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Review 188: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks has probably saved your life. If not yours, then almost certainly that of someone you know.

And you don’t even know who she is.

Or, rather, who she was. The original Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived near Baltimore, grew up in poverty, worked hard, and died in 1951, overcome by a cancer that started in her cervix and spread out to take over her whole body. She left behind five children, a husband, and a legacy that would forever change our understanding of biology and medicine.

This picture is required to be inserted into any discussion of Henrietta Lacks, for good reason.

When she first went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor took a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent it to his colleague, George Gey. Gey had long been in the pursuit of what seemed like an impossible dream: to culture human cells and keep them alive in the lab. By doing so, he hoped to create new ways to test medicine and study human biology without all those pesky patients getting in the way. Unfortunately, his work had thus far been a failure. Human cells, no matter how hard he tried, simply would not survive outside the body for very long. Gey tried all kinds of media and methods, inventing some machines that have become invaluable to cell culture research, but he simply watched culture after culture die in the lab.

All of that changed when he got HeLa.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks, which were known as “HeLa,” not only didn’t die – they thrived. They were so robust that Gey and his staff soon had more HeLa cells than they could keep, much less use, so they started sending them off to any researcher who asked. With HeLa, researchers around the world began to make discoveries that would save lives and change the world.

But with this ever-growing cell line – which was baked, boiled, frozen, irradiated, cloned, cut up, and sent into space – it was very easy to forget that there was once a woman named Henrietta Lacks, with a family and a legacy of her own.

Plenty has been written about HeLa in the last fifty years, and any researcher who works with cells is probably well aware of its existence and importance. But very few people know about Henrietta, and it was this oversight that Rebecca Skloot is trying to correct in this book.

Henrietta finally gets a gravestone

She began her quest with a simple question: “Who was Henrietta Lacks?” The fact that she got the right name was surprising enough, actually. HeLa had previously been identified as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane, and Helen Larson in various publications. Skloot believed that there was more to the story than just a bunch of immortal cells, and was determined to find Henrietta’s surviving relatives and learn more about this woman who had somehow become so important to the world.

Skloot wouldn’t be the first, however. A writer for Rolling Stone, a con man, and the BBC had all attempted to look into the life of Henrietta before, and found that the surviving Lackses were not only unaware of what their mother had become, but largely unaware of why it was important.

The children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks had grown up in the Baltimore area, mired in the poverty of being black in the end of the twentieth century. Drug abuse, alcoholism, and a lack of education meant that their lives were full of hardship and struggle, and not likely to get any better. When they found out that Henrietta’s cells were not only unique to science but being sold all around the world, this was news that they weren’t all prepared to cope with. Some saw it as a religious visitation, others as a massive conspiracy, and still others as just a way to make money off some poor black folk from the city.

Deborah Lacks

The center of Skloot’s narrative is Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter and the one Lacks who seemed most determined to find out what had happened. Deborah wanted so hard to find out what had happened to her mother that it almost killed her. The stress of not knowing – or, even worse, knowing but not understanding – took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health, and she was reluctant to talk to anyone at all about her mother. But it was Deborah that Rebecca had to convince if she was going to write this book, and in order to do that, she had to promise that the book would be about the woman Henrietta was, not just the cells she was famous for.

That’s probably what makes this book as readable and engaging as it is. While the science is handled well and smoothly, it’s not nearly as fascinating or emotionally gripping as the stories that she tells about the Lacks family. She shows us a family that is held together by the strength of their faith in their God and each other, and who are desperately trying to understand their place in the world and how Henrietta came to be what she was.

HeLa cells, as seen stained under a microscope

When the original cells were taken from Henrietta, it was done without her consent. She also had no say in what happened to those cells and how they were used, nor did any of her family find out the truth until years later. In an era long before the phrase “informed consent” was even coined, the medical establishment made massive scientific and financial gains, and in the meantime the Lacks were mired in poverty. As several of her children note, Henrietta has changed medicine forever, but her children can’t go see a doctor.

The struggle to understand must have been enormous. One of the moments that was most surprising and illuminating to me was when Henrietta’s son Zakariyya asked Rebecca, “What’s a cell?”

Just like Rebecca, I had to take a moment to absorb that question, and it put into sharp perspective the vast assumptions that I had made, coming from a well-educated white background. I thought that everyone at least knew what a cell was, but that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deborah and her family are people of minimal formal education who are trying to understand a topic that people study for their entire lives. Their dedication to this quest is so strong, and the struggle is so great that their attempt is nothing less than heroic, to my way of seeing things.

The Lacks Family

The story is still unfinished. HeLa is still out there, making news and causing trouble. The Lacks family is still living in poverty, although the new generation has been able to go to school and are aiming at a brighter future for themselves. And while patients’ rights to control what is done with their bodies and their tissues is improving, the law is still on the side of the doctors and hospitals. Medical ethics is a lot better than it was, but the fight is fierce, especially when there’s money involved.

This book is not just the story of cells or of science. It’s the story of a woman and her family, and how sometimes people get lost in the inexorable movement of scientific progress. Some parts are infuriating, some are heartbreaking, but the book is an illumination into what is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of a better world.

—–
“When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
– Mary Kubicek, assistant to George Gey

Rebecca Skloot on Wikipedia
Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Amazon.com
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website
The Lacks Family website
Rebecca Skloot homepage

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Filed under biology, disease, family, nonfiction, quest, Rebecca Skloot, science

Review 187: The Physics of Superheroes

The Physics of Super-Heroes by James Kakalios

Comics have always had a rough relationship with science. Many comics had their roots in science fiction, so it cannot be said that science is entirely missing from comic books. It’s just that, occasionally, science gets in the way of a good character or a good story. When that happens, one of them has to go. Since comics are a medium for storytelling, it’s easy to guess which one loses out.

As long as you can suspend your disbelief, the egregious abuse of science in comics can be overlooked. Things that we know to be impossible are not only forgiven when reading comics (and many other forms of fiction, be they movies, TV or books) it is truly necessary. I mean, that’s the whole point of fiction – to show us a world that isn’t our own.

And a lot of those nitpickers were overjoyed at this sequence. (World’s Finest #4, 2012)

Still, for the nitpickers, there’s plenty to object to in comics. Gross violations of the square/cube law, impossible particles, anatomical impossibilities, causality problems – you name it. It’s very easy to look at the use of science in comics and point out what they’re doing wrong.

So why has James Kakalios gone to so much trouble to point out what comics get right?

Two reasons, really – he loves comic books and he loves teaching physics. And he found (much to his pleasure, I’d imagine) that he could do both at the same time, using comic book examples to boost the interest of his students, making it the kind of physics class I would have loved to have taken.

In this book, Kakalios gives us a basic physics course in a few brief sittings, starting with the Newtonian Classics and working his way up to quantum physics. By using the popular superheroes of the day, he gives us a way of thinking about physics that is not only interesting, but also makes sense.

We’re right there with you, Kyle. (JLA #19, 1998)

For example, he uses good old f=ma (with a few extra bits of math thrown in here and there) to determine exactly how fast Superman (back in his Golden Age, pre-flight incarnation) was going when he leapt over buildings in a single bound. He looks at The Flash and how he might use quantum tunneling to go through walls, as well as why running on water would not only be possible, but at the speeds the Flash reaches, absolutely necessary. And of course, the Atom gets a lot of page space when it comes time to look at the world of the incredibly small, and the quantum rules that govern it.

Could Spider-Man’s webbing really allow him to swing like that, and why was Gwen Stacy’s death one of the best uses of physics in a comic? How are Iceman and Storm’s powers related, and how do Magneto’s powers really work? Did Krypton have a core of neutron star material? Does Conservation of Energy apply to the Flash, and how does the technology work to make Iron Man’s suit possible?

Two things make this book much more entertaining than The Science of Superheroes. The first is that it focuses solely on science, instead of trying to split its attention between the science, the characters and the history of the comic book industry. This is a real science book, despite the presentations – there are formulas in here, and it does sag a bit in places (especially the quantum physics part, but he does warn us about that).

The Hulk’s pants are a HUGE miracle exception. And I want the number of his tailor.

But that’s okay, because Kakalios isn’t out to debunk these heroes, and that’s the other reason why this book is good. He grants them a “miracle exception” that allows them their powers, and then asks, “Okay, assuming Ant-Man can shrink down to six inches, would he still be able to do what he does?” And then he goes on to show how the hero can (or can’t) do what he’s supposed to be able to do.

One of the biggest problems in science education is keeping students interested. Your average high school (and college) physics class will go on about weights and levers and inclined planes, presenting the laws of the universe in a fairly abstract (and dull) fashion. Like many students, I found myself thinking, “When will I ever actually use any of this?” For most students, the answer is Never. Same goes for a lot of what’s taught in high school – it may broaden your mind, but it’s likely to be impractical knowledge.

But knowledge doesn’t have to be practical to be worthwhile. Knowing how the universe works, what its laws and restrictions are, may not help you in your day-to-day life, but it makes you into a better citizen of the universe. It imbues the physical world with some semblance of rationality, an assurance that while we may not always like what the world throws at us, there is at least a reason for why things happen the way they do. There is consistency, there is order, and in a mixed up, topsy-turvy world like ours, that’s nice to know.

Even my disbelief will only suspend so high, GRANT MORRISON. (Action Comics #12, 2012)

What’s more, this book helps do what I always try to do – bring legitimacy to superhero comics. Even in this day and age, it’s very easy to look at Superman and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” It’s not. Okay, yes, the stories tend towards the simple; they’re flashy and bright and often espouse rather basic moral schemes. But they can be examined in many lights beyond that of simple entertainment, and reveal a wealth of information and understanding about the world in which we live.

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“If a twisted, evil maniac like the Green Goblin can learn physics, then there’s hope for us all.”
– James Kakalios, The Physics of Superheroes
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James Kakalios on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Amazon.com
James Kakalios’ homepage

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Filed under comic books, education, James Kakalios, science, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

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“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
Supergods on Amazon.com
Grant Morrison’s homepage

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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 185: The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time 05)

Wheel of Time 05: The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

One of the criticisms often laid at the feet of this series – and not unfairly – is that it is splintered.

Read any epic fantasy, and you’ll see that at some point, the author splits the party up. This is an almost guaranteed way to create more action, more storylines and, if you’re being paid per word, more money for the author. Tolkien, the grandfather of modern fantasy, did a nice job of splitting the Fellowship up into three branches at one time, and then brought them back together at the end. Since then, the technique has been a stock tool of any writer who is dealing with an ensemble cast in her work.

This pretty accurately describes the plot structure from here on out…

Jordan has taken this technique to its extreme. He used the standard method back in The Eye of the World – split the group into three, bring them all back together just in time for the climactic ending. Pretty boilerplate plot construction right there. From The Great Hunt, however, we began to see that having all of our main characters in one place at one time will be more the exception than the rule – while it starts and ends with everyone together, the beginning of The Dragon Rebornstarts us off with the party split again, bringing them all together only at the very last minute.

By my count, there are eighteen different point-of-view characters in this book, occupying four different major plot threads, only two of which actually manage to come together by the end. And it just gets more complicated from here on out. From my research, there is yet to be any point in the series where every plot thread manages to come together in one place at one time.

For some readers, this is supremely annoying, and I can’t say I blame them. You find yourself going back and forth from character to character, keeping up with storylines that are superficially unrelated, all in the hopes that they’ll pay off eventually. The circus interlude in this book is an excellent example. In an attempt to hide from the Forsaken Moghedein (whom Nynaeve seriously pissed off in the last book) and to get safe passage to the rebel Aes Sedai after the breaking of the White Tower, Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin find themselves traveling with a circus. The logic behind this is that no one would ever look for them there, and I suppose they’d be right. I certainly didn’t see it coming.

I’m not sure why this never caught on as a dominant fantasy trope.

There’s a lot of good old-fashioned circus wackiness that goes on – Elayne puts on tights (which just scandalizeNynaeve) and learns to walk a tightrope. Nynaeve ends up being the target for Thom’s knife throwing and battles her own distaste at the skimpy clothes she has to wear versus the fact that she thinks they look pretty. Now I’m not saying that nothing important happens during the circus interlude – lots of things do. It’s just that there’s no reason they had to take place in a circus.

And there’s no reason they couldn’t, either. After all, who’s the multiple-bestselling author, Jordan or me?

As opposed to a single POV series, such as Harry Potter, where you know where the important action is and who it’s happening to, Wheel of Time requires its readers to observe a world of characters. And I think that’s the key to how these books are structured. The events that are happening here aren’t just happening to one small group of people, or one kingdom. It’s happening to the entire world, from the edge of the Aiel Waste all the way to the shores of the Aryth Ocean, from Seanchan to Shara. Rand al’Thor may be the Dragon Reborn (or the Car’a’carn or the Cooramoor, depending on whom you talk to), but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has things to do. In order for the Last Battle to be won, a whole lot of things have to happen, and not all of them are going to be centered around our main protagonist.

I’d hang out with this guy, no question… (art by Seamus Gallagher)

In this book, for example, we have two groups looking for the Aes Sedai who fled the White Tower when Elaida became Amyrlin (I hope you’ve been keeping up, otherwise that last sentence makes no sense whatsoever). Siuan Sanche and Leane Sharif, the former Amyrlin and her Keeper, are traveling with Min (a young girl who can tell the future from people’s auras) and Logain (a former False Dragon whose ability to channel was severed by the Aes Sedai.) And then there is Elayne and Nynaeve, who were both out of the Tower when the rebellion took place, but who hate Elaida more than Siuan, so they’re trying to find the rebels. These two plot threads eventually merge, but it takes fifty chapters before that happens.

At the same time, there’s Rand, Mat and Egwene, who are leaving the Aiel Waste for Cairhein, hot on the trail of the Shaido Aiel, who are murdering and pillaging everything they can find. The Shaido are a “rebel” clan, who refuse to accept Rand as the Car’a’carn (the Aiel’s Chief of Chiefs) and have decided that the best thing for them to do is to kill everyone who isn’t an Aiel. Rand and friends chase the Shaido all the way to Cairhein, where they engage in a fierce battle to save the city from being ravaged by war for the third time in twenty years. Even within this plot thread, Mat, Rand and Egwene occupy their own strands, staying apart more often than they get together.

The fourth plot thread is a thin one – Queen Morgase of Andor, who has been gulled into complacency by the Forsaken Rahvin (who is posing as “Lord Gaebril,” the queen’s lover) has finally come to her senses, and escapes from her own castle. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who will help her, but she’s intent on regaining her throne and seeing Gaebril hang. Lucky for her, Rand manages to take care of her little Forsaken problem by the end, although she’s unaware of this.

Meanwhile, the whole world is falling apart. The White Tower has well and truly split, something that the new Amyrlin, Elaida, is desperately trying to keep from the world. There is war and strife across half the continent, men who believe that the existence of the Dragon Reborn means that all bonds are broken, all social contracts annulled. The Prophet Masema – a man from the northern nation of Shienar – is preaching absolute devotion to Rand al’Thor as not only the Dragon Reborn, but as the source of all that is good. The coming of the Dragon brings not only a great battle with the Shadow, but great upheavals in civilization itself.

No, no – Wait! Don’t go! It gets better!

So, to say “there’s a lot going on in these books” is a bit of an understatement, and it’s Jordan’s fondness for creating new plot threads and then following them to see where they lead that has probably led to this series going on as long as it has. Had he just centered on Rand, it all could have been over in half the time. But it would have been far less interesting in the long run.

The characters of this world are fond of using a certain metaphor to describe life – the Great Tapestry. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” they like to say, and they believe that each person’s life is a figurative thread in a greater system. Some characters, like Rand, Mat and Perrin, are more important than others, and they tend to bend other threads to follow theirs. But you cannot make a tapestry out of only three threads, and the end of the world in this series is something in which everyone may participate. Without the actions of the myriad minor characters, Rand wouldn’t be able to be the person he needs to be, and the story wouldn’t be able to be as rich and as complex as it needs to be.

So, give this some thought. If you’re the type of reader who prefers to stick with one character or group of characters throughout a series; if you don’t like having to keep notes on who is doing what and where; if you’re not the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to note all of the different major characters, with color-coding and hand-drawn graphs…. Not that I have, mind you…. If that’s not your kind of read, then you may not enjoy this series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

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“It would be easier if this was a story.”
– Rand
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Fires of Heaven at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Fires of Heaven at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, death, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, identity, madness, military, quest, Robert Jordan, survival, travel, Wheel of Time, wizardry, women

Review 184: Ender’s Shadow

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

This book made me wish I could forget that I had ever read Ender’s Game.

Not because it was necessarily a better book – though it is longer – but because the two books offer different views of the same events from two distinctly different perspectives.

Ender Wiggin is brilliant and empathetic, a boy torn apart by his own doubts and fears and driven to greatness by a government that sees him simply as a means to an end. It is only his ability to understand and come to love those around him that gets him through his trials, endure his isolation, and which ultimately allows him to put together the team that defeats the Buggers. Ender seems to be more human than human, and not in that ironic Blade Runner sort of way, but in a way which makes us want to see him succeed and do well.

Bean, on the other hand, is about as different from Ender as it’s possible to get. He’s introduced in Ender’s Game as a foil, a character designed to show us how far Ender had come in the short time that he had been in Battle School. When we meet Bean, Ender is using the same techniques of isolation and constructive abuse that were used on him, making us wonder if Ender will turn out to be just a copy of the adults who were tormenting him. We learn that Bean, like Ender, is brilliant, but he is also strong-willed and ambitious and takes well to the atmosphere of Battle School. In the end, Bean shows himself to be a vital part of the team that Ender assembles to stop the Buggers and cement humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Ender’s story is all about empathy and self-understanding and his desire to be the person he wants to be, rather than the person humanity needs him to be. He has to give up some of his essential humanity in order to save the world.

Bean’s story comes from the opposite direction. More brilliant than Ender, Bean learns to find his humanity. He has to learn to see people as people, rather than a means to an end or a puzzle to solve. The hard lessons that he learned on the streets of Rotterdam as a small child were vital in preparing him to become a commander, but they have to be put aside if he’s to become a human.

Bean’s story is much bigger in scope than Ender’s, which gives the book as a whole more depth than Ender’s Game. We start out in Rotterdam, which has become a center of poverty and violence among rival gangs of street children. Bean, tiny and starving, manages to prove his worth to one of these gangs by suggesting strategies by which they can get more food and more respect. He gains the attention of Sister Carlotta, a nun who is working for both God and the International Fleet, and she is the first to see his full potential as a student in Battle School. But in the course of trying to understand Bean, she learns that his origin is one of horror, and that his future is even worse.

As a character, I liked Bean more than I liked Ender, possibly because on a scale of Complete Misanthrope to Bodhisattva, Bean and I are pretty close to the complete misanthrope end of the spectrum. To be fair, though, Bean has a lot more reasons to feel that way, and he’s a lot worse than I am. As we meet him, Bean views people as means to an end or as problems to be solved. He doesn’t reform the street gang culture of Rotterdam because it’s the right thing to do – he does it because he needs to eat. When he does experience attachment or fondness for others, he doesn’t know how to deal with it, and turns it into just another problem to be solved.

That hyper-analytical way of looking at the world makes Bean a much more aware character than Ender as well. While Ender spends most of his book wrapped inside his own head, Bean is constantly testing the world, analyzing it and trying to figure out what’s really going on. So while Ender was exploring the computer fantasy game, Bean was crawling through air ducts in the Battle School. While Ender was researching the battles of the past, Bean was learning how to spy on his teachers.

In the end, just as Ender is learning to put aside his humanity for the common good, Bean discovers a deep well of compassion that he never knew he had. Ender becomes more isolated, and Bean becomes more connected to others. The two characters come at each other from different directions and view the world in vastly different ways, giving us a kind of parallax view of the same events, to use Card’s preferred terminology.

Most interestingly, many of the revelations that were revealed to Ender in his book were discovered by Bean in this one, which creates a whole different reading experience.

And that’s why I wish I could delete my memory of having read Ender’s Game,, or at least put it away for a while. Reading this book, I constantly compare what’s happening to Bean with what happened to Ender, looking for those scenes that are shared between the books and others that we only get to see once. Whether it’s the early days of Battle School or Ender’s fight with Bonzo Madrid or the climactic end, there are enough similarities and differences to make each book worth reading.

But at the same time, I want to read each one for the first time, without knowing what’s going to happen next. I want to share Bean’s ability to see plans unspool before him without already knowing what those plans are. And then I want to read Ender’s Game the way I read Ender’s Shadow and have those wonderful moments of revelation as new light is shed on topics that were only briefly mentioned before – like Locke and Demosthenes, or the true fate of Mazer Rackham.

Card has done a difficult job very well in this book, and I can’t imagine it was easy at all. As he noted in his forward, a dozen years passed between the first book and this one, and a person changes in that much time. He learned new things and gained new perspectives, and that naturally had a great influence on how he chose to write this story.

And then there’s the enormous popularity of his other Ender books. Between Game and Shadow, he wrote Speaker for the Dead in 1986, Xenocide in 1991, and Children of the Mind in 1996. That means he had a much more solid understanding of his world by the time he got around to Ender’s Shadow in 1999, and a much larger fan base as well. Writers will always say that they write for the story, not for the fans, but every writer wants in their heart of hearts to have people love what they write. Revisiting your most famous work and exploring a popular character brings great risks with it.

Fortunately, I think Card succeeded with this book. It both compliments and contrasts with Ender’s Game, offering enough new information and new viewpoints to merit a second novel, while being faithful to the story that fans had come to love over a decade and a half. What’s more, it feels like the work of a more experienced writer. The scale is larger, the characters have more depth, and he takes more chances with the story than he did with Ender’s Game.

All in all, if you were a fan of the first, you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read either, you really should. And if you start with this one, let me know how it goes.

—————————-
“Ender was what Bean only wished to be — the kind of person on whom you could put all your hopes, who could carry all your fears, and he would not let you down, would not betray you. I want to be the kind of boy you are, thought Bean. But I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through to get there.”

All images are from Marvel Comics.

Ender’s Shadow on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Shadow on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, aliens, coming of age, identity, military, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, space travel, teenagers, war, young adult

Review 183: Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Here’s the thing about comics, and it’s an unfortunate thing: when you tell people that you read comics, the first thing they’re likely to think about is superheroes. You can’t really blame them, seeing as how superhero comics make up so much of what’s being printed these days, nor can you blame them for thinking that superhero comics are kind of lowbrow entertainment. A lot of it is, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you’re looking at a profit-driven entertainment industry that works on a tight deadline every month. I have a co-worker who can’t believe that I, a man of thirty-[COUGHCOUGH] still reads comics, because her vision of what comic books are and what they can do is stuck in that mode that says, “Comics are for kids.”

There are some superhero comics that exceed our expectations, of course, and show emotionally-charged, well-written stories with deep and interesting characters, masterful writing, and a keen insight into human nature and behavior. They’re more often exceptions than the rule, of course, and if you want the really good stuff then you have to go beyond the monthlies and the Big Two. You need to look at the work of someone who is working not so much because he has an editor or a company that’s directing his work, but because he has a story to tell.

Enter Craig Thompson and Habibi

It’s hard to encapsulate this book in a single sentence, much less a concise review. I can either go on for far too long or find myself lost for words and not say enough. I will say, however, that the moment I laid eyes on it I would say the word that probably best sums up the experience of reading this book: Wow.

The story takes place in a semi-fictional Middle East, the land of Wanatolia, and it begins the way all comics begin – with a drop of ink and the flow of words. We are introduced to Dodola, a girl of nine at the start of the book, who is married off to a wealthy scribe. Through her, we are introduced to this strange and exotic world and the dangers it holds. She ends up living on a boat in the desert with a young boy named Zam, and together they survive in a world all their own. He finds water and she finds food, and they fall asleep to stories every night.

This continues until Dodala is taken by travelers, leaving Zam to fend for himself. While she is made into a concubine for the rich and powerful Sultan, Zam is looking for her among the poor and the dispossessed of Wanatolia. Over the years, their paths diverge terribly, until good fortune brings them together again, neither of them the same as they were, but at least finally able to be together as adults who have loved each other for a very long time.

In large parts, this is a story about boundaries and borders. For one thing, Wanatolia is a place that seems to straddle ancient and modern, fantastical and real. While we have girls sold into sexual slavery, camel-driven caravans and a sultan in an extravagant palace – harem included – we also have automobiles and motorcycles, garbage-clogged waterways, and a great dam that blocks the river and provides electricity. It’s hard to hold the two truths of this place in your mind, because they’re so completely opposite. Even when they appear in the same panel, it’s still hard to believe they’re the same world.

The last part of the book straddles the boundaries between the developed and developing worlds. Wanatolia has a great river that’s been dammed, and is a city-state that is growing fat on oil money. There are great skyscrapers and modern condos, but they’re built alongside astonishing poverty and filth-clogged waterways. The great and mighty live a scant distance away from people who proudly hunt for garbage in order to stay alive. It’s horrifying to look at, but at the same time you know that places like this are not unknown in our world.

It’s about the boundaries between the mystical and the mundane. Early on in the story, Dodala gives Zam a talisman to wear around his neck. It’s a piece of paper folded into nine squares, on which are written nine Arabic letters. Together, they represent a magic square, and rest on the foundations of the Koran. With this talisman, Zam will be protected from the demons and the djinn – as he goes outside to pee.

The Koran, of course, is hugely important to the story, and Thompson tells some of the most iconic and important stories that feature not only in the holy book of Islam, but in the Torah and the Bible as well. Dodala tells Zam about Abraham and his sacrifices, about Job and his plagues, about Noah and his ark, and about Solomon and his riddles, and those tales go on to inform the larger story. They also tell of cleverness and sacrifice and submission to a God that can barely be understood by such people as they.

It’s about the boundaries between men and women as well. For a while, Dodola and Zam live very comfortably on their desert boat together, seeing as how he’s a boy and she’s a young woman. She treats him more like a son or a little brother than anything else, and it’s adorable. But as he ventures into his teens, their relationship becomes a lot more complicated and confused. Zam’s emergent sexuality provides him with nothing but trouble, and even when he and Dodola are no longer together, she has a great effect on how he views himself as a sexual being.

And of course, there is the Sultan and his harem, which has plenty to say about the man-woman divide. The Sultan is both the master of and a slave to his women, constantly looking for novelty and entertainment from them and constantly being disappointed. In Dodola, he sees not only a woman who can pleasure his flesh, but who can engage his spirit. Alas, he turns out to be just as terrible to her as we might expect from a Sultan, and all of her feminine wiles nearly lead to her death.

That does get us to one point of criticism: while Dodola and Zam are interesting, deep, and complex characters, they are pretty much the only ones. The others – from the Sultan to the trash-fisher – are fairly flat and seem to have been created by an Arab Character Generator. Mind you, the number of authentic Middle Eastern communities I have been to could probably be counted on the fingers of a snake, so I’m really in no position to make many judgments on this. But if I were writing a story and needed an Arab character as either an antagonist or a background character, I might have made some of the ones that are in this book.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of writing, really. After all, the story isn’t about them – it’s about Dodloa and Zam. They are the two who need to be well-rounded and interesting. But it does open the door to discussions of racism in Thompson’s storytelling. Did he make the Sultan a power-mad misogynist because that’s who the character is, or is it because of Thompson’s own ethnocentric biases? Is Wanatolia full of calligraphers and robed assassins and street vendors with camels because Thompson wanted to instill a feeling of unease in the reader, not being able to reconcile the true nature of the kingdom, or is that his preconceived notion of what life in the Middle East must be like? How much of what he’s included is realistic and how much is assumption?

I have no idea. As I said, my knowledge of the Middle East is frightfully deficient, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge. What’s more, my knowledge of who Thompson is as a person and as a writer is informed pretty much by this book. I have no other way of knowing how susceptible he is to his own biases or how much he tries to subvert his own preconceptions. I will leave that up to people who are better situated than me to do.

What I do know, however, is that he did a ton of research to make this book, and it shows primarily in the art and the stories that are told as the book progresses.

The art is, in a word, stunning. It is full of intricate, byzantine calligraphy, mathematically precise and almost obsessively detailed. Every page is full of brilliantly planned drawings, and where the pages are blank, they call attention to their blankness and to those things that are being left undrawn. There were so many places in the book where I just stopped reading for a while so that I could just look at it and admire the time and the planning that must have gone into drawing something of this scope. The art alone is worth spending a day or two admiring.

It’s a deep and complicated book that rewards multiple reads. The more you know about the story, the more you find out when you read it again, and if you get tired then you can just admire the artwork for a good long while. The work that Thompson has produced here is nothing short of monumental.

On top of that, it’ll look really pretty on your bookshelf.

———-
“If all the trees on Earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of God would not run out.”
– Koran, 31:27

All illustrations by Craig Thompson

Habibi on Wikipedia
Craig Thompson on Wikipedia
Habibi on Amazon.com
The Habibi homepage
Craig Thompson’s homepage

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Filed under alternate history, art, Craig Thompson, fantasy, friendship, gender, graphic novel, identity, Islam, religion, sexuality

Review 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

There are really only so many things you can do with horror these days. I think we’ve all been somewhat desensitized by the ever-increasing variety and imaginativeness that has come with the horror genre in recent years, and so you know that sooner or later you’re going to find yourself yawning theatrically at someone being forced to devour their own brains with a spoon made from their still-living child’s hollowed-out sternum and say, “Seen it.”

There are always new avenues for horror…

As that moment approaches, the aspiring horror writer will need to start worrying less about the mechanics of the whole thing – the inventiveness of their devices and the goriness of characters’ ends – and more about how their story will stand out among an ever-broadening field. David Wong has chosen to use two interesting techniques in the writing of his book: comedy and wondrous incomprehensibility.

Wong (not his real name, for reasons he makes clear in the book) is a writer over at Cracked.com, a humor site on which I have spent many a good commute. Wong’s work there tends towards video games and social issues, generating columns such as, “9 Types of Job That Will Destroy Your Soul,” “5 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Too Old for Video Games,” and one of my favorites, “How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.” He and Cracked are part of one of my favorite archipelagoes of the internet, where pop culture is analyzed with more seriousness than it deserves, and where many of the ideas that we take for granted are put under the microscope. Yes, it tends to reduce issues and oversimplify things from time to time, but they’re fun reading.

His years of writing humor have allowed him to create a very distinctive voice for the narrator of this book, also named David Wong, who is telling his story to a reporter – the story of how David and his friend John came to be able to peel the lid off the universe and peer into its dark, black, pestilent heart. Through the use of a bizarre drug that they call Soy Sauce, they are able to see through time, to communicate over great distances through unconventional means, and to observe phenomena that no one else can see.

This is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It turns out that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we can’t see, and most of it is truly terrifying. Forget simple things like ghosts and other spookiness. We’re talking seven-legged spiders with bad blonde wigs, tiny corkscrew insects that scream as they infect their victims, red-eyed shadowmen that remove you from having ever existed, and, watching all of this from his own adjacent universe, Korrock. And the less you know about him, the better.

The dark god Khi’kho-Ma’an is a harsh and unforgiving master.

Where you and I, having seen what cannot be unseen, might just do the rational thing and kill ourselves, David and John go along for the ride, trying to figure out where the monsters are coming from and doing their best not to become them. This universe, you see, is a fundamentally bad place, in more ways than we can really understand. But it’s only bad from our very restricted point of view, as if that really made any difference. David and John are afforded a bit of a better perspective, thanks to the Soy Sauce, but it doesn’t help much. They fight against the darkness, all with a certain rough, adolescent wit that will keep you moving forward even through the rough patches in the book.

And there are certainly rough patches. This is Wong’s first novel, and he’s chosen to make a very ambitious start of it, telling a story that is not only one of embedded, non-linear narratives and vast, hyper-real situations, but with an unreliable narrator to boot. The story straddles vast levels, from the interpersonal to the interdimensional, and it’s being filtered through someone who isn’t entirely sure that he can explain what happened. The reporter he talks to is the avatar of the reader, a hard-boiled, heard-it-all-before type who has to be dragged and convinced every step of the way before he starts believing these tales of wig monsters and doppelgangers. And through it all, Wong drops hints of the horrors to come, the fact that his story isn’t finished yet and that it almost certainly will not end well.

That kind of structure would be tough for any writer to pull off, and Wong does a reasonably good job at it. The dialogue between David and John is quick and funny, tending towards penis jokes, pop-culture references and the occasional bad pun. They play off each other in the way that only old friends can, and they help keep the reader grounded in a story that is fundamentally about being completely uprooted. And even with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, Wong makes sure that all his promises to the reader are kept.

Well, all but one. But I won’t tell you which one that is.

This is probably one of the more normal parts of the story.

So long as you don’t take too long in getting through the book, you should be fine. I read about a hundred pages and then, for a variety of reasons, had to put it down for a week or so. When I came back to it, I realized that I had no idea what had happened before and had to start again. Much like David and John, your only good option is to barrel ahead without reservation and just hope that everything will turn out okay in the end.

And does everything turn out okay? Well, considering that Wong is hoping to write more books in this particular line, and that JDatE has been picked up as a movie, I would say that “okay” is a fair assessment. The world is still a weird, messed-up place which, if we truly understood it, would crush our fragile psyches like a peanut under a tractor tire, but it does seem a little bit more manageable.

——————————–
“Son, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
– Marconi, John Dies at the End

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, David Wong, demons, disaster, doppelgangers, good and evil, horror, humor, madness, mystery, quest, world-crossing

Review 177: The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time 03)

Wheel of Time 03: The Dragon Reborn

Think about this for a moment: imagine there was someone in history who was truly terrible. The stories about him tell that he was personally responsible for destroying civilization as they knew it at the time. Thanks to him, men who could wield immense power went mad and broke the world. He brought down an Age of Legends in a catastrophe from which, three thousand years later, humanity has still not fully recovered. Mothers tell their children stories about him to make them grow up right. He is known as the Dragon, the Kinslayer, and the world fears the day on which, the Prophecies say, he will return. For that will signal the End of the World and the final battle with the Shadow.

Next to this guy, Hitler is a minor-league bully.

HE WILL END US!!!

How would you feel if you found out that you were, in fact, him? In a world where reincarnation is a certainty, it’s possible to find out that you are an ancient hero reborn. Or perhaps a king, or a queen. Or maybe just Joe Peasant, who gets another ride on the Wheel. However it works out, you’ve discovered that you’ve pulled the unluckiest card in the reincarnation deck, and your future is to be hated and feared, and eventually to die in battle against the greatest evil humankind has ever known.

You might go a bit nuts. Rand al’Thor certainly does.

Not the inevitable madness of being a man who can channel, thank the Light, just the understandable mental breakdown that comes with knowing that you’re the doomed reincarnation of one of history’s greatest monsters. Rand is off to the great city of Tear, on the southern coast. In the great, power-wrought fortress that sits at its center, there is Callandor, the Sword That Is Not A Sword, and an object of great power for any male channeler who holds it. What’s more, only the Dragon Reborn can remove it from its suspension inside the Stone of Tear. By taking Callandor, Rand will finally prove to himself and the world that he is the Dragon Reborn.

His friends, in the meantime, think this is a mad plan. No army has ever broken the Stone of Tear, and the city itself hates and despises channelers. Moiraine knows that Rand could get himself killed in Tear, thus dooming the world. So, with Lan, Loial and Perrin, she chases after Rand to try and ensure that he fulfills his true destiny.

These guys will Mess. You. Up.

So it’s not for nothing that we don’t see a lot of Rand al’Thor in this book, despite him being the title character. In fact, except for occasional brief interludes, we don’t get a chapter from Rand’s point of view until chapter 55, just in time for the climactic final battle. I’m of two minds on this decision by Jordan. On the one hand, it frees up a lot of pages for the other characters in the book – Perrin gets a lot of time to shine, and Mat’s healing in the White Tower lets us get to know him a little better and get a better view of the White Tower and Tar Valon. We spend much more time with Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne as they head down to Tear to chase down the Black Ajah, and get a good look at the Aiel, who will become much more important in the subsequent books.

On the other hand, however, we lose sight of Rand during what is a very important point in his character development – coming to terms with and accepting not only his identity as the Dragon Reborn but the horrible destiny that comes with it. In those brief interludes, we see that he’s being hunted by the Shadow, and has to remain on guard against its agents at all times. If we had followed him on this journey, much of what comes after would have made more sense. As it is, by letting him off on his own, Rand’s character suffers a great deal, and the reader’s ability to empathize with him is irrevocably harmed.

But on the third hand, maybe that was the whole point. No one can understand the Dragon Reborn – not Moiraine, not his best friends, not even the reader. From this book on, Rand will always be harder to understand than the other characters in the series, which may have been Jordan’s goal all along.

Another option, of course, is that Jordan wrote several thousand words of Rand’s journey to Tear and realized that just following this one guy all by himself as he tries to keep from going nuts wasn’t as interesting as we might have thought.

So there’s that.

Google Image Search can be a tough place to search for pictures of women in fantasy….

A word, then, on a topic that is central to this series, and I figure it’s better to look at it earlier rather than later – women.

As a genre, fantasy doesn’t have a very good reputation when it comes to female characters. More often than not, women are either objects of the male protagonist’s quest, or they are hindrances to him. Fantasy remains a very male-dominated genre, and for female readers there are slim pickings when it comes to whom you can imagine yourself being. While Wheel of Time is still an andro-centric story, the roles and responsibilities given to female characters are enormous, and Jordan has created a world in which the status of women is far higher than in most fantasy worlds. It is a world where men and women are different, but equal, and neither is presumed to be superior to the other. This is neatly illustrated in the nature of the True Source, the energy that turns the Wheel of Time and thus is the engine of all creation.

The Source is divided into female and male, saidar and saidin. While saidin was horribly corrupted by the Dark One, it is repeatedly made clear that neither is stronger than the other, and that the greatest works of the Age of Legends always came when men and women worked together. Even on a non-magical scale, it is shown that the roles of men and women in this world are distinctly different, but occupying a certain stable balance that allows the world to work. In personal relationships too, there is no relationship I can recall where either the man or the woman can be said to be “in charge” (except in cases like Lan and Moiraine, where one has specifically sworn to obey the other). One of my favorite examples: Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have gone to Tear to hunt the Black Ajah. Far away, in Caemlyn, Mat learns that their lives are in danger from the Shadow’s assassins, and promises right there that he’s going to save them. Classic male reaction to a Damsel in Distress.

The women of WoT will have none of this nonsense.

Once he finds them, however, they have pretty much saved themselves – another five minutes or so and they would have done it. Mat’s entire involvement in their rescue from the unbreakable Stone of Tear and the horrifying Black Ajah was to unlock a door. He risked life and limb on a quest to rescue these women, only to discover that they don’t need rescuing. And in classic male fashion, he spends the next few books sulking about how they didn’t thank him for unlocking that pesky door. Well, not all the time, of course, but it certainly comes up again.

It’s not feminist lit by any means – Jordan tends to resort to behavioral cliches more with his female characters then male; women glare or sniff or tug their braids as a kind of neon sign that says, “THIS CHARACTER IS ANGRY NOW.” But I imagine that female readers of this series will have less trouble finding a character to identify with than they would with, say, Lord of the Rings, which has only one female character of any note (Eowyn – Arwen is barely in the books at all). And there’s a lot of “I guess I’ll just never understand women” talk from a lot of the male characters, while the female characters tend to hold themselves in slightly higher esteem. But for all that, I imagine there were plenty of female readers who saw themselves in these books, and who spent more than a little time wondering which Ajah they would choose, if only they could be Aes Sedai.

Of course, I am a man, so I could be completely wrong.

—————————————————-
“Men fight when they should run, and fools fight when they should run. But I had no need to say it twice.”
– Zarine, The Dragon Reborn
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Dragon Reborn at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Dragon Reborn at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, good and evil, madness, quest, Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 176: Adventures Among Ants

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

Hey. So. How’s that picnic?

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

I mean I do, I DO! I’m so sorry don’t kill me!! (photo from Myrmecos.net)

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

—————————————

“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
– Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants

Mark Moffett on Wikipedia
Adventures Among Ants on Amazon.com
Adventures Among Ants website

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Filed under animals, ants, biology, Mark Moffett, science

Review 175: The Last Continent

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Quick – what do you know about Australia?

I reckon if you live in Australia, you probably know quite a lot. If you’ve known someone from Australia or perhaps have visited there, you might know a few things. If your experience is limited to a few “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Crocodile Hunter, then you could probably stand to know a little more. No matter what your level of Australiana is, though, you probably know at least enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book, Terry Pratchett’s homage to the strangest continent on Earth.

Now keep in mind, Pratchett does state quite clearly that this is not a book about Australia. “It’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit… Australian.” So that’s okay then.

This adorable little thing? IT WILL END YOU.

Really, this is Pratchett’s homage to Australia, a country that he clearly likes a lot. In reality, Australia is a pretty strange place. It’s a giant island, most of which is barren desert. It’s been disconnected from the other continents for so long that evolution has given us species unlike any others on Earth. Pretty much anything that you come across, from the lowliest spider to the cutest jellyfish to the weirdest platypus, is deadly. The country is a tribute to Nature, both in its beauty and its danger, and really deserves more attention than it gets.

In one memorable scene, Death asks his Library for a complete list of dangerous animals on the continent known as XXXX, aka Fourecks. He is immediately buried under books, including Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, volume 29c, part three. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. He then asks for a complete list of species that are not deadly, and gets a small leaflet on which is written, “Some of the sheep.”

This book isn’t about Death, though, as much fun as that may be. This is about the worst wizard on the Disc. The classic inadvertent hero, who had seen so much of the world but only as a blur while he ran from danger. The hero who truly just wants to be left alone, perhaps with a potato – Rincewind.

What you most need to know about Rincewind is that he absolutely does not want to be a hero. He craves a boring life, one in which the most he has to worry about is whether to have his potatoes baked, mashed, or deep fried. He does not want to be chased by mad highwaymen, put in prison for sheep theft, or required to completely change the climate of an entire continent. He doesn’t want to time travel, be guided by strange, otherworldly kangaroos or fall in with a troupe of suspiciously masculine female performers. He just wants peace and quiet.

This? This is an Australian rain forest.

The universe, of course, has other ideas. And so it is up to Rincewind to once again save the day. The continent of Fourecks has never seen rain – in fact, they think the very idea of water that falls from the sky is ludicrous. But there are legends of what they call The Wet – the day when water will be found on the surface of the ground, rather than hundreds of feet below it. And while they don’t know how it will happen exactly, they do know it will happen. Lucky for Rincewind, the universe has chosen him to make sure that it does.

I really can’t list all of the Australia references because there are just too many. From drop bears to Vegemite, Mad Max to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they’re pretty much all there.

This book is, like so many other Discworld, books, a lot of fun to read. One of the more interesting sections in the book is one that’s not strictly necessary. Exploring a strange window in the University which, for some reason, leads to a beach, the Wizards of the Unseen University find themselves marooned thousands of miles away and thousands of years back in time. On this weird little island, they meet one of the most unusual gods on the Disc – the god of evolution.

And sometimes even gods get bored.

This god isn’t interested in the normal godly things – lolling about and being worshiped, occasionally smiting a few followers here and there. As Pratchett puts it, “It is a general test of the omnipotence of a god that they can see the fall of a tiny bird. But only one god makes notes, and a few adjustments, so that next time it can fall further and faster.” This god of evolution is devoted to making life forms better, often one at a time, and lives on a strange little island where there’s only one of everything, but everything yearns to be useful. With him, the wizards are able to explore evolution and natural selection and figure out why sex is just so darn useful.

I say that this section isn’t strictly necessary because it just isn’t. It’s certainly interesting, and I suppose the god’s island is a nice echo of the real Australia, where evolution has had a long time to tinker and come up with some really weird stuff, but in terms of the story, it’s not all that important a plot point. In fact, the wizards in general don’t contribute much to the story other than to make it longer and funnier. Their exploration of evolution and Rincewind’s unwilling quest to bring rain to the barren land of Fourecks are almost wholly unrelated to each other, up until the very end.

I can’t see how a group like this would ever cause trouble.

This isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome – I love watching the wizards explore the world. The combination of personalities whenever all the wizards get together is one that offers endless hours of reading fun, and I think that without them, the book would have been less enjoyable. They’re just not essential to the plot, is all, and if that kind of thing is important to you, then you might not enjoy this book so much.

Me, I love science and I love Discworld. While the actual Science of Discworld series was kind of dry and boring in the end, I love it when Pratchett explores real-world science through the eyes of his Discworld characters. By looking at science from another perspective, he is able to make it perhaps a little more understandable to people who otherwise might write science off as “too hard.”

This book is a trip through time and space and Australia. It’s a long, strange trip, to be sure, but an entertaining one.

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“It’s not many times in your life you get the chance to die of hunger on some bleak continent some thousands of years before you’re born. We should make the most of it.”
– The Dean
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
The Last Continent on Wikipedia
The Last Continent on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s homepage

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