Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The natural history of remembrance

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is by Pippa Goldschmidt who came to see Will Self talk about W. G. Sebald. Pippa is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.

W. G. Sebald was one of a small number of writers who gazed at the literal and metaphorical wreckage of the Second World War and attempted to describe as truthfully as possible what they saw. Born in 1944, he was clearly deeply marked by the simultaneity of his seemingly happy childhood in Germany with appalling events such as the deportation of Greek Jews from Corfu. According to Will Self in his lecture on Sebald, this clash of events in his psyche led him to see history as a sort of synoptic vision where everything happens at once, and can only be conveyed through a painstaking accumulation of fact and details. His books weave backwards and forwards through the past and present to build up layers of meaning. They have an apparent artlessness and immediacy to them, they are ‘easy to read’ but the lives of his characters weigh heavily on the reader.

And he didn’t just examine the Nazis’ legacy; his essay ‘Air War and Literature’ makes for uncomfortable reading in its detailed depiction of the physical and biological aftermath of the Allied bombing on German cities. Nobody should be allowed to claim the moral high ground here, he implies, all we are able do is remember and document. But he was not in favour of all types of remembrance. Self said that he would likely have thought that the British ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day’ was too one-sided, too capable of being subtly used for propaganda to demonstrate the moral superiority of the Allies, and perhaps we should have instead an ‘Allied Blanket Bombing of Germany Day’.

As Will Self started his lecture, a black and white photo was projected onto the screen behind him. I found out afterwards that the photo is actually a painting by Gerhard Richter, of a photo of his ‘Onkel Rudi’. It shows a smiling young man in Nazi uniform.

The photo seemed curiously weightless as it fluttered and bobbed behind Self. And this was a quite fitting visual counterpart to the lecture; Sebald’s books are illustrated by anonymous photos that have an uneasy relationship with the words. The photos are never explained or even directly alluded to in the text, and their effect upon the reader is to make you question what is real and what is fictional. As Self explained, Sebald was exposed to images of the Holocaust when he was at school, without any explanation or context. He spent the rest of his life trying to find that context in his writing, an extraordinary unclassifiable mixture of fact and fiction which tells the tales of emigrants and immigrants, people rendered passive by war who make what they can out of their lives.

Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit Pippa's website for more information.

‘Who are your people?'*

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is by Pippa Goldschmidt who came to see Alistair Moffat. Pippa is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.


Yesterday Alistair Moffat talked about the genetic identity of the Scottish people and the emerging science of tracing our ancestors using DNA. This essentially uses mistakes in DNA (mutations that occur by chance) which are then propagated. If we share these mistakes with other people, we must share a common ancestor, and by looking at where these mistakes are the most common, we can find out where that ancestor originated. So, for example, a fifth of Irish men are related to a single man, Niall Noigiallach, who lived about 1500 years ago.

There are two ways of tracing these markers back through the generations, by examining the DNA on the Y chromosomes that men inherit from their fathers, and by examining mitochondrial DNA that both men and women inherit from their mothers.

Alistair Moffat said that people are quite often moved when they find out about their ancestry and their links to Vikings, or Celts, or Irish kings, as this allows them a way of imagining their pasts. But using Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA only gives us two routes back through the complex network of our ancestors; we may have proof that we’re descended from an Irish chieftain but we shouldn’t forget that we’re also descended from a zillion (roughly speaking) other people too.

Perhaps it’s not the differences, but what we share that is more important, and also more moving. In 75,000 BC a vast volcanic eruption led to mass extinctions of species, and killed off all but a handful of Homo sapiens, who escaped because they were living in the narrow rift valleys of East Africa. These humans emigrated north, and in a relatively few generations had established themselves in Asia and Europe. We’re all descended from those tenacious people.

* The Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (see Ken’s blogs below) apparently asked this when he first met people.


Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit Pippa's website for more information.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fiction shines a light on the Universe

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival, including Pippa Goldschmidt who is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers Team. Pippa caught up with science communicator and non-fiction author Stuart Clark before his event about his first novel The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth’

You were a professional astronomer for some time before you moved into science communication – why did you make that move?
I realised that I was more interested in the broad pictures of astronomy than in the nuts and bolts of doing research – debugging computer codes and arguing over marginal data held no appeal for me. So writing about astronomy provided a more natural fit.

There have always been two passions in my life: story telling and space. Story telling developed into writing, and my interest in space turned into a BSc and then a PhD in astrophysics. I self-funded my PhD by writing for science fiction magazines, reviewing films and interviewing actors and directors. I even wrote the video sleeves for Star Trek for five years – it was that job that largely funded my PhD. I was also asked to write my first astronomy book at that time, Stars and Atoms, an illustrated family encyclopaedia. However, I think my research allowed me to develop the critical eye that I use to get to the bottom of stories. And my interest in story telling allows me to present it in a hopefully accessible way.

And then you made another move – to fiction. How big a jump was that?
When I began writing The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth it didn’t feel like a big jump at all but looking back I realise it was a leap into the dark. Having said that, I’ve always written fiction. There are a couple of finished and half-finished science fiction novels lurking on my hard-drive and a detailed synopsis and sample chapters for a novel called The Stone Ocean about Mary Anning and her fossil discoveries. However, Tracy Chevalier beat me to that one with her wonderful Remarkable Creatures.

I’ve been a voracious reader of fiction all my life, starting with science fiction. Now I read widely across genres and the main stream, looking for stories that resonate. As for the writing itself, it is very different. You simply can’t ‘tell’ in fiction, you have to ‘show’. Journalism or non-fiction writing is more direct; you have to tell as clearly as you can. I’m not saying either is better. They suit different stories. I have a number of ideas for possible books that would have to be large-scale narrative non-fictions rather than fiction. But fiction is something I’m concentrating on at the moment. I’ve just completed the second volume of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth and I’m looking forward to starting the third book in the autumn.

Your first novel is actually a fictional account of real historical events. Why did you decide to tackle this in a fictional format?
The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth came about when an editor mentioned to my agent that the history of astronomy was like the plot of a thriller. It had danger, power plays, rivalry, intrigue. We found this fascinating and perhaps a way to move popular science onward. So I began to think seriously about whether you could write convincing fiction based on breakthroughs in science. I wanted to stick to the facts as much as possible, flexing things only where necessary.

As I was researching the lives of Galileo, Newton and Einstein, which form the bedrock of the three parts of the trilogy, it became obvious that the stories were so dramatic the best way to write them was indeed as novels. I took inspiration from authors such as Philippa Gregory and Robert Harris who are both brilliant at this style of historical fiction. I figure that if the public enjoy stories about kings and queens, generals and soldiers, why not about scientists too? After all, they helped shape their times just as certainly as the rulers of the day.

Were you hoping to attract new audiences with this approach? People who might be put off by non-fiction science books?
Yes. Everything I do convinces me that many people are fascinated by science but that they perceive a barrier to understanding it. These novels show science not as a daunting edifice but as a personal endeavour, driven by individuals with belief and passion. I think that makes these stories something that most people can relate to.

I want to present Galileo, Newton and Einstein as real people, embedded in their times and cultures, and grappling with new thoughts that blossom into science and a new way to understand the universe around us. Don’t we all want to make some sort of sense of our lives in the time we’ve got? I’ve learnt so much about what science is and what it isn’t by writing these books that I hope others will do the same.

Do you think a fictional treatment adds to our understanding?
Yes, because it invites us to empathise with these scientists as fellow human beings. As we follow them through their stories we confront the same question that they do: what does it take to stick to a belief or a course of action, even though you are being pressured by the authorities to stop and your family are suffering because of it? 

The first book takes place as Europe is ripping itself to pieces in the aftermath of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Into this uncertainty, Galileo in Italy and Kepler in Germany bring new insights into Nature, new ways of understanding the Universe and mankind’s place within it. They hope for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. The story is how they follow these personal convictions and the consequences for them and their families for doing so.

At the very core, these stories are about how do you believe? Do you need evidence or are their certain beliefs that require none? Evidence or faith? And I’m not just talking about science versus religion. All of us decide how much faith we place in individuals and beliefs, and how much evidence we need to be persuaded otherwise. The benefit of the doubt, the burden of proof – we’re obsessed with this tension of faith versus evidence. It’s one of the key balancing acts in every one of us, and there are no concrete solutions. It’s an individual’s choice, and so exploring it in a fictional setting is the best possible way to do it.

Thank you very much! I’m looking forward to the remaining books in the trilogy.

Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit her website for more information.


'How do the cells know about the jungle?

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is Ken MacLeod who came to see Ian Stewart in conversation with Joan Bakewell. Ken is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.
 

Joan Bakewell is a speaker who needs no introduction, and in this capacity she's been introducing and interviewing speakers on key ideas for the 21st Century. Yesterday's topic was numbers, and the speaker was Ian Stewart. She introduced him by saying that of all the topics in her series, she found mathematics the hardest to understand, but that Ian Stewart was the best person to explain it.

Professor Ian Stewart is one of the great science popularisers - and not just in his own field of mathematics. Some of his many books on science were written with Jack Cohen, reproductive biologist and oft-invited speaker at SF conventions. In recent years, the two have teamed up with the wildly popular fantasy author Terry Pratchett to write (so far) three books on 'The Science of Discworld', which cleverly exploit the contrast between the eponymous flat planet (which runs on the rules of magic and the caprice of gods) and our universe (which doesn't) to explain an astonishing range of serious scientific points ... including the ways in which magic does work in our world, through the human propensity for Story.

Stewart began by asking 'Why maths and biology?' Biology has after all traditionally been the science for people who want to do as little mathematics as possible. (That was certainly why I took Zoology. How I ended up with an MPhil in biomechanics is another story.) The only mathematics used in most biology is statistics. We do experiments, and then we test whether the results are statistically significant (i.e. that they're unlikely to be chance). Ian's new book, Mathematics of Life, is not about that. It looks at ways in which mathematics is informing the science itself, in fields such as understanding how proteins fold into the shapes that (largely) determine their function, how ecosystems hold together and whether diversity is indeed the key to stability, and even in considering the possibilities of life on other planets.

To illustrate, he picked two topics in current research: animal markings, and animal gaits. Both are about patterns, and patterns are what maths is very good at explaining. As far back as the 1950s, Alan Turing studied animal markings and worked with equations whose solutions (when shown graphically) looked very like animal markings. Cue diversion about Turing wandering about with a sheet of blotchy paper, telling his colleagues that 'this looks like a cow' and being patted on the back - 'Yes, Alan, that does look like a cow'. Anyway, modelling reaction and diffusion together produces patterns similar to most of those found in nature, and the equations generate interesting predictions - such as that on a small animal, the stripes will move, and it turns out that they do, very slowly.

Gait, likewise, can be patterned, and the structure of the arrangement of nerves that would have to fire to generate the various gaits can be predicted, and one can even predict gaits we don't often see - Stewart and a colleague in Texas suddenly realised that one anomalous pattern was being acted out before their very eyes, as they watched a bucking bronco at a rodeo.

Joan Bakewell then asked a few questions. Why are tiger stripes vertical, rather than horizontal? Well, said Ian, it's because the stripes are camouflage, and tigers live in jungles, and tree trunks are vertical. Yes, but, Bakewell asked - and this is a direct quote - 'How do the cells know about the jungle?' Ian Stewart then broke the news about the recently discovered principle of evolution by natural selection.

The second part of his talk ranged from the discovery of evolutionarily stable strategies that follow the paradoxical pattern of the 'rock, scissors, paper' game, to the contribution of mathematical modelling to showing the possibility of plate tectonics (and therefore, by a long chain of inference, life) on rocky planets much larger than Earth. An even more wide-ranging discussion followed, and we all trooped out into the sunshine and the Book Festival and its magical buzz of Story with some new stories running in our heads.

PS: The principle of evolution by natural selection is explained in a book by Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, and Terry Pratchett: Darwin's Watch. Other popular introductions are available.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Total Recall

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is by Ken MacLeod who came to see Julian Baggini on Monday 22 August. Ken is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.

The problem of personal identity - of what makes you, you - has for a long time been investigated through thought experiments. John Locke asked us to imagine what it would mean to say that your immortal soul had in a past life been that of a warrior who fell at, say, the seige of Troy - given that you have no actual memories of being that warrior, and only the most coincidental resemblances in personality, outlook, knowledge, and beliefs. Leibniz asked us if we'd agree to 'become' the Emperor of China, on the sole condition that we took with us no memories of our present actual life. In this way, they tried to bring into focus our intuition that what matters in personal identity is continuity of memory and personality, and that our belief or lack of it in any immortal spark is strictly irrelevant.

But the self itself may not even be a mortal spark.

At a session chaired by Steven Gale, Julian Baggini spoke on Monday 22 August on his book The Ego Trick, in which he explains the 'bundle theory' of personal identity, long familiar in the teachings of Buddhism in the East, and first explicated in the West by Hume. This is the recognition (attained, by Hume and by Buddhist practioners alike, through introspection) that when you look into your self, you find thoughts, perceptions, emotions ... but nothing that you can identify as yourself. On the bundle theory, that's all there is: the self just is the passing show of thoughts, perceptions, emotions ... there's no there, there.

But, Baggini went on, in his book he hadn't just expounded this philosophical idea, he'd gone and talked to philosophers and other thinkers who'd developed it. To clarify the notion of reincarnation, he'd talked to Tibetan lamas who believed that they were reincarnations of identifiable dead people. To investigate the ways in which bodily continuity is important to identity, he'd interviewed people who'd changed sex.

The self, he argues, does exist, but it's not what we take it to be, and it's in this sense that it is an illusion - the ego trick. This seems to me to approach from a different angle the idea that the self is what the Danish science journalist and mathematician Tor Nørretranders has called 'the user illusion', by analogy with the 'desktops' and 'folders' and so on through which we operate computers. We no more see the workings of our minds than we see the workings of our computers. Instead, we see icons on the screen. As one of my characters put it: 'All is analogy, interface; the self itself has windows, the sounds and pictures in our heads the icons on a screen over a machine, the mind.' By windows he, and I, meant Windows.

One of the many interesting aspects of science fiction (SF) is that through it you can not only conduct such philosophical thought experiments, but experience them in imagination, through stories. Someone unfamiliar with SF might be a little taken aback by a novel opening with: 'He woke, and remembered dying.' How (assuming it's intended to be literal) does that even make sense? SF readers, I'm sure, took it in their stride, but it may be worth spelling out the assumptions they'd have brought to the sentence.

In a world where computers are familiar, we know what it means to take a back-up of a computer's memory. Imagine it was possible to take a back-up of the contents of our brains (which it isn't, and may never be, but suppose). What if we were to flip the Locke/Leibniz question, and ask how we'd feel knowing that someone with all our present memories and dispositions, and a body that was a clone of our own, would walk the Earth (or another world) after we had died? Would you think, 'Wow, I'm going to live again!'? Would you think, 'Well, lucky for so-and-so, but that doesn't really help me'? Or would you think: 'Well, that's tough on the poor clone, denied a life of its own and saddled with my memories.'? If we knew we were about to die (but with all our faculties intact) would we feel relieved when the nurse or technician placed the mind-recording apparatus on our brow? Or knowing we'd sensibly made one of our own regular back-ups a couple of weeks ago?

I've imagined these situations, and others yet more bizarre, in that novel (The Stone Canal) and later in Newton's Wake, and of course I'm not the only one and far from the first. I don't know of an earlier example than John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) but there must be some. In another medium, other questions of identity are played with in the film Total Recall, based on a Philip K. Dick story. don't let Arnie's muscles fool you: that film is worth a philosophy seminar. Years ago I and my daughter had a long discussion of it on the bus, and some of the conclusions we came to went into my novel.

My daughter was with me at Baggini's session - we're both big fans of his books - and we posed some of these questions to him at the signing. He answered helpfully and cheerfully, and sent us away still talking. I hadn't asked him the question I should have, about the bundle theory. The first time I looked at my daughter, when she was less than an hour old, I was sure there was a person looking back, and I'm sure it's the same person still. But I didn't ask how that could be.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Found in Translation

This year we have invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is Ken MacLeod who came to see A Tribute to Sorley MacLean on Wednesday 24 August. Ken is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.
 
After enjoying the 'Nothing but the Poem' event on Sorley MacLean, I couldn't miss Wednesday's major session on his work at the Book Festival, marking the centenary of his birth. Again the event was packed and all the tickets sold out; again the proportion of Gaelic speakers in the audience was low, and again the audience was mainly of an older rather than a younger generation. Aptly enough, a great deal of the discussion concerned the 'doube-edged sword' of translation and the parlous situation of the Gaelic language.

Chaired by Mark Wringe, the panel featured Scots language scholar Derrick McClure, who has translated MacLean's Dàin do Eimhir as Sangs tae Eimhir; Peter Mackay, journalist, poet, and author of a new biography and critical introduction (2010); and novelist, poet and scholar Christopher Whyte, who has recently published the first complete text of An Cuilithionn (The Cuillin) as MacLean wrote it in 1939, and has with Emma Dymock produced a forthcoming (October 2011) Collected Poems.

Here are a few notes from what they said.

The outstanding Gaelic poet of the 20th century, MacLean is far more widely read in English than in his native Gaelic. This results in complex problems. Hearing him in Gaelic without understanding the language can convey what's lost in all translations - the music of the original - but it can lead to reading and hearing him as a traditional bard, whereas for a Gaelic speaker what is remarkable is how non-traditional, innovative and radical his use of the language is. You don't expect in a Gaelic poem an invocation of the Red Army as a response to the Clearances.

Self-translation, from a minority language into the language that has defeated and marginalised it, is never innocent - it's done under pressure. And MacLean's self-translations are not always in themselves poems. Translating him into Scots means using the resources of that language, its spiky sound and harsher rhythm, to make a poem that can stand beside the original. MacLean's work has bought Gaelic fifty years of life, but the language can only survive in conversation with other languages.

The event was itself a fine example of that necessary conversation.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Transport yourself back to Charlotte Square Gardens









If, like us, you’re suffering from the post-festival blues, you might be pleased to hear that we lovingly recorded many of this year’s events, and we’ll be making the recordings available to listen to online so that we can all re-live a little bit of Book Festival magic.

The first recordings are available now, on the media gallery section of our website. Listen to Caitlin Moran chatting about what it means to be a 21st century woman, Alasdair Gray talking about why he draws the people he loves, Pamela Stephenson-Connolly discussing sex and dancing, and the lovely Neil Gaiman in conversation with equally lovely Audrey Niffenegger. You can also find the recordings on itunes.

And that's just for starters. We’ll be adding new recordings every few days plus video recordings and more photographs so keep checking our media gallery for updates.

Monday, 5 September 2011

What's unnatural?

This year we invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is by Ken MacLeod who came to see one of the popular Book Festival debates on the topic of Natural versus Unnatural. Ken is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.

On Tuesday evening I went to the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum's second debate, Natural v Unnatural: The Strange Business of Making People. Held in the Speigeltent beneath roaring downpours and above a rising miasma from the mud under the floorboards, the event was packed out. Chaired by Sarah Parry, the panel featured the Forum's Director Steve Yearley, science writer Philip Ball, and designer, writer and artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. (Last year, Daisy and her colleague James King took a week-long Visiting Fellowship at the Forum, amazing us all with their imaginative designs for future applications of synthetic biology.)

Philip Ball, who had spoken at the Festival earlier that day on his new book Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People, kicked off the discussion by pointing out that 'natural versus unnatural' is not a dichotomy of categories but a moral judgement with its roots in the medieval concept of 'natural law', as expounded by Thomas Aquinas. In antiquity, contra naturam was a neutral term for anything, good or bad, that forced an object or process to go against its natural course: a hoist was unnatural because it countered that natural inclination of weight to fall. The moral concept that contravening 'natural law' was wrong is still the basis of Roman Catholic opposition to assisted conception including IVF, as well as to contraception and homosexuality - all of which separate the sexual act from its 'natural purpose' of procreation.

But today 'unnatural' can also express a secular condemnation, of disturbing 'the balance of nature' as well as of new reproductive technologies. God has been reimagined as Nature. Although few now see IVF as 'unnatural' in this sense, old anxieties continue to haunt our debates.

Daisy Ginsberg explained that she was an architect, who had at first investigated genetic engineering because she felt uncomfortable about it. Since then she has taken part in several sci-art projects, including actual genetic engineering of bacteria, but she still feels some of that unease. We need, she said, a new cultural and design language to classify life that is the product of human design, and even a special place for them on the tree of life: The Synthetic Kingdom. We need to evolve the idea of design as we prepare to design evolution.

Steve Yearley argued that while both Philip and Daisy had referred to the notion of unnatural as a conservative force, and one that becomes outflanked and outdated by experience (as with IVF), it has had a different and more successful dynamic in environmental debates. We've now reached the stage where the unintended consequences of human action are a greater source of fear than the forces of nature, and we don't have 'moral experts' to call on. In a secular society we may think bishops are nice to have around, but they aren't the founts of moral guidance they once were - and bioethicists can be just as ungrounded in their pronouncements as the bishops.

A lively discussion followed, to the sound of rain hammering on the roof. One final question was whether we should be sceptical of climate change, and Steve answered that by saying that the sceptical arguments are repetitious and don't add new and surprising knowledge, whereas the climate scientists keep coming up with unexpected and powerful discoveries.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Reading in one language and hearing in another

This year we have invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is Ken MacLeod who came to see one of our Nothing But the Poem events. Ken is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.

I'm a native non-speaker of Gaelic: my parents spoke the language to others and to each other, but not to us. Many parents must have done the same, stopping the transmission of the language dead in its tracks. No doubt they had the best of intentions. As I once wrote about the background to all this, the story is peculiar and contorted. That story leaves me with very mixed feelings about attempts to revive the language by such expedients as road-signs. But I love hearing it spoken.

I went along to Thursday's Nothing but the Poem event, chaired by Robyn Marsack, Director of the wonderful Scottish Poetry Library, a great place and (like Robyn herself) a good friend of the Forum, for which it has hosted several successful events. The topic of the day was two poems by Sorley MacLean. The Writers' Retreat tent was packed out with about seventy people. Robyn said she'd only expected the dozen or so who turn up for such events of close reading at the Poetry Library. Sheets were handed out of the two poems: The Cry of Europe and Dogs and Wolves, each with an English rendering by MacLean and a poetic translation by Iain Crichton Smith. We had the privilege of hearing Dr Niall O'Gallagher read the poems in Gaelic. The rhyme and rhythm and associations of these originals came across strongly even to those of us, all but a handful in the room, who didn't understand a word.

Niall and Robyn led the discussion, which was - like the poems themselves - wide-ranging and intense. There's something about the concentration that's quite invigorating. The SPL has two more 'Nothing but the Poem' events at the Book Festival, and yet more in its regular programme. No preparation or previous knowledge is assumed, so the whole atmosphere is open and welcoming, but at the same time you can explore a poem in surprising depth. If you have any interest in poetry you should give them a try.

Born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Ken has been a full time writer since 1997 authoring thirteen novels, including The Star Fraction (1995) and Intrusion (forthcoming, 2012), plus many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. In 2009 he was a Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum. Learn more from Ken’s blog The Early Days of a Better Nation.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Covers to covet

Here at the Book Festival we love books. Of course we do. But it’s not just what’s inside that matters - we think that some book covers are pretty special too. Here is a small selection of some of our favourite covers from books that have featured in the Festival this year.













































































































Just my type

This year we have invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is Toni Freitas who came to see Simon Garfield. Toni is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.

 
Do you know what your font choice says about you? Have you ever really thought what people might feel when they read a letter or email that you have typed without considering the font? Do you just use the default setting? Or have you carefully chosen your font?

On Friday 19 August the Edinburgh International Book Festival hosted Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type. You might think a presentation and discussion about fonts would be quite a geeky, specialist talk, but you would be wrong! Fonts influence our lives every day: every email, billboard, newspaper article, junk flier through your mail slot, and wedding invitation you read has used a font that, no matter how subconsciously, evokes an emotional response.

Simon gave a fantastic presentation, giving examples of the stories about fonts that he tells in his book. He even interviewed Sir Paul McCartney. What does Sir Paul have to do with fonts? Just think of that particularly long ‘T’ in the Beatles logo. And did choosing Gotham as THE font for his campaign get Barack Obama elected President? Read Just My Type for the full story.

This event made me really think about how much fonts influence our lives. You may not be able to name more than two or three fonts (Times New Roman, Arial, and Helvetica perhaps) but you will feel something when you see a font. How does this make you feel? For example, Comic Sans may be the most controversial and emotional of all. There are campaigns and documentaries about Comic Sans; many want to ban the font from the world, others think it is the greatest font out there. You can also take someone back in time by using fonts that are iconic of the 1920’s or the 1960’s or a Ye Olde English font.

Many of the world’s biggest brands have logos that don’t have any symbols, but rather an iconic font that is recognised by everyone. Just think Coca-Cola or Disney, or even Gap. I’m sure you can instantly conjure up what these logos/fonts look like. These companies and thousands more know how fonts can make people feel. You may be aware of the furore that Gap encountered when it tried to change its logo in October 2010. ‘Tried’ being the operative word; after only one week, the company ‘listened’ to the public, who resoundingly ridiculed the change, and reverted back to its original logo/font. Many companies have run into outcries due to font choice. The London 2012 Olympics is another one everyone loves to disparage. (It took me two days to figure out that the shapes in the background were supposed to read ‘2012’.)

More things I learned from Simon Garfield: do you know why the phrase ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’ exists? It’s a pangram used by typesetters and font makers to display all the letters of the alphabet. Ironically, thanks to YouTube, there is now actually a video of that very thing happening.

But more than anything, I learned that fonts aren’t to be taken lightly. When writing anything, I certainly don’t want to choose a font that someone may find offensive, or even worse, boring! So do you have a favourite font? Or is that pull-down box at the top of your Word document gathering dust? Go on, you know you want to play around…And if those don’t satisfy your font craving then there are thousands of fonts out there on the internet just waiting to be downloaded.

If you were a font, what font would you be?


As the Events Manager at ESRC Genomics Forum, Toni Freitas is responsible for conferences, exhibitions, seminars, workshops and public lectures. Originally from Washington State, USA, Toni has a Masters in Creative Writing and has had several short stories and poems published.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The best of Asian literature showcased at the Book Festival

On Thursday the Book Festival hosted some of the best writers from Asia including Chinese authors Chan Koonchung and Bi Feiyu, as well as Tabish Khair and Manu Joseph from India. 

During his event in the Writer’s Retreat, Chan Koonchung reflected on the work of creatives in contemporary China, commenting that ‘many writers are able to work within the limits of censorship and produce very good novels’. He went on to describe how many journalists ‘rush the yellow light’ before alerting the red light of the state, particularly in journalism.

The author later answered questions about his novel The Fat Years. Set in China in the year 2013 at a time when one month of official records have gone missing, The Fat Years has not yet been officially published in mainland China, but it has been circulated as a PDF download for the past year or so, causing great interest amongst Chinese intellectuals. The author said that the English translation was 99.9% accurate from the original and praised his translator Michael S Duke for doing such a great job.

The topic of translation was discussed again in the Voices of Asian Literature event, with three authors shortlisted for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, including the winner Bi Feiyu. Indian author Manu Joseph, whose novel Serious Men was written in English, joked that ‘I have even been translated into American!’. The three authors discussed the influence of their mother tongues and traditional languages on their writing with chair and co-founder of Jaipur Literary Festival Namita Gokhale. Author of The Thing About Thugs, Tabish Khair described how his writing has been influenced by European literature, ‘especially Russian literature’. All three writers commented on the growing importance of Asian literature and the attention it is receiving through events such as the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is part of the Word Alliance of literary festivals, along with the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

This weekend the Book Festival will host China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gao Xingjian who won the prize for his novel Soul Mountain, and Costa shortlisted writer Aatish Taseer who will be appearing in an event with Libyan novelist Hisham Matar

The Museum of Acquired Authors’ Artefacts

If you’ve visited the Book Festival signing tent in the last few days you may have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of our unique pop-up museum. Only one shelf in size, it was, for a brief time, home to a small but precious collection of author ephemera. Our photographer managed to capture it, before it was gone…















The entire collection - small but perfectly formed












Exhibit A: Sarah Brown's wine glass

















Exhibit B: Arlene Phillips's herbal tea

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Debate: The future of culture

Our popular debate series looks at familiar things that we often take for granted but which are threatened by change. Our reporter Charlotte sat in on the recent debate exploring culture, and the challenges it faces in the future. 

The participants were:

Robert Levine – Author Free Ride
Sam Leith – Former Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph
Claire Armitstead – The Guardian’s Literary Editor
Chaired by Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday

The Chair, Stuart Kelly, opened the debate by declaring that the entire panel agreed that there was a future for culture. 

 
How will creators create?

Kicking off, Robert Levine examined the culture business, its rises and its declines. In the past ten years the music business has been cut by half and film budgets have suffered dramatically especially those of small and medium sized movies. Book budgets also are decreasing as are cable TV and newspapers. Whilst online distribution is growing, it doesn’t pay well and Levine doesn’t believe it ever will.
 
All of these declines won’t kill culture but will change it, says Levine. New emerging forms of culture include blogs and multi-level video games but he cautions against crowd sourcing as the only form of innovation. 


The internet as a cultural medium

When Sam Leith took up the debate baton he announced that the internet is the greatest and most powerful medium for the communication of culture. He also claimed that there is more entertainment and more entertaining entertainment (yep it was a mouth full!) than ever before, citing the example of printed books as objects of beauty which are becoming increasingly valuable and not competing against electronic reading devices.
 
Acknowledging that music was the first industry to experience the negative consequences of the internet, Leith continued by noting that the internet is helping to revive communal TV viewing through Twitter and reality TV shows. Multi-player games are spaces for people to be creative and 3D is the next big thing. The constraints of the 350 page book or the three minute pop song no longer exist and Leith believes that ‘culture will find a way’.


The role of the cultural critic

Claire Armitstead argued that all art is an act of transmission. She said that the critic lies between the reader and the buyer, and that whilst this hasn’t changed, there is a new model emerging. Young people have an expectation to receive culture for free, often downloading music and films for no fee, and many people who download material will then write short critiques on websites such as Rotten Tomatoes.
 
She described a new phenomenon in literary circles called fanfiction. These are websites where avid readers of fiction develop their own storylines for established characters, and fellow fanfic writers comment on the newly created storylines. Armistead believes we are the generation of the self educated, that criticism is art and will never go away. 

 
Questions from the floor
 
The questions from the floor generated some interesting discussion. Regarding the relationship between state funding and the production of art Robert Levine called for wider low-level investment in new artists, to help them grow into success stories. Whilst Claire Armitstead believes that poetry needs targeted funding.
 
One audience member asked if we would ever leave our homes again in search of culture. In response Leith noted that there has been a huge return to public performance citing the recent rise in book festivals and music bands touring.
 
Robert Levine later commented that whilst people can make niche art and get it to an audience through the internet, we may end up losing mass culture reference points in the future. Leith said ‘the internet connects us all, our experience of community is changing’ explaining that although you may not know the names of your neighbours, you may have Skype friends in South Korea who share your interests.
 
To close the debate Stuart Kelly asked the panel – if you could change one thing what would it be? Levine called for investment in creating awareness around the cost of creating culture – that just because something is available for free doesn’t mean that it was free to create. Leith asked for audiences to be more grateful, to enjoy what we have and not lament over what is missing. Whilst, Armitstead called for greater investment in the education of children, because they are the future of culture.
 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Nothing beats a nice cup of tea… and a beautiful surprise gift

Over the past few months a number of mysterious and beautiful paper sculptures crafted from the leaves of books have appeared at various literary locations across Edinburgh.

Today we were astonished to discover not one, but two of these wondrous creations in Charlotte Square Gardens.

One sculpture – a gift for the Book Festival
was found in our signing tent. Shaped like a tea cup and cup cake it bears the truism 'Nothing beats a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and a really great book'.


 































The other masterpiece appeared in our entrance tent and was left there for the lovely folk at Edinburgh City of Literature.



 



















There has been much speculation about the origins of these beautiful creations. Despite the fact that the Book Festival was buzzing with people today, nobody witnessed the sculptures being left and so, for now at least, the mystery continues. All we do know is that we’re delighted to be the lucky recipient of such a unique and extraordinary gift.

 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A long lunch, with Simon Hoggart

Simon Hoggart is the Guardian's parliamentary sketchwriter. Last week he came to Edinburgh to talk about his memoir, A Long Lunch, which charts his career observing the daily workings of Westminster. We sent Charlotte along…

Originally Simon Hoggart wanted to call his new book Booze, but his clever wife persuaded him that A Long Lunch might be more apt. Revealing a passion for wine drinking, Simon recounted amusing stories with famous authors and politicians, often making fantastic impressions of his subjects. The audience lapped it up, responding with laughter and cheering woops at the saucier tales.

After university Hoggart became a journalist with the Guardian newspaper in Manchester before moving to their Irish base some years later. Following three years in Ireland he requested relocation to London and, in particular, to the politics department where he is today. Through his work he has met every Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan. 

Delivered with impeccable comic timing, Hoggart spoke of many different amusing incidences, such as the time when prolific poet W H Auden sat in his family kitchen and discussed in detail the greatness of Kenwood mixers with his mother. 

Another anecdote was set at the Westminster press gallery Christmas party, where the children of journalists and from the nearby school were invited and the guest of honour was Margaret Thatcher. There was a young boy crying in the corner. The then Prime Minister asked the child what was wrong, to which the boy replied: ‘They’ve given me blancmange, and I don’t like blancmange.’ to which Thatcher responded: ‘That’s what parties are all about, eating food you don’t like.’.

When questions opened to the floor, Simon revealed that phone hacking is very wide spread, especially in the tabloids. He questioned if the MPs were using it as revenge for the expenses scandal and believes that it could eventually collapse the entire Murdoch empire as we know it. 

Hoggart ended the event with a detailed description of David Cameron’s bald spot, comparing it to a goujon of plaice from Marks and Spencer, much to the amusement of the audience.




Monday, 22 August 2011

Art and artifice

This year we have invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is by Pippa Goldschmidt who came to see Philip Ball. Pippa is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.


I went to Philip Ball’s talk based on his book ‘Unnatural’, about the fears and myths provoked by the processes of creating life through assisted conception, such as IVF.

Ball listed eight myths of what he called ‘anthropoeia’, the art of making people, and showed how those myths are frequently based on anxieties about the nature of human identity itself. If we have dismissed the idea of a soul as a physical entity, then how do we define our so-called uniqueness? Where does humanity enter the scientific process?

There are of course different ways of ‘artificially’ creating life, probably a continuum from the low-tech turkey-baster approach, to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis; where embryos created by IVF are screened for genetic disorders. And different myths attach to different processes. Some relate to the anxieties about the process apparently replacing the ‘natural’ method, as articulated by the Catholic Church’s claim that artificial insemination turns the domestic home into a ‘biological laboratory’. Others are concerned about the genetic content of people created through these processes. If their DNA has been manipulated, are they real people? What is the status of clones?

It’s clear that literature has been one of the most powerful ways of rehearsing and expressing these fears, but often the literature is more nuanced that its popular representation. Countless media stories about IVF invoke Frankenstein, but Ball argued that the main message of the book is often lost; the Creature is at his most human and gentle when he is living near and interacting with humans. And the Scientist is at his most inhumane when he is isolated from other people. It’s in the immaterial relations with each other that our humanity exists, not in the chemical formulations of DNA, or the processes by which we are created.

Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit her website for more information www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Backstage at the Book Festival: The Event Tent

Beyond the bookshops, the decking and the venue tents, there is a whole world of backstage nooks and corners that we use to keep the Festival running smoothly.

One of these spaces is known as the Event Tent, and it's the central hub of activity in Charlotte Square Gardens during Festival time. The Event Tent is the first tent to go up before the Festival site is built, and it’s the last to come down at the end. It’s where we keep much of the stuff we need for the daily running of the Festival (exciting things like ladders, tools and vacuum cleaners) and it’s also home to lots of us Festival staff when we're not busy looking after authors and customers elsewhere on site.

If you thought that working at the Book Festival was glamorous, take a peek at these exclusive pics of the Event Tent to get a glimpse of what it's really like...

The hot desks. We're not quite sure why they're called that, because they're in a tent in Scotland so never actually hot. They are however, conveniently located next to the window which is great for sneaking a look at passing authors whist checking your email (or writing a blog post).
The coat rail - essential for storing the variety of outdoor clothing required for working in the random Scottish weather.




Snacks! An Event Tent essential. (And not just any old snacks, but homemade snacks, our favourite kind.)



The relaxation corner. Notice how empty it is. Also, please take note of the beautiful artwork (by an anonymous artist) on the whiteboard to the right of the picture, drawn especially to match the furniture.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Silence goes faster backwards

This year we have invited a number of guest bloggers to write about the Book Festival. Today’s post is by Pippa Goldschmidt who came to see Tom McCarthy. Pippa is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team.


It seemed appropriate to go and listen to Tom McCarthy talk about Orpheus, the first poet, on the opening day of the festival. Actually, this was more of an audio-visual event than a straightforward talk. The author of the Man Booker Prize short-listed ‘C’ and founder of the semi-fictional International Necronautical Society showed clips from Cocteau’s film Orphée, as well as a video of Kraftwerk performing their song ‘Antenna’.

The Orpheus myth (one of the oldest of the Greek myths) tells how Orpheus was the first poet and musician, making the animals and trees dance to his music. After his wedding to Eurydice and her subsequent death, Orpheus goes down to Hades to fetch her back to the land of the living. He is allowed to do so, on condition that as he leads her away, he doesn’t turn back to see if she is following him (perhaps a reminder to him that he is not in control). But as they make their way up to the surface, Orpheus starts to doubt if Euridice is following him, and turns to look. That backward glance banishes her down to Hades, and Orpheus, having remorsefully foresaken all other women, is torn from limb to limb and his remains scattered over the land and sea.

So, according to McCarthy, what we do when we create poetry is gather up the pieces and broadcast them again in a never-ending cycle of reception and transmission. Even the word ‘broadcast’ has its roots in agricultural practice; it means the spreading of seed.

Cocteau’s Orphée shows the poet being inspired by listening to messages from the dead transmitted over the radio, illustrating McCarthy’s point that transmission and reception of poetry and literature are symmetrical events; the idea that writers create something out of thin air is more of a myth than the Orpheus story. Rilke’s writing  ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ in a single month is a classic example of the poet channelling rather than creating from a vacuum.

And, although McCarthy didn’t mention this, perhaps we also know this from physics. The same antenna can be used to transmit radio waves as well as receive them. A couple of years ago, the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, normally used to receive information from stars and galaxies, was used to transmit poems to the Moon.

At one point, the talk was interrupted by a deafening roar from planes overhead, taking part in the Tattoo. Pure noise, or pure transcendence; it seemed appropriate.


Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit her website for more information www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Debate: The End of Money?

Our popular debate series looks at familiar things that we take for granted but which are threatened by change. Our reporter Charlotte sat in on Monday's debate which explored the theme of money

Globally, countries are experiencing troubling financial times; worryingly this includes the USA, UK, Greece and Italy. On Monday evening the Book Festival took the time to question the future of money in its current form, and if we may in fact be nearing the end of money. Esteemed Scotsman Executive Editor Bill Jamieson chaired the debate with participating authors Ian Morris, Stephen Armstrong and Julie Hill.

Money will be redundant
Ian Morris proposed that presently money has three main uses: the medium of exchange, a unit of account and a score of value. Morris, who wrote Why the West Rules-For Now, went on to argue that we won’t need money in the future because the human body is fusing with machinery. Soon we will all pay for things, communicate and even surf the web by a silicon chip implanted in our arm or head. According to Morris the Six Million Dollar Man has become a reality but will cost a lot more than six million dollars. The roles that money currently has will be redundant in the future.

Price is the problem
While Stephen Armstrong wasn’t particularly impressed with Morris’ argument he agreed it was a true vision in science fiction. According to Armstrong, who wrote The Super-Rich Shall Inherit the Earth, price is the issue, not money, and in particular the price of debt is a huge problem for America and the UK. Stephen urged us to move towards a dawn of thoughts exchange and said that in order to to reach this place without money we need to remove the current price differential. Armstrong commented: ‘The feral rich won’t pay taxes and the feral poor can’t pay taxes’.

An issue of resources
Julie Hill, famed for her book The Secret Life of Stuff, didn’t agree with either gentleman. Hill believes that so far we have failed to price resources, particularly the natural ones that underpin our economy. Looking towards the future Hill is concerned that there won’t be sufficient natural resources for basic sanitation and food for our ever-growing population by 2050, and questioned what money will mean to us if we don’t have the natural resources to provide the solution.

Questions from the floor
Encouraged by floor questions the panel went on to discuss many of the issues relating to the influence of money today, and how we could perhaps move towards an equal society. Armstrong advocated that there is often less trouble in countries with higher wages and suggested that to help us become more equal we could raise the present UK wage bill. Hill commented that, although the health and science of a country was often linked to income disparity, the fear of crime often strengthened relationships with many poor societies rating themselves very happy and content because of their solid family and social interactions. 

The audience questioned the role of corporations in the end of money. Ian Morris believed that corporations as we know them presently will disappear in the future because the huge engines of economic growth will not be needed when we have implanted silicon chips inside our bodies. Armstrong highlighted that we should be more concerned with private equity funds than corporations because they are wealthy investors that buy businesses cheap and sell them on for high profits. Additionally they help to finance political parties and don’t have to bow to public demands. Most importantly the private equity funds pay little or no tax which will not help debt reduction. 

So What does the end of money mean?
To end the debate a brave audience member asked the panel: ’What does the end of money mean?’ Ian Morris stated: ‘if technology continues to advance why would we need money if we are living on a super technology highway?’ and claimed that, in many ways, we are already there. When we buy things on our mobiles or the web money is moving from buyer to seller conceptually, not physically. Julie Hill believes that the implications of creating a cashless economy would be enormous.