The Apocalypse Allotment No. 2: Planting and Paths

The Apocalypse Allotment on Judgement Day

The Apocalypse Allotment on Judgement Day

Things move fast in March, and I don’t just mean the new suped up zombies. You’ll find there are a number of things you’re trying to get done at once, but it’s OK to take things a bit at a time.

This week I have been digging another bed, planting alliums, and digging up my old paths. In an ideal world I would do all my digging and ground preparation first, then plant my plants in a carefully staged order. But this isn’t a perfect world. This is the apocalypse.

The important thing is not to sweat it. You don’t want to plant everything at once anyway. As far as possible you want to move in accord with nature, but nature, as we have learnt to our cost, is an unpredictable bastard. Planting things progressingly throughout the season is a good way to hedge your bets. I planted a few alliums (onions and garlic) last week, and a few more this week, as I cleared another bed. What you can plant will depend in part on the time of year and in part the conditions you are working with.

Digging Up Paths and Making Plans

Clearing beds for planting is important, but do not neglect the paths between your beds. If you have the time and the strong young bodies to do it, clear the whole area you plan to farm first, then set out where you want your beds and paths. If it’s just you against a harsh world, you’re more likely to need to do your digging in stages and plant as you go.

Give some thought to where you want to plant what. Blueberry bushes like marshy areas, but a lot of plants don’t. If your ground is of mixed condition, check which plants have specific needs and plan to plant them accordingly. The back of your looted* seed-packets will tell you what conditions your plants like.

'Beds' by Bart Everson

‘Beds’, at ‘At Wise Words Community Garden in Mid-City’ by Bart Everson

You may want to consider raised beds. These are beds raised off the ground and encased by wooden borders, which offers some protection against pests. For example, the feared carrot-fly can only jump 60cm high. A high enough raised bed will neatly defeat them. Most raised beds do not reach so great a depth, but still provide some protection.

If you lack the building materials and time needed to construct a raised bed, fear not! I’m just digging in the dirt, but my beds are still raised a little off the ground. This is because the soil of a path is compacted for walking on, whilst the beds themselves are ‘turned’ as described in my previous post, not merely to ease eviction of roots, but to loosen the ground and improve the structure, so that plants are better able to stretch out their roots without obstruction.

Note that you want to avoid walking on your beds, and factor this in when you’re planning your layout. I’m short and don’t have a particularly impressive reach, which is important for weeding as well as harvesting. It’s important not to lean or step on the soil of your beds as this will destroy the soil structure. For this reason, my beds are not too broad – just wide enough so I can comfortably reach the middle from both sides. However, if you want larger beds, you can get around the issue by using a plank of wood and laying this on the soil to spread your weight over a larger area.

However wide your beds, you will want to dig up your paths as well as your beds as weeds growing in from the paths will seek to take back your carefully cleared soil. Remember: it’s survival of the fittest, and weeds are very, very good at what they do. Give them no quarter.

Make no mistake: no matter what you do, most of the time you spend gardening will be devoted to weeding, but a little hard work at the start of the growing season can save you a lot of time and heartache later.

As I’m working an allotment that pre-existed the End, some of the work has been done for me. Nevertheless, it is suffering neglect. In previous years I had laid down weed-control fabric over supposedly weed-free paths, then put bark chips on top of that. Bark chips both make your allotment look nicer and help discourage weeds. They biodegrade harmlessly and make a good mulch. However, over the years loose soil has combined with the bark chips to create a surface layer in which weeds have taken hold:

A path, bare of its covering, and the weed-control fabric stripped off it.

A path, bare of its covering, and the weed-control fabric stripped off it.

The weed-control fabric still afforded me an advantage in that, in pulling it up, I also stripped away the majority of the weeds ebedded in the surface. You can see above a comparison of the stripped path with the weed-control fabric I pulled off this and several other paths. Most of the grass that had taken over the paths has come away on the surface of the fabric. Incidentally, the righthand fabric is the plastic kind, whilst that on the left is of a more papery, fabric-like material. You can see how the one is more weed-infested than the other. Go plastic, baby – when money no longer has meaning, loot the best!

I then gave the path the same treatment I give my beds – digging it up and sifting out as much of the weed-root as I can. This will turn and raise the soil. Once you’ve done this, walk along the path, compacting it:

A path, before and after compacting

Before and after compacting

Here (below) shows a comparison with a bed and path I dug at the same time. On the right, the path has been compacted, but the bed hasn’t. It’s good to do beds and paths at the same time as otherwise soil from the bed is likely to fall down onto the lower plane of the path.

Before and after of a bed and path, side by side.

Before and after of a bed and path, side by side.

 

Ideally, I would have gone on to remove the weeds from the weed-control fabric, relay it, and cover it with bark chips after having done this. However, the light was fading, and you never know what lies waiting in the dark! I will return to complete this later. In the fading light, I moved swiftly on to planting my alliums.

Alliums

An allium flower head.

An allium flower head.

Alliums are the family of plants that includes onions, garlic, spring onions (scallions), chives, shallots, leeks, and the like. They are oniony tasting; usually with layered, edible leaves; and their flower spikes produce a delightful sphere of blossom (although, if you are growing to crop, you should nip the flower and stem off as soon as they start to form).

Apocalypse farming is all about finding the balance between high-yielding, practical crops, and those with the flovour to keep your mood up in difficult times. Alliums provide a perfect solution. Onions can be used in almost any dish, adding flavour, nutrition, and bulk. One might question growing garlic where you could have a bountiful crop of potatoes, but I submit that the humble garlic can elevate even the simplest dish into something worth eating, and should not be ignored!

Garlic

Garlic is super easy to plant. Just take a clove and stick it in freshly turned soil, root-end down, and gently firm the soil around it. Plant cloves about 10cm/4in apart. The tip should just be poking out. Try to keep the skin intact as this protects the clove. Don’t plant any cloves that show signs of mould or damage – they are likely to fail and may contaminate the soil with fungus or disease. Fortunately, garlic bulbs provide plenty of cloves to choose from. If you’re pushed for space, choose the fattest cloves, as they will likely produce bigger bulbs.

Garlic bulb and clove

Garlic bulb and clove

I’ve chosen Arno – a white-skinned, largeish, medium flavoured variety. You can plant garlic from a supermarket – and I have done so! – but varieties available at gardening centres are likely to do better. This is because supermarket garlic is likely to have been imported from a different climate. Garlic adjusts well to different environments, and gardeners say that cloves saved from last year’s harvest often do better, as they have adjusted to the soil. However, a bulb grown in Spain whose cloves are planted in the North of England (say) will be more vulnerable to rot in the damper, colder conditions.

The main danger with garlic is rot. This will be less of an issue in warmer climates, but in Yorkshire, I always find I lose some of my bulbs.

Ideal time for planting garlic is the late Autumn – tradition has it that it should be planted on Halloween – but if the Apocalypse happens on you in late winter or early spring, you can still grow garlic! The bulbs my be a little smaller, and garlic likes a little frost to get it started, but it will work, and I promise you it is worth it!

Onions

Onions can be had in seed form and in ‘sets’, which are bags of small bulbs; you want to loot the latter. Onions can be grown from seeds, but it takes longer and, tbh, you needed to start earlier. Gather seeds this year for sowing next year; hit the ground running likea zombie with onion sets, for a reliable apocalypse harvest. Good advice on growing from seed in the UK can be found here.

Onions are exactly the same as garlic, except that you should plant them six inches apart. A rough estimate is fine – don’t get too hung up on exactitude –  but if you crowd them too much your onions will be smaller and more likely to ‘bolt’. ‘Bolting’ means going to seed early, and for your purposes results in the plant devoting its energies to flowering, rather than producing the nice fat bulb you want to eat.

I’ve gone for a mixture of red and white onions – Red Barron for the red, Sturron for the white. Sturron is the variety I won first prize for a few years ago, so I know it can grown big! If that was all I wanted, I could stick with them, but I’m growing red onions for flavour and variety. A more varied diet is better for you, as well as tasting good!

My garlic and onion beds

My garlic and onion beds

Once planted, lightly water the beds. Too much water can lift the bulb free of the soil, but don’t wory if this happens, just push it back in. Once watererd, you are good to go. Water onions regularly when it’s dry and feed them every couple of weeks. Apart from that, they basically look after themselves until harvest time in July and August. You’ll know when to harvest because the leaves will flop over and turn brown.

And that’s it! I was hoping to get some planting done on Easter Weekend, but the weather wasn’t with me. Tune in again for my semi-regular apocalypse allotment adventures!

*Only loot in a post-apocalypse situation. If the world hasn’t ended where you are yet, pay your dues.

Posted in allotment, Apocalyse Allotment | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock

I enjoy celebrating women’s voices on World Poetry Day, as they are so often forgotten. A few years ago I recorded Aemelia’ Lanyer’s fiery ‘Eve’s Apology’; this time, I’m going for something a bit more lighthearted. ‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock satirises the tropes and conventions familiar to readers of her time in gothic novels. Many of them are still with us, and her wry humour can provide delight even today.

Alcock was a poet, essayist, and philanthropist. She died at just 57, and her neice, Joanna Hughes, collected her works after her death. Her work received little critical attention, although I hope you’ll agree that this poem reveals a lively and engaged wit.

I’ve provided both a recording and the text below:

A Receipt For Writing A Novel

by Mary Alcock

Would you a favrite novel make,
Try hard your readers heart to break
For who is pleasd, if not tormented?
(Novels for that were first invented.)
Gainst nature, reason, sense, combine
To carry on your bold design,
And those ingredients I shall mention,
Compounded with your own invention,
Im sure will answer my intention.

Of love take first in due proportion
It serves to keep the heart in motion:
Of jealousy a powerful zest,
Of all tormenting passions best;
Of horror mix a copious share,
And duels you must never spare;
Hysteric fits at least a score,
Or if you find occasion, more;
But fainting fits you need not measure,
The fair ones have them at their pleasure;
Of sighs and groans take no account,
But throw them in to vast amount;
A frantic fever you may add,
Most authors make their lovers mad.

Rack well your heros nerves and heart,
and let your heroine take her part;
Her fine blue eyes were made to weep,
Nor should she ever taste of sleep;
Ply her with terrors day or night,
And keep her always in a fright,
But in a carriage when you get her,
Be sure you fairly overset her;
If she will break her boneswhy let her:
Again, if eer she walks abroad,
Of course you bring some wicked lord,
Who with three ruffians snaps his prey,
And to the castle speeds away;
There close confind in haunted tower,
You leave your captive in his power,
Till dead with horror and dismay,
She scales the walls and flies away.

Now you contrive the lovers meeting,
To set your readers heart a beating.
But ere theyve had a moments leisure,
Be sure to interrupt their pleasure;
Provide yourself with fresh alarms
To tear em from each others arms;
No matter by what fate theyre parted,
So that you keep them broken-hearted.

A cruel father some prepare
To drag her by her flaxen hair;
Some raise a storm, and some a ghost,
Take either, which may please you most.
But this with care you must observe,
That when youve wound up every nerve
With expectation, hope and fear,
Hero and heroine must disappear.

Now to rest the writers brain,
Any story that gives pain,
You now throw in no matter what,
However foreign to the plot,
So it but serves to swell the book,
You foist it in with desperate hook
A masquerade, a murderd peer,
His throat just cut from ear to ear
A rake turnd hermita fond maid
Run mad, by some false loon betrayd
These stores supply your writers pen,
And write them oer and oer again,
And readers likewise may be found
To circulate them round and round.

Now at your fables close devise
Some grand event to give surprise
Suppose your hero knows no mother
Suppose he proves the heroines brother
This at one stroke dissolves each tie,
Far as from east to west they fly;
At length when every woes expended,
And your last chapters nearly ended,
Clear the mistake, and introduce
Some tattling nurse to cut the noose,
The spell is brokeagain they meet
Expiring at each others feet;
Their friends lie breathless on the floor
You drop your pen; you can no more
And ere your reader can recover,
Theyre married and your historys over.

Posted in a receipt for writing a novel, Mary Alcock, Poetry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Apocalypse Allotment No. 1: Starting Out

The Apocalypse Allotment on Judgement Day

The Apocalypse Allotment on Judgement Day

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts for The Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse called ‘Dig for when the Canned Goods Run Out‘. They were fun, and I’m still proud of them, but it’s long been my ambition to have another series, taking you in real-time through the work of starting, maintaining, and harvesting an Apocalypse Allotment. That journey starts today.

Whether the apocalypse has hit, or you’re just preparing for the inevitable, there’s no time like the present to find a patch of ground and start farming for the future.

Allotments

Farm for the Apocalypse - Join the Women's Land ArmyIn the UK, an allotment is a plot of land rented from the Council or an independent gardening association for the purpose of growing food (or flowers, or having a small wildflower meadow for bees – you can use them for things other than food, but growing food is their primary purpose). Other similar schemes exist around the world, but in Britain they came into existence as a way for the poor to have access to small plots of arable land, suitable for supporting a family. There’s a strong association with the Dig For Victory campaign in World War II, where people were encouraged to grow their own food to supplement rationing, but allotments or ‘inclosures’ have been in existence since the 1700s.

If you’re preparing for the apocalypse, getting an allotment is a great way to make sure you have something to harvest when the world ends so you’re not left fighting the local War Gang over the scraps in Sainsbury’s. A full allotment (intended to feed a family) is 300 square yards, but most allotments these days are half-allotments, which are easier to maintain for someone with a full-time job. With increased demand from people with busy schedules, some allotment associations also offer quarter allotments, which is what I have. Rent will be set by your local council, but I paid about £20 for my quarter allotment for the whole of this year.

If the apocalypse has already hit, all land is now free! But choosing your site is important. Working an established allotment has the advantage of rich, fertile ground that has been worked for years. It will be easier to weed and turn the earth than a random patch of ground, and the soil is likely to be suitable for growing food. On the other hand, the fact that food has been grown on the same ground for so long can mean a greater concentration of pests and disease, and you’ll likely be closer to what was previously a populous area – more likely to encounter marauding gangs and zombies, or the corpses of those who weren’t as lucky as you (depending on the cause of your apocalypse).

Choose wisely.

Preparing the Ground

This is the perfect time for an apocalypse to hit. Spring is just beginning to twitch into life and you can prepare your ground and begin planting things whilst you live off your stock of canned goods. Check out my first ‘Dig for When the Canned Goods Run Out‘ post for tips on what to loot in preparation for your new life as a subsistence farmer and zombie killer.

A bed covered by weed-control fabric.

A bed covered by weed-control fabric.

Even if you do choose an allotment, though, there is work to do before you can start planting to make the ground useable after winter. As you can see above, my little allotment has become quite overgrown. Even the beds I’ve been working for years are full of weeds.

One way to deal with weeds, if you’re not going to be working the entire space from the get-go, is to lay down weed-control fabric. If you’re looting* weed-control fabric, get the stuff pictured on the left. This is woven black plastic. It is thick and will block sunlight from reaching weeds so that they cannot photosynthesise, without preventing rain from getting through to the soil. You will also find cheaper weed-control fabrics that are thinner and actually made of a kind of fabric. Do not be tempted by these! Weeds will go through them and become embedded in them and as such they are of only limited use. And hey, if the apocalypse has already happened, you can loot the best!

The same ground after the weed-control fabric is removed.

After the weed-contol fabric is removed.

To be really effective, your weed-control fabric needs to be down for at least six months, although any period without sunlight will still weaken the plants. I’ve had this down since last autumn, and this (right) is what it was like when I took the fabric off.

As you can see, it hasn’t totally killed the weeds. Those little green tufts are mostly dandelions, which are just starting to sprout from their thick tap roots. But in comparison to the surrounding grass, there’s a lot that’s dead or severely weakened. This will be a lot easier to weed than a completely overgrown bed or ground that has never been worked.

If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend covering part of your ground whilst you work on the rest. You are not going to be able to work over your whole plot in one session.

The best way to free your ground of weeds is to mark out your bed and work the soil with a fork. A fork is a gardener’s best friend. Whilst a sharpened spade may be better for killing zombies, your trusty fork is what you’ll be doing most of your ‘digging’ with. What you actually want to do is not so much move earth from one place to another as free the weeds from your soil and improve the soil structure by aerating it. Plus, a fork is still a pretty good weapon against any humans you might come across.

Forking. The fun. The joy. The back-breaking work.

Forking. The fun. The joy. The back-breaking work.

Start at one end of your future bed, stick the fork in, lean back on it, and wiggle. Move the fork a bit, and repeat. You’re doing this to loosen the soil. Do this down the whole course of your bed, then go back to the beginning. Stick the fork in, lift, and shake. If possible, shake until only weed roots are left on the fork. Don’t be discouraged if you find this too hard. Soil can be surprisingly heavy, and bouncing it up and down on a fork can tire you out pretty fast. This is the work that’s going to really hurt your muscles tomorrow morning.

Depending on the condition of the soil and how wet it is, it’s also likely that it won’t come off the weed roots that easily. I usually find I have to lift, shake, and then get down on my knees and sift through the disturbed soil for weed roots by hand. You’re going to feel absurd. You’re going to feel like this is a ridiculously labour intensive process. It is. Do it anyway.

Know Your Enemies

The main evils to watch out for are cooch grass and dandelions. (Beyond the zombies and War Gangs you posted a watch for – you have posted a watch for them, haven’t you? OK.) These are way harder to kill than a zombie. You cut their heads off and they don’t give a shit. If you leave even the tiniest bit of root left, the fucker isn’t dead. It will grow back. Leave several bits of root and you’ll have several new plants. The respawn rate of cooch grass is phenomenal.

Cooch grass roots

Cooch grass roots

If you’re lucky, you’ll only have ordinary grass, but lets face it: the world ended, your luck hasn’t been that great lately. The way to tell the difference between cooch grass and other kinds of grass is by their evil, evil roots.

Your ordinary grass has a fine mesh of roots immediately below the grass clump. Your cooch grass root has long, thick, white roots. These roots can grow to a meter or more in length, but break really easily. Even the tiniest bit can grow to a whole new plant. This is the reason you loosened the soil of the whole bed before you started trying to remove roots. You want to get as much of the root out as possible without it breaking. Which is hard, because they form thick mats throughout the top layer of soil (see above right).

A dandelion and its roots.

A dandelion and its roots

Dandelions are a bastard in the other direction. They have long, thick, orange tap roots. To the left is one of the ones I dug up from under the weed-control fabric. The leaves are only an inch or two long, but the roots go on forever. This is how it was able to sprout again, having had no light for months and months. All the energy was stored in its roots. And those roots will sprout again if you leave anything behind.

These things are survivors, and they are competing with you for land and nutrients. You can’t bargain with them. You can’t join forces with them. You can only kill them. Show no mercy.

Compost

Once you’ve rid your ground of its creeping horrors, if possible, add some organic matter. Soil is great, but if it’s had plants growing in it, they’ve been sucking up nutrients. And if it hasn’t has anything growing in it, the nutrients will have been washed away by the rain – you can’t win!

It is for this reason that compost exists. You can loot this from any respectable gardening store, and then begin making your own as the season progresses. There are different kinds of compost. For the environmentally conscious pre-apocalypse allotment, buy peat free! Peat is great for your allotment, but it comes from vital peatland and you’re basically destroying a rare habitat and maybe don’t?

Some composts will say ‘with John Innes’ on them, which can be perplexing, as expressed in this song from Can You Dig It:

John Innes is actually a series of formulae developed by the John Innes Horticultural Institution that are good for compost in various ways (see the John Innes website for more info), but note that John Innes does contain peat 🙁

Spread your compost evenly on top of your freshly turned soil, then mix it in.

To make your own compost, take all those weeds you just uprooted and put them in a pile. If possible, put them in a pile with sides, also known as a compost bin. But don’t just put cooch grass and dandelion roots in. They will take forever to rot down (I mean years) and will not compost ‘hot’ enough. Compost literally gets warm if you’re doing it right. Add additional organic matter from your kitchen waste – including teabags and coffee grounds!

Otherwise, you end up with a compost pile like mine:

My compost pile

My compost pile

Do as I say, not as I do. Learn from my mistakes.

Now your ground is ready for whatever you want to plant! Tune in next time, or subscribe, to find out what I put in my freshly turned mud!

*Note: only loot if your apocalypse has already happened! I do not endorse robbery where humanity’s laws are still in effect!

Posted in allotment, Apocalyse Allotment | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad Representation vs No Representation

Guest Post by Jessica Meats [trigger warning for discussion of eating disorders].

Jessica Meats

Jessica Meats

Representation is an important subject when thinking about books and writing. It’s something I’m trying to do better at in my own books and something I try to encourage through buying books which represent diversity. One particular type of representation is close to my heart and that’s representation of mental health issues, particularly eating disorders. There are some great books out there about eating disorders, but it’s very rare to find a book that includes these issues without it being the whole focus of the plot.

I thought I’d found one recently. I was reading a young adult novel about a group of teenagers caught up in a war and the protagonist showed definite signs of an eating disorder. The words ‘eating disorder’ or ‘anorexia’ were never used explicitly, but the protagonist showed definite anorexic behaviours. She severely restricted what she ate, she felt physically incapable of eating certain types of food, she had a strong desire to be thin to a point where other characters thought she looked unhealthy. It was even mentioned that she’d been in therapy around her refusal to eat.

Normally, I would be thrilled to find a book like this. A serious issue is there, but it’s in the background; the plot and the characters are focused on other things. It’s important that people who struggle with these issues find mirrors for themselves in fiction. However, then came the problem. The character got better. Just like that. At a point about halfway through the book, the character had a moment of revelation in which she realised she was starving and after that point, she was perfectly fine. For the rest of the book, there wasn’t a single sign of the eating issues which had been a significant part of her character up to that point.

This is dangerous.

This is a bad representation of eating disorders and it can send a very dangerous message to readers. It can reinforce the message to non-sufferers that an eating disorder is a choice, that it’s just teenagers being silly and they should just get over it and start eating again. There are people out there who think anorexia is just an extreme diet, or that eating disorders are a fad. Those people, reading this book, will get confirmation of their beliefs.

Worse than that, it gives the same message to the people who suffer eating disorders. Eating disorders are a form of mental illness. They’re an illness the affects people physically and psychologically. And they’re a disease with a long and slow recovery period. Sometimes, people spend years trying to recover from an eating disorder. Sometimes, people spend the rest of their lives fighting patterns of behaviour that were part of the disorder. Sometimes, recovery seems to be going well and there’s a moment of relapse. All of that can come with a dose of guilt.

It’s really easy for an eating disorder sufferer to blame themselves, particularly when they have bad days during recovery. In the recovery period, they know that there’s a problem that they’re trying to fix, they know the behaviour that’s problematic, but it’s not always that simple. And when they have a bad day or a setback, on the road to recovery, then the guilt sets in. “I should know better.” “I should do better.” “I should be better.”

Showing someone in that difficult place a representation like the example in this book is dangerous. It’s telling people that all you have to do is recognise the problem and then it’s easy. If you’re struggling with getting better, then it must be because you’re weak or stupid or…

It tells people that eating disorders, “Are all in your head,” and that, “You should just snap out of it.” Sufferers hear enough of that already, from the world around them and from their own sense of guilt. They don’t need to hear it from books as well.

Showing someone that eating disorders can be magically fixed in an instant is an insult to the people who’ve spent years trying to stay in recovery, and it’s hurtful to the people currently struggling with them.

So while representation of these issues in fiction is vitally important, be careful how you do it. If you’re a writer and you want to include a character with an eating disorder, or depression, or some other mental illness, don’t have a magical, perfect recovery in there. Treat these issues with care, because bad representation can be more harmful than no representation.


Between Yesterdays, by Jessica MeatsJessica Meats is a science fiction author of both Young Adult and Adult novels and novellas, including, Child of the Hive, Omega Rising, Traitor in the Tower, and Shadows of Tomorrow. Between Yesterdays is her latest book and is the sequel to Shadows of Tomorrow: “When a young woman arrives, claiming to be sent from the future to help them, the Defenders must determine if this is just another trap.

I’m always impressed by the diversity and by the range of female characters in Jess’s works. She is a writer who thinks seriously about how to handle these issues in her works, as well as providing good stories and original science fiction.

Jess is also giving away diverse books every month in 2016 via her tumblr jessicameats

Posted in guest post, Jessica Meats, representation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey, who wants to see Star Wars from Leia’s perspective?

Princess Leia with a blaster

[Cross-posted from Tumblr.]

Imagine the ‘New Hope’ is Princess Leia, not her farm boy twin. Imagine the tale starting with how the princess becomes a youthful senator, but when her idealism hits the corruption of the Empire, it doesn’t crumble, but is hardened into joining the rebellion, learning to fight: diplomat and princess by day, guerrilla fighter and leader of the resistance by night! She’s like Batman, but with less ego – she doesn’t need to grandstand, she just gets the job done.

Then, just as she has managed to obtain secret plans for the empire’s new weapon, her ship is captured. Knowing she cannot escape, Leia sneaks off to hide the plans aboard an old R2 unit. An innocuous looking vessel, but one she knows to have been trusted with some unusually sensitive missions in the past. Once the plans are secured, she gives herself up to act as a distraction.

Realising she won’t break, her captors threaten her beloved home world in order to make her give up her comrades. Unshaken in such terrible straights, she uses her quick wits to construct a plausible lie that will buy her world time. But the evil of her enemies is unfathomable – they destroy her world anyway.

Still reeling from the obliteration of her people and her home, the solitude of Leia’s cell is disturbed by a hopelessly naive-looking young man who says he’s here to rescue her. The whole plan seems ridiculously poorly thought through, but when he tells her that he’s here with the general to whom she had sent her plans she decides to risk trusting him. Seizing control of the situation, she rescues her rescuers and they escape (over the slightly-spoilt whining of the more handsome of the two men, who seems to object to a little sewage in the name of saving his life).

Blasting their way through storm troopers, she leads them to escape and gets them all back to the real rebel base in the nick of time so that the plans can be analysed and the weakness of the weapon (whose ferocious power she has now seen for herself) can be exploited.

Her abilities as a shrewd tactician are put to the test as she becomes instrumental in planning the attack that will destroy the Death Star. Some instinct in her (maybe stirrings of the Force?) and a sense of indebtedness leads her to recommend the younger of the two men who made such a botch of rescuing her for one of the attack squads. It’s the right choice, and thanks to the plans she saved and her skillful tactics, the day is saved.

A huge blow has been struck against the Empire, but the war has just begun…

Posted in A new hope, star wars | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

2015 – that was a year that happened, didn’t it?

Me in 2015

I wasn’t going to write one of these. 2015 is… exhausting to think about.

I was so poor, and depressed, and ill at the start of the year. A week into January I had to ask for your help to pay my rent and my bills. I was flat broke and had exhausted all other avenues. It’s a humiliating and panic-stricken situation to be in. I am so very grateful to the strangers and friends who kept me afloat in that period. I quite literally would not have made it without you. In the end I raised £1,460 via Go Fund Me, and about £60 via my tip jar (that last may have been smaller, but was immediately accessible funds badly needed at the time!).

Thanks to you I kept a roof over my head and I was able to finish my PhD.

The PhD

Which I did. I submitted at the end of May and was examined at my viva on 26 August, where I passed with no corrections. I was completely floored. Having spent the previous year largely bedridden due to illness (and the two years before that ill enough that I often went immediately to bed after work), I spent the final months of my PhD frantically writing up in my supervisor’s office. He didn’t get to see a full draft before I submitted. I was convinced I’d have major corrections – another chapter to write at least! – but I didn’t.

I had typos.

And they decided to accept the thesis with them anyway.

It’s… a bit hard to deal with. I had no reason to think it would go so well. A lot of people had told me I couldn’t do it over the years, and that my depression and illness were symptoms of me trying to do something I wasn’t cut out for. I knew I was ill because of the poor diet I had adopted because I had no money and was depressed, and that I was depressed because of long-standing issues combined with the fact that so many people had no faith in me to do my PhD, which was the most important thing in my life. And now a few people have made comments along the lines of ‘You see, you had nothing to worry about!’ … I can’t sweep it under the carpet that easily. I can’t just set aside how difficult it has been.

Being happy about finishing my PhD is… complex.

I am looking forward to graduating, though.

Today I told a salesperson that my title was ‘Dr’. That was nice.

A New Mattress

I was ordering a new mattress when I did that. I can afford a new mattress now. That’s nice, too.

My current mattress is the one I bought at the start of my PhD when I moved in to share a house with my friend Fred. It was the first unfurnished place I had ever lived in. It seems a lifetime agio.

It was never a particularly good mattress, and it ceased to be anything but deathly uncomfortable years ago. I got a couple more years of life out of it with a mattress topper, but even that has been struggling for a while.

Imagine being bedridden on a broken mattress and too poor to replace it because you are too ill to work. It’s not fun.

I’ve been temping full time since June, and now I can afford a new mattress. It’s good.

Temping

Full-time income is really good.

Not working in the evenings and weekends is really good.

I have played a lot of Dragon Age. Which is really good.

Temping isn’t really good for me, though. I work with nice people and they don’t mind if I have blue hair, but I only get half an hour for lunch and is in an Enquiry Centre. I answer phones all day every day. I find phones very stressful. I have a very good phone manner, but phones are not good for me.

I need a job in something I’m actually trained for, but I can’t get an academic job without publishing, and I needed a break from all that, and I’m so tired when I get home from work that all I do is play Dragon Age.

And instead of losing weight after the PhD was over, I’ve continued to gain weight. Because work is stressful and there’s a food table at work and when I’m stressed I eat from the food table. Also, I have continued to be ill, so even though I have been exercising, I have not been exercising enough. Yeah.

Nine Worlds

I had my least ill Nine Worlds ever, which was nice. And I also gave my first paper on their academic track, which seemed to go down well. And I was on a panel about geekdom in academia. I enjoyed both a lot!

I also had an updated Daenerys costume, and I got to take part in Knightmare Live – childhooddream fulfilled!

For various other reasons I have a lot of anxiety right now about the thought of going back. I hope I will overcome them. Nine Worlds has been a real bright spot in some very dark times, and I would like to feel that way about it again.

Editing

Although I have done less editing overall this year than previously, it’s still formed a fair chunk of my income and was vital in seeing me through those last few months of my PhD. I’ve also expanded my client base of authors and come to enjoy working directly with people who know what they want.

My sincere thanks to all my clients for being wonderful and a joy to work with this year.

Writing

It’s not been a great year with regards to writing for me.

I had one story published – ‘The Runaway King’ in Fox Spirit Book‘s Missing Monarchs anthology. I got to second round with pro magazines more times than I ever have before, but nothing was actually accepted.

I’ve barely progressed at all with my novels.

Some of that is deliberate. I put a hold on more or less everything in order to finish the PhD, but I had intended to return to writing when I was finally free. I haven’t.

I have mostly just played Dragon Age.

Some of that is much needed rest. Some of that is still me not being particularly healthy. Some of it is the FEAR.

I need to get over it.

I’m 32 and my life has been on hold for the last nine years whilst I finished the PhD. I can’t bimble along waiting until I’m Ready to become a Writer anymore.

Resolutions

I want to have a full first draft of one of my novels before I’m 33. That’s six and a half months. It’s not impossible, but I need to get serious about it if I’m to manage to do that alongside a full time job.

I want to lose at least a stone in weight. I need to lose three or four stone, but I’ll settle for one. My clothes don’t fit and my health is suffering. This can’t go on.

I want to be earning more money this time next year than I am now. I’ve never earnt as much as I do now, but it’s temp work. There is no job security and I don’t get paid if I’m ill. I also have a lot of debts to pay off. Things are better now, but they’re still tight. I want to get out of this situation of limping by and owing lots of people money. I need a proper job.

That might be an admin job or a job in publishing or an academic job – those each come with varying levels of difficulty, but at some point I need to stop just coasting and take control of my life.

So. There’s three resolutions. I know a lot of people don’t believe in resolutions, but they have sometimes worked for me in the past. I want 2016 to be the year that everything changes for the better. A lot happened in 2015, much of it for the good, but there was too much hardship for me to really look back on it with any fondness.

Thanks to my wonderful friends who have been with me through it all. You’re very special people, and I’m inadequate in expressing quite how much your support has meant to me.

Thanks also to the friends, family, and strangers who kept me afloat this year.

And now I think I need to move on from thinking about 2015. I want to look forward, instead.

Posted in Editing, Me, writing, Year End Review | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones Netflix headerJessica Jones is dark and thorny and sometimes difficult to watch, but it is also the best superhero fiction I have viewed in a long time.

I want to recommend it, but not without caution. Jessica Jones should come with trigger warnings for rape, abuse, stalking, and harassment. If you have ever experienced any of these, Jessica Jones, and the first episode in particular, is likely to make difficult viewing. I do think it’s worth it if you are up to that, but it is also worth knowing it will have this content going in.

Plot

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private investigator. She’s also superhuman. The exact extent of her powers is never clearly defined, but she definitely has super strength, can jump high enough that her power is frequently compared to flight, and can take a serious beating and keep going. She also appears to be an alcoholic, and considering the amount and nature of the booze she drinks, I can only assume she has a super constitution, too.

Like Daredevil, Jessica lives and works in Hell’s Kitchen, a fictionalised version of an area of New York beset by poverty and crime. As Daredevil is another Netflix Original Series, there are some brief cameos to look forward to, but by and large the two series are pretty separate. Daredevil comes from the perspective of a middle-class lawyer taking on organised crime. Jessica Jones is up close and personal with the mean streets. She is poor and her antagonists are individual with personal evils. She isn’t trying to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, she’s just trying to live in it.

Trouble finds Jessica when the parents of a young woman, Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty) – a student and star athlete – come to her concerned that her daughter has left college and cannot be found. As she investigates, Jessica realises that Hope has been kidnapped by a dark figure from her own past: Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mind controller who once held Jessica herself captive, using her for his own amusement (including rape).

The first episode concerns Jessica’s race to find and save Hope, whilst battling her own PTSD and guilt over the actions she performed under Kilgrave’s control. Along the way we are introduced to Patricia ‘Trish’ Walker (Rachael Taylor), a former child-star turned Radio Host whose mother adopted Jessica as a publicity stunt, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) the attractive and heavily muscled man that Jessica is, for some reason, stalking.

My Thoughts

I have to start by discussing my biggest beef with Jessica Jones.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: this would not be the way you would introduce a male superhero. It’s said that in Hollywood the way that you make a man a hero is to hurt a woman, and the way that you make a woman a hero is also to hurt a woman. This is a subject that was brought to prominence in 2013 when Tomb Raider was heavily criticised for introducing a backstory for Lara Croft that included rape. It’s an uncomfortable and distasteful mix of the hackneyed trope that being a hero is about saving a girl who can’t save herself so you ‘get’ her, and the ingrained sexist notion that women only become strong if something is wrong with them, if they are broken. As well as a toxic dose of misogynist yearning to just see strong women get hurt. Not to mention the grotesque comic book staple of ‘fridging‘ – the brutalisation and murder of women solely for the purpose of motivating a male hero to action.

So, the thought goes, if you need to hurt a woman to make a man act, you should hurt a woman also if you want to make her act.

And, more often than not, you hurt that woman sexually too.

I have massive problems with the fact that the first hardass female superhero to head her own show in decades is not only a victim of rape*, stalking, and harassment, but this is a part of her origin story, and that her main antagonist for the first season is her rapist, from whom she and other women are constantly under the threat of being raped again. It’s a real punch to the gut. It’s hard not to feel like Marvel (whose misogyny in repeatedly delaying their single female led film in a list that is currently scheduled to include more than twenty) are saying, OK, FINE, you can have your female superhero lead, but we’re going to rape her first.

I found that really hard to get past, to be honest. After the sexism and racism of Daredevil and Marvel’s general continuing sexism in its films, I was really hoping for – needing – something different. I was furious.

But.

But, Jessica Jones is very well written and very well acted. Divorced of the toxic masculinity and misogyny of comics history, it’s excellent television, really first rate. Moreover, Jessica’s PTSD is very well explored, and the show works on many levels to highlight and challenge the misogyny and abuse that is a part of modern life. Kilgrave is not the only abusive arsehole. We see also the dangers of the putative ‘Nice Guy’ in the form of Will Simpson (Wil Travel) – a victim of Kilgrave who is mind-controlled to attempt murder of Trish, who feels immense guilt and ultimately forms a bond with her. Whilst Will can be said to mean well and to often seem ‘nice’ he demonstrates a clear need to be in control, even when he is clearly not the most skilled person for the job, and ultimately descends into a pattern of abuse and contrition that has nothing to do with Kilgrave’s control.

Moreover, we see that abuse is not limited to men. Trish’s mother and former manager is shown to have abused her both emotionally and physically, and it is in protecting each other from her that Trish and Jessica find sisterhood.

These are important themes, well-explored.

Moreover, these roles are contrasted with a range of male characters who are not abusive – it is not that ‘all men are bad’. Both men and women are shown in great variety, including some interesting roles for people of colour. Luke Cage, in particular, stands out as a good man who does not abuse his great strength and power. It’s important to have the black guy be the good guy and not a thug. Moreover, as has been pointed out, Luke Cage has an important status in comic history. Created in 1972, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Luke Cage is a black man with bullet-poof skin. A good black man who cannot be assassinated. A product of the civil rights movement that, sadly, is as relevant now as he was then.

Somewhat more problematic is the presentation of Jessica’s drug-addict-with-a-heart-of-gold neighbour, Malcolm (Eka Darville). The association of black people with drugs is a racist trope too often iterated on screen. Until Jessica Jones, Mike Colter, who plays Luke Cage, was best known for his recurring role in The Good Wife as Chicago’s top drug lord, Lemond Bishop. Most black actors have a CV that includes the roles of drug addicts, dealers, and thugs, perpetuating an unpleasant stereotype. Even Idris Elba first gained international recognition and fame from his role as drug dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire, before moving on to become the A list star he is today. Malcolm is a sweet and complex character, but still a perpetuation of a harmful trope.

It helps that he is not the only black character. And in addition to Luke Cage, we also see Oscar Clemons (Clarke Peters) as the insightful and upstanding police officer that Jessica eventually turns to for aid. As well as multiple smaller parts for people of colour. Multiple characters of varying types are what make for diversity, in contrast to tokenism.

Similarly, we see a range of female characters. Jessica Jones as an emotionally damaged hardass is well-paired against her feminine, but also strong, adoptive sister. Those in search of a more light-hearted female led superhero series have praised the new Supergirl for being sisterly, but sisterhood is not absent from Jessica Jones, and it is just as important. The elegant, but mentally steely, Jeri Hogarth is a wonderful role for Carrie-Anne Moss, best known for her portrayal of the high-kicking love interest, Trinity, in The Matrix. The complex relationships she has with her mistress and her estranged wife are also good in terms of representation of gay women in television. And it is delightful to see producers willing to change a character who was male in the comics to a female character in a modern context that tries to reflect accurately the number and diversity of women who exist in the world.

Women with masculine traits. Women with feminine traits. Women with some of both. Women who are strong in diverse ways. Women who are weak in diverse ways. Men who are weak in some ways and strong in others, too. Characters not simply defined by whether they are strong or weak. Deep, loving relationships that differ from those we usually see. Like the codependent brother/sister relationship of Jessica’s neighbours, Ruben and Robyn – clearly unhealthy and dysfunctional, but no less deep, allowing for Robyn as the domineering but protective sister to protray yet another role we rarely see for women.

Overall, watching this show, I was left with a startling impression of there just being way more women than I was used to seeing on TV. And that’s not the show having more women than men, it’s just the having of believable numbers of women, all of them being fully-rounded characters.

There’s a lot to be valued and much that is super important. I am still mad that rape and stalking and sexual abuse are such prominent themes in one of our few, precious shows that are led by women and feature women as superheroes. But I can’t fault them for how they handle those themes – seriously, with nuance, and with an understanding of the deep sexism that persists in ordinary society, and not merely in super villains like Kilgrave.

I strongly recommend Jessica Jones, with the proviso that it is likely to be difficult viewing for some.

*And let’s not forget that even Buffy was a victim of attempted rape in season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Posted in Jessica Jones | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Today I cut up and threw away a friend

Melony the Cactus

Melony the Cactus

Melony the cactus has been my companion for the past 18 years. That’s longer than any pet I ever owned, and equals the longest I ever shared accommodation with any person. She lacks a central nervous system, so I doubt she feels pain or has any awareness at all, but it’s hard to have a constant companion for so long and feel nothing for them.

Melony is named after Menolly, a character from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels that I identified with very strongly as a lonely, bullied girl. I consistently misread her name as ‘Melony’ for years, and named the cactus for her.

Melony has had a trying life. Knocked over at an early age by a cat, her top was knocked off – you can see the join where she sprouted again from the wound. She then travelled with me to university – I can’t honestly remember how we managed that, but she was a lot shorter then. She has stayed with me through no less than 12 homes since then, becoming steadily more unweildy as she continued to grow, albeit it very slowly in the sub-arctic conditions of the Worst Flat and the Second Worst Flat.

Mould and cold scarred her heavily at the base in the Worst Flat, but she survived where all the plants people bought me as house warming gifts died.

The picture above shows her in what, for a while, I referred to as ‘Lovely Flat’. You can see where she started to sprout again in her improved conditions. She grew another foot from what is pictured above after we moved to my current home. I wish I had photographed her again before she got sick!

I somewhat neglected her because I took her upstairs with me. It was warmer up there, but so far from the taps that I consistently forgot to water her. She was now extremely tall, but very skinny.

I moved her downstairs in an effort to position her somewhere I would remember to take care of her. Now that I finally lived somewhere OK for me, I wanted her to have a better life too.

I’m so very sorry that, in trying to improve her lot, I succeeded in fucking things up entirely.

A month or two ago I decided it was finally time to repot poor Melony. It had been 18 years, after all, and I had long felt bad about how pot-bound she was. I was also entirely intimidated at the thought of repotting her. Both because I thought she might break, and because, well, extremely spiky, highly unstable cactus.

But I did it! I successfully repotted her without breaking her or myself!

If only I had had a more sensible place to restore her to. At four feet tall the only place I could put her with enough light downstairs was the top of a book case. As I attempted this operation, she started to tip, and, in fear of her four foot length of spines, I dropped her and leapt out the way.

She lost her top – all the new growth.

I was very sad, but relieved that the bulk of her seemed OK. Slightly damaged at the top, but OK. I put her on my kitchen table. Less light, but safer and warmer, I thought.

This was my first mistake.

My second was to redeck her in the tinsel that had been hers for a decade, since my housemates and I dressed her for Christmas before considering how exactly the tinsel should be removed. I had finally taken the tinsel off, in, I don’t know, some brief, misplaced sense of adulthood. But after her accident, something felt right about restoring Melony’s tinsel. Like I should have never taken it off in the first place.

This was my second mistake.

It seems that being closer to the kitchen caused her to get too moist, and the moisture collected on the tinsel, and rot set in at three points, one near the base, one at the middle, and one at the top where she was damaged.

Having seen her fight off infection before, I didn’t realise how bad it was until it was too late.

Distressed that she was getting worse, and not better, I googled cactus rot last night. The news was not good. The only way to save a cactus with black rot was to excise the infected area and sterilise the wound with a fungicide. You have to be brutal. Cutting away any flesh that isn’t entirely green or greeny white.

Worried, but determined to do my best for Melony now, I started determinedly on her this morning. The rot was so much worse than I feared.

Melony's stump

My baby! 🙁 🙁

Long story short, I have lost almost all of her.

I’ve saved maybe a foot/ten inches from the top. I have tried to save a few inches at the bottom, but she’s too tough to cut through cleanly where I really need to. My guess is that the stump will die. My best hope is for the portion I saved from the top. I have sprayed both ends thoroughly with fungicide, but it’s very possible this portion will rot away, too.

The best I can hope is that the wounds at both ends will scab over quickly and I will be able to replant this portion as a cutting.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Most of Melony left the house today in a bin bag.

The healthiest chunk of Melony the cactus

The healthiest chunk

I know it’s kind of stupid to feel this sad over a plant that probably feels nothing at all. But we went through a lot together. And her fate is like that of many human relationships I hoped to salvage after the PhD was finally done, only to find it was too late.

I’m sorry Melony. You deserved better. You deserved a nice warm home and lots of sunlight and a nice big pot, and someone who could care for your properly. I should have looked after you better and sooner. But I cannot turn back time.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Lazy Vegetarian Recipes #3: Pumpkin Guts Soup

A pumpkinIt’s post Halloween. You got a pumpkin. You carved it. You saved the guts (the stringy flesh inside that you scooped out) with the vague sense that you paid £3 for a piece of food and it just feels plain wrong to eat none of it. What do you do?

There’re a million websites trying to tell you to turn the slimy innards into facial scrubs and whatnot, but you bought FOOD. You want to eat it. There are other websites telling you to cut out non-slimy flesh and blend that and turn THAT into soup, but you are lazy, goddammit, and you’ve done enough pumpkin carving for one year.

Here’s how to take your slimy pumpkin guts and turn them into SOUP.

Pumpkin Guts Soup

Makes 3 portions. Add more veg to make it go further.

Takes 70mins~

Estimated cost per serving: £1.30 (this is a guestimate, I used stuff from my allotment and spices I already have, so I’ve estimated rough costs)

You Will Need

The guts of one medium sized pumpkin, hollowed out for Halloween

4 or 5 small potatoes (I used small King Edwards, but any new potatoes would be fine)

1 good sized onion or two small onions

1 large parsnip

2 cloves of garlic

1 stock cube

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon crushed chilli

Some olive oil

200ml~ water

Instructions

Separate the slime from the seeds. Put the seeds to one side – you can dry and eat those later if you like, you can even roast them, but this is about the guts. You’ll note that there are big hard seeds and small soft ones. You can leave the small soft ones in, we’re not being too fussy.

Put a large saucepan on medium heat and add a generous splash of oil – two tablespoons, if you want to measure stuff. Finely chop two small or one large onion. Put it in the oil. Stir occasionally to stop it burning. Crush two cloves of garlic with the flat of your knife, then chop it finely. Add this to the saucepan.

Put another saucepan on medium heat. Boil some water in a kettle to save time. Peel and chop the potatoes – small chunks. Add the water and potatoes to the second saucepan.

Add the pumpkin guts to the first saucepan.

Peel and chop one large parsnip – small chunks. Add this to the saucepan.

Boil 200ml of water in the kettle (I did this by eye, so it’s a rough measurement). Crumble a veggie stock cube into a bowl and pour the water over it. Add this to the first saucepan.

Drain the parsnip and potatoes you boiled and add them to the first saucepan.

Add the nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and chilli.

Stir.

Put a lid on the concoction and turn down to a low heat. Put a timer on if you can, and leave for 45mins.

45mins later… you have soup!

Nutrition

Pumpkin is a great source of vitamins A and C, Calcium and Iron. Potatoes are a very good source of iron and vitamin B6. Parsnips are good for vitamin C, potassium, folate, and manganese.

Overall, this is a pretty good soup in terms of vitamins and minerals, especially for B6 and iron, which vegetarians should be careful to get enough of.

Posted in Lazy Vegetarain Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Martian

The Martian: film posterThe Martian is a very silly film.

It wants to be Apollo 13, or Silent Running, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or some Joss Whedon film (it’s not sure which one, but it probably involves Iron Man) and it ends up being none of them. And not in a good way. It’s a rather predictable, toned down, sprawling mess of half-hearted references and dialogue that’s meant to be funny, but consistently misses its mark.

Also, Matt Damon doesn’t know how to grow potatoes.

If you’re prepared for that, it’s an OK family film, and it’s vaguely hopeful to see Hollywood willing to trust that an audience will sit through something with a little bit of science in it and some periods where, compared to a lot of SF films these days, very little explodes.

I’d heard a lot about how good the science was and how great it was to see a real hard SF movie in our cinemas again.

If you have heard that too, I would not get your hopes up.

Plot

An American team of astronauts are on Mars, doing vaguely sciencey things, when a terrible dust storm brews up. They are forced to flee, but Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and lost in the storm. The team are forced to leave without him, believing him dead.

He’s not, though, and he is forced to survive on Mars, alone, with food that was only supposed to last 6 people 31 days. As it will take four years for a manned mission to come back to Mars to rescue him, this is not hopeful.

Fortuitously, along with the more likely protein bars, NASA have sent some potatoes. Matt Damon (it’s hard to think of the character as anything else, as Matt is playing the role the exact same way he has played every other role he has ever played) was the team botanist, so he sets about growing the potatoes in Martian soil and the team’s shrink-wrapped poop. Which massively expands his rations.

Meanwhile, NASA notices that he is not dead, and sets about trying to figure out how to get him back.

My thoughts

Gah, this film is such a mess. And it’s not just that, as someone who has grown potatoes, I know that the way Matt Damon goes about it is Just. Not. Going. To. Give. Those. Yields.

Permit me a brief digression to get it out of my system.

One thing anyone who has seriously tried to grow food learns very early on is that you do not put fresh manure on your crops. We’re not even gonna touch on the issue of what the Martian soil may or may not be like. Let’s just focus on the poo. Matt Damon takes dried, shrink-wrapped poo, adds water, and plants the potatoes directly in the poo.

Oh. My. God. So many things are wrong.

Firstly: you only put well-rotted manure on your crops. Fresh manure will chemically burn roots and seedlings.

Secondly: you really don’t put fresh manure on potatoes. That shit is too high in nitrogen and your potatoes will either die or yield really poorly. Really, manure should only be used sparingly with potatoes, but fresh manure is a terrible idea.

I get that the Martian soil is an unknown, and using human poo as manure is not an entirely bad idea, but a botanist should have known better than to put fresh, completely-unrotted-because-they-removed-all-the-moisture-and-stored-it-in-sterile-oxygen-less-freezing-conditions manure directly on potatoes.

Thirdly: he literally put the individual potatoes directly down on their own individual piles of poo. It hurts. At least mix it in with the Martian soil, Matt, just a bit?

Fourthly: he complains of the smell of the poo. Frozen, dry poo would not smell.

Fifthly: why are NASA sending potatoes to Mars? Those are heavy fresh vegetables. Every ounce counts and is worth a lot in expensive fuel. YES, if you needed to grow something fast in a bad environment to do it, potatoes are great. They’re incredibly easy to grow. But NASA would never send them.

Sixthly: the potatoes would have been treated with growth retardant. Just as potatoes you buy from the supermarket are. And they only have to go to the supermarket. They don’t have to make it to Mars without sprouting. I’m not saying your couldn’t make them sprout, potatoes love to sprout, but you wouldn’t get the kind of yields Matt does.

Seventhly: he didn’t chit them. Like, at all. For good yields you need to let your sprouting potatoes sit in the sun for a few weeks before planting so that they can store some energy before you put them in the soil. Again – you don’t have to, but Matt Damon becomes, like, this super potato farmer, with implausibly large yields, and his methods don’t show even basic knowledge about how to grow potatoes.

Eighthly: he doesn’t even earth his potatoes up. *shakes head sadly*

I’m just saying, when Matt Damon tells you he’s a great botanist and he’s going to do some ‘serious science’ you need to know that what he means is that he’s actually literally magic, and for some reason he’s using his magic on potatoes.

Anyway.

Self/drone surgery conducted by Freeman Lowell on Silent Running.There are glimpses of the Ridley Scott who gave us Alien in this movie. I see him when Matt Damon is operating on himself, alone, in a blue jumpsuit, and I know that this is a deliberate reference to Silent Running, and the scene where Freeman Lowell operates on himself with nothing but a couple of robots for help. Silent Running is a film about a man stranded in space desperately trying to grow crops; as such, it’s the most relevant of the filmic references, although the reference is sadly brief and virtually meaningless. The moment I saw that the team wore blue jumpsuits under their spacesuits I got the reference, and the shots where Damon has to cut the suit off himself in order to operate reminded me forcefully of Lowell’s robot companions doing so for him. I can’t imagine most people got that, though, and as Damon’s botanist has none of the political fervour or eco-warrior sensibilities of Lowell, it does little but show The Martian up for its own lack of central message.

Similarly, although most sci-fi lovers will have caught the 2001 reference in the scene where one crew member is jogging in a rotating room, it’s nothing more than a hat-tip.

The race-against-time scrappy science aspects are reminiscent of Apollo 13, but, again, I’m sad to say that none of the claustrophobic tension and desperation of that classic is conveyed in The Martian. It’s just struggling to do too many other things at the same time.

You can’t have the scenic beauty and stillness and strangeness of 2001, and the tense claustrophobia of Apollo 13, and the wonder at nature and loneliness of Silent Running, and whatever it is this film is trying to do with humorous dialogue that was sadly lost on me. These things just don’t sit together properly in the same film.

Similarly, although there are female astronauts, some in positions of power, there are no female characters who have any screen-time prominence.  Same for people of colour. All the main roles go to white men, as usual. I’m done with wondering at the ingenuity and scientific prowess of a white man stranded on a desert island space craft planet whatever who somehow manages to be a botanist and an engineer and any other damn thing he puts his mind to. It’s boring. I’ve seen it a million times, and, significantly, I have seen it in better films.

Incidentally, the scene where Matt Damon, the white man, declares he has colonised Mars, felt particularly insensitive of the kind of critiques that have been levelled at white colonial science fiction in recent years.

So while it’s great to see roles given to Jessica ChastainChiwetel EjioforKate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong , Michael Peña, and Mackenzie Davis, I come away feeling that a potentially great cast was wasted. Because whilst there was a clear attempt to diversify, they didn’t do it by giving big, meaty roles to women and people of colour. They did it by adding roles, making sure that the majority of the screen time went to the white male stars, Matt Damon and Jeff Daniels. Granted, I haven’t read the book and I don’t know how many of these characters come directly from the book, but part of adapting a film from a book is knowing how to condense. It’s not at all clear why we needed to have all of Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kirsten Wiig, and Jeff Daniels’s characters. They clutter the screen and leave little time for any of the individual characters to be developed.

And the less said about the scene where Donald Glover’s character explains the basic concept of a slingshot maneuver to NASA’s senior people, using Kirsten Wiig’s character as a voiceless physical stand-in for an inanimate object – whom one of the men click’s his pen off the forehead of! – the better.

As I began this review by saying: this film is a mess. No one has time to develop a full character on screen except Matt Damon, and Matt Damon… plays Matt Damon.

Go to see this film to turn your brain off and see some pretty shots of Mars. Don’t go to see this film if you want hard-hitting and thought-provoking science fiction. Get some DVDs of Apollo 13 and Silent Running and have yourself a night in with the best parts of what this film was trying to ape instead.

Posted in allotment, Silent Running, The Martian | Tagged , , | 1 Comment