Monday, February 24, 2003

"A Scattering of Jades" by Alexander C. Irvine

I saw a review of this book--I'm pretty sure it was the NY Times Book Section--and knew immediately I had to read it: Aaron Burr, P.T. Barnum, Aztecs, Mammoth Caves... How could I resist? While this book is categorized as "historical fantasy," the Aztec pantheon of bloodthirsty gods is just such ripe fodder for horror... I also love the ants that come marching through at odd moments; it's bizarre how menacing an endless line of those small creatures can be.

The evil nemesis of "Scattering" is a resurrected, mummified "chacmool" (a sort of human-jaguar-feathered-serpent), and the descriptions of this creature as it changes and combines the characteristics of its many aspects are mesmerizing. The chacmool is a servant/incarnation of Tlaloc, the god of earth and rain, or "He Who Makes Things Grow," and among his other tricks, he derails a train by causing dead wood to sprout and grow branches that entwine and disable the machine.

I'm not familiar with Mammoth Caves, and so can't speak to the accuracy of detail, but the descriptions were at once realistic and eerie. While I doubt such a link was the author's intention, I found myself reminded of viewing a chacmool after climbing up an ancient Toltec-Mayan temple that is completely encased inside the newer "El Castillo" at Chichen Itza. The steps were so worn as to be almost unnegotiable, and condensation from the breathing crush of visitors was so heavy that it ran down the walls like rainwater.

I only wish "Scattering" had included more about the Burr-Blennerhassett connection and the conspiracy to establish a separate western country with its own government, as well as a more prominent role for P.T. Barnum and his New York museum. It's amazing where matching up timelines in different parts of the world can get you. And what effect did Nelson's success at Trafalgar have on politics in America? Hmmm. But then I guess that would be rewriting the book to tell my own story...

Monday, February 17, 2003

"The Pursuit of Oblivion; A Global History of Narcotics" by Richard Davenport-Hines.

I spotted this on the new books shelf in the library, and picked it up in hopes of learning more about the history, uses, and effects of laudanum--for a current WIP. In fact it's a pretty interesting book, well referenced from a historical standpoint, that focuses on opiates, but also covers a variety of illicit drugs--from prescription sleeping and diet drugs to marijuana and cocaine. I eventually gave up on the last couple of chapters, just because I lost interest in the debate between regulation and prohibition. Not that these issues aren't important, I'm just personally more interested in the science and the history.

While the properties of opium have apparently been known for thousands of years, the development of what we know as laudanum (a cordial of opium in wine or spirits) is credited to the English physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689). Its usefulness as a painkiller and soporific were instantly recognized, as was its ability to induce dependency. That knowledge, of course, didn't stop over-prescription by unqualified practitioners.

An offhand comment that has potential: "Francis Bacon (1561-1626) claimed that by mixing myrrh with human blood he discovered the secret of immortality." Hmmm.

From as early as the 18th century, opium seems to have had a recognized usefulness in controlling women--from alleviating PMS to relieving the nausea of early pregnancy. In the 19th century, Prime Minister Gladstone's sister Helen became an addict, apparently as an escape from her oppressive family. Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) was addicted since girlhood, a habit she was only able to reduce, not entirely relinquish, upon marriage and motherhood. Various opium-containing patent medicines, sold without prescription, were used by parents to quiet their children--resulting in not infrequent fatalities.

War also has a long-term historical connection with increased drug use--and not just as a result of pain control for the wounded. The author notes claims that during the Napoleonic Wars, French army surgeons administered opium with cayenne pepper to revive exhausted soldiers.

Then there were the opium dens of fact and fiction...the latter perhaps most famously in Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Lady Theodora Guest was guided as a tourist though San Francisco's Chinatown in 1894, and described the sight of an opium den as " a wine-cellar, or still more a mushroom-house...rather horrible; but in no way as degrading a sight as that of the ordinary European drunkard." She described the smokers as lying on shelves, like triple bunks, each with his own pipe, lamp, and little balls of opium.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

"Scent-sational Science: To trace the course of evolution, Kim Steiner follows his nose" Science Now, Newsletter of the California Academy of Sciences.

I noticed blurb about this article on a display at the Academy, and immediately (right at a computer in the museum library) went to the website to look it up.

My interest: I have a WIP featuring an alien species that communicates by scent. Representatives of a major Earth perfume company are involved in the action as well. So for me, this article was an exercise in fiction meets reality.

Dr. Steiner is studying the symbiotic relationships between floral scents and the pollinating insects they depend on to reproduce. He recently returned from South Africa, where he was collecting scents produced by unique species of orchids. The scents he was able to chemically "trap" in the wild, were then sent to the laboratory of Givaudan, a major perfume developer. The specialized lab was able to extract the scents and chemically analyze the component parts of a complex mixture--something my alien species are also experts on. Dr. Steiner will use the data to trace the evolutionary history of orchid species. Givaudan may get a new perfume out of the deal, and I may be able to tune up the details of my story.