Short Thoughts by Simon Groth

Paradise unrealised

INFERNO

Astronomers in ancient Greece referred to Venus as Phosphorus and Hesperus, morning and evening stars, unaware that they were describing a single entity. But from the seventeenth century, following Galileo’s telescopic observations where he noticed the planet moved through phases like the Moon, came the realisation that Venus was not an ethereal, heavenly light, but a place.

Right up until the middle of last century, Venus was widely believed to be conducive to harbouring life: it is about the same size and age as Earth and a similar distance from the Sun in the so-called ‘goldilocks’ zone (not too hot, not too cold). Imaginations ran riot about what might lie on the surface under its thick blanket of cloud. Perhaps in keeping with the planet’s namesake, the Roman goddess of love, Venus was frequently imagined as a tropical paradise, supporting a rich Venusian jungle-like ecosystem.

Such speculation is not as silly as it might seem today, after all, for much of their history, Earth and Venus were twins. Recent studies concluded that Venus may have had surface water and a habitable condition for billions of years, right up until around 700 million years ago. If correct, this would have given life ample time to evolve. Though more rigorous than science fiction, such pronouncements remain guesswork. We will never know for certain if fledgling life did indeed emerge on Venus.

That’s because today’s Venus is a very different place. It has no water. Its atmosphere is composed of around 96% carbon dioxide at a pressure more than 90 times Earth’s (equivalent to around a kilometre under the ocean). Its permanent shroud of yellow cloud cover contains mostly sulfuric acid. Winds average a brisk 300km/h and the average temperature is a balmy 470°C, by far the hottest planet in our solar system. Far from a vision of a lush tropical haven, Venus is probably closer to one of the later circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno. The sturdiest of the various Soviet probes sent to the planet in the 1970s and 80s lasted a little over two hours before the hostile conditions demolished it. We have no more than a handful of images taken from the surface.

So what was it that sent our twin planet off on such a divergent path from our own? Clues lie in that high percentage of atmospheric carbon. Venus’s runaway greenhouse effect should give everyone pause for thought as we release ever more of Earth’s ancient carbon into our own atmosphere: paradise is a fragile thing.

Images from another world here.

NEW AUSTRALIA

New Australia was a utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay, founded in 1893. It was conceived by its leader, journalist and prominent socialist, William Lane, in reaction to his growing frustration at the Australian labour movement’s decision to participate directly in federation politics. Lane was looking for something more radical than participatory democracy and, in the Paraguayan government’s offer of a large area of good land for settlement, he saw an opportunity to establish a workingman’s paradise.

To outsiders back home, New Australia was nothing more than a band of misfits, failures, and malcontents from the left wing of Australian democracy and the colony did little to change that perception.

Problems intensified after a second group of colonists arrived in 1894, causing a schism that led Lane to take a handful of others 72 kilometres south to establish another colony, called Cosme. Eventually New Australia was dissolved as a cooperative by the government of Paraguay, and each settler was given their own piece of land. Among those who decamped back to Australia was Mary Gilmore who would go on to become a celebrated feminist, activist, and poet, and such a staunch nationalist that her face and words are today etched on every $10 note.

That their story is better known in their adopted country says much about how Australia regards one of its oddest diasporas. If you find yourself in Paraguay – a country with no Australian embassy – it’s possible you may stumble across a school in Cosme named in honour of Dame Mary Gilmore.

More about New Australia here.

THE CROSSROADS

You know the story, or at least a version of it. A young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi harbours ambitions of becoming a great blues musician. He takes his guitar to a crossroad at midnight. There he is met by the Devil who takes the guitar, tunes it, and plays a few songs. When the guitar is returned, the young man has acquired a new mastery of the instrument that transforms him from a struggling itinerant musician into a legend. Robert Johnson sold his soul to play the blues, so the story goes, but the deal came at a terrible price. Johnson died at around 27 years of age. The cause of his death, like so many details of his life, is mysterious and obscured by conflicting accounts.

Essentially a retelling of Faust, the legend of Robert Johnson, was shared among blues artists for decades. Aside from its classic origins, the story persists because it taps into a deeper religious and cultural divide through twentieth century music, particularly in African American communities. For musicians (and their audiences) raised in churches, secular music was a temptation away from the divine, with the promise of money, fame, and sex via seedy bars and sweaty dancehalls. It’s a story that has resonated and reverberated in the decades since through rock and roll, the British invasion, heavy metal, hip hop, and even contemporary pop.

Me and the Devil Blues, one of only 29 songs the bluesman recorded, succinctly establishes his myth and anticipates his legacy: “You may bury my body / Down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit / Can get a Greyhound bus and ride”.

Listen here.

SIMON GROTH

Simon Groth’s forthcoming novel Ex Libris contains chapters whose order is shuffled between individual copies. His other books include Infinite Blue, a novel for young adults written with his brother Darren, and Hunted Down, a ‘remix’ of nineteenth century Australian short stories. His short stories and articles have been published in Meanjin, Overland, and The Lifted Brow. With if:book Australia, Simon created a series of award winning experimental works including the 24-Hour Book, live writing events at writers festivals around the world, and a city wide project to write stories published to digital billboards.

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