Languages Of Family

Ann Leckie’s Raadch Universe is one of the most useful conceits in recent science fiction. Not that there aren’t plenty of background templates to choose from—Iain M. Banks’ Culture, C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance//Union, Martha Wells’ Murderbot universe—but Leckie’s stands out in the way the separate polities interpenetrate and shift and establish themselves based on the intrinsic diversities each entity exhibits. There are nonhumans—the Geck, the Rrrrrr, the Presger—and human and parahuman, and they all, even among themselves, have distinct modes of expression and subsequently unique interests.

Translation State is her fifth entry in what has been thus far a consistently fascinating foray into interstellar…well, it’s all there: war, politics, philosophy, sociology. But for me the stand-out interest has been from the beginning personal identity. In this new novel, it is everything. Leckie is exploring what it means to express autonomy and possess agency.

Enae is facing life outside the home she has always known. Maman has died, the family is gathering to sort out who gets what, and Enae learns that there is nothing to inherit. Maman had spent it all. Another family has purchased the home and, for all intents and purposes, the family name to use as a resource in their rise to prominence. Enae has been cut loose.

She has been in thrall to maman, the one kept home to perpetually care for the elder of the house. Constantly criticized and yet provided for, she has lived in a kind of purgatorial condition, without much of a life of her own. Now, seemingly overnight, she must leave the only house she has ever known and find her way to a new life.

She is not tossed out. The new “owners” see to her material resources, but eventually Enae must leave. A new cousin talks with her about options and suggests he can procure her a position in a diplomatic capacity. She accepts. The first task she is given is to try to find a missing person—missing for decades, almost two centuries. No one realistically expects her to find this person or even find out what happened, and Enae is told as much and that as long as she shows an effort, she will retain this new position and be able to do pretty much as she likes.

That is not who she is, though, and she takes the task seriously. Much to everyone’s surprise, Enae makes headway. But the clues she follows embroil her in a political situation involving the Imperial Raadch, the Rrrrrr and Geck, a refugee group, a local polity with a stake in controlling the refugees, and the very mysterious and dangerous Presger.

The Presger have been a presence throughout the Ancillary stories. The only direct contact between them and any other group has always ended in brutal destruction. The Presger eviscerate—ships, beings, systems—for no comprehensible reason. Over time, a hard-established treaty has come about setting precarious boundaries. On the Presser’s part, an entire cadre of Translators was created just for the purpose of communicating with non-Presger entities, and it is the Translators that are the only direct contact anyone has ever had (and survived) with the Presger. The Translators themselves are not Presger.

It was one of them that went missing. During those missing years, it reproduced. And it is the result of that reproduction—Reet—who now is at the center of the diplomatic chaos Enae has precipitated by being thorough in actually trying to solve the mystery.

The Translators insist on recovering Reet, claiming him to be a Translator juvenile who must be brought back into their fold lest others suffer. Reet, however, has been raised as a human by his foster family and that is what he feels he is.

A petition is filed with the Treaty Administration, things become locked for the time being while matters are sorted out, and in that setting Leckie gives us a look into the manifold interpretations of human, nonhuman, AI, and the balancing act between communal necessity and individual choice. Along the way, the lineaments of her rich universe are revealed in ever more intriguing detail.

Leckie deftly raises the stakes as simple situations unfold into more complexity until we are embroiled in an interstellar thriller with terrorists, political brinksmanship, interspecies conflict, and potential war. And yet it remains throughout focused on family.

The central motivation of each character in this is about family. The boundary between that and the body politic is blurred almost to the point of erasure. Which is, of course, the point.

Within this is the question: can you be what you want to be, no matter what? In Reet’s case, genetics (biology) dictates he is not what he has always felt himself to be. The ambiguities of that are well-explored in the course of the novel, whether what he has always felt/believed is defensible in the face of apparently unalterable factors. Secondarily, given the validity of those Other Factors, does he have the right to reject the claims of others on his choices?

This is set against the vagaries and challenges of a treaty intended to keep wildly disparate civilizations out of each other’s way, and however the decision comes down will impact everything going forward.

No pressure.

But the vital interests here are focused down hard on what constitutes family, either biologically or circumstantially, and everyone involved must deal with the ramifications. In their separate ways, each group portrayed is trying to establish the grounds and the methods for familial inclusion and care.

The fey element thrown in is the one group that adamantly disbelieves another one involved actually exists, believing it is a fiction for political leverage.

Science fiction has been shoving alien species up against each other practically since its inception, but of late the emphases on how and the bases of interaction have shifted to examine the place we all live. Leckie has produced a work that explores those possibilities in ways no other genre can.


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Yes and the Negativity of missing the point

As I sit here writing I am listening to Close The The Edge by YES. Those who know me know that this is my band. The way the Beatles made a profound and indelible impression on some people way back when they were still around, YES did so for me. And as time has gone on I have found them to be a source of ever-wonderous musical pleasure. They produced music that at the time fit no category and did things no other musical group was doing.

The same could be said of any number of other groups of the Sixties and Seventies, but they likewise all stood apart in their own ways. Nevertheless, most of them, even the seriously unique examples, could be said to share with other groups certain aspects. With the release of Fragile and then Close To The Edge and then a couple of years later Tales From Topographic Oceans, I can think of no other band that made such distinctive musical artifacts. Compositionally, performatively, lyrically, YES pretty much stands in its own category.

I love what they did.

Fast forward to the present, in the age of everyone sharing and knowing everything about all the things, a period in which personal opinion is intended to rise to the level of profundity and aesthetic wisdom, and the long span of years, albums, and personnel changes which attend such groups with very few exceptions, and we find ourselves in a morass of vituperative spleen-venting by people who want to stamp their taste on the body of work gathered together under the moniker YES. I stumbled on some of this recently and found such short-tempered tantrums one might expect from a group of kindergartners who didn’t get their nap.

“Without Jon Anderson it’s not YES!” “Rabin rescued the band from obscurity!” “It’s not YES without Wakeman/Squire/White/etc!” “They lost their way after _____!” “This album is crap, that album is brilliant!”

Strong opinions necessarily attach to powerful art, but one of the threads that baffled me is the assertion that somehow the current manifestation is an imposter. I can only scratch my head.

As a rhetorical statement of personal assessment, in private conversation, one can accept such pronouncements as at best a starting point for a conversation. There can be nothing definitive about it except from a legal standpoint. (How do I mean? There have been instances of other bands who experienced “clones” established by former members who sought to cash in on the name. The resolution came about in court, establishing who owned the name. Certain dodges have been successful wherein association is achieved without actionable violation of trademark, but this is a matter of music industry contract law and is an odious morass with which we are not interested here.) “That’s not YES,” has been a game played by the disappointed since Drama was released. In that instance, both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had left the band. They were replaced and the result was a new manifestation. Strong opinions at the time indicated the allegiance of fans, but frankly said nothing much about the actual music.

When a few years later YES re-emerged, once more with Jon Anderson at the fore, but without Steve Howe or Rick Wakeman, assessments had to be remade again. Many people accepted this line-up as YES, largely because Jon Anderson was singing with them, and also because an alumni, Tony Kaye, had rejoined, muddying the waters of which line-up might be “purer”, but again this did not say much about the music, which was…different.

The two albums released by this incarnation sounded very little—compositionally—like the band from the Seventies. And Drama, shoved in between, was distinctive as well and fit neither era.

Or did it?

Here is where such pronouncements fall on hard ground, because while the approach was, compositionally, and to a degree performatively, distinct, it was also true that they were all unmistakably YES.

By the time we come to the exceptional one-off of Anderson Bruford Wakeman & Howe, it should have been obvious to anyone that YES had become a collective, a workshop if you will, a unique aesthetic bubble wherein a certain approach to music, with concomitant expectations of musicianship and thematic direction, maintained in such a way that continuity remained regardless of who was actually in the band.

Now, certainly this could have been violated any number of ways. Say, instead of Benoit David or Jon Davison stepping in as lead vocalist, someone like Steve Perry or Steve Tyler had been hired. It hardly bears considering. Certain modes of musicianship have been maintained throughout the now 54 years of the band’s existence.

The fact that through all that time each incarnation is unmistakably YES establishes that what we now have is something that has been a thing in jazz for much longer. These are musicians coming and going in service to a specific aesthetic exploration.

I think it’s a fascinating thing to behold.

If you wish to be a purist about line-ups, then you have to come to terms with the fact that there is no longer a single original member of the band still in it. (Steve Howe joined at their third album, in case anyone needs reminding.) So how does one make any such final pronouncement that “this is not YES” based on personnel? (You may perfectly legitimately claim to have a preferred incarnation; mine will always be the so-called “classic” line-up, but that does not diminish other examples, and the fact is that every incarnation has upheld the musical reason for listening to them and done so magnificently.)

There are albums I listen to more than others, but none of them are “not YES” in any meaningful way.

Perhaps it is my immersion in jazz that has inured me to these sorts of quibbles. The idea of a group being a workshop, with a revolving roster of participants, is nothing unusual to me. We don’t see it so much in rock music. Usually, when a band ends, it’s over. This is as much a business reality as anything else. And we have seen bands that have lost personnel and refused to replace them (Genesis, Moody Blues) and others who have soldiered on even after presumably fatal losses (the Who, Chicago). This, however, is something special, and I believe it has produced some truly interesting results.

It is, after all, That Sound which has drawn me all these years. Indeed, some experiments have been more successful than others, and a couple of the last few albums have been…interesting. But how many bands get an opportunity to completely re-do an album and then have both versions still available? The differences are fascinating.

There are a handful of artists whose work I have purchased over the years no matter what. YES is the first among equals in that. There has always been something worthwhile in each release and rarely retreads. That is what YES has become for me and I think it’s amazing.

There is no cause for the kind of backbiting that comes from what I call the Line-up Wars. That’s childish. (Arguments over who is better at certain things, hey, that’s fine. But that’s not what some people are doing. They’re making it a question of identity and not simply their own.) The music changes, evolves, and it evolves with new blood.

And really, it’s been 54 years. Even without the passing of amazing musicians, time works it’s demands. If they were still trying to do Close To The Edge “again” they would long since have become a moribund gathering of musical fossils. That they keep exploring new territory…that’s why they’re worth listening to.

But perhaps not for the same reason we listened to them 20, 30, 40 years ago.

I remember the tagline from their first tour of which I was aware. “Yes…the most positive word in the English language.” Positive. Somehow, for over five decades, they have continued to create positive momentum.

Reformed Colonizing

In some form or another, the idea of terraforming has run through science fiction for decades. The term was coined by Jack Williamson back in his 1942 story Collision Orbit, which involved the hammerblow of an asteroid impact. Gradually the idea seeped into the general body of science fiction as the problem of actually stumbling on a habitable world to settle became apparent and more intrusive measures were proposed. By the late 1980s it had blossomed into an accepted practice. 

Most of the early examples dealt with Mars. The fascination with colonizing the Red Planet had always been there. After the hoped-for suitability of Mars was thoroughly dashed by actual probes, other solutions informed new stories.

The difficulties are nicely laid out in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. The sheer expense of the endeavor rose to daunting prominence. More solutions came to the fore. Nanobots, microfauna, slamming a planet with iceballs (comets). Proposals from the other end of the problem were offered, literally changing the settlers themselves to fit the new environment. (Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus among others.)

Venus offered a different set of problems and possibly the best attempt to dramatize them is Pamela Sargent’s Venus trilogy, which is a generational saga about the terraforming and colonization of Venus. Other worlds in the solar system, as our knowledge of them grew, offered yet more technical problems to overcome and gave settings for many good tales.

Of course, the central ethical problem at the heart of all of them remained largely unaddressed, namely the whole concept of colonization. Science fiction of the exploratory variety took it as given that humanity would expand into a universe assumed to be there for the taking. The possibility of other species already being there provided the fodder for the usual exercise in imperial conflict. (Asimov famously avoided the whole issue by depicting a universe devoid of all other intelligent life but human.)

Whether we should or shouldn’t go forth and colonize is probably a pointless question. We will if we can, because “should have” has never been a factor in dismissing the idea. (Whether we should or shouldn’t go to the expense is a different question, whether as a matter of building the capacity or engaging a conflict for territory.) We will. 

So, the question then becomes how to go about it without being, well, evil. It can be argued that a good deal of the “space opera” after the 1970s has as at least a subtheme this concern, most prominently fueled by the discussions prompted by Star Trek’s Prime Directive. 

Accepting migration and settlement as a given, the ethical themes emerging from questions of how, why, and to what end offer a rich pool of conceptual interest for science fiction. The impulse behind much Golden Age SF and almost all space opera was based on the westward wave of conquest and settlement of the so-called Old West. Similarity of motifs abound. Contrary voices emerged slowly as the ongoing conversation within SF continued till the present time wherein a healthy critique of post-colonialism has come to prominence. The costs are now under examination.

Annalee Newitz has established a reputation as a sharp observer, both in fiction and nonfiction. She applies all her accumulated savvy to her new novel, The Terraformers, which combines several strands of the ideas into one excellent work that begins by setting aside the question “Should we do this?” She takes it as read that we will.

But then she sets up a scenario in which all the consequences and related issues come into play to challenge preconceptions and address responsibilities in clever and amusing ways. 

sask-E is a planet under development by a corporation that eventually intends selling lots to prospective inhabitants. A luxury development, in fact, potentially very profitable. To prepare it, various stages of work must be done to turn it into something suitable, which is a time-consuming job requiring specially adapted populations of workers for each stage.

These populations are intended to die off once their stage of the work is completed, but longterm plans are never so neatly executed.

In the months leading up to the big premier of the new world for prospective buyers, ERT Ranger Destry Thomas follows a trail of clues to an enclave of survivors from the prior era of world-building and discovers that extinction is not inevitable. A thriving city of Homo diversus escaped their intended obsolescence and built a city beneath a volcano. Destry and her colleagues now have a set of decisions to make that set all of their various obligations at odds.

The Rangers are supposed to be nominally independent, observers and enforcers of a set of environmental rules the corporation, Verdance, is required to follow in the remaking of such worlds. The ecology is intended to be pristine and the footprint of colonization kept at a manageable minimum. It’s a delicate balance.

But this, a whole population of sapients who aren’t even supposed to still exist, throws a wrench into the works.

What follows is a generation-spanning struggle between the various factions over who (and in what way) has a right to live on Sask-E. 

Newitz has built a far future universe in which uplift is a feature—we have sentient moose, among other animals—and the ethics of coexistence are threaded throughout. What might in lesser hands have become a confusing mish-mash of characters and situations is here deftly managed to excellent effect. The definition of innate value is the point here and to that end we are given as broad a cast of characters with significantly different needs, wants, and proclivities as one could wish for in a novel that attempts to tackle what one might see as post-post-colonialism. 

Once people are involved…

The exigencies of the corporation and the machinations of its designated agents, even with the initial “good faith” attempt to remake a planet over which no native life has claim, spiral into the abyss of expediency, made worse by the pathologies too-often in play among certain personality types. When “making a profit” and “delivering a product” run directly into questions of innate rights and moral necessity, the resulting wrestling match is instructive.

The Terrfaormers is at base a critique of colonialism, but done in a way more subtle than most by setting up the conditions from the beginning to focus on the regard—or lack thereof—people have for each other, especially when walls between them are erected to allow a set of goals to take precedence over any and all incommensurate circumstances that may—that will—arise.

As in her first novel, Autonomous, Newitz displays a thorough grasp of the interplay between competing issues when Market Forces are confronted by moral imperatives. Throughout, there is attention to compromise too-often absent when the full stage of narrative possibility is reduced to the confines of a soapbox. Instead of a diatribe on do’s and don’ts, we get instead a well-reasoned examination of processes in play. Granted, Newitz has a preferred outcome, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of showing the whole stage.

Besides all this, it is hard not to appreciate a well-imagined and realized flying moose.

The Long and the Short and All Between

Of all the things that make up the borders and textures of our lives, how many do we ever consider doing without and what that might mean? Because anything we do in the least technological, there was a time when we didn’t. Often such times were so long ago we have no cultural (much less personal) memory. We live as if we have always lived a certan way, even when we know better.

Take measurement, for instance. There was surely a first time, when someone, somewhere, thought to mark down something to keep track of how many, how much, how long or short, and thus invented measurement. Since then, measuring has become part of the cultural air. We notice it when we use it, but rarely realize consciously just how ubiquitous it is. Basically, almost everything we do is measured.

“If we could not measure, then we could not observe the world around us; could not experiment and learn…it is a tool for social cohesion and control…[m]easurement has not only made the world we live in, it has made us too.”

Thus James Vincent establishes in the introduction to his history, Beyond Measure, the vital importance of what he then goes on to explore in his excellent overview.

There is a scene in one of the original Star Trek episodes where Nurse Chapel confronts her former paramour, who was presumed lost on an unexplored world and has somehow survived. But he has survived by becoming an android, a machine. He is challenged that he is no longer human and seeks to prove that he is and then runs down a list of possible tests, every single one of which involves measurement of some kind. Somehow being unable to offer a proof that does not involve mathematics of some kind suggests he has lost his essential humanness.

After coming to grips with the proofs offered in Mr. Vincent’s new book, one would be forced to ask “Well how else would he prove it other than by engaging in one of the most fundamentally human creations at hand?”

There is a resistance to accepting definitions of ourselves that involve technologies, as if artifice somehow detracts from our essence. But it is by virtue of those very things that we can recognize such distinctions and make judgments about what may or may not be human—or (especially) whether we should make such judgments.

Vincent explores the history of measurement as a social phenomenon, taking us into some unexpected byways, but with an emphasis on the struggle for standards. The bases on which reliable measures are determined are essential for trade, for the exchange of dependable information, for the very ability to communicate across borders, for, in short, harmony. He presents facts that suggest—strongly—that incommensurate measurements exacerbated if not caused revolutions, wars, the collapse of economies. Getting things “right” is a millennia-old struggle.

But that goal itself can often seem arbitrary. How does one “know” that an inch is an inch, a kilogram a kilogram, a mile a mile, or a light year what it is? Till the last couple of centuries, such questions were central, even if often ignored, but advances in finding presumably irreducible yardsticks, so to speak, have dominated official attempts to establish standards and have entered the quantum age. For the moment, at least, we have ultimate measures against which all other scales might be balanced—the speed of light at one end and Plank’s constant at the other.

We take measurement for granted, most of us, most of the time, but we could not function without it and its application at almost every level, in every niche, of social intercourse.

Beyond Measure is a fascinating read, and takes us into some places we might never know exist. It also prompts questions of limits that are sometimes uncomfortable. How much precision is enough? In the digital age, more so than ever before, this is becoming very personal. We have never really been able to escape from our fellow beings other than by comparison, but these days the metrics that delimit identity are becoming ever more detailed, and much of it would seem irrelevant. But we measure, compulsively, and out of the compulsion emerge possibilities for the kinds of conformity that can feel intrusive, undesirable. Turning our back on it is no solution. Acquainting ourselves better with the how and what and why of our cultural obsession is the reasonable approach. Knowing what to participate in, how, and perhaps recognizing our essential humanness in the numbers, that would seem the more effective—even desirable—approach. This book might be a good place to start.

In Times Long Past…

In the afterword to Nicola Griffith’s new novella, Spear, she runs down the lists of source material and permutations around the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Or, more precisely, those around Percival, who in many tellings is the more important figure. The king is all very fine, of course, but it was Percival who found the Grail. In some versions, it is Percival who returns Excalibur to the Lake. In still others…

The point being that such stories, myths and legends, are all repurposed tales that meet multiple needs and adapt to the times in which they are (re)told. Tracing them to a single point of origin is not only virtually impossible, but is irrelevant. The purpose of myth is reification.

Among others. But on that point, reification is always tied to the present. Which lends myth its ever-ancient timelessness and relevance.

Which is always one of the fascinating things about it, that timeless-timely utility.

It’s also what makes a good retelling immediately exciting and accessible.

Most (if not all) myths begin in some version of “A hero will be born.” The story then is “from where” “to whom” and “then what?” Perseus is emblematic, and possibly the most visible in significance. The Greeks may not have begun the genre, but they certainly perfected it, and for a long time pretty much owned it. All the Great Heroes of the Aegean and Adriatic region have remarkable beginnings. Often a cave is involved. Some education in the wilderness. Then the confrontation that defines their purpose. They are, essentially, Of Nature, since everything about them is from Outside, “inside” being more or less whatever passed for civilization. (For our purposes, the primal exemplar of this outsider could be Enkidu from the Gilgamesh story.)

The utility of myth cycles is in their adaptability. Repurposing a story to reveal, reify, revise, or otherwise reestablish the scope of meaning is what gives them power across time. The nature of the actors can change, roles might be swapped around, identities modified or even completely recast.

And in some instances, the central hero is changed. Focus moves from one to another, giving us a shift in perspective, a realignment. Something new, something not considered before. And yet, the story remains essentially the same, at least in regards to the events and the goals.

The Arthurian cycle is endlessly adaptable this way. Who is the hero? Arthur? Merlin? Lancelot? Guinevere?


All of them, depending on which example you look at, fit the role of Outsider. But the one that is most ideally crafted for that part is Percival.

In Spear, Nicola Griffith gives us a Percival who is perfectly outside. In this iteration, she is Peretur, of “mixed” parentage, raised in the essential cave, schooled by a wise adept, nurtured to become the hero the world needs.

She comes of age, chooses a path, and sets forth from the hidden place of her childhood to journey to Arturus’s court at Caer Leon to join the circle of Companions to the king. She decides, chooses, does battle, grows confident…

This is a hero to cheer for. Her first victory is in learning her true name. Her next is establishing for herself what she is. And then making a place for herself in the world. A place of her choosing.

Quest is also a major element of most myths. Going, struggling to find, fulfilling vows, remaking the world along the way. In this new retelling of this story, there is a quest, though it is not what most of the participants believe it to be. In this way, Griffith shows how the defining character of the goal is not a specific thing but a fulfillment of purpose, and grail at the end is self-knowledge.

Spear is a marvelous reworking of the Arthurian tale. The components are given different origins, different explanations, the settings are deftly placed in what we know of the “real” world, and the nature of what may have been the place and people from which the cycle emerged are treated with the kind of demythologizing care of the historian. There is a texture to this, a fabric of authenticity that gives entree to the world. In the end, such reassessments only add to the power and charm of the story. In so doing, Griffith offers us a variation that reifies overlooked or hidden aspects of what makes the legend important. For us.

Along the way, she gives us a damn good adventure.

In the afterword, there is a tantalizing discussion of sources, variations, and a brief history of the cycles over time. It establishes the long practice of repurposing of which Spear is only the newest example. Which is all well and good, but the best thing about this one is that is opens the possibilities of the story to offer meaning to a wider audience. It is not a tale aimed at Just These People, but for many more not usually considered. Griffith discusses that as well.

Spear is a successful recasting. Even the nature of the Quest at the heart of centuries of Grail stories is given a new raison detre, bringing is from the cosmic to the personal in a touching reveal utterly consistent with Griffith’s purposes and the traditions of the story cycle.

All this aside, it is first and foremost a thoroughly delightful and satisfying work.

Visceral Coding

Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

Bridges, Circles, the Pleasure of Continuing On

As I’ve gotten older, my reading has taken turns I would never have expected. My preferred genre is science fiction, and yet I find the number of SF books I read per year shrinking. Perhaps I’m getting more selective—and it is getting more difficult to choose, what with the wealth of new possibilities—but the total number of books I read per year has not shrunk much. 

I’ve been reading more nonfiction. (I’m a writer, I have to do a certain amount of investigation of the world, of history, of science, so…) But also my consumption of mysteries has increased.

In particular, mystery series.

Decades ago, I would have been working through science fiction series. I cut my teeth on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, Doc Smith’s Lensmen, Asimov’s Foundation novels, the Dorsai, Pern, even L. Sprague DeCamp’s Krishna books. But then I limited it to trilogies and finally, over the past couple of decades, my preference has been for stand-alones in science fiction. I love the field no less than ever, but I don’t have the patience for series anymore.

Mysteries are another matter. In the last couple of decades I have found myself waiting for the next novel in any number of mystery series. Nero Wolfe started it. As a teenager, I was not so interested in sticking with them, but I had read a few. Recently…

Among my favorites are Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels; Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs; Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher; Martin Walker’s Chief Bruno; a handful of others.

Especially Christopher Fowler’s marvelous Bryant & May series.

As eclectic goes, these are difficult to beat, and as each novel arrives, it seems more and more that Fowler has an end game in mind.

Arthur Bryant and John May are the oldest still-working detectives in the London police system. They should long since have retired, but you realize quickly that they simply have nothing else to do. May, the more grounded of the pair, has pretty much run through what passes for a normal life, and has not been particularly successful at it. Bryant is anything but ordinary and has a dedication to his city that amazes and mystifies those with whom he works. He is a historian, an out-of-box thinker, tenacious, eccentric, and genuinely cares nothing for what other people think of him.

They are the chief detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an oddball division set up during World War II with a strange remit that lands them in cases that sometimes border on the occult, sometimes conspiracy, sometimes have roots going back centuries.

And the regular police department—the Met—and forces in the Home Office want very much to see them gone. They are unclassifiable. They are occasionally an embarrassment. What keeps them open is a combination of Bryant’s (unnamed) connections in government and their well-above-average success rate.

Bryant and May are circling around 80 and you know this can’t go on much longer, but with each novel their reprieve—for their careers, for the odd assemblage of people who make up the rest of the Unit, for the sheer pleasure of seeing the Suits at Whitehall thwarted—gives another chance to take us through a London by way of criminal investigation not to be found in any other series of which I am aware.

Rabbits are regularly pulled out of aging hats by the end of the novels to lead to one more bizarre outing. The byplay between the partners is delightful, Bryant’s network of informants are among the strangest and most diverse to be found, there is humor, weirdness, and the villains are always unexpected. 

The new one, London Bridge Is Falling Down, opens up a new level in the history of the Unit itself and offers a set of resolutions I did not expect. The remit so often mentioned throughout the series gets a new look and the revelations are more than satisfying. Fowler shows us an aspect of the aftershocks of the War that we have come to expect but in ways that make it fresh and with consequences for the characters that are surprising and terrible. The long story of the Unit is on display, the roots and branches are the target of the crimes, and the resolutions…

There is in this current volume a level of pathos long hinted at and now realized, a sense of inevitability that, while consistent with the  arc of the series, points up the power of fiction to draw us into relationships that genuinely matter.

Among the many pleasures of Bryant and May’s adventures is the pointed critique of bureaucracy, useless officials, and politics-at-the-expense-of-results which all plague our modern era. This should not be mistaken for a blanket condemnation of such systems, for a parallel consideration is how such systems remain necessary even to the rebels and outliers if they wish to be effective. Bryant’s constant complaining about the modern world is not about the basic idea of it but about the ham-fisted way in which so much of it manifests. He does not object to technology as such, only in its apparent ability to separate people from each other. He refuses to Google, preferring to find someone who knows something and talk to them. As lonely as he seems to be—as opposed to the more socially-adept May—he is the one insisting on the human connection, while his partner, who connects often, just as often fails at such connections.

Bryant solves cases obliquely, with apparent side-trips into historical cul-d-sacs and by ways regular police find pointless and, frankly, embarrassing. Among Bryant’s confidantes is a white witch, who manages to regularly point Arthur in a useful direction. 

May, on the other hand, who is fastidious, fashionable, and facile with the very modernizations that seem to frustrate his partner, is the one who grounds the Unit in the world of forms and protocols. He is a traditional cop. 

It is amazing the two of them get along at all.

But as with other long-running series, the heart of it is the friendship. They are partners. Time has joined them in ways neither understands or would wish to change.

London Bridge Is Falling Down takes them back to their early years in unexpected and tragic ways. Things done back then now come out in the open in ways neither could have foreseen. Following the trail of a hapless functionary who thinks he has found a way to extricate himself from the mess that his life has become leads from body to body and the only way to make sense of it all is to go back to the beginnings.

Fowler has brought us around a long circle through the series. One hopes it is not yet closed. Bryant and May ought really to live forever.

Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, leading to regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

Why Read

In light of the last few years, the question bites. Indulge me in a venting plea.

In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that the better read a person is, the more likely they will be to cope with reality, to defend against the twisting delights of both conspiracy theory and pseudoscience, and to be less vulnerable to charlatanry.

Not always. Some deceptions come wrapped in marvelous packages that can appeal to the puzzle-solver in us all and present as aesthetically compelling. In my own life I have followed white rabbits in tweed down a number of holes, some part of me convinced that truth lay in some hidden recess along the way.

I have been relegated to many sidelines since childhood because of reading, sidelines which at the time seemed harsh and unfair, but in retrospect were actually relatively safe places. Time and space are necessary for a mind to develop. Exposure to stimulating material does not work its magic immediately, sometimes not even soon, but eventually all those books and stories and articles result in a set of pathways and memories and organizing concepts that allow for the skills to deal with what may otherwise be just confusion.

No, let me be more definite—“may” has little to do with it. People who read, in my experience, are generally more present, more conscious, more adaptable than people who only watch and subsequently go through life skimming a surface which too often becomes a mirror and allows them to ignore what is beneath. In fact, those surface presentations often depend on not knowing what underlies them, may actively resist analysis, and with few exceptions deceive by suggesting there is nothing more.

Not all. But it is also true that those not intended to deceive largely depend on an audience that reads to reveal their full meaning.

There are many studies about the physiological and cognitive benefits of reading, especially fiction. Here’s one. There is an increases in synaptic structure associated with regular reading. Memory improves. Your brain responds by providing better tools.

Then, of course, you have to apply the tools. For me, this makes fiction and, in a similar way, history indispensable. Reading other kinds of books, while important in many ways, can leave you unaware of irony, of conflict, or paradox, all of which are fundamental to the so-called Human Condition. We read novels to grapple with the contradictions of being human. We read fiction because in doing so we learn the value of Other Minds attempting to do this thing we all own as a birthright—-living.

Occasionally we see a nod to this in popular entertainment. In the tv series Castle, Detective Becket is presented as an exceptional and gifted detective. In the first episode we hear from one of her colleagues that he likes “a simple Jack killed Jill over Bill” rather than the “freaky” ones. Becket responds, “Oh, but the freaky ones require more.” And then she challenges them: “Don’t you guys read?” As the series progresses we can see that she just brings more to the game and in that first episode the difference is made explicit.

We undervalue reading, often while making a big deal about it. Writers become celebrities, usually once one or more of their books is made into a film. And their fans may well read everything they publish, but that’s not beneficial reading. Like anything else, if you do not expand your horizons, complicate your diet, move out of your comfort zone, you end up trapped in a self-referential, reaffirming loop that grows nothing.

We must read so our apprehension of the world is less frightening, amenable to recognition, and manageable. So that people are not so alien and culture not so forbidding. Certainly someone can read a great deal and still be unable to decipher the world, but I believe such people to be a minority, and most of us benefit from the increased clarity that comes from an ongoing encounter with Other Minds.

The greatest benefit comes from a catholic indulgence: read widely, daily—fiction, science, history, philosophy, memoir—because at some point you will find it all reinforcing, that insights gained in one place can be enriched and enlivened by another source. And somewhere along the way, we may find that we are no longer easily fooled.

The most valuable ability of late would seem to be this, the awareness to not be fooled.

I make no prediction that a sudden upsurge of deep reading would solve our problems. Humans can be contradictory, perverse creatures. But it seems obvious that an illiterate populace is an easily-tricked, easily swayed populace. Given that those who are invested in people watching their shallow offerings rather than go off somewhere to read are generally those who would sell us shiny bits that delight and fail, it would be a good strategy to take up books and stop being led like myopic sheep.

But I have a rather more personal reason for urging people to set aside whatever prejudices they acquired in primary and secondary schools that turned them against reading-for-pleasure. When I set a book aside, as one must, and go out into the world, I would like to have meaningful contact with other people, and ignorance is a depressing barrier to that.

Why read? To be more. To hopefully be yourself. And possibly to be free.

Scandal In Romania

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Nick and Nora Charles, Charles and Kate Sheridan, and in one unexpected offering Clark Gable and Carole Lombard—all have one thing in common: they are all detective marriages. Husband and wife teams, solving crimes, bringing their own domestic wrinkles to the task. Agatha Christie even wrote one, Tommy & Tuppence, as did Elizabeth Peters. The couple that solves crime together is more common than might first be suspected. And all of them have the unexpected about them, aspects of their relationship that would seem to make it unlikely, unstable, or unmanageable. And yet, they work.

The hallmark of these couples, of course, is the combined ability to solve murders, but that is only an aspect of what may be the chief attraction—for them and for the reader. Along with all the other (presumed) pleasures of the relationship, the intellectual rises to the top as an aspect of love. Unspoken though it may be in many instances, these are people drawn to each other by their shared appreciation for thinking.

And acting on the results.

Odd as many of them may seem, perhaps the least likely is the marriage of a young Mary Russell to her mentor/colleague, Sherlock Holmes.

When I encountered the first volume of Laurie R. King’s series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I read the description and thought: And just how does that work? Sherlock Holmes is the most dedicated bachelor in detective fiction. Many writers have attempted to explain that, even work on the assumed “romance” between Holmes and Irene Adler, and have mined the subtext of his condition for decades, sometimes to good effect.

But married?

In a display of elegant reimagining, solid logic, and excellent prose, King convinces us that her version of the Holmes Story is the true tale underlying the gloss of fiction created by Dr. Watson. In the first twenty pages a new reality is established, making these novels feel more like revealed history than fanciful speculations. As it has turned out, she established a premise that has resulted in 18 novels (give or take) and some shorter works, each one adding to the Holmes mythos and providing terrific entertainment along the way.

The series proceeds chronologically and follows history closely. From time to time we have the added pleasure of seeing a fictional character enter the story as if part of actual history (the rescue of Kim, for example—yes, Kipling’s Kim) and the new one—Castle Shade—more or less continues in that vein.

Almost literally. After wrapping up a twisted affair in the Riviera, Holmes and Russell are summoned to Romania at the request of Queen Marie. They arrive at Castle Bran where they are presented with the problem (in the form of threats against the queen’s daughter) and tasked with finding those responsible.

We are in the thick of atmospheric evocations. Castle Bran is reputedly that castle—Dracula’s. The vampire haunts the novel. Both Russell and Holmes are grounded materialists, so obviously ghosts, devils, vampires and so forth are not the perpetrators. But they are tools.

Politics play a role—this is 1925 and Romania is slowly recovering from the shocks of World War I—as does folklore. Holmes and Russell must move carefully through a landscape fraught with the kind of peril born out of superstition and the frayed sensibilities of a people still trying to find their way into a new world without losing too much of the old.

King deftly portrays the country, the culture, the politics, and the history and moves her characters through this landscape on this most delicate quest. As in past novels, King displays a deep understanding of history, and her attention to detail is everything one would expect from a Sherlock Holmes novel.

But as I said, the pleasure of this novel and all the others in the series is in the dynamic between Russell and Holmes and it remains compelling and convincing. The biggest difference between Mary Russell and her husband is age and therefore experience, but they are intellectually matched and derive a significant part of their delight in each other from that fact.

King has humanized Holmes, perhaps more believably than most other attempts, which have generally focused on the uncommon intelligence and observational skills of the detective, so much so that many incarnations have rendered the character all but a machine. The original stories show a more rounded person, someone who it must be remembered could be extraordinarily kind. Whatever the reason—fascination with the exotic if nothing else—Holmes has been too often portrayed as some kind of intellectual freak. Conan Doyle, if he had any message beyond telling a good yarn, was that the chief distinction between Holmes and his fellow humans was his willingness to Pay Attention. Yet the message received seems to have been “thank heavens there’s only one of him, no one could be like that!” King has spent time in this series, it seems, undoing the various boxes into which Holmes has been placed. (There have been a number of stories presenting the idea that Holmes was, in fact, an alien, which explained his unique powers. Fun stories, to be sure, but again that trend of removing Holmes from the realm of the human.) King’s Holmes begins as someone who had fled London, tired of The Game, but who started his career much younger than the man in Dr. Watson’s tales (a nod perhaps to Aesop, who was said to have dressed as an old man in order to be taken seriously by those who would never accept wisdom from a young man?) and was interested in his bees, his solitude, and perhaps rejuvenating himself after near burn-out. The opportunity of training a protege in the form of a young girl who invades his quiet gives him a chance to…

Well, that would seem to be an ongoing journey, for both of them. Russell/Holmes is very much a spring-autumn romance—and there is romance, albeit understated and plausibly private (these are written in first-person by Mary)—but they have found each other as rough equals and by implication natural companions.

All that is well and good, but the best part of these novels is Mary herself, who is one of the finest sleuths to be found. Tough-minded, resilient, a scholar first, detective and occasionally reluctant spy, it is from her we learn all this, her voice that takes us through the adventures, and Holmes often takes a backseat to Mary’s navigation.

And the mysteries are fine. Just the sorts of unlikely, bizarre, exotic tangles one should expect from a Sherlock Holmes tale. But again, rendered in terms of human capacity and interest. In any event, so far each book has left me happily looking forward to the next. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes have together reinvigorated what had come close to being overdone and overworked.