Science

The Meiosis of Cells and Exile

asimovsI have a new story out!

“The Meiosis of Cells and Exile” is a novelette about the Soviet scientist Lina Stern. It’s just been published in the latest issue of Asimov’s.

I enjoy mixing science history and speculative fiction, and “Meiosis” is an example of this. Lina Stern (1878-1968) was a biochemist and director of the Physiology Unit in the Academy of Sciences. She was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and Stalin was not impressed. Free speech was not something he found to be a priority, and the scientists and writers making up the Committee disagreed – to their very great cost. 15 members of the Committee were arrested and imprisoned for several years before being sentenced to death in a political show trial. Most were executed in 1952 in what came to be known as The Night of the Murdered Poets.

Lina was the only survivor, saved by her scientific talent and sent into exile in Kazakhstan instead. She was in her seventies at the time, and my story tells of her travel into that exile, fuming with what has been done to her and the rest of the Committee.

There’s (kind of) a happy ending to all that horror. Lina, despite her age, survived both Stalin and the miserable torturing bastard who imprisoned her and the rest of the League. She came back out of exile and spent the next 14 years of her very long life working for science, heading up the Physiology Department again at the Biophysics Institute.

It’s an apt story to be out at the moment, I reckon. Have been on Twitter the last few days, watching accounts from the Badlands National Park and NASA go rogue on climate change, tweeting science facts even though they’re under significant pressure not to. Scientists have the responsibility to speak truth to power, and I reckon Lina would have agreed.

(If you’re interested in reading more, Lina Stern also turns up as a supporting character in my short (free!) novel The August Birds.)

Nature as Creative Catalyst

entanglementsI’ve a new book chapter out!

Actually, that implies there was an old book chapter. Nope! There’ve been a handful of papers, but this is is the first academic chapter I’ve had published. It rejoices in the name of “Nature as Creative Catalyst: Building Poetic Environmental Narratives through the Artists in Antarctica Programme”, and it is riveting stuff I tell you.

But if you think that title’s a mouthful, have a look at the collection that it’s in: Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene, edited by Nicholas Holm and Sy Taffel. Perhaps it’ll all be a bit clearer when I tell you that the working title of the project, for most of the time I was involved in it, was Working With Nature. Basically, it’s a collection of essays on the many different ways that people interact with their natural environment. Aside from mine, there are chapters on photographing the Australian landscape, suburban landscapes, postcolonial property rights in New Zealand, and more. The focus does tend towards the Antipodean, but it’s not the only setting explored.

My own chapter looks at New Zealand’s Artists in Antarctica programme. Every year, artists are sent down to Scott Base, to live and work with the scientists there. This is done in order for artists to communicate the Antarctic environment to the general public, in different ways than the scientists do. Basically, to give a more well-rounded experience of the continent to said public, who let’s not forget are the ones paying for NZ’s research programmes on the ice. The more invested the public is in Antarctic conservation and science, the better – at least as far as I’m concerned. Selected artists may be writers, film-makers, visual artists, textile artists, musicians, and so on. Being a poet myself, I focused on the visiting poets and how they built environmental narratives of their experiences.

I’m not going to lie, one day I’d love to be part of the Artists in Antarctica programme myself. Still, until that happy day, I can at least appreciate the work of the poets who have been able to go thus far… namely Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Chris Orsman, and Owen Marshall. Lucky, talented bastards.

 

Eating Science with Ghosts

asimov-s-science-fiction-30I have a new story out! Actually, it’s a novelette. My first novelette, and my first story in Asimov’s Magazine.

“Eating Science with Ghosts” is the story of one very long dinner party, where the main character meets a number of dead scientists linked to weird stories of food and drink. Did you know, for instance, that Marie Curie’s cookbook is so radioactive it has to be kept in a lead box in the National Library in Paris? Or that Thomas Edison used to interview prospective employees by feeding them soup? If they tasted the soup before adding salt they were experimentalists at heart, and if they added the salt automatically (like I would, sorry to say) they assumed too much and were useless to him.

It’s science history as much as science fiction – actually, I’ve been planning to write a pop-sci book around this idea, so this wee novelette is like a proof of concept.

“Eating Science with Ghosts” isn’t available online, but if you can track down the Slightly Spooky October/November issue of Asimov’s it’s in there. Here’s a little taster, to see if it’s your kind of thing:

I’m a little bit drunk before the meal even starts. My guests are late, so that’s some excuse – and a bad joke to boot – but it’s always been easier to see the ghosts when I’m not entirely sober.

I used to try and block them out. But they never went, so eventually I learned to live with it. To live with them. In some ways now they feel like old friends, so when I got my doctorate I planned a celebratory meal. Not the one with family and friends, co-workers from the lab. This is the real celebration, the one that matters… and if those astronauts doesn’t turn up soon I’ll be face down on the table, passed out on one of those lovely little sidewalk cafés that Paris does so well, before I’ve even finished the first course.

I think my tongue is going numb. It’s the vermouth, come in a range of combinations and pretty glasses, nearly all of which are empty. This is a place for vermouth. It was advertised here, back in the early twentieth century: the first neon advertising sign in the world, and naturally it was for alcohol. Cinzano, the word lit up atop a building opposite, lit up in shining white against a brilliant red and blue background. Capital letters, a simple font… it all says Look at me! Buy me!

Kelp

takahe87I’ve a new story out! “Kelp” has just been published in issue 87 of takahē. One of New Zealand’s long-running lit markets, takahē is I think the first speculative story I’ve ever placed in a literary journal!

“Kelp” is a quiet little post-apocalyptic story. One scientist in a boat, studying kelp to try and cope with the end of the world. As far as the scientist knows, he’s the only one left alive and the science of his life’s work is something to put his back against, to try and give structure and meaning to his existence.

The kelp was thick and it was strong. It didn’t rip easily away from its substrate, not like him who floated on the ocean, who had nothing but anchors to keep him in one place. Any holdfast he might have had had been eaten away by virus.

Rock gave way sometimes before holdfasts did. He’d seen the kelp, washed up or floating with a chunk of rock attached to the base, and he’d wondered how strong the waves had been to tear it up. More often, he’d seen holdfasts eaten away, weakened by parasites – by worms and by molluscs, even, though shellfish had never been his interest.

He’d come to study parasites of another kind, those that caused galls, eukaryotic. He’d wanted to map the spreading of them around the islands, from one population to another. But the study had been limited – enough for two, over a season of summer months.

He began to study the worms, to bring them up and put them in alcohol. To build a survey. If he didn’t work, he wasn’t a scientist any longer.

Without science, there was nothing left…

“Kelp” is the third story of mine set in this post-apocalyptic world (two post-, one pre-). It’s a project I’m working on where the only people who survive a sudden, deadly plague are a small handful of Antipodean scientists who’ve managed to live through disaster only because their fieldwork has taken them to places so isolated they’re out of contact with the general population.

Science is so often the culprit in apocalyptic narratives – it’s used to build a bomb or a virus or fails to save from a meteorite, for example – that I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic environment where it’s a uniquely positive experience. Something that brings people together and allows them to find satisfaction and purpose in what’s left behind.

I’m not sure yet if this universe is going to be a short story collection or a sort of braided novel where the characters come together in various ways. Still, it’s fun to play with and that’s the main thing.

The Ghost of Matter wins SJV!!!

ghost-of-matter_cover_medThis last weekend was New Zealand’s national science fiction convention, Au Contraire. It’s also when the Sir Julius Vogel Awards are held. The Ghost of Matter was nominated for best novelette/novella, and I’m pleased to say that it won!

I was so convinced it wouldn’t that I hadn’t prepared anything to say, and had to stumble to the front to receive the trophy before gaping hopelessly at the audience. I don’t think I was very coherent, but at least I was brief. If it wasn’t clear then, I shared the category with five other fantastic stories, and any one of them could have won. Thanks are due to my editor Marie at Paper Road Press, who helped turn the draft into something a little more well-considered. I’m happy to report that the Shortcuts collection, of which The Ghost of Matter is a part, also won best collection, as well as best artwork for Casey Bailey’s amazing cover.

If you haven’t read it, The Ghost of Matter is about New Zealand’s most famous scientist, Ernest Rutherford. There’s an excerpt available free to read at Paper Road Press, and it’s available to buy there and at Amazon.

Carnival Microbial

grendelsongI’ve a new story out!

Carnival Microbial” is free to read in the latest issue of Grendelsong. It’s creepy, creepy science: a circus where the performers are all microbes. Specifically, horrible diseases: Scarlet Fever as a trapeze artist, Tetanus as a human blockhead, and so on. Sandwiched in the middle of this little prose-poetry collection is the freak show… a caravan of historical microbiologists, of deadly bacteriologists. And when Smallpox gets a little too close to Edward Jenner’s cage, the Carnival is out a ringmaster and the microbes have to go about selecting a replacement.

It’s weird biological fantasy, essentially. Now usually my biological preferences fall to plants, but I like talking about science in interesting ways, and there’s more to science than seagrass.

And talking of Jenner, here’s his excerpt. You can read the entire strange thing at the above link if you’re interested.

Edward Jenner: has a cowhide on his wall, stretched tight in four directions and with the feet cut off. The cow’s name is – was – Blossom.

has a milkmaid with poxy hands and otherwise perfect skin, who sings as she squeezes and believes all the tales her mother told her. Her name is Sarah.

has a garden, and a gardener who raises kids as well as cabbages and carnations and chances. The child’s name is James: he is eight years old, with skinned knees, and can be trusted not to make a fuss.

has a scalpel, to scrape the pus from milky hands, to open up the freckled skin with slices and supplement with smallpox. The scalpel doesn’t have a name. Tools very often don’t – or so Blossom and Sarah and Jamie would say, all innocent, as if their opinions mattered to anyone.

Chemical Letters: Aluminium

Caroline sits in Piccadilly Circus

on the steps under Anteros.

 

Pigeons scramble on bricks before her

and each brick has a letter. Sometimes two.

They are familiar,

the Kemiske Breve.

 

A man sits next to her, throws bread

from a paper bag like a hollowed out envelope,

with a red wax seal, Ørsted.

He offers it to Caroline, and they feed the birds together.

 

I used to wonder, he says, what it was that caused

several pieces of the same kind

to come together, cohere in unity.

Now I’m here, I wonder.

Was it love?

 

This is my favourite poem from my recently published collection, Chemical Letters, wherein a woman called Caroline wakes up in the periodic table. Because she’s a scientist, she promptly goes exploring. She’s able to do this because the table takes the form of an apartment block, and behind every door is a place or a time related to that element.  This is the aluminium poem.

If you’ve ever been to Piccadilly Circus in London (I have!) you’ll have seen the winged statue on top of a fountain. The statue is popularly – and wrongly – called Eros, but it’s actually his brother Anteros. What’s the difference? Well, Eros is the god of erotic love, while Anteros represents returned love that’s not necessarily erotic in nature. (It was put up to commemorate a philanthropist, so you can see that Anteros is really the more appropriate of the two.)

So what’s this got to do with aluminium? Well, the Piccadilly Anteros is the first statue in the world to be made from aluminium.

Aluminium was first produced in 1825 by the Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, who you can see in the poem above is sitting on the fountain steps beneath Anteros, feeding the ever-present pigeons from a bread bag shaped liked an envelope. Ørsted also happened to write a book called the Kemiske Breve – the Chemical Letters. (See where I’m going with this?)  There’s a visual pun I couldn’t resist here that makes me happy: though it’s not the case in real life, the bricks around this fountain are imprinted with the abbreviations for elements… with H and He and Li, with Al for aluminium…

One of the things that Ørsted wrote about in the Kemiske Breve was cohesion. How chemistry came together, with its particles and elements and magnetic attractions. And it’s this poem that hints as to how Caroline ended up in the periodic table to begin with. A later poem indicates she’s spending her afterlife there. (It’s not just her, and it’s not the only afterlife…)

But why?

Perhaps it’s love that brings like together, says Ørsted, sitting under the statue of love returned.

Perhaps Caroline loved science so much that that love got paid back after death, so she could spend it in the company of what she loved, and those who loved it with her. Perhaps that’s Caroline’s cohesion and coming together, and Ørsted with her…

Yes, I’m a science nerd. Sue me. It’s my favourite of the chemical poems, and the part that sticks it all together. If you want to read more, maybe check out the collection?

Chemical Letters

CoverMy first poetry collection is out! Chemical Letters has just been published by Popcorn Press, and – unsurprisingly, given the title – is about the periodic table of elements.

But as anyone who’s read The August Birds or The Ghost of Matter knows, I like mixing speculative fiction in with my science and this is no different. Chemical Letters is about more than just atomic weights…

A scientist wakes in the periodic table come to life: an apartment block built by Mendeleev, who squats in the basement as superintendent. Behind each door is an element, and as Caroline explores the chemical letters of her professional life, she finds other scientists, other visitors. Van Gogh is painting sunflowers with chromium yellow; the hydrogen of Hindenburg is burning at Lakehurst; Marie Curie is playing catch with radium—and Caroline is stepping through science, opening doors one after the other, searching for a place she can call home.…

You can buy a copy direct from Popcorn Press, or find an e-copy or a print copy at Amazon.

“The Ghost of Matter”

ghost-of-matter_cover_medMy new novella’s out! It came out just yesterday, from Paper Road Press, as part of their Shortcuts series of New Zealand based speculative fiction. The other five stories in the series are fantastic, I’m so pleased to be part of it with all those fantastic authors!

1886. Two young boys disappear in the Sounds. Their mother grieves, all the music cut out of her heart; their father wanders the coast for a year, wanting and not wanting to find any part of them left behind. And their brother Ern, faced with a problem to which no solution can be found, returns to his laboratory – and to the smell of salt, soft voices in his ear, wet footprints welling seawater in the darkness.

The Ghost of Matter weaves together time and memory, physics and mystery, in this story inspired by Ernest Rutherford’s life and research.

I seem to have a real thing about Ernest Rutherford! He turned up in The August Birds last month, and now this. I’ve also got another idea for a novella involving him, and a short story. He just really fires my imagination, especially as he grew up in the same part of New Zealand as I did.

Anyway, there’s an excerpt that’s free to read over at Paper Road, so if this sounds like something you’d like go check it out!

The August Birds: 31 August, 20–

august birds cover jpgSo. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.

 

AUGUST 31, 20–

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

 

“Are we going back home now?” said August. His grip on Muninn’s scapulae was loose, his fingers creaking and weak.

“Not yet,” said Muninn. “This is your birthday, the last day of August. Do you not want to see what happens on this day?”

“You could show me tonight,” said August, not believing it himself but willing to pretend if he could just lie down at last.

“I could not,” said Muninn, and her hoarse raven voice was very gentle.

There was a long silence. “I know,” said August.

#

“It looks like a party,” he said, weary. It was so hard to look around, to lift his head. “A very boring party.” There were no balloons and no cake and no presents, just people sitting silently at table while a grey-haired woman talked at them. Huginn stood on her lectern, gazing up with adoration, silent, invisible. “She’s not even singing,” said August. “There should be singing, at a birthday.”

“She doesn’t like to sing very much,” said Muninn. “She missed a birthday song once, just barely, and never let herself forget it.” She swivelled her head around until it was almost entirely backwards, and gazed down at August from above, gazed at him as he lay flat on her back with his arms about her neck. “Do you not recognise her, little one?” she said, and August blinked dizzy eyes to clear them, tried to make out a face and a figure that were beyond him, almost.

It was the beads he recognised first: the long ropes of bright colours, the twists of cheap beads given out to children at Starship, given out for endurance and bravery both. “Those are my beads,” he said, wondering, and then he knew her. “April,” he said. “It’s April! But she’s gotten so old, Muninn.”

“Not so old,” said the bird, her feathers twitching beneath him. “Just older than you.”

“What’s she doing?” said August, and he tried to sit up, to push himself up to see better. “Who are all these people?”

“They’ve come to see her give the lecture,” said Muninn. “All the Laureates do it. Closer to Christmas, usually, but April held out for August. Your sister achieved something wonderful, you see. She’s the most recent recipient of the Nobel prize–for medicine.”

“Oh,” said August, and it was hard to see again, and differently so. “Oh.” And there it was, the happiness that Muninn had promised him sinking into him as if shot from a shaft, the pain and pleasure of them intertwining: April’s life, come together with his death, and meaning given to both of them.

“How did you know?” he said, and Muninn shrugged, although gently, so not to throw him off.

“It was Huginn that knew,” she said, and August, so nearly memory himself now, remembered what she’d told him so soon past. It is the privilege of thought to see the future, she’d said – and Huginn had seen, and loved his sister for it.

“Better than singing, isn’t it?” said Muninn, and if ravens could smile, she was smiling now. August was sure of it.

“I wish I could tell her,” he said. “I wish, I wish… but it’s no use wishing now, is it?”

“Not for that,” said Muninn. “That is beyond both of us, I’m afraid.”

“I know I have to go,” he said, and it was harder in that brief moment than it had been all the month long, and then he lay down upon the raven’s back and the hardness passed from him and it was easy, still.

“There is another way,” said Muninn. Her iron feathers twitched and smoothed, and her eyes were very, very dark. “I could go in your place,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” said August. It was hard for him to understand anything now, and growing harder. He wanted to listen to April, wanted it badly, but his eyes kept closing and he could hardly make sense of her sentences. She was describing her methods, and it was hard, so hard, to keep up with her. It always had been. Muninn was simpler; easier to listen to, but it was such an effort. He was so tired. All he wanted to do was sleep.

“Shall I tell you a story?” said Muninn. “A story for bedtime, perhaps?”

“Yes please,” said August. He let his eyes rest, half-open, on the beads about April’s neck, let his head nestle into the raven’s back.

“It’s a story about a little girl,” said Muninn. “She had a brother too, and she loved him very much. But he caught the plague and died, and all the imams and physicians in Tunis could not bring him back. They couldn’t help her, either, when the buboes came up black in her neck and her armpits and her thighs. So she lay there, in her hot little bed, with her family dying around her, and then she saw the birds. Two of them, ravens, and they showed her such marvels, for she’d always wanted to see the world. And then she was given a choice: to die or to change, and take the place of one of the ravens and let it go on in her stead.”

“You?” said August.

“Yes.”

“And you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Are you asking me to change?”

“I am.”

“Does it hurt?” said August.

“Yes,” said Muninn. “That is a function of memory.”

“Does Huginn hurt?”

“I believe he is numb, in his way,” said Muninn. “He has been still iron for as long as I have known him, and none have taken his place. But Huginn is thought, and I… I am memory. I remember, August. I remember how Caroline felt as she saw her comet, as if I were Caroline herself. I remember nights on the Pacific and nights in the Antarctic. I remember cold and heat and being burnt by a bomb as bright as the sun. I remember every wonderful thing that ever happened to anybody, and because of that I remember every terrible thing as well.”

#

“He was such a good little boy,” said April, breaking in. “A pain, sometimes, I admit it. All little brothers are. But mostly good. He’d be there in his bed, under this terrible tiger blanket that he’d never give up, and even though he had to spend most of his time there he hardly ever complained. It must have been hard watching life go on around him, never being able to join in. I never quite realised how hard, I think, at the time. I was hardly more than a child myself. And our parents said to focus on the happy times, so that’s what I tried to do. I’d bring him bowls of popcorn and we’d watch silly films together, and we’d go to the park sometimes, or the beach. Things like that. We could never stay as long as I wanted, but it was worth leaving early to see how much pleasure it gave him to be able to go at all. He got left behind a lot, you see. And then it was the rest of us being left behind, and it seemed the happy memories weren’t strong enough, and there were too few of them.”

#

“She loved you very much,” said Muninn.

“I know,” said August. “I love her too. I always knew she’d be wonderful.”

#

“Were there other kids before you?” said August.

“There were,” Muninn replied. “And some chose to be memory and some didn’t. And for those that did, none were memory forever. It fills you up, see. Oh, it was wonderful too at first, with the flying and the travel and the sheer breadth of life stretched out… You can’t imagine anything more marvellous. But they creep up, the memories, until you’re stuffed with them, and bursting. And some days it’s easier and some days it’s not, and some are still wonderful. But some aren’t, and the ones that aren’t add up, and in the end you just feel…”

“How do you feel?” said August.

“Old. I feel old,” said Muninn. “When I changed I had eight years. A little younger than you, and I could never imagine how old a person could be, how old they could feel inside. Like a clock running down, and the space between ticks getting wider.”

“I feel like that,” said August. “Well, not old. But tired. I didn’t think it was possible to be this tired.”

“It’s your body that’s tired, “ said Muninn. “Just your body. There’s more of you that can live, and you wouldn’t have to be tired again for a long, long time.”

“It’s not just my body,” said August. “It’s all of me. And I think… I think no thank you, Muninn. I’d really like to go to sleep, if that’s okay. I used to think it would be so terrible. There was so much I wanted to do, and so much that I’d never get to do. I was sad all the time. I’m not sad any more, Muninn. I’m too tired to be sad. I just want to go to sleep.”

There was a long silence. Then, “I see,” said Muninn, and her voice was weightier than age and iron.

“I’m sorry,” said August. “So sorry. Please, Muninn.”

“Do not be sorry,” said Muninn, and her voice was heavy and so kind. “There is no need for sorry. If you are more tired than I am, little chick, then you go to sleep as nicely as you can.”

“Muninn?” said August. “All those things I never got to do? It’s not so bad. I got to do this, and I got to see you. And Huginn. Will you tell him thank you, please?”

“Huginn is here too,” said Muninn. “Open your eyes, August. Just one more time.”

And when he did, August found he was back in his own little bed, with the tiger blanket and the beads about him and Dad sleeping beside. Huginn and Muninn were standing on the end of his bedstead, their sharp-clawed feet curled around the wooden frame. Huginn had his head on one side, and he was staring at August with flat black eyes, eyes that might have been looking at an insect, or a mouse, or some other small creature of no great significance. He looked, August thought drowsily, as if he were trying to figure out a clue in a crossword, as if August were a tiny cog in a puzzle beyond imagining. And Muninn was there next to him, with her iron eyes softer than he’d seen them yet.

“Muninn?” he said again, and it was harder now to talk than it had ever been. “What was your name, before? When you were little, like me.”

“Hanan,” said Muninn. “I was Hanan.”

“I’m going to be a sparrow, Hanan,” said August, and his voice was very quiet as he closed his eyes and went out into darkness.

#

And that’s it for The August Birds. Thanks for following along! If you liked it – or even if you didn’t – please consider leaving a review at Goodreads or Amazon or at your favourite retailer or review site.

If you’d like a copy for yourself,  The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!

© Octavia Cade