Friday, November 01, 2013

Links 01/11/13

Not a link as such - I'm appearing at the World Fantasy convention in Brighton this Saturday. I'll be signing books at a couple of launches, and doing a panel on 'Does SF have a future?' at 5pm. Say hi if you're attending.  Meanwhile:

New views of Titan reveal salt flats around its lakes, and the giant hydrocarbon dunes of the equatorial region dubbed ''Senkyo.''

'The United Nations is forming an "International Asteroid Warning Group" on the advice of an association of former astronauts, to share data about threatening asteroids. In a set of forthcoming recommendations, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) will loosely outline the emergency steps that the UN's longstanding Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space must take if the asteroid warning group identifies an extinction-level space rock on a collision course with Earth. (The best option, according to ASE, would be to crash a spacecraft into the asteroid to knock it off course.)'

'A video based on topographical data of Mars taken by a European satellite gives Earth-dwellers an aerial view of the red planet's surface.'

'Six students from De Montfort University won first prize in the Off The Map challenge when they turned maps of seventeenth centuryLondon into a detailed 3D world.'

'Deep below the streets of New York City lie its vital organs—a water system, subways, railroads, tunnels, sewers, drains, and power and cable lines—in a vast, three-dimensional tangle. Penetrating this centuries-old underworld of caverns, squatters, and unmarked doors, William Langewiesche follows three men who constantly navigate its dangers: the subway-operations chief who dealt with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the engineer in charge of three underground mega-projects, and the guy who, well, just loves exploring the dark, jerry-rigged heart of a great metropolis.'

Thursday, October 31, 2013


'Did you ever go clear?' Leonard Cohen

So last week I got the results of a CT scan - my seventh since I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in October 2010. The tumour was surgically removed, but because it had grown through the bowel wall and invaded a single lymph node by the time symptoms had become become apparent, there was a strong chance (about 60%) that it would appear elsewhere.

As long as bowel and many other cancers are diagnosed early enough, it isn't the original tumour that kills you (and you aren't 'cured' when it's removed - XKCD has a very good explanation of this). No, it's most often the secondaries, created by metastasis. In the case of bowel cancer, these usually appear in the lungs or liver.  Presenting not as lung or liver cancer, but proliferating nodules similary to the primary tumour.  The problem is, doctors can't yet detect cancer cells floating free in the blood or lymph. That's why, after surgery, I was treated with chemotherapy: infused every two weeks or so with a carefully calibrated cocktail of chemicals that killed off dividing cells (before every treatment, you're weighed like a prize fighter).  It's rather like napalming a jungle to get rid of a few pesky insurgents. You don't know that they're there when you strike; you can't be certain you've killed them afterwards; you cause a lot of collateral damage. Most cells in the human body are eventually replaced by new ones; epithelial cells and cells in the marrow, generating various kinds of blood cells, amongst others, proliferate continuously. Until, that is, they are blasted with cytotoxic chemicals. During my treatment, blood platelet and white blood cell counts plummeted; I developed mouth and tongue ulcers, and various digestive upsets as cells lining my GI tract died and sloughed away. Other side effects included fatigue, memory loss and cognitive disfunction (chemobrain); I've been left with peripheral neuropathy in my feet and fingertips because one of the drugs, a platinum compound, attacked my sensory nerves. I also suffered side effects from the steroids and other drugs pumped into me to counter the side effects of the chemotherapy - although at least I was never stricken by nausea.

Oh, and I can't drink coffee now. So it goes.

Every six months, I was scanned: photocopied by multiple X-rays which were assembled into a 3D image and carefully examined to discover whether or not secondary tumours were growing elsewhere. You quickly get used to the minor ordeal of being infused with contrast dye and fed through a giant white doughnut that sounds alarmingly like a washing machine about to spin itself to fragments; you never get used to scanxiety, a clumsy but highly accurate neologism for the state of mind endured before the scan, and afterwards, while you wait for the results. Kind of like jumping out of a plane, and then waiting a week or so until you know the chute is going to open. Or not.

I've been lucky. Each scan has been clear; the latest is also clear, and hopefully will be my last. After three years, the statistical chance of secondary tumours arising in liver, lungs, or elsewhere is hugely reduced. I'll continue to have blood tests for a tumour marker, but if all goes well I will no longer need to be photocopied.

I'm not cured, of course. That milestone is declared after five years, although it's a notional date; there's still a small chance that the cancer could return after that. And after you've survived cancer you are in a different place. You've been betrayed at a cellular level; you've been rudely and violently confronted with your own mortality; you've undergone several years of anxiety and uncertainty and extremely high vigilance, worrying over small aches and pains that beforehand would have gone unremarked. You've changed. But after a war fought on your behalf, with your body as a battleground, you have survived. You can begin to make long-term plans again. You can take up your new life.

It's a good feeling.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Following on from Thor and The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World is the latest in Marvel's project to map its universe into film. Like the first Thunder God flick, it's a sword and ray-gun epic, using Clarke's third law to explain the Norse gods' powers and accoutrements as advanced technology (the rainbow bridge, Bifrost, is the entrance to a suite of wormholes, there are force fields, glancing references to nanotechnology and so on); unlike its predecessor, it's a ponderous epic, attempting to mesh the ongoing romance between scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a by-the-numbers struggle against a villain who threatens to end the universe by unleashing a powerful amorphous substance, red matter - sorry, aether - when the nine worlds align.

I liked the original Thor comics when I was a teenager; and I liked the first film, too, for its marvellous depiction of Asgard, Tom Hiddleston's mercurial Loki, and the vigour and charm of Hemsworth's Thor, a superhero who actually had fun with his powers and needed only to learn a little humility to come into his own. The sequel looks just as lovely, but is far more hectic, a space-opera version of Lord of the Rings coloured by Norse mythology.  Tom Hiddleston and Rene Russo (reprising her role as Odin's wife, Freya) give standout performances, but Hemsworth's Thor is dialed-down to gloomy king-in-waiting, for most of the film Portman's Foster is little more than a plot coupon, and Chris Eccelston's dark elf is a one-dimensional all-evil-all-of-the-time villain.  As if to make up for the thinness of the story, it's crammed with action and eye-kicks - notably a space ship smashing its way into the Hall of Asgard.  There's some nice business during a breakout from Asgard, and it does lighten up a little when Thor gets back to Earth (there are a couple of good jokes, and one that might have worked if the writers had bothered to look at a Tube map), but otherwise it rarely rises above your basic by-the-numbers universe-in-peril schtick.  Stick with the credits crawl: there's a teaser for the next in the sequence, and right at the end, after all the pixel wranglers and digital wizards, as if no room could be found for it amongst the thud and blunder, there's a small, quiet, human moment.  Fun to watch as long as you suspend all judgement, but in the end another triumph of CGI spectacle over actual story.
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