Author Archives: boldsaintcroix

About boldsaintcroix

I write and teach about the history of astronomy. My research has appeared in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, Mercury, and is forthcoming in Endeavour. My dissertation examines the stellar astronomy of the 19c British astronomer Sir John Herschel. I also write fiction, which has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lore, Shimmer, Andromeda Spaceways, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and more. My first collection of short stories, Trees & Other Wonders is available on Amazon. For more on my research, see my Academia page. You can also visit my website @ www.stephenrcase.com.

Better Late than Never? 2018 Awards Eligibility Post

The past year was a good one for publishing short fiction. Here’s my list of publications, along with links.

The Chora Gate,” (approx. 4600 words) published in Mysterion (December 24, 2018)

Occultation of the Bright Aspects,” (approx. 10,200 words) published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show 66 (December 2018)

“Thistledown Sky,” (approx. 1900 words) published in Shimmer 46 (November 2018)

Apotheosis,” (approx. 1400 words) published Daily Science Fiction (October 5, 2018)

“The Lasting Hills,” (approx. 800 words) published in the Shards Anthology

The Turning of the Year: A Christmas Update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on the blog, but things have been busy! New stories out for your reading pleasure, along with some fantastic illustrations. Read all about it in my latest newsletter. And if you’d like to keep up with these, as I tend to send updates on MailChimp more often than the blog as of late, please sign up for my mailing list!

New First Fleet cover

I’ll be going live with a give-away of the new First Fleet edition soon as well, so be sure to check my Twitter feed for updates on that! Be well, and happy new year!

 

2017 Writing Year in Review

This past year was a good one for placing fiction but an even better one for placing book reviews. Find below a list of writing highlights from the past twelve months, with loads of links to free content.

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A writing retrospective
Sometimes the work is slow, and in the midst of day-to-day endeavors it feels like not much is getting done. But looking back over the course of the year, it turns out a surprising amount of work does indeed get done, regardless of how it appears on any given morning. And then some of that even gets published. So here, for a moment in the sunset of 2017, I offer a comprehensive look back at what I’ve been doing over the course of the previous year. Four stories were published, including two fantasy pieces in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and ten book reviews in publications like Black Gate, Strange Horizons, and Grimdark Magazine. And it turns out I accidentally sort of wrote a book, which you can also find below.

mythic issue 2

Fiction
Another chapter in my “Wizard’s House” series, an epic dark fantasy, British pumpkin soldiers, and hard scifi on first contact and universal dissolution. The first three you can read following the links below; the last is available in the magazine for purchase.

The Wind’s Departure,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Harvest,” Bracken Magazine issue 4
Deathspeaker,”Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Color of the Flame,” MYTHIC Issue 2

 

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Book Reviews
Most of the fiction I read this year found its way into print as book reviews. You can find links to almost all of them below. For the MYTHIC reviews though, you’ll need to purchase the issues if interested.

Strange Horizons
Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages
ODY-C: Cycle One, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Black Gate
The Man Underneath: the Collected Short Fiction of R. A. Lafferty, vol. 3
The Language of the Night, by Ursula LeGuin
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Grimdark Magazine
Three Books to Get you Stuck into Warhammer 40,000”

MYTHIC
Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson & John Joseph Adams,” (Summer 2017)
Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams,” (Spring 2017)
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Karen Joy Fowler,” (Spring 2017)

Ten Generations cover

Books
Making Stars Physical will hopefully be a part of next year’s end-year review, and I hope to very, very soon be able to unveil the cover for this forthcoming work. The folks at University of Pittsburgh Press are doing an amazing job with this, and I’m quite excited. In the meantime though I put together a small work for my father for Christmas that chronicled the history of our family in America. Along the way I found a document my grandfather had prepared of his recollections before his death, which I edited and included in the work and which blossomed into a 60-page book. I printed it via Createspace, so if any of my family are reading this update and are interested in a copy, it is available. The cost covers printing alone; it was meant to be a gift, and it includes my grandfather’s unpublished writings, so I will not make any money on the sales.

 

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Books Read:
I hope to get over this soon, but in the meantime I have a compulsion to review every book I read here on my blog. The list below are the books I read and reviewed in 2017 that did not have reviews published elsewhere.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
Lighthouses & Keepers: the U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy
One Summer, America 1927
Beginning to Pray
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Son of Laughter
Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Kindling the Divine Spark
Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Knowledge for Sale: the Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education
Victoria: the Queen
Praying with Icons
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
Good Boy, Achilles!
St. Siluoan the Athonite
The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

As always, thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2018!

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a DogHow to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a Dog by Lee Alan Dugatkin

To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . . One only understands the things that one tames, said the fox. Men have no more time to understand anything.

— The Little Prince

One of the obvious and forgotten wonders of the human experience is our domestication of other species. “One only understands the things that one tames,” the fox explains in De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. “Men have no more time to understand anything.”

Domestication transformed both domesticator and domesticated, and indeed some scientists believe homo sapiens should itself be considered a self-domesticated variety of primate. Yet the mechanisms, history, and genetic implications of domestication are poorly understood. Why is it possible to domesticate some animals (horses), while close relatives (zebras) remain untamable? Why were so few species domesticated in our history, and how was this accomplished?

For the past sixty years, a remarkable experiment has been underway in Siberia to understand this process by recreating it with foxes. In just over a half a century—the blink of an evolutionary eye—Russian scientists have succeeded in domesticating foxes to the point where they live with humans and behave remarkably like dogs. Along the way, this has illuminated genetic changes unlocked when animals are unnaturally selected for calmness and tameness.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is the story of this experiment, documenting its history from its inception under the reign of Lenin to today. It is a popular treatment co-authored by an American evolutionary biologist and the Russian scientist who currently heads the project. The authors use the work to examine a variety of scientific issues, including evolutionary genetics, the role of hormone production in wild versus tame species, genetic coding, and primate evolution. Along the way there is also plenty historical context revealing what it was like to navigate a large, enduring experiment through the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yet there are flaws with the book as well, specifically related to its awkwardly hagiographic tone regarding the founder of the experiment, the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev, as well as an un-self-conscious neglect of the ambivalent ethical background of the experiment carried out against the background of the Soviet fur industry and entailing generations of thousands of foxes raised in cages to be euthanized for their fur. The authors gloss over these implications for their research, focusing instead on the innate appeal of the idea of being able to take a fox home for a pet.

Writing Life (for now)

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I snapped the picture above a couple years ago in Brescia, Italy. I was there teaching some astronomy lessons at a portable planetarium in a local school, part of a teaching exchange program that had taken me and Christine to Rome, Assisi, Gorizia, and ultimately Venice. I didn’t do much writing while I was there, but I occasionally find an image or photo that I captured on the trip that seems to fit with what I’ve been writing lately. This lane of Roman stones in Brescia, softened by green, was part of a tour we were given of the ancient corners of the city by our host. People have paced that lane for centuries, but on that particular afternoon we saw no one.

My writing lately has focused on keeping up with fiction reviews and research. For a while I was doing a good job (probably a pathologically good job) of posting a review of every book I read on this blog. It was fun. It helped me keep the books I had read straight in my head, helped me to enter into conversations with the authors and the concepts they were engaging. I hope to do that here again, but it got to be less fun. It started to feel like an obligation. Also, I started publishing my reviews elsewhere. (If you’re interested, my latest review appeared at Grimdark Magazine not long ago and I have others forthcoming in Mythic Magazine and at Black Gate.) So, things have been quiet here for a while.

As far as research goes, I have a few grants that I’ve been working on, one of which I hope will be bearing fruit shortly (and perhaps sending me back down certain cobbled lanes). My forthcoming work of nonfiction, Making Stars Physical: John Herschel’s Astronomy, is at the presses now (in some kind of possibly literal sense) with University of Pittsburgh Press. We’re looking at a Spring/Summer 2018 release. I just saw copy on the book for their spring catalogue, complete with lovely blurbs from colleagues, so that was encouraging.

In fiction, I can’t stay away from Diogenes Shell and his floating house. There have been three installments in his saga to date, with a fourth, “The Wind’s Departure,” out today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you have a minute, take a look at it. Diogenes tries to keep his promises, confronts the god, and returns home– after a fashion.

Promises, I have come to understand, are the aureate chains that tether a wizard’s life, the margins that hem and structure his magic. We live by the promises we make, just as we draw power from the promises the world keeps with itself.
-Diogenes Shell, in “The Wind’s Departure”

Check it out, stay in touch, and as always– let me know what you think.

Imagining the Kingdom

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship WorksImagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith

[I]f the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perception we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently—and hence perceive differently and so act differently. (163)

Growing up I was often confused and conflicted about worship, and I was very nearly an early casualty of the “church music wars.” Choruses came into my life in a big way when I was young, and though they left me frustrated and uneasy, it seemed equally useless to argue for hymns. Arguing about music seemed pointless because both sides were beginning from differing premises. Worship was either a commodity to consume or a means of didactic instruction: was there better theology in the hymns or greater emotional (and thus “spiritual”) resonance in the choruses?

Choruses or hymns—either way, it was still all about me. I remember feeling a hunger for worship—for something—that pushed me out of the spotlight and yet still did something fundamental to me that wasn’t just the addition of a certain feeling or information. I had lots of conversations with youth leaders trying to help me sort this out. (And it was patient mentors who kept me searching for answers within the Church, who made it clear that my questions were okay and that Christianity was big enough for me to find my answers within.) They explained that some people connected more emotionally and others connected more intellectually and that I just needed to find the right means of connection for me.

Part of me still agrees with this to some extent. I am an epistemological post-modernist: I hold that there are multiple ways of searching for and engaging with truth. I know enough of the history of human thought to recognize the validity of such a claim. But at the same time I felt (and continue to feel) there is something objectively lacking in much contemporary evangelical worship and that simply saying some people are too “intellectual” for worshipping that way doesn’t really work. Moreover, I think some of our forms of worship are doing active harm to those who practice them.

This is where James K. A. Smith’s second volume of his Cultural Liturgies series, entitled Imagining the Kingdom, becomes so incredibly helpful—for those who can wade through the philosophical apparatus Smith constructs to make what seem like largely intuitive points. Smith examines the importance of forms of worship. Worship, he believes, is missional—it’s a call to action. But, as he spends most of the book explaining, the mistake most evangelical Christians make is assuming that humans are rational actors, that we act primarily on the knowledge that we have. If this is the case, then experiencing Christianity would be absorbing knowledge through hymns, sermons, Sunday School, etc. But this is not the case. Instead, worship, according to Smith, should be the education of our imaginations.

[P]erhaps the mind of Christ is also something that is acquired through practice and formation, something that emerges as a result of sanctification rather than an informational deposit. (114)

Smith marshals a host of psychologists and philosophers to argue for a philosophy of action based on something deeper than intellect, based on our “embodied knowledge” and habitus. He discusses this in a few different ways, but his argument at the core is one I think most would agree upon: that our cultural forms predispose our perceptions on a largely unconscious level and that every day we act on these assumptions prior to conscious thought. These “lenses” or “frameworks” (and Smith has to bracket a lot of his expressions in scare quotes throughout the work) Smith argues are shaped in two primary and related ways: through “embodied knowledge” and through narrative. The first is based on the fact that our bodies learn over and above our minds huge amounts of social and cultural cues that unconsciously effect our actions. He uses the example of learning to properly hold a fork or eat at the table. That physical habits embodies a whole spectrum of cultural and social knowledge that we learn by “feel” rather than intellect.

I “think about” the world second; first I’m engaged in it as an actor whose motivations and ends are practical and largely “unconscious.” It is habitus that is “the basis of perception” and all subsequent experiences. Indeed, in some significant sense, experience is only possible because of habitus. (83)

In regards to narrative, Smith argues that the stories were are taught (and the stories we embody) also inform our actions prior to conscious thought. The panhandler on the street, for instance: our initial, unthinking response is shaped by whether we have imbibed a narrative of personal responsibility and American opportunity or a narrative about generosity and the value of all as children of God. That narrative shapes our perceptions themselves, not simply how we chose to act on those perceptions. It is narrative that trains our emotional perceptual apparatus to perceive the world as meaningful. (108) Narrative is the unconscious framework structuring our perceptions prior to though. Story is the lingua franca of incarnate significance. (160)

[W]e have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination. Moreover, because of this neglect and our stunted anthropology, we have failed to recognize the degree and extent to which secular liturgies [consumerism, nationalism, egoisms] do implicitly capitalize on our embodied penchant for storied formation. (39)

If all that is the case (and much of the density of this book comes from Smith meticulously building up this case in a rigorous fashion that unfortunately makes it largely inaccessible to the audience I think he’s aiming for) Smith argues that the role of worship is to shape our habitus, to form our embodied knowledge and structure our narrative—not simply by giving us knowledge but rather by having us participate in physical practices that form our perceptions on a deeper level than intellect. Worship shapes the imagination. That means that the forms of worship themselves, especially our physical postures, are important. They are not (and this is critical for Smith) neutral “containers” that can be whatever form (traditional or contemporary) needed to most effectively carry the important stuff, the content. No, the forms themselves embody and articulate perception and postures and aesthetic awareness that shape the worshippers.

[I]f we aim to form Christian actors and agents of renewal, then dispositional deflection requires sanctifying perception—for it is our bodily comportment (praktognosia) that constitutes the world in which we are called and moved to act. To shape perception is to transform action because we transform the “world” in which we find ourselves. . . . We need nothing less than a Christian imagination. (157)

This is where Smith’s argument finds its teeth, but unfortunately it comes very late in the treatise. And, just as most readers will likely agree with Smith’s emphasis on the importance of non-intellectual factors to shape perception, I think many readers would follow Smith here as well. We all knew this on some level, once upon a time. We were taught that you dressed a certain way on Sundays and that you behaved in a certain way in the sanctuary. You spoke in a certain tone. You didn’t run in church. We learned the rubric of reverence before we had the intellectual tools to understand it, and by so doing we understood certain things about our relationship with God on a deeper level than conscious thought. Yet somewhere along the line that embodied knowledge, that habitus, was thrown out because it was seen as legalistic, as divorced from the important stuff: the knowledge about Christ, which could just as easily (and perhaps more “effectively”) be delivered by a preacher wearing jeans and flip-flops.

But Smith’s point is that we have indeed lost something, that the forms are not neutral. I wish he would have gone into more detail here, as this is I think where his argument finds its application and could be a prophetic voice for the larger evangelical church today. He gives basically one example, which again is familiar to most of us, the idea of the consumerist form of worship being considered a neutral package in which to deliver knowledge of Christ but actually and unconsciously forming us to view Christ as simply another commodity to be consumed. I could add my own example from my own experience: the form of worship as emotivist appeal, training us to think of worship as both a form of performance and entertainment and shaping us to view our narrative with Christ through individualist, emotivist lenses.

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. . . .[W]e begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on.
. . .[S]uch strategies are inherently “intellectualist,” both because they reduce the gospel to a (propositional) “message” and (because of that) completely miss the formative power of the forms themselves. Because such “relevant” paradigms are unwittingly intellectualist, they fail to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not neutral; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel like the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.
(168-9)

I think Smith is largely correct in his evaluation, but I wish his treatment would have been one that was aimed for a more popular than academic audience. Most Christian thinkers who make it through this book would agree with Smith, but most worship leaders who really need to grapple with the concepts he’s laying out would likely be turned off by the length to which he goes to make them academically rigorous. The appeal to the forms of worship here and their urgency for the Church is real, but it gets rather lost (ironically) in a thicket of intellectual discourse, despite James’s valiant attempts to connect the concepts throughout with examples from contemporary poetry, literature, and film.

Lighthouses & Keepers

Lighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its LegacyLighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy by Dennis L. Noble

Something about lighthouses captured our family’s fancy this past summer, and we found ourselves visiting as many as we could along the western coast of Lake Michigan. Their appeal is aesthetic, certainly, the romance of the shoreline and a lost time passed. But the amount of history—of commerce, technology, transportation—they represent is also significant, and I remembered a colleague who, in the early days of my PhD program, suggested that the history of the US Lighthouse Board would be a good topic for a dissertation, one on which there was still a great deal to be done. After spending some time this summer exploring lighthouses, I figured it might be time to revisit this idea, so I started looking for material. And it turns out the only recent book-length treatment on the topic is Lighthouses & Keepers by Dennis Noble, a survey of the history of the US Lighthouse Service. The book provides an outline of the contours of this history that any more detailed study would be built upon.

Basically, the narrative of lighthouses in the United States goes something like this: the construction of lighthouses in Colonial times and the early days of the republic was haphazard and poorly managed. Their construction and supervision was linked with the collection of customs, and supervision of the lighthouses (or “aids to navigation”) was under the fifth auditor of the US Treasury, a man by the name of Stephen Pleasanton, who would control lighthouses for over thirty years, beginning in the early 1800s. The problem was that besides having no maritime experience, Pleasanton was primarily focused on keeping his political bailiwick as economically lean as possible. Noble claims that Pleasanton, along with his primary contractor, was responsible for retarding the development of lighthouses even as they proliferated on both coasts and the Great Lakes. This growing crisis, which Noble talks about briefly in terms of rising cost to life and commerce because of poor aids to navigation, precipitated the founding of the US Lighthouse Board in 1852.

This is where a detailed study could really sink some teeth into the narrative and provide context. What was the popular, contemporary feeling regarding lighthouses, or were there particular incidents that swung public and government opinion toward founding the Board to address the issue? Noble credits the Board with transforming lighthouse management in a manner of years from “a service of political appointees, with haphazard accomplishment” to a professional government service. How exactly was this accomplished? Part of the explanation, according to Noble, was the composition of the Board, which included civilian scientific representatives (like Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute) as well as army and navy officers. Part was also the fact that the Board issued detailed instructions for keepers, standardizing equipment and procedures. Part of this was technical innovation as well, with Noble treats briefly in discussions of oil and Fresnel lenses. But all of this discussion in Lighthouses & Keepers is generally superficial, simply one chapter in a longer overview of the Lighthouse Service, which came into being at the Board’s recommendations.

Noble has chapters on all aspects of the Service, not just lighthouses. He discusses lightships (which had a unique history on the Great Lakes), buoys, fog signals, and tenderships (ships that provided service and supplies). All of this provides a snapshot of aspects of the work of the Service, before it was disbanded in 1939— or rather, merged with the US Coast Guard, which again would be an interesting period to examine because, as Noble discusses, Coast Guard were enlisted officers whereas keepers were almost entirely civilian, so the merger of the two organizations inevitably led to some friction. Lighthouses, perhaps more than any other iconic structures, seem to embody history, and Noble’s book is an excellent (and perhaps really the only) way to access the institutional history behind them.