Tag Archives: Chunkster Challenge

Third Sentence Thursday again: How would YOU invent squash?

After the Ice  by Steven Mithen

p. 285: “Not only do their social lives seem to have been based more around sharing than competition, but it seems unlikely that a rival would have been impressed, let alone humbled, by no more than a handful of squash seeds, however large they may have been.”

Archaeologists argue a lot. This quote has to do with two theories of how people about ten thousand years ago in Oaxaca (Mexico) managed to develop corn and domesticate squash and beans.

Theory 1: Over the centuries, people spent more and more time tending wild plants, weeding out sickly ones and planting healthy ones in good locations. They did this to improve their food supply in dry years. Little by little, the plants became more nutritious and appetizing, and more dependent on humans.

Theory 2: Leaders – “big men” – directed the selective breeding of plants so they could use improved varieties to humiliate their rivals, whose crops would be less awe-inspiring. (On the whole, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Mithen prefers Theory 1.)

But what’s this book really about? The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 B.C.” Mithen starts with the end of the latest ice age and gives us 52 short chapters, about ten pages each, describing what we know and guess about life in various parts of the world up to the beginning of civilization. To liven up the stories, he invents an invisible time traveler who visits a representative group of people in each chapter and sees how they live.

This is a book to read in chunks, a few chapters at a time. Try to read it all at once and you’ll feel like you’re being rolled head over heels in an avalanche of information. Take it in smaller bites, and it’s a fascinating story of how climate shifts and human inventiveness changed the world.

What’s human? What’s not?

Review: Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

A keeper? I have to think about that some more.

For the first two parts, this was one of those books I wanted to read fast to find out what happens, and also wanted to read slow so I could think about the ideas. The last part – well, let’s set the stage before we talk about the last part. (Note: Lilith’s Brood is really a trilogy – Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – republished as a single book.)

If it weren’t for the Oankali, human beings would be extinct a few centuries before the beginning of this story.

Who are the Oankali? That’s what Lilith Iyapo wants to know as the saga begins. Somebody has shut her up in a very strange doorless room; somebody she never sees or hears. Her last memories are of hiking in the Andes, trying to forget her dead husband and son, when the final nuclear war broke out. She should be dead; she seems to be alive.

Eventually, an Oankali joins Lilith in her room. She’s horrified. He’s hideous, with no eyes and little tentacles all over his head. But she adjusts. She’s more or less adopted by his family and turned over to his ooloi child Nikanj to learn about the Oankali and what has happened to people. (The ooloi are the third sex among the Oankali. As the story goes on, we learn just how important they are, in a self-effacing way.) It seems that the humans who could be rescued have been healed (the Oankali are master genetic manipulators) and, mostly, kept sedated until the earth had been coaxed into supporting life again.

Much, much more happens. (Lilith’s Brood is almost 750 pages long.) The Oankali give Lilith the job of training groups of humans to recolonize earth (with Oankali partners, whether the humans like it or not). Fastforward – oh, maybe a century – and many humans, including Lilith, are back on earth. A large fraction of the humans – the Resisters – refuse to have anything to do with the Oankali, and have been made sterile. And the Resisters’ despair at being the last of their kind leads to all sorts of problems, including kidnapping young hybrids. Hybrids?

The fertile humans are the ones who have joined Oankali families to produce human-Oankali hybrid children, each with five parents – two humans and three Oankali. We follow one of Lilith’s part-Oankali sons as he grows up, develops ties to some Resisters, and fights to talk the Oankali into terraforming Mars for the Resisters. His dream is to let Mars become an independent human world where they will be allowed pure-human children. (Why not give the Resisters earth? Because, in time, the Oankali and their humans will use most of the planet as raw material for several starships and go seeking new life and new civilizations to assimilate. There won’t be enough left of earth to make a decent moon.)

So far, we have an exciting story with some meaty science fiction ideas – what does it mean to be human? Who is human? Is homo sapiens genetically doomed? (The Oankali certainly think so.) How far can you go in exploring and accepting another culture (or species) without betraying your own people?

Then comes the third section. Another century or thereabouts has passed, and another of Lilith’s children is growing up (the other parents are Tino, a human man, the male Oankali Dichaan, the female Oankali Ahajas, and the ooloi Nikanj – the same Nikanj Lilith has known since it was a child). The hybrids don’t know what sex they will be until they’re twenty or thirty years old – but everyone is surprised when this child, Jodahs, realizes it’s becoming an ooloi.

As Jodahs matures and tells its story, we realize just how powerful the ooloi really are. In human-Oankali families, it’s the ooloi who selects what genes will go into the next embryo, from which parents. They manipulate genes to change the bodies of full-grown adults – always for good, we’re told. They inject biochemical tranquilizers to soothe anyone who objects to what they are doing.

In effect, both the humans and the male and female Oankali have been domesticated, like dogs or cows, by their ooloi. And the ooloi can’t stop. Their own biochemical urges force them to tinker with everybody around them. I suppose I’ve read too much history; I can’t swallow this level of control as Officially Good, no matter what the manipulators believe they’re doing. With this last section in which we hear Jodahs’ story, Lilith’s Brood changed from thought-provoking science fiction to quiet horror.

Mixing up years and characters…

Review: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

A keeper? I’m afraid not

Not a bad book, exactly – but it should be either longer or shorter. The initial situations are intriguing: in 1913 London, a very little girl is settled in a hiding place on the deck of a passenger liner – but the woman who told her to hide there never comes back for her. And in 1976 Brisbane, Cassandra’s mother drives the two of them to her mother’s house and leaves Cassandra there. For keeps. So we start with what looks like two parallel stories of abandoned little girls. Very promising.

Unfortunately, it almost seems as if Kate Morton really wanted to tell a story about the turn of the twentieth century but didn’t trust her readers to care unless she included characters from the present day, or close to it. She gives us a lot of detail about young (and adult) Eliza’s experiences between 1900 and 1913; she makes us mourn when Eliza’s twin brother dies and fear what might happen to Eliza in the slums of London – and fear the worse things that might happen to her among her wealthy relatives in Cornwall. We enjoy Eliza’s talents for storytelling and evasiveness, and we worry about her sickly rich cousin Rose, and we hate her aunt Adeline. I’d have been perfectly happy to read three or four hundred pages about all these late nineteenth century and early twentieth century people.

On the other hand, Morton could have put more detail into the stories of Cassandra and her grandmother Nell (who probably didn’t start life as Nell; but after a head injury on the ship bound from London to Australia back in 1913, she can’t remember what she used to be called). True, this would have made the book at least six or seven hundred pages long – but it’s already 549 pages. What’s a few hundred more, if it makes the story better?

A sentence or two here and there suggests that Nell spent her married life in the United States, but we never see her there or find out why she lived there. As for Cassandra, there are (I think) just two brief hints that she has some great personal loss – aside from Nell’s recent death – by the time we meet her in 2005, before we find out on page 200 exactly what happened. Now, if Morton told us that Cassandra refused to think about her loss, this delay would work. But on p. 200 we’re told her tragedy (the deaths of her husband and toddler; this isn’t a spoiler, because it’s not really important to the rest of the story) was “never far from her mind”, and I don’t believe it. Not when I’ve spent so much time in her mind by that point in the story without being able to figure out what was wrong other than Nell’s death. Not when she rarely thinks about them again for the next 350 pages.

Basically, Morton uses Nell and Cassandra to sub for the reader and investigate the story of Eliza. If we had spent time hearing their own stories in emotionally involving detail and had a chance to find parallels or contrasts to Eliza’s life, this could have been a wonderful book. If we stayed with Eliza and her friends and enemies, it would be a good book. As it is, it’s a book that keeps yanking us away from each piece of the story as soon as we plunge into it. 😦