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Picturing a World

Beauty calibrator

Horrors! Steampunk facial recognition? Mannequin mind control? Bizarre external sensory systems? Pursuing Rachel powder a little further, I came across this Max Factor Beauty Calibrator at Cosmetics and skin: "Developed in 1932 it was supposed to measure how far a person's features differed from the 'ideal face.'" Surely, the time has come for it to inspire a sci-fi tale, preferably feminist revenge. Or, oh no, wait, historical fiction?????

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Gaudy Skies

In November, I bought the new 25th Anniversary edition of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights for its woodcut illustrations by Chris Wormell. The book was a Christmas present to myself, which I saved for reading after New Year's Day. I'm finding that it does indeed enhance the reading to turn the page to a spectacular illustration like the one shown here. (As it happens, Wormell's color palette is reflected in a fascinating post at Gurney Journey on Polar Stratospheric Clouds.)

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Amazing sky at Geograph

Website alert: Geograph is a project that posts photographs of Great Britain and Ireland by Ordnance Survey grid squares. If you want to know what a place looks like or tour a region on line, it's a great resource. And some of the images from its more than 13,000 contributors might inspire you to take an imaginary journey into the unknown—like this amazing cloud formation from Derek Dye!

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Gods of Pegana

Just when you think you've seen everything, an insurrectionist mob overruns the U. S. Capitol. And just when you think you know a field, along comes something major to shake up your over-confidence. Last night, after following the news closely all day, I escaped into rereading Elswyth Thane's Tryst. Sabrina, the heroine finds a book, The Gods of Pegana, in the mysterious Hilary's locked bedroom. The title looked vaguely familiar, but I sure didn't know the book. Well, my Mattie would!

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Pandemic reading

In a recent interview, author Emily St. John Mandel is quoted as saying about her own bestselling novel, "I don't know who in their right mind would want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic." Well, I've just read it, and I can tell you why. It's about a traveling orchestra and theatrical company in a post-apocalyptic world, but also about the characters' intertwined lives before, during, and twenty years after a pandemic much worse than the one we're in right now. Those interlocking stories have all the human interest of any good read (I especially enjoyed getting inside the mind of a graphic novelist whose running project gives the novel its title). And the picture of a world in which some people remember electricity and some don't makes you look around ours with new eyes.

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Play in a 16th C hal

Blog post alert: I had a subplot about a theatrical company in the novella I'm working on now. A reader of an early partial draft said, "I like your actors, but I don't see where you are going with this." Neither did I really, so I removed most of it. Am ever I tempted to reinstate it, though, after seeing this image in the British Library's post, The Show Must Go On!

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Sphere 1951

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, what fun! Father Christmas calling down the reindeer in a more natural version of his ice palace. This is obviously not the North Pole; but, after all, why not imagine his workshop somewhere in the North Woods? Or take the picture literally and see it as the backdrop for a theatrical production. I'm devouring it like a bon-bon, but if we play this year's story-generating game, there are already three possibilities: a story about Santa Claus, a story about a staged show, a story about a 1951 magazine.

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Baynes and biscuits

Pauline Baynes's illustrations for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, sank almost as deep into my imagination as C. S. Lewis's story did—and that's saying a lot! Yet somehow, I never quite liked her Father Christmas with the beavers. So what about this illustration to advertise Huntley & Palmer biscuits? Oh, my yes! How I wish I had a biscuit tin with it on top! NB: I don't think it suggests a story, only a delicious side of commercial Christmas. What do you say? In any case, Happy St. Nicholas Day!

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And The Ocean Was Our Sky

"Call me Bathsheba." Thus opens Patrick Ness's novel, The Ocean Was Our Sky. (I giggled, remembering the opening to James Thurber's The Wonderful O: "Call me Littlejack,' he roared. And the taverners called him Littlejack.") An obsessed captain hunting a villainous Toby Wick? Surely this must be a joke, a parody of Moby Dick. It works by inversion: ocean for sky, whales who hunt whalers. A female narrator, Bathsheba, against Melville's Ishmael. But the book isn't funny: it's heartbreaking and weird, and Rovina Cai's illustrations are as important as the text.

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Northern Lights

Yesterday, my copy of this British 25th Anniversary edition of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights arrived, with Chris Wormell's stunning illustrations. The landscapes are breathtaking, especially those of icy mountains and the aurora borealis.
 
As it happened, I've been reading Peter Davidson's wide-ranging Idea of North, a study of how the concept of "north" has figured into art, culture, folklore, etc. Last night, I came across a passage about how certain magnetized stones retain their orientation in spite of geological shifts. Davidson remarks on "this fundamental marvel of the earth itself having an idea of north, a northern memory" (p. 56). The idea of intelligence as information rather than consciousness is certainly coming into focus these days, including in the observation of how plants respond without a centralized brain. But think of it, the mineral world with memory, too!
 
For my library book club, I am reading Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, which is set in a near future when mass extinctions have wiped out almost all wildlife. What I'd love to see is a speculative fiction that embodies the life—the activity, and change, and slow responses—of the inorganic as well as organic world in sentient characters. We need to feel within us the tides and flow of the more-than-human world. A fantasy might be devised so that such awareness is part of everyone's experience, or a special set of a population; or it could be that in a more conventional realistic story there is at least one character grappling with the implications of just what non-human, non-animal intelligence entails.
 
So as a jumping off point (a là Natasha Pulley)—if it were true that people could slow their rhythms down to the sound waves sent by elephants through the ground or perceive with their own senses the changes wrought by water on a cliff, what else would have to be true? What would follow?
 
NB: The 25th anniversary illustrated edition of Northern Lights will be published in America in May 2021 under the title The Golden Compass. 

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