Short Story Review: “The Ghastly Bird” by Nnedi Okorafor

2 of 5 stars.

The strength of science lies in the scientific method–form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, collect data from the test, and check the conclusions. If that isn’t enough, peer review has other independent scientists check the work and cross check the methodology. Science is not just another form of faith like a godless religion, despite the implications of some unscientific skewing of the term “theory”.

Fictional scientists should act like scientists, at least somewhat.

In this tale, Zev is an ornithologist, a zoologist that studies birds. He moves to the island nation of Mauritius to teach because his favorite LIVING bird is the dodo. That’s right, he profoundly has faith that the dodo isn’t extinct. Without empirical or observational evidence, he also decides that the dodo is an intelligent animal and friendly. Due to his beliefs, his girlfriend leaves him and he hides his dodo faith from colleagues. [As well he should considering his very unscientific stance.]

One day while observing the many bird feeders he maintains on the back of his property, Zev witnesses a dodo emerge from the forest. Or does he? . . .

This tale appears in Okorafor’s anthology, Kabu Kabu by Prime Books.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Last Bringback” by John Barnes

2 of 5 stars.

Increased longevity has been a goal for mankind and science for decades, if not centuries. Unfortunately, with longevity comes the perils of old age–dementia and strokes affect a larger portion of the population along with the inevitable breakdown of the body.

This tale takes a page out of the GMO book and imagines that genetically manufactured humans, aka nubrids, are set to survive for 5-7 centuries. Individuals in their eighties and nineties look like young adults. With the neoteny–the retention of juvenile characteristics well into adulthood, or delayed maturation–comes a monotony of personalities as this nubrid generation has time to work through quirks and social issues. They also experience a blandness of emotions–no rage, nor true joy.

The first generation of nubrids closing in on the century mark overlaps with the last of the naturals showcasing the last cases of Alzheimer’s and other old-age calamities. At first, as with GMOs, there were backlashes and naturalism movements, but eventually naturalism was outlawed and the last of the hold outs were captured and sterilized . . .

Dr. Layla Palemba is one of the last one surviving naturals. Like most, she struggles with Alzheimer’s which will never infirm the predominant nubrids–she is also one of the world experts on dementia. Palemba’s parents had been vocally pro-naturalism, rallying for true emotion and less human intervention. Ironically, Dr. Palemba loathed them for it, considering the sentence of old-age to be unacceptable. At 31 and in a rage, she famously murdered them with a cleaver. And from this rage and grisly murder sprang her greatest elation, a pure joy that she still savors . . .

This elaborate and ironic set-up is fascinating and worth exploring. Working less well is the focus of the tale on Dr. Palemba’s “Bringback” procedure in which she coaxes buried and presumed lost memories from the plaques of Alzheimer’s. How and why this works remains muddled and yet commandeers the narrative.

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, which I received directly from Prime Books.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Yesterday’s Kin

Yesterday's KinYesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Foremost, this sci-fi novella is about how individuals and cultures define family and feel kinship, examining genetic family versus chosen family. Individuals can adopt a culture nearly as easily as a family can adopt an individual. The magnifying glass peers at what draws people together and what pulls them apart, with friends or even causes at times supplanting family.

Aliens have landed on Earth creating the Embassy just offshore of NYC, but remaining isolationist for months. Finally, the off-world Worlders request geneticist Marianne Jenner and UN politicians for first contact. Worlders come in peace and with bad news: Earth is facing apocalypse by cosmic pathogenic nebula. The countdown begins with 10 months.

Marianne is successful in work but dysfunctional in family. Happily widowed from her alcoholic spouse, she regrets thin relationships with her 3 adult children who in turn have tense ties to each other. Elizabeth is isolationist-conservative in her views against non-Americans and non-Earthlings. Ryan is a liberal activist against invasive species, including the Worlders. Noah is a lost soul with a drug habit that overhauls his sense of self and belonging.

As news of the coming apocalypse spreads, fear and hatred are unleashed upon the Worlders who just want a cure for both Earth and their planet which is due to be hit 25 years later. The tale parallels contemporary xenophobia in times of terror and economic collapse.

Much of the science revolves around mitochondrial DNA and the desperate search for a vaccine with too little time for proper trials. The story is not about the science, but the good science is appreciated regardless. The alien technology remain merely that–alien.

Yesterday’s Kin appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared independently, published by Tachyon Publications.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Trademark Bugs: A Legal History” by Adam Roberts

5 of 5 stars.

This highly stylized piece of speculative fiction masquerading as a work of legal synthesis would sit comfortably in The New Yorker as a wry essay lambasting the direction regional and world courts are headed in their decisions as it concerns corporations and the big pharmaceutical companies. It’s shocking, appalling, and brilliant.

The history, written as the 21st Century closes, examines how the trademarking and distribution of both genetically engineered pathogens and cures to those pathogens becomes the driving force of world economies, politics, and health. The business and the legal cases start around three guiding principles, The Porter Rules: the pathology itself must 1) “not be ‘excessively physically distressing’ or entail any long-term hazard to health, wellbeing or longevity”, 2) “be no more virulent than the baseline virus or bacterium, prior to any genetic adaption”, 3) be preventable by some means (later modified to ‘at least one mean’) not trademarked to the distributing company.”

Drolly, case law soon decides that sane people of legal age that elect not to take common-sense precautions to avoid catching the communicable diseases “have ipso facto given consent to being infected by Trademark Bugs.” This is known as the soap-and-water test. But as the years go by, even these decisions are amended in favor of Big Pharma:

The ‘soap-and-water’ test was tested in court in 2086, when it was claimed that the Bayer Bug ‘Emerald Rash’ survived soap. The outcome (Kawasaki-86d) was that ‘soap’ was taken, legally, to include a variety of proprietary antibacterial washes and wipes.

One is reminded of modern tobacco and GMO industry arguments when the “history” includes a quote from a Big Pharma legal representative saying “The distribution of Trademark Bugs (free at point of issue, I might add) is an actual, measurable and positive incitement to people to live more hygienic lives.” She later adds, “I understand that many people feel that these corporations are deliberately infecting them with designer germs in order to increase their profits by selling them the cures–but the facts are the facts. None of that is true. Trademark Bugs have made the world cleaner and healthier.”

There are far to many good quotes from this piece as the arguments are laid out as to how purposely infecting the population does not infringe on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It also shows Pharma expanding to take over the military and run bio-warfare in the name of humanitarianism, and the replacement of “a flat-rate one-person-one vote model to a corporate, buy-as-many-votes-as-you-like model.”

“Trademark Bugs: A Legal History” appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 edited by Rich Norton and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Reach for Infinity.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Every Hill Ends With Sky” by Robert Reed

2 of 5 stars.

Two stories of two different genres uncomfortably meld in this tale of exobiology and post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged Earth.

The opening scene is of the daughter, her parents and boyfriend are dead from the war. She leads a small band survivors that hides out from monsters in the basement of a destroyed building. Supplies and hope are running low . . .

A generation earlier shows her mother, as part of the Crypsis group, running computer simulations on the likest spawning and evolutionary developments of life for various bodies in the solar system. Nineteen simulations in a row show Venus achieving extraordinary levels of complexity and intelligence, and even spreading out into space, all before the Earth’s system reaches multi-cellular complexity. Venusians are out there . . . god-like, possibly not even recognizable . . .

The two tales barely correlate beyond the blood relation of the two focal women. A final scene aims to tie the post-apocalyptic plot-less vignette to the involved story based on sketchy science.

“Every Hill Ends With Sky” appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 edited by Rich Norton and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens.

I’ve also reviewed Reed’s “Pernicious Romance” which appears in this same anthology. 
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Canon Fodder-Friday: Nonfiction

For my final foray into considering the educational canon, I’d like to include nonfiction. Many speeches, letters and treatises have had a profound effect on the modern world as it relates to politics, economics, sciences, philosophy, the penal code, and human rights among other things. The following is my top ten non-fiction canon for works written in the last 250 years:

1) 1764 — On Crime and Punishment by Cesare Beccaria

This treatise was spread by Voltaire long after Beccaria lived out his life largely under house-arrest just for having written it. It suggested the first arguments against capital punishment, torture, and cruel and unusual punishment. It called for punishments to fit the crimes.

2) 1776 — The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith [Hello free market.]
3) 1776 — “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine and The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson
4) 1845 — Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
5) 1848 — The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
6) 1859 — On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
7) 1863 — “The Gettysburg Address” and The Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln
8) 1869 — The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill
9) 1958 — Night by Elie Wiesel
10) 1963 — “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

My three previous Friday posts listed Top 10s that included poetry, plays, and novels written in European languages. As of yet, I have not included a single graphic work in any of these lists, so I’d like to propose an eleventh item for this list as I think graphic works can be just as important and literary as non-graphic works.

11) 1991 — Maus by Art Spiegelman

What would you include in such a list, or what would you exclude? Let me know.

April is International Poetry Month. My Friday posts with all be poetry-related:
April 3rd– Poetry Forms I: Haikus and Limericks
April 10th– Poetry Forms II: Sonnets, Villanelles and Sestinas
April 17th– Poetry: Rhyming and Sounds
April 24th– Poetry: Avoiding Abstractions and Cliches

Review: Evolving Ourselves

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthEvolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book explains the frontline research of contemporary genetics and then explores the potential in speculative science. Bridging the gap between science and science fiction, the culpability of the human race in modern evolution is outlined.

For four billion years, nature selected what lived and died. Life forms adapted by mutating randomly so that at least a few specimens sometimes hit the jackpot and survived . . . [Darwin] is not right anymore. Over the past century, as our species grew by billions, concentrated in cities, smartened, and domesticated itself and its surroundings, we became the fundamental driver of what lives and dies. . . Half the landmass on Earth is now covered by what humans want, not by what would naturally grow without the intervention of our species. Oceans, rivers, and lakes are depleted. In just a few centuries, we have terraformed, fertilized, fenced, seeded, and irrigated enormous sections of what was once forest, savannah, desert, and tundra to accommodate our plants, our animals, our wishes. This is unnatural selection.

There is much humans do not yet know as we dabble, such as the intricate interplay between the human genome, epigenome [turning on and off of gene expression], microbial biome [especially of the gut], and the barely researched virome [the viruses living off the host and the host’s bacterial flora]. Changes in any of these genomes affects not just the individual, but generations to come. We also do not yet understand the side effects of human domestication, such as explosions in rates of obesity, diabetes, allergies, and autism.

Entering the realm of speculative science and the future of humanity, this book also explores the future of human enhancement on athletics, and space travel and colonization. More questions are asked than answers given, but that is precisely what drives science into new realms.

I received this book through Goodreads’ First Reads Giveaway.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond

Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and BeyondEternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond by Niles Eldredge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anti-science sentiments rise to the top periodically whether it be from anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers, or adherents of intelligent design. I am a strongly pro-science person and a fan of science fiction which at its basis should understand science and then speculate from that strong understanding. At times, it’s nice to dig into a nonfiction book for a fresh perspective. Personally, I’ve been a fan of the writings of Stephen Jay Gould, which brings me to this book–the most recent by Niles Eldredge who co-wrote with Gould a controversial essay early in their careers promoting the idea of punctuated equilibria. Essentially, evolution is happening, but not at the constant deeply gradual pace that has often been conjectured. Rather, it usually happens in concentrated bursts by micro-populations that have become isolated from the core range and population of a given species. This book is largely making the same argument forty years later, while needlessly defending itself from accusations of being anti-Darwinian.

This book succeeds its mission to trace the competing hypotheses of evolution from the early Nineteenth Century with the writings of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Italian Giambattista Brocchi through Charles Darwin up to the Twenty-First Century. It does not allows any past evolution-theorist to be summed up in a pithy one-sentence overview, which for historical accuracy purposes is a good thing. The various essays, letters and notebooks are analyzed by line through the development of hypotheses–two hundreds years of academia outlined. As a work of synthesis and scholarly archive, the book is thorough. What it isn’t is populist. It is not trying to be interesting to those outside the sciences as the writings of Gould are. Most of the case studies that led to various insights have been stripped away. The tiniest of differences between ideas are quibbled repeatedly.

What I enjoyed most in this book was seeing how early some ideas were being discussed. Easily a hundred years before plate tectonics and land-bridges were being conjectured came a quote within the context of an argument on species differentiation: “in those high northern latitudes, where the continents were undoubtedly at one time conjoined” [Jameson 1826]. Gems like this and watching the separate fields of geology, biology and paleontology converge in their world-view managed to keep me trudging through this book. I received a free copy from NetGalley for reviewing purposes.
[Check out my other reviews here.]