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Port Talbot Steelworks
The area I grew up in is in the news in the UK this week.

There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.

My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.

It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.

Port Talbot Steelworks

It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.

From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.

Port Talbot Steelworks

Port Talbot Steelworks

Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.

Margam Castle

You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.

The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.

And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.

I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.

It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.

Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.

It becomes landscape.

Ridley Scott on the inspiration a similar industrial landscape had on him:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.

The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.

Science & Science Fiction at the Royal Institution

A funny, interesting but sometimes scatter-gun talk at the Royal Institution by two engaging academics in the field of science communication.

My favourite quote is above in the title of this post, which they take from Prof Mark Rose: “Science Fiction is the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic”.

Rough notes follow.

Science & science-ficiton / RI
7.4.09
——
Introduced: Jenny rowan , lablit magazine
Prof Mark Brake / Rev Neil Hook (uni of glamorgan)
Their book: “Difference engines: how science drives fiction and fiction drives science”

“I like to think of the earth as an alien planet” (this reminds me of BLDGBLOG/Geoff Manuagh’s contention that “the earth is becoming unearthly“)

copernican revolution made it that way

infinite, inhuman universe as opposed to earth-centric Aristotelean cosmos (earth myths populated heaven)

“if copernicus wasn’t enough, then came Darwinism”

“a series of demotions”

“SF is a response to the cultural shock of discovering our marginal place in an alien universe”

“an attempt put the stamp of humanity back on the universe”

we can identify 4 themes (based on prof mark rose)

1. space
2. time
3. machine
4. monster

SPACE

something to be conquered, part of dominion over nature

TIME

flux, change, process, revealed over time
contradiction, paradoxes

MACHINE
computers atom bombs, robots, but also 1984, Brave New World: social machines

MONSTER
about us, the monster within.
remaking of human.
super heroes = upbeat monsters

SPACE

copernican rev:
if the earth is a planet, then the planets can be earths
Galileo gave this evidence: mountains, craters, features on moons
sudden decentralisation, diversity, possibility
Kepler: 1st book of sci-fi 1630s “Somnium”
Bishop Godwin: 1st alien contact story

new discoveries, mediated by SF: the play between: alienation / sensawunda

kepler to gallileo: “there will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered flight…” look up

Bishop Godwin of Llandaff: “man in the moon” – kept it secret, published posthumously
shipwrecked Spanish buccaneer trains flock of 40 geese in an apparatus, geese fly to the moon in winter, moon white because covered in geese, so travels to the moon.
meets king of moon
moon = utopia, earth is the dumping ground for the moon’s rejects.

robert goddard wrote to h.g. wells to tell him how he was inspired by ‘wotw’

rocket launch countdown was invented by fritz lang as a cinematic shortcut, and then adopted by science.

TIME

industrial revolution, earth working, fossil record: the long now evident, species that walked the earth

time was something to be mastered (baconian/enlightment science: nature to be mastered)

mechanised time travel = industrialised britain

kronos/ charios – Greek words for time

kronos – more concerned with measurement and mastery of time
industrialised time

HGWells: 4th dimension, to be measured, managed and mastered

1894 The Time Machine / 1905 special relativity

space-time is born. a revolution in time.

the time machine – double meaning to the title.
time traveller sets out to master time, but finds time is the master.
we are all trapped in the time machine.

Ballard, Drowned World: (not mentioning his fixation race-memory, mitochondrial time?)

MACHINE

Carel Kapek Rossums Universal Robots
Asimov’s 3 laws (+ zeroth law) – based on Hippocratic oath
now enshrined in s. Korean laws!
machine takes human form (stamping humanity on the unknown)
martin rees – industrialisation might be a mass-extinction event (a 400 year ELE)

atom bomb imagined by hg wells in ;the world set free 1914 (cf. de groot)
influenced leo szilard, initiated/lobbied roosevelt to create manhattan project

red alert peter george 1956, adapted by kubrick to strangelove

MONSTERS & ALIENS

Godzilla: a proxy for dealing with the consequences of the WW2 atomic warfare
took a machine and turned it into a monster (with two legs and two arms – again the stamp of the human on the new)

Most monsters and aliens are proxies or cyphers for ourselves
(only unknowable alien in SF is Lem’s Solaris)

Giger’s Alien and Hannibal Lecter are the same? Monsters and aliens – we are in the middle, examining ourselves through these characters.

closing remarks from prof. brake.
we’re the first generation living in a science-ficitonal world, sf is hardcore reality, not escapism…

——
q&a:

aldiss: SF is ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis’
prof mark rose: SF is: ‘the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic’

questioner mentions: greg egan short story (wang’s carpets? may have misheard) sea of carbohydrates performing computation.

question (from a biologist): the attitude to progress and evolution in much of SF
is not very sophisticated in it’s understanding of biology. eg. 2001.

Brake: much of SF is very physically determinist, hierarchical in its view and many of the 20th’s spokespersons about biology thought there was not life other than on earth. interesting to see what astrobiology brings to it.

Given to me by my Paul Peter Piech as I left for the Welsh School of Architecture in 1990.

My Dad found it and gave it back to me last time I went home to Porthcawl. Honoured that he chose to sign it “Uncle Paul” – he was a great friend to my father and a great influence on me.

From Paul’s Obituary by Lottie Hoare from The Independent, 1996:

“Some remarkable individuals keep on believing, throughout their lives, that the world could change for the better. The artist and printer Paul Peter Piech was one such man. He was born in Brooklyn in 1920, the son of Ukrainian immigrants looking for a new way of life in America. From their tough example Piech learnt both to work hard and to speak out when it mattered. His books and posters confront the viewer with the need for global responsibility and co-operation. One piece borrows the words of John Donne, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

It goes on to describe the way he worked – which I remember well. Prolific doesn’t begin to describe it. He spent most of his time in his studio working, but he often visited my dad in his framing workshop, or the printers where I worked. He would come in to get enlargements on the photocopier, copies from books – art, design, philosophy, politics, and he would always explain to me what he was doing with them, even though I was just a spotty 15 year-old printer’s devil.

“Piech did not crave the perfect studio. He was happy to work in garages. In his series of suburban homes, in Middlesex, Herefordshire and Wales, he would spend evenings cutting his lettering direct on to the lino, whilst keeping one eye on Coronation Street. It was a family joke that Christmas Day ended at 10 in the morning. Once the presents were open Piech went back to his proofs.

His fellow printer and writer Kenneth Hardacre once described the urgency of Piech’s output as that of “a man whose need to communicate his faith and his fears was so pressing that it often appeared to be impatient with the very means he had chosen for expressing that need”.

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