Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Biology & Culture' Category

Of Fast Micro-Sails and Slow Swashbucklers

Saturday, April 16th, 2016


Early this week, venture capitalist Yuri Milner (backed by glittering names that included Stephen Hawking, Ann Druyan, Mae Jemison and Mark Zuckerberg) announced the next step of his Breakthrough plan. Part 1 is Listen – equivalent to passive SETI efforts; Part 2 is Starshot, a mission to reach Alpha Centauri within twenty years by using miniaturized probes. Such a rapid journey is theoretically possible if the probes are equipped with tiny photon sails and accelerated to a percentage of lightspeed by ground or orbiting lasers.

All of the technology needed for Starshot has passed proof of principle, though none of the specific components is actually at hand. The concept itself has enough original aspects – and enough advantages – that it could well succeed: sending armadas of small-cross-section vehicles dilutes the risks and increases the collective chances of reaching the destination. The mission length is just short enough to sustain interest (though people tend not to mention that it will take several more years for any information gleaned by the probes to get back to us — and that the Alpha Centauri three-star system has no confirmed planets). It’s not burdened by the prohibitive demands of slow ships to Alpha-Cen, with or without live cargo. And just starting the engineering of the Starshot components will lead to a spate of innovations, whether the mission is undertaken or not.

Starshot, with its emphasis on new research on miniaturization, laser technology and materials science, underlines the almost complete lack of equivalent biological research that might make larger, slower starships possible – from self-sufficient ecological systems to ways of keeping a crew safe and sane during long star travels. Astrobiology has confined itself almost exclusively (though with some justification) to extremophilic bacteria and nobody is trying to untangle bear-style hibernation, to give but one example. The sole non-bacterial/fungal critters that seem to have engaged the interest of astrobiologists are tiny invertebrates with the formal name of tardigrades (= slow walkers).

The popular monikers of tardigrades are water bears or moss piglets, but they resemble nothing as much as eight-legged micro-manatees, including their habit of placid munching (though they have bear-shaped fangs and claws and some are cannibals). They’ve become media darlings by dint of both perceived cuteness and grace under pressure. Their average size is that of a sesame seed (1-2 mm) and, like mites, they’re found everywhere – from deep sea trenches to the slopes of the Himalayas, from the equator to the poles.

Their anatomy, habits and life cycle are unremarkable, except for their record endurance of extremes of temperature, pressure (both deep-sea high and vacuum-level low), gravity, dehydration, radiation, toxins. They accomplish this by rolling into a compact configuration known as a tun (barrel) and decreasing their water content to 1% of the normal. Just as arctic fish use glycol to keep their structures intact in freezing water, so do water bears, though they deploy another type of sugar (trehalose). Several other invertebrates can enter and exit cryptobiosis – rotifers, brine shrimp, nematodes – but water bears are the only organisms known so far to be successful at all types of it.

That said, media fail to convey the fact that this endurance is statistical: the longer and harsher the conditions, the less likely the survival of water bears – or their eggs, especially at early embryo stages. So one take-home lesson here is that we can shrug at the percentage of tuns that revive successfully, because they’re not fellow humans or even loved pets; they’re not losses that cut us to the quick. It’s also no surprise that people tried to pin the water bears’ abilities to unique genes or gene networks, whereby the tale turns to the dangers of both reductionism and love of magic bullets.

Recently, two groups published the genome sequence of a tardigrade species. One of the two reports, ahead of the other by a few days, got the lion’s share of the press – not only because it was first, but also because it made the flashy announcement that tardigrades are as sturdy as they are because ~17% of their genes come from horizontal transfer. The authors of this study hypothesized that such an influx of foreign DNA is possible when the water bears reconstitute their chromosomes during revival from tun status, at which point they’re leaky across scales. Of course, one prediction of this hypothesis is that tardigrades should have undergone incredibly rapid and divergent evolution, which is very visibly not the case (I fully expect a cult theory of tardigrades as single-point earth life ancestors to spring up as a result of this blog post).

People who know how genomes, organisms and evolution work shook their heads at this announcement and waited for the other shoe to drop. It promptly did with the close-following second sequencing study, which demonstrated that horizontal transfer in tardigrades does not exceed the average 2-3% found in all organisms, and that the results of the earlier study came from contamination of the tardigrade genomic material with DNA from bacteria in the water bears. To be fair, it’s incredibly hard to avoid such contamination, especially with something of water bear size, though there are ways of detecting and correcting it after the fact. However, separating wheat from chaff requires long, painstaking work – and in these days of dwindling-to-nothing funds for basic research, being first is at a premium.

Learning how tardigrades go through literally killing regimes will teach us much about basics, and may show the way to useful applications. But I suspect that most of that knowledge won’t be portable to large, slow-metabolizing mammals like us. What will undoubtedly be of direct use is deciphering the mechanisms behind bear hibernation. Results from such a study will not only be applicable to human spacefaring, but will also help revive patients from long comas and serious traumas with less muscle waste and/or irreversible brain and other organ damage.

Like much research nominally focused on space, investigation of other non-bacterial terrestrial biologies may not only enable us to travel into the beguiling star-studded darkness beyond our friendly base, but may also improve our life here and now. If/when we venture past our gravity well, it’s certain that the imperturbable water bears will be on board with us. And despite stringent precautions against contamination, I wonder if the Voyager craft are carrying tiny sleeping tuns on the winds between the stars.

tardigrade space


Breakthrough Project initiatives
Summary of tardigrade sequencing results in Science Alert
PNAS paper about the bacterial contamination in the first study

Related articles

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle
Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri
Damp Squibbs: Non-News in Space Exploration
Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, But Still Terrestrial
Starry, Starry Night

Images: Top, concept art of a Starshot probe and sail (; bottom, the intrepid water bear in a challenging environment (Microbiologia General)

She Who Shapes

Friday, March 18th, 2016

“Who is that rising like the morning star,
clear as the moon, bright as the sun,
daunting as the stars in their courses?”

— Song of Songs 6:10, translated by Ariel and Chana Bloch

Note: This entry is inadvertently appearing just before catholic Easter (its orthodox counterpart is on May 1). It contains both what are euphemistically called “mature themes and language” and a detailed description of a story. But even for those who hyperventilate at the horrificity of “spoilers”, the story has to be seen for its full worth to be appreciated.


Maryam in ClayI don’t look at porn much (unless, as one of my readers pointed out, it crosses into erotic art). Almost all porn is geared to men’s pleasure; most is hostile to women. But, true to my unibrow tastes and principles, I will dip into anything I normally dislike if it comes recommended by someone whose judgement and taste I trust. Besides, porn is known to have given rise to artwork of the first magnitude, from Utamaro’s ukiyo-e and the Khajuraho sculptures to Klimt’s soft-gauze portrayals (and their savage Schiele counterparts).

In one of my increasingly infrequent visits to Twitter, I bumped on Kay Holt’s shout-outs to comics. Kay knows her stuff and is no mean graphic artist herself. One item she named sounded intriguing: Smut Peddler 2014 from Iron Circus Comics, the successor to their well-received 2012 volume. I read an interview of Spike Trota, one of the anthology’s creators and editors. Something she said in that interview piqued my curiosity, so I bought SP2014 (which, in time-honored fashion, came wrapped in opaque black plastic).

The antho has about two dozen stories. They range far and wide in terms of combinations, body types and protagonist provenances. The quality of the stories (admittedly not the focus of such work) varies; the overall visual art, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent. The settings go from real-world to fantasy to science fiction – though the alien encounters are timid when compared to Hokusai’s Tako to Ama, still the best depiction of tentacle sex.

What makes SP2014 unique is its unabashed focus on women’s pleasure. Never before have I seen so much oral sex or lack of coercion in a single book dedicated to sex. But the antho has something more than evolved sexual mores. Tucked among the entries, just before the end, is a story that’s worth the price of the entire book by itself: Liza Petruzzo’s Clay. It’s a virtuoso performance that relies entirely on images, a seamless fusion of several mythic veins – and deeply subversive in the way it has chosen to tell a story that’s a cornerstone of christianity.

In the christian canon, Mary (Maryam) is the perfect passive vessel. She has no will or agency of her own, and is totally, unquestioningly obedient to male authority. She undergoes the ordeal of pregnancy and birth without knowing the ecstasy of either yearning or desire, and she becomes the conduit of what is essentially an affair between two male gods. In her person, monotheisms drained the power from the old, potent woman god whose son becomes first her lover, then a sacrifice to ensure that the cycle of fertility remains unbroken.

The great woman god is sometimes a virgin; sometimes she has many consorts. Her travails may end up in triumph or tragedy, but she’s never an afterthought or a channel. In stark contrast, Mary and her many incarnations are disposable, from the mother who lets her son rip out her heart in Balkan folksongs to Shmi Skywalker. Their best hope is to survive the miracle birth itself and be allowed to act as either pleading intercessors or unwilling collaborators to the dire unleashings of their sons, who have become their masters.

In art, the sand grain of Mary has produced a harvest of dazzling pearls – the Theotókoi of the east and the Madonnas of the west; the Akáthistos hymn and Easter laments of Byzantium (though the latter betray who she once was: they’re the barely-altered keenings of Astarte for Tammuz, Aphrodite for Adonis). Clay must be added to the outstanding works of Mariolatry, and to the dammed, hidden stream underneath it.

Clay starts mildly enough: a young woman gets up in the morning and heads to the nearby pond to take a bath. She’s full-bodied, plain-faced, her black hair cascading in unruly waves. She could be my mother’s sister or one of my father’s cousins in their youth. Her looks, clothing and implements place the story squarely in Bronze Age Mediterranean.

At the pond, behind the reeds, something is struggling and moaning. Parting the reeds, she sees an inchoate being – essentially a mount of clay – that reaches for her. As it looks scary and is several times her size, she’s naturally frightened. But it restrains itself before it reaches her… and intrigued and no longer afraid, she decides to shape it as Yahweh is said to have shaped Adam, as the rabbis of the diaspora tried to breathe life in their golems.

With care and joy, she fashions the creature into a handsome young man with hair longer than hers — the long swirls of the Minoan frescoes, the glorious mane that doomed Absalom. When made whole, he takes her in his new arms. They explore each other, and eventually he buries his face between her thighs until she climaxes.

When they’re finally standing up, caressing and tidying each other, the viewpoint pans out above them and you see their shadows, stretching before them in the morning light. Hers is her shape and height; his reaches the sky – and unfurls the mighty wings of the bene elohim, the sons of gods who came to the daughters of men. Yet as lovesome beings, they stand as equals. And as she shaped her lover, so will she shape the inchoate morsel his sweet tongue bequeathed her. For she is not nutrient soil, but a fearless Maker who makes her own choices.

In one fell swoop, Petruzzo reclaimed the lost power of the triple goddess and depicted the visual equivalent of that great, full-throated cry of mutual desire, the Song of Songs. If I were any of the churches whose adherents kneel before statues and icons of Mary, I’d use Clay as a conversion tool.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

Images: top, Maryam (part of a panel from Clay, shown in Spike Trota’s interview in Comics Alliance); bottom, a more conventional Annunciation (though subversive in its own way) by Henry Ossawa Tanner (painted in 1898; Philadelphia Art Museum)

Related articles:

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture: Appropriate Away
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

The Every-Branching Universe: Forever Nethack

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

[Click on all images in this article to embiggen them]

You’re in the corner of a room that you can light up to half its length with your rapidly dying lantern. To your left you can see a scroll of charging, which you desperately need to replenish your wishing wand. To get to it, however, you have to bypass or eliminate the troll who is bashing you with its axe. If you kill it, you have to eat it quickly enough to prevent its resurrection. There’s also a trapdoor just in front of the charging scroll. To avoid it, you can either put on your ring of levitation or dig through the side wall with your pick axe. If you put on the ring, you need to take it off to pick up the scroll (this will occupy two moves). If you use the pick axe, you cannot wield your weapon at the same time.

While you are hacking at the troll with your life-draining Stormbringer, you are also trying to avoid trampling your tame cat, who’s frisking around you and whom you wish to keep alive long enough to polymorph into a friendly dragon that you can use as both weapon and steed. If you get the charging scroll, you can replenish your wishing wand and get a wand of polymorph. You’re also trying to block the unruly critter from falling into the trapdoor, because by the time you find it again at another dungeon level it will have forgotten you and turned feral.

Speaking of dragons, a black one just entered the dark area of the room. You know its presence and color because it’s breathing death at you; thankfully, your shield of reflection protects you and your inventory from being turned to dust. You could zap the beast with your wand of cancellation and reduce its deadly breath to harmless coughing. However, you want to kill it unmodified if possible, because eating it will make you disintegration-proof. But if you eat both the troll and the dragon, you’ll choke from overeating. If you pray to your patron god, (s)he may come to your aid. You feverishly rack your memory: did you offer enough at the last altar you passed?

Complicated, you say? Multiply this situation by a few hundred thousand times, and you get the feel of Nethack.

RPG games, now extraordinarily sophisticated in form (though still mostly primitive in content), have been enduring parallel universes for the armchair warriors who prefer their human contacts minimal, their muscles small and their repartee absent. Yet after all this programming effort, all the glitzy, expensive packages and X-boxes, after all the network chat groups and all the pneumatic avatars of Second Life, the most immersive, most addictive adventure game is an evolved species of the original sparse but nifty Rogue: Nethack.

Entirely keyboard-driven with ASCII characters, without any sound or special effects, Nethack can wreck careers and relationships — and like a truly dangerous drug, keep its victims blissed out while their world crumbles around them. And the main reason for the denomic hold of this game (besides the fact that it’s free and open source) is the same that makes books so infinitely superior to any flat-footed explicit representation: namely, Nethack uses human imagination as its engine, thereby turning what looks like a horse-driven cart into an FTL starship.

Nethack Map

Nethack has been around since the mid-eighties, though it took a while to attain its full complexity. Like all D&D style games, it’s a Tolkienesque stew with side helpings of several other pop mythologies (the archaeologist class is a nod to Indiana Jones; one of the named weapons is Elric’s Stormbringer, another is Bilbo’s Sting; the quest homebase of the tourist class is a hat tip to Terry Pratchett… you get the gist). What makes it unusual is the heroic lengths to which the huge development team went to anticipate and program all possible actions within the framework. You can drink a potion – but you can also throw it, or dip something in it. A cockatrice can turn you to stone, but if you kill it and have gloves on you can wield it as a weapon to turn your enemies to stone instead. And what makes it amazing is how many ways the story can go, how richly textured it is, and how much it rewards exploration and strategy. It’s like seeing the multiverse concept in action, including the wavefunction collapse at the narrow-funnel ending. Nethack is a labor of immense love and a triumphant example of effective collective effort – the cyber-equivalent of a great bridge or temple.

I started playing Rogue in the mid-eighties – half of my then-lab were aficionados who watched others dodge medusae and xorns with the passionate involvement (and exclamations) usually vouchsafed to group-watching of football or soccer games. I then moved to the more complicated versions – Moria, Angband, and finally Nethack itself (plus the Zork series, of which Nemesis is my hands-down favorite because it has a plot and characters that I cared for). I’ve played all classes, races and alignments in Nethack, but have never completed a game except in immortal mode, which should give a hint of how fiendishly hard it is. And I still feel the thrill of anticipation whenever I go up or down a dungeon level staircase.

Nethack had not been altered in a while, except for its tiles version becoming (grumble) inoperative in MacOs systems past the big-cat-named ones. But this December version 3.6.0 appeared and, of course, all of us devotees ran over to see what’s new. Not surprisingly, only details have changed – the game is too fine-tuned to allow much further tinkering. Gehennom levels are now of two types instead of one; vampires have become more interesting. But I have a sneaking suspicion I will now replay all class/race combinations and class-specific quests, to check if something really new has been stealthily implemented Easter-egg fashion.

The only other games of this type that have come as close to captivating me as Nethack are Eschalon and, to a lesser extent, Legend of Pandora. A few others have lodged in my long-term memory: I wept at the end of Syberia, when the mammoths came out of the mist; I fell utterly in love with the atmospherics, worldbuilding (and strong women) of Sins of the Fathers and Broken Sword; and I adored witty, sui generis efforts like System’s Twilight, The Tiny Bang Story and Botanicula. I may at some point play Mass Effect (though the reports of its notoriously bad ending have given me pause, plus watching The Expanse may feel that need slot for me) or one of Assassin’s Creed – if the upcoming movie version with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is good enough to make me curious.

But no matter what shiny baubles come along, few hold my interest for long. Nethack has been the granite foundation of my gameplaying, my faithful companion in the sleepless watches of the night.


Related Articles:

The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon
Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Images: 1st, the unadorned Nethack screen appearance; 2nd, a charmingly handmade (but thorough) global Nethack map from BT-Net; 3rd, the start of Gehennom in Nethack (tile version)

Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

by C. W. 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, Interstellar, and the works of Hanya Yanagihara, Ken Liu and Liu Cixin.

2-torus starshipScience fiction is full of ideas. But the ideas in science fiction seldom have the depth and rigor of ideas in science, or in philosophy, or politics and ethics. The reason I say this is: in fiction, the game is rigged. The debates are one-sided. The author gets the first, middle, and last word.

This is not to say that the ideas in science fiction cannot capture the imagination. Indeed many classic SF stories that have inspired careers or even presaged the future. But not all have. The ideas in SF are not fully developed theories or philosophies, but more like Edison’s famous ten thousand attempts at making electric light: we remember the one that worked and forget, mostly, the ten thousand that didn’t.

But the ones that work, either through vivid imagery or asking difficult questions or getting lucky and “predicting” the future, stay with us. Once in a great while, there is even a story that causes me to rethink my opposition to describing science fiction as a “literature of ideas.”

Such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora.


Let me explore the concept of fiction as being rigged. Science fiction typically assumes some future technology, whether it be interstellar travel or time travel or life extension, is possible. It is only after such an assumption that we arrive at the “idea” in science fiction: a fable about unintended consequences–step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, change all of history–or to ask, a la James Blish, Who does this hurt?

But these moral fables–for that is what they really are–gloss over the assumption of a technology. Many enthusiasts believe in a kind of technological manifest destiny: we can achieve any technology, if only we are smart enough, or put enough effort into it, or let market forces achieve it.

In support of such a view the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and Moore’s Law are often cited. Such citations often ignore the fact that those successes were a matter of scaling known engineering. The basic physics of fission reactions, of space flight, and of transistors were known long before those projects and observations began.

Here’s the problem: one should not conclude, by way of analogy, that any technological goal can be achieved by sheer perspiration. The easiest and most obvious example is in human health. By a wide margin, the most crucial leaps to better health have been good sewage management and vaccines, followed by antibiotics. But after that it becomes much harder. If market forces alone were enough, we would have conquered cancer long ago, but while some cancers are curable, many others we can at best slow down. (This, of course, is because “cancer” does not have a single etiology.) There are start-up firms devoted to engineered immortality, but none have added a single day to human life spans.

In short, just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it is actually possible. I’m still surprised how resistant people are to this basic principle.


Of course, interstellar flight might seem like a straightforward if ambitious scaling-up of the Apollo program. But Tau Ceti, one of the closest singlet G-class stars (i.e., like our sun), known to have at least five planets, is almost 100 billion times farther away than our moon. That’s a lot of scaling; by comparison, Moore’s law from 1971 to today has seen a mere one million times increase in the number of transistors on a chip.

And Moore’s law has a cost. As transistors shrink, the chip foundries become increasingly complex, costing over US$1 billion to build, and using prodigious amounts of caustic chemicals. The market pressures so far have masked these costs, but even so the market for personal computers has saturated and it is the market for phones which has largely driven further developments. But now with billions of phones across the globe that market too is becoming saturated. We’ll see replacements, of course, but that is linear; the pressure for geometric growth described for Moore’s law is diminishing.

And in a way, this is the story that Robinson tells in Aurora.


[Click twice to see full-size image]

Some minor spoilers ahead; I’ll keep them to a minimum, but I will outline some key plot points. If you want me to cut to the chase, it’s this: in my opinion, Aurora is the best hard science fiction novel since Benford’s Timescape, and Robinson achieves this by blowing up the usual assumptions, and jumping up and down on them until they are ground into tiny bits.

Aurora is about interstellar travel. A ship, one of many, is sent at one-tenth of the speed of light to Tau Ceti. This journey takes almost two centuries, and so generations are born, live, and die aboard the ship.

In Robinson’s novel, interstellar travel is possible, but costly. First and foremost, keeping a closed ecosystem running is not easy. Robinson has hinted at these concerns in previous novels, in Icehenge and his Mars trilogy, and here he spells them out in detail, thinking out how a generation ship would work (and not work) to a degree not achieved before. The specific biochemistry is a little beyond me, but he is married to an environmental chemist and, most importantly, the principle is sound. Managing trace elements such as bromine isn’t easy: too little can have dire consequences, but too much and you have toxic effects. The designers of the starship had to try to predict how the ecosystem would behave over centuries. Robinson assumes the designers did a pretty good job, but even in a pretty good job a few miscalculations or oversights can grow over time.

Just as big a source of problems as technology is politics. Robinson’s politics lean to the communitarian and the ship’s governance reflects this, but he recognizes that every polity can fracture and every system of governances privileges some over others. In this he echoes LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, a novel I first read many years ago in a class Robinson taught at UC Davis, and which is also set in the Tau Ceti system. And as in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, when society is stressed, some people respond badly, even violently.

The politics back home, i.e., on Earth, also shifts. People lose interest in interstellar travel, which soaks up enormous resources, leaving the crew of the ship to their own devices when things go awry.

Most SF novels assume that Things Work Out in the end. A crisis convenient for a thrilling plot pops up, but Our Heroes/ines figure out it in the nick of time, and humans triumph over the odds. This future version of Manifest Destiny has been here since the pulps and never really gone away.

Robinson attacks this idea, in detail and in depth. The technology goes wrong, and there is no magical fix, and people die. (Not always; there are some spectacular saves.) The politics goes really wrong, and more people die.

Moreover, Robinson suggests that Manifest Destiny breaks apart upon the rocks of the Fermi paradox, i.e., if there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t we heard from it? Recently I wrote of the Chinese author Cixin Liu’s solution to the Fermi paradox, a dark and paranoid vision.

Robinson’s solution to the Fermi paradox is more measured and frankly more believeable than Liu’s. In most science fiction novels people on alien worlds can easily breathe the air and eat the native organisms with no ill effect. This has always bothered me, because, for example, humans actually can only tolerate a fairly narrow range of atmospheric mixtures; and as for food, we’ve had to co-evolve to digest plant and animal tissues.

Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. The latter is of course speculative, but speculation is the game in science fiction.

The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.


Aurora is not a perfect novel. Like most hard SF novels, it is plot and exposition heavy. Only three characters are fully realized, and one of those is the ship’s artificial intelligence. The bulk of the prose is plain and to-the-point, which Robinson cleverly covers by having the ship itself be the narrator. Only in the opening and closing sections, not narrated by the ship, does the prose sing and does Robinson use his literary skills fully.

But few novels in my reading have examined the technology and the difficulties therein in as much detail, acknowledging that science and people are always flawed and limited. I seldom say this, but Robinson’s novel is truly an “instant classic” of SF, and the hardest of hard SF at that. The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.


Related Articles:

Making Aliens (six part series, starts here)

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Damp Squibs: Non-news in Space Exploration

Images: 1st, a two-torus starship like Aurora; 2nd, the Tau Ceti system; 3rd, Kim Stanley Robinson

Mediterranean Diasporans: Dúrin’s Folk

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

“They’re mine, there, them.”
– Lazarus Tonnerre in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners

DF Echoes
[Click on both post images to see them full size]

It’s not an unalloyed good to come from a culture so old and layered that I find resonances everywhere – especially when they surface in works I consider deeply flawed, as I do for Tolkien’s oeuvre (and half of Jackson’s Tolkien-linked one).

It’s no secret that Tolkien was enamored of Elves but not particularly interested in Dwarves. Their development as a people in his overall work and as individuals in The Hobbit has the quality of a paper napkin. He made them literally children of a lesser god; denied them an afterlife, eventually granting them a heaven separate from the rest; drew them perilously close to ethnic caricatures; barred the rare love liaison with other Middle Earth races that was so au fait for Beren and Aragorn and so crucial for the victories over Melkor and Sauron; and sidelined their language while creating several for Elves and Men.

So when Peter Jackson decided to turn The Hobbit (TH) into an opus as epic as The Lord of the Rings (LotR) and focus as much on Thorin as on Bilbo, the gaps were enormous. Jackson’s presentation of the Khazâd is the major (though not the only) reason that his TH is best viewed as alt-universe fanfic, even if he forced its ending back into canon to dovetail with what he had already shown in LotR. As is frequently the case with exuberant composers when they’re given a weak libretto, Jackson stumbled into overpadding and nonsensical plot twists. His TH is so vastly inferior to his sweeping, immersive LotR that it looks like the work of a different person. Yet his visualization of Thorin and his people plucked a strong chord within me despite the buffoonish attributes shoehorned into their depiction.

I worried at this lapse in my taste as if it were a sore tooth and eventually touched the atavistic nerve: faithful to Tolkien’s sketchy instructions, Jackson did portray the Dwarves as broad-stroke Jews but they could just as easily pass for Éllines, aka Greeks. The appearance of the Dwarven royal trio owes a lot to Assyrian and Persian friezes. Thorin looks like a Maccabee or Sephardi malik in fully potent middle age and his madness is like that of Saul, not Lear (it helps that Richard Armitage was entering his forties when Jackson started filming TH; I wonder what Oded Fehr or Ghassan Massoud would have done with the role). But Thorin also looks and acts like the Akrítai who safeguarded the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire, or the outlaw chieftains who fought for independence against the Ottoman Turks. I know this archetype intimately from the stories and songs of my people, from Trapani to Trebizond.

I’ve had similar pings from other imperfect, unlikely works. When Schwarzenegger takes the sword from the hands of the crowned skeleton in Conan the Barbarian, its subsequent crumbling into dust always makes me recall, with a frisson, that the same thing happened to the gold-masked skeleton Schliemann found in the tombs at Mycenae. Likewise, Thorin’s hair trailing while he’s in the eagle’s claws reminds me of Éctor’s black mane unfurling behind Ahilléus’ chariot. And of course the flying braids of Thorin and his sistersons make me think of the Minoans, the lodestars whose variants haunt my own fiction.

But it goes beyond brooding and braids. Nestor-like Balin points out to Thorin that the Khazâd are not primarily warriors but merchants, miners, metalsmiths. They’re decidedly not ethereal: their hands are calloused from work, and once they drop their guard they can get rambunctious or “melodramatic” (by Anglo or Elven standards). Yet earthy as they are, they love beauty even if their taste runs to art deco instead of the Elves’ art nouveau.

The Greek diaspora, as old as the polity from which it sprang, has been a necessity dictated by the local physical and (geo)political environment. Like the Jews, the Greeks stood out wherever they went which made them easy targets for displaced anger. They, too, were mostly merchants, artisans, wrights, dragomans, mid-level functionaries. Their host cultures gawked and laughed at their occasional bursts of flamboyance, many of which are now staged as tourist spectacles. Nor were they spared abuse and slaughter in either Muslim or Christian territories: their Christianity (as much a cultural as a religious signifier) was the “wrong” kind. Later, so was their vigorous resistance to Nazi occupation. As a result, they became clannish, secretive, cunning – the common survival tactics of the downtrodden and deracinated – though like the Khazâd they let trusted outsiders into their hearths and hearts.

Then there’s the language. Tolkien repeatedly mentioned in the books and his letters how ugly Khuzdul was, how disjunct from the languages of all other “good” folk in Middle Earth. He cared so little about it that he only bothered with a few place names and a single title (“Balin Fundinul Uzbad Khazad-dûmu”). The language had to be retro-created for TH; even then we only hear insults and battle cries in it, except for Kíli’s yearning “Amrâl imê…” to Tauriel (“My love”, which he mouths silently again when he’s dying; Aidan Turner transplanted the phrase and tone to his Ross Poldark incarnation with devastating effect).

Hellenic is an Indoeuropean isolate, and those who can speak it are few and getting fewer. I’ve had people tell me it sounds harsh, just as Khuzdul was said to hurt the Elves’ delicate ears. For the Greek diaspora communities, it’s fast becoming a legacy fossil they can only learn in special schools – just like Hebrew for non-Israeli Jews, and Khuzdul as posited by Tolkien.

The Elves are a spent force in LotR; their presence is drenched in loss and longing, a late fall twilight afterglow. But at least they have their dazzling pinnacle in The Silmarillion and they’re still pivotal in LotR (especially in Jackson’s non-canonical yet dead-on decision to have them participate in the battle of Helm’s Deep). Tolkien never gives the Dwarves their moment in the limelight. They’re afterthoughts, sidebars viewed with equal parts grudging respect and condescension. By giving them vivid if flawed primacy, Jackson brought that point to the fore.

I was captivated by the strong Celtic tinge of Tolkien’s and Jackson’s Elves, by their love of starlight and the sea so close to my own core yearnings. I like the fierce geasa-driven Elves of The Silmarillion more than the cool, gliding apparitions in LotR, because their imperfections make them reachable. But Thorin’s people, as portrayed by Jackson, are my kin – my ghénos, my mishpocheh. I’d be fighting hammer and tongs with such a man within hours. And yet I’ve been biologically and culturally wired to keep a place in my heart for these dark, hairy, stocky, gruff men with their unshakable loyalties and touchy pride, their love of gaudy jewelry and the works of hands, their boisterous revels and minor-key songs, their penchant for bravado and doomed stands, fusions of Odhysséus and Dhighenís.

DF Hugs New

Major relevant historical work:

Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

Related Essays:

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Hagiography in the SFX Age
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European
Authentic Ethnics
If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home

Images: 1st, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and two Greek fighters for independence against the Ottoman Turks; top, Athanássios Dhiákos (by Dhionnísios Tsókos); bottom, Vassílis Ghoúdhas (by Louis Dupré); 2nd, Mediterranean-type physical affection: Thorin embraces Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his younger sisterson, Kíli (Aidan Turner).

Ayn Rand: Dreams that Become Dungeons

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers, Ephemera 2009

Ayn Rand, Cornell Cappa

From time to time items appear in news or social media that remind me I’ve long wanted to discuss Ayn Rand. The latest is the Sad Puppies’ Hugo awards campaign, whose leaders announced that next time the charge of the Lightweight Brigade will be led by women who are not like the rest of us unworthy hysterics. Prominent among the vessels chosen to carry the yellowish fluid of “pure” SF is one who parrots Ayn Rand. In this era of voided social contracts and vanishing safety nets, several of the current Republican presidential candidates name themselves Rand adherents – except that the coin she minted has proved counterfeit not only for societies, but also for the individuals she purported to champion.

Born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a middle-class Russian-Jewish family, multiply displaced by Soviet policies, possessing immense drive and the type of intelligence that made her a poor fit to any homogeneous group ruled by implicit traditions, Rand managed to emigrate to the US. Once there, she strove – with enormous success – to reinvent herself far beyond the usual name change and veneer assimilation of zero- and first-generation immigrants. She also attempted to reshape, Procrustes-like, all within her reach to fit her fantasy of perfection, including her personal past, her hapless low-key husband and eventually her acolytes.

Countless critics have dissected Rand’s juvenile “philosophy” (who seriously lists Aristotle as a decisive influence?), cartoonish characters and clunky dialogue, humorless didacticism, worship of Aryan-phenotype übermenschen and their Nietzschean prerogatives, cult-leader behavior. Equally countless admirers have cleaved to Rand’s powerful message of purpose and self-esteem, which she eventually distorted into suffocating diktats. Less discussed is a fundamental contradiction: despite her trumpetings that she stood solitary and independent as a sui generis entirely self-made construct, Rand not only had far more help than she acknowledged, but she also abjectly desired to belong to clubs perceived to occupy the top of intellectual and/or political hierarchies. This is common for many with backstories similar to Rand’s: Dinesh D’Souza, Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung), Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, Camille Paglia, Marco Rubio, Sarah Hoyt (Alice Maria da Silva Marques de Almeida), Martin Shkreli.

Rand and the others I listed decided that the path to first-class citizenship in their adoptive US culture was to become mouthpieces for its most reactionary substreams. They’re born-again Spencerians, staunch promoters of libertarian bootstrapping myths, and as obsessed with purge-enforced purity as their ideological opponents. However, their intrinsics mean they can never be more than court jesters or spear carriers of the masters they choose; they end up becoming collaborators, cudgels against fellow disadvantaged who are trying different ways of becoming acknowledged as fully human. For the women, it additionally means they invariably become more kyriarchal than MRAs, since they must be be seen as different than the rest of their weak-minded hormone-driven gender. Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I regard both extreme identity politics and total isolationism (that is, complete refusal to interact with one’s adoptive culuture) as dysfunctional and sterile as the appeasing mimic mode that I discuss here.

Fountainhead - Cooper, NealAyn Rand is a beguiling beacon for bright, self-motivated social isolates who have no obvious tribe and decide to make a defiant virtue of aloneness. When I was fourteen and a student in one of Greece’s elite exam-entry schools during the junta, one of my teachers handed me The Fountainhead remarking it had been written with me in mind. On the surface, I was the ideal audience for its message: an overachieving loner proud of her otherness, neither feminine nor pretty; a fledgling contrarian who disliked unexamined majority views and was already being treated as “an honorary man”; the member of a family chronically persecuted for its political beliefs and actions; a believer in principles, meritocracy and perfectibility like most adolescents.

For reasons partly mentioned in Snachismo, I left my native culture for the world-dominant US polity. Though I’m not “of color” (unless it becomes convenient to someone’s agenda) as defined by the crudely reductive US criteria, I’m one of the borderline ethnics designated as “sneaky swarthons” across Anglosaxon cultures. If you believe this is no longer applicable, re-read the presentations of the recent Greek economic debacle in European media. I came to the US younger than Rand and without any family whatsoever; she, despite her later disavowals, lived with her first-degree relatives until she went to California using their money. What I had instead was a full scholarship and the buffers a well-endowed university could provide.

As I continued living in the US, I kept piling up all kinds of credentials and accomplishments. Nevertheless, I was still olive-skinned and still had an unpronounceable name and a legacy accent – with the result that I was often treated as mud (or worse) on a shoe. I later found out that I shared all these attributes and equivalent experiences with Rand herself. By all counts, I should have become a fervent lifelong Objectivist.

What saved me from such a fate? Perhaps that I had an empathy organ, which Rand (like other transmit-only narcissists) notoriously lacked. Or that I never repudiated my heritage, warts and all – even as I selectively chose what to retain from it, and what to adopt from the more cosmopolitan milieus I found myself in. Or that unlike Rand’s proud announcement that she was “a male chauvinist”, I was a feminist even before I knew the term (or movement) existed. Or that I wanted to become a scientist from the moment I could think clearly, and during my training for that vocation it got pressed into me with diamond-tipped drills that theories must fit facts, not the other way around. Or that I could never identify with Rand’s Aryan blonds, modeled on those who had tortured and exterminated my people and other “inferiors” like vermin. Or that the thought of becoming someone’s Joan the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, no matter how remarkable they might be, made me break into hives.

Yet I was still fascinated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect. So after The Fountainhead I went on to read Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and the Barbara Branden and Ann Heller biographies. And so I found out the desolation and insoluble conflicts behind Rand’s bravado. Like many of that personality type, her strengths gave her a strong sense of entitlement that she assumed should, and would, automatically translate to privilege. People far less intelligent than Rand rose to prominence through membership in a dominant group, so it was not surprising she felt short-changed. Deprived of the desired recognition from the alpha club (loner pretensions notwithstanding), she ended up becoming the “there can only be one” tai-tai of designated lesser beings: like her, all her inner circle were smart, ambitious Jews in a society that still imposed racial and ethnic group segregations and quotas. She considered her followers, and they considered themselves, second-best – especially the women whom she turned into typists and gofers. This resulted in shattered, stunted lives. And like all people in this no-win position, anger and depression stalked Rand throughout her life.

Atlas Rockefeller Ctr Lee LawrieI know this anger only too well. I have to keep a tight rein on it, lest it consume me. I’ve come to realize that the siren call of self-made climbing is meant to keep people like me trying solo for brass rings: box-ticking tokens at best. But unlike Rand, I figured this out early enough to choose a different path. This won’t make me beloved, influential, famous or rich. But neither will it make me mutilate my feet to fit stiletto-heeled glass slippers. For exiled wanderers like me, perhaps the only viable option is to keep our double vision intact and acknowledge the value of uncoerced cooperation and shared visions, even as we recognize that all alliances are fleeting. We will always sail on half-familiar seas, Flying Hollanders with the albatross of loneliness around our necks. Even so, we can try to become links between our natal and adopted cultures, branches tapping on windows, gravity ripples between stars.

Related Essays

And Ain’t I a Human?
Snachismo, or: What Do Women Want?
Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Only Kowtowers Need Apply
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
A Plague on Both Your Houses
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
Caesars and Caesar Salads
History, Legitimacy and Belonging; or: Who’s We, Kemo Sabe?
The Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Images: 1st, Ayn Rand, photo by Cornell Cappa; 2nd, Patricia Neal (as Dominique Francon) shows the proper Randian woman-worship for Gary Cooper (as Howard Roark) in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead; 3rd, Atlas, statue by Lee Lawrie that is often identified with Objectivism and has been used as a cover for Atlas Shrugged.

Evghenia Fakinou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Note:  There has been intermittent discussion in SFF about the relative invisibility of non-Anglophone works.  These rumblings have once again gained volume following the awarding of a Hugo to a novel translated from Chinese (Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu).  Below is an essay about another major unrecognized talent handicapped by writing in a language other than English.  The essay first appeared, with minor variations, in SFF Portal.


FakinouA while ago, I wrote an essay about the fact that writers feel free to use Hellenic contexts (myths, history, location), blithely assuming they know my culture well enough to do so convincingly. I mentioned that contemporary Hellenic literature is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world beyond Elytis, Seféris, Kaváfis and Kazantzákis – all of whom belong to the thirties. In effect, it is fashionable to pronounce Hellenic paradigms passé along with all other ‘Eurocentric’ sources, without ever having read Hellenic literature of any era. Lest you think I’m indulging in special pleading, this lacuna has been noticed and discussed by many non-Hellenes including Roderick Beaton, a formidable literary presence with a truly deep knowledge of my history and culture.

In my essay I also stated that Hellás may be home to the best magic realist alive right now: Evghenía Fakínou. In my estimation, she’s better than Salman Rushdie, Louis de Bernières, Laura Esquivel, Alice Hoffman or Orhan Pamuk. Her work does not suffer from the defects that occasionally mar their often outstanding work – Rushdie’s and Pamuk’s self-congratulatory longueurs and cardboard characters (their women especially), de Bernières’ lapses into the generic, Esquivel’s by-the-numbers sentimentality, Hoffman’s arch quirkiness. However, Fakínou’s original language and culture are heavy strikes against her. Only two of her novels have been translated, into indifferent English (a common fate, because the two languages are as different as two Indo-European cousins can be).

Fakínou was born in Alexandria in 1945, to working class migrant parents who hailed from the Dodecanesean island of Symi (a beautiful but stark place, whose cosmopolitan wandering people earned their living by fishing, sponge diving and with a formidable merchant marine fleet that played a significant part in the 1821 War of Independence). Her family returned to Athens when she was a child. She studied graphic arts and worked for several years as a graphic artist, illustrator and tourist guide. In 1976, she launched a children’s puppet theater show, Tin Town, which became very successful. Think politicized and stylistically circumscribed Sesame Street and you get the picture. She started writing children’s books first, then novels starting in 1982 – about twenty so far, plus  collections of linked stories.

AstradeniFakínou’s books have won several awards and are wildly popular in Hellás: none has ever gone out of print, aided by the Hellenic publishers’ sane policy of small runs. Her writing combines three attributes, each of which would make her work addictive by itself: compelling plots, vivid characters and atmospheric settings. She is a mistress of creating sustained polyphony, a skillful puppeteer whose strings never become visible. Each of her characters jumps from the page, fully alive. Each of her books is distinct; she never resorts to clichés or cookie-cutter tactics, never repeats a successful recipe. In some cases she sticks to one narrator, first or third person; in others she switches between viewpoints – all with the illusion of effortlessness that distinguishes great dancers.

To top this, Fakínou has what for me is the quintessential gift of the rare true storyteller: her novels are full of echoes. She seamlessly interweaves history and (usually revisionist) mythology as she roams through six millennia of my people’s ghost-inhabited, monument-strewn cultural landscape. Yet there is no infodumping, no slowing of the plot momentum to flaunt her knowledge. If her readers are not aware of the background she evokes, the stories are still absorbing. But if they are, her stories are simply unforgettable: they etch themselves on one’s long-term memory and never fade.

To give you a sense of Fakínou, I will briefly outline the two of her novels that have been translated in English, fully aware that neither my descriptions nor the translations convey the potent magic she weaves.

Astradhení (Fakínou’s first novel; the word is a rare first name that means ‘starbinder’) starts deceptively as YA. We get carried along on the matter-of-fact, stripped-down voice of its narrator, a young girl whose family has been ripped off their island home by misfortune: her little brother’s death devastated them both emotionally and financially. The transplantation to Athens brings the woes that always beset immigrants: the ridiculing of accents and customs, the loneliness and alienation, the forced homogenization into marginal/ized urban living.

So far, so common, if beautifully rendered. But a deep river runs underneath the main narrative: Astradhení has visions of the young priestesses of pre-Olympian Ártemis who danced around the open-air altar of the goddess wearing bear pelts. To shake us out of the easy YA classification, the visions don’t bring her insight, solace or strength. At the close of the story, an acquaintance of her father starts to rape Astradhení. The final words are her anguished protestations, girl and priestess fused into one.

Astradhení’s visions are rips in the fabric of time, vouchsafing us glimpses of a (real or half-dreamt) past when women had power, a place as beguiling as – and far less sugarcoated than – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon. In that world, Astradhení would have been a seer. Rape, embedded in the overt misogynism of both Hellenic and Byzantine traditions, is a bleeding wound in my culture and the book was notable just for bringing it up (a visual parallel happens in Angelópoulos’ film Landscape in the Mist).

Seventh GarmentTo Évdhomo Roúho (The Seventh Garment) tells how women carry history on their shoulders, like the Karyatids or the wives of folk ballads, buried alive so that bridges would stand. Three generations of women – Maiden, Mother, Crone – gather to perform an ancient ritual over the death of the last man in the family: the belief is that for his spirit to cross safely to the Otherworld, the women must line up the garments of the family’s seven firstborn sons, one from each generation (underlining the so far unquestioned requirement for sons). The last garment is missing, which triggers the story’s crisis.

Through the conversations and first-person narrations of the three women, we get strobelight views of several epochs of Hellenic history: the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire; the 1922 catastrophic defeat of the Greek army by its Turkish counterpart that uprooted the Hellenes from Asia Minor, an integral part of their homeland for four millennia; the trials of the refugees, who met a mixed welcome on the mainland; the resistance in World War II, callously betrayed by its ostensible allies; and contemporary globalization, with its atomizing effects. The men these women remember and mourn were mostly loved (though rape figures prominently again) but mostly absent: killed, imprisoned, exiled, forced to emigrate. Several myths are woven into this tapestry: Démetra’s tormented search for Persephóne and also the wanderings of Odysséus, fused with folk stories of sea-gods, both pagan and Christian.

Though Fakínou made up the details of the ritual, it is grounded in the mourning customs of the Aegean islands. The women in her story, unsung singers, maintain the traditions while subverting them at the same time. In the end, the grandmother quietly pierces herself and bleeds to death so that her drenched tunic can serve as the missing garment. The chthonic powers accept it. By doing this she becomes an ancestor, a lofty position previously forbidden to women, and heals several rifts at once, though probably briefly.

Fakínou’s books are full of vision quests, awakenings, boundary crossings. All have open endings, with their protagonists poised at thresholds on the last page. At the same time, they make their readers whole by reclaiming a past that might have led to an alternative future. Fakínou is a windwalker, a weaver of spider silk. I’m sorry she is not world-famous, but even sorrier for the dreamers who will never get a chance to lose – and find – themselves in her work.

References and Related Essays

Roderick Beaton, Introduction to Modern Greek Literature Oxford University Press, Revised and Expanded Edition 1999

Iskander, Khan Tengri

The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade

The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

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

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

The Multi-Chambered Nautilus

Safe Exoticism, Part 2: Culture

Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

The Doric Column: Dhómna Samíou (1928-2012)

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home


Evgenía Fakínou
Astradhení, first edition
The Seventh Garment, first edition

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.


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
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 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

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


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.


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
Protein chemist
Tissue/neural engineer
Brain scientist/engineer
Cultural anthropologist
Materials scientist/architect
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.


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.


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


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 Smurfettes Discover Ayn Rand

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

“The simple lives of heroes,
The twisted lives of saints,
They just confuse the sunny calendar
With their red and golden paints.”

— Leonard Cohen, Priests

Preamble: if I were prone to using (avaunt!) mood indicators, this essay would sport one with the “annoyed” designation. But even Cincinnatus had to leave his farm. So I’m taking time out of writing my stories, articulating my thoughts on roofed ocean worlds and editing To Shape the Dark to discuss a few genre-related items, including a troublesome trend among young(er) women in the quarters I frequent. Since I’m solidly in the ice floe age bracket, feel free to ascribe what follows to me being a temperamental oldster. Comments are once again disabled.

LONELY HOUSE, Valentin2007

I have a bad habit – well, more than one, but we’ll leave the rest for future conversations. I seldom engage in fashionable internet controversies. This is partly because many are of the “first as tragedy, then as farce” type and at this point in my life I’ve seen too many unwitting parodies – what I call “discovering black holes… once again!” Also, by inclination and training I prefer to research things rather than jump with both feet (and no upper head) into a scrum. Practically speaking, this means that by the time I’m prepared to say something the internet magpies are pecking at the next scrap of shiny tinfoil. Finally, if I bestir myself enough to do a peroration it’s the end of the conversation for me: once I’ve fielded an issue, I’m unlikely to revisit it.

This year’s Hugo implosion was loud enough to be heard outside the genre ghetto. The fact that the Whiny Puppies (SFF’s Teabaggers) invited the GamerGaters to the bash guaranteed page clicks and Klout score increases for all who opined. Everyone said something. Some said better things than others. The tangible outcome is that the Hugos (eminently gameable, riddled with cracks and a poor fit to SFF’s current protean sprawl) are now definitively broken, sea lion dronings about the perfection of current Hugo rules notwithstanding.

I won’t discuss either the aptly-acronymed VD, aka Theodore Beale, or the equally unspeakable John C. Wright. Their own words grunt for themselves and I’ve already discussed the general pathology of knuckledraggers. I will also not discuss Abigail Nussbaum’s screed, as Joshua Herring (whom I don’t know) did an excellent dissection. Clearly, wisdom is not about to strike Nussbaum [ETA: or, for that matter, Shaun Duke]. But it’s time to say that lack of rudimentary empathy and presentation of slanted “facts” calculated for retaining insider status make for lousy content, especially when one tries to pass the result as olympian objectivity or high principles.

I’ve been eligible for Fan Writer and Related Work Hugos since 2008. I’ve never been nominated but don’t feel slighted thereby (unlike Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen who apparently do despite ample visibility and professional success, from publications in ever-predictable Analog to repeated award nominations). Nor have I jettisoned my ethics in the forlorn hope I’d be nominated if I kowtowed to the right clique (à la Deirdre Saoirse Moen). For the sake of completeness – because I clearly thirst for popularity – I’ll add that I find at least two perennial hoverers on recent SFF award lists (Charles Stross and John Scalzi) unreadable and as a space opera aficionada I deemed Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice good but not particularly original. However, subjective tastes, pseudo-democratic voting, etc.

Among this year’s Hugo nominees is one whose qualifying work contains some of my own bone marrow. Laura Mixon is in the Best Fan Writer category for her report on the damage wrought to fandoms and professional SFF by RequiresHate/Sriduangkaew/etc and RH/BS acolytes and enablers. This damage was all the more insidious because it a) largely targeted the marginalized and b) was slotted into the “acceptable because dressed in social justice accoutrements” category.

I already discussed (obliquely) why I think Mixon deserves the award in the larger context of today’s SFF. I will note that many of the camel-swallowers and gnat-splitters who are complaining that Mixon was nominated for a single work are the same people who gave the Best Fan Writer award last year to Kameron Hurley for a single work as well (and a hot mess, at that, even if it sorta kinda lunged in the right direction). I will also note that by writing her report Mixon took considerable personal and professional risks with zero expectations of reward, only for the sake of trying to make SFF an open-door house rather than a mud-churned battlefield.

The Mixon report touches upon what I call the Macha Smurfette syndrome: the tendency of some young(er) women who label themselves progressive to re-create hierarchical value systems that disdain scapegoat/displacement attributes coded “female”. I think such women are seeking male approval as abjectly as the non-feminists they excoriate, essentially saying “Look, pa, I’m not like those emo girls! I’m alpha stuff!” Invariably, they become tokens used by reactionaries to bludgeon true subversives and/or purity policers of their peers. Ayn Rand, Ann Coulter, Camille Paglia. Badass wannabes who disparage women that express any fear and who use Dawkins-type “Dear Muslimah” false comparisons to gain attention and brownie points. It’s no surprise that stories written by women who hold such views resemble soggy cement and the societies they come up with, “edgy” veneers aside, are as essentialist as those in Leaden Era SFF. Lack of empathy and powermongering tend to flatten vision. [NB: This applies to men as well; one difference is that smurfettes get discarded as soon as the conveyor belt delivers younger ones.]

Because of my personality, primary occupation and cultural background, I default to the Strong Silent™ type myself. I don’t use my own health, personal history and relationships as anecdata in public arguments. There’s a practical reason for this: experience has taught me that anything I say about myself will eventually be used as ammunition by people eager to humiliate or discredit me, even while I’m aware that my reticence robs me of support networks. But the deeper reason for this stance is that I do deem myself a failure if I don’t remain standing at all times. I believe public forums are the wrong venues for private unburdenings and I use the word “spoons” exclusively for matters related to cooking. However, I consider this a valid modus vivendi solely for me. It’s a matter of persona, not morality; of conditioning, not values.

Being a liaison between cultures and disciplines granted me the decidedly mixed blessing of across-the-spectrum vision. The lifelong wandering has turned me into a cat, a badger, a soliton, unmoved (if not untouched) by either carrots or sticks. I will eventually fall silent, when my body abandons me. Until then, I will continue to walk between worlds, telling stories. I’ll welcome those who journey to my distant campfire to sing with me, to enlist my help with planting and building. Tradition decrees that astrogators remain sleepless at the helm; but all kinds of hands and minds are needed to send starships to Tau Ceti.

Sea Gate full

Images: 1st, Lonely House by Per Valentin; 2nd, Sea Gate by Peter Cassidy.

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

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


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

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Wrecker

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Introductory note: This is an inside-baseball article. For a quick recap of the issue, this report is the best source. For older history, consult this link. For recent history, here’s Laura Mixon’s report, with an extensive analysis and many documented cases of abuse. I will not respond to messages on this issue and have disabled comments here. Readers can comment at Laura’s site (strictly moderated). Additional pertinent posts: Robert N. Lee, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Rachel Manija Brown, Paul Weimer, Elizabeth Bear, Sunita P, Peter Schmitt, Alis Franklin, The Daily Dot, Peter Watts, Laura Mixon’s update, my larger-context discussion (I will add these as they appear).


Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is an unusual domain. Distinctions between fans and pros are blurry, and its intrinsics attract loners, misfits, exiles and orphans. That fluidity also makes it attractive to predators who can use the domain’s tolerance to wreak havoc. Also, SFF’s self-defensive isolation from other parts of literature allows extreme pathological manifestations that would rarely survive, let alone flourish, in less parochial contexts.

About three years ago, I noticed the appearance of a shock-jock blogger mantled with the flag of social justice called Requires Hate (henceforth RH). She would sometimes say interesting things about matters that I had engaged in for a long time. So I’d occasionally comment on her blog. I also started exchanging emails with her. I was wary in our interactions – partly because her rhetoric was so extreme that I wondered if this was a put-on by someone wanting to troll the ultra-PC contingent; partly because I gradually became aware that RH was Winterfox/Pyrofennec (and another half-dozen handles) who had left a legacy of scorched earth in online communities since at least 2003: hazing, sexual and racial slurs and threats, sockpuppets, cyberstalking… with women (especially women of color and/or vulnerable) as primary targets. I also noticed that RH employed the typical grooming technique of gangs and cults for member recruitment: a mental equivalent of the Milgram experiment, in which people were pushed to deliver what they thought were ever-increasing (up to lethal) electric shocks to someone in the next room.

In one of our exchanges, RH described a story she planned to write. Such a story appeared under the moniker Benjanun Sriduangkaew (henceforth, fittingly enough, BS). This was coupled with the emergence of a treacly-ingenue persona with no prior online footprint. At that point, and once again when a BS story appeared in Clarkesworld, I recommended that she own up to the RH identity to head off any unpleasantness, including people feeling betrayed if they were blindsided about her two very different personae. It was also clear from our second exchange that BS was not her real name but yet another handle. BS/RH didn’t like my advice and, realizing I wouldn’t become one of her acolytes, eventually stopped interacting with me.

Portions of SFF swooned over BS’s veritable gush of stories, in which she used the edgiest identity-politics toolkit swathed in ethereal-purplish prose. She was nominated for awards (as RH had been, by a different SFF demographic slice) and hailed as the brightest new nova in SFF. People started swarming around her, clamoring to be part of the charmed circle. That included people who had been savaged by the RH persona, which was now mothballed. Initially I decided to say nothing, though it weighed on me. I knew nobody would believe me: they’d ascribe it to jealousy, pettiness and worse. I also knew that such a disclosure would tear the progressives in SFF apart (as it has). I kept hoping that perhaps all this adulation would assuage her raging need for attention. More importantly, I was focused on my own project: The Other Half of the Sky, an anthology of original space opera stories with women protagonists that went on to win unprecedented accolades of its own.

Then I started getting odd reactions from an increasing number of people: whispers, insults, cold shoulders, abrupt unfriendings. Some of this came from writers whom I had invited to my anthology and paid pro rates, such as Alex Dally MacFarlane (a staunch RH lieutenant, who now had some clout as the editor of a Prime Books reprint anthology and a Tor columnist). Readercon, the only gathering my health allows me to attend without strain, notified me in 2013 they had “received complaints” about my panel proposal. MacFarlane, who had originally clamored to join my panel, attempted to disrupt it. My request for a reading slot for my brand-new anthology was denied and in 2014 I was not invited to Readercon.

As more people whom I knew befriended the BS persona, I told Nick Mamatas, who had become a buddy of sorts. A few months ago, I also told three others I deemed vulnerable, all in strict confidence. One of them was enticed into breaking my confidence. She informed me that BS “was upset” and “asked what she’d ever done to you that you’d say that about her” (i.e. that she was RH). The signs were clear that BS/RH had targeted me for isolation and expulsion from the SFF community: having proved unherdable, I was a potentially dangerous loose end.

I knew that it was a matter of time before BS/RH moved to sweep the domain clear of competition – talented young progressive women authors, judging from her past rounds. When Tricia Sullivan’s “Toxicity and me” post appeared, I instantly recognized the pattern and the two principals involved, even though she didn’t use names: BS/RH and MacFarlane. Some of those they had co-opted broke ranks and confirmed what I knew or had already surmised: that BS is yet another handle; and of the active plans of BS/RH and her chief apostles to eliminate perceived obstacles (me among them) by smear and blackballing campaigns.

When I told the story to Nick Mamatas, he mentioned that BS/RH had indeed sent him a note about me “spreading unfounded rumors” and “having it in for her”; I suspect she sent similar notes to all her editors and publishers as a pre-emptive strike. Nick also let me know that bad people can be good writers, whereas BS/RH’s adversaries were jealous “has-beens”. He didn’t answer when I asked if he deemed me disposable as well. Soon afterwards, he publicly stated that BS was RH, arguing that this would stop her predation while sparing her career. Many of the people who knew but did not see fit to tell me I had been targeted for slaughter have been beneficiaries of my personal and/or professional support.

Although it was obvious at that point that the BS=RH equation had been an open secret, Nick’s airy prediction that confirmation of this fact would stop her shenanigans proved spectacularly wrong. BS/RH rallied her supporters with the perennial cries of the cornered sociopath: jealous rivals were “harassing” a gifted, vulnerable young writer; a stalker had located her due to the “outing”, etc. The defenses of the BS/RH paladins were that she was young (although she had been doing this for more than ten years) and brilliant (a.k.a. the Polanski defense); that the hate rhetoric was just flourishes – or sophisticated satire (a particularly corrosive type of special pleading); and that white men who did the same were not punished (patently untrue – see Beale’s SFWA expulsion). People who came forward to tell their stories of being abused by BS/RH in the past (most anonymously, for fear of further reprisals and trauma) were mocked or shouted down by her defenders.

The actions of BS/RH go far past the easy excuse of personality conflicts and cannot in any way be construed as the behavior of a rational professional acquainted with even rudimentary ethics. Furthermore, BS/RH repeats the same pattern in every group she enters and has never shown any substantive remorse. On the contrary, her arsons and auto-da-fés have become increasingly ambitious – and better rewarded.

As someone who headed a research lab for twenty years and who hired, evaluated, trained and mentored scads of people, this is my assessment: BS/RH is a long-term repeat abuser. Her efforts to erase or obfuscate evidence have been systematic and are ongoing. The two last-ditch Hugo-Schwyzer-style apologies posted on the RH and BS blogs and tailored to each persona’s audience (I won’t link, my stomach is cast-iron but not neutronium) are simply feints to buy time and cover until allies and colleagues have invested too heavily in the BS construct to back out. Those who insist BS/RH has reformed should read the tale of the scorpion and the frog. In her past iterations, she ravaged communities and treated people like chew-toys. That’s horrible enough in itself. However, SFF is also a professional concern. So beyond emotional damage, we’re also looking at concrete effects on careers and reputations, especially of the less established. We’re looking at crude but serious attempts to disparage contemporaries’ enterprises, eliminate competition and suppress trade.

To those who are still trying to gaslight, discredit and silence BS/RH’s victims, I can only say, as Joseph Welch did: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

To those who were led into the trap of complicity, I say: come back to us. We all make errors of judgment. Humans are tribal, we want to be liked and to associate with success.

To those who were targeted and hurt, I say: you are not alone. Others know about the bullying and lies that almost broke you.

To those who stood in front of this wrecker, despite fear and real consequences, I say: you are the pillars who hold up the world.

I have no illusions about the repercussions of the BS/RH affair on me, personally or professionally. However, any human group that wants to remain human cannot allow people to be treated as prey for sport and profit – or because some people are deemed more important than others.

Repairing the fabric of the world is neither glamorous nor rewarding. It’s ceaseless toil – not jargon-laden purer-than-thou trumpetings.

We have work to do.

Athena Andreadis, PhD

Athena Andreadis Sitting smAndreadis Brief Bio

Athena Andreadis was born in Greece to parents who were part of the WWII resistance, spent her adolescence under the military junta and was lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She spent her adult life doing basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She has also given many invited talks (that included NASA venues and the 100-Year Starship Symposium) on the biological and cultural issues of space/planetary exploration. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the widely acclaimed feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013, Candlemark and Gleam). Her work can be found in Scientific American, Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

Authentic Ethnics

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Fiennes Hades
Stratospheric talent and charisma – but is he authentic?!

In the latest iteration of multiculturalism as salad rather than melting pot, there has been constant discussion in social media about authenticity and representation. A recurring topic is whether roles should be assigned to actors who match the race (however defined) and even ethnicity of the characters.

Several threads make up this tangled knot: the poor representation and lack of opportunities for non-defaults in media and just about everywhere else; the industry’s stated need for face recognition (and hence bankability) of the principals; the conspicuous whitewashing of several signature works upon translation to the screen, Le Guin’s Earthsea among them; the hooha over whether there can be gender slippage in roles that “should be” cast in stone (Helen Mirren as Prospero in The Tempest); the stereotyping and category-lumping by physical appearance (tall and fair – Elf; short and dark – Orc or Southron; tall and dark – Uruk Hai; and poor Cliff Curtis keeps getting cast as an Arab or Latin American despite his long Maori lineage).

Over this hovers the flammable balloon of xenophobia which grows heavy during times of economic dislocations and tends to burst in bouts of “cleansing” whether that comes via restrictive immigration policies or outright slaughter. A “swarthy” woman with a petrified legacy accent myself, often pigeonholed on sight as Indian, Latin American or Arab except for the swagger, I’ve had customs and immigration employees yell “Speaka English? Huh?” an inch from my face. My name has been mangled throughout my adult life, I’ve suffered through “interpretations” of my mythology and history that would make cavemen cringe, and I strongly suspect that my grant, book and story proposals might have met different fates if I had submitted them under a more generic (or, ironically, more exotic) pseudonym.

At the same time, as I wrote in Caesars and Caesar Salads, the demand for total verisimilitude can be as parochial as its opposite. For one, race definitions vary significantly by culture and the current tendency of justice warriors to call anyone who’s not Anglo and blond “a person of color” hovers perilously close to definitions of traditional bigots. Also, some people identify with more than a single demographic slice, although most people of widely separate ancestries tend to choose one of their strands and cleave to it tenaciously. Finally, actors are meant to pretend to be someone else by definition. So it should be possible, with sufficient talent and training, to embody a persona beyond the narrow box of completely shared experience (ditto for writing, hobbled by the “Write what you know!” Hack101 exhortation).

Jackman Descendant
Isídhoros Bélas would be proud of his great-grandson.

Which brings us to the latest complaint during this tense moment in US history when the culture wars are raging with no resolution in sight – namely, that Welsh-born Catherine Zeta-Jones has been chosen to play the Colombian narcotrafficanta pioneer Griselda Blanco. Zeta-Jones has the right allure and fame, plus she already played an equivalent role in Traffic. But, say the purists, she’s not Latina. And it’s an undisputable fact that there are plenty of Latina thespians, famous ones at that, who could embody Blanco.

At that point, it occurred to me that I haven’t yet seen a single film or TV show about Greece or Greeks (whether myth or history, ancient or contemporary) produced outside Greece that uses even secondaries who are Greek – let alone protagonists. However, I haven’t heard a single voice raised in protest over Sam Worthington (groan) as Perséus, Brad Pitt as Ahilléus, Gerard Butler as Leonídhas, Colin Farrell as Aléxandhros… though I can live with Angelina Jolie as Olympiás and Ralph Fiennes as Ploúton.

Some will argue that, well, Greeks are white. Except of course when we’re not, to fit a different agenda (an SFF darling recently stated on Twitter that “Plato was not white”, making me wonder if he’ll say the same when the topic of The Suffocating Influence of Dead White Males comes up). Or maybe our privilege is that we, too, are Europeans… except when we’re not (the Euro Northerners, whether in 1941 or 2008, seem to agree on this). Or that we, too, have had a colonial past… except ours, such as it was, ended way before that of the Mughals, Ottomans and Russians, let alone the more customarily excoriated oppressors. Or that the “Greco-Roman” legacy is one of the foundations of Western civilization… except that what Western Europeans call the “Greco” part of this chimera is as authentic as Burton’s retelling of Shahrazad’s stories.

So as a tiny corrective, I did a recasting of Troy with Greek or Greek-descent actors. While checking out faces that could launch or stop a thousand ships, I discovered that Hugh Jackman, of Wolverine fame and nova-bright charisma, has enough Greek in him to be a card-carrying enrollee with nary a hitch (1/8, for those burning to know). The paternal side of his family once bore the surname Bélas. I was sorely tempted to cast him as Éctor, but decided on less-lionized faces. So below is my “authentic” Troy cast, with the non-diaspora names phonetically as close to correct as I can get them (click once or twice to embiggen accordingly). All are well-known in my country but, like its real mythology, history and literature, unknown beyond it except for Cliff-note versions.

Troy Cast

Related Articles:

And Ain’t I a Human?
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!
Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry
Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages
The House of Many Doors (or: At the Caucasus, Hang a Right!)
The Multi-Chambered Nautilus
Caesars and Caesar Salads
Hidden Histories or: Yes, Virginia, Romioi Are Eastern European (And More Than That)

Images: 1st, Ralph Fiennes as Hades (Ploúton) in Clash of the Titans; 2nd, Hugh Jackman; 3rd, my idiosyncratic (and tribal) recasting of Troy.

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

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 (Warrior) Women Men Don’t See

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.” – Cheyenne saying

Cretan AntartissesWhen asked who the Greek god of war was, most people will answer “Ares” but that’s incorrect. The Hellenes had two gods of war and made a distinction between what type of conflict each oversaw. For wars of conquest in which armies invaded someone else’s home territory, the deity in charge was indeed Ares. For wars of defense, the presiding presence was Athena (as always in those palimpsest myths, the rule’s not absolute: in the Iliad, Athena’s intense liking of Odysseus overrode her formal duties).

This is directly relevant to the endless natterings in SFF about whether it’s problematic to prominently feature women warriors, especially in the self-labeled “realistic” grittygrotty mode encouraged by the success of George Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire. One standard defense to this question is to quote names of warrior queens (Boudicca of the Iceni, the Truong sisters, Lakshmi Bai, Laskarina Bouboulina, Nzinga Mbandi, Jeanne d’ Arc), mention women who fought disguised as men and women warrior groups across eras. Frankly, the issue is irrelevant to whether women warriors existed in history and should also be irrelevant to a genre that freely postulates magic and mythical beasts.

What’s relevant is the fundamental truth that underlies the Athena/Ares split: women have fought in equal numbers to men in the defense of home territory. That’s why resistance movements always have a healthy percentage of women all the way up the ranks, including executive officers. In fact, if someone looks at the names I listed in the previous paragraph their uniting attribute is that they were all home defenders.

Many attempt to argue that the term “warrior” implies special training, implements, ethos, etc. However, Toussaint l’ Ouverture is universally deemed a warrior regardless of his relevant formal credentials. The definition of warrior includes one non-negotiable item: bravery in fighting. Women can be summarily dismissed from this equation only if one limits the definition of “warrior” to an elite caste whose entire vocation and raison d’ être is war. But most women – and, incidentally, most men – who fought in resistance movements or defensive wars against invaders and occupiers were not professionals. They were teachers, doctors, craftspeople, factory workers, farmers. Those who were still standing when the fight ended went back to their real occupations with scars and stories handed down the years.

Mountain AntartissesPeople who become warriors because they must usually lack the aura of the strutters arraigned in the finery of moran and samurai, Jedi and Rohirrim. At the same time, neither do they present society with the intransingent problems of reintegration, polarization, power differentials. And societies that are not fatally fixated on machismo recognize such bravery. In my own culture, the last stand of Dhéspo is as celebrated as that of Leonídhas. The term of my tongue for someone truly brave, pallikári, is neuter and used for everyone whose behavior fits the definition.

Both my parents were such fighters. It’s well past time for SFF to absorb the fact that bravery is a universal not particularly high in the Maslow scale nor confined to a chosen few.

Related articles:

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

A Plague on Both Your Houses

“As Weak as Women’s Magic”

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

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Caesars and Caesar Salads

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

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

Images: Adártisses (women guerillas) in WWII Hellás. Top, Cretan grandmother and granddaughter; bottom, Mountain Fighters, from the Rizospástis archive.