What I Read In May

UntitledKen Liu (ed.) Invisible Planets Hungry as I am for more SF from China, and with birthday requests on the table, Mrs Gee ordered me this collection of contemporary Chinese SF, edited and translated by Ken Liu. Thirteen stories, all by authors of whom news had yet to reach mes oreilles. All except, of course, Cixin Liu, author of the extraordinarily successful Three-Body Problem trilogy (reviewed here and here). Liu (sensu Cixin) is an author of two of the stories here, and one of the three essays on Chinese SF, its genesis and current reach, that end the book. The question one wishes to ask — indeed, it is asked in this book — is just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? what is it that makes Chinese SF so distinctive, so Chinese? It’s a rather hard question to answer. For a start, the selection of stories here ranges from the gritty, grubby cyberpunk of Chen Qiufan to the fantasy of Xia Jia and Cheng Jingbo and the 1984-style dystopia of Ma Boyong. My favourite was Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, reminiscent in its tone and subject of Golden-Age stories by the likes of Heinlein or Asimov, but with its own distinctive flavour. From this, the only answer seems trite: Chinese SF is like any other SF, except that it is written from a perspective that’s, well, Chinese. I suspect, though, that such differences as there are might not be readily appreciable to western audiences. The stories are, after all, presented in translation, and selected by an editor who is quite candid, in his introduction, that some stories didn’t make the cut because their concerns were so rooted in Chinese cultural and political preoccupations that they couldn’t be presented without many burdensome footnotes. So it could be that what we see here as distinctively Chinese SF is as authentically Chinese as the food served in most so-called Chinese restaurants in England. That is, selected for its appeal to western palates rather than being truly representative. To appreciate Chinese SF, then — to truly appreciate it — one has, I suspect, to be not only a fluent reader of Chinese, but conversant with every tic and nuance of a culture thousands of years old which, in the past century or so, has undergone a series of truly seismic changes. Like Borges’ character Pierre Menard, who wished to read Don Quixote as it was meant to be read, one would. have to become, effectively, Cervantes. These stories brought home to me, rather starkly, that writing is more than print on a page, but only comes alive in the mind of the reader. And each reader, each one lonely in their lighthouse steeple, will take different things away from the same stories. Not to be discouraged, though, I shall be moving on to the companion birthday present — Broken Stars, a follow-up anthology of more Chinese SF stories, also edited by Ken Liu. I am looking forward to that.

Screenshot 2024-05-06 at 20.32.29Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Ruin BEWARE There are spiders spoilers spiders octopods octopuses cephalopods. This is the sequel to Children of Time, reviewed last month. In that novel, human arkship Gilgamesh comes into contact with a planet, Kern’s World, which, due to sabotage (and an honest mistake) during the terraforming process, became home to a species of sentient spider. Here, a different terraforming team, on the spaceship Aegean, meets a  system with two planets. The first, Damascus, a barren water world, is terraformed and successfully colonised by sentient octopuses bred by the crew. The second, Nod, contains the first truly alien life ever encountered by humans, though at first it seems of a very lowly kind. The human expedition, though, becomes host to a kind of sentient plague that has brooded on the planet for aeons, waiting for just this moment. Centuries later, a combined human-spider expedition from Kern’s world that reaches the Nod-Damascus system has to grapple with not only the plague but the enraged cephalopods fearful that the new humans have come to unleash the plague upon them. But just as humans and spiders have achieved some level of mutual understanding, they both have to learn an unfathomable new language, the protean and emotive communications of the octopuses. This novel is a lot of fun, though with the added octopuses adds a layer of complexity that can sometimes drag on an already complex plot. It doesn’t have the wonderful sense of development that the first book has — perhaps because Tchaikovsky has already demonstrated his fluency, his ability to get inside the minds of other species, riffing entertainingly on philosopher Nagel’s question of what it must like to be a bat.

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Memory Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. But I digress. This is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Children of Time (reviewed last month) and Children of Ruin (above). By this time in the time-stream, the humans, the spiders from Kern’s world and the octopuses from Damascus have formed a single, post-scarcity civilisation, glued together by the (now tamed) sentient plague from Nod. Consciousness can be uploaded into multiple lab-grown bodies, and people of one species can present themselves as individuals of another. Death has been abolished. An expedition from this multipartite civilisation reaches Imir, one of the worlds targeted for terraforming by the ‘ancients’ before the Old Earth was ravaged by war. Imir hosts a colony of post-war humans who had arrived on the arkship Enkidu. Unfortunately, the terraformers had left Imir before the job had hardly started, so the colonists are forced to live an increasingly desperate, hardscrabble existence. The expedition of protean squidspiderpeople decides not to confront the colonists directly, but infiltrate their way into their society. When they do, it becomes apparent that All Is Not Right. People keep popping up in unexpected places and times, in particular Heorest Holt — erstwhile captain of the Enkidu and First Founder — and his grand-daughter Liff. Something very strange is going on. This wouldn’t be a Children of Earth novel without another intelligent species, and in Children of Memory it is a kind of raven. The ravens come from another hardly-terraformed planet and have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. The ravens tend to come in male-female pairs, and the ones we meet here are Gothi and Gethli, who, when they work together, are expert problem-solvers. At first, Gothi and Gethli seem to be comic relief, but as the book goes on you realise that they are central to the plot, and their commentary on the action, insightful, and often funny (there are references to the Dead Parrot Sketch), holds the key to the major theme of the book. Where Children of Ruin was all about communication, Children of Memory is all  about the shifting nature of sentience, one’s sense of self, and how this is tied in with memory (the clue is in the title). Gothi and Gethli conclude that they themselves are not sentient, and, therefore, nothing else can be. What a burden it would be, one of them says, if you had to think all the time. I smiled at this, as the evanescence of sentience was the punchline in a book of mine, The Accidental Species. In my view, most people go happily throughout life without being sentient. And that’s okay, because too much sentience is pathological, seen only in young people whose prefrontal cortices are wiring up, or those with some forms of mental illness. There are more clues in the names — Tchaikovsky has so much fun with names. His spiders generally have Shakespearean names — Portia, Bianca, Viola — and there is always an octopus called Paul. Some might remember an octopus of that name renowned for seemingly being able to predict the result of international football matches. The ravens were originally nurtured by a human called Renee Pepper, a name that seems to me suspiciously close to Irene Pepperberg, a pioneer researcher into bird cognition. There is a strong Nordic element in the names of the colonists of Imir. The name for the planet itself comes from Norse mythology, and Gothi and Gethli are obvious re-castings of Odin’s ravens Huginn (‘Thought’) and Muninn (‘Memory’). The arkships have names that come from one of the earliest known myths, the Gilgamesh story, and there are parallels between events in that story and the fates of the arkships Gilgamesh and Enkidu, if one cares to look. Children of Memory is a deep, thoughtful book, and does occasionally tie itself in knots (I haven’t even mentioned the sub-plots that discuss whether our Universe might be a simulation) but carried (at least for me) a powerful emotional impact. The trilogy as a whole is one of those reading experiences  that inspires thought, and will remain long in the memory.

UntitledTom Chivers: Everything is Predictable Two backpackers are lost. Wandering along a country lane, they meet a farmer idly leaning on a gate, chewing a grass stalk. ‘Please Sir’, asks one of the hapless pair, ‘How do we get to Cromer?’ ‘Well’, says the farmer, thoughtfully, ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. But I digress. Many years ago when the world was young I penned a polemic that attracted many fruitbrickbats. Among the many things that attracted the ire of the hip and fashionable was the assertion that, in science, no matter how many fancy schmancy statistics you use, you’ll always end up with an estimate of probability that something or another is true, and after that you’re on your own. I was accused of being something called a ‘frequentist’, and that was among the more polite epithets. I have since learned that there is a better way of doing statistics, and that relies on something called Bayes’ Theorem, and the people who do statistics that way are called Bayesians. To this day I have never really understood Bayes’ Theorem, and have, frankly, been deterred from learning by the fanatical adherence to their creed of its devotees (fanaticism of any kind being something of a turn-off). Imagine my delight when my good friend Mr. B. C. of Swindon reviewed the book currently under discussion — a guide to Bayes’ theorem and an explanation of what the fuss was all about. Buoyed up by his stellar review I bought the book, imagining that the skies would clear, the scales would fall from my eyes, I would experience a Damascene Conversion, and then run naked through the streets of Cromer shouting ‘Eureka’. (Nobody would mind. They are used to such things in Cromer). Well, it wasn’t quite like that. I did learn a lot, but I am still rather confused. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected this to be a how-to book, with problems and worked examples (such books do exist). It’s more of a history of a concept. However, as Chivers helpfully repeats throughout the book, frequentist statistics (I do hate these ‘-ists’ and ‘-isms’, I prefer to think of it as ‘the statistics I was taught’) says that you set up a hypothesis, gather some data, and ask ‘how likely are we to see these data, given the hypothesis I’ve set up?’ Bayesian statistics starts with the data, and ask which hypothesis it best supports. The crucial difference between the two is that Bayesian statistics starts with what’s called a ‘prior’ — that is, an idea based on what you already know,  against which you test your data, and if the mismatch is unacceptably large, you add the new data into the pot and stir it round again, converging on a solution. If, for example, you are trying to work out the probability that a hypothesis might be true, there is no need to go in blindly. Instead, you can arm yourself with already established knowledge. So my hapless pair trying to get to Cromer mightn’t have to ask the farmer at all if they have a map, a GPS, or have just seen a sign saying ‘CROMER 2 MILES’. In a way, Bayesian statistics is the application of common sense. It is essential in things like drug trials, as Chivers explains. It has revolutionised work in evolutionary biology, my main concern in my day job (by day I’m with the Submerged Log Company), particularly the computation of evolutionary trees. Rather than put the genomes or observed traits of a whole load of fish and fowl into a computer and have to decide between the zillions of possible solutions that emerge, you can start by saying that you know from copious previous evidence that fish aren’t fowl and whales are not insects that live on bananas, therefore discarding a lot of no-hoper solutions and can home in more quickly on the most plausible evolutionary tree. Chivers doesn’t say anything about evolutionary trees, though he does discuss the history of Bayes and of statistics as a whole (very interesting) and bangs on at some length about how the brain is a Bayesian machine and that Bayes, like Love, is All Around (rather tedious). Although he discusses the enormous controversies that Bayesian statistics stokes, he doesn’t really explain (to my satisfaction, but then I have a large posterior) why the fury is so, well, furious. So I am not sure I really learned a great deal more about Bayesian statistics than I knew before, and I certainly can’t carry in my head (yet) a succinct explanation of why it’s better than good old-fashioned statistics, for all that he repeats the mantra throughout. It’s a diverting book, but perhaps I’ll have to get one of those how-to guides with problems to work through and answers at the back of the book. This book is fun, for certain definitions of ‘fun’, but as the farmer said, I wouldn’t start from here.

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: The Doors of Eden BEWARE there are spoilers monsters spoilers gigantic sentient space-faring trilobites! WHEEE!!! Mal and Lee are a couple of misfits whose shared passions are cryptozoology and each other. Hiking on Bodmin Moor in search of monsters, they encounter a ring of standing stones and find themselves in another world. So far, so Outlander. There follows an overstuffed sofa farrago adventure that involves speculative palaeontology, dimension-hopping Neanderthals, dinosaur bird-people, M.I.5, sentient ice minds, the inner workings of the City of London, warlike rat-weasels (in airships — gotta have airships), a very sweary transsexual super-genius, and even a James-Bond-style supervillain. This is a rich mixture that’s rather too intense for my fevered brain to cope with. There are too many times when some character asks where they are, or what’s going on, only for their interlocutor to respond with something gnomic. And far, far more F-bombs than necessary. Enjoyable — but exhausting.

UntitledBilly Connolly: Rambling Man Only two comedians have made me laugh to a state of helplessness. One was Jo Brand, and it was after she said this: ‘The underwear you want people to see is black. And the size of an atom. The underwear you don’t want people to see is grey … and the size of Buckinghamshire’. Okay, I guess it’s the way you tell it. I can’t remember precisely what it was that Billy Connolly said to make me laugh so hard I almost krupled my blutzon, but after the high-octane SF of Adrian Tchaikovsky I needed something a bit lighter for my daily walks. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I enjoyed reading consuming listening to this memoir through my ear holes, narrated by the man himself. The Big Yin is now in his eighties and not quite as furiously frenetic as he once was, but his memoirs of his travels from the tropics to the arctic are, if not eye-wateringly hilarious, then never less than amusing, and sometimes moving. After that I downloaded one of his live shows to listen to, and it was great fun, but I now realise that a lot of Connolly’s humour was visual as much as verbal. He really did throw himself around, back in the day.

UntitledPhilip Ball: How Life Works ITEM:When Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, later Second Baron Tweedmouth, set out to develop the perfect dog for retrieving the carcasses of ducks shot over water and bringing them undamaged to the hunter, he crossed a throw-rug with a garbage disposal unit water spaniel with a flat-coated retriever and the golden retriever was born. I grew up with a golden retriever, and have kept three myself. All golden retrievers love water, and nothing better than to present people, at moments of occasion or arousal, with a plush toy or item of soft furnishing held gently in the mouth. And yet none of these dogs was trained to the gun, with ducks. The dogs just do it spontaneously. But nowhere, I suspect, in the genome of the golden retriever is a gene that encodes this behaviour. It must be somewhere, in the neural wiring of the brain,  but that’s not encoded in the genome either. At some level, the tendency of retrievers to retrieve is an emergent property of all the genes, cells, tissues and organs that make up the dog, when they are all put together and sent off into the field, tails wagging.

ITEM: The Gees have been enjoying a reality TV show called Race Across The World in which teams of couples have to get from a point A to a point B, thousands of kilometres and several countries apart, entirely by surface transport, with a budget equivalent to the air fare, and without smartphones or credit or debit cards. In the latest series, twenty-something brother-and-sister Betty and James Mukherjee got most of the way through when Betty admitted to her brother (and therefore the public) that she had been diagnosed with a condition called Mayer Rokitansky Küster Hauser syndrome (MRKH), in which she was born without a uterus, and also one of her kidneys. MRKH is a congenital defect that results from the imperfect formation of the the tubular, embryonic structure from which forms parts of the urogenital system. This structure forms when two sheets of mesoderm (another embryonic tissue) meet and fuse in two parallel strands on either side of the developing body. There is no known cause for MRKH. Searches for mutant genes connected with the condition that are found in common in all MRKH cases have been in vain. And that’s to be expected: MRKH is the result of tissue movements — actions of whole sheets of cells — that might be contingent on mechanical and environmental factors as much as genes. What doesn’t excite comment, as perhaps it should, is that Betty and other MRKH patients are otherwise perfectly normal, intelligent and fully functional human beings, able to communicate their state and their emotional response to it, despite the absence of key internal organs. If development were under total genetic control, with each step in the process dependent on the successful completion of the one before, people with MRKH, or any other developmental quirk, would not be born. But because development is rather loose, and tolerates a degree of variation as it goes on, people are nonetheless born and live their lives with a variety of syndromes. As I have argued in a book called Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome, such variation is the price we pay so any of us can be born at all.

ITEM: When Offspring#1 had aspirations to study medicine, and, ultimately, surgery [SPOILER: he got better] he wondered how it was that people could wander around full of thoughts and dreams and hopes and motivations and aspirations but inside they looked like wet lasagne. Where did all those thoughts, dreams, hopes and so on and so forth come from? Where, in that mass of goo and squish, is the person who prefers (say) cats to dogs; is rather good at maths despite their own expectations; is a passionate player of Dungeons and Dragons; will eat a whole packet of liquorice allsorts at one sitting; and supports Norwich City FC?  As with the tendency of retrievers to retrieve, all are emergent properties, There are no genes that encode a tendency to support Norwich City FC as opposed to, say Ipswich Town FC Accrington Stanley. But this raises another issue. Retrieving in dogs, however it is determined, is inherent. Supporting one football team or another, in contrast, demands a degree of choice. It requires something called agency.

Enter science writer Philip Ball with this magisterial account of the workings of genes, cells and bodies. It is, first of all, an antidote to the gene-centric view of evolution, in which genes are ‘libraries’ or ‘blueprints’ or ‘programs’ for creating a body out of nothing, and all else is commentary. It turns out that genes are rather less, or more, or. well, something or other, it’s actually really hard to explain, and that’s because it’s almost impossible to describe what goes on at the scale of atoms and molecules without recourse to metaphor. It’s often been a cause of some wonder to me how molecules in cells can do what they do when they are packed in so tightly, and all surrounded by water that cannot possibly behave as a bulk fluid. How can molecules meet and interact in the way they seem to do in all those neat diagrams seen in textbooks and (I have to say) scientific papers, when the viscosity regime must be rather like treacle? Such misgivings have similarly long preoccupied Ball, who is trained in physics and chemistry rather than biology, and can appreciate problems that biologists might miss. He  puts it very well when he says that the insides of cells are less like factory floors than dance floors, crowded with excited dancers packed in together and jiggling about and unable to communicate with one another because of all the noise. In such conditions, how can JAK kinase possibly get to JIL kinase across such a crowded room, in order to — well, let’s just think of something, oh, I don’t know, Release Calcium from Intracellular Stores? The intracellular environment is noisy, and very far from favouring the kind of neat networks and diagrams in which abbreviations cleanly interact with other abbreviations. Rather, says Ball, cells make a virtue of the noise and disorder. Molecular interactions are much less precise, much more fleeting, than one might imagine, and tolerate a degree of slop that no engineer would possibly countenance. Because of that disorder, the interactions between the various levels in the rough hierarchy of scales from genes to proteins to cells to tissues to organs to organisms are not always clear. But order emerges from the melee, nonetheless.

If that’s all there was to How Life Works, it would be a good book. What makes it a great book is that Ball unflinchingly tackles the really big question — what is the nature of life? What makes a living thing alive? What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? What is the nature of that vis essentialis,  pneuma, je ne sais quoi, that animates a bag full of wet lasagne? It’s here that Ball gets into challenging and exciting territory. Remember, some few paragraphs ago, I talked about agency? Ball suggests that organisms are living because they make active choices. We can choose whether or not to eat a third bagel (you’ve had four, actually, but who’s counting?). A golden retriever can choose, and often does, whether or not to chase that thrown ball.  A living bacterium can sense the presence of nutrients, and actively move towards them. A dead one cannot. At the most basic level, a cell membrane can admit the passage of some ions, but not others, even against a concentration gradient — Maxwell’s Demon, made (in some sense) real. In the deepest philosophical sense, life is that which gives an assembly of atoms meaning. Given the difficulties of describing the biochemical and cellular processes of life without recourse to metaphor, some will find this hard to take. There is also the issue (which Ball deftly navigates) in which biologists are afraid to use terms such as ‘agency’ and ‘purpose’ for fear of invoking teleological or panglossian explanations, or, worse, welcoming a role for divine intervention. No such things are necessary — yet living things are definitely alive, and conventional prescriptions for the properties of life that we are taught in school (that it reproduces, grows, excretes, blah blah blah) fail to satisfy, and, being that this is biology, are plagued with viruses exceptions.

As I was reading How Life Works, I was reminded of Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 book What Is Life? subtitled The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, in which the famous physicist attempted to tackle the essential problem of biology. What Is Life? was part of a movement in which physicists became enamoured of biology and, having done so, boosted it into the molecular age (Francis Crick was one such). Not long after I had that thought, Ball obligingly discussed What Is Life?, its deficiencies, successes and influence. Ball, like Schrödinger, is also a physicist, and can therefore take a more dispassionate view of biology than those who labour in the trenches. How Life Works is What Is Life? for the 21st century, and, because we know so much more than people did in Schrödinger’s time, is more successful (that the title doesn’t end in a question mark is an Important Clue). How Life Works should be required reading for anyone thinking of taking a degree in biology, and if it doesn’t get at least shortlisted for the next Royal Society Science Book Prize, I shall have been a giraffe on a unicycle [DISCLAIMER: Ball is a personal friend and former colleague — we worked together, back in the day, at the Submerged Log Company — though my copy was given to me as a birthday present by Mrs Gee, who paid real money].

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
This entry was posted in Writing & Reading. Bookmark the permalink.