stage” a few chapters later. One example is the cause behind the alternate World War One that has raged for 25 years: Baxter hints at a strange German conspiracy, but never closes the matter properly. Realistic? Maybe. Disappointing? Yes! Also, the end was too predictable; I did foresee most of it already when reading part 1.

My verdict is therefore three Time Machines out of five. The book is good, but it could easily have become much better with some reworking. I will most likely not re-read it in its entirety, but I will probably return occasionally to the jungle and London parts.

Anthropocene: a New Geological Age

When I went to secondary school in the 1970s, we learned about Earth’s geological history and how it is divided into ages of different lengths. The teacher explained that we are living in the Holocene epoch of the Quarternary period.

Now there are some serious arguments that Earth in fact entered a new geological age in the mid 20th century, when the modern technological society started to leave significant marks on Earth’s geology and ecology, the so-called Great Acceleration. Appropriately, the proposed name for the new epoch is Anthropocen (derived from the Greek word for “human”) and its start date is supposed to be July 16, 1945. Read more here — link >>>

Xanadu for the Booklover

I have loved books since childhood and therefore libraries have been sanctuaries to me. When I was a kid in the 1960s, my parents took my sisters and me once a week to the nearest public library, where I filled a big bag with fresh loans. My father assisted me in finding the books I wanted; in those days the filing systems were bulky card cabinets that were unwieldy for a short boy.

I just found a web page with photos from some of the most beautiful libraries in the world, unsurprisingly several from France, le pays des belles lettres. Look and rejoice — link >>>

Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, Paris

Review: “The Battle of Five Armies”

The Peter Jackson marketing deluge is upon us again: the third part of his series of CGI extravaganzas based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Do I sound snarky? Yes, I am not happy with watching this movie’s far too many CGI scenes. In fact, I consider Hobbit III to be two movies.

The first movie is a psychological fairy tale about people that face the lure of gold, about dragonish evil seeping into their minds when they sense that untold riches are within reach. I like that movie and will say more about it in a moment. However, beware, there will be plenty of spoilers.

The second movie is a bloated CGI version of the tabletop game Warhammer Fantasy Battle, in which hideous creatures crush each other with ridiculous blunt and edged weapons. This is not a film, this is a computer game on steroids. I do not like that movie and will not say much about it.

Hobbit III starts of with the big badguy, Smaug the dragon, laying waste to Laktetown, because it wrongly believes the townspeople to be behind the intrusion of Bilbo and the Dwarves in its lair in the Dwarven stronghold Erebor inside the nearby Lonely Mountain (that is where Hobbit II ended). In the midst of the destruction, human hero Bard the Bowman kills Smaug in an unexpected “reverse Wilhelm Tell” scene, where he and his son Bain demonstrate that black iron is lethal to dragons under the right circumstances. I like their archery stunt.

The surviving Laketown humans, having lost everything and facing the chill of late autumn, trek to an old town ruin at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, where they can find shelter. Bard becomes their leader because their old leaders had been killed by dragon fire.

Thorin and his Dwarves, having meanwhile seized Smaug’s great hoard, are unhappy about these refugees at their doorstep. Thorin, now King under the Mountain, is gradually affected by the evil miasma that Smaug has exuded for so long in the underground lair. His mind becomes more and more dragonish and he starts to show signs of paranoia and megalomania. This is an interesting part of the story: the interactions between the Dwarves, Bilbo and the outsiders. Genuine drama with a Norse feel. Dragons are baleful creatures; when one dies, its evil will not fade away.

Elves and Orcs have also heard of Smaug’s death and soon their armies appear to get a share of the treasure. Prepare for CGI battle.

Meanwhile far away, Gandalf, Radagast, Elrond. Galadriel and Saruman take on the Necromancer in the ruins of Dol Guldur, an ancient abode of evil. They face the nine Nazgul in combat and eventually Galadriel shows that she is the mightiest by standing up to Sauron himself. He suffers a tactical defeat, but not a strategic one, and retreats into the East. Here we also see a subtle indication that it is now Saruman turns to the Dark. “Leave Sauron to me.” Saruman’s statement has two meanings. After all, he has been deceived to believe that he is as powerful as Sauron. So Jackson uses this event to connect this movie trilogy to the Lord of the Rings movies.

The battle of the Five Armies at the Lonely Mountain — well, I won’t say anything about its ridiculous fighting scenes — ends the way it should. Three protagonists die more or less heroically. The cringe-worthy Elf-Dwarf romance comes to a sentimental end. Legolas, filled with bitterness, decides to depart from his home and he therefore is advised by his father the Elf-king to look for a human chap named Strider, i.e. a second connection to the LotR movies. (Note that Aragorn is a small boy in Rivendell in that particular year, well before he earned the nickname Strider, so Peter Jackson seems to have messed up the chronology of late Third Age.)

My verdict: The psychological fairytale gets four Lonely Mountains out of five, whereas the CGI battle spectacle gets one decapitated Orc head out of five.

Peter Jackson’s six-movie vision of Middle-earth has reached its end. His license only included what what was written in the Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit books. The Tolkien Estate appears to be unwilling to let Hollywood lay its hands on the good professor’s other stories.

To me it seems the existing license ought to cover the contents of the LotR Appendices, so it might be possible to do something with the many exciting events mentioned in the chronology of the Third Age, such as the Kin-strife when Gondor is engulfed in civil war about 1,500 years before the War of the Ring. I would definitely love to see a hard-boiled movie about the heroic king Helm Hammerhand of Rohan and the Long Winter War (about 250 years before the War of the Ring), but then I would prefer another director who could turn that story into a “dark western” in Middle-earth.

Anyhow, there won’t be any more Middle-earth movies during this decade. We nerds will have to look forward to Star Wars Episode VII instead.