Kage Baker was an avid fan of the Silly Season. That’s the idea that late summer brings all sorts of bizarre news stories to the fore – because editors are bored, because reporters are all on vacation, because by deep summer a certain portion of the population has burned off a significant number of brain cells and gone nuts …
Whatever causes it, there is a tradition of whacky news stories in late summer. And Kage loved it; not only as a source of ideas, but as a seasonal delicacy in the ways of news. Bigfoot and UFO sightings tend to peak around this time; ditto rains of frogs, fish and other aberrant precipitation. It’s the time of year when men bite dogs, cats chase deer, and sea monsters wash ashore.
Sea monsters were one of Kage’s favourite weirdnesses. And actually, two of them have reportedly washed ashore lately at Long Beach (thank you for the notice, Tom Barclay!). They’re probably oarfish, which do normally inhabit the waters off the California and Baja California coasts, but are rarely seen. The adults only come up to the surface when they’re dying; then, since they average 12 to 20 feet long, are bright metallic silver and have red dorsal fins and crests like scarlet feathers, they are pretty damned noticeable. But two in a summer is odd.
And whale sharks are on the increase in the Sea of Cortez this summer. No one knows why. But since they are 30 to 45 feet long, have toothless mouths like giant mail slots and display big white polka dots on a blue background, they too are pretty noticeable. The local fisherman have been improvising whale shark tours, where American turistas go out to swim with and pet the giant sharks …
Social disasters continue to mutate and spread, getting weirder this time of year. There’s been a plague of penis thefts in Africa – well, there’s always a low-level endemic of penis thefts in Africa, but evidently it’s reaching some sort of peak. I’m not sure quite what to make of that, since all the stories that come up in my news feeds are written absolutely straight-faced – and a couple of goats have met their fate at the hands of lynch mobs, so it must be worst than usual … but I guess blaming the goats instead of people might be a sign of common sense advancing?
A team of scientists in England have grown beef in a Petri dish. They formed the resultant disorganized meat cells into a hamburger patty , and served it to a test taste team, live on television! It cost $330,000 and since they grew only muscle cells – no fat cells – it was rather tough and tasted “almost” like a hamburger. “Crunchy” was a descriptor used. Still, what they were experimenting with was a way to grow environmentally harmless meat protein for human consumption, so it was hailed as a triumph. Kage would not have been even slightly surprised that the first vat-grown “meat” was produced by the UK – the ultimate fate of British beef?
Another team of scientists (in Austria) have grown “mini brains” from human stem cells. They’re not full size, they’re not functional, they don’t even have circulatory systems: which means they cannot grow outside their nutrient baths. But in the right supportive circumstances, they are alive and growing into tiny deformed assemblages of unmistakeable brain tissues – grey and white matter, which includes that part that – in living brains – thinks … The scientists are calling them “cerebral organoids”. Kage, I know, would be wondering: if people are having fits over GMO corn and rice, what is the reaction going to be to blank human brains? Hmmm?
The story that most caught my attention is from Kazakstan. Kazakstan is just north of Kyrgyzstan; Kyrgyzstan, as you may recall, Dear Readers, is home to the Giant Kyrgyzstan Gerbil, which is the actual animal reservoir of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague. While any mammal can harbour the fleas that harbour the bacterium, the Kyrgyzstanian gerbils are the historic source of the disease – it travelled from them up and down the Silk Road, to wreak havoc in Asia and Europe. And when modern scientists began to investigate the area, they found that the local peoples had lots of unique rules about how and when you could safely hunt the gerbils – which was, mainly, never.
Well, a young man in Kazakstan has died this week, from bubonic plague. He caught him a nice big marmot (which is what a Giant Gerbil is) and took it home; cooked it and ate it. One of its fleas apparently made its own meal on him, with the historically predictable result. Either he didn’t listen to his elders talk about hunting lore, or they don’t have the right gerbil stories in Kazakstan the way they do in Kyrgyzstan … hence the tragic outcome. Oh, and several other people in his village are showing symptoms now, too.
Kage would have mourned the poor young man, but also shaken her head in lack of surprise. It’s what happens, she would say. People forget all sorts of things from the past; some don’t matter, but some do. And the cost of failing to figure out which is which can be your life.
And the fact that it happened in August? Just the statistical weight of the Silly Season, she would say. He might have been carried off by a ghost caravan from the old, empty caravansaries. He might have been carried off by a flying silver wheel full of people with big blank black eyes. Instead, he was carried off by a marmot flea engaged in its traditional family business.
That’s just August.