Week 29, as part of a now-deleted conversation

Bernal Sphere

Bernal Sphere, Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center, 1975

I spent last week in Michigan with my family. Behind the cabin where my parents live, there is a very small pond. My dad recently acquired a sailboat that matches the pond’s scale perfectly: a Snark Sunflower, about ten feet long, made of dense styrofoam, with one neat little sail. You can zip back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It’s wonderful.

Please mark your calendar for Sunday, August 4, at 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. BST, because that’s when I’ll be offering a live reading of my all-time favorite novella, the title of which I will reveal, but not yet. You’ll be able to tune into the livestream here.

The whole thing will take a few hours; it will be a pleasant thing to do on a Sunday afternoon or evening; it’s possible you will cry. (I definitely will.)

In Michigan, I flipped through my mom’s copy of Still Reading Khan, an enormous, ridiculous, delightful book that investigates and celebrates the life and mind of Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood superstar of whom both my mother and I are sincere and longstanding fans.

In a chapter where he’s being interviewed about his acting, Shah Rukh Khan says

What we do in our films is 70 per cent performance and 30 per cent acting. I do believe in playing to the galleries. I am not a person who thinks that a performance should be so internalised that nobody understands it; so that people step out of the theatre saying damn good movie yaar, but I did not understand it.

A little later, he’s talking about all the tricks you can use to manipulate an audience’s emotions, and he says:

See, it’s like Ramayana on television. I think it is exploitative… in a certain sense. It’s entertainment based on exploitation, for one cannot, just CANNOT not like the story of Ramayana. You can’t say, ‘Arre yaar story main mazaa nahi aaya.’ [This story isn’t entertaining.] The story is a super-hit. And you can exploit that aspect.

I love that; crowd-pleasing myth as cheat code. He continues:

Maybe exploitation is too strong a word. Maybe this is something that I have learnt over the years; a trial-and-error method to get the reaction you want in a two-dimensional plane, and reaching out to the third dimension and actually moving people.

Note the hybrid sensibility: practical, commercial, cosmic.

Shah Rukh Khan forever.

Stanford Torus

Stanford Torus, Don Davis/NASA Ames Research Center, 1975

Just before I left for Michigan, my copy of Fred Scharmen’s new book Space Settlements arrived. It recalls and reappraises a grand convening funded by NASA in the summer of 1975: a sort of speculative design and engineering workshop that brought together physicists, engineers, architects, and artists to imagine how human life in space might be possible, and what it might look like.

Space Settlements

I believe the word “chockablock” must be reserved for things that are truly chockablock, and: FRED’S BOOK IS CHOCKABLOCK—with paintings, sketches, plans, ephemera, history, ideas, and, maybe most of all, color. I find the color in this book just stunning—and very distinct, to my eye, from the palettes used in most televisual science fiction today. (I’ve swiped a few of the concept paintings for this week’s art, so you can see what I’m talking about.)

Space Settlements is dense and rich and I think it deserves a large readership, maybe especially a large readership outside of architecture. There are ideas and images here that could be spun out in a thousand different directions.

Also… I have to say that I am very proud of endnote #52:

Space Settlements

Earlier this week, I ordered a clutch of swoopy brush-pens and, as I was checking out, it occurred to me that some of you subscribed to this newsletter might not know about JetPens, the greatest e-commerce site on the internet.

I apologize in advance for the order you are going to place approximately twenty minutes after following that link.

Thanks to Dan Cohen, I came across this pair of blog posts: one from the recent recipient of a liver transplant and the other from the donor. The pair just happen to be longtime colleagues and friends.

There are sections of the second blog post, in particular, that I want badly to blockquote—they’re beautiful—but I fear that if you read them without the surrounding context, they’ll come across as trite. They are definitely not. These posts have life and death in them, and also a very nerdily detailed explanation of the organ transplant process, and they’re worth your time.

In the second post, we learn that

The rate of death attributable to donating is currently about 1 in 300

which is completely astonishing to me, given that the procedure involves OPENING YOU UP AND REMOVING TWO-THIRDS OF YOUR LIVER.

A lot of people had to learn a lot of things over a lot of years to make a procedure like that not only possible but relatively safe. What a species.

News from the Republic

In New York City, for years, there was a secret bookstore inside an apartment on the Upper East Side. It was one of the most legitimately Penumbra places in the world.

The bookstore’s proprietor Michael Seidenberg died recently, and you’ll find no better tribute than Joanne McNeil’s.

As a piece of writing, Joanne’s reflection does triple duty. It explains how great Michael was; it helps you understand how great his space was; and it shows you how great Joanne is, too.

In the ghostly days that bracket births and deaths, exhortations carry extra weight; words are granted additional powers of prophecy and command.

Joanne’s instructions, in the final line of her newsletter, must be heeded.

O'Neill Cylinder

O'Neill Cylinder, Don Davis/NASA Ames Research Center, 1975


July 2019, Oakland

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