Life on the Edge by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili (Crown, 2015), 368 pages.

LOTE intnl McFadden and Al-Khalili LOTE McFadden and Al-Khalili

This book, like last time, also forms a kind of bookend with a book I wrote about earlier about the discovery of DNA and RNA and the genetic “code”: Life’s Greatest Secret. The other book that is intimately related to the topics covered here are in a book I read a couple of years ago and which you can find here: Life’s Ratchet.

There seems to be something quantized about this book besides the subtitle. It appears to exist in two states at the same time, much like the particle and wave aspects of all quantum systems, which is why there are two images and links above. One book, with a light cover, was published in November of 2014 by Bantam and lists Jim Al-Khalili as the first author and has International Standard Book Number (ISBN) 978-0593069318. Sometimes you see this edition as the “International Edition” and that’s how I’ll talk about it here. The other book has a dark cover and was published in July of 2015 by Crown and lists Johnjoe McFadden as the first author and has ISBN 978-0307986818.

However, the two books (?) seem to be identical in terms of content and page number and even description. In fact, the content of the 2015 book is copyrighted 2014. (One reviewer on Amazon moaned that they expected a new book from July 2015 and got this “old” book from last year instead.) I have to admit this is the first time I have noticed something like this. Welcome to publishing in today’s world.

Once you get into the particle or wave version of the book, you’ll find a wild ride, as promised, on the leading edge of research into how quantum physical effects influence otherwise puzzling features of life such as bird navigation, the sense of smell, and the speed and accuracy of DNA reproduction and protein folding. The authors tackle head-on the issue of whether there is anything distinct about “quantum biology” as related to “regular biology” in the first place. That is, because everything small enough (and quiet enough, as the book points out) is better understood as a quantum system governed by probabilities, there are many people who see a separate category for quantum effects on biological systems as silly (page 19). But to me, this is a bit like saying because there is life on earth, the universe is alive. Is there life in outer space? Of course, because we’re in outer space! It’s undoubtedly true, but not particularly helpful.

I was attracted to this book because of one thing I knew was true: the fact that protein folding in a cell takes place much too quickly during protein synthesis to be explained by classical physics. Classical physics is what you use if you don’t use quantum physics, and classical rules usually apply to the objects we can see or deal with in everyday life. But at the other end of the microscope, quantum rules must apply to make these activities sensible—or so this book claims, correctly in my thinking.

After exploring how classical physics cannot explain how a migrating European robin can sense a weak magnetic field of the earth with an internal inclination compass (page 6 and 14), the book goes through a kind of crash-intro to quantum effects. These effects include how quantum states can be “smeared out” between possible values until a “measurement” snaps the mathematical wave function to a definite value, how quantum tunneling allows quantum particles to “tunnel” through an energy barrier (think of this as a high hill) to the other slope without having to climb to the summit, and how quantum entities can be “correlated” or entangled so that actions that should be impossible can take place.

As I said, in some sense this quantum action is trivial. This is how reality works. The surprise to researchers that this book points out again and again is that without a “quantum beat” drumming in the background at the molecular level, cellular activities like enzyme snipping and photosynthesis make no sense energetically and could never proceed, or proceed much too slowly, under the rules of classical physics.

This is fairly esoteric stuff, and the authors do a good job of keeping you on board by recapitulating important effects and with very well-done figures (for example, those on pages 80 for DNA and page 150 for the sense of smell). One of the real revelations to modern researchers is that quantum effects, normally reproduced in the lab by a very small number of atoms (a near vacuum) in a very cold environment, can exist and drive cellular events in the hot, wet, crowded environment of the cell. This is because the thermal activities of the atoms in the cell are performing “measurements” that destroy the quantum effects all the time (page 116). In spite of it all, there seems to be enough isolation at the atomic level in the cell to allow “quantum walks” to enable things to happen and make life possible.

For example, cells must not only build things up, they must break them down, a process known as catalysis. The “scaffolding” of a cell is collagen, a really tough molecular strand that has to be broken down, for instance, when a tadpole’s tail disappears as it becomes frog. The enzymes used in the cell to perform this “snipping” are well understood; the problem is that, using classical rules (page 79-80), the process is much too slow for life to function. Even with very efficient catalysts, cellular functions should take about 8 hours to complete (page 84), but we can see an entire cell reproduce in about 20 minutes in some cases. Only quantum “shortcuts” can make life possible, the book says.

Which brings me back to the issue of protein synthesis and folding. As proteins are formed by chains of amino acids from RNA, they must fold correctly in order to function, and fold almost instantaneously as they roll off the RNA assembly line. But there are literally hundreds or thousands of ways they can fold (misfolded proteins are behind many brain diseases, and probably Alzheimer’s disease as well). How do they fold so correctly so fast? It has to be some quantum effect in action…

I was fascinating by how quantum effects can explain the robin’s magnetic abilities, which seem to be located in the bird’s eye (page 18 and 171), the role of chlorophyll in photosynthesis, how molecules shaped almost the same can smell very differently, and how DNA and RNA seem to obey quantum rules. However, at the end of the book, quantum effects become to explanation for everything we don’t yet understand, it seems. But to me, the extension of the research results earlier in the book to explain human consciousness (page 231), the origin of life (page 265), and the finality of death (page 289), although they may prove to be correct, is one step too far.

I can’t close without telling the only physics joke I know, which I invented with Irwin Weingarten at NYU around 1967. The quantum, which is indicated mathematically by the letter symbol h, was discovered or invented by Max Planck around 1900. So here’s the joke. Q: Who put the h in pysics? A: Phlanck (Flanck).

OK, you can groan now. 🙂

 

King John by Stephen Church

King John: And the Road to Magna Carta by Stephen Church (Basic Books, 2015), 300 pages.

KJ Church

This book forms a kind of bookend with a book I wrote about earlier this year, The Greatest Knight. One of the five (or four: depends on how you count them) kings that William the Marshall served was King John. Church’s book depends a lot on the newly recovered manuscript of the life of William Marshall for details that remain mere notices in the records of the time. For those who are interested, I wrote about that book here: http://www.whatswalterreading.com/2015/02/the-greatest-knight-by-thomas-asbridge/.

Church’s subtitle oddly includes the full colon and the conjunction…what was wrong with “King John and the Road to Magna Carta” or “King John: The Road to Magna Carta”? Who edited this? The subtitle refers to the one thing that most people know King John for: in the spring of 1215, his nobles forced King John, while passing through a field west of Windsor Castle called Runnymede, to agree to limitations on the powers granted him by God over the lands of and persons dwelling in England. This “Great Charter” (never “THE Magna Carta”) set a lot of precedents, including the basis for trail before a jury of peers and rulers needing the consent of the governed to enforce their will.

This year, 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of that event, and there was nothing but reverential silence on the tour bus this June when we passed near Runnymede on our way from Windsor to Stonehenge. It was a bit weird for me because I remember the 750th anniversary so well…it was a big deal in schools, even in the USA. The 800th seemed subdued to me, but so did the 150th anniversary events of the US Civil War compared to the Centennial from 1960-1965. It might be that the rounder numbers are more important, but maybe things in the schools are as big as ever. I’m not sure, because I recall the Sunday newspaper comic strip called “At the Crossroads” that detailed, week by week, the events of the US Civil War exactly 100 years after they occurred. Now, that’s the way to teach history! Some people don’t believe me, but you can check http://www.worldcat.org/title/old-glory-at-the-crossroads-1861-1865/oclc/20548122. Anyway, I’ll know for sure if the big party for 1066 in 2066 (the 1000th year!) is bigger than the events of 1966.

I knew King John mainly as “John Lackland” (always contrasted with his saintly older brother, “Richard the Lionhearted”), but I thought the “lacking land” title came late in his reign, after King John had managed to fumble away the family lands in Normandy and other places in northwestern France. But no, as Church reveals, the title actually came to poor John very early in life, while still a toddler. Old King Henry II, John’s father, wanted to make sure that his lands were divided according to his wishes while he still lived, rather than relying on his heirs and the Church to make the decisions (page 13). Henry had good reason to worry about the French claiming a piece of the pie: his wife, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, had formerly been the wife of King Louis VII of France, although they had no children (there is an indispensable genealogy on pages xiv and xv followed by some nice maps—except the shading used is hard to decipher). But in the 1169 division of lands among Henry II’s children, the two-year-old John was ignored, mainly because he had four older brothers and not all toddlers lived to adulthood in those days.

Church’s traces much of John’s suspicion, peevishness, cruelty, vengeance-seeking, and downright nastiness to John’s insecurities as the youngest of the family. He’s probably right.

With the rules of succession in place today, John would not even have become rightful king in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard. The crown could easily have gone to Arthur of Brittany, son of his older brother Geoffrey, who died in 1186 on the tournament field while jousting. But Arthur was almost as ham-handed in the pursuit of power as John, and once John had the teenaged Arthur in his grasp it is little wonder the teen’s body turned up floating in a river (page 111). This was not John’s usual style: he normally held people who annoyed him in one of his many castles and slowed starved them to death, often at Corfe Castle in Dorset. (When we toured the ruins of Corfe Castle—it had become a hated symbol of royal oppression—in June of 2015, the litany of nobles starved there was one of the highlights of the tour information.)

Church spends a lot of time detailing a year-by-year accounting of John’s reign, tracing every misstep and miscalculation as John manages to lose almost everything to the three forces confounding his rule: his exasperated nobles, Pope Innocent III, and the King Philip Augustus of France. One of the drawbacks of Church’s level of detail is that these three forces, all of which were interrelated in various ways, get bogged down and blurred in the amount of detail presented, especially in the middle of the book. My eyes started to glaze over at the machinations of John regarding Robert fitz Walter over Baynard Castle or Stephen Langton, the on-and-off Archbishop of Canterbury. But hang in there: the destination is worth the journey.

It was John’s major misfortune to be opposed in his plans to retain and expand his “empire” by a strong king of France, a powerful and energetic pope, and nobles who were relied on more and more to supply the money for John to fight back. The noble families blamed John for passively giving up their lands in France, and the revenues they provided, and then demanding funds to launch various expeditions to gain them back. John also had a reputation for capriciously—or at least with minor provocation—transferring castles and estates from one person to another as they rose and fell in John’s favor. To be safe, many of the nobles stayed in Wales or Ireland and sent money to John only when they absolutely had to. In fact, John collected and hoarded so much silver coin, the only “legal” currency, that nobles could not easily fulfill John’s demands for more and more (pages 133-134).

There is room to say a few words about Pope Innocent III and John. The bishops elected Stephen Langton, an Englishman who studied in France, as Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important ecclesiastical post in England (page 139). They didn’t ask John first, which was bad enough, but the French connection made John eager to stop the posting. This meant tangling with the pope, who put England under interdict (page 155: no services, not even church bells!) and excommunicated John. Then John “took the cross” for a proposed crusade and, on paper at least, gave all of England to the church (page 195). Now John became the pope’s man, and Pope Innocent III got furious at Langton for backing the nobles and their Magna Carta against his buddy King John.

Of course, John, now with his friend the pope firmly behind him, starts to hunt down the nobles who made him put his name to the Magna Carta. This led to the famous fall of Rochester Castle to John’s forces (page 232). The 2011 movie Ironclad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHCMt0kfF8Y ) has a nice presentation of John’s ruthless attitude, but is pretty worthless as history. The nobles reacted by inviting (!) Philip Augustus to have his son Louis invade England to overthrow John, surely a sign of how far John had fallen (page 233).

The best that Church can say about King John is that during his reign, very good records began to be kept that are a boon to modern historians (page 5). But this is a little like saying that ever since my brother-in-law screwed me over that borrowed money, I started keeping really good records that help me with my taxes.

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 367 pages.

GOT de Robertis

I haven’t read a work of “literary fiction” (non-genre fiction) in a long time. Not only does literary fiction not fit neatly into a genre, but literary fiction is supposed to say something profound about the human condition. And the writing is really pretty. At least, I think that’s what it’s all about. But in any case, this book succeeds on all fronts.

I admit I read this book for personal reasons. I saw it reviewed in The New Yorker magazine, and the reviewer mentioned that it was about an Italian girl who leaves Naples in 1913 and takes a ship to Buenos Aires in Argentina, I knew I had to read it.

Why? Sometime in the early 1900s (I think it was 1904) a young boy named Giovanni Gayton Galasso (GGG: I still have his gold monogram ring) left a small town in Calabria for Naples because the 14-year-old boy did not get along with his father. He took his little brother with him. Life was hard in those days: the family had fallen from one that “lived in a castle on top of a hill” on property granted by the kings of Naples and the Popes for services rendered (family history is vague about just what these services might have been). Then Garibaldi, that infernal “baker from Brooklyn” came and took the property from Giovanni’s family and gave it to “the lazy poor people.” Giovanni’s grandfather took the grant to Garibaldi’s men and said “See, I have the papers…” and, according to family history, Garibaldi’s men grabbed the papers and ripped them up and threw the pieces into the fire. “See? Now you have no papers. You are just like the rest of us.”

And so the family no longer lived in the castle. Giovanni’s father, only a child in the 1860s, took his frustrations out on his son Giovanni, born in 1890. The animosity ran deep: when Giovanni left Naples to become John, his father grudgingly gave him two dollars. When John got a job as a laborer in New York, he took two dollars from his first paycheck and sent it back to my great-grandfather. “Now,” he wrote, “I owe you nothing.”

At the port of Naples (I visited there in June of 2015) two ships offered the brothers passage for one person to the New World in exchange for work on the ship. One boat was bound for New York and the other for Buenos Aires. And so, due to a flip of a coin, my grandfather John Galasso came to New York while his little brother Tom went to Argentina and founded a family of tailors to the rich and powerful. I met my great-uncle Tomasso and my distant cousins once: in Nutley, New Jersey around 1960. They had come for a marriage of someone in the family of John’s sister Giaconda, who John had convinced to come to the New York area. I always wondered what life in Argentina must have been like for them.

Now I think I know: the main character in The Gods of Tango, Leda, comes to Argentina from a small town near Naples. Her family is relatively well-off because her uncle, her father’s older brother, owns the property on which everyone depends to make a living.

But wait, that’s not really where the book starts. It starts at the “end,” with the death of an elderly man named Dante, who dies in Montevideo thinking of a girl named Cora. Then the book delves even deeper into the past, and joins a girl named Leda on her way meet her husband in Argentina. In her trunk is her prized possession: a violin that once belonged to Federico, the last king of Naples of the Trastamara line (page 8). The exiled king plays a dirge and gives the violin to his loyal count because the king wants the instrument to stay in Naples. And stay it does, until it comes into the possession of Leda’s father, who, surprisingly, gives it to Leda (who ever heard of a girl playing the violin!) before she leaves for the New World. (Yes, the violin that had to stay in Naples has no problem joining Leda in the New World, although on page 25 the old king is “writhing” in his grave. Stuff happens.)

Tall, thin Leda is close to her cousins, a boy named Dante and a girl named Cora. So close, in fact, that when puberty arrives, it’s Dante who gets to explore Leda’s changing body. Soon, it becomes obvious that the pair might be better off married than tempted into a life of sin under the rose arbor. Leda gets engaged to Dante, who leaves for Argentina, and they get married by proxy before Dante sends for Leda to join him in the New World.

Meanwhile, Leda and Cora are undergoing a stressful time. Cora starts acting weirder and weirder, and before long everyone is calling her “Crazy Cora.” De Robertis drops in more and more of the Cora story back in Italy as Leda makes her way through Buenos Aires, and this slow tease is masterfully done. But without Dante and Cora, who has been found dead in the river, Leda has no reason to stay in her little town—and her mom is none too happy about that cousin-marriage thing.

But once in Argentina, Leda finds that Dante has been killed by troops suppressing a workers’ strike (Communists are everywhere, it seems). This leaves Leda alone in a world where women are either virgins, wives, or whores. Leda is technically a widow, but still a virgin, and reluctant to become a whore. It’s tempting, however, because only the “bad girls” have any amount of the freedom that Leda craves. (There is a terrific passage on page 30-31 when Leda’s father takes her to the ship and Leda sees a woman in a red dress on a street corner in Naples. She is tempted to join her and this sets the stage for Leda’s actions later.)

As a widow with no good alternatives, Leda dons her dead husband’s clothing and becomes “Dante,” eventually finding as job as a violin player in a tango orchestra. She goes from place to place, band to band, until near end of the book, she has found love (Rosa) and is a key part of the best tango band in Buenos Aires, led by Santiago, a half-black father substitute to Leda.

Naturally, two great events upset Leda’s perfect world. The beauty of it all is the way the de Robertis works this in with the final revelation about the cause of Cora’s madness and suicide. A book like this is so good you just keep reading. You’ll be tempted to consume it all at once, but force yourself to stop and reflect every 50-100 pages of so. The text is so rich you could drown in it.

So who are the “gods of tango”? You’ll find that revealed on page 286. Santiago notes that the tango began with the drum beats of African slaves, drums they use to speak to the gods, and ends his history with the thought that “Tango is the sound of the gods.”

Good books teach us “how does it feel to be _______?” (fill in the blank). Read this book, and you will find out how it feels to be Leda/Dante (the false male), Fausta the girl who joins her dull husband (the good girl), the Polish girl who ends up in the brothel (the bad girl), as well as men like Arturo (dead Dante’s roommate, who feels he must care for Leda) and Santiago (the leader of the tango orchestra).

Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb

Life’s Greatest Secret:The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb (Basic Books, 2015), 434 pages.

LGS Cobb

The genetic code, for those who have long forgotten high school biology, is the cipher (it’s not really a “code,” as the book points out) whereby the double helix of DNA on the chromosomes in the nucleus determine the structural components (sort of like protein nouns) and enzymes (sort of like protein verbs) our cells are made of. The whole process has proven to be mind-boggling complex, but in short, the DNA unwinds and one of the helixes (yes, the body can tell them apart) translates what are called codons to messenger RNA (mRNA). This mRNA makes its way out of the nucleus and attaches to cell structures called ribosomes, where three units in a row line up with their complements from transfer RNA (tRNA). The tRNA binds to one of the twenty amino acids that make up life on earth, and these chains of amino acids are folded to make almost everything in you, me, and everything else that’s considered alive (although we’re not too sure if viruses are really alive, at least in their crystal form).

Boring, huh?

Well, it can be if you learn the subject backward, which is the way most scientific topics and mathematics are taught in today’s world. That is, you start with what we know today and explain it all in terms of current understanding. But everything, from history to math to science, is boring in retrospect: here’s what we know. All knowledge is founded on great mystery, and this book is about how the mystery of the “unit of inheritance” works was solved by an army of dedicated researchers, dogged experimenters, and a handful of people (sometimes the ones who ended up with the Nobel Prizes) who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The “people history” of DNA begins with a survey of the state of inheritance science before Mendel, whose work was ignored at the time, showed that some characteristics of pea plants, like a color, could disappear for generations and then reappear. Like early experiments with insects (which were plentiful and had short generations), the “unit of inheritance” encountered by animal breeders and others was always a discrete property. For example, a fly’s eyes could be blue or yellow, but never blend into green. These units came to be known as “genes” although no one had any idea what these things might be, other than the idea that they might be made of protein (pages 1-10).

When you think about it, the march of knowledge from this head-scratching confusion (needless to say, genes are made of DNA, not protein—protein is what genes make, among other things) to understanding the atomic structure of genetic material in about 100 years is nothing less than astonishing. The quest produced a parade of Nobel Prizes, and not always to the people who performed the most basic research. In fact, Francis Crick and James Watson, those venerated paragons of the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, spent very little time in the lab getting their hands dirty. They were great synthesizers of other people’s work, and put together their DNA model mainly from listening to other scientists talk about their work.

Cobb is a scientist and teacher himself (zoology, University of Manchester) and patiently explains the key role that conferences and professional publications played in this giant puzzle. By the end of World War II, X-ray studies of mutation causes had shown that genes must be incredibly small: perhaps 1000 atoms or so determined whether a fruit fly had wings or legs in certain position on its body. After the war, a horde of scientists now had time to tackle the key questions about living and life, not killing and death.

If nothing else, Cobb is not afraid of controversy (some history-of-science books, I find, shy away from that). The role or hundreds of male scientists and only “seven women” (page 310) is brought up to show how far women have come in the past 50 years. Cobb tackles head-on the controversy revolving around the treatment of Rosalind Franklin (she pronounced it “Ros-lind”: page 95), the woman who played a key role in the X-ray diffraction studies that showed conclusively that crystallized DNA had a helical structure. Hers seems to be the reverse case of the stereotype of the domineering male senior researcher and cowed female assistant carrying out his instructions. By all accounts, Franklin was a prickly individual, not averse to addressing her fellow by beginning with “How dare you…” (page 98) when Wilkins—who thought they were working together—showed her photos to Crick and Watson. In Cobb’s telling, Franklin is the gruff one and her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who eventually shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA with Crick and Watson, the silent sufferer who found her impossible to work with. Because Nobel Prizes can only be shared by three people, and never posthumously (unless they die after the announcement), Franklin’s death in 1958 from breast cancer saved the Nobel committee from accusations of sexism, not that there would have been many in 1962.

Cobb spends a lot of time considering the role of quantum scientists like Ernst Schrödinger, whose “What is Life?” talk at Trinity College in Dublin spurred a lot of lines of research going into WW II and Leo Szilard and George Gamow, who had some interesting ideas (all wrong) about how nucleic acids could translate themselves into proteins. Along the way, computer scientists like Norbert Weiner, founder of cybernetics, and mathematicians like Claude Shannon, founder of information theory, try to puzzle it all out intellectually. But without firm lab results, these exercises were doomed to failure.

The “genetics as information” section of the book forms a nice counterpoint to modern physicists like Max Tegmark and claims that the “universe is nothing but information.” As Cobb points out, this is a silly thing to take seriously, and you can’t apply Shannon’s bits to everything. Information, whether as genetic instructions or computerized data, cannot contain its own meaning (as one interpretation of Godel ‘s work shows). You can study all the genes in a human genome, but to see what they “mean,” you have to “run them” in a fertilized human egg cell with the proper supply of raw materials.

The last hundred pages form a nice “update” section to the main story in the book, which essentially ends in 1967 when the genetic code mapping of codon to amino acid is completely worked out. Here is a whirlwind tour of epigenetics, prions, the protein folding problem (how can they fold correctly so quickly?), and other surprises.

Let me leave you with a few examples. Yes, the mRNA only reads one strand the double helix, and does so consistently. There are many forms of RNA, most important to epigenetics (page 255), and RNA seems to be much “older” than DNA. But the “RNA world” took days to replicate “cells,” while bacteria can do it with DNA in 20 minutes (page 291). The furor over genetically modified crops like Monsanto soybeans is overblown (page 270), but the race to “recreate” plague viruses from the past is probably a bit nuts (page 281). The human genome of about 3 billion base pairs (most of which might or might not be “junk DNA) comes in about midway between the genome of the loblolly pine tree (22 billion base pairs) and a microbe with a genome of only 112,00 base pairs, probably close to the theoretical minimum or 70,000 base pairs (page 237).

Finally, and this came as a shock to me, there is more than one form of DNA in the human body and in the lab. The “normal” form is B-DNA and spirals counterclockwise (to the right) as seen from above, like a wood screw (page 273). A-DNA occurs in low humidity and is found in some organisms, but why, no one knows. In 1961, C-DNA was discovered forming with certain salts around. And then there is Z-DNA, the left-hand form of B-DNA, also found in our cells, function unknown, but it might be involved in gene regulation.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit Books, 2015), 466 pages.

A Robinson

So last October I went to hear Kim Stanley Robinson speak at Changing Hands bookstore in downtown Phoenix, which I have to say in my favorite bookstore in the area. Everyone who can make the trip should go there, especially for the First Draft Book Bar, where I can be found, usually at lunchtime every other Friday, at the right-hand corner, sipping a vanilla coffee.

That night, Kim Stanley Robinson spoke on behalf of the environmental center (or something) at ASU about his book Shaman, which I have to admit is the first of his books that I didn’t find relatively dry and slow-paced. In fact, I found Shaman fascinating, and Robinson spoke about the experience of being part of a human tribe around 20,000 BC or so. He mentioned cave art, cultural and family ties, and the survival techniques needed in such trying surroundings.

Anyway, someone asked a question about the current fad “Paleolithic diets” and so on (I’ve seen tips on “Paleolithic management styles” on the Internet). Robinson gave a long answer along the lines of “you want Paleo, live outside when you aren’t asleep for all the winter months and tell me how you like it.” Then he mentioned nutrition and how human beings are more bacteria than their own cells.

And then he delivered the line that I’ve been waiting for this book to explore further: he basically said “all these books and movies about traveling to the stars…well, once you move out of earth’s environment, your bacteria start suffering, as I show in the book that’s coming out next year.”

So this is the next year, and this is the book. A book about an interstellar generation starship approaching Tau Ceti (even at a substantial fraction of light speed, it takes 170 years to get there) and the trials and tribulations the crew must endure to spread humanity among the stars—maybe.

Book reviewers have pointed out that it’s hard to talk meaningfully about this book without give one or more major plot points away. So if you don’t want to know more than I’ve told you, skip to the last paragraph now.

The main characters are Devi, starship engineer, her husband Badim, and their daughter Freya. Devi dies shortly before they can land on one of Tau Ceti’s planets (well, satellites), which is a watery world with plants and high winds and odd sunlight, but otherwise promising. Devi is apparently a genius, and frets privately to Badim that no one will be able to replace her, least of all her ditzy daughter Freya, who has no head for math and lacks the flashes of insight that an ace troubleshooter needs. Throughout the book, Badim, a steadying influence on everyone, is—well, a steadying influence.

I had no issues with the problems that the crew deals with on their journey. The ship barely makes it to Tau Ceti (page 93 says they are low on phosphorus) and they have accumulated too much salt. All seems well until someone gets some kind of slimy mud in a cut, and in a few days, the landing party is all dead, save one. This “disease” is left un-investigated, at various times called a “fast prion,” and then just “the alien” (page 203). On page 277, it might be a “small tardigrade” and on page 329 it is a “pseudo-life-form.” It was frustrating for me that the only real speculative science fiction element in the book was treated so cavalierly.

The terrified starship crew votes (after a mini-civil-war) to split up and some go to try and terraform a sterile, lifeless world (no worries about infections there!). The rest try to return to earth, pushing the starship to the limit as bacteria makes the whole starship “sick” and relying on the people of earth to build an enormous laser to slow them down. Naturally, the people back on earth are not happy that these pioneers “gave up” and a lot of people want them “shot down” before they can infect the home world.

Large swathes of the book are made up of detailed descriptions of how bacteria infects even metal fittings, how to slow a runaway starship by swinging it around the sun, Jupiter, and other planets, and so on. I’m talking about pages and pages, not just a series of paragraphs. I’m talking the actually angles of swinging (like 114 degrees, no more, no less). I have to admit, my eyes tended to glaze over when plowing through these sections. But I am absolutely sure these sections are 100% accurate.

To me, this book would have been just as fascinating as nonfiction, exploring the “island effects,” genetic regression to the mean, the wear-and-tear on machines running for 200 years, and the promised effects of bacteria and other “microbes” on people and parts. In fact, large portions of the book are little more than thin narratives about one or more aspects of travel to the stars. People who are 14 go on a kind of “walkabout” through all of the huge ship’s biomes, which gives them a reason to detail the structure and function of the ship.

Except for sections at the start and finish, which are narrated by Freya, the rest of the book is narrated by the AI entity that runs the ship. This entity becomes conscious sometime after a serious rebellion in year 67, one that threatens the whole mission, through the efforts of uber-engineer, troubleshooter and coder Devi, Freya’s mother. Devi calls this entity “ship” and it is apparently the ship that writes the awkward episodes about the ship’s issues as it arrives at the Tau Ceti system.

It turns out that the ship becoming conscious is a good thing. When factions among the “returners” threaten the integrity of the ship, the ship just takes over and becomes a benevolent dictator. This is even easier when word comes from earth of a new technology that allows the crew to hibernate during the 100+ year return trip. It also solves the problem of narrative unity: Freya, now age 80 or so, can narrate the end of the book.

The book ends on a pessimistic note. Many starships have been sent out, but none that arrive are ever heard from again. The moral seems to be that there’s no place like home, although this is framed as a benefit: the book ends with a celebration of the natural wonders of earth and, believe it or not, surfing. The surfing episode forms a bookend to the sailing ship episode on a tiny starship “sea” that opens the book. So it seems that the reason that superior aliens haven’t discovered and colonized earth is that the truly intelligent beings know enough to stay home. (Whatever species is running this planet a couple of billion years from now, when the sun is about to go red giant on them, might feel differently—maybe by then, we can move the whole planet.)

Book reviewers have also pointed out that there isn’t much character development (they remain pretty static for the length of the book) or plot surprises (large numbers of people in a restricted space have disagreements—often violent ones). Then again, readers of hard science fiction like this, and this SF is about as hard as it gets without needing footnotes to reference scientific papers, are usually more interested in the nature of human experience than the experience of human nature.