Monday, May 26, 2014


Mira Grant
Orbit, 2013
ISBN 0316218952

In her first foray into the land of zombies (Newsflesh), Grant proposed a scientific reason for zombies that seemed scarily plausible. She did her homework then, and now she's done even more homework. If you haven't heard of the idea that too few parasites are bad for us, you might read up on Helminthic Theory. Yep, sounds legit.

But seriously, there are people looking into the question if there is such a thing as being too clean. Whether this turns out to be anything other than a crackpot notion I have no idea. While I'm not about to start swilling sewer water, it's also true that bacteria compete with each other, even in places like our mouth and our gut, and if not enough of the good or at least harmless bacteria are around, then nasties will take over and wreak havoc.

In Mira Grant's book Parasite (book one of the Parasitology series), Doctors Banks, Cale, and Jablonsky have developed a genemod variety of tapeworm, the Intestinal Guardian (TM), which, if ingested by a human being, will keep the host healthy, supplying drug dosage if needed, and suppressing excessive immune responses like dog or cat allergies. The story's main character, Sally Mitchell, also has one of these tapeworms when she gets into an accident. She's in a coma from brain damage, and her family is about to disconnect her, when she sits up in bed.

As far as anyone knows, the tapeworm will not resurrect you from the dead.

The action catches up with Sally six years later. She has by now relearned to speak. Reading is still very difficult, but from all appearance things are looking up. She even has a boyfriend who cares for her. And then people start getting the sleeping sickness (a lovely euphemism for turning into zombies), and SymboGen, the makers of the tapeworm, seem to be hiding something.

I kind of started suspecting what was going on almost from the beginning - this is a story by Mira Grant, after all. Still, rather than making everything predictable, Grant kept me on the edge of my seat for all five hundred pages. Sally is a recovering amnesiac, and her recovery may strike people who know a little bit about, for example, retraining TBI patients or stroke victims, as if Sally is doing far too well. The mystery ingredient is obviously the tapeworm, but we don't know quite what role it is playing until about halfway into the story (when it's still a mystery to Sally and her friends).

Yes, from that point on you'll probably know what is really going on, and you'll be wondering how Sally and her boyfriend Nathan haven't caught on yet. Well, there are perfectly good reasons, of course. Meanwhile the mere fact that you know will not at all detract from the story.

Grant's story takes place in a near future California. We're not told what all has happened, but a fair amount obviously has. Maybe some of that backstory will be featured in the sequels, but it doesn't really matter. It's a believable version of the future. You will feel right at home, I'm sure.

This is the second of the Hugo nominees I've read. It is definitely a worthy nominee, and I highly recommend it.

Homo Economicus

Neptune's Brood
Charles Stross
Ace, 2013
ISBN 0425256774

Classical economics mostly consists of theories concerning the price of goods, the value of money, and what governments should or shouldn't do about them. More recently critiques of economic theory like to point out that people, individually, or even in the aggregate, do not follow simple mathematical formulas. We don't have the processing capacity for all of the relevant information, even if it were available, and we evidently do not act on that information even when we do have it.

So what would the world be like if we were truly economical beings?

Charles Stross spins a great tale in Neptune's Brood. It's thousands of years in the future. The human race - the biological species that is us - has become extinct three separate times, but our offspring, metahumans (not the ones from DC Comics), carry our legacy forward.

Metahumans have some of the characteristics of humans, but they are homo economicus, entirely subordinate to economic laws, down to their very cells. Their desires are driven by the laws of debt and liquidity. That doesn't make them totally inhuman, but it means that Krina Alizond 114, a fraud specialist looking for the lost proceeds of the biggest fraud ever committed, has interesting and surprising motivations as she attempts to solve the mystery of her sister's disappearance while dodging an assassin and various parties who have gotten wind of the missing treasure.

Stross tells a story of people who appear to be quite a lot like us, until Krina stumbles across a couple having sex, or when she considers the prospect of food, or the alteration of her body plan. Homo economicus is quite obviously not human. The resulting story is remarkable for that reason. Stross isn't writing about humans like us, but we still want to sympathize with Krina and we're cheering her quest. Meanwhile, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Krina is like no one we've ever known.

Most of the story takes place in a single planetary system orbiting a star mostly like our Sun. Stross's description of the environment is inventive and fun. We get a taste of interplanetary travel as well as interstellar travel (which happens mostly by lightspeed laser transmissions), and what life might be like on the surface of a watery superearth.

The characters populating the story, though evidently not human like us, are still human enough that we can sympathize with them and understand them, even the communistic squid and the piratical bats. Like Alice in Wonderland we discover people we've never imagined.

This book was a page turner, in spite of its abstruse messages about economics. It's also been nominated for the Hugo, and it's one of the best Hugo nominated books I've read. Highly recommended.

The Long Story

The Long Earth
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Harper, 2013
ISBN 0062068687

The Long War
Pratchett and Baxter
Harper, 2014
ISBN 0062068695

If you've ever heard of the "many worlds theory," the idea that any event that could have turned out more than one way creates a split in the universe so that the event turns out each of the possible ways, then you know the basis of a subgenre of science fiction folks call alternate history. You could just see alternate histories as fantasies with no particular basis in reality, but the many worlds theory, which came from quantum theory, is the basis for these stories.

Even some time travel stories tackle it: you go back in time, accidentally make a consequential change, and the future you return to is different. What happened to the future you came from? It's probably still there. You just can't reach it anymore, unless you travel even further back in time to prevent the first change.

One fairly rare take on the many worlds is the ability to travel laterally between them. Instead of flying to the stars to find a new planet, you travel from our planet to a probabilistic neighbor. It's got everything Earth has, except people. No pollution, no overcrowding, all that good stuff. So far a few stories have been written considering this idea, but most if not all of them are short story treatments. I know of none that explored the subject as thoroughly as Pratchett and Baxter do in The Long Earth and The Long War.

Some time in the near future the world changes. A scientist posts plans on the internet for building a stepping box, a simple device, apparently powered by a potato, which allows the wearer to step from this world into an alternate world. The worlds stretch out in two directions, for infinity, it seems, and at first appear to be completely devoid of any intelligent life, though in other respects life flourishes on most of them.

The stories' main character, Joshua Valienté, accompanied by a computerized simulation of a Tibetan mechanic named Lobsang sets out to explore the Long Earth, and perhaps discover its purpose. The fairly mundane task of exploration is leavened by a continuous conflict between Joshua and Lobsang arising from Joshua's distrust of this machine that appears to have an indecent amount of power over the lives of people. The story finishes with a perhaps predictable event that has nothing to do with the main plot, but that's actually OK since it leads to the sequel.

The sequel takes place a couple of decades later. Human prejudices against trolls, gorilla-like intelligent beings who live in the Long Earth, naturally stepping between worlds, are resulting in the withdrawal of the trolls from most places in the Long Earth. Sensing a threatening war between humans and non-humans, Joshua and his computerized friend set out again to see if they can broker a treaty. This story also has enough unfinished business at the end that it's obvious there's going to be a sequel - The Long Mars.

Which I haven't read. Yet.

Anyway, stylistically both books show the hallmarks of a collaboration. Both Baxter and Pratchett are stylistically competent, as is this book. The prose doesn't evoke either author's distinctive style, though both authors toss in occasional sly references to their own works - just not anything that disrupts the flow of the narrative itself. The result is a consistent and even flow of narrative that is easy on the mental ear.

There is a large number of characters who make their appearances as the plot advances. Each get a fair amount of time for development, and in the end, paradoxically almost, the one character that remains a cypher is Lobsang, who plays the role of cat's paw in both books. Instead of developing as a central character, the AI acts as a foil against which many of the other characters measure themselves. Since the books are not actually about computerized intelligences, that's as it should be.

Pratchett and Baxter include many different worlds in the story. I enjoyed the descriptions of the varied animals and environments found on the Long Earth, even the idea of Jokers, places that are unusually different from the surrounding Earths, was a great idea. While the story starts with the appearance that humanity is alone on the Long Earth, there are hints early on that we've got company. The second book even presents a scientific rational for this state of affairs. And of course stepping itself has a number of limitations, which are addressed in a variety of ways.

The books are not the usual thing to expect from either author. It might be a good idea to approach the books while pretending you had read nothing by either author before. The books deserve to be seen in their own light.

Overall I strongly recommend the stories.