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Sometimes your reading list juxtaposes two items that complement each other perfectly. Here be mild spoilers, but I will vouch that they won’t ruin the stories for you.

The Streets of Ashkelon – Harry Harrison

Garth, an interstellar trader, is the first long-term human contact with the literal-minded and unfailingly honest inhabitants of Wesker’s World. But as his term there is about to end, a Christian missionary arrives. Garth, an atheist, panics and lashes out at Father Mark. It’s not just because he thinks the preacher will corrupt the innocence of the Weskers, who have no deities or spirituality of any sort. He also dreads having to explain a species with no concept of lying or untruth that he and the missionary believe contradictory things. But soon Garth, not having seen another human for a year, begins to regret his inital hostility towards the priest. They uneasily coexist as Garth prepares to leave and Mark builds a church with the help of the Weskers, to whom he also preaches. But the Weskers inevitably must ask Garth the questions he dreads, and he answers them honestly: there is no god. Faced with this contradiction, the Weskers conclude that the only way to find out the truth is to ask for a miracle, and only the grandest of miracles will do. What’s a lonely atheist to do when his sometime rival and only human companion is threatened with death?

This story is bleak from both theist and atheist perspectives. The Weskers seem so rational when they demand an experiment to test god, and if you come to this story sympathetic to Garth’s point of view, you’ll almost be cheering for them (at least, until you read their methods). But after the fact, after they’ve failed to reject the null hypothesis, that rationality disappears. They accept Mark’s preaching regardless. Like most religious people, they explain away contradictory data to fit the hypothesis they want to believe.

It has been a while since I tried to think like a theist (specifically, like I used to when I was a theist), but I think the end is even more disturbing from this point of view. It forces you to confront the fact that introducing the Weskers to religion, i.e. “saving” them, also ipso facto damns them. Garth was concerned that Wesker society would be contaminated; the Weskers now have to deal with believing themselves sinners; but Father Mark—at least, until he passes out from pain—has to realize that he has acted as Satan at the same time that he brought salvation. This version is set in space, but it’s happened many times in our own past. I’ve heard Christians explain this conundrum away or, more often, see it only as a positive thing, more than once.

A slightly irrelevant confession: I expected not to enjoy this story. Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books are full of rampant casual misogyny coupled with so many comma splices I stopped reading halfway through the second volume. (Don’t ask me which transgression bothers me more. I can forgive one of them at a time, but not both. That said, the first book at least is pretty funny.) So I was reluctant to try reading this story, but I’m glad I did; it redeemed Harrison a lot in my mind. I can now blame those comma splices in the book on a terrible editor (or perhaps I should be less generous and assume that a decent editor fixed The Streets of Ashkelon up).

The Way of Cross and Dragon – George R. R. Martin

The interstellar Catholic Church of the future has seen a few changes, including the ordination of extraterrestrial clergy (though still, presumably, not of women), and clearly expanding the frontiers of space travel has brought fresh theological challenges as well as brand new heresies. Damien, a senior Inquisitor of the Order Militant of the Knights of Jesus Christ, is one of those responsible for stamping these heresies out. His latest assignment involves an Order of Saint Judas Iscariot and a book called The Way of Cross and Dragon, in which, among other things, Judas is not only Jesus’s best friend but also a Dragon-Tamer. Seriously, read the story just for this part; it sounds like a pretty badass blasphemy.

Damien confronts Lukyan, the founder of this sect, who freely admits that he made the whole thing up. Lukyan calls himself a Liar (capital L), and claims to belong to a super-secret group who believe in no god and go around making up not only religions but all sorts of systems of thought, as long as they’re beautiful and comforting. Lukyan tells Damien that he is doing just the same thing with his Catholicism. He takes him to meet Jon Azure Cross, a telepath and fellow-Liar, who senses Damien’s doubt about his own faith and tries to recruit him. But Damien realizes that his commitment to truth outweighs any desire to comfort people, and declines.

Now comes the point at which my mechanical recitation won’t make any sense; you have to go read the thing. I’m not even capable of spoiling it.

This story left me utterly chilled, and I’m already pretty cynical about religion. Is it too cheesy to say “You can’t handle the truth”?

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It takes a certain strange sort of imagination to put a plant at the centre of a horror story—the sort of imagination that not only sees the twigs brushing a window as tapping fingers, but that also assumes that the tree itself has hands.  In the spirit of my recent review of The Day of the Triffids, here is a brief, undoubtedly incomplete list of horror/weird fiction featuring botanical antagonists. Anyone with additions, please chime in in the comments. (All links are to free full texts when they’re available.)

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

As discussed in my previous post, this is an eerie dystopian book in which most of the population goes blind and is then preyed upon by mobile stinging plants. Subtle, unsettling, and deep.

The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

“It’s the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us.”

Two friends go on a canoe trip down the Danube. When they stop to camp on a willow-covered island, strange things begin to happen. Things go missing, strange prints appear in the sand, and the canoe is mysteriously damaged. All the while the river is rising, and the tangled willows seem to have a mind of their own. In addition to being charged with suspense, this tale has some lovely descriptions of the riparian scenery.

The Man Whom the Trees Loved – Algernon Blackwood

“It really is extraordinary,” said a Woman who Understood, “that you can make that cypress seem an individual, when in reality all cypresses are so exactly alike.”

This Blackwood guy has a thing for evil trees. In this short story, an artist by the name of Sanderson has a knack for painting trees. And to him, each tree is indeed an individual, and they seem to know that he knows this. They seem to call to him, and he is drawn out into the forest around his house for longer and longer walks. It sounds incredibly cheesy, I know, but it’s phenomenally gripping, as the view shifts from that of the artists who really gets trees to that of his wife, who fears but can’t quite believe that the trees are after her husband.

Specimen 313 – Jeff Strand

It’s basically Little Shop of Horrors with an added love story—featuring not the gardener but the plant. And somehow, that’s adorable.

The Tree – H. P. Lovecraft

An old beekeeper tells the tale of an ancient, gnarled, sinister-looking olive tree, a tale of a competition between two skilled sculptors in ancient Greece. One of them sickens and dies, first instructing his friend and rival to bury olive branches by his head. As the surviving sculptor finishes his statue, an unusual tree grows above his studio. It’s far from HPL’s best work, but unusually understated; one that leaves you scratching your head.

The Tree on the Hill – H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel

Just your standard dimension-jumping cosmic horror tale. A man sits down under an odd-looking oak and glimpses an evil dimension. His learned friend hastily prevents humanity’s doom at the expense of his sanity. The usual, but not up to HPL’s best—I’ll blame Rimel.

The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien

LotR has some classic nasty vegetation. The Ents, of course, are only horrific to Saruman’s lot, but Fangorn forest has an evil reputation. But when I first read the saga as a young’un, I was really creeped out by the Old Forest outside the Shire, which Frodo et al. have to cross as they flee towards Bree. The menacing trees trip people deliberately and gradually channel the travellers towards the river Withywindle, where they are nearly devoured by a sly old willow.

The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling

Vines…vines are great subjects for creepy stories, the way they twine around things and climb up walls. My memory of this is dim, but in Philosopher’s Stone, a trapdoor in Hogwarts hides a Devil’s Snare vine that tightens as its victims struggle. And, of course, the Whomping Willow (again with the willows!), introduced in Chamber of Secrets, has it in for anyone within reach of its bludgeoning boughs.

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Despite being about murderous plants, “Little Shop of Horrors” it most emphatically is not. Rather, it’s one of the creepiest post-apocalyptic novels I’ve ever read.

The book begins with Bill Masen in hospital, mildly pissed that he’s missed the spectacle of the century—a meteor shower—because his eyes are bandaged after a triffid sting. Triffids, we learn, are strange, three-legged, mobile plants with an often-fatal stinging tendril. The species appeared mysteriously one day and quickly became a garden favourite—tied to a stake and docked, of course—as well as a widely cultivated source of fuel. Masen worked on a triffid farm, and built up an immunity to their stings; that’s why this one has merely landed him in hospital for a week. Triffids are soon forgotten, though, as Bill realizes that everyone else in the hospital—in fact, everyone who saw the meteor shower—is blind. Removing his bandages and leaving the premises, he wanders about London, watching as it begins to devolve into your typical looting-filled post-apocalyptic chaos. He rescues a young lady named Josella, who was fortunately in bed with a wicked hangover during the meteor shower, and thus can also see. As they encounter other sighted people, it becomes apparent that something must be done,  and opinions differ: one party feels obligated to assign sighted people to groups of blind people to guide them to food, water, and shelter; another feels that this will just prolong suffering, and plans to set up a breeding colony to restart civilization. As Bill and Josella struggle to survive, the triffids, which seem to be oddly aware of things, begin to encroach. And to a triffid, anyone who can’t see is a sitting duck.

My favourite thing about this book, and about Wyndham’s science fiction in general, is that it’s not concerned with detailing how things came to be as screwed up as they are. No one knows where triffids came from, or how everyone went blind. The point is that this is what happened, so let’s see how one might deal with that. (The topic is not wholly ignored, as it’s natural for the characters to speculate on things like that, but little is ever resolved.) The book is carefully crafted to showcase different possible ways that people might deal with a disaster: Bill and Josella run into people with various ideas about how to re-establish civilization, and even try some of them out, eventually coming to a conclusion about what sort of society they’ll need to aim at. (Hint: polygyny is encouraged!) So, rather than an abstract discussion about how best to structure society when most people are blind and there are roving stands of dangerous plants about, we get to see how various ideas begin to fall apart in practice. It’s less bleak than you’d expect. While there is plenty of need for sacrificing the few to save the many, it’s contrasted with the inevitable and kind of sweet romance between Josella and Bill. It’s a rather civilized, or at least civil, sort of apocalypse.

The triffids are woven into the plot gradually. After Masen’s initial narration of what they are, they vanish for a while. Then they kill Josella’s family, having apparently broken into their country house, prompting Bill and Josella to acquire anti-triffid gear (which consists of protective mask and gloves and a triffid gun; later, flamethrowers are added). Back in London, though, this precaution is laughed at—there are no triffids in sight. Eventually, though, the triffids start to encroach. As humanity dwindles in number, the triffids congregate around the last groups of survivors. In large enough numbers, they can break down fences. It’s this gradual appearance, from a garden plant that’s probably the least of everyone’s worries to a menace to the human species, combined with the mystery of their origin, that makes the whole book so creepy.

Wyndham has a knack for writing happy-ish endings, wherein things mostly get sorted out, but looming threats are still on the horizon. Without spoiling anything about this book’s ending, I’ll just say that you don’t just snap out of an apocalypse. (Ordinarily, that would be a perfect setup for sequels, but Wyndham refrains, which is classy…though later, someone else did write one, entitled Night of the Triffids.)

The Day of the Triffids is a thoughtful take on how people might respond to the virtual end of civilization, and the extra weirdness of walking predatory plants makes it stand out. I highly recommend it, as I would recommend anything else by Wyndham.

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I promised more about Wolbachia, and here it is. Quick recap: Wolbachia is a type of bacteria that lives within the cells of many insects and other arthropod species.

Wolbachia has all sorts of possible effects ranging from parasitism to symbiosis. Anopheles mosquitoes, the bugs that carry malaria and thus kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, are naturally uninfected with Wolbachia, but scientists have been investigating ways to introduce Wolbachia into them so as to prevent malaria transmission. One recent study found that, in addition to suppressing malaria transmission by mosquitoes, a certain strain of Wolbachia killed many of the infected mosquitoes, but only after they had had a blood meal.

Now, the pathogen literature is not something I normally read; I stumbled across this research on a science fiction blog. This article I’ve linked to takes a rather cute approach to this study by suggesting that it could be used to kill vampires in the event that they begin to plague the human race. Commenters on that article raised the spectre of unintended side-effects of infecting people with Wolbachia. Well, commenters, here is what you (thought you) wanted to know:

Imagine you’re a Wolbachia cell. You’re inside the cell of an insect, say a mosquito. That mosquito spreads you (and your descendents) to other mosquitoes not by biting them or sneezing on them, but by reproducing: since you’re already inside the mosquito’s cells, you just get packaged into their baby-making cells. Well, not necessarily—if you’re in a male mosquito, you’re screwed, because you just won’t fit into a tiny little mosquito sperm. If you’re in a female mosquito, though, you’re in luck (that’s right, you’re maternally inherited). But you’re a clever Wolbachia and you’re thinking not just of your kids, but of your grandkids (which will all also be your clones because you’re a bacterium!). You don’t want any of your descendents to end up in male mosquitoes. What can you do to prevent this? Let’s brainstorm:

  • kill all the male offspring of the female you’re infecting
  • turn the male offspring into functional females
  • make your host into a parthenogen, i.e. make her reproduce asexually!

Guess what! Wolbachia can do all of the above! SF writers, have at it.

Hughes, G., Koga, R., Xue, P., Fukatsu, T., & Rasgon, J. (2011). Wolbachia Infections Are Virulent and Inhibit the Human Malaria Parasite Plasmodium Falciparum in Anopheles Gambiae PLoS Pathogens, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002043

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Every once in a while I read a book solely because of its title; thus, with a blog name like mine I felt I had to review Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy.

[spoiler alert]

(more…)

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I’ve been working my way through the back issues of Lightspeed Magazine–not hard to do, since there’s only been three issues so far–and I’m super excited and impressed by everything I’ve read there. I want to write about a couple of the stories in particular; I am in fact so excited about them that I think you should drop everything you’re doing and go read them NOW!

No seriously, you’d better have read them!

The first is “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente. As you might guess from the title, it’s a how-to manual for would-be despots of the Red Planet. It does, indeed, start out as a funny advice column-type piece. But it rapidly transcends this format: expanding on how every solar system, not just our own, has its own red planet fourth from the sun, and how each Mars holds the same powerful sway over human (or whatever) imaginations. It becomes an extended flight of fancy, describing not just the extrasolar equivalents of Mars but the civilizations that each inspires and the tyrants who come to rule them. Each of these is more original than your average sci fi story’s advanced alien civilization, not just on the “they just took an earth animal and made it sentient” or “they’re just little green men” scales. Take, for example, Oorm Nineteen Point Aught-One, one of the “half-butterfly giants of Mur” who “cannot help but speak in couplets”; Oorm attains world/Martian domination by producing unrhyming poetry. Valente weaves these anecdotes into the how-to manual framework at first, but eventually escapes from it entirely, and flows into a haunting ending with truly dazzling prose.

The second is the most recently published story, “Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro. This story just turns a whole lot of things on their lil’ heads. Like, for instance, the pro-life argument that life begins at conception. It sure does in this story…but it also ends at birth. Everybody who is genetically worthy is basically kept a conscious fetus. And those not worthy are vessels for them, or, as we see later, zoo specimens. The protagonist, Jennifer Axioma-Singh, has experienced about as much as a conscious fetus can via her various vessels, or “arvies” (not sure what the name is supposed to mean…is it RVs? Does this signify something important?), and decides to try something none of her peers has even thought of: giving birth. What I particularly like about the author’s treatment of this is that he makes it clear that birth is a miraculous, beautiful thing, even though in the story’s world it’s also considered inhumane…but then, for Jennifer, it’s also just another thing on the bucket list. She actually gets bored and tunes out before the baby pops out. A nice play on the sanctity of childbirth trope. There’s also a dig at celebrity “bump watches” and reality TV.

One thing that surprised me was how many of the commenters described themselves as creeped out after reading this. I didn’t actually find it all that creepy–possibly I’m a little too good at rationalizing the “hey this isn’t actually our universe in the story” thing, or my maternal instinct is broken. What I did find disturbing was how the child is kept in a sort of “nature” preserve and used by any Citizens who want the experience of child-rearing. What is to become of this kid once she’s a teen, an adult?

Also, we are perhaps learning something about our personal biases, because we were shocked when we got to the end and realized the author was a man. (First person plural signifies learning experiences, folks.)

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I just finished The Dispossessed, one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Nebula-winning novels. As usual when reading Le Guin’s work, I was pretty much blown away. This is not a comprehensive review of the book, but rather some scattered thoughts I wanted to record; spoilers are minor if at all. (more…)

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