Book review: “Great North Road” by Peter Hamilton

Image result for great north road bookThey say that those who are not politically left while young, have no heart, and those who are not on the right while old have no intellect. Eminent space opera write Peter Hamilton is certainly clever; he is 58.

The book is a sprawling as usual, 1000 pages whodunit. It set at the end of the 22nd century in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK where I used to live.  I was happy to follow the familiar street descriptions especially of “ancient buildings” that were being built while I lived there.

There are also original evil aliens that are light years ahead of usual insects on spaceships with lasers, but there’s not enough of them.

But among smart dust that covers Newcastle streets and records every breath some features are curiously retro. The civilisation that spread to numerous star systems via space-time portals still heavily depends on oil, it grows oil-producing algae on tropical planets. It also transports welfare recipients off Earth giving them some land and a tent on virgin soil, 18th-century style.

Newcastle and the rest of Britain are also heavily under snow, which is never explained but reads like a dig at climate change science. The future people mastered human cloning (an interesting plot device but with unrealistic details as the clones manage to propagate themselves via normal conception) but not clean energy retrieval and storage.

A recent example of similar projection of technology and social progress stagnation is Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”.  But while I can excuse an early 19th-century genre pioneer, I cannot extend my magnanimity to the 21st-century professional.

The book is also transparently anti-EU, not as much as Neal Asher’s (57) The Departure but close. There are repeated lengthy descriptions of how one of the main protagonist, a detective, as well as everybody and his dog,  evade taxes because they are too high while complaining about crumbling infrastructure. My heart refuses to bleed for somebody who’s using proceeds of corruption for buying a 5 bedroom house for 4 people in a  Newcastle district that is currently an equivalent of Manhattan.

Not completely incidentally the totally evil, caricature character, a bureaucrat is a woman, and she is the only female figure of authority. An occasional soldier or detective is female, but the central female character is a blonde, elfin femme fatale who wraps male character around her finger – sometimes literally – using her feminine wiles.

The book is ponderous, meandering and long, and around page 200 I started to count pages until the end. Hamilton has never been a concise writer, but I swallowed his “Night Dawn” trilogy, 3000+ pages without any problem and wanted more.

I gave up on page 350 after an underwhelming revelation,  and yet another one description of porn – like  (mechanistic and without any feeling) – sex, in the middle of Green  Zone set in an alien jungle. If you want quality humane SF, you’d better read Sevenaves by Neal Stephenson (58).

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Book review: “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley, the mother of science fiction around the time she wrote The Last Man.  By Reginald Easton (1820)  via Wikimedia Commons

Panning for gold and letting the sand go in the stream of time, Literature selects timeless books by their quality. If a writer is known by only one book while she wrote prolifically, it’s usually for a reason. I found it’s true for many writers from J. D. Salinger to H. Beecher-Stowe.

Mary Shelley is not an exception. She is known as “the mother of science fiction” for “Frankenstein“, arguably the first SF novel, but most of us would struggle to name any of her other books, while she wrote 7 novels, 2 travelogues, biography, poems, short stories, and children’s books.

The Last Man” was Shelley’s third novel published in 1826. It is an apocalyptic novel, allegedly the first apocalyptic novel, the subgenre “death by plague”. It’s nowhere as good as “Frankenstein” and a great deal longer.

The first 250 pages are an example of a novel that parents were advised against in the 19th century.  There are two noble orphans living in poverty as the father was a witty spendthrift and squandered friendship of the last king of England. He died, children’s mother died. The son is a shepherd and hooligan who supports his dreamy sister.

shelleylastmanThe action starts when the son of the abdicated king, Adrian, the Earl of Windsor befriends the shepherd. The noblest Adrian was modelled on Mary’s late husband, romantic poet Percy Bissy Shelley.

The children grow into adults. Under the angelic Adrian tutelage, the shepherd acquires education fit for a diplomatic aide in a year.

The Earl of Windsor is in love with a Greek princess. The princess rejects him as she secretly loves The General and the Earl goes mad.  The shepherd is in love with the Earl of Windsor’s sister. The sister is courted by The General, a cross between Lord Byron, Alexander the Great and Napoleon as he has the imperial ambitions. But The General is in love with shepherd’s sister and renounces his ambitions to be with his love.

The language is florid and pompous, I always imagined the speaker in Roman robes,  arms raised to Heaven declaring:

“Nor are outward objects alone the receptacles of the Spirit of Good. Look into the mind of man, where wisdom reigns enthroned; where imagination, the painter, sits, with his pencil dipt in hues lovelier than those of sunset, adorning familiar life with glowing tints. What a noble boon, worthy the giver, is the imagination! it takes from reality its leaden hue: it envelopes all thought and sensation in a radiant veil, and with an hand of beauty beckons us from the sterile seas of life, to her gardens, and bowers, and glades of bliss. And is not love a gift of the divinity? Love, and her child, Hope, which can bestow wealth on poverty, strength on the weak, and happiness on the sorrowing.

The novel set at the end of the 21st century but the progress is minor, it’s early 19th century all around. The most shocking development is the king of the United Kingdom abdication and replacement by the Lord Protector, sort of president. Incidentally, two centuries later there’s no serious republican movement in the real UK as the Royal family settled in a role of a cross between a tourist attraction and the Kardashians.

In the book, although some politicians want to abolish aristocracy, there’s still abject poverty where people die from hunger. The world is sharply divided between “people of value and leisure” and everybody else.

The other conspicuously absent change that I expected from the daughter of one of the first European feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft is the role of women. They are always talked about in the context of marriage and looking after their family. All members of parliament and officials, even inn-keepers are men. Women are shown as caring and emotional beings incapable of any intellectual occupation. When a man shows an emotion, he apologises for behaving like a woman.

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A painting inspired by Thomas Campbell’s poem with the same name  – The Last Man  by John Martin (1849)

The technology did not progress. People still travel by carriage or riding a horse, the only concession to the future is to travel by an air balloon, and a steamship mentioned once. They still fight with bayonets and swords. There are no methods of communication on short or long distances except letters. If you want to see how horrible the relatively recent part was, just read this description of the future.

After 250 pages and with some main characters tragically dead, the plague that was smoldering in barbaric Turkey inundates Europe and reaches England’s shores. As the science did not advance, there is no way to do something about it and the population of British Isles is reduced to a couple of thousand people. This enlivens the narrative to no end.

A lot of apocalyptic cliches are already there. “Vegetation” growing on the pavements of London. The abundance of material goods per person, which leads to breaking ranks. Although nobody produces any food, nobody starves. A cult leader splits the survivors.

The novel was written following the poem of the same name  (1823). Essentially, the book is n interminably long, an indulegnt love letter to Shelley’s late husband. The contemporary critics didn’t like the book and it was forgotten for almost 200 years.  I say let it remain in Lethe.

You may ask why didn’t I quit this book after the first 50 pages. It was a part of the book club (read the review) and I was one of the 4 people who has managed to finish it.

N.B. on ‘Blue Mars’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Case N1

I consider the epic SF Mars trilogy by K.S. Robinson (K.S.R) as one of the 20th-century genre literature achievements on par with “The Lord of the Rings”.  Not only the characters and societies are plausible and  3D detailed, I cannot fault the description of biology with the usual “heightened reality” caveat. On the strength of this, I trust all science I don’t know such as geology as in any popular science book.

But recently, while re-reading the trilogy. I found a small chink in the armor that made me doubt the rest of the book science. The last book in the trilogy, Blue Mars,  published in 1996 deals with the aftermath of Mars and Earth revolutions.

One of the main characters, Nirgal, notices that his Mars farm plants start suffering from a disease. The disease is a viroid –  a plant virus that consists of a short looped RNA.

pstviroid

Structure of PST viroid. A chain of RNA nucleotides pairs with itself creating a double-stranded structure with bubbles of unpaired nucleotides. (Image by Jakub Friedl  via Wikimedia Commons, GNU)

From the novel:

Viroids like this one caused several plant diseases, including pale cucumber disease, chrysanthemum stunt, chlorotic mottle, cadang-cadang, citrus exocortis.

This is all true. But the quote below is not:

Viroids had also been confirmed as the agent in some animal brain diseases, like scrapie, and kuru, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

All the diseases above are caused by self-replication and accumulation of a misfolded form of protein PrP, prion. The ‘protein only’ heredity of kuru,  an endemic disease of cannibals, was postulated by Pruisner in the 1960s. Nobody believed him but as the evidence accumulated, he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1997, not long after the first edition of the Blue Mars.

Considering that the list of books by K.S.R. on the cover inside of my copy has Galileo’s Dream (2009), long after epidemics of mad cow disease forced prions out of science arcana into public consciousness not editing this is sloppy.

More on this topic.

Another quote from Blue Mars:

A  stained slice of a brain of a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease sufferer. Note large white spots where the cells (stained pink) were killed by accumulation prion. Also, note long “strings”, this is accumulated prion made of PrP protein. (Image by Dr. Al Jenny via Wikimedia Commons).

The viroids used host enzymes to reproduce and then were taken to be regulatory molecules in the nuclei of infected cells, disturbing growth-hormone production in particular.

Right in a vague sort of way.

Case N2

There is a brilliant mathematician in the book. And one of the main male characters wonders how a woman can be a genius in math and why there wasn’t one. Ever.

Hello?

Hypatia – one of the first known scientists;

Ada Lovelace – mother of computer programming;

Emmy Noether –  lauded by Albert Einstein.

Robinson tries not to be sexist by imagining that in the future a female math genius will be possible just as terraforming Mars will be possible, but fails to research the topic or  -even worse – dismisses all women as not good enough.

 

Handmaid’s Tale, S2E2

I am always on the lookout for modern biology references in pop-culture and celebrate when they are correct. In this episode of S2 of dystopia Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a flashback to  Emily/Ofglen/Ofsteven past as a ‘cellular biology professor’. A female student asks if Archaea (a nucleus less life form intermediate between lacking nucleus bacteria and eukaryotes) found in the human microbiome.

A male student arrogantly states that Archaea live in extreme environments such as hot springs, so it’s stupid to suggest that they would live on a human. Emily supports the female student by saying that Archaea do live in nasal cavities and on the skin.

orange_spring_mound_at_mammoth_hot_springs

Orange Spring Mound at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Bacteria, algae and archaea create the streaks of color. (Image by Mbz1 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Amazingly, the professor’s reply is true. Archae composes a significant amount of microbiome not only of human skin and nasal cavity but of the dental plaque and gut as well.

For example, here’s a picture from an article about the composition of the human microbiome.  Catchily named Methanobrevibacter smithii  is the most abundant archeon in the human microbiome. Almost nobody investigates Archea in human microbiome as there are no known human pathogens among them. But this study shows that M. smithii is associated with constipation and gut tenderness. In a different study, it was found in larger numbers in anorexic patients. This does not mean, of course, that the archeon causes these conditions, rather that they go together.

journal.pone.0176555.g003

Reference ranges from a cohort of healthy individuals for 28 clinically relevant species and genera. Healthy participant stool microbiome data were analyzed to determine the empirical reference ranges for each target. The boxplot displays the relative abundance for each of 897 self-reported healthy individuals, revealing the healthy ranges of abundance for the taxa in the test panel. The healthy distribution is used to define the 99% confidence interval (red line). (From  Almonaides et al. (2017))

Kudos to the writers and scientific consultants of the series for providing an accurate and up to date information. Double kudos for the not-so-subtle feminist message.

P.S. Don’t you think that the UK’s educational department, Ofsted, that inspects schools sounds like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale?

 

 

TV/Netflix series review: Orphan Black

 

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The five main clone characters all played by Tatiana Maslany (from left to right, top to bottom: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima, and Rachel). Image from Wikipedia, fair use.

When it comes to biology, especially molecular biology,  TV and films usually show nonsense. One of the famous examples is King Kong – a case of 30 feet gorilla (impossible from the biophysics point of view, his bones would have shattered under the weight of the body). And the case of extreme interspecies romance based on very human male interest in buxom blondes. Rare examples of (sort of) plausible scenario include Jurassic Park – I saw an article in Nature about the plausibility of cloning mammoth. Surely, the dinosaurs can follow. NB Outbreak, which shows a few very real “how to”.Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series available on Netflix. I was very skeptical about it – its blurb talks about human cloning. I was surprised to find a very sober approach to the plot: a military program in human cloning in the 70th resulted in several identical women raised in different countries, mostly in the US. Well, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the US is the center of the world </sarcasm>.

The  10+ clones played by excellent Tatyana Maslyany, who is the main attraction of the series. There are no usual pseudoscience traps such as “cloning of soul” and “mind sharing”. The clones are biologically identical with underlying active character but have very different personalities depending on where and how they were raised – from a mad Ukrainian orphan Helena to a PhD in Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Cosima. The deadlocked PhD student is also a lesbian, while the rest of the clones are heterosexual.

The underlying science of human cloning is plausible. Even better, the contemporary science that the PhD engages with is good as well. For example, clones suffer from genetic abnormalities that is possible to repair using stem cells. Of course, there’s an inevitable conspiracy centered on biomedical companies but it would be a dull series without whodunit and action.

I liked not only biology and action but especially the post-Soviet connection. The Western science in the 20th century for all its glory also embraced biological explanation to human differences and proposed radical solutions such as eugenics. The racism was postulated, confirmed and reconfirmed.

In the meanwhile, Soviet biological science was a part of a huge experiment of molding a new Soviet person. Conceptually it was based on Pavlov’s experiments on conditioning, not Mendel‘s immutable genes. The Soviet ideology I was raised with believed that humans are products of their environment – you change the environment, you change the person. While the US was engaged in compulsory sterilization programmes for undesirables, the Soviets gave the ignorant free universal education and healthcare. While in the US black people were segregated on the basis of their inborn inferiority, Soviet Union declared the equality of races.

The traces of this eugenic and racist thinking are still there in the 21st century. Time and time again a few scientists, notably,  Nobel Prize winner,  James “DNA” Watson try to dust off racial and/or genetic inferiority theories. There’s also a recent trend to absolve people from responsibility on the basis of their genetic makeup – “my genes made me do it“. So it was very refreshing to see a pop-culture phenomenon that is subtly firmly in the “nurture plus nature” camp.

All five seasons of Orphan Balck are available on Netflix and I recommend to give it a go, it’s one of the best SF series of the decade.

 

Film Review: “What Happened to Monday”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,  this Netflix production flatters “Orphan Black”. Like in the Canadian TV series, one actress plays septuplets born in a world with “one family – one child” policy.  It’s thriller as well but considering the rate of siblings demise, I wondered how the authors going to sustain a series, not realising that’s a stand-alone “made for Netflix” movie.

The pace of “What Happened to Monday” is frantic but the story formulaic, nowhere near the depth of characters and ideas explored by “Orphan Black”.

The movie is a perfect illustration of New York Times article that is unsure if Netflix is capable of truly original production or will just copy what’s been done before.

Book review: “Family Trade” by Charles Stross

A readable parallel worlds fantasy/SF, despite an obvious plothole of a journalist turning into a competent assassin overnight.  A plausible description of industry journalism, a female protagonist, a romance with a tall blonde Roland.

Капиталистическое решение “проблемы Трудно быть богом“: не вывозить художников и учёных, погрязших в Средних Веках, а разработать экономическую программу замены оных веков на промышленную революцию через отдельно взятую компанию на основе изученного в Гарварде.