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The fruitcake at the centre of the Galaxy

The fruitcake at the centre of the Galaxy

Fruitcake at the centre of the galaxy?

I stumbled across a Guardian article recently on astronomers’ research into amino acids in interstellar space – yeah, I know, sounds pretty dry even for a sci-fi writer. However, my persistence was rewarded when I got a bit further in and got to the wonderful line ‘…they failed to find evidence for amino acids, they did find a substance called ethyl formate, the chemical responsible for the flavour of raspberries. …it also smells of rum.

So, while astronomers still haven’t found evidence of sentient life on other worlds, there may well be fruitcake. After that, there is no form of sci-fi that can be considered too weird.

For me, that was one of those moments of sitting and chortling at my screen and realising that no, you really can’t make this shit up. A flash-fic about the fruitcake at the centre of the galaxy was a bit too far out even for me, but if you feel inspired, go for it and please drop me a link in the comments. Somewhere, the ghost of Douglas Adams is having a field day with that one.

“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” ~Sir Arthur Eddington (probably)

There is of course an argument to be made (right, yes, my characters make it too) that the first reaction of any sentient species to humanity on Earth would be GTFO, and that’s why the hunt for other lifeforms in the galaxy has so far met with such a complete no-show. That, or possibly they’re all busy filling up on fruitcake.

Twelve Days of Christmas

Twelve Days of Christmas

The twelve days of Christmas

In the beginning, there’s the celebrated date of the birth of Jesus.

After various calendar changes (don’t take my word for it, but you can start your own look-see here), a big meeting sometime in 300 AD when a big group of men decided which bits should and shouldn’t end up in the actual Bible, etc., etc. (no, not kidding, type ‘Council of Nicaea’ into your search bar…), that birth is now celebrated by those who want to on 25th December every year. Sources disagree on the actual day and even the year of Christ’s birth (nope, still not kidding…), but, like the Queen of England, he has an official birthday, and that day is the 25th December.

Twelve days later (you see where this is going?) there’s the 6th of January, variously known as Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany (list is not exhaustive).

Basically, Mary got pregnant with Jesus, for the sake of argument without any help from the opposite sex whatsoever, gave birth, and twelve days late for that birth, three guys showed up with presents. Really practical things, like frankincense and myrrh. Probably explains a lot about how they managed to be twelve days late for the actual event – that, or it’s one of the earliest documented occurrences of men refusing to ask for directions.

So the twelve days of Christmas, traditionally, actually run from 25th (or 26th) December to the 5th or 6th January. Also traditionally (North Americans, cover your eyes and close the browser here), Christmas decorations go up on Christmas Eve (24th December) and come down again 5th or 6th January.

There are also countries where the gifts are not given on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but happen on Three Kings’ Day – because that’s when the three (probably not lost, honest), (allegedly wise) men showed up and handed over their gifts.

Personally, I’m enjoying the jokes that fly around this time of the year about three wise men being the original oxymoron… but I digress.

So that’s the short story behind the Twelve Days of Christmas. There’s also a rather nice carol called the Twelve Days of Christmas (I still have no idea what partridges have to do with it, but eh). Lyrics below.

On the first day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the second day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the third day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the fourth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the fifth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the sixth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the seventh day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Seven Swans a Swimming
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the eighth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Eight Maids a Milking
Seven Swans a Swimming
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the ninth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Nine Ladies Dancing
Eight Maids a Milking
Seven Swans a Swimming
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the tenth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Ten Lords a Leaping
Nine Ladies Dancing
Eight Maids a Milking
Seven Swans a Swimming
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the eleventh day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
Eleven Pipers Piping
Ten Lords a Leaping
Nine Ladies Dancing
Eight Maids a Milking
Seven Swans a Swimming
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

On the twelfth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
12 Drummers Drumming
Eleven Pipers Piping
Ten Lords a Leaping
Nine Ladies Dancing
Eight Maids a Milking
Seven Swans a Swimming
Six Geese a Laying
Five Golden Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

No New Year’s resolutions, no regrets

No New Year’s resolutions, no regrets

No New Year’s resolutions?

Nope. Nary a one. I’m an irresponsible creature and I hate resolver’s regrets, so about this time in the year I pick a comfy patch of sofa and settle down with a cup of tea to gloat about all the awesome shit I did get done in the past year.

So, this year, feel free to bring-your-own teacup and settle down with me for an organised gloat-in.

2018 was pretty chaotic for me. In my day job, I changed bosses three times, got sent to the UK for a few days, my entire department moved offices, I got promoted, and now have someone reporting to me (or, as I could say, doubled the size of my team).

In terms of writing, I published my very first urban fantasy novel, Death is for the Living, on 26th December, and so far it’s attracted four- and five-star reviews, which I’m pretty happy about, as I’m primarily a sci-fi writer. I now have a row of five books in my shelf that have my name on the spine, which gives me a daily ego boost (not that my ego needs the boosting). I’m hoping to make that six by the end of 2019. With the above-mentioned day job, one book per year tends to be about my limit; there are just too many days when I crawl home and fall face-down in my sofa at the end of the day to reliably manage more than that.

I’m also happy that despite a day job that flattens me on a reliable basis, I managed to read 180 books in 2018, and 41 of them were for-review books (you can check out my top picks if you’re looking for reading matter…).

I got away on holiday this year, and spent two weeks in Iceland, riding very small horses across waterfalls and lava fields, driving around the west coast and into the Westfjords, and basking in mineral hot springs.

So, overall, while I wouldn’t mind 2019 being a bit less crazy, overall 2018 was a pretty good year.

A different look at organised religion

A different look at organised religion

Organised religion = mass obsessive compulsive disorder?

It’s not a very popular opinion, granted. However, the similarities between certain practices and outcomes of organised religion and OCD keep hitting me.

Let’s jot down a definition of obsessive compulsive disorder, for those who have never experienced it or met someone with it. Per Psychology Today: “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations (obsessions) and engage in behaviors or mental acts in response to these thoughts or obsessions.”

Now let’s take a real-life example of religion in action.

I went to the grocery store this weekend, and got to the checkout. I was paying my bill, and noticed a gentleman standing about a metre off the far end of the checkout belt – about four metres away from me. For a few seconds, as I paid my bill, I thought he was just standing there chatting on a phone headset, and I just happened to be in his line of sight.

As my card was processing, I looked at him again. He was still staring at me, and muttering something along the lines of “There’s no room, I can’t come in.” I realised at this point that there was no very small phone headset I’d missed because it was the end of a long day: he wasn’t putting his groceries on the belt because that would have entailed approaching a woman. Goodness knows how he gets groceries under normal circumstances; my local Safeway’s checkout attendants are predominantly female.

So let’s look at that definition of OCD again. Anxiety disorder, in which the sufferer engages in acts that, to those who don’t share in their obsessions, appear to be irrational or even harmful. This man, due to his belief that approaching 50% of the human population is either forbidden or actively harmful to his chances of a pleasant afterlife, take your pick, was apparently unable to place his groceries on a checkout belt until all female presences had cleared the area. Sure enough, when I looked back from the exit, there he was, paying for his groceries (and still staring at me).

If you want another example, let’s take a look at the Catholic practice of self-flagellation. “Flagellation is the beating or whipping of the skin, most often on the back, and often drawing blood, as a bodily penance to show remorse for sin.” By and large, self-flagellation is practised by the extremely devout: the late Pope John Paul II, for example. (For a more pop-culture reference, see Opus Dei, most recently documented in the Da Vinci Code.) The practice is based in the belief that this life is simply a preparation for death and eternal life thereafter; suffer in this life, stock up brownie points for the next.

Now, I agree completely that some things that Catholicism defines as sins, let’s say murder, are pretty drastic. Some remorse is undoubtedly in order. However, do please raise your hand at this point if you’re aware of any cold cases pointing to the last Pope as a serial killer.

See again that definition of OCD. Because some individuals on the fundamentalist end of Catholicism believe that suffering now will give them a pleasant eternity after they die, they engage in acts that are actively self-harming, not merely offensive to those around them like my friend from the grocery store.

Someone’s going to say that socially-accepted misogyny and self-harm aren’t all there is to organised religion. I agree. I’ve known some exemplary folk who were very devout in one religion or another. My point is that the underlying practices overlap remarkably with a well-documented anxiety disorder. They’re, at root, a defence against fear.

Gender and genre

Gender and genre

Gender and Genre

…lying on my back on the library floor, staring blankly up at my bookshelves, I realised two things.

First: it’s not hoarding if it’s books; second, that I have a lot of series by female authors. Given all the unmitigated crap that occasionally hits the airwaves about ‘women ruining science-fiction’, and given the amount of sci-fi I read, it took me rather by surprise. I didn’t, in fact, set out to collect books written by women authors. Actually, if I’m completely honest, unless I’m looking for some more of someone’s work that I’ve already enjoyed, the author’s name tends to be about the last thing about a book that I look at.

Generally, if someone’s unwary enough to let me off my chain in a bookshop, my method of picking out books (yes, it’s never ‘a’ book, kindly don’t blaspheme) is to wander along the sci-fi and fantasy shelves, picking up random books that look interesting and reading the first few pages.

I like that first few pages, I buy the book – simple. If I like the rest of the book, when I’ve got it home and devoured it, then I’ll take notice of the author – so that I can go and see what else they’ve written, and hang out in their metaphorical garden hedges watching to see when the next book may come out. Yes, I author-stalk. (Rabia Gale, I’m looking at you. W. Clark Boutwell, you too.)

From my unexpected vantage point on the floor (I was trying to clean – don’t judge), for the first time in my life, I counted fingers and realised that, having used that method of book selection most of my life, I really do have a lot of books by women authors. C J Cherryh, Lilith Saintcrow, Anne MCaffrey, Dorothy Dunnett, Patricia Briggs, Rob Thurman, Michelle Sagara, Ann Aguirre, Laura Anne Gilman… I could keep going. I was almost relieved to come across half a shelf of Jack Campbell, a complete shelf and a half of Terry Pratchett (all hail Sir Terry), a clump of Jack Higgins, the full Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series, some Jim Butcher, a bit of Simon Green, and… yeah, I read a lot.

Basically, I like good writing, by which I mean a writing style that doesn’t make me roll my eyes on page one, characters that aren’t two-dimensional, and a plot that actually, well, has a plot. I don’t select my books based on the shape of the author’s genitalia. The correlation between gender and genre that seems to be so popular with most of society seems like an even bigger steaming pile when viewed from my position (on my library floor).

Something that pisses me off no end is the sheer number of individuals (insert epithets of choice here, I’m a dirty-word intellectual trying hard to keep my blog mostly PG) going around claiming that ‘men can’t write fantasy’ or ‘women can’t write science-fiction’. I call bullshit. J R R Tolkien, for example. C S Lewis. C J Cherryh, Octavia E Butler, Anne McCaffrey. I suffer violent urges when I read that J K Rowling is J K because someone told her that she’d sell fewer books as Joanne Kathleen Rowling.

I think at heart I feel that the only criteria that a book should be judged by is the quality of the writing. A good cover and a good blurb may well help to attract the reader’s attention, but ultimately, you can have the best cover in the world, and unless that excerpt makes me want to read more, you’re going back on the shelf…

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

“At full tilt” means flat out, at top speed, as fast as possible. Its origins don’t have anything to do with being unsteady, at an angle, or, indeed poker.

The term derives from the sport of jousting, or tilting (ever heard of ’tilting at windmills’?), and ‘at full tilt’ is believed to have first come into use as an expression in the mid-1600s. Common theories (check out etymonline.com for even more good stuff) are that it comes from either the practice of leaning in to meet the attack when jousting, or, conversely, from tilt or tent, referring to the flimsy barrier that separates the two riders when they joust.

Examples of ‘at full tilt’

I ran down the hill at full tilt.

We’re going to need to work at full tilt to get this done in time.

Is it still in common use? Depends who you ask. I’m a Millennial, and I use it; my parents’ generation certainly did. On the whole, it’s probably more likely to be used in British English than American English.

It’s one of those phrases you can use to hint at a character’s background in contemporary work such as a thriller – maybe your anti-hero is British and gives himself away with it, for example.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you can also adapt this type of expression. If (random example, honest) your invented culture includes people swinging on big metal balls hung from cranes, you’d use ‘at full swing’. (Oddly enough, ‘in full swing’ is another weird English idiom that I probably will be covering on another day.)

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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