This Is Your Brain on Parasites – Kathleen McAuliffe

parasiteFull Title: This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society
First Published: 7th June, 2016
Genre: Science Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a science non-fiction book, looking at the ways parasites manipulate behaviour. A broad definition of parasite is used, which includes parasitoids. It also looks at things like behaviours that have evolved to avoid getting infected.

Many parasites are talked about in detail, including how the parasite was researched. Though not intended as the book’s main theme, that part was also of interest. It shows how science is often hampered by who can get funding or fund their own research.

The style is accessible to people with little knowledge of science. Basic concepts are explained, such as insects being able to make decisions. It’s important to realise they’re not instinct machines in order to understand that a parasite could knock out their ability to make choices.

One thing that stands out with the parasite examples is a lot are rather more subtle and cunning than the average science fiction parasite. Some do take over the bodies of their hosts completely, but often it’s not that extreme. For example, humans are sent running to water, thus allowing the parasite to release offspring into the water. All it requires is making the skin feel like it’s burning. No direct brain control is required.

The positive aspects of parasites are discussed briefly. An example was crickets being made to jump into the water, which provided a meal for a rare trout. Without the parasite, there might not have been trout. The ecology of parasites is complicated, which has implications when it comes to trying to eradicate certain parasites. It could have unexpected results.

Where the book fell down for me was discussing humans. It wasn’t about what was covered. Examples include how gut bacteria might influence someone’s weight, and parasites as an environmental factor in schizophrenia. It also touches on how inequality can alter the chances of someone being impacted by harmful parasites, such as Toxocara infections being less common in White Americans and more common in African Americans.

Though a lot of that information is interesting, the perspective it was presented from wasn’t comfortable. It’s written from a privileged perspective that assumes the reader will be too, so mental illness is a tragedy and fatness is a disease. When saying people shown images of sick people become more prejudiced against those who are different to them, like disabled people and immigrants, it’s making a statement about who is the default person and who is different.

This is a wider issue when it comes to science, as it can mean studies miss the obvious and programmes based on the research fail to understand the communities they’re supposed to help. A research example was the scientist who tried to use the smell of durian to make his research participants feel disgust. But he’d not taken into account that many were Asian and were used to it. This is such an obvious thing that it really shouldn’t have needed to hit the lab before someone figured it out. Yet it’s portrayed as the surprise that no one could have predicted. Shock horror: you won’t feel disgusted by foods you’ve grown up eating and enjoying.

I liked this book when it was about wasps making cockroaches indecisive. It contains a lot of examples, and would be a valuable starting point for science fiction writers wanting to expand their basic knowledge. It also has a bibliography to aid with continued research. But once it starts talking about people, it hits the common non-fiction territory of wading through a series of microaggressions (and some not so micro ones) to get to the information. I could have done without that part.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Prototaxites: When Mushrooms Ruled the World

I’ve been working on some stuff about Prototaxites, an extinct prehistoric fungus from the late Silurian to early Devonian periods. Its fruiting body continued to grow year after year, and could get to around eight metres tall. This was long before the dinosaurs, when life was still getting established on land. Plants were low growing and there were no trees, so Prototaxites was the biggest thing around.

Why would a fungus need a fruiting body that tall? There’s debate over this, from thinking it could disperse spores better, to being a lichen so needing sunlight. But whatever the reasons, it’s huge and it’s a mushroom, so I was interested in learning about it and drawing some pictures.

These are two of my sketches, showing different interpretations of Prototaxites. The brown columns are plain fungi. The greenish ones with sparse branches are lichens.

Prototaxites Fungi
Prototaxites Lichens

I’m also working on some 3D models for Second Life. That’s at the early stages, but I’m getting the basic shapes together. On the left, I’m the little purple mushroom, and the box is the height the final things will be. On the right, my early attempts at making the column versions. Eventually, I want to make a variety of different shapes, then set up a little in-world gallery with my art and fun science facts about our new mushroom overlords.

Making Prototaxites in Second Life

Though there’s still a lot of work to do, I figured people might be interested in some of the behind the scenes stuff. I’ll put up pictures as I go on my website, and also have a few things for sale on Zazzle.

The Rowanwood Curse – Elizabeth O’Connell

The Rowanwood Curse CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #1
First Published: 23rd January, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem is the apprentice of his magician brother Hal, and is bored of the dull routine work they’ve been taking on. Then Hal is called to break a curse on Sir Jasper Pryce’s daughter. In order to break it, Hal must figure out who cast the curse and why.

The story is told by Jem as he aids Hal. It has a very Sherlock Holmes vibe, being set in a similar era with the companion of the genius sleuth as the one writing the story. That said, the relationship dynamics are different, as they’re brothers. As well as the case at hand, it explores some of the circumstances around their father’s death. Hal initially tries to keep those things from Jem, but does start to share before the end. It looks like that mystery will continue to be developed as the series progresses.

This is a world where magic was the major push in the industrial revolution. Spirits and elementals are bound into machines to make them function. Industrial magic is treated as a science, with formal teaching and rigid thinking about how it works. The result is local folktales and magical teachings are dismissed as superstition. Local wise women aren’t considered true magical practitioners, unlike the learned gentlemen who’ve studied it at academic institutions. I liked the handling of this aspect of the world, as it mirrors the real systematic bias against local knowledge. It’s also clear the bias is wrong. Hal realises there’s a lot the magical institutions don’t know, and the local yarbwoman has valuable information for the case.

It’s an interesting mystery, weaving in folklore with family secrets. The focus on understanding the curse is a twist on usual murder mystery formats.

I wasn’t comfortable with the handing of disability. All examples of mental illness are people who’ve been affected by magic. They’re possessed, cursed, or otherwise been driven mad by magic. It would have been nice to see a contrast to this, rather than having magically induced mental illness as the only sort that existed. There’s also a heavy layer of pity towards the idea of being disabled, and Jem is upset that people will think him an invalid for having to take medication (for his magic sensitivity). Sir Jasper is blind in one eye, but as that aspect is barely there, it’s not really a counterpoint to the idea that disability is the end, and caused by magic.

Overall, it was an entertaining story, and sets up some bigger mysteries for the future. It will appeal to people who like crossovers between mystery and historical fantasy.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

The Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Flower – John Light (author), Lisa Evans (illustrator)

The Flower CoverFirst Published: 1st April, 2006
Genre: Children’s Dystopian / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Child’s Play

Brigg is a child living in a grey city. He works at the library, where he finds a book he isn’t supposed to read. It’s filled with pictures of flowers, which he hasn’t seen before. If only he could find a flower in the city.

Dystopian futures are tricky to condense for picture books, as there’s not a lot of space to explain what’s going on, and early readers may not be familiar with the tropes of the genre. This book does a good job of tackling that issue. There are many small details, like Brigg having a job and living alone rather than with parents. Brigg has never seen flowers before, and doesn’t recognise a seed packet or understand how plants grow.

It focuses on a personal act of revolution, rather than trying to overthrow the system. Brigg can’t change how the city runs, but he can try to grow a flower. The theme of finding a point of happiness when the world seems bleak will resonate with children going through tough times.

There’s also a suggestion of post-apocalyptic themes, with the environment changing so there aren’t any plants in the city. It takes something pretty major to kill off all the weeds.

The art reinforces the story, by showing the city as a dull grey place. Brigg is shown walking the other way to everyone else, or sitting apart from other children, highlighting how out-of-place he feels. His room is very plain, with few personal items. Once the flower appears, it’s a point of colour and life in an otherwise dull environment.

I wasn’t sure whether Brigg was intended to be mixed race. The art style has everyone with very lightly shaded skin, making it rather ambiguous. He also has somewhat European facial features. But his hair texture suggests black ancestry. So, I personally saw him as mixed race when I read it, whether or not that was intended.

This is an enjoyable book that packs a lot into very few words. It touches on things like feeling alone, environmental issues and book censorship. It’s an accessible introduction to dystopian fiction for younger children, with darkly whimsical artwork.