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Five SFF Books About Crashed Spaceships

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Who doesn’t love a crashed spaceship? There is always a mystery, the promise of—what? Treasure? An alien monster hiding in wait? Maybe both! Something, at any rate, is there, in the ruined grandeur of a vast technological marvel. Who can resist it?

Not me, that’s for sure. I put one in Neom, my new SF novel from Tachyon, set in the world of Central Station. This one’s “the Compassionate Heaven, a cargo ship out from Mars on an Earth run,” which somehow crashed deep within the Sinai Desert, stories of treasure swirling round it for years. But when we find it, it has long been empty.

It’s one of those fun tropes, cropping up everywhere. I have a love of old SF, so these ships have been abandoned for a while! What’s your favourite? Here are five of mine.


The Nomad in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination

Is The Stars My Destination the greatest science fiction novel of all time ™? Does it matter? This Dickensian, extravagant nightmare of a future begins on the wreck of the Nomad, floating in space with one sole survivor, the notorious Gully Foyle, clinging on for dear life. But what crashed the Nomad? Why was Foyle not saved by the passing Vorga, piloted by the ruthless and beguiling Olivia Presteign? And what exactly was the precious cargo the Nomad was carrying? Foyle transforms himself into an engine of revenge to track down the culprits in a headlong rush that draws on The Count of Monte Cristo while serving as the blueprint for countless cyberpunk novels to come. And that doesn’t even start to scratch the surface.


The Martian starship in Richard K. Morgan’s Broken Angels

The follow-up novel to Morgan’s explosive debut Altered Carbon sees Takeshi Kovacs hired for a battlefield mission to first open up an alien portal, then take possession of a mysterious miles-long starship filled with winged, dead Martians. Which is all in a day’s work for Kovacs, of course. It’s such a tantalizing promise—will it open the galaxy up for humanity? Will it make life better all around? Not in a Richard Morgan novel it won’t. The recent Netflix adaptation skipped this one, which was a shame–but with anime versions in the works maybe we’ll still get to see it on the screen.


Progenitor Fleet in David Brin’s Startide Rising

Brin doesn’t really do small. Why one ship when you could have, I don’t know, fifty thousand moon-sized alien ships drifting in an abandoned cluster and possibly left there by the first sentient race in the universe? A dolphin-crewed ship, the Streaker, discovers exactly that in the opening of Startide Rising, only to raise half the galaxy after them in pursuit. It’s so briefly seen—the rest of the novel deals with the dolphins’ escape and their attempts to get out of trouble—but it’s all the more memorable for that. A classic example of sense of wonder science fiction.


Stranded Heechee ship in Frederik Pohl’s Gateway

Another contender for the greatest sf novel of all time ™? The unnamed Heechee ship is not so much crash-landed as still in the process—as it is slowly descending down into a black hole. On the hollowed asteroid known as Gateway, Heechee ships depart to unknown destinations and it is up to the human explorers reckless or desperate enough to ride them, finding either untold riches or death along the way. Pohl’s celebrated novel is haunted by Robinette Broadhead’s guilt over abandoning his crewmates on the cusp of the event horizon, as his early days on Gateway come to vivid, unforgettable life on the page.


Marrow in Robert Reed’s Marrow

Ok, Marrow isn’t technically a spaceship, but… in Reed’s novel, the Greatship is a gas giant sized intergalactic ship, and humans and aliens live on it as they slowly travel the universe. Only, some hardy human explorers discover the ship hides a secret—more precisely, they discover an entire planet in the core of the Greatship. Which they then get stranded on. Leading them to build a five thousand year old technological civilization from scratch in order to escape, only to discover the planet, which they name Marrow, is a prison to a particularly hostile group of aliens. Who were also keen to escape. It’s one of those great SFnal conceits, and an underrated novel.


Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Osama (2011), The Violent Century (2013), the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), and the Campbell Award-winning Central Station (2016), in addition to many other works and several other awards. He works across genres, combining detective and thriller modes with poetry, science fiction and historical and autobiographical material. His work has been compared to that of Philip K. Dick by the Guardian and the Financial Times, and to Kurt Vonnegut’s by Locus.

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15 days ago
Nice! I have read all of these & recommend them all.
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Already Booming in Europe, ‘Hempcrete’ Has Finally Come to the US

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This fall, when parents dropped off their children at De Leertrommel, a school about 10 miles northwest of Brussels, the young pupils began their studies as they had for many years before. 

But while the U-shaped, seven-room school constructed in the 1960s looked much like any other, it represents a major leap forward in sustainable construction: it had been completely renovated in a €2 million (USD $1.9 million) project to become the first Flemish school to ever be built with hemp.

Construction of De Leertrommel school. Photo courtesy of IsoHemp

“The project was to build well-ventilated classrooms where pupils can be comfortable and healthy throughout the year,” says Charlotte De Bellefroid, a spokesperson for IsoHemp, the Belgian company that fabricated the school’s hemp-based construction materials.

IsoHemp’s blocks, and alternatives made by many others, are made of hempcrete, a mix of hemp fibers, water, and lime or clay, which acts as a binder. Despite the simplicity of those natural ingredients, hempcrete — which consumers, businesses and governments around the world are growing to view as a sustainable building block of the future — has a dizzying array of benefits: it is fire resistant, provides soundproofing, insulates or stores heat (depending on external temperatures), repels mold and pests, and is malleable enough to allow for various aesthetic styles. Plus, hemp itself is a sustainable crop that needs few pesticides, is ideal for rotation, and has quick-growing roots that prevent soil erosion.

But most importantly of all, hempcrete has a very low carbon footprint. It requires three times less heat to create than concrete, weighs about one-eighth as much as concrete (leading to fewer transport-related emissions), and actively sequesters CO2 — according to one Cambridge University researcher, hemp absorbs between eight to 15 metric tons of carbon per hectare, significantly more than the two to six metric tons typically captured by forests.

Research by IsoHemp found that a single cubic meter of its hempcrete removes 75 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere over its lifetime — worth a few years of car use, depending on home size. It also has approximately as much thermal resistance as a double-glazed window (1-5 W/m²•K), and its honeycombed structure offers about enough soundproofing to block out the noise of a washing machine (44 decibels). “Zero carbon buildings are a possibility,” says De Bellefroid. “But we have to act really quick.”

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In the struggle to slow climate change, experts say that decarbonizing construction can have an enormous impact. The construction industry is responsible for 39 percent of global carbon emissions. Concrete is one of the worst offenders, wreaking vast damage from air pollution to sand mining. If the industry behind cement — an ingredient of concrete — were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter

That unsustainability is fueling an explosion in interest for green concrete alternatives, demand for which is reaching heady highs. Last year IsoHemp, which was founded in 2012, opened a $5.9 million factory capable of producing up to five million hempcrete blocks annually. The Belgian company is growing about 30 percent a year in capacity, and is working on several key projects across Europe, including the renovation of 900 homes on a public housing estate in the center of Brussels. 

Hempcrete is malleable enough to allow for various aesthetic styles. Photo courtesy of Matthias Bank

While hempcrete has been used in Europe for decades, the US could soon follow suit. For many years, industrial hemp was illegal in the US due to hemp’s association with drug use, despite the fact that it does not contain more than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that makes users high. Building residential homes with hempcrete was therefore effectively outlawed until 2018, when the Farm Bill distinguished between hemp and cannabis plants. Then, in September 2022, hemp building materials were added to the model US residential building code, paving the way for legal use in 2024.

“As the world wakes up to the seriousness of the situation with regards to climate change and resource limits, the search for alternatives is bound to grow,” says Steve Allin, director of the International Hemp Building Association. “Which is a relief after feeling as if we were shouting in the wilderness for so many years.”

According to Allin, author of the book Hemp Buildings: 50 International Case Studies, hempcrete has been used in everything from a renovation of a 15th century oak-frame building in northern France, to the extension of a Nepalese hospital, a pioneering design project in North Carolina from 2010, and even a British grocery chain. “We can build in a better way for a cleaner, more sustainable future,” he says.

Katie MacDonald, director of Virginia University’s Before Building Laboratory, which experiments with low-carbon building material systems, is developing hemp panels similar to plywood and assessing whether hemp could be a sustainable crop grown in the state as a replacement for the waning tobacco industry.

“There’s an incredible opportunity in the natural material space,” she says. “It’s exciting that there is a broader public adoption. But there are challenges ahead. Can we get construction industry adoption? Is it easy to assemble and use? Is the product price competitive? How do we make an assembly that’s really advancing the cause?”

The problem, for now, is the waiting time for supply to ramp up, with backorders in some cases taking several months. IsoHemp is already exporting blocks to the United States, Australia, South Africa and several other European countries. “We need many more centers for processing in order to make it worthwhile for farmers growing it and for architects and builders to be able to use it,” says Allin.

But hemp is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, alongside bamboo, and can grow 50 times faster than wood, meaning that enough biomass to build a small single-family house will grow in five months on one hectare of land.

One of the few aspects where there is room for improvement is hempcrete’s inability to work as a load-bearing material. While it can be formed to surround timber or other types of framework, or made into blocks, bricks or panels, it cannot, for now, be used entirely alone. But MacDonald believes even that will eventually be solved.

After Matthias Bank lost his family home and office in the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County’s history in 2018, he wanted to “turn the tragedy into an opportunity to rebuild our home as a living laboratory of best practices in sustainable, disaster resistant, healthy building.” Photo courtesy of Matthias Bank

In the meantime, eager practitioners aren’t waiting around. After Matthias Bank lost his family home and office in the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County’s history in 2018, he wanted to “turn the tragedy into an opportunity to rebuild our home as a living laboratory of best practices in sustainable, disaster resistant, healthy building.” 

Research quickly pointed him towards hemp. “Hempcrete is very hard to burn, while also being low in embodied carbon, healthy, and when used correctly, superior from a seismic safety point of view as well,” says Bank. 

That led to Bank becoming a member of US Hemp Building Association and his family have been using hempcrete to build their chicken coop — with the hope of constructing their main house with it too, pending permits. The process hasn’t always been smooth. The first set of blocks fell apart because they were made with the wrong binding material. But eventually, he was able to source better quality hempcrete and the results have put a grin on his face.

“I am glad to say the chicken coop looks great,” says Bank. “The hempcrete is so lovely, my wife is not even sure she wants to plaster over it. We joke that the chickens have a better house than we do.”

The post Already Booming in Europe, ‘Hempcrete’ Has Finally Come to the US appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

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19 days ago
Good news!
Hempcrete FTW!
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Redistributing wealth to save the planet

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Let’s say it straight out: it is impossible to seriously fight global warming without a profound redistribution of wealth, both within countries and internationally. Those who claim otherwise are lying to the world. And those who claim that redistribution is certainly desirable, sympathetic, etc., but unfortunately technically or politically impossible, are lying just as much. They would be better off defending what they believe in (if they still believe in anything) rather than getting lost in conservative posturing.

Lula’s victory over the agribusiness camp certainly gives some hope. But it should not obscure the fact that so many voters remain sceptical of the social-ecological left and prefer to rely on the nationalist, anti-migrant right, both in the South and in the North, as the elections in Sweden and Italy have shown. For one simple reason: without a fundamental transformation of the economic system and the distribution of wealth, the social-ecological programme risks turning against the middle and working classes. The good news (so to speak) is that wealth is so concentrated at the top that it is possible to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of the population while combating climate change, provided that we give ourselves the means for an ambitious redistribution. In other words, everyone will naturally have to change their lifestyle profoundly, but the fact is that it is possible to compensate the working and middle classes for these changes, both financially and by giving access to goods and services that are less energy-consuming and more compatible with the survival of the planet (education, health, housing, transport, etc.). This requires a drastic reduction in the level of wealth and income of the richest, and this is the only way to build political majorities to save the planet.

The facts and figures are stubborn. The world’s billionaires have continued their stratospheric rise since the 2008 crisis and during Covid and have reached unprecedented levels.   As the Global Inequality Report 2022 has shown, the richest 0.1% of the world’s population now own some €80 trillion in financial and real estate assets, or more than 19% of the world’s wealth (equivalent to one year of global GDP). The share of the world’s wealth held by the richest 10% accounts for 77% of the total, compared to only 2% for the poorest 50%. In Europe, which the economic elites like to present as a haven of equality, the share of the richest 10% is 61% of total wealth, compared to 4% for the poorest 50%.

In France, the 500 richest people alone have increased between 2010 and 2022 from 200 billion to 1000 billion, i.e. from 10% of GDP to almost 50% of GDP (i.e. twice as much as the poorest 50%). According to the available data, the total income tax paid by these 500 wealthy individuals over this period was equivalent to less than 5% of this 800 billion enrichment. This is consistent with the tax returns of US billionaires revealed last year by ProPublica, which show an average tax rate in the same range. By instituting a one-off 50% tax on this enrichment, which would not be excessive at a time when small, hard-earned savings are paying an inflationary tax of 10% per year, the French government could raise 400 billion Euros. One can imagine other formulas, but the fact is that the amounts are dizzying: those who claim that there is nothing substantial to be recovered from this simply cannot count. For the record, the governement just vetoed this week a decision by the National Assembly to increase investment in the thermal renovation of buildings (12 billion euros) and in the rail networks (3 billion), explaining that we could not afford such largesse. This begs the question: does the government know how to count, or is it putting the interests of a small class ahead of those of the planet and the population, which is in dire need of renovated housing and trains that arrive on time?

Beyond this exceptional taxation of the 500 largest fortunes, it is obviously the entire tax system that needs to be reviewed, in France as in all countries of the world. During the 20th century, progressive income tax was a huge historical success. The 80-90% tax rates applied to the highest incomes under Roosevelt and for half a century (81% on average from 1930 to 1980) coincided with the period of maximum prosperity, innovation and growth in the US. For a simple reason: prosperity depends first and foremost on education (and the US was far ahead of the world at that time) and has no need for stratospheric inequality. In the 21st century, we need to extend this legacy to a progressive wealth tax, with rates of 80-90% on billionaires, and put the top 10% of wealth on the tax rolls. Above all, a substantial part of the revenue from the richest should be paid directly to the poorest countries, in proportion to their population and their exposure to climate change. The countries of the South can no longer wait each year for the North to deign to meet its commitments. It is time to think of the world in the making, or it will be a nightmare.

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21 days ago
Preach it. Eat the rich before they eat us.
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When Twitter Is ‘Free,’ We Pay With Our Privacy

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Elon Musk is not the worst thing about Twitter.
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25 days ago
What about if the US gov, or the UN, nationalizes Twitter?
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Unlikely Simultaneous Historical Events

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A poster on Reddit asks: What are two events that took place in the same time in history but don’t seem like they would have? A few of my favorite answers (from this thread and a previous one):

When pilgrims were landing on Plymouth Rock, you could already visit what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico to stay at a hotel, eat at a restaurant and buy Native American silver.

Prisoners began to arrive to Auschwitz a few days after McDonald’s was founded.

The first wagon train of the Oregon Trail heads out the same year the fax machine is invented.

Nintendo was founded in 1888. Jack the Ripper was on the loose in 1888.

1912 saw the maiden voyage of the Titanic as well as the birth of vitamins, x-ray crystallography, and MDMA.

1971: The year in which America drove a lunar buggy on the moon and Switzerland gave women the vote.

NASA’s Gemini program was winding down at the same time as plate tectonics, as we know it today, was becoming refined and accepted by the scientific community.

Spain was still a fascist dictatorship when Microsoft was founded.

There were no classes in calculus in Harvard’s curriculum for the first few years because calculus hadn’t been discovered yet.

Two empires [Roman & Ottoman] spanned the entire gap from Jesus to Babe Ruth.

When the pyramids were being built, there were still woolly mammoths.

The last use of the guillotine was in France the same year Star Wars came out.

Oxford University was over 300 years old when the Aztec Empire was founded.

Related: true facts that sound made up, timeline twins, and the Great Span.

Tags:history    time   
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26 days ago
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The Death of God and the Decline of the Humanities

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The decades long decline of the Humanities – the academic study of texts and/or the academic practice of criticism* – is often blamed on the latest fad in it, or its faddishness, when such diagnosis is not altogether ground in ideological, political, or theoretical culture-war score-settling (with structuralism, deconstruction, queer theory, critical race theory, etc.) To be sure, in North America and Europe, the decline is very real when measured along a whole range of intrinsic and extrinsic measures: relative undergraduate enrollments, the hiring of freshly minted PhDs, starting salaries of its college graduates, and cultural prestige.

By contrast, I suggest that the decline of the Humanities indicates a more general shift away from the cultural significance of texts in our societies. And put like that allows the real underlying culprit of the decline of the Humanities to come into view: it is fundamentally due to the declining significance of the Bible and of getting its meaning right among those that seek out higher education and social forces that are willing to sponsor the academy. The unfolding death of God — understood (with John 1:1) as the Word — is the source of the decline of the Humanities.

My diagnosis is compatible with religion, even so-called ‘religions of the book,’ being politically highly salient and even to some degree with increasing numbers of the religious population. To be precise, then, mine is not a general secularization thesis. (My argument is also wholly orthogonal to claims about the utility or social futility of the Humanities.)

One may well be suspicious of the claim in the previous paragraphs for two reasons: first, while theology and the philology it spawned are undoubtedly important to the historical development of the Humanities in general, today there is a lot more to the Humanities (even on my relatively narrow definition) than theology and philology (or Biblical hermeneutics). Of course, this is true.

Second, if we look at the historical sources of the study of profane literature, we find it intimately tied to the development of what we might bourgeois culture: it is all about acquiring the markers of social prestige and respectability previously reserved for a (natural) aristocracy of birth. Even in the eighteenth-century Scottish university, which pioneered the teaching of belles-lettres, the study of English literature and manners is, in part, an attempt to overcome the sense of given linguistic backwardness relative to the developing commercial society of the wider imperial Britain. It’s no coincidence, then, that the theorist of commercial life and social status (and critic of military empire), Adam Smith, yes that Adam Smith, was, in fact, among the very first professors of literature, if not the first.

As an aside, Smith’s account of the topics that are treated as significant in profane literature (and he has a capacious understanding of its genres) presupposes that those social institutions that generate high stakes (divorce-free marriage, property, etc.) also shape the topics of interest in such literature (see here for more on this; and here). This is also why épater le bourgeois is a feature not a bug of literary culture.

My response to the lines of criticism one may develop from these two suspicions is essentially the same: the manner by which profane literature is approached in the Humanities is essentially derived from, and infused with the aspirations of, the study of sacred texts. I don’t mean to be original in claiming this for it is intuitively and phenomenologically obvious if we look at the practices and virtuosity of close reading (in a circle or carré) under the guidance of a skilled mentor in a seminar or tutorial. These are not far removed from what one may encounter in a yeshiva or the priestly seminary. Something similar can be said about the aesthetic experience valorized by the most violently anti-Christian or indifferently non-Christian modern associated with the literary avant-garde which is still fundamentally ascetic (in the way, say, Nietzsche diagnosed).

While the etymology of ‘seminar’ — derived from the Latin for ‘sowing of seeds’ (of knowledge) – is indicative of good breeding and not intrinsically connected to sacred (or profane) texts at all, that the seminar is the essential pedagogical format of the Humanities is, thus, on my view no accident at all. Its very intelligibility piggybacks on the cultural salience of the study of sacred texts. The very frisson of transgressive-ness co-constitutive with literary culture is, after all, derivative of sinning (and confessional). The mechanisms I am describing are not limited to the Humanities, of course; I am by no means the first to note that Marxist sectarianism has much in common with its Protestant and Jewish counterparts. And when French intellectuals of a past era announce the death of the author, they can count on also being understood in a theological register (as they were).

Once bible reading and study disappears from bourgeois culture, as it by and large has, the whole network of practices constitutive of the Humanities start to look ridiculous not in a comic sense, but in the more dangerous sense of lacking all intelligibility for most. And this is so because society refuses to develop the skills and cultural practices that provide basic entry into the academic study of texts and practice of criticism. (I don’t mean to be misunderstood on this point: as Zena Hitz shows in her Lost in Thought: the Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life reading of books in solitude can still be highly meaningful to individuals in all kinds of social ways.)

And while our society is still infused with texts (and some legal-constitutional cultures have taken on the partial trappings of the Humanities in virtue of its past significance), the more dominant cultural form has become the iconic image. I put it like that, of course, in order to sever my claim from a general secularization thesis; the icon is, after all, itself intrinsic to many forms of religiosity. I do not deny that Humanities programs can be places where cultural iconography is studied and taught (even as a form of ‘reading/interpretation’ or semiotics), but there is no intrinsic connection between it and the Humanities. (After all, cultural iconography is very much at home in social sciences like anthropology, sociology, and communication departments.) And so is itself part and parcel of the decline of the Humanities.

That the icon has displaced the text is, in my opinion, not so much caused by capitalism or neo-liberalism (as you may expect), but rather an effect of the mass or enmassed nature of modern society (or what the Germans call Massengesellschaft). I suspect this on broadly Platonic-Spinozistic grounds; that is, icons are a way to convey abstract teachings to the many.+ And while this kind of claim was developed among the elitist, bourgeois critics of mass society (e.g., Huizinga, Ortega Y Gassett, Röpke (etc.)) and may well give rise to a treatment of icons as idolatry, it is worth noting that the empirical diagnosis of the significance of icons to mass society was shared by Otto Neurath, who enthusiastically and esthetically developed ISOTYPE–a kind of visual ‘grammar’ for pictorial education of concepts.

It doesn’t follow from my analysis that the traditional Humanities will go extinct. It may well enjoy recurring bouts of being fashionable again (say, in periods of certain kinds of cultural nostalgia). It also does not suggest there is nothing it can do to help itself to survive in a niche: it may well have to reinvent itself however, despite its current commitment to emancipation, as guardian of tradition or as a site of hidden, refined pleasures and mysteries at odds with the larger culture but worth acquiring.






*This excludes disciplines like history, art-history, and philosophy, which are often grouped with the Humanities, and share some, but only partial, genealogical intertwinement with philology (the ancestral source of the Humanities). I leave aside here the fascinating fact that the development of critique (as a method and genre in philosophy) and the significance of (literary) criticism seem to spring from the same linguistic root (from the Greek ‘to judge’ or ‘to decide’) and cultural roots; and that such criticism is distinct from what is known as ‘poetics’ in Aristotle.

+I have been influenced by Aaron Tugendhaft’s The Idols of Isis, which draws heavily on Al-Farabi.

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31 days ago
How did this horseshit make it into "Crooked Timber"???
30 days ago
crooked sophomore seminar response paper
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