'A little bit of childhood to hang onto forever' - The World of Pooh, Revisited

The best art looks upon the face of change without blinking; the best art acknowledges death.

That's why A.A. Milne's seemingly simple and superficial children's story's, commonly known as Winnie-the-Pooh, brought me to tears when I was very young and why it still does now that I am but one year away from being (forty) six.

That's right, reader, Winnie-the-Pooh makes me cry and I don't care who knows it. Further, it is heartbreaking because it is indeed, about the little deaths each of us face, over and over again, as we grow up. For, like snakes sloughing off a season's skin, to gain a new place in the race of our lives, is to leave the old one behind.

Children's stories or no, A.A. Milne's gentle, loving stories about a small boy and his menagerie of stuffed toys does not shy away from the hard truths of life.

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The inscription (at right) is as simple as it is sentimental — and yet as profound as it is cognizant of the unusual boy that was my parents' first child, then making the transition from 12 to 13 years old.

I was a kid who read The Globe and Mail with breakfast and romped with Batman when I came home from school; I was as interested in politics as I was fanatical about the fate of the Montréal Canadiens; a kid whose long-term ambitions were torn between wanting to go into cosmology in one way or another, or into politics with an eye towards becoming Canada's first socialist Prime Minister.

I still built sand-castles in the summer, yet thrilled to CBC Radio's international affairs program, Sunday Morning, "a week in the life of the world." I was growing up, I knew it, but I happily embraced those parts of me that were still childish.

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Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Renaissance genius meets the distant future —
But is the author's heart in his own conceit?

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Galileo Galilei by
Giusto Sustermans (Wikipedia)

"If I have seen less far than others," Galileo complained in irritation to Aurora, "it is because I was standing on the shoulders of dwarfs."

— Galileo Galilei explains his limitations in Galileo's Dream.

Is Kim Stanley Robinson getting tired of science fiction?

In the five novels since the final book in his already-classic Mars trilogy was published in 1996 and the North American release of Galileo's Dream just after Christmas, Robinson sojourned in alternate history with the excellent stand-alone novel, The Years of Rice and Salt and the very near future, with the not-entirely-successful "Science in the Capital" series; not quite abandoning the field, but staying on its peripheries.

Although his newest novel is an unabashed return to centre of science fiction, that the historical sections of Galileo's Dream are both more convincing and more interesting than those set in the 31st century, suggests that return is premature.

The novel opens in the late 16th century when a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua — as you may have guessed, none other than Galileo Galilei himself — is approached by a mysterious stranger who (I give away nothing that isn't on the dust-jacket) is a visitor from the far future. The stranger tells Galileo of a remarkable Dutch invention, a device which magnifies objects seen from a distance — a telescope, of course.

Intrigued, Galileo returns home to attack the problem and, in so doing, begins the process of invention and discovery that will lead to his eternal fame and to his eventual disastrous run-in with the dreaded Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Robinson is probably the best writer there is when it comes to dramatizing not just the discoveries of science but the processes by which those discoveries are made. The sections which focus on Galileo the scientist are fascinating and brilliantly alive. And he proves he is just as good at historical fiction, clearly and engagingly showing us the intricate politics of late-Renaissance Italy.

It is the conflict between science and religion, faith and empiricism, which is at the heart of the novel and that, perhaps, is why those sections set in the future don't fully succeed.

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"I shared my flesh with thinking cancer"

In the long and storied SF tradition that sees such devices as Ursula K. le Guin's ansible become, in effect, an open-source idea, free to be modified, played with, argued about or even just used as a word to indicate "faster-than-light communication", rather than locked-down and copyrighted as le Guin's personal play-thing, "The Things" is Peter Watts' re-telling of John W. Campbell Jr.'s classic story, "Who Goes There?" and of John Carpenter's 1982 movie adaptation, The Thing.

Using the same plot and even the same character names, Watts, the author of the excellent novel, Blindsight (among others, all of which are available on his site under a Creative Commons license) re-tells the story from the monster's point of view. Or rather, from the (very alien) alien's point of view.

A biologist by training, in 7,000 words Watts has created what I suspect will be long regarded as a classic hard SF tale. There would be no story here (or at least, it would not be the same story) if this narrative was not about the shape-shifting alien's gradual discovery of the very strange way that life on Earth is organized.

Those who know neither the original story nor the movie adaptation might find "The Things" a little confusing, but anyone who knows the source material as something more than just a horror story will find it fascinating — and one of those rare, successful attempts in science fiction to depict an alien as genuinely, really, alien, not just in what in can do and what it physically is, but in terms of how those differences affect how it perceives the world.

A very good story from a very good writer. And happily, it is online at ClarkesWorldMagazine.com.

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An Ottawa citizen

A city without alleys

A city without alleys is no city at all — and yet, here I now live (again).

In truth, I have not yet revisited enough of our nation's Capital to talk about it as a whole, save to note the obvious. Ottawa doesn't feel like a city.

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Smokers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your jones(ing)!

At some point or another we've all heard the phrase, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and most of us have probably used it.

"Easy" ways to make money, lose weight, find love, and cetera and cetera, are forever singing their syren songs from television adds, email spam and the self-help sections of bookstores, to name just a few.

So you can imagine my scepticism when a friend gave me his copy of Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking. My friend told me he butted his final cigarette when he finished the book and he felt sure that I would do the same.

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