Visiting a museum of history, a lesson in historiography

Yesterday, after much nagging from son, we went to the Swedish Museum for Natural History, or Riksmuseet, as we call it locally.

To me that museum has always epitomized the dusty staid museum archetype. Best remembered from my childhood for it’s endless rows of weird yucky things in glass jars, a large room entered on a gantry to better view the evil-smelling sea life skeletons hung from the ceiling, and perhaps some display cases with stuffed animals (which could just as well be a visual memory from some other museum).
I also remember some mushroom exhibition, from when I was a bit older.
Anyway, on the general scale of museum experiences Riksmuseet rated somewhere among the bottom feeders, in company with my 80’s experience of the archaeological museum of Athens – talk about NOT being able to tell a story!

Nowadays it’s the Monster Museum, to son. Not because of some bleached artefacts in jars but because of the dinosaurs, which is but a small part of an exhibition telling the story of how life evolved on this planet, from the chemical stew to humans sawing off their own branch – most of which doesn’t interest a 7 year old boy.

The museum could get much better at their signage, so it was possible to get some hang of where to start, but all in all the main exhibitions are well made, and the building is in itself a museum artefact – a monumental Jugend (the strict Northern cousin of the flowery Art Nouveau) colossus, excelling in craftsmanship and detail, in a style reminiscent of the baroque ethos. In this, too, it could be labelled a Monster Museum, because it must be one of the grandest buildings in all of Stockholm, making a miniature of the Royal Palace, and it’s acreage in itself a monument to another time.

What they could do more of, considering their wast collections, dating from the mid-18th century and onwards, is a more thorough historiographical reflection. They do, in part, but it is shallow and sparsely commented – more a display of some objects, with notes added, than storytelling. To me the changing story of the explanation of ourselves and our surroundings is of an importance on par with the Story of Evolution because it tells us the tale of how human perception and customs – common sense – changes throughout time, and that these changing perceptions affect the interpretations of what we see around us; the story about ourselves and our place.

Perhaps that is too bold a demand, though, because it forces self-reflection. But it would be most interesting and an important lesson in the evolution of knowledge that should not be restricted to the few; it has a popular interest in that it adds an oft-neglected dimension to our knowledge-space, a dimension furthering understanding – scientific method displayed, as opposed to rote learning.

And that is, of course, what a Museum of Natural History should aim at. In my not so humble opinion.
And they definitely have the space and means needed to do it ;-)

More gratitude where that came from…

About a year and a half ago I wrote a post on that small word “gratitude”, and how I detest it. Yet again I found reason to vent on that topic and I decided that yes, I want to rant about it one more time.

Some concepts are worth that effort. Perhaps because they are seemingly innocuous while in reality they are poison.

The poisonous part of “grateful” and “gratitude” is that the concept implies helplessness; that humans are unable to affect or influence what happens around them; that we are subject to someone else’s impulses.

The idea is that we should sit and watch while our human rights, our honour and dignity are ripped off us; or be “grateful” when someone allows us a semblance of humanity.

The idea is that we should feel “grateful” that we live in a country where we can live in some kind of decency while damned be the buggers that have done something horrible so deserve to spend their lives in abject poverty.

I just simply detest the idea that we cannot and should not try to influence our living conditions and circumstances. It’s a slap in the face on every human effort, from the modest beginnings of agriculture to modern science. It’s a hoe of dung on the fights for equal rights, for justice.

To me the word “gratitude” is a container for all that.

So please don’t ask me to express “gratitude”, or to feel “grateful”. Ever.

Review: Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Some books are well nigh impossible to review. Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is one of them. My reason for this feeling is this is so very obviously the first of the three books in the Mars Trilogy – the stage setting, the laying of the foundation for more to come…

As such it is a good one, I think.

In many ways this is Big Ideas fiction, and I’m an avid fan of every book that makes me think. The grandness of the scale is impressive, a multi-decade storyline involving a lot of people, both as individuals and as pieces in a jigsaw too big for them to fathom. The main characters are mostly scientists, with little idea of how they and their side taking affects the world or how they and their ideas will come back at them, with a political twist.

The way the story plays out is plausible, if depressing, but I am eager to get to know how this social, economic and political experiment will develop.

On the down side this is very clearly about people and systems of people – normally known as “societies” and their close kin “political systems” and “economic system” – and not about individuals. Sure, we follow certain characters, but in a distanced third person, and only for a short while – the story is told from multiple perspectives, and these perspectives shifts every now and then. These characters are there to illustrate different viewpoints and different ideas about who to tackle a situation, and sometimes this is too obvious.

Sometimes the text feels like an embellished piece of non fiction, veritable info dumps that gets no less info dumpish by being real science.

Finally, the text is somewhat dated. It plays out in a reality where the US and Russia were still THE dominant actors. This, honestly, doesn’t bother me much. Politics is politics, just like economics is economics – the name tags are not as important as the actual system, and the basic premise that he stipulates is not that far fetched.

All in all it works quite well and at the moment I’m staring at the door waiting for the next instalment – Green Mars – to be delivered; the SF bookshop was out of stock, so I had to order it from another source. (I do favour brick’n’mortar bookshops, I want them to stay in business, so I try to use those I particularly fancy. No luck this time, though.)

I should say that this is not a book to read as distraction. It needs a focussed mind to work, as evidenced by the fact that I had to put it down for a while – since my previous post here I’ve had planned tonsillectomy, followed by high levels of pain and its mitigator (codeine based painkillers, yuk /but that’s another story/) and what felt like a fried brain. During that time – almost two weeks – I either didn’t read at all, or did feel-good rereads.

I’m very glad that I picked Red Mars up again, as it ultimately was a rewarding read.

Review: Regeneration, by Julie E Czerneda

I find it almost impossible to write a review of this last part of the Species Imperative trilogy – I have no idea how or where to start, properly. Regeneration is the brilliant conclusion to a brilliant story, but it is also impossible to understand it – and this review it – as a single book.

Every species try to find it’s way to survival. Sometimes that survival comes at the cost of the survival of other species. Will Dr. Mackenzie Connor and her team succeed in their valiant try to save not only Humanity but all other species that are part of the Interspecies Union from the threat of total annihilation? And which are the greater threat – the Dhryn or the Ro? Will politics, however well intended, conspire to the end of life in space?

This concluding part is in perfect harmony with the tone of the story leading up to it. Well conceived and executed the ending part of the trilogy is as much about finding a way to handle the threat to interplanetary survival as it is about how the species imperative works on humans, namely Dr. Connor and Agent Trojanowski, both in their relationship to each other and in how they handle a threat to their home world, and this is part of what makes this trilogy worth reading – grand theme, grand setting and repercussions on a personal level makes the reader care for the characters.

I highly recommend the Species Imperative trilogy, starting with Survival.
Well worth the time it takes reading the approximately 1500 pages.

Review: Migration, by Julie E Czerneda

After having identified what threatens the lifeforms of the Interspecies Union biologist Dr. Mackenzie Connor returns to her life as a salmon researcher. The return proves difficult, though. Meeting the alien has not only provided a larger frame of reference but has also resulted in vivid flashback nightmares and a feeling of inadequacy – she is worried that the people responsible for handling the threat are looking in the wrong direction, she also worries about her vanished colleague, Dr. Emily Mamani, but she is forbidden by the Ministry of Extra-Solar Affairs to reveal anything to anyone about the true reasons for her absence from work.

Unbeknownst to her others wants access to her and her insights and she ends up being part of a multi-species effort to find a way to tackle the combined Dhryn/Ro threat to life. This proves a challenge, as the team assigned to her is suspicious of her motives.

The characters are both fun and profound, most of them with his, her, its or their own motivations and quirks and the story itself a well paced and balanced mix between action and reflection.

While part 1 (Survival) can stand on it’s own Migration is very much dependent on it’s successor (Regeneration) to provide an ending. This is, however, not a problem, because the tale holds the reader in constant suspense, making it imperative ;-) to have the concluding part near at hand when finishing Migration.

I highly recommend the Species Imperative trilogy. Start with the first book, though, if you want to get things right.

Review: Survival, by Julie E Czerneda

Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac to those who know her, is a prime example of the mono-focused human; interested only in what can be related to her research, not having what other people chose to call ‘a normal life’; something which seems to be a conscious choice made so long ago it has become part of herself. The only person to come close to her is Emily, another scientist, and together they study salmon. Then one day a scientist from not only another world and of another species but another field altogether, chaperoned by what seemingly is a harmless papershuffler, a bureaucrat, intrudes on her in her field work, claiming Mac could hold the key to the survival of several species.

I have not read enough by Czerneda to know if this is a recurring theme but the story is not far away from that of In the Company of Others (my ‘review’ here) – alien species threatening the survival of the known world, female scientist solves the mystery while falling in love on the way. It’s a fun ride though so I can’t complain.

The characters are nicely done and the story is mostly well paced and despite a vague feeling of being a brew consisting of lots of well known elements Czerneda manages to make this dish have it’s own personal flavour.
If I had a problem with anything it was the frequent infodumps, especially at the beginning of the story. The style is supposed to be tight third person, which means we can only know what the protagonist know. But every now and then things she obviously know well enough not to react to are explained to us. An example: To Mac the tech called ‘imps’ should be ubiquitous – their use should be made clear to us by showing her using them. Instead we get a paragraph (or was it two?) describing the etymology behind the word, and what the thing is used for.
These dumps were not frequent enough to do more than annoy me slightly, though.

The book is first in a series of three called The Species Imperative but the essential parts of the story gets their resolution before the last page. Despite this I am ready to devour the next one (Migration), had I had it in my hand. Not because of any loose threads but because I want to know what will happen next – I’m not ready to abandon the scientifically minded Mac just yet.


Apropos the 5th anniversary of the Mars rovers

I know I’m a total airhead but when younger I always thought we’d go to the stars, someday. At the very least I thought our neighbouring planets would had gotten human visitors by now.

That was some years ago, though. Last time I seriously thought we’d get somewhere like Mars was, maybe, in the late 70’s. And people keep telling me we should spend our precious monies on other things than burning them in space.

About a month ago this was discussed at the Green Dragon, and people managed to come up with rather a lot of ways we have benefited from there being a space program at all. Among others

  • Pacemakers
  • Miniature electronics
  • GPS
  • Satellite enabled communications, including remote doctors
  • Robotics that can be used for prosthetics
  • Treatments for cancer (lot of radiation in space)
  • Treatments for osteoporosis (also a ‘humans in space’-problem)
  • Light AND strong alloys

were mentioned, among others. And of course there’s LOTS of scientific data to be gathered, not to mention inspiration for more than a few authors ;-)

I do understand people who think we should spend our money on other things. People starve and die all around, even in “civilized” countries. What I don’t understand is when people insists any space program is a total waste of money, and for na├»ve dreamers only.

But come to think of it – where would humankind be if there hadn’t been dreamers there, all along?

(Thank you JPB for posting the link to Mars rovers roll on to five years, from the Beeb)