A Welsh Garden

One of the things you can’t miss if you drive around here is that the Welsh Botanical Gardens are nearby. The road signs are very prominent. Last weekend I got to pay them a visit, and was well impressed.

Those of you who know me will be aware that I am not a gardener. Plants tend to keel over and die if they so much as see me coming. But the Welsh Botanical Gardens are much more than that. They are located in the grounds of the former Middleton Hall (now demolished), a stately home built with proceeds from the East India Company. The Middleton brothers, who originally built the mansion, all died on voyages to and from India, and the estate was purchased by one William Paxton, who had made a ridiculous fortune from being Master of the Mint in Bengal. Thankfully the estate is now owned by the nation, and is doing its best to admit to its colonial legacy.

The point about building a Botanical Gardens on the site of a country estate is that you have ridiculous amounts of space. So yes, there are ornamental gardens. There are also tree collections. In the back of the picture you can seen the dome of the giant greenhouse that has plants from as far away as Australia and Chile. And there is still ridiculous amounts of space. There are lots of walks, many of them around the landscaped lakes and rivers that were built for the estate. Some of these are wooded, and are now inhabited by faeries and, recently arrived, a Gruffalo. Others are out in the open and have magnificent views over the Tywi Valley. There’s a bird of prey centre too. And a rock garden containing rocks from the many different geologies of Wales. A bunch of Presceli blue stones have been carved with Celtic symbols and set in a ring, as is right and proper.

I can see myself spending a lot of time at this place. That will be primarily for the walks and views, but also communing with raptors.

At the beginning of April they will have a food and craft festival. I am hoping for interesting cheeses.

New From Luna Press

The lovely people at Luna Press Publishing have a new non-fiction collection on the way. This one is titled Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have an essay in it. As you can probably guess, it is about queer animals. You can read a bit about it here.

Obviously there will be many other essays in the book, all of them covering different aspects of worldbuilding, and doubtless most of them better than mine (if perhaps less funny). There are posts about some of them on the Luna Press blog, and more will be coming in due course.

New From Academia Lunare

The lovely folks at Luna Press Publishing have a new project underway. It is the 5th in their Academia Lunare series of non-fiction collections. You may remember that book #3 in the series, Gender and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, won a British Fantasy Award. Also book #4, The Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a finalist for this year’s British Science Fiction Association Awards. What’s more, the books have achieved these honours despite both having essays by me in them.

So, book #5. It is titled, Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction. As usual it has a stellar international cast of contributors, and me. You can find the full contents list and contributor bios here. My offering is titled, “Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender”. It is, of course, about queer animals, because if our natural world is full of outrageously queer behavior there is no reason why your invented world can’t be either.

Pre-orders will open sometime in the spring, and in the meantime Francesca will be doing the PR thing by releasing abstracts of the various essays to whet your appetites.

Also the CFP for book #6 in the series is now out. It will be titled, Not the Fellowship. Dragons Welcome. The idea is to write about one of the lesser characters from The Lord of the Rings. You can pick anyone except a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, including Smaug. I wonder how many proposals they’ll get arguing one way or the other about Tom Bombadill. Guess I’d better put my thinking cap on.

Farewell, Finland #GiveItUp125

It is time to leave Finland now, but before I got I want to share this photo. Otto, Paula, Irma and I were chilling in a cafe on a place called Women’s Island in Jyväskylä. While we were eating Paula spotted the little lady above watching us. You never see red squirrels in England these days, but they are still common in Finland.

I see that my fundraiser has been stalled on 45% all day. Hopefully that’s because you have all been too busy enjoying the Finnish content to pledge money. You can do so now. I’m going to answer the day’s work emails, then go to bed. I’ll see you all tomorrow in Virtual Canada.

More snow, eh?

Country Victoria in 1999 #GiveItUp125

Here are some photos from the trip that Kevin and I made following the World Science Fiction Convention in 1999. First up we have the Puffing Billy Railway, which made Kevin very happy.

And second, one of the best ways to get up close and personal with Australian wildlife, Healesville Sanctuary. (Sadly digital cameras back then had little in the way of zoom so these are the only good shots I have.)

As usual, click on any photo for a bigger image and slide show.

At Home With The Otters #GiveItUp125

In our tourism video Kevin and I talked about the wonders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I am particularly fond of the sea otters. Now that it is mid-afternoon in California they should be up and about. Here’s the live webcam.

The Aquarium has a number of webcams. If you prefer fins to paws, here’s the shark cam:

Up in the Sierras #GiveItUp125

I don’t have a lot of photos of my time in California because smartphones hadn’t been invented back then and digital cameras were still a bit dodgy. Also I seem to have spent most of my time photographing visits to science fiction conventions rather than tourist spots. However, there are a couple of records of tourist trips in Emerald City. This is one of them.

Kevin took me up into the Sierras to visit his mother. We timed to visit to coincide with a local Blues Festival, which I wrote about here. There are also photos here and here.

These days you can find good musicians on line, so here’s Craig Horton in action:

And here’s Steve Gannon:

Coronavirus – Day #29

Today has been a long day of recording and editing interviews. I am now mostly done with next week’s radio show. I just have to choose the music and link everything together.

Out in the wider world I understand that Krakatoa has erupted. However, I gather that it does this quite often. That’s a good thing for volcanoes. It stops them building up a head of pressure that will lead to a Very Big Bang. So Krakatoa having a bit of a moment does not mean another worldwide dust cloud. It means that having one in the near future, at least from that volcano, is now less likely.

Besides, if Gaia was really out to get us, She would have let lose with the Yellowstone supervolcano.

Here in the UK people have been wondering why the Home Secretary has been conspicuously absent from press briefings over the past few weeks. Today she was allowed to do the daily virus briefing. Now everone knows why she had been kept away from the public before. Bozo’s problem is that he knows he’s not actually very competent, so he surrounded himself with Cabinet ministers who are even less competent than his is. Now he’s in hospital and we are seeing just how bad his team is.

A Taste of the Wild

Red Deer Stag

In early April Kevin and I were due to take a vacation on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada. Obviously that won’t happen now, but I’ve mostly been able to have today off and I took the opportunity to catch up with the BBC’s 2017 wildlife series, Wild Ireland: The Edge of the World. Like Vancouver Island, Western Ireland exists on the north-eastern edge of a great ocean, and it too has a wonderful assortment of wildlife. This two-episode series has the usual focus on mating and murder, but it also has some absolutely stunning photography. There are gannets, puffins, dolphins, red deer, pine martens, basking sharks and much more. It is well worth a look.

The thing that really struck me, however, was a story. Years ago a group of men from the Blasket Islands were on their way home in their curraghs when they heard an unearthly sound coming up through the bottoms of their boats. One of the men was a musician, and that night he made a song that, as best as he was able, captured the sounds he had heard. It is called Port na bPúcaí (the song of the pookas) and it became a very popular slow air. Here it is:

For a long time this was assumed to be nothing more than a fairly tale, but now we have had the opportunity to study such music we know exactly what magnificent creatures made it, and what a good job that ancient Irishman made of reproducing their song.

Humpback whale

Today on Ujima – PapayaFest, Discrimination at Work, Fungi & Ellen Datlow

I did a radio show today. Here’s what went down.

I started out with a visit from my good friend Tamsin Clarke. We kept our clothes on this time. As you may recall, Tamsin is from Venezuela. She has been putting together a festival of Latinx culture called PapayaFest. It will feature Tamsin’s theatre productions and a great line-up of bands and DJs. Because Tamsin has such great topics for her plays we ended up talking about Simón Bolívar, matriarchal families and the current state of feminism in Latin America.

Next up I was joined by Karen and Erin from Bristol Law Centre. They have come up with an interesting new way of funding employment discrimination cases and they wanted to get the word out there. I was pleased to be able to point out what good work they do, and how necessary they have become because of the current government’s actions designed to make recourse to the law something that is only available to the very rich.

Guest three was my friend Esme who has got involved with mushrooms. They really are fascinating life forms, and most people have no idea how many types of fungi there are, or how crucial they are both to the ecosystem and to many modern industries. There will be a Fungus Day at Arnos Vale Cemetery on Saturday, which I’d be very tempeted to go along to if I wasn’t booked elsewhere.

And finally I ran part of the interview I did with Ellen Datlow at TitanCon. This extract includes how she got her job at Omni, what “best of the year” means, who is the only writer ever to have scared her, and why she once turned down a story by Margaret Atwood. The full interview will run in Salon Futura at the end of the month.

You can hear the whole show via Ujima’s Listen Again service here.

The playlist for this month’s show is as follows:

  • Simón Díaz – Caballo Viejo
  • WARA – Leave to Remain
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela – Hanuman
  • Elsa J – 9 to 5
  • Carlos Santana – Flor d’Luna
  • Janelle Monáe – Mushrooms & Roses
  • Sade – Nothing can come between us
  • Michael Jackson – Thriller

New BBC SF Audiodrama

Forest 404

Our local media in Bristol keeps an eye on what the local BBC offices are up to. Today they had news of a new science-fiction audiodrama. Forest 404 is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where forests no longer exist. The lead character, Pan, is a sound archivist who uncovers recordings of forest life from centuries before. She’s played by Pearl Mackie who will be best known to you as Bill Potts from Doctor Who.

The 27-part podcast series will also include, “factual talks from a range of speakers including musicians, bioethicists and anthropologists who guide the audience through the themes and issues the podcast presents.”

For more details, see Bristol 24/7.

Lobsters for Emojis

When I was at Trans Pride in Brighton I was rather confused by some people in the parade apparently dressed as lobsters, and carrying plastic lobsters, and flags with lobsters on them. I mean, I’m very fond of lobsters, but why at Trans Pride?

Being a good investgative jouralist, I looked for them in Brunswick Gardens and, having found their stall, asked them what this was all about. It turns out that it is all the fault of Google, Apple and Facebook. Bear with me.

Of course most things bad in the world are the fault of Facebook these days, but lobsters are not bad, and why Apple and Google as well? Well, because they are all voting members of an IT industry body called Unicode which is responsible, among other things, for regulating emojis.

You may have noticed that there are a lot of flags missing from the set of emojis available on your phone or tablet. There is no Welsh flag, for example. Almost as importantly for me, there is no trans flag. That would be very useful. Apparently it is one of the most commonly requested new emojis. But Unicode says there is no need for one.

And yet, when a small group of people petitioned Unicode for a lobster emoji, apparently on the grounds that having to use a shrimp or a crab would be confusing, this was quickly granted.

As a result, the lobster has become a symbol for the campaign for a trans flag emoji. And this, as the petition points out, is rather apt, because lobsters are one of the select group of creatures that can become gynandromorphs. That is, you can find lobsters that are male on one side of their body and female on the other side. Biology is way more complicated than the average anti-trans activist would like to admit.

So if you see me using a lobster emoji on Twitter in future, you will know what it means.

Ujima Today – Review of 2017

My first Ujima show of the year was today, which was also the first day we were back live on air after the holidays. Indeed, I was the first live show. I marked this by being half asleep as I had been kept awake most of last night by the storms. I do wish that the Jotun would manage to hold their New Year parties on the right night.

Anyway, as I didn’t expect that anyone would want to be a guest today, and there were no back office staff on duty, I decided to make the show a look back at 2017 and re-run some old interviews.

First up was the Sarah Pinborough interview from BristolCon 2016, which was totally 2017 news because last year was the year that Sarah changed from being a moderately successful writer of dark fantasy to a global superstar. Behind Her Eyes has sold over 100,000 copies each in paperback and ebook, and has been listed as one of the 100 top selling books of all kinds in the UK last year. Well done Sarah, I’m absolutely delighted for you. Can I come and stay with you when you buy your Caribbean island? 😉

Also in the first hour I re-ran my interview with D.B. Redfern of M-Shed about Doris the Pilosaurus, because there are still parents wondering what to do with the kids between now and school starting.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

The second hour began with a look back on the women’s cricket season with triumphs both for England and for Western Storm. That included interviews with Lisa Pagett and Stafanie Taylor.

Next up I re-ran my interview with anti-FGM campaigner and WEP parliamentary candidate, Nimco Ali.

And finally there was my interview with Nalo Hopkinson at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The music for today’s show was inspired partly by the New Year’s Eve shows on the BBC, and partly by the trip that Kevin and I made to New Orleans back in the days when I was allowed into the USA. The connection is the very fine Trombone Shorty & New Orleans Avenue who are this year’s discovery from my watching the Jools Holland Hootenanny.

  • The Beat – Mirror in the Bathroom
  • Trombone Shorty – Here Come the Girls
  • Cedric Watson – Zydeco Paradise
  • Preservation Hall Jazz Band – When the Saints Come Marching In
  • Jamil Sharif – On the Sunny Side of the Street
  • Chic – Rebels Are We
  • Liane la Havas – Midnight
  • Jamiroquai – Blow your mind

My next show will be on February 7th and will doubtless have an LGBT History focus.

Self-Fertilizing Fish

Every so often I come across a news article that is relevant both to trans science and science fiction. Yesterday was one of those magical days, because I discovered the existence of self-fertilizing fish.

I should probably go back a few stages here by way of explanation.

To start with there is the whole question of what we mean by “biological sex”. Fish do not share the same XX/XY chromosome system familiar from mammals. In fact there are a wide range of different biological mechanisms that fish use to differentiate sex. When I talk about the biological sex of a fish here I mean whether the fish produces eggs, fertilizes eggs, or both.

Readers in the UK are probably familiar with the recent episode of Blue Planet II in which David Attenborough’s team filmed a Sheepshead Wrasse in the process of changing sex. There are, in fact, many fish species that practice what is called Sequential Hermaphroditism, in which the animal is male for part of its life cycle and female for another part. The much loved Clown Fish from Finding Nemo is another example. These fish only exhibit one sex at any one time in their lives.

There are also many fish species that exhibit Simultaneous Hermaphroditism. That is, they are capable of producing eggs and fertilizing eggs. Some species of Sea Bass have these abilities, which is something worth pondering next time you eat one. However, these fish have to have sex with other, similarly hermaphroditic, fish in order to make baby fish. How else would genetic diversity be achieved, right?

However, there is one species of fish (well, more properly two closely related species) that can make babies by individuals having sex with themselves. Enter the spectacularly named Mangrove Killifish.

The killifish is pretty amazing on several levels. It can live in both fresh and salt water, and it can survive for up to two months on land. But self-fertilization is seemingly the most miraculous ability because surely all of the fish would be clones, so how would they evolve? Mutation doesn’t seem an adequate explanation.

However, it turns out that killifish come in two sexes: both and male. The males are very rare, but very popular. If a clone family of both-sex spots one they’ll seek him out and make lots of baby fish. In that way a certain amount of genetic diversity is maintained.

For those who are interested, there is more scientific detail here.

And for those of you thinking of interesting ideas to use in alien biology, have at it!