Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.
One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.
Octavia Butler wrote these three books I read in a one volume collection called Lilith’s Brood. They’re sort of generational novels about humans who’ve been rescued by aliens after we destroyed most life on Earth.
In Dawn we follow Lilith as she’s awoken by the aliens on their ship and taught about what’s happened and what the aliens want them to do. See, the aliens want to incorporate humans into their genome (they’re biological collectors) and they want to put the humans back on Earth in a few carefully chosen areas so they can make them into something else. They’re totally fascinated by cancer, which allows the aliens to do all sorts of cool new things. Also the aliens have three genders including one that basically is there to manipulate DNA. The aliens want the humans to cooperate with them and choose Lilith to be their intermediary. By the end of the book she’s got the remaining humans ready to be rereleased on Earth, though she’s hated as a species traitor.
Adulthood Rites is about Lilith’s son and how he tries to get the rebel humans on Earth to accept their alien patrons. The humans who hybridize with aliens get to be practically immortal and have alien hybrid babies, while the ones who resist have all been sterilized and will grow sick and die. It’s kind of brutal. By the end of this book most of the resisters are sent to Mars where they can have children without interference from the aliens.
Then in Imago the protagonist is the first of the intermediary gender alien human hybrids that’s ever been born to a human mother who happens to be Lilith (families by this point usually have two human and two alien parents). This person is hated and feared and is desperate to find humans it can have sex with. By the end it does.
What I loved about the books was that they didn’t take the perspective of the human resisters. It’s always about the people who are adapting and accommodating themselves to the aliens, which is very interesting and different.
These books are weird because they’re pretty much all about the drive to procreate. Once the aliens get involved, people find the touch of their human lovers gross if they don’t have an alien with them. It was all very interesting but I didn’t quite get why everyone within minutes is pairing off and trying to repopulate the planet. It’s like there aren’t any other concerns that anyone has in these books beyond their bodily security and fucking. To me that’s weird, but that’s why I read science fiction.
The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney is another murder mystery with no science fictional elements to it at all. I know! How crazy for me. This one is set in England in the 1980s but not very obviously. Ray Lovell is the private detective who’s hired to find a Romany woman who disappeared 6 years ago after her wedding. He has some of “the strong black blood” in him himself, which is, in the mind of his client, supposed to give him an edge in finding her.
The other point of view character is a young Romany boy who lives in a group of trailers with his mom and extended family, including his uncle, who was the missing girl’s husband and the father to their sickly young boy.
It’s a good story, with a protagonist who is his own enemy (but not worst) and some interesting investigation goes on. There’s sort of a framing device of Ray being in the hospital after a car crash, but I don’t know how necessary it really was.
All in all, not a bad story, and I quite enjoyed the conclusion, even though it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be clever. Hard to hold that against a whodunnit though.
Disclosure: I loved the movie version of P.D. James’ The Children of Men and without having read the book made the assumption that they would be very similar. Because I am strangely naïve about movie adaptations I guess? I’d have thought I was a cynic in these matters by now, whatever. The book in this case is very different from the movie.
The best way to think of it is to consider the two stories to be parallel tales about the same world. In this world, there have been no babies born for decades. Humanity has inexplicably gone sterile. Here, the book and movie part ways.
In the book the protagonist Theo is in his fifties and is a history professor with no real students anymore since even the youngest people are over 25. The youngest people are known as Omegas and they terrify the aging populace, since they were brought up doted on and knowing they would be the final humans ever. Theo is the cousin to Xan, the despotic ruler of England. A bumbling bunch of fools ask him to talk to the ruler to make some sort of change. Against his better judgment, he does so.
The book is about that relationship between Theo and Xan, who are both not-young men. Theo has all this guilt from accidentally killing the daughter he and his ex-wife once had, which plays a big part. The bumbling fools are trying to be terrorists to get England changed, but they aren’t effective. There is talk about the Isle of Man, where the prisoners are exiled to, but the book doesn’t take us there. The climax in the book takes place in a woodshed near Wales. It’s very different.
I like the movie version better but I love the idea that both stories happened, with different participants and results. If more stories from the childless future intrigue you, the book is worth your time. If you mainly loved Children of Men for that amazing Steadicam shot, there’s not a lot for you in the book.
Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes is a small collection of science fiction stories by Peter Watts. One of the stories was a chapter from his novel Starfish. Another was about rationalizing racial violence with genetics. A story about environmentalists negotiating with orca to feed both sides of a conflict was kind of funny, but I think my favourite story in the book was about the storms that are an alien malevolent force in the narrator’s life, much like his teenage daughter who’d never known a world where the sky wasn’t trying to kill you. It’s a small book, but well worth the read.