Category Archives: Book Review – Fiction

What are the trends in ecology and evolution for 2018?

The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution does an annual “Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity”. I can only see the abstract so here is the one sentence describing the trends:

The issues highlighted span a wide range of fields and include thiamine deficiency in wild animals, the geographic expansion of chronic wasting disease, genetic control of invasive mammal populations and the effect of culturomics on conservation science, policy and action.

I was new to the term culturomics, and thought it might have something to do with synthesizing new compounds in giant vats of yogurt. But no, according to Wikipedia it is not that kind of culture, but relates to search and synthesis algorithms for scientific articles, which does indeed seem to be a recurring theme on this blog lately.

Culturomics is a form of computational lexicology that studies human behavior and cultural trends through the quantitative analysis of digitized texts.[1][2] Researchers data mine large digital archives to investigate cultural phenomena reflected in language and word usage.[3] The term is an American neologism first described in a 2010 Science article called Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, co-authored by Harvard researchers Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden.[4]

At that point, I just needed to figure out what a neologism was, so I looked it up in Webster’s 1913 which some people say is the most artfully written dictionary:

Ne*ol”o*gism (?), n. [Cf. F. néologisme.]

1. The introduction of new words, or the use of old words in a new sense. Mrs. Browning.

2. A new word, phrase, or expression.

3. A new doctrine; specifically, rationalism.

Mrs. Browning? Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a long poem called Aurora Leigh which contains the word. And no, I wouldn’t have learned that if I had looked up neologism in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

I learnt my complement of classic French
(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism,)
And German also, since she liked a range
Of liberal education,–tongues, not books.
I learnt a little algebra, a little
Of the mathematics,–brushed with extreme flounce
The circle of the sciences, because
She misliked women who are frivolous.

It goes on like that. Forever.

Oh okay, one more, here is the definition of flounce in Webster’s 1913:

Flounce, v. t. To deck with a flounce or flounces; as, to flounce a petticoat or a frock.

Flounce, n. [Cf. G. flausflausch, a tuft of wool or hair; akin to vliess, E.fleece; or perh. corrupted fr. rounce.] An ornamental appendage to the skirt of a woman’s dress, consisting of a strip gathered and sewed on by its upper edge around the skirt, and left hanging.

Flounce (?), v. i. [imp. & p. p.Flounced (flounst); p. pr. & vb. n.Flouncing(?).] [Cf. OSw. flunsa to immerge.] To throw the limbs and body one way and the other; to spring, turn, or twist with sudden effort or violence; to struggle, as a horse in mire; to flounder; to throw one’s self with a jerk or spasm, often as in displeasure.

To flutter and flounce will do nothing but batter and bruise us.

Barrow.

With his broad fins and forky tail he laves
The rising sirge, and flounces in the waves.

Addison.

“Sirge” I think is an old-timey spelling of “surge”. And if you look up “surge” in this dictionary, its usage is quite interesting and you want to go on. But that’s it for me.

 

more on space bacteria

Russian cosmonauts are claiming they have found bacteria on the outside of the International Space Station that have to have come from space. At least, they didn’t get on the ISS until the ISS was in space, meaning they already had to be there. Reading between the lines, that doesn’t mean the bacteria didn’t make their way from Earth to space at some point in the past, before the ISS was launched.

I wonder if harmless bacteria could go into space, mutate into something dangerous, then make their way back to Earth on a returning spacecraft. Has that story ever been done?

But The Andromeda Strain had a lame ending, as I recall.

speculative fiction on a future U.S. civil war; also, who is Adam Rothstein?

The Intercept has reviews of a few new books in which the United States breaks up.

“Tropic of Kansas” takes place in a United States, in which “whole counties depopulated by disappearing futures” have tried, with limited success, to institute “autonomy and local control of land and law.” A federal recolonization, equally unsuccessful, has left pockets of quasi-autonomous territories contested by various for-profit revolutionaries; feral, unofficially deputized militias; and the occasional U.S. government incursion. The result is the titular space — it’s not “a specific place you could draw on a map, and Kansas wasn’t really even a part of it” — where violence is endemic. Militias confiscate guns. An insurgent is hung from a bridge, “naked and carved with a warning that looked like a corporate logo.” It is into this zone that Sig, a young man orphaned by the militarized police state, is deported by self-amused Mounties…

“AMERICAN WAR,” SIMILARLY composed before Trump’s America was imminent, sees the Second American Civil War kick off in 2074 over the South’s refusal to adhere to the Sustainable Future Act, which outlaws the use of fossil fuels. Following the molding of Southern resistance fighter Sarat Chestnut, “American War” reads less Cassandra than “Tropic.” Instead, El Akkad recreates in the U.S. the societal fracturing it has inaugurated in the Middle East. Children are radicalized by the loss of home, refugee internment, and massacre…

The Neo-Reactionary movement — think the theory bro version of the “alt-right” — sees an endgame in “Patchwork,” which was dreamed up by Mencius Moldbug, the pen name Curtis Yarvin, who reportedly watched election results at the home of sometime Donald Trump adviser Peter Thiel. “Patchwork” consists of a neo-feudal “global spiderweb of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of sovereign and independent mini-countries, each governed by its own joint-stock corporation without regard to the residents’ opinions.”

It also mentions two older books – Ecotopia, which I have read, and The Turner Diaries, which I do not plan to read. Finally, it mentions Adam Rothstein’s “Cascadian Drone Ballads”, about which I am confused whether they are stories, songs, both, or neither, and where and how one would get them. Adam Rothstein appears to be an interesting character, some kind of cross between an author and artist who just does his own thing. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there does not appear to be a Wikipedia page about him.

It’s hard for me to imagine an actual war between the states. I can imagine a scenario where a federal government starved of tax revenue and regulatory power gradually lets states drift off in their own directions until it is unclear whether they have a coherent foreign policy, and perhaps start checking papers at the border. Ironically, rather than the EU gradually turning into something like the United States as Churchill envisioned, this would mean the U.S. gradually turning into something like the EU (while the EU might be drifting back into something more like its 19th century predecessor.)

By the way, what’s a “theory bro”? Are those the dudes who sit around in bars talking about theories instead of sports and women?

Cloud Atlas

I just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and found it to be the best book I have read in awhile. It fits the themes of this blog, but I really don’t want to say too much more about it up front, because it employs some really interesting story telling techniques that I think are much more interesting to discover as you go along than to know about up front. So I don’t recommend reading a review or even description of the book, just read the book itself.

Change Agent

From Amazon:

On a crowded train platform, Interpol agent Kenneth Durand feels the sting of a needle—and his transformation begins…

In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform “vanity edits” on human embryos for a price. These illegal procedures augment embryos in ways that are rapidly accelerating human evolution—preying on human-trafficking victims to experiment and advance their technology.

With the worlds of genetic crime and human trafficking converging, Durand and his fellow Interpol agents discover that one figure looms behind it all: Marcus Demang Wyckes, leader of a powerful and sophisticated cartel known as the Huli jing.

But the Huli jing have identified Durand, too. After being forcibly dosed with a radical new change agent, Durand wakes from a coma weeks later to find he’s been genetically transformed into someone else—his most wanted suspect: Wyckes.

Now a fugitive, pursued through the genetic underworld by his former colleagues and the police, Durand is determined to restore his original DNA by locating the source of the mysterious—and highly valuable—change agent. But Durand hasn’t anticipated just how difficult locating his enemy will be. With the technology to genetically edit the living, Wyckes and his Huli jing could be anyone and everyone—and they have plans to undermine identity itself.

augmented reality and Rainbow’s End

This video is meant to convey a concept of what augmented reality could look like in the not-too-distant future. Which reminded me of Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel set in the not-too-distant future. In Rainbow’s End, people have wearable computing and contact lenses that allow them to project pretty much anything they want onto the world, from basic information to, yes, strange fantastic beasts. The dark side of the novel is that weapons of mass destruction have also progressed quite a bit, and various governments and groups are fighting that behind the scenes unbeknownst to most of the people and their gadgets.

interspecies chimerism, or Dr. Moreau returns

I only understand a few words of this paper in Cell, like “human”, “pig”, “embryo”, and “implantation”, but they are enough to raise both my eyebrows. I’ll quote the last paragraph of the paper rather than the abstract because it contains a little less jargon. There are some understandable, or possibly hair-raising depending on your point of view, pictures in the paper too.

Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. Wu, Jun et al. Cell, Volume 168 , Issue 3 , 473 – 486

The procedures and observations reported here on the capability of human pluripotent stem cells to integrate and differentiate in a ungulate embryo, albeit at a low level and efficiency, when optimized, may constitute a first step towards realizing the potential of interspecies blastocyst complementation with hPSCs. In particular, they may provide a better understanding of human embryogenesis, facilitate the development and implementation of humanized animal drug test platforms, as well as offer new insights on the onset and progression of human diseases in an in vivo setting. Ultimately, these observations also raise the possibility of xeno-generating transplantable human tissues and organs towards addressing the worldwide shortage of organ donors.

Of course rich people are going to have copies of all their vital organs cloned in pigs as soon as this technology is available. And some mad dictator or Bond villain on an island somewhere is going to be breeding pig people. Now speaking of madmen on islands, there was a story about a certain Dr. Moreau…but it was only a story, right?

 “Monsters manufactured!” said I. “Then you mean to tell me—”

“Yes. These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted. I have studied for years, gaining in knowledge as I go. I see you look horrified, and yet I am telling you nothing new. It all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it. It is not simply the outward form of an animal which I can change. The physiology, the chemical rhythm of the creature, may also be made to undergo an enduring modification,—of which vaccination and other methods of inoculation with living or dead matter are examples that will, no doubt, be familiar to you. A similar operation is the transfusion of blood,—with which subject, indeed, I began. These are all familiar cases. Less so, and probably far more extensive, were the operations of those mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples, show-monsters,—some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in ‘L’Homme qui Rit.’—But perhaps my meaning grows plain now. You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another; to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth; to modify the articulations of its limbs; and, indeed, to change it in its most intimate structure.

“And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically, by modern investigators until I took it up! Some of such things have been hit upon in the last resort of surgery; most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated as it were by accident,—by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends. I was the first man to take up this question armed with antiseptic surgery, and with a really scientific knowledge of the laws of growth. Yet one would imagine it must have been practised in secret before. Such creatures as the Siamese Twins—And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some at least of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity.”

“But,” said I, “these things—these animals talk!”

He said that was so, and proceeded to point out that the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much indeed of what we call moral education, he said, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. And the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx, he continued,—in the incapacity to frame delicately different sound-symbols by which thought could be sustained. In this I failed to agree with him, but with a certain incivility he declined to notice my objection. He repeated that the thing was so, and continued his account of his work.

I asked him why he had taken the human form as a model. There seemed to me then, and there still seems to me now, a strange wickedness for that choice.

He confessed that he had chosen that form by chance. “I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas and llamas into sheep. I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn more powerfully than any animal shape can.

Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance

Here is the Amazon description of a new(ish) book by Donald Worster called Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance.

The discovery of the Americas around 1500 AD was an extraordinary watershed in human experience. It gave rise to the modern period of human ecology, a phenomenon global in scope that set in motion profound changes in almost every society on earth. This new period, which saw the depletion of the lands of the New World, proved tragic for some, triumphant for others, and powerfully affecting for all.

In this work, acclaimed environmental historian Donald Worster takes a global view in his examination of the ways in which complex issues of worldwide abundance and scarcity have shaped American society and behavior over three centuries. Looking at the limits nature imposes on human ambitions, he questions whether America today is in the midst of a shift from a culture of abundance to a culture of limits-and whether American consumption has become reliant on the global South. Worster engages with key political, economic, and environmental thinkers while presenting his own interpretation of the role of capitalism and government in issues of wealth, abundance, and scarcity. Acknowledging the earth’s agency throughout human history, Shrinking the Earth offers a compelling explanation of how we have arrived where we are and a hopeful way forward on a planet that is no longer as large as it once was.

It’s interesting to think that humanity took a few thousand years to “deplete” Europe and Asia, and now we have depleted North and South America in just a few hundred years. If there were another sizable continent out there, we could probably deplete it in a few decades, and the one after that in a few years, then months, etc.

But there aren’t any more out there, unless and until we are talking about going into space. This reminds me of a couple plausible near-future science fiction series on exactly this theme: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and Coyote by Allen Steele. Both worth reading, although I found the latter a bit more entertaining.

The Windup Girl

Another book I’m reading (actually listening to) right now is the The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is biopunk, possibly my favorite genre when it is done well. I won’t spoil the plot below, but I’ll tell you some of the background on what is going on in the society about halfway through the book, so if you prefer to read it and discover this gradually, then stop reading now!

The interesting thing about this society (Southeast Asia, supposedly about 100 years in the future), is that it has very advanced scientific and technological knowledge compared to our current society, and yet it is extremely energy and resource poor compared to our current society. All food seems to be genetically engineered by a few western companies (“calorie companies”). At some point there has been a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. At the point in the book where I am now, there are hints that these companies themselves have engineered the pests and diseases that brought this about. We don’t know why – maybe as a form of competition to attack each others products, or maybe to attack non-genetically engineered organisms. Whatever the original strategy, these plagues have devastated natural ecosystems and come back to attack the company crops themselves, and also to sometimes jump to humans, so that everyone is sick and starving and the companies are trying to hunt down any surviving stashes of biodiversity.

The society is also extremely energy poor. Climate change and sea level rise have been devastating, and fossil fuels seem to be entirely gone with the exception of coal, the latter rare and used only by the government for pumping in a last-ditch effort to keep the ocean at bay. There is some methane available from digesting animal manure, again tightly controlled by the government. For mobile power, they wind “springs” using animal power, including “megadonts” which sound like reconstituted mammoths. I have a couple questions on plausibility here, neither of which detracts from the story which I am really enjoying. First, which such advanced biological technology developed over 100 years, it is surprising not to see solar power, wind power, fuel cells, or even nuclear power. In fact, there seems to be no form of electricity at all. Second, I imagine mammoths would eat a lot. Let’s say you grow food, feed the mammoths, have them wind the springs, then digest their manure to obtain methane all very efficiently. I find it hard to believe that if you took whatever you are feeding the mammoths and digested it directly, you would not obtain more energy. The exception might be if the mammoths go foraging themselves and eat something that grows naturally on land that will not grow anything else, and that particular plant is digestible by mammoths but not by methane-generating bacteria. With a very limited range of plants available, maybe this is not all that implausible in the bizarre universe of this book.