or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'm Dyin' Here

Today at the gym, as usual, one of the TVs was tuned to TLC and, as usual, an episode of the unavoidable "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" was on, and will someone explain to me the appeal of watching a publicity whore with a functioning uterus and chemically overstimulated ovaries peddle her kids to the highest bidder?

And on the way home I saw a vanity licence plate--"vanity" being the operative word--reading "2SASY4U", which seems like the sort of plate that Gosselin would have. As far as I'm concerned, "sassy" is a word that other people get to apply to you: if you use it to describe yourself, it generally means you're a screechy, obnoxious endlessly talkative attention junkie who thinks she's fun but is in fact kind of an asshole.

But lest this turn into some sort of unintended festival of misogyny (I'm just in a slightly grumpy mood, is all), let's have a look at this sentence from the introduction to the rather good book* "Deep Time" by Gregory Benford, which I'm re-reading, at least in part, for probably the third time:

The Pharaohs apparently built the pyramids to solidify their hold on the world's first and greatest Thantocracy.


Thanatos was a minor Greek divinity, the personification of death. (He had a twin brother, Hypnos, the personification of sleep, and a shitload of siblings: deception, suffering, doom, old age, strife, blame, and actually pretty much every bad thing you can think of.) You will have seen his name in the word "euthanasia", compounded from Greek "eu-", "good", plus "Thanatos", plus "-ia", which we use to turn things into nouns.

Therefore, a government ("-cracy") whose functioning is controlled by the idea of death ("Thanatos") is a thanatocracy, and not a "thantocracy", which is not a word but a mere typo, and one that shouldn't have found its way into the finished book. The thing is, though, that this part of the book was reprinted in the magazine "Fantasy and Science Fiction", and you can read it here, and the typo is in that, too, so what happened? Did the FSF people just get a chunk of text and shove it in there without proofreading or even spellchecking it? 'Cause that's not right.

*Rather good. Not great, because I find it starts to drop off about halfway through as the ideas get less concrete and more fanciful. Still, the central idea of the book is fascinating: that a human lifespan is short but human existence is long, and we try to cheat death by communicating through the millennia. How we have done this in the past and how we might continue to do it into the future is a difficult and fascinating topic. The book starts with an extremely immediate problem: how to dispose of enormous quantities of radioactive waste that will remain poisonous for thousands of years, and more to the point, how to mark the sites of disposal so that their danger will be understood for all those thousands of years, persisting through any conceivable changes in society, civilization, language, and climate. The second part of the book is the story of how we sent a probe into deep space, tried to include a little encyclopedia of our culture in it, and failed utterly due to infighting and politicking. After that it gets, to my mind, rather uninterestingly speculative, perhaps because we've read this sort of thing before: how to preserve the DNA of all species through possible extinctions, and how to deal with the long-term consequences of human-generated climatic change. But maybe you'll like the second half better than I did, and even if you don't, the first half of the book is well worth a read, and will set your mind whirling for days. If this sort of thing interests you, you might also want to read about the Clock of the Long Now.


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