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Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

octopus_flask_(new_palace)_minoanEveryone agrees that cephalopods are fascinating, octopuses in particular. Apex marine predators, they hunt primarily by ambush and escape foes by water-jet swimming, mimicry, ink ejection and tentacle shedding (which they can regenerate, like lizard tails). Their niche dominance is buttressed by their ability to rapidly color-merge with their surroundings, squeeze through small openings (no bones or even the cartilage of cephalopod cousins) – and intelligence. They possess keen eyesight (their eyes evolved independently from those of vertebrates, as did those of insects) and chemoreceptors on their suckers allow them to taste what they touch, though their sense of shape is poor (more of that anon). Octopuses use tools, are known to play, may be capable of observational learning and are deemed so intelligent that they’re the only invertebrates almost universally protected from pain in research experiments.

Recently, the sequence of the octopus genome was published. This is an ongoing effort of gathering as many terrestrial genomes as possible, with the goal of figuring out the many black boxes still surrounding intelligence and emergence. The consensus of the genomes sequenced so far is that terrestrial life forms are as unique at the level of their genomic structure as at any other scale – yet the underlying common ancestry is also plainly visible. Of course, the PR departments of the teams doing the octopus sequencing had to figure out something to make that particular study stand out. Result: the numerous lay reports carried titles like “Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses might be aliens.”

I held my peace and tongue until I read the original paper itself. My verdict from reading it – which, incidentally, coincides with that of its authors – is that the octopus genome is as marvelous as its owners, and as unique as that of any other organism. However, it falls squarely within parameters in terms of structure and the organism it helps produce is therefore as terrestrial as anything else that moves on earth. So what allowed the churnalists to indulge in the customary hype? Well, primarily ignorance of basics such as the dynamic nature of genomes and the many alternative paths by which they generate complexity.

One fact touted as “amazing” was that octopuses seem to have more genes than humans (~35K versus ~22K, respectively) and the number doesn’t arise from a wholesale duplication, as it does in some insects and plants. However, there’s an immediate solution to that seemingly Gordian knot. It’s called alternative splicing. Alternative splicing (henceforth AS) is THE primary contributor to proteomic complexity and allows production of many proteins that vary in structure and function from a single gene. Some human genes produce hundreds of final products by this method, which then get further variegated by post-translational processes like phosphorylation and glycosylation (full disclosure: I spent my entire science career researching alternative splicing in the human brain and will be unmoved by arguments that “it’s mostly non-functional junk”). The AS mechanism is nearly universal in human genes but extremely limited in octopuses which instead use an on-off gene product modulation mechanism called RNA editing (ADAR). All eukaryotic species use varying ratios of AS and ADAR. Octopuses just happen to be mostly on the ADAR end of the spectrum.

Churnalists also presented two items as independent that in fact correlate: the octopus genome is rich in transposons (elements that allow genes to move around)… and gene families that arose as a result of duplication, which are most often tandemly organized, are dispersed in octopuses. Transposons are abundant in many other species (Barbara McClintock first documented them in maize, though the groundbreaking discovery took nearly four decades to gain her the Nobel she so richly deserved) and organisms with high numbers of transposons in their genomes inevitably show significant levels of gene mobility.

NodesOfRanvier

The cephalopods did not evolve just eyesight by a different path than that taken by vertebrates. The same is true of their nervous system, which is one reason why they’ve long been used for comparative studies in neurobiology and intelligence. Yet another point of hype was that octopuses appear to have more neurons than mice and have vastly expanded member numbers of two gene families involved in neuronal regulation. But as with the high gene count, there’s an interesting but non-exotic explanation for these findings as well. Namely, cephalopods need to coordinate their neuronal feedback loops locally unlike vertebrates, which depend on brain coordination.

Vertebrates have fast neuronal responses in large part because the myelin sheaths that wrap sausage-like around the neuronal axons allow what is known as saltatory conduction through the Ranvier nodes (the gaps between myelin sheaths). The loss of this propagation method is what creates most of the debilitating outcomes of such hereditary diseases as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher and the adult agonies of demyelinating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Tabes Dorsalis. In contrast, cephalopods don’t have myelin sheaths; the propagation of their neuronal impulses is linear which means it’s relatively slow (they also require large-diameter axons, which is one reason why these species were used as models in neurobiology research). In turn, the slow conduction requires local regulation of neuronal responses if octopuses want to remain predators instead of prey. Hence the large number of neurons and quasi-unique neuron-regulatory proteins.

So in this process, vertebrates opted for speed and integration; cephalopods for numbers and local autonomy. The locality of this coordination also means that, unlike vertebrates, octopuses have no integrative brain map. So, for example, they can minutely “taste” something within their tentacles, but cannot form a view of its overall shape. Not are they aware of the position of their tentacles, though each tentacle knows what it’s doing, so to speak. An eerie but non-mystical result of this is that a severed octopus tentacle will exhibit reflex behaviors for a while after it’s severed. But again, this is nothing exotic; it’s local autonomy at work, until degradative processes neutralize it.

The other side of this coin is that octopuses will never suffer from phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia, syndromes caused by disjunctions between a body and its brain map. The lack of integrative maps puts some limits to large-scale undertakings by aspiring octopus overlords, Hokusai’s famous Tako to Ama aside. So does the fact that octopuses die after procreation like salmon – males after mating, females after their egg sac matures. Their intelligence is individually based and they have no culture transmission, each octopus reboots de novo. Undoubtedly, their thought processes are alien. But – as I discussed in “Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” – so are those of chimpanzees, uplift or not.

Nemo KrakenI fully expect to hear theories that octopuses may be like Larry Niven’s Pak: aliens trapped in axolotl-like neoteny because earth lacks a vital ingredient that would allow them to transition into adulthood (there’s also a Polynesian myth that posits octopuses as the sole survivors from a previous universe cycle). However, the octopus proclaims its terrestrial provenance at all scales. What its genes and neurons do illustrate, unequivocally, is the near-infinite variety of solutions to common problems. Or, as another “alien” (who’s actually all too human) would say, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Related Articles:

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry

You Only Find What You’re Looking For

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

”Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Floating Brains and Invasive Minds

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Images: 1st, Minoan clay jar, New Palace period (~1500 BC, Irákleion Museum); 2nd, depiction of a vertebrate neuron with its myelin sheath; 3rd, Captain Nemo and his guests contemplating a rival intelligence in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Éduard Riou).

To Shape the Dark: Table of Contents

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Comet-Hale-Bopp“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

As before, I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony.

All the protagonists are scientists who transcend the usual SF clichés about that vocation, especially when undertaken by women. I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves.  For those eager for more, the projected launch is early spring 2016.

To Shape the Dark

Athena Andreadis – Introduction: Astrogators Never Sleep

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home
M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water
Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium
Kristin Landon – From the Depths
Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork
Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire: Descent
Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate
Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn
Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan
C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery
Terry Boren – Recursive Ice
Susan Lanigan – Ward 7
Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One
Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project
Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

Let the storytelling begin:

Constance Cooper – Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

After all our weeks of travel, those final few miles in a wagon drawn by ox beetle seemed the longest of all. The wagon reeked of peat, and the ox beetle periodically dug its claws into the mud and surged forward to free up the wheels. McMurrin, our dour driver, actually managed a chuckle as his insect’s motions flung me and Gwen back and forth. Gwen kept her pet project, a custom high-eye, cradled protectively in her arms.

Every moment I knew that we were getting closer and closer to haunted, hated Can’t-Go-Home Bog, right on the southern fringe of settlement, where no other botanist had ever set foot.

M. Fenn – Chlorophyll is Thicker than Water

“Afternoon, Dr. Yamamoto.” The old woman looked up from the flower seed display she had been studying while waiting.

“Afternoon, Billy. How’s your mother?”

“Good! She told me to thank your partner for the lotion, if I saw you. Her hands are much better.”

“I’ll tell Hina you said so. And how’s your skin doing?”

The boy blushed. “Fine.”

She smiled kindly. “Good. I’ll tell her that, too. Did my order come in?”

She trundled her round frame closer to a display of wind chimes. Hina would like one of these new copper ones, she thought, brushing her calloused hand against the metal pipes. A ceramic frog mounted on the top remained stoic as the chimes tinkled.

Jacqueline Koyanagi – Sensorium

Yora spends her first night in cultural realignment training thinking about the isolation of a life lived between stars.

The Tagli came to Ila, her planet, ten years ago, having crossed unthinkably vast distances in slow increments, bodies and vacuum separated by a mere skin’s breadth of material. Full generations had passed with no knowledge of ground and sky. And then they came, a bombardment of unfamiliar life on Yora’s planet, their twisting ships suspended over fourteen cities like itinerant gods.

Kristin Landon – From the Depths

“Rinna!”

Rinna Heinonen turned, one hand on the hatchway that would let her out of the family quarters, and suppressed a groan. Her fifteen-year-old daughter stood across the small common room from her—in her iso suit, fluorescent orange, its hood and mask dangling around her shoulders.

Rinna sighed. “Just where do you think you’re going?” Sealed in, Petra would be ready to leave Hokule’a with a minimal chance of contaminating the air and sea with her human DNA and microflora.

Petra’s long mass of tight braids was tied back in a ponytail, and she carried her backpack. She smiled tentatively at her mother. “I thought you might need a hand today.”

Shariann Lewitt – Fieldwork

“Grandma, do you think Ada Lovelace baked cookies?” We were in her kitchen and the scent of the cookies in the oven had nearly overwhelmed my childhood sensibilities.

“I don’t think so sweetie,” Grandma Fritzie replied. “She was English.”

“Oh. Mama doesn’t bake either.”

Grandma Fritzie shook her head. “There wasn’t any good food when she was young.”

“Did her Mama bake?”

“Maybe. But not after they left Earth. They only had packaged food on Europa, and no ovens or hot cookies or anything good. That’s why your Mama is so tiny. We’re going to make sure you get plenty of good things to eat so you grow up big and strong.”

Vandana Singh – Of Wind and Fire: Descent

I have been falling for most of my life. I see my village in dreamtime: an enormous basket, a woven contraption of virrum leaves and sailtrees, vines and balloonworts, that drifts and floats on the wind. On the wind are borne the fruits from the abyss, the winged lahua seeds that always float upward, and the trailing green vines of the delicious amala — windborne wonders that give us sustenance. But the village is always falling. Slowly, because of the sails and balloonworts, but falling nevertheless. We hang on the webbing, the children and babies tethered, shrieking in joy — and we tell stories about what might lie below.

Aliette de Bodard – Crossing the Midday Gate

Dan Linh had walked out of the Purple Forbidden City not expecting to return to it – thankful that the Empress had seen fit to spare her life; that she wasn’t walking to her execution for threefold treason. Twenty years later – after the nightmares had faded, after she was finally used to the diminished, eventless life on the Sixty-First Planet – she did come back, to find it unchanged: the Midday Gate towering over the moat; the sleek ballet of spaceships between the pagodas and the orbitals; the ambient sound of zithers and declaimed poetry slowly replacing the bustle of the city at their backs.

Melissa Scott – Firstborn, Lastborn

It has been more than a decade since I first set foot in Anketil’s tower, and three years since she gave me its key. It lies warm in my hand, a clear glass ovoid not much larger than my thumb, a triple twist of iridescence at its heart: that knot is made from the trace certain plasmas leave in a bed of metal salts, fragile as the fused track of lightning in sand. Anketil makes the shapes for lovers and the occasional friend when work is slow at the tokamak, preserving an instant in threads of glittering color sealed in crystal, each one unique and beautiful, though lacking innate function. It’s only the design that matters. I hold it where the sensors can recognize it, and in the back of my mind Sister stirs.

Anil Menon – Building for Shah Jehan

“Thermoplastic,” said Kavi, working her mouth as she considered our architectural model, “is not sand.”

I relaxed. If that was her biggest grief, then we were in good shape for tomorrow. It was almost one-thirty in the morning, which meant that only eight hours remained before our final projects were due.

Knock on the door. Then Zeenat popped her head in, her round sleepy face indicating what she was about to ask. “Chai, guys?”

“Yes,” said Kavi.

“I’d like to look over the drawings one more time,” I said. “Make sure it’s habitable. The design is only—”

“She’s trying to say no,” Kavi explained to Zeenat. “You go ahead.”

“So let Velli look over whatever needs to be looked over, we can go have chai.” And then Zeenat added, “My treat.”

C. W. Johnson – The Age of Discovery

It was a milestone, no matter what, and so the lab celebrated. Roberto looked abashed as they toasted him. “Hey, guys,” he said, fidgeting, “I should get back to work.” Everyone laughed. Their supervisor Ms. Thalivar called out, “How fast can you do the next thousand?” and Roberto said, “Well, now that I’ve finally got the hang of it…”

Luo Xiaoxing, the publicist sent over from Shanghai, went around taking images and videos. She squeezed past a couple of technicians and stopped at Edith’s station with her all-in-one raised. “Do you mind?”

Edith shrugged. “The company sent you. But shouldn’t you…?” She pointed with her chin to Roberto.

Terry Boren – Recursive Ice

1. Heuristic

The afternoon wind, cool and rain scented, lifted Bret’s hair away from her neck as she gazed down at the Isar where it slid green and quick beneath the bridge. Her vision was blurred and distorted one moment, absolutely clear the next. Her palms rested gently on the pitted granite of the railing. It was familiar, safe. But though she had done her graduate work at the Planck Institute in Germany, years before, she still could not remembered what she was doing in Old Munich. Something to do with her work? She touched her face, probing gently at the swollen cheek. The eye itself seemed undamaged, though the area around the left socket and the left side of her face were bruised. The cheekbone probably had been cracked. Her cheek was wet, and pain made the eye tear again, distorting the green park along the green river. The wind was picking up. Hoping to reach shelter before the storm broke, she continued across the bridge toward Mariahilfplatz and the frozen spire of its church.

Susan Lanigan – Ward 7

The man from HR was speaking. She could not recall his name, even though it glinted from the bronze-coloured badge he wore below his left lapel. That was because the badge always seemed to catch the intense sunlight coming in through the south-facing glass wall, to which the HR man himself seemed immune, even though it was hitting the back of Vera’s neck so precisely that she felt as if the rays were burning a line on her skin above her collar. Both room and man were unfamiliar to her. Employees from the medicinal chemistry division of Gleich Enterprises rarely got summoned here. But her presence was “imperative”, she had been told, her offence too severe to be overlooked this time.

Kiini Ibura Salaam – Two Become One

Aversion:

Meherenmet glared across the room as she watched an attendant feed Amagasat dates and tiny sips of beer from a serving tray. Disgust spiked through her body. She looks like an aging child, Meherenmet thought.

Morning light filtered into the eye-shaped antechamber, bathing Amagasat in a soft glow. She shimmered in her iridescent blue robe and golden collar and wrist cuffs—all intentionally worn, Meherenmet thought, to boast of her success. But Amagasat’s tremors—that fierce trembling of her hands—overshadowed her finery. Meherenmet doubted that Amagasat could still dress herself, or even attend to her own elimination.

Jack McDevitt – The Pegasus Project

I was sitting on the porch of the End Times Hotel with Abe Willis when the message from Harlow came in: Ronda, we might have aliens. Seriously. We picked up a radio transmission yesterday from the Sigmund Cluster. It tracks to ISKR221/722. A yellow dwarf, 7,000 light-years out. We haven’t been able to break it down, but it’s clearly artificial. You’re closer to the Cluster than anybody else by a considerable distance. Please take a look. If it turns out to be what we’re hoping, try not to let them know you’re there. Good luck. And by the way, keep this to yourself.

“What is it?” asked Abe.

“Aliens.”

Gwyneth Jones – The Seventh Gamer

The Anthropologist Returns To Eden

She introduced herself by firelight, while the calm breakers on the shore kept up a background music – like the purring breath of a great sleepy animal. It was warm, the air felt damp; the night sky was thick with cloud. The group inspected her silently. Seven pairs of eyes, gleaming out of shadowed faces. Seven adult strangers, armed and dangerous; to whom she appeared a helpless, ignorant infant. Chloe tried not to look at the belongings that had been taken from her, and now lay at the feet of a woman with long black hair, who was dressed in an oiled leather tunic and tight, broken-kneed jeans; a state-of-the-art crossbow slung at her back, a long knife in a sheath at her belt.

Image: Comet Hale-Bopp (NASA, JPL).

To Shape the Dark, Protagonist Vocations

Monday, May 18th, 2015

As people know, I’ve been working on the successor of The Other Half of the Sky.  It focuses on women scientists doing science not-as-usual and is titled To Shape the Dark — because that’s what scientists (should) do.

I spent this past weekend doing final passes on about half the stories that will appear on the anthology.  If things continue at this rate we’ll have a finalized TOC by the first week of June.  Until then, here are the occupations of the stories’ protagonists, to whet people’s appetites. People took my injunction not to flood me with computer programmers and psychologists seriously!

Other Half 160

Molecular biologist/virologist
Plant biochemists/engineers
Biochemist/magician
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Exo-botanist
Exo-ecologist
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
Geologist/volcanologist
Proto-physicist/engineer
Planetary physicist
Quantum physicist
Hyperspatial mathematician and plasma smith

Scalpel versus Hammer

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

“…sleazy rancid twat…” – Tom Kratman about someone daring to dissect his, um, “fiction”; at File770 on May 12, 2015. The comment has since been deleted by site moderators but Internet Rangers never sleep.

Haddock

Profanity has been with humans ever since we developed language past grunts. Research indicates that it emanates from different centers than those for main language: the limbic syste in charge of the “Four Fs” rather than the cerebral cortex [Tourette syndrome, whose symptoms include out-of-context swearing, has both limbic and cortical components]. This provenance makes swearing the direct descendant of involuntary animal stress vocalizations for anger, fear and pain. It explains why otherwise aphasic stroke victims can still swear and why stutterers nevertheless swear fluently (showcased in The King’s Speech). It also jibes with the fact that swearing can alleviate pain, though only short-term – and only acute pain, not its intractable chronic counterpart.

Swearing is routinely divided into blasphemy (religion) and obscenity (body parts). Steve Pinker has fussily classified swearing into abusive, dysphemistic, idiomatic, emphatic and cathartic – but the significant category overlaps are clearly visible.

Non-reflexive swearing is word magic akin to cursing and as such registers viscerally, but only in one’s natal tongue. Swearing in languages acquired later in life doesn’t deliver this solar-plexus punch, hence the common spectacle of normally restrained or prudish people swearing freely in their non-primary tongues. As with all language, some words may be deemed insults in some contexts but not others, although the basis for the assignment is always obvious (a prime example is “cunt”, convoluted exegeses about its gender – and value – neutrality notwithstanding; even its apologists concede in private that it’s a nuclear-option term).

In most societies, constant swearing is taken as evidence of a limited vocabulary and hence a signifier of low educational and social status. Conversely, uttering obscenities without consequences is the prerogative of those dominant in their local power structures and/or beneficiaries of exceptionalism. Spontaneous swearing is always a physical reaction; on the other hand, calculated swearing is often a way to establish a persona, overcome feelings of inadequacy or claim instant–insider membership in a group. Many in/famous standup comedians are textbook examples of all three. So are rage bloggers and frothing trolls who seem to operate on the assumption that four-letter words (especially about women, especially about older and non-pretty ones) are toughness bona fides.

chaplin203Deliberate excessive swearing reminds me of an anecdote about Richard the Lionheart and Salah ad-Din (the story is apocryphal: the two never met face-to-face). Richard, to show his might, whacked a table with his two-handed sword, reducing it to splinters. Saladin removed a silk scarf from around his throat, tossed it in the air and twirled his damascene blade below it. Richard picked up the scarf, only to find out it had been neatly cut in two.

Likewise, routine heavy use of expletives in conversations obscures the points in an argument, focusing instead on the swearer’s intent to shock… though they rarely awe. A swearer’s goal is often to show “righteous” wrath; but they mostly come across as people who, to use Saxon, can’t hold their shit – or who are using a blunderbuss to obscure the weakness of their position. The polyglot occupancy of the internet (even while English remains its lingua franca) blunts the impact of such words anyway, leaving only the categorization of their user.

Bone-breaking maces have their uses but even the brawniest berserker can be brought low by a well-aimed arrow. Of course, wit can get its wielders beaten, imprisoned or killed, because its targets (usually) recognize it for the subversive instrument it is – and people pricked by sarcasm often fancy themselves alphas in one or more ways. Using a scalpel rather than a hammer in discourse doesn’t necessarily imply a winning position. Nor does it automatically signify ethical or logical superiority. But it evens the playing field, just as the bows and slingshots of Welsh and Cretan commoners obliterated the advantages of patrician heavy armor and just as guerilla warfare has always finessed brute-force frontal battles.

As someone whom many consider an annoyance or obstacle (though they’ve used different terms) I find it amusing, during breaks from important tasks, to poke pinholes in helium or lead balloons of wannabee godlings, rambots and tai tai. That said, my sense of fair play (and, to be frank, my self esteem) prohibits me from tackling the unarmed even with ping pong balls, let alone with Stinger missiles.

[Billy Bragg and Wilco, with Natalie Merchant harmonizing, perform Woody Guthrie’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key]

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewe

The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Hergé’s Captain Haddock, who at least was inventive and articulate with his cursing; 2nd, Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp, who knew how to prick balloons.

Up the Walls of the Worlds

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

(after James Tiptree’s novel)

JPL life-on-europa

[Click to embiggen image]

The flood of data from the solar system probes has led to tectonic shifts in our understanding of our neighbors. High on that list has been the discovery of liquid water in the large moons of the gas giants: Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s Enceladus. By many strands of evidence – which include geysers – all three have large subsurface salt-water seas below their icy surfaces (Saturn’s Titan has surface oceans but they’re made of methane and ethane, liquid at Titan’s ambient temperature). In Europa and Enceladus this water may be in contact with a complex silicate core that could supply both directional scaffolding and building blocks; and the orbital friction between the moons and their primaries generates heat dynamos that could give rise to deep hydrothermal vents.

Salt water with a steady supply of dissolved nutrients; an energy source; complex silicates that – according to Cairns-Smith’s clay hypothesis – could act as anchors and template propagators for chiral organic molecules. The simultaneous presence of all these components is a recipe for the development of life.

Life as we know it is based on carbon and uses water as its solvent. Both are unique within their respective categories. Carbon is the best foundational element for complex chemistry by several orders of magnitude: the number and variety of organic compounds exceeds that of all the rest combined. Like its fellow occupants of the fourth column of the periodic table, carbon has an outermost electron orbital that is exactly half-occupied. So the fourth column elements are equally good as electron donors or acceptors, and as a result they can form compounds with just about every other element.

Carbon has an additional almost-unique characteristic: its unoccupied orbital is at such a distance from the nucleus that it can form bonds of the exactly correct strength to create very large and complex compounds. In particular, carbon bonds with itself more or less with the same proclivity that it bonds with anything else. Whatever can be imagined, of any size, shape, taste or smell, can be found among organic compounds, from diamonds to nucleic acids, from limonenes to fullerenes. If a carbon atom’s four available positions have distinct occupants, the resulting compounds are chiral (“handed”), another apparent prerequisite for biomolecules – certainly a decisive attribute of all terrestrial ones.

Silicon, the next foundational candidate after carbon, is a distinctly inferior also-ran. The radius of its outer electron shell is larger, which means that it forms weaker bonds, especially with itself. Generally compounds with more than three silicon atoms in a row are very unstable, unless they are forced into a crystal lattice. And if oxygen is anywhere near it, all available silicon funnels itself into silicates, precluding all other combinations.

Water

In turn, water has several properties that make it the most potent and versatile solvent. This includes its tetrahedral structure (due to its two free electron pairs, which make it a polar compound), phenomenal heat capacity (which makes it a stabilizer), high heat conductivity and surface tension (vital for many cellular structures and processes), transparency to visible light (crucial for photosynthesis) and the anomalous property of becoming less dense when it solidifies into ice (hence a reservoir and refuge). The runner-up, ammonia, shares some of these attributes (including the tetrahedral structure) and might be the solvent of choice at the lower temperatures of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Such a configuration is fully deployed in Joan Vinge’s justly famous Eyes of Amber.

If we encounter life elsewhere, it’s a foregone conclusion that its details will differ significantly from ours – and that its differences will dwarf what SF has come up with. Non-terrestrial life may not use DNA or RNA as its basis of genetic transmission; it may use a different kit of starting blocks for energy, scaffolding and catalysis. It will have a totally different repertoire of body plans, sensoria, mental processes, reproductive modes, ecosystems. But it will be based on carbon and will almost certainly use water as its solvent. And just from current percentages, it’s possible that most planetary life may have developed in “roofed ocean” worlds like Europa, instead of the open atmosphere of Earth.

Walking rightward (as is customary) in the Drake equation, the question is: if they emerge, would roofed-ocean lifeforms evolve to complexity? To sentience? To use of technology, whereby they might send the unambiguously civilizational signals still eagerly awaited by SETI? Of course, our horizons are limited by our own intrinsic parochialisms. We cannot easily visualize technology that’s not based on metals and fire. We cannot easily imagine how sentients that never see the stars might nevertheless deduce their existence.

Many of these perceived hurdles are in fact easily overcome. In Forerunner Foray, André Norton postulated a species that directed the building activity of coral polyps. The solution of water-dwelling lifeforms would be direct-to-biotech, bypassing metal forges. Terrestrial cephalopods are remarkably intelligent and are known to use technology (cetaceans are revenants to water, so their intelligence springs from the same foundation as ours). As for guessing the existence of the stars, a species with sensors in the right bracket of the EM spectrum would rapidly become aware of the overwhelming nearby presence of Jupiter or Saturn. Such species might eventually build starships from tissue, like Farscape’s Moya. Beyond that, the specifics of such species might go a long way towards explaining the over-invoked Fermi Paradox: if they sent signals, they would automatically choose their own waterhole frequency.

So far, we’ve seen the exteriors of roofed-ocean worlds. Missions have been planned for investigations of interiors, though their launch dates keep slipping further into the future. In the end, our own vaunted ability to see the stars may not avail us if we choose to turn inward, eventually running out of the metals and fuels that keep our window to the universe open. If we do send out exploratory vessels, we have to be extra careful not to mar the worlds we touch, that may harbor their own tinkerers and dreamers. But it’s my fond fantasy that, before my own life sets, we get to hear of filigree manta rays swirling under Europa’s ice to the radio pulse beats of the giant overhead.

Giant Manta Getty

Images: Top, the Europa system (NASA/JPL); middle, water, the marvelous solvent; bottom, a manta ray pirouetting in its element (Getty Images).

Genome Editing: Slippery Slope or Humane Choice?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

gattaca09

Science fiction is awash with engineered humans, from the now-classic GATTACA to the demi-gods of Banks’ Culture; the concept is linked to that of cloning and carries similar strains of hubris and double-edged consequences. As with cloning, gene engineering is no longer science fiction. Protein and Cell just published the results of a Chinese research team that used a DNA editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to alter early trinuclear (triploid) IVF embryos.  This technique has been used in many organisms, including mice, to successfully change specific genes. It’s a variation of gene therapy; the major difference is that in this study the repair was done at the low-number cell stage instead of postnatally.

[Parenthesis for the detail-oriented: CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, a common configuration in gene editing methods derived from bacterial defense systems. Cas stands for CRISPR-associated system – a CRISPR and its associated nuclease, which recognizes and clips the palindrome. The technique puts a target sequence with a desired nucleotide change in the CRISPR construct and introduces it plus a modified Cas enzyme into a cell or organism; the introduced system replaces the endogenous target sequence with the engineered one].

Triploid embryos, ova fertilized by two sperm, are mostly miscarried during the first trimester. The extremely few fully triploid infants that survive till birth have severe defects and without exception die a few days after delivery. The experimental triploid embryos additionally carried a thalassemia mutation in the HBB (beta-hemoglobin) gene. Thalassemic heterozygotes can lead a quasi-normal life with occasional blood transfusions, provided they are monitored. Homozygotes live a life of gruesome suffering and die before age 20 unless they undergo bone marrow transplantation.

The study documented several serious stumbling blocks, though none were unexpected: primarily low efficiency and low fidelity. Dependable introduction into cells is not trivial and the difficulty increases the more specialized the cells are, which is one reason why germline or embyronic editing is easier than its adult counterpart. Also, techniques of this type, which include RNAi, are prone to off-target effects (changes of quasi-homologous non-target sequences) and mosaicism due to expression variation – particularly with gene families, of which hemoglobins are one. As the study’s authors explicitly state, the technical issues must be competely resolved before such methods can go into clinical mode. Which leaves us with the other part: the eternal battleground between “can” and “should”.

Given the embryos’ triploidy and homozygous thalassemia, the primary ethical dilemma of tinkering with potentially viable entities did not arise in this study. Even so, Science and Nature rejected the paper summarily citing ethics concerns, and the usual people were interviewed saying the same things they said about IVF and cloning (briefly: unnatural hence unethical, slippery slopes, designer babies). Beyond the original furor over IVF babies, recall that a few months ago the UK allowed the generation of triparental embryos for people who carry mitochondrial mutations that would result in disease. And although many diseases are multigenic, others, equally devastating, would yield to such therapy.

Not surprisingly, many scientists and ethicists have called for a temporary moratorium on such experiments until consensus guidelines are developed. This happened at least once before, with recombinant DNA (the famous Asilomar conference of 1975). The original fears around gene splicing proved baseless, the grandstanding of Cambridge mayor Alfred Vellucci notwithstanding. The same is true of IVF, which has resulted in millions of perfectly normal humans, though the wars around gene therapy and GMOs are still raging, partly driven by issues other than feasibility or outcomes.

In my opinion, the meaninful dividing line is not between humans and all other animals. The real dividing line is between repair and enhancement (and what the latter really means). It’s almost certain that such methods will be tried on the less privileged first and, once perfected, will be preferentially accessible to the well-off – possibly indefinitely, if the current re-stratification of humanity by wealth persists. At the same time, it’s equally clear that the CRISPR technique has passed the proof of concept test and will eventually be used. I, for one, cannot imagine many future parents who will opt for no intervention if they are told that their child will develop Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia or Huntington’s disease.

The burning question, of course, is if attributes deemed socially desirable will also be on the table with CRISPR. Thankfully, almost all suchlike attributes are polygenic and/or strongly susceptible to environmental input. Closer to the bone, a condition like monogenic deafness carries the dilemmas now associated with cochlear implants (I will not discuss “IQ” or autism, since these are not defined by single genes or, in some aspects, at the gene level and therefore don’t fall into this conversation). There is also the issue of consent, which means that adults are likelier to be eventually allowed to try exotic changes – with far greater risks attached, because of the intrinsic difficulties I discussed earlier.

At one end of this lurk the specters of eugenics and coercion – and, if financial and power stratifications escalate, the fear that humans may eventually split into Eloi and Morlocks. However, speciation requires total isolation of founder populations… and masters rarely withstand the temptation to mate with their slaves and servants, whether it’s an act of love or lust. Another fear is that the editing of an “undesirable” gene variant into extinction will have unforeseen consequences, since germline or embryonic editing is heritable. Many disease alleles have persisted because they confer advantages to heterozygotes: sickle cell to malaria, cystic fibrosis to cholera. As I never tire of repeating, “optimal” status is context-dependent. But if we fine-tune the editing techniques to the point that they become safe for routine use, re-introducing known alleles will be equally easy (creating new ones is definitely terra incognita, though these could, and should, be pre-tested in non-human systems).

On this, as with recombinant DNA, I’m a cautious optimist and venture to hope that the perfected CRISPR technique will be used with awareness and care for good – to ensure that monogenic diseases don’t lead to shortened or stunted lives. We may end up with a mosaic of guidelines, but eventually familiarity will dispel our wired fear of the new. We’ll still have to struggle with diseases that are less tractable, like dementia. And if CRISPR gives rise to a few more blue-eyed babies, I think we can live with that.

Blue Eyes

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?

Blastocysts Feel No Pain

The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

The Price of Threescore Years and Ten

Friday, March 13th, 2015

“… Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight, God shall win.”
— from The Four Ages of Man, W. B. Yeats

Pier and Sea

It’s hard, even for those who believe in afterlives, to contemplate that individual organisms become biologically irrelevant in this life once they’ve succeeded in shepherding the next generation to autonomy. It insults our deep sense of teleology, of being here for a purpose beyond just reproduction and ecosystem balancing interactions.

Luckily, humans undergo a very long period of neoteny: they need to acquire the specialized physical and mental skills required for dealing with technology and social groups, including language. So in humans (and a few other species that include orcas and elephants) experienced elders remain relevant – indeed, crucial – for a long time past peak reproduction. Even so, the average human lifespan hovered around the mid-thirties (with exceptions so rare that they were noted in myths and chronicles) until clean water and antibiotics extended it to almost three times its unaided length.

But this longevity came with a price attached. Our scaffolding was not made to last that long, no matter how precious its cargo. So anyone who goes past thirty will get acquainted with at least one of the degenerative age-linked diseases; primarily cancer and dementia. It’s also true that such diseases can strike young(er) people, but that happens to those who carry gene alleles (variants) that make them susceptible to the respective dysfunctions.

Cancer and dementia are broad umbrella terms for aggregate final-outcome phenomenology. Cancer means that specialized organ-specific cells that should have stopped dividing resume the process, spawning a mound of descendants (“tumor”) that often are semi-immortal. In contrast, normal cells die and are replaced in a set timetable for each organ, except for neurons, glia, ova and testicular Sertoli cells (it’s not just eggs that get old: sperm quality also declines with age because Sertoli cells are its maintenance crew). Incorrect resumption of propagation is usually the result of mutations, genetic or sporadic (for example, induced by radiation) that jangle the carefully calibrated choreography of the activators and inhibitors that regulate gene expression. When the inappropriately dividing cells become so de-differentiated that they no longer adhere to their relatives (aka contact inhibition), they detach and start creating colonies elsewhere in the body (metastasis). There are environmental and hormonal triggers for each organ (asbestos and cigarette tar for lungs, UV light for skin, lactation status for breast) but age is the cross-sectional risk factor.

If cancer is too many cells, dementia is too few. Many people use dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) as synonyms but, in reality, dementia is a much larger and more heterogeneous category – so much so that non-AD dementias often get misdiagnosed. This conflation is plainly visible in the statements that attribute the recent, too-early death of SF author Terry Pratchett to early-onset AD; in fact, Sir Terry suffered from Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a rare non-AD type of dementia that starts out by affecting visual perception.

Who we are as persons largely resides in our brains and the human brain is amazingly plastic. That attribute is what allows us to acquire unique skills as a species and new skills as individuals. Our brain will also reroute and rewire at moments of crisis (this capacity, incidentally, is the likely root cause of fibromyalgia), though it loses plasticity with age and adult neurogenesis is negligible, limiting regeneration abilities. If, for whatever reason – from a mutation to lack of oxygen to a blow on the head – an extended portion of brain tissue dies past the brain’s capacity to effect repairs, the eventual outcome is dementia: literally, loss of mind. If the hippocampus is affected, the result is inability to form and retain memories. If the substantia nigra, Parkinson’s Disease. If the blood vessels, impaired judgment and organizational skills. If the frontal lobe, disinhibition (inappropriate behavior), aphasia (problems with speaking) and extreme mood swings. Overall, dementia means that the invisible, seamless mental coordination upon which we utterly rely stutters: brain compartments are reduced to the mere sum of their parts and eventually even localized functions fail.

A few non-brain complications can also affect cognitive function – vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism – but these are reversible. On the other hand, brain-based dementia, once it starts, is progressive and irreversible. And although we know and continue to learn a lot about the neurodegeneration process at several scales, we have made zero headway in preventing, arresting or reversing it. We don’t even know what to look for as an early warning sign; not that it would avail us much if we did. Whereas cancer treatment has made enormous strides in terms of both effectiveness and fine-tuning, whatever medications are given to dementia sufferers are really attempts to ameliorate side symptoms – the horrific anxiety of early stages, the crippling discombobulation of later ones. In fact, currently most dementia sufferers will remain lucid and functional the longest if they’re given nothing at all.

Countless theories have been proposed about how dementia starts and spreads; although several are not mutually exclusive, many events/structures that initially seemed obvious pathogenic culprits (and hence potentially fruitful targets for therapy) have now been proved to be effects rather than causes. The most prominent casualty is the amyloid hypothesis, which posits that amyloid plaques act as poison or as dominoes that nudge neighboring neurons into the downward spiral. However, it turns out that amyloid plaques are in fact neutral depositories; the truly toxic entities are soluble oligomers – and vaccines that dissolved plaques would accelerate the progression of the disease. Furthermore, several types of dementia have no plaques (the tangle-only dementias, in which fibrillar deposits of the scaffolding protein tau are the diagnostic and causative entities). This does not mean that amyloid is not involved, since several types of early-onset AD are caused by mutations in enzymes that process the amyloid precursor. What it means is that there are many tributaries that funnel into the dementia main pipe, and a change in any of them may suffice to tilt the system into initiating the degeneration loop.

People fear suffering; but even more they fear loss of self. Dementia is the ultimate specter and its shadow is lengthening in step with our lifespan. So are its burdens on individuals and groups: half of the population older than 85 develops the disease. Also, younger people who would once have died from brain injuries sustained in explosions now survive them, only to become strangers to themselves and those who love them.

We will all face the journey into the dark. But the same sense of wonder and purpose that has made us explore beyond what we can instantly grasp – from galaxies to brains to quarks – also makes us want to meet the unknown (or the end) as ourselves.

Image: Pier and Sea, by A68Stock

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?

Blastocysts Feel No Pain

The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Interview with a Yeti

Friday, February 20th, 2015

A while ago, our intrepid science correspondent AA ventured into the dangers of the Himalayas, where she was able to coax an exclusive interview out of Lilypad, a saber tooth tiger in hiding. When that interview appeared, she got a request through intermediary Marie E. to present a balancing view from a different local cryptid.

AA did not have the wherewithal for a second trip to the Himalayas and internet connections in that region are notoriously spotty. However, as luck would have it, the recent heavy snowstorms of the Northeastern US made an incognito visit possible for Smoofey, the self-appointed Ambassador-at-Large of Extra-Himalayan Yeti Affairs.

Without further ado, here is that interview.

Smoofster_with_Ikebana
Smoofey proudly displaying his ikebana skills
(photo: Peter Cassidy, staff photographer and resident yeti)

AA: Mr. Smoofey, what prompted you to break your deep cover? Some might call it riding on others’ (coat)tails…

SY: I had to correct some misconceptions propagated from Ms. Lilypad’s interview.

AA: Such as?

SY: Her contention that tigers essentially harvest yetis for food, for one!

AA: It sounded a bit like the Iroquois rotation system with denned bears… (Smoofey shudders, then wrathfully shakes his fist) I take your point! But I think we might want to clear a larger misconception. Most people think yetis don’t exist.

SY: Well, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?

AA: Can I feel your arm?

SY: (Suspiciously) Why?

AA: To prove to our viewers that the fur is real, not a costume. I don’t mean to insult you, but we have a steep uphill slog with burden of proof here.

SY: Oh, ok… Hey, that tickles!

AA: Definitely genuine. Can I take a closeup photo? The skeptics will swallow their tongues! But why is your hairdo so spiky?

SY: It’s hard to comb my fuzz, with all the burrs and ice crystals stuck in it. I can’t spend too much time on grooming, I have to use every possible weather window to forage! At the same time, I have to look good for – well, you know, we’re an endangered species! So I just put a small firecracker up there each morning. (Pats his head) Stylish, no?

AA: Devastating! But have you considered it might contribute to, er, your moniker?

SY: We yetis are tragically misunderstood. All we want are hugs! But when we try to approach humans they run away shrieking… (Sniffs quietly)

AA: That must make you sad.

SY: It does! We end up crying, and that causes avalanches.

AA: That explains a lot about the Himalayas… So, do you consider yourselves Tibetan… Kashmiri… Nepalese…?

SY: Hmph! We were fully civilized before humans showed up dressed in hides! We were philosophers, visionaries, healers – we taught humans how to meditate, to say nothing of ways to avoid frostbite and snow blindness. Ingrates! (Grumbles under his breath) Gautama Siddhartha, indeed!

AA: Somehow, the concept of rough cave-dwelling yetis as civilization beacons…

SY: We’re are epitomes of style! We get regular photo-ops in Better Caves and Logs! We’re famous for our duvet innovations and we love to arrange flowers, though we end up eating some in the process. We invented all kinds of other things, too: beer, dumplings, plaid weave, sunglasses…

AA: Plaid, eh? That explains the clothing of the Ürümchi mummies. Not the most sophisticated fashion statement, you must admit.

SY: We were aiming for arresting color.

AA: Getting back to foraging for a moment, what’s your staple?

SY: We have a nice balanced diet in the summer. In the winter, well… we snooze for much of the duration, but we still have to keep our weight up. Just hot cocoa won’t cut it. Sometimes we must resort to enticing a yak away from a settlement. (Shuffles guiltily) Some of us finally gave up, migrated to less demanding climates.

AA: Bigfoot, you mean?

SY: Yes, the cousins! We still exchange news and care packages. We used to exchange more, but now with those complicated visa requirements for future family members…

AA: Which brings us to reproduction. With your group so dispersed and isolated, how do you manage to find mates?

SY: I keep a careful registry for purposes of hybrid vigor!

AA: How many on that registry?

SY: Two. And neither is a girl. (Starts crying)

AA: Maybe I can get in touch with the Bigfoot delegation on your behalf? Unless you plan to continue westward on this trip.

SY: Would you? I don’t know if I can go over open ground without danger of being pounced on by conspiracy nuts. And it’s hard to raise the cousins. Skype let us down badly – they wanted a prepaid subscription and wouldn’t accept goats, even pashmina ones. We will make you an honorary yeti in gratitude if you succeed! And can you ask them to send me a new copy of Tintin au Tibet? I wore out my old one.

AA: Consider it done, snuggzilla! How about a hug to charge your batteries?

SY: (Hugging AA) No avalanches in Cambridge today!

Tintin au Tibet

Related: Interview with a Saber Tooth Tiger

How Many Swallows Bring Real Spring?

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

“Being nice to the harmful is equivalent of being harmful to the nice.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan

Karyatidhes

The Karyátidhes, Erechtheíon, Akrópolis, Athens

———-

In the wake of Laura Mixon’s November 2014 report on Winterfox/Requires Hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/etc (RH/BS), the SFF community had discussion marathons about forgiveness and healing, diversity and inclusion, speaking up and being heard. The predations of RH/BS and her lieutenants, horrific in themselves, are nevertheless a symptom of larger systemic problems. It is becoming increasingly pressing for the inhabitants of SFF, fan and pro, to go past talking and take actions that could eventually move the domain out of perpetual parochialism and childishness. Below are some of my thoughts on the larger context; at the end of the post are links to thoughts of other RH/BS targets. As in my previous contribution to the dissection of this pathology, comments to this post are disabled.

———-

Idealistic members of the SFF community envision the genre as tolerant and genuinely inclusive. I find this vision a worthwhile one to aspire to, even though it’s mostly honored in the breach. Being human, we will never really bridge the fault lines that divide the SFF community. What we can do is try to be constructive and productive despite them, and treat each other as professionals, adults and fellow humans.

That said, I will not ask RH/BS, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Tori Truslow or anyone else in RH’s orbit to promise me anything for the simplest of reasons: their behavior after RH/BS issued disjunct “apologies” when she ran out of dodges make it crystal clear they have no intent to change. Their attempts to discredit and silence critics continue unabated (once again, I refer everyone to the fable of the scorpion and the frog). They’ve also redoubled their efforts to reconstitute the BS construct as a talented ingénue beset by jealous rivals and to deep-six the fact that they’ve systematically engaged in trade suppression, blackmail and intimidation.

RH/BS and her acolytes have set back true progressives in SFF by at least a decade and have turned “social justice” into a term of derision even among supporters of change and an apotropaic invocation for those agog to have SFF revert to the circa-fifties Leaden Era. However, of greater concern are those who are so eager to exhibit ideological purity or (belated) art-for-art’s-sake “objectivity” that they’re effectively contributing to the relentless onslaught on real diversity in SFF. Their actions have helped turn the SFF ecosphere into rigid, brittle monocultures clustered at extreme end-nodes of the political/identitarian spectrum.

I continue to see disingenuous arguments that “talent” (however it’s defined in today’s tinsel-grabbing market) trumps blatant professional misconduct and utter lack of ethics; that spouting pseudo-edgy fashionable jargon excuses sustained, de facto criminal attempts to blight lives and demolish careers and reputations. I see no real move to give voices to those who have been silenced by malice, no matter how vital their voices are pronounced to be or how talented they are (and many are visibly more talented than BS). Instead, I see cynical promotion of gaudy baubles, lip service to quality notwithstanding; self-satisfied endorsement of tokens and Pathetic Puppies, the more “provocative” boxes they tick, the better; annoyance at targets of smearing and bullying campaigns who will not obligingly remain mute or leave the arena – and who will never recover the time, energy, income and professional ground they lost; and continued erasure of mavericks who don’t fit the agendas of self-appointed correct thought supervisors or of instant-cred seekers from SFF publications and conventions.

I once said I would not take the Joanna Russ pledge because I had been at the barricades all my life. Likewise, once again I won’t utter sonorous noises about showcasing the loners and outliers, the neglected and forgotten, because I’ve been doing it all along and will continue to do it as long as I can. Whether I and other memory keepers remain cymbals echoing in the wilderness or end up with acid thrown at our writings and faces is up to the SFF community.

 

Recent thoughts from other targets of RH/BS and her acolytes

Jean Bergmann, Statement Regarding Alex Dally MacFarlane

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Writer’s Journey: Doing the Work

Rachel Manija Brown, Requires Hate/Requires Love

Liz Williams, Requires Comment

 

Selected related articles

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

“My God, it’s Full of Physics!*” The Sciency Science of Interstellar

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The People in the Trees.

*apologies to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Captain-NemoLet’s get something out there right away: most science in science fiction is wrong. That’s okay, because most science fiction isn’t actually about science, anyway, but about our relationship with science, exploring how science and technology intersects with our lives.   Frankenstein is about the quest for knowledge, no matter the cost. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea chronicles how one man’s rejection of the violent machinery of war and power leads him to be the ultimate, terrible instrument of that same violence. The movie Gattaca warns us of the dangers of using a single technological lens for measuring humanity.

Interstellar had Kip Thorne, a prominent Caltech theorist and expert in gravity, as a scientific advisor. But in the end it was the sci-fi equivalent of Peter Pan: if you clap your hands and believe, everything will turn out all right.

As I’ve written elsewhere, a good narrative should be much a good joke: surprising yet ultimately logical. In the original version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus is trapped in a mighty maelstrom; in the movie version the crew are ambushed by a naval blockade. Both outcomes arise naturally from a central character’s underestimate of the forces arrayed against them: in the book, Nemo underestimates the power of nature; in the movie, Ned Land underestimates the cold brutality and hatred of the military. Both are surprising, but make sense in the context of the story-so-far.

By contrast, the plot of Interstellar basically boils down to this: a magical plague nearly extinguishes humanity. Then more magic saves it.

A blight which wipes out an entire food crop is completely believable, especially given our increasing tendency to monoculture. We’ve even seen that in bananas: most bananas in US stores are the Cavendish variety, cultivated by clonal cuttings. Sixty years ago you would have found the Gros Michel variety, but it was all but obliterated by Panama disease, and it is not impossible that the Cavendish may suffer a similar fate.

A single blight which annihilates crop after crop after crop is less believable, if only because: if it hasn’t happened in half a billion years of terrestrial plants, why suddenly now? Worse Michael Caine mumbles something about nitrogen, and people suffocating, which I could not follow; did the blight fix nitrogen, or oxygen? How could it possibly fix enough of either one to shift the atmospheric composition by more than a percent or two–especially given it would have to also draw upon the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is only a fraction of a percent.

This by itself is not an unforgivable scientific (or I should say sciencey) sin. I’m willing to accept a monstrous if highly unlikely plague in order to set the plot in motion.

After some more improbabilities, the accidental heroes launch into space. I’m glad Kip Thorne was able to talk Nolan out of his desire for faster-than-light drive, and the journey to Saturn takes a long time. Limitations, when consistent, provide a good verisimilitude of actual technology. I’m not sure why no one explained to Coop, the talented pilot, what a wormhole was until they were ten minutes from entering it, but, again, for the sake of the narrative I gritted my teeth and accepted it. They were surely some pretty CG effects.

But then we get to the planets. Including a planet orbiting a massive black hole.

Actually, even this I could accept. It is science fiction, after all, and I myself wrote and sold a story (“Icarus Beach”) involving characters surfing the neutrino burst from a supernova. I’m sure Kip Thorne patiently explained that to have a planet deep enough inside a gravity well for a time dilation ratio of 7 years to 1 hour but not be torn apart from tidal forces, it would have to be a really really massive black hole. Hence the name Gargantua. Thorne may have even explained to Nolan that such black holes are only found in the centers of galaxies, which are full of stars and radiation and really not that hospitable to life.

But even that I would accept–part of the joy of science fiction is the sense of wonder and the awe of extreme environments and situations. And the gravitational time dilation, although unrealistically large, fits well into the theme of constrained situations.

I never did get a good sense of the system. Are there twelve planets (like twelve disciples, get it, get it?) and a sun orbiting a sun, or what? The planet of ice clouds seemed, again, unlikely but cool.

But then we get to the mind-numbingly stupid stuff.

Chastain & Thorne

Not the falling into a black hole; I rather liked that bit. But Coop communicates with his daughter in the past, and eventually gets to meet her in the future, and it’s apparently all to do with five dimensions. Five dimensions, in Nolan-world, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much bad science, because the science in the movie is, beyond phrases like “five-dimensional beings,” nonexistent. It’s bad plotting because Nolan is saying And then a miracle occurs. A miracle we expect the audience to swallow, because, science!

Let me remind you: a good narrative should be like a good joke: surprising, but logical.

It’s not logical if you invoke incomprehensible magic. If the audience doesn’t have a fair chance of understanding it, it’s poor narrative.

Even the one part that, superficially, sounded believable doesn’t make much sense if you understand the deep workings of physics. Michael Caine’s character desperately wants to crack the riddle of quantum gravity in order to, I guess, make antigravity and thus easy mass space travel. Another miracle. But they need data, ideally from passing through the event horizon of a black hole, to get it to work.

Physics is fundamentally an experimental science, so superficially this is good. But I could not figure out what kind of data would make a difference. Presumably Caine has narrowed down the range of models–what sort of gauge groups or diffeomorphisms may be involved. But if there is a possibility that a working theory of quantum gravity could lead to antigravity, you could just build the damn things–here’s one device assuming SU(10) supergravity, here’s another assuming conformally invariant diffeomorphisms, here’s another assuming Lorentz-violation at ultraviolet scales (and, for you readers out there, those are all real phrases, not shit I just made up)–and see which one produces antigravity and allows you to build colonies around Saturn. After all, Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different substances for the filament of an electric light bulb before finding one that worked. No need for a suicide mission down a black hole.*

Let me emphasize that the problem is not the bad science–it is that the narrative leans heavily upon incomprehensible science. That’s bad storytelling. And in the end, that’s the worst sin possible in a movie.

 

*I actually liked the trip down the black hole. And if the movie had ended, right there, I would have liked it a lot more, since up to that point the movie was pretty convincing about how dangerous and indifferent the universe is.

Thomas-Edison-Quotes

Images: 1st, James Mason as Captain Nemo; 2nd, Jessica Chastain with Kip Thorne; 3rd, the relevant Thomas Edison quote.

Love, Tantrums and the Critical Reviewer

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Scorpion Laughs

In the last few months there have been spikes of the age-old arguments about the interactions of authors, reviewers and fans. When the three overlap, as is increasingly the case in several genres, it’s no wonder that the injunctions are for discussions to be as uncritically gushing as they’re in fanfic.

It should be no secret by now that I don’t care if people dislike my re/views. Furthermore, my attributes and experiences make it unlikely that I’ll hold a majority view very often even within communities like SFF, futurists, space aficionados, etc. Not that I’m prone to hermetic hermeneutics: after fifty-plus years of avid reading, film watching and gaming, I remain firmly in favor of art being accessible. I like plenty of scifi and fantasy films, even Hollywood ones, even ones that are glaringly imperfect – as long as they’re not in-your-face insulting; as long as they show a scintilla of originality and love of craft.

Recently, people used terms like “curmudgeonly” and “jaundiced” to characterize my dislike of Interstellar of which I briefly said the following, as I deemed it too crappy (in all “five dimensions”) for a full-length review: “Having now seen Interstellar — a loss of three hours I bitterly regret — I’ve concluded that the praise I’ve seen must refer to a film located at the end of a distant wormhole. The clichés, clunkiness, regressive triumphalism and sanctimony are sickening. So is the misuse of Hathaway and Chastain. Interstellar wants to be Contact if/when it grows up. Even McConaughey was more bearable in the latter.” [Though I think Contact would be vastly improved if he was excised from it altogether.]

There have been similar tantrums whenever I’ve disliked a fave-du-jour, although nobody (yet) has called me “a harlot” as someone called Stephanie Zacharek for daring not to have orgasms over Guardians of the Galaxy. But you know what? Even something as smarmy as love standardized for US audience palatability can be done right in SFF films. Love is not McConaughey chewing the scenery, his neck veins throbbing like harp strings. This is love — across several dimensions yet, but without self-satisfied trumpeting:

Mal: It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.

This makes my eyes sting, even while I know it’s meant to tug at my heartstrings. And if you cannot tell why this is light years ahead of Interstellar‘s “love transcends space and time” pretentious blather, don’t bother reading my (unabashedly unibrow) reviews.

Image: The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who knew how to deal with tantrums.

Curmudgeonly Reviews of Other SFF Films by Yours Truly

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade (Samurai Champloo, Mononoke Hime)

Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned (District 9)

Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art (Avatar versus The Secret of Kells)

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?” (the Planet of the Apes reboot)

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings? (The Piano, Whale Rider)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Legacy)

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

“We Must Love One Another or Die”: A Critique of Star Wars

Mystique: The True Leader of the X-Men

Authentic Ethnics (all films about Greek mythology)

Annals of the Starship Reckless

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

“But out there in the wind-swept dark, untamed and unbowed, still roams the feral loner who haunts the dreams and can foil the plans of the self-satisfied.”

— The closing of Mystique, the True Leader of the X-Men

adversity_by_amphirion

For a while now, people have been saying they’d like see my science- and/or SFF-relevant articles gathered in a collection.  Because of its unique viewpoint and perspectives, such a tome will almost certainly be self-published. Might as well keep frustration and amateurishness to a minimum!

As a trial balloon, I’m asking here, in Facebook and Twitter for a show of hands: how many would be interested in such a work?  The tally will close 5 pm EST, Friday. If numbers don’t reach triple digits, I’m unlikely to attempt it.

Image: Adversity by Amphirion

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros Under the Skin

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

The-Four-Horsemen
Meet the new boss-prophets, same as the old boss-prophets

I’ve been an atheist ever since I could reason and a scientist (in outlook, even before I acquired the necessary tools to practice it) ever since I read Jules Verne at the impressionable age of five. Whether atheists and scientists are mud-bound clods incapable of epiphanies and a sense of awe is not my focus here; I cover that in The Double Helix. Because these two streams had a major role in shaping me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve been tracking Richard Dawkins ever since The Selfish Gene crossed my radar. Given other formative influences, it may also come as no surprise that I wrote him off as a serious thinker in either domain a long time before his knuckle-dragger clunkings on social media. I hold the same view of Dennett, Harris and Hitchens for overlapping reasons.

People have expressed surprise that Dawkins’ PR-unscrubbed utterances are as primitive and juvenile as those from Duck Dynasty, especially his EvoPsycho101 sexism and white-man’s-burden pronouncements that cannot be justified by the standard dodge of “he’s a product of his context” (male, white, Anglo, upperclass, tenured, rich, lionized). However, if you read Dawkins carefully, it’s perfectly congruent that he sounds like Saul-turned-Paul in his injunctions to women and other second-class humans to be obedient and silent: a powerful streak of patriarchal authority worship colors not just his stances but also his science, with its relentless banging on the natural dominance of ruthless alleles. It’s equally congruent that his empathy-devoid “logic” sounds like Spock at his most pompous ill-informed reductionism – because, judging from his cumulative opus, that’s how Dawkins thinks across all departments.

Supporters of Dawkins will point out that he was an articulate spokesperson for evolution and against creationism and pseudoscience before he became a full-time nurturer of his own celebrity. Yet all scientists worthy of the title have borne witness for bona fide science to the best of their abilities, most with far less fanfare and job security – and far lower fees. Before discussing the atheism part, I want to take a detour into science. As a molecular biologist who worked for more than three decades on brain gene regulation, I’ve encountered few concepts as harmful as Dawkins’ selfish gene. I’ve dubbed it I-got-mine-bitches biology and it wreaks at least two major damages, one proximal, one distal.

The proximal damage is that the concept is simply inaccurate: genes and gene products never work in isolation but as coordinated ensembles. So do organisms and ecosystems, though the strong (conscious) Gaia hypothesis is definitely wrong. A broken wheel (allele, gene) can disable a car (cell, organism) but it cannot make it function on its lonesome: cars are not a collection of wheels bent on having the shiniest possible rims (“selfish”). The name for unchecked-growth cells is cancer; too-virulent viruses and too-greedy predators become extinct if they obliterate their hosts and prey, respectively; and rape is neither hard-wired nor evolutionarily adaptive. Also, no matter at what level(s) evolution makes its selection, the process is context-sensitive. There is no optimized allele, cell, genome, organism, species or ecosystem that’s independent of time and place. “Harmful” alleles persist because they confer desirable resistances, usually to heterozygotes (sickle hemoglobin is the poster child for this) and even temporarily neutral alleles within populations allow organisms to be responsive to future changes.

On top of the factual inaccuracy, Dawkins’ view reeks of teleological anthropomorphizing: he presents genes as god-like overlords jerking will-less “meat cages” around and he approvingly notes the brutality of nature in weeding out imperfections and weaklings. However, as I discussed in Miranda Wrongs, genes do not dictate higher order behavior which is an complex if knowable emergent phenomenon. Also, nature is indifferent to human desires and convenience – or those of any lifeform, for that matter. So contra Dawkins, the universe doesn’t lurk awaiting its chance to pounce on hapless non-alphas, nor does it have an insecure ego that derives pleasure and validation from disasters.

tantrumThe distal damage is that Dawkins’ selfish gene concept has been adopted wholesale and then shoehorned into every conceivable niche by all regressive groups that like to label themselves progressive and/or “edgy”: libertarians, transhumanists, evopsychos, MRAs, one-percenters, “creatively disruptive” MBAs, grittygrotty SFF writers. The core characteristic of these groups, protestations of visionary thinking notwithstanding, is that they’re actually obsessed with auto-perks for the “worthy” and with perfectibility narratives beloved by fundamentalist clerics.

Which brings us to atheism. I was raised in a culture where orthodox christianity was imposed not just by custom but also by law. My experiences and subsequent investigations stripped all illusion of whether any organized religion is benign, an illusion often nursed by those who embrace religions eclectically and/or by choice. I do recognize that religion can be a major part of someone’s cultural identity – it was part of mine, even as I figured out its corrosive toxicity. [Meta note: This is not a 101 debate; attempts to argue that some religions are good for women/non-defaults, that you cannot have morality without fear of punishment, that religion inspired amazing art or humane politics or that many current religious leaders are “progressive” will be met with the summary ejection they deserve.  The same treatment, incidentally, will be meted out to anyone who tries to tell me that my unsophisticated brain does not grasp the subtle rigors (if only!) of Dawkins’ theories.]

My atheism is that of Camus and any temptation (or likelihood) of me becoming a prophet is additionally precluded by my attributes, both innate and chosen. The atheism promoted by Dawkins is a counter-reformation cum younger-son rebellion: he and those like him don’t really want to bring a fundamental shift in society. They simply would like to establish or maintain an alternative authority pyramid with themselves at the apex, with all the entitlements of such a configuration. It is no coincidence that the views of Dawkins and the other so-called “horsemen” seamlessly align with the classic hierarchical dualisms (female/sentiment/instinct/nurture vs male/logic/science/conquest) that have wrought such havoc on our species and our planet. Nor is it a coincidence that when crossed, Dawkins drops the enlightened façade to reveal the raw nastiness underneath, which includes the annihilation of “apostates” routinely practiced by cult leaders.

self-promotionWhat Dawkins advocates is essentially a variant of authoritarian patriarchy, with its rigid rankings and selective privileges. He may have been a promising scientist once. However, his own agendas and unquestioned assumptions (which he keeps trying to pass as objective universals) combined with the expectation for sycophancy brought by his aggrandizement have repercussions beyond basic science. Elevation of people like Dawkins has led to such outcomes as the uniform expanse of white male faces at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. We aren’t going to build or board starships or even take care of our planet if we award the mantle of thought leader to blinkered, petty self-promoters like Dawkins.

Related articles:

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
If They Come, It Might Get Built
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
The Charlatan-Haunted World
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?
The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

Images: 1st, “The Four Horsemen of Atheism” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett); 2nd, “Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland; 3rd, Self-Promotion (creator unknown)

The Successor to The Other Half of the Sky

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Other Half 160Those who have followed my tangled trajectories know that two years ago I dreamt of literary mythic space opera with women protagonists in universes where they’re fully human. The anthology that resulted from this dream, The Other Half of the Sky, appeared in April 2013 on my dad’s nameday.

The anthology received unanimously rave reviews
in venues ranging from Library Journal to Analog, was in the Locus recommended list, four of its sixteen stories were selected for “Best of” compilations, and one of its stories won the Nebula for best novelette and is a Hugo finalist. A slew of like-minded anthologies followed in its wake, several from larger presses who felt that in these circumstances a plunge into “uncharted” territory was less risky than they thought (of course, when the time for big-noise interviews came, they were invited; I was not).

Altogether not bad, for the first genre outing of an editor with a tiny (though swashbuckling) press. But that was the past; and we restless wanderers are always scanning the horizon ahead. The foray whetted my appetite for more exploration. And since one of my other hats is that of research scientist, my thoughts bent in that direction — especially because science in SF (the process and mindset, not its accuracy) is in dire need of refurbishing.

So I just finished gathering potential contributors for the next anthology. My other collaborators — publisher, co-editor, cover artist — have also declared their willingness to share this journey. The provisional name of the starship under construction is To Shape the Dark. Here are the narrative parameters:

1. Protagonists: women scientists, mathematicians or engineers who live in universes where they don’t have to choose between work and family; most emphatically not Susan Calvin clones (my interpretation of science is broad, but computer engineers and psychologists have been heavily overused in SF);

2. Strong preference for societies/cultures where science is fully integrated as a holistic, humanistic endeavor – neither hubris nor triumphalism, the nearly ubiquitous SF tropes;

3. Science fiction (cross-genre fusion is fine, mythic echoes even finer, but no straight fantasy); no “big ideas” Leaden Age SF or near-future cyber/steampunk/dystopia unless it’s truly original;

4. Content and style for adult readers; protagonists fully exercising faculties and vocations, not young adult “finding one’s self” nor the sufferings of messiahs-to-be in the hands of inscrutable mentors.

We set the bar high with The Other Half of the Sky. I intend to raise it even higher with To Shape the Dark. Wish me luck and strength to make planetfall, though the stars I see through the astrogator’s port will be wondrous.

Mythic Space

The Scientist in the Forest

Friday, June 20th, 2014

 by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones and Star Trek: Into Darkness.

People TreesScience is about truth. At least, some kinds of truth: its success lies in focusing on material, factual, reproducible truths. Science has been so astoundingly successful in that limited arena that we moderns assume it is the only kind of truth worth having. It’s an important distinction, because we try to force everything else into the same materialist mold as science, and often act as if poetry and politics, ethics and emotions are either true or not true in the same way it’s true that you and I are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and not true that the world is flat.

We value honesty in people, and probably with very few exceptions we each one of us perceive ourselves as honest. But people are complicated. Walt Whitman wisely wrote, Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. But nearly two centuries after Whitman’s birth, we have become uncomfortable with contradictions, not only within scientific fact, but with the personal, the metaphorical. While for centuries people were mostly unfazed by contradictions in the Bible (with no small irony, the Scholastic movement of the late Middle Ages, which sought to iron out those contradictions, laid the logical foundation for modern science), today people lose their mind if a movie based upon a comic book differs in modest detail from the source material. While Whitman contained multitudes, a more recent spokesman for our braver newer age, Dr. Gregory House, bluntly stated, Everybody lies.

To some extent that’s true–we lie to our loved ones, we lie to ourselves–and yet it’s also trying to impose a rigid, science-inspired, axiomatic framework on goopy, non-axiomatic people, House being a premiere example of that attitude.

A new novel, The People in the Trees, explores the disturbing collision between scientific and personal truths. It parallels the real-life story of D. Carleton Gajdusek, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for his discovery of kuru, a prion-based disease. In the place of kuru, however, we get a retelling of the myth of Tithonos, a mortal whose immortal lover Eos (the Dawn) obtains for him eternal life. Alas, Eos forgets to also ask for eternal youth, and Tithonos continues to age, growing ever more enfeebled. In this version, Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, a doctor discovers an isolated tribe on the tiny South Pacific island of Ivu’ivu who, by eating a rare turtle, live for hundreds of years. Alas, like poor Tithonos, while their bodies do not age, their minds senesce and they become drooling “dreamers” doomed to wander the forest subsisting on a diet of fruit and worms.

The doctor, Norton Perina, sneaks home some of the meat of the opa’ivu’eke turtle (the apostrophes denote glottal stops, common in Polynesian languages; Yanagihara grew up in Hawaii) and replicates the effect in mice. Yanagihara’s father was a research doctor who knew Gajdusek, and unlike many celebrated literary writers who have no idea and little interest in how science works, she describes with terrific verisimilitude the workings of experimental science, including the numbing tediousness of injecting mice, observing mice with daily logs for months, then killing the mice and performing an autopsy. (By the way, for an excellent and entertaining nonfiction book on aging and sencescence I recommend The Long and the Short of It, by Jonathon Silvertown, an ecologist at the Open University, Milton Keynes.)

Thus Perina demonstrates a scientific truth. But the truth is not always simple; and truth has consequences, as do lies. Perina holds back the information on mental decay, even though he observes it in his mice. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies descend upon Ivu’ivu like carrion crows. While neither Yanagihara nor her protagonist Perina fall for the myth of the noble savage living in simple harmony with nature, they are clear-eyed about the plagues the industrialized world brings: alcoholism, obesity, material envy and despair. When it becomes clear there is no elixir of immortality, the turtles having been hunted to extinction and unwilling to breed in captivity, the industrialized world abandons the island. Then plagues orphan children, and like his inspiration, Gadjusek, Perina adopts dozens of them.

And–in a turn foretold by the introduction, but nonetheless gut-wrenching when it happens–Perina, also like Gadjusek, is accused of molesting one of his children. He is tried, convincted, and sent to prison. None of the above are spoilers, by the way, as they are all outlined in the first few pages in a clunky and mostly unwarranted framing device, a still-loyal friend and colleague editing Perina’s text. (This had the effect of draining some tension from the book, but the timing of revelations is a tricky thing. Karen Joy Fowler, in this year’s PEN/Faulkner-winning novel We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves–also about flawed scientists–withholds a key bit of information for more than a third of the book; but that withholding doesn’t really add tension, not least because most reviews and the book jacket itself revealed that the “sister” was a chimpanzee.)

Was the accusation true? Perina, who is the narrator for most of the book, dances around the answer. He’s not the only one: the anthropologists he accompanies leave out of their published work any mention of the Ivu’ivuan rite of ritual sodomization of young boys on the edge of puberty. Furthermore, the novel’s framing supernarrator first removes and then, on the last pages restores, a key piece of evidence.

Great men and women often have feet of clay. The prophet of liberty and logic Thomas Jefferson held slaves and fathered children on one. Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynman, whose graphical techniques revolutionized physics, became after the early death of his first wife a womanizer who seduced the wives and girlfriends of colleagues and students. And so on. In science we seek simple, clear truths. But the truth about people, whether living in huts in a forest or working in a lab in the U.S., is seldom simple. Even to say Everybody lies oversimplifies. Whitman is right. We are large. We contain multitudes, such multitude that even beautifully written novels such as The People in the Trees cannot fully contain them.

YanagiharaAthena’s notes:  An exploration of immortality that starts similar to Yanagihara’s but goes in a totally different direction is Le Guin’s “The Island of the Immortals”.  This essay is particularly timely as the SFF community reflects on idols with feet of clay (and worse).  Last but not least, on page 2 of Yanagihara’s book, it is stated that the turtle meat brings on immortality by inactivating telomerase, which degrades telomeres.  In fact, the enzyme does exactly the opposite, and for this reason has featured prominently on tranhumorist immortality recipes (of course, keeping cells immortal is the definition of cancer).  This ground-level error irritated me enormously, but I suspect I will read nevertheless read the book.

Images: 1st, People in the Trees, paperback; 2nd, Hanya Yanagihara (credit: Scott Levy)

For a Breath I Tarry

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

(Shropshire Lad XXXII, A. E. Houseman)

Kahlo Hummingbird

The readers of my blog may have noticed I’m posting far less frequently than I used to.

Some of it is watching the same old endlessly repeat. More discouraging shenanigans in [fill in country/community name]. More Republithug tantrums about “entitlements” except for those of millionaire donors. More breathless pseudoscience from futurists, transhumorists, spiritualists. More concessions demanded by/for fundamentalists of all stripes. More mediocre fiction touted as “fresh” and “groundbreaking” by people who haven’t read beyond Internet freebies.

Some of it is my transition into the infrastructure-free sphere of self-employment. This included taking leave of what was and taking stock of what might yet be. Prominent in the latter is a successor to The Other Half of the Sky, as well as writing and publishing more of my own fiction. Not that I foresee the latter becoming any easier: my fiction stubbornly remains middlebrow genre fusion with non-standard mythic/cultural references. The pile of unpublished work clogs the creative pipes, making it hard for me to write new stories.

Some of it is my fibromyalgia, acquired as the aftermath to the shock of a cancer operation that went awry. The surgeon hit an artery and I nearly died of blood loss. It’s also possible that I suffered a minor stroke, because I had a two-month period of profound loss of both memory and fine motor control. I, the bookworm with Velcro recall, couldn’t remember my parents’ phone number or the contents of a book page I had just struggled through. After a black hole of panic, my memory and coordination more or less returned carrying fibromyalgia along with them. That was a bit more than six years ago. I’ve dragged the relentless pain with me since, a jagged iron ball that slams into me with each step I take.

Fibromyalgia is a misnomer that attempts to describe the fact that FM sufferers feel like they’ve being hit non-stop all over with a meat tenderizing hammer. In fact the disarray is entirely in the head: something mis-sensitizes the sensory processing apparatus, so that normal input is interpreted as pain; for some reason this sets up a positive feedback loop that increases the amplitude of the incorrect response. People get FM after a car accident, after a difficult childbirth – generally after a shock. It’s the whole-body equivalent of phantom limb pain. But whereas the latter can be ameliorated by using a low-tech yet often effective technique called Ramachandran’s mirror, there’s no similar solution for FM.

As a result, FM sufferers hurt even when they don’t move, even when they sleep – which means they don’t get the length and quality of sleep needed for full restoration. They become stiff, clumsy, lethargic, forgetful, slow-witted; they often gain enormous amounts of weight because it’s hard to move, which brings its own raft of troubles: heart problems, diabetes, certain types of cancer. And since sensitized neurons are not visible, FM diagnosis is solely by exclusion after batteries upon batteries of metabolic and neurological tests. Most often and unless they persist, FM sufferers are dismissed as hysterical (sic) hypochondriacs, a conclusion made even more convenient and acceptable by the statistical fact that most are women.

The “treatments” for FM – if they can be called that – are drugs that tamp down the nervous system (anti-epileptics, benzodiazepines, SSRI/SNRI antidepressants) or that decrease pain perception; one of the latter is tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the primary active component of marijuana. The casual off-label use of the first group at the drop of a hat has turned people into obese zombies, the placebo-vs-real-effect issues of the SSRIs have never been resolved (let alone the suicidal tendencies they facilitate) and long-term use of benzodiazepines is known to cause irreversible cognitive damage. THC appears to have far fewer and milder side effects, low addictiveness and no withdrawal issues. Unfortunately, it has run into the savage prudery of many societies, including the US.

Several US states have legalized medical marijuana but the federal government has zealously prosecuted any attempts to follow through (on the other hand, the NRA continues untrammeled and unopposed after each mass shooting). One recent state to legalize medical marijuana was Massachusetts – but the dogged refusal of the federal government to countenance legalization of a substance that causes zero violence means that the doctors in Massachusetts have no idea how to prescribe effective doses and are very resistant to the concept. Like abortion, this legalization will most likely remain just a gesture on paper.

I was given benzodiazepines and anti-epileptics briefly when I had an acute episode of neuralgia after a dental procedure. That eventually subsided. Their effects on me made me decide to never use them again – and my reading on the effects of SSRIs/SNRIs made me determined to never let them anywhere near my neurons. So I’m ignoring my FM as much as it will let me. However, if medical marijuana goes past the stage of in-name-only, I may well argue one of my doctors into letting me have a try. I have no illusions it will placate the shadow twin that has taken ownership of my neurons much, or for long. But it will be good to remember for fleeting moments what it’s like not to feel pain.

lewis-queenRelated Posts:

It’s All in Your Head

The Hunter

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

On Being a Ghost

Images: Frida Kahlo (who knew pain intimately), Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird; one of the Lewis chess set queens.

History, Legitimacy and Belonging, or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Girl-stars-anime

There have been recent conversations in the science outreach and SFF communities about what level of background knowledge makes someone worthy enough to “belong”. The former centered on the original Cosmos series as part of the reaction to the just-launched reboot helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson (unfortunately housed in FOX, several of whose subsidiaries already deleted a snippet in the pilot episode that dared to mention evolution). The latter partly continues the “old white dudes” discussion but received fresh fuel from an article by the publisher of Baen that’s the equivalent of a decapitated chicken running in circles.

Briefly, side A says you cannot be a legitimate member of X unless you are intimately familiar with its sacred texts: in the case of popsci, you must have watched the original Cosmos and worshipped Sagan as a nonpareil inspirational figure; in the case of SFF, you must have read the Leaden Age gospels with special emphasis on the holy trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein (plus a heaping side of Joseph Campbell, especially if we go anywhere near Star Wars or fantasy epics). Side B points out that this exudes strong whiffs of parochialism by making legitimate membership contingent on the exclusive canonization of a narrow set of works — and people.

This discussion inevitably brings up two other items: class/wealth and history. The “But… but… Cosmos inspired so many to enter science!” mantra contains the implication that people can’t possibly become interested in exploring the universe unless they have the wherewithal to be “entertained” into it by high-end means: by having a TV, preferably color; by fancy school labs; and nowadays, by access to fast-WiFi Internet and its associated gizmology. Both Cosmos series heavily promote the trope of the heroic, visionary (male) individual who can radically change a large-scale outcome. People conveniently forget that Giordano Bruno wasn’t a lone sprout in a wilderness, or that Sagan’s Cosmos was embedded in a favorable context when it first aired in 1980: a culture that was still friendly to exploration and science, just before Ronald Reagan’s tenure started the US descent into rampant inequality and fundamentalist fearmongering. To non-US eyes it was patently obvious that the original Cosmos was American to the core despite its well-intentioned feints towards internationality (at least Vangelis – full name Vangélis Odhysséas Papathanassíou, trimmed in deference to Anglo sensibilities – supplied the rousing score,  far more memorable than the reboot’s generic swellings so far, though it’s early for a final verdict).

There can be no question that it’s important to know the history of whatever you delve into. If nothing else, such knowledge tempers the effusions of “First time EVAH that X has been tackled in science/SFF/whathaveyou” from gender bending to “duons” in DNA encoding (for which I plan a separate post: it has taken me the enormous length of two months – an aeon on the Internet – to stop being seriously pissed about it). At the same time, the purists don’t do themselves favors by quoting Sagan chapter and verse but blithely asking “Who?” when such names as Hrdy or Margulis come up – or by preaching the gospel of Saint Heinlein while looking blank at the mention of Tiptree or Norton (who wrote SF, not just fantasy; some even aimed at adults, not adolescents of any age). Historical literacy doesn’t mean learning only whatever is “common knowledge”, congruent with one’s agenda or hot-du-jour.

This blinkering becomes overwhelming when we leave the US frame and delve into other cultures or eras. To give one example from the other side of the traditional divide, there has been deafening silence in SFF from those professing to be on the Side of Good on medieval/renaissance imperialism south and east of Italy – because it would oblige people to contemplate the doings of the Ottoman Empire which, inter alia, employed the lovely custom of devshirme (child-gathering) equally beloved of those paragons of virtue and nerd-coolness, the Jedi. Along related lines, those who say that science or SFF should not “meddle in politics” don’t really deserve an extended rebuttal because they’re not even being disingenuous.

I personally think the purists employ lax criteria and low standards. Nobody should be considered a real science fan until they’ve read the pre-Socratics or a real SFF fan unless they’ve read The Iliad or Gilgamesh – in the original. I kid, but only just. My point is that SFF existed throughout the world long before the US Leaden Era and that such concepts as atoms and multiverses were discussed (as philosophy, since technology to attempt proof was lacking) way before Giordano Bruno – who, incidentally, argued exclusively from theology, not from evidence-based research. To put it another way, I burned to become a scientist before my country had TV or my school had computers and I became enamored of SFF (as in: the folklore of many cultures, including mine, and Jules Verne’s Nautilus) when I was anklebiter height and spoke zero English. Leaden Era SF was so excruciating to read at so many levels that I continued delving into the genre despite it, not because of it. I could only read it as alien anthropology – and the aliens weren’t from Rigel IV. I think that recommending these works as blanket entry points into SF is a self-defeating tactic.

People become inspired to enter science (or at least become permanently interested in its doings) and become immersed in SFF by countless paths, some straightforward, some less so. I don’t expect the Cosmos reboot to give rise to a surge in the ranks of science researchers: that would require a receptive cultural milieu that is currently simply not present, as the science funding levels abundantly demonstrate. Nor do I expect the SFF fandom (which is actually a system of interlocking ponds) to come to any substantial agreement over major issues. I won’t prescribe but here’s a thought: sci/SFF nerds might want to consider that young-earth creationists are dictating what parts of Cosmos get shown – something far more worrisome than the fact that some science communicators and scientists (real or potential) haven’t seen the original Cosmos nor considered it, well, earthshaking when they did.

universe through the canyon

Related Posts:

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Images: 1st, animé-inspired wallpaper; 2nd, unknown artist, Plato’s cave

Anticipated in 2014

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

“She headed back east, into the gates of dawn.”
— Athena Andreadis, ending of Contra Mundum

Athena and Castle at Dennis cpIt has become almost obligatory for bloggers to do “last year’s best and worst/next year’s resolutions” in late December or early January. Never much a fan of such lists, I will instead share with you what I look forward to in 2014. Mind you, these are concrete items – I won’t bother with “less misogyny/more equitable structures” or equivalents.

1. Greek bookstores and publishers are starting to offer e-books: water in the desert to the parched exile, book addict that is me. I will finally make a dent in the lengthy list I compiled with a longing I thought would remain unrequited. Also, I intend to renew my forays into contemporary non-US literature, with Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers high on the list.

In mystery, I have a guilty jones for the next Provincetown tale by Jon Loomis, as long as he doesn’t shear any of the black sheep milling around the goody-two-shoes Frank Coffin. In SF, much as I dislike sequelitis, I’m curious for the continuation of Up Against It by Laura Mixon (Morgan Locke), which I briefly discussed in Space Operas and Gender Shoals. It’s my fervent hope that in the sequel we’ll see much less of Geoff and much more of the troubadour troublemaker Vivian/Thondu wa Macharia na Briggs – a walking seal of approval for advanced gene splicing and a shapeshifter across all phenotypes, including gender.

ETA: And how could I forget — the conclusion of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona comic, the only pastiche I have ever not just liked but grown attached to (though I have a bad feeling about the fate of its protagonists).

2. The final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. This may come as another surprise, since I made it plain how much I detested the opus in Hagiography in the SFX Age. The sole reason I’m eager for part 3 is that I’m curious if my hunch about Tauriel is correct.

I predict that Tauriel will die alongside Kili in the Battle of the Five Armies. Women are dispatched casually in (space) operas and sagas but they’re dispatched with particular glee and sadism when they dare to mate with men who are shorter, younger, poorer or more marginal than they (see: Brunnhilde, Padmé Amidala). Mind you, Kili is a Dwarf prince (though from the inferior maternal line) whereas Tauriel is as low-ranking as an Elf can be – she would be working class if Elves had such a group. But since Tolkien made Dwarves literally the children of a lesser god, you get the gist. Plus it will make the canon purists happy.

3. On the other hand, I look forward to seasons 2 to N of Elementary. The series has only gone up in my initial high estimation: Jonny Lee Miller is still a white-hot Holmes, Lucy Liu’s Watson is now an equal partner and the acerbity between the two stings like good balsamic vinegar. I could use a bit less of the pious recovery platitudes and quite a lot more of both Rhys Ifans’ Mycroft and Natalie Dormer’s Moriarty (who was far more interesting in her most recent appearance than the monochromatic and rather dim villain of the season 1 ending).

4. The concluding game of the retro-RPG Eschalon series (*taps foot*). Yes, Virginia: though of the female persuasion, I’m an avid gamer — strictly solo, multigaming leaves me colder than Olympus Mons in Mars. This finale has been long in the making, but the care put in its older siblings and the preliminary preview noises suggest strongly it will reward the wait.

5. More of the perfumes conjured by Grand Magistra Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Dawn dedicated two evenings of sampling and measuring to make personal perfumes for me and the Copper Yeti way back when the world was much younger and Newbury Street was the abode of real art and artists. My scent is The Long Shadow, a dark elixir of opium, amber and sandalwood grounded by petitgrain; his is The Cuddly Crusader, a sandalwood/musk sharpened by bay rum, cedar and juniper berries. Dawn has since become justly famous, and I never tire of sampling the fruits from her meticulously cultivated scent orchard.

6. Sarma, the appetizer-oriented restaurant just opened by fusion wonder Ana Sortun whose departure from Casablanca was a cause for universal lamentation. The iconic Casablanca itself is now closed, another blow from which Harvard Square will not recover after the loss of Wordsworth, HMV, and all non-chain small stores that gave it distinction and taste. Sortun’s first solo venture, Oleana, ushers you into paradise (literally, since she explored and reinterpreted less-frequented nooks of Armenian, Persian and Turkish cuisine) but it’s a bit too formal. The new place promises a looser atmosphere – so my QC squad is donning bibs even as we speak.

7. The new-new wing of the Museum of Fine Arts (I can hardly wait to see Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo) and the sui generis explorations of the Peabody Essex. The latter has mounted truly unforgettable boutique exhibits – from a comprehensive collection of Joseph Cornell’s haunting box assemblages to an in-depth retrospective on Maori ta moko.

8. Delve more deeply into composers I like – from Sofia Gubaidulina to Zoë Keating (who, I just found out, has composed music for Elementary. Purr, purr). And continue picking new likes from hearing snatches of music in unlikely places, which is how I bumped into Gorecki… Radio Tarifa… Fleet Foxes…

9. A possible brief sojourn in Aotearoa. I’d like to stand on some of the beaches, glens and glacial meadows I first saw in Xena and Mr. Snacho’s photos, later in The Piano and LotR. There’s a danger associated with this: the Copper Yeti criss-crossed both North and South Island for six months in another life and is threatening to lose our passports once we’re there.

10. Reading submissions for the successor to The Other Half of the Sky. Tentatively titled Dreaming the Dark, it will focus on women scientists from cultures and futures past the “girls don’t/shouldn’t do science” knuckledragging stage, and on worlds where science is more nuanced than the standard SF binary of either hubris or triumphalism. I already have my gaze fixed on writers whose work I want to see in this compilation. You know who you are.

11. Writing a necklace of linked stories for a Spider Silk universe collection. Readers have caught glimpses of this world in Dry Rivers, Planetfall, The Wind Harp and The Stone Lyre – but these are foam flecks on a Hokusai-height wave.

12. And, of course, more interviews with cryptids, having started on a high note with a saber tooth tiger.

Dawn Jetty Park

Images: top, scaling — yet more — castle walls (photo by Peter Cassidy); bottom, a Delta 2 launch.

Ever-Receding Mirage: Non-Default Legitimacy

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

“…Breathe deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.”

— Adrienne Rich, the ending of “Orion”

LoughEske Alexander crop

Nature (once a single magazine, now a constellation of suffixed clones collectively called NPG) is part of the scientific holy trinity in terms of prestige. Of course, neither Nature nor Science are above publishing (and hyping) sloppy articles they deem “hot” – as exemplified by the “arsenic” bacteria jawdropper and the ENCODE non-news. To get anything accepted in Nature, whether a peer-reviewed article, a fiction piece or even a letter is a Big Deal and the gatekeeping and power politics are geared to emphasize this core fact. I know whereof I speak first-hand: I have one (mid-author) paper in Nature, reviewed manuscripts for them, and made the short-short list for an NPG senior editor position a few years ago.

Nature and Science do the periodic “women/minorities in science” recap, though their own percentages of non-defaults remain dismal across categories (in fairness, that simply reflects larger academia). Two recent events at Nature highlight the issues of navigating life while not in the auto-approved NPG list.

The first was the decision to republish a comment in their correspondence section. What did this comment say that was so worthwhile that a Nature editor singled it out, assigned it a doi number and reprinted it? In the impeccable tradition of Larry Summers and essentialist evopsycho, it stated that bias has nothing to do with women’s lesser status in science – it’s all about the fact that they have kids. What are the author’s credentials? An internet search reveals he just graduated with a hazy B. A. from a small Texas college and his LinkedIn profile lists his occupation as accounting.

Right on the heels of this, the senior biology editor of Nature (who also handles their Science Futures where “hard” SF gets published) decided to name an outspoken pseudonymous science blogger; the two had been feuding since 2009. The blogger is a non-Anglo woman in the early stages of her faculty career, although her pseudonym was unusually transparent. The NPG editor called her “an inconsequential sports physio”.

I know neither combatant personally. I’ve dipped occasionally into the posts of the now-named blogger and also have occasionally read the uneven Science Futures short stories curated by the Nature editor (several SF authors I know had stories published there but the less said of Ed Rybicki’s “Womanspace”, the better). From parallel experiences of my own, I think the naming was the act of a settled insider who considers in-your-face criticism an affront to his self-definition – but “inconsequential” was even more corrosive. Such terms always aim to raise doubts in those of us whose legitimacy is always on trial, no matter how lengthy or weighty our credentials and achievements.

When I started publishing books, stories, poems and essays, I made a conscious decision to do so under my real name, aware of the risks and penalties of this choice (many of which promptly materialized, with significant repercussions). There is no question that pseudonymity is crucial for those at the lower end of power differentials and that real harm can come to those deemed to be “too vocal” (especially if they’re women, non-white, poor, queer or a combination thereof). I also hear the argument that knowledge should count, rather than appeals to authority – although that slides fairly often towards disdain of bona fide expertise. On the other side, there is equally no question that pseudonymity can be used to snipe without consequences and occasionally hides an impostor: recall the “endangered Syrian lesbian” who turned out to be a straight American man?

I decided to do everything under my real name because I wanted to plant a flag, so to speak. I wanted to make it clear that someone like me – an unfeminine, dark, “uppity” woman with an accent, a zero-generation immigrant who doesn’t conform to cultural gender in either her native or adopted culture – can get scholarships and degrees from Harvard and MIT, can be the PI of an NIH funded lab, can run a department, can write a popular science book, can conceive of and execute a paradigm-shifting SF anthology. All done cold turkey, without any dynasty cushioning or insider connnections. And I wanted to be able to do all my various activities without the fear of blackmail dangling over my head. I got my share of rape, etc threats with “We know your home address” notes appended to them. But I had lived six formative years in a real military dictatorship, where people, including first-degree relatives, got tortured and disappeared. Internet trolls are drooling babies compared to real secret police.

Did use of my real name restrict me? Well, I could not be a shock jock (mind you, I prefer less lazy ways of denoting disagreement than profanity). Neither could I spend much time detailing my serious health issues for extra pittypats – I find dwelling on such matters boring anyway. Did it cost me gigs and tenure? Probably, despite the lip service of both academia and the “progressive” blogosphere to the importance/desirability of diversity and outreach. Would I have done it differently, knowing what I know now? Unlikely. I don’t have the stamina or patience for creating more than one persona/lity.

In short, I wanted to live an undistracted, integrated life, where my personal could indeed be political and vice versa. By a combination of attributes and circumstances, I was able to do so, more or less. It helped that I eventually realized I would never be deemed legitimate, even if I won Nobels, Pulitzers, Hugos, you name it. My “otherness” suffices to make me Johnson’s dog walking on her hind legs. Along the same lines, the fact that an entitled insider named a non-Anglo woman scientist with intent to intimidate was vile but almost secondary: she was classified as “lesser” the moment she made it clear she was non-default.

Non-defaults are never treated as fully human. All else springs from that.

Athena Andreadis Sitting smRelated articles

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

Those Who Never Got to Fly

So, Where Are All the Outstanding Women in X?

Images: Top, Lough Eske by Brendan Alexander; bottom, yours truly by Peter Cassidy – just so there is no doubt about the identity of the author of this post.

Paired Particles: Space Operas and Gender Shoals

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

2012 Pair

In 2011/2012, two SF works formed a conceptual pair: Morgan Locke’s Up Against It and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier.  Both are ambitious space operas that take place on belaguered space habitats.  Both brim with originality and bravura, field a host of complex issues, portray fluid/non-binary genders, use non-Anglo settings and are as hard SF as can be (provided you don’t count orbital mechanics as the sole hard science, as genre fundies do; Locke is a chemist, Slonczewski a biologist and their first-hand expertise shows).  Both obey marketing directives: they are parts of projected trilogies and have adolescent protagonists.  In Up Against It, a sharply etched adult woman thankfully shares center stage.  The Highest Frontier is more Harry-Potter-in-space but the quirks and gender of its protagonist mostly redeem the YA concession.  The Highest Frontier got a lot of recognition, including the Campbell award.  Up Against It went by almost unnoticed.

I gamma-read these two, so I already reviewed them extensively, if privately.  This was not the case for the paired set of 2013: Deborah Wheeler’s Collaborators (a standalone) and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (first volume of the now-obligatory trilogy).  Like their 2012 counterparts, these are ambitious space operas that tackle many issues.  Whereas the 2012 two focus on can-do survival and are relatively small-scale (no galactic empires), the 2013 ones focus on colonialism and gender in Le Guin and Cherryh’s wake, but their scientific concepts are more SF-traditional.  Both use multiple narrative viewpoints – condemned as “romance cooties” in SF circles, though the technique is routine in literary fiction – and have made conscious decisions about pronoun use, of which more anon.  Like the divergent fates of the 2012 pair, Ancillary Justice got a rousing reception whereas I count formal reviews of Collaborators on the fingers of one hand.

Collaborators is obviously descended from Le Guin kernels but carves its own unique path.  Following The Left Hand of Darkness it posits the Bandari, single-gendered humanoid aliens who polarize slightly when in estrus and a bit more during gestation.  Like Le Guin (who defended her choice until she retrenched in short stories that featured Gethenians), Wheeler uses exclusively male pronouns for the species.  And similar to the settings of Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, Collaborators shows how a non-terrestrial culture interacts with a stranded human starship whose crew, bolstered by its formidable technology, forgets that they are not gods and interfere heavily in the politics of two adversarial nations.  The major conflict is nuanced by ambiguities and dilemmas on all sides and at many levels.

Wheeler’s Quaker beliefs are visible (including the refusal to indulge in charismatic saviors) and the parallels to the havoc wrought by imperial-nation interventions on earth are clear.  The alien biology and first-contact dynamics are handled unusually deftly; the narrative polyphony weaves complex melodies and harmonies.  Wheeler’s world is effortlessly immersive and teems with fully realized characters.  At the same time, the human side is conveyed almost exclusively by male characters and the Bandari occasionally leave behind them a Wraeththu-like whiff.

Ancillary Justice posits the Radchaai, a galaxy-wide dominant polity that is rather obviously modeled on imperial Rome futurized by the customary space opera panoply (nanotech, up/downloading, FTL) and replete with cultural-specific quirks to quickly individualize the groups within it – including the author’s own unabashed love of tea.  The Radchaai, the obverse side of Banks’ Culture (with ship Minds to match), share the Romans’ casual, pragmatic cruelty including the citizen privilege boundary.  Their resources permit them to animate corpses from uprisings against the Radchaai with AI “consciousness”.  The resulting constructs are used as starship crews and planetary enforcers.  These ancillaries are descendants of Cherryh’s Union/Alliance azi and of the Star Wars stormtrooper clones: essentially cheap disposable zombi.

The protagonist Breq (a now-isolate ancillary who harbors a portion of the AI consciousness of a once-mighty starship) sets out to assassinate a powerful Lucifer/Palpatine figure for reasons of personal loyalty.  So the scaffolding is a traditional revenge quest, garnished with Breq’s fraught dealings with an ambiguous ally of once high status – very similar to the currents between Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness.  Like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice shows several worlds and the complex interactions between them.  However, the characters in Ancillary Justice are far less sharply drawn than those in Collaborators to the point of blurriness and the novel contains many lumpy passages.  Also like Collaborators, Ancillary Justice switches between viewpoints, finessed by the conceit that the ship’s AI is tallying ancillary inputs in situ – a clever dodge though its execution is not entirely smooth, augmenting the murkiness (it would do better in film).

Last but decidedly not least, and a point highlighted in all the reviews of Ancillary Justice, Breq designates everyone with female pronouns.  The rationale is that Radchaai make no gender distinctions: their technology allows them biological fluidity, so that familial/client status has now become the primary hierarchy marker.  Hence Breq either cannot comprehend or chooses not to master such distinctions in non-Radch cultures that have them.

The 3.5 people who have read my writings know my views on colonialism, gender and their intersection.  It’s good to see the ubiquitous pseudo-inclusive “he” subsumed for once and it’s fun to hazard guesses at the genderings that are left truly ambiguous.  However, I think that the conflation of grammatical, cultural and biological gender blunts the story.  The former is arbitrary and would be unavoidable in many languages (it’s an acid test for true fluency).  The middle is a battleground frought with both promise and peril – but it’s unlikely that the status-conscious Radchaai would not have other distinctions.  The latter, whether one chooses traditional or novel terms, whether one adheres to gender binaries or not, is one that an advanced AI would sense, even when diminished.

One could argue that we’re seeing a carryover of Radch arrogance by a multiply unreliable narrator.  However, the fact that Breq’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish gender (which type?) is constantly mentioned, explained and defended puts it in the “protesting too much” category: it punctures the immersive membrane of the narrative, turning the device into a  self-conscious flag rather than a fully integrated (and hence submerged) core context.  It doesn’t help that the primary antagonist is given many trappings of a male/masculine terrestrial, which shows how hard it is to write truly gender-blind narratives.

Caveats aside, both the 2012 and 2013 space opera tangled pairs are intriguing; it will be interesting to see where their sequels go.  The pronoun issue is vexed, though Anglophone SF is lucky to only have to worry about third-person singular pronouns.  Melissa Scott, always a forerunner, put down five sets of pronouns in The Shadow Man way before this became the burning issue in SF that it has become.  Other writers did without pronouns or expanded their vocabulary: neologisms aside, why not press the neutral option or the third-person plural into service?  Female- or male-only are clumsy instruments to designate either mono/multi/fluidly-gendered species or cultural gender blindness.  We need different mindsets, and different words, for such horizons.

2013 Pair