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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 3, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Tornado, Science Books, Anthologies

Let's face it -- in the aftermath of a tornado, not everybody can show up all at once to help. If too many people are trying to work on the cleanup, they can easily get in each other's way -- potentially causing as much damage as some aspects of the tornado!

And some of us are not physically capable of helping with the actual labor of the cleanup. What good would it be for me to help if, after the first half-hour, I have to be taken to the hospital to recuperate?

So while I applaud the many who did plunge right in and help with the clean-up -- including helping families find housing and replace lost or damaged items -- there are other ways to help, as well.

One of the most lasting results of the tornado that struck Greensboro is that three elementary schools were closed for repairs -- and will remain closed through the end of this school year.

That has put hundreds of schoolkids in temporary or doubled-up classrooms, and many of them are without adequate supplies.

Here's a good way to help. Greensboro's local Barnes & Noble is partnering with Grimsley High School on a fundraiser for tornado relief.

On Wednesday, 9 May, Grimsley High is dedicating their annual Summer Reading Bookfair to helping those relocated students. Grimsley has adopted several elementary classrooms and will be donating all of their proceeds from the bookfair to these schools.

Barnes & Noble already donates its profits from such bookfairs to the sponsoring school; now Grimsley is dedicating its earnings from the fair to help those selected elementary classrooms.

So if you shop at Barnes & Noble on 9 May, mention to the cashier either "Grimsley High School" or "Tornado Relief," and your purchase will benefit this fundraiser.

And don't forget that your cafe purchases will also count!

*

Sometimes there are outstanding books on scientific topics that are written by scientists working in the field. While their journal articles about their own research are usually written using the precise terminology of their field, making them nearly inscrutable to people who are not used to reading such fare, the best of the books are written in plain English, with explanations to help you understand what they're talking about.

I'd like to inform you about two excellent books that I greatly enjoyed.

Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, by Richard C. Francis, gathers the results of many decades of research on the transformation of domesticated animals.

The covers shows a wolf looming over a little housepet dog, demonstrating the stark contrast between the wild original and the result of millennia of domestication.

Dogs were almost certainly the first animals to be domesticated, but there are many others: Sheep, horses, pigs, cows, goats, and others, some of them fully domesticated, some only partway along that road. (Cats, for instance, show only a few markers of domestication.)

One of the best aspects of the book is that Francis acquaints us with the wild originals of our common domestic animals. The genetic difference between the original and the domestic version is often very small, and differences between breeds within the domesticated species are so tiny as to be barely findable.

Yet that tiny genetic difference can give us St. Bernards and Chihuahuas, still part of the same species but so radically different that it's really not pleasant to think about interbreeding them.

When animals are brought along the road to domestication, there are some immediate changes. First, they become dependent on humans to provide enough food and protection from predators to ensure their survival year-round (unless they're butchered to keep humans alive).

Second, humans begin to control their breeding, so that instead of males battling for supremacy or females selecting their preferred mates, the animals are bred to enhance the traits that humans want them to have.

So wild rams, who butt heavily-horned heads in order to win the right to mate with the ewes of the flock, no longer get any advantage from expending the nutrients to grow huge, heavy horns. In fact, now those horns are a disadvantage, because the human breeders are looking for other traits, like the production of higher quality wool -- and mutton.

Thus the domesticated breeds of sheep can be completely hornless, or have greatly reduced horns in the males. Likewise, the enormous horns of the aurochs have shrunken greatly in their cattle descendants.

The thing that surprised me is that there are several traits that always seen to go along with domestication. Nobody breeds for these traits -- they simply happen, inevitably, as mammals, at least, are domesticated by humans.

Now, the first trait selected for in domesticated animals is always tameness -- the ability to endure the presence of humans without aggression. Obviously, animals that go on a rampage when humans come near aren't going to be chosen for breeding -- we have a tendency to work with individuals from a species that are docile and unlikely to kill us.

That's why only certain species can be domesticated, in the strict sense of the word. Forget real domestication of any cat. Cats are all complete carnivores that are never fully tame -- though we have selected for individual housecats that are less likely to claw your eyes out while you sleep.

And some differences among breeds are actually survivals of naturally-evolved landraces -- regional breeds of the same species. The markers of Siamese cats are not the product of domestication. They just happened to be present among the Southeast Asian cats that began to be brought into the homes of humans, who fed and pampered them.

Once an animal is along the road to domestication, there are certain traits that develop across species. One of the strangest is floppy ears -- wolves and coyotes don't have them, but many domesticated dogs do. Other species also demonstrate this trait.

The weaponry that's essential for competition between males also begins to disappear, because those weapons no longer increase their likelihood of mating.

These markers of domestication were demonstrated most forcefully in a longterm experiment begun in the old Soviet Union decades ago, in which scientists began domesticating foxes. They selectively interbred the foxes that most readily tolerated the presence of humans, and in a surprisingly small number of generations, the same domestication markers that typify our dogs began to appear systematically among these tame foxes.

I was surprised when Dr. Francis discussed the remarkable case of dingoes. These doglike predators of the Australian outback were long assumed to be the descendants of domesticated dogs that arrived with the European colonists, but this isn't true at all.

Instead, dingoes are a species that was midway through domestication when humans brought them with one of the early waves of migration from Southeast Asia, where dingoes continue to survive separately from dogs and wolves. They are not as tame as dogs, but not as wild as wolves.

There's also a sort of no-return law at play. Many species that we think of as "wild" are not -- they're merely "feral." Yes, there's a difference. Wild animals are those whose evolution has never been directly shaped by human intervention; feral animals are those that were domesticated, but now they and their descendants are living again in the wild. Those signs of domestication don't immediately disappear.

One of the most remarkable ideas is that we seem to show some markers of domestication, like neoteny (preservation of infant traits in the adult). Have human beings self-domesticated, so that we can endure living together in ever-larger and more stressful communities?

Whether or not you actually live with or work with domesticated animals, all of us live in a world profoundly affected by the domestication of animals. This highly readable book is so illuminating that I really think we all need to be familiar with the ideas and principles taught in it.

Additionally, Richard C. Francis is doing significant research on "epigenetics," a new field of study concerning the newly-discovered fact that some traits developed by individuals because of stress in their environment can be passed on to their offspring.

Long regarded as an impossibility (and derided as "Lamarckian" rather than "Darwinian" evolution), the ability of individuals to pass their own acquired traits on to their offspring is transforming our ideas about how evolution works.

Which brings me to the second book I want to recommend this week: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, by Jonathan B. Losos.

Improbable Destinies works hand in hand with Domesticated, in that both books deal with humans intervening in the evolutionary paths of various animals, plants, and microbes.

However, Losos is looking closely into the serious difficulty of scientifically studying the actual process of evolution. For centuries, evolution has been treated as a solely historical process -- that is, we are surrounded by the products of evolution, but we can't actually perform experiments to discover the actual mechanisms by which evolution happens.

With the mapping of various genomes, however, it has become possible to track evolutionary changes, not just in the outward, observable attributes of the species, but also in the actual genetic code.

The single biggest problem with evolution is that it's a very long, slow process.

Evolution can only take place in the presence of variation within a species -- if all members of a species are absolutely identical, how can natural selection give any of them a reproductive advantage over any others?

Yet even though mutations give rise to variations within a species, the mutations that don't actually kill or damage the individual are usually irrelevant to survival. Significant mutations that then enhance the survival chances of individuals that have it are completely unpredictable.

Or are they? Losos recounts his own experiments and those of other scientists, who devote their research efforts to working on tiny, tiny life forms that can have several generations in the same day.

The most difficult experiment is one to which Losos devotes much of the book -- at the cost of seriously testing the patience of the reader. The researchers began a long experiment with a population of a microbe that reproduces solely by fission. This means that by starting with one individual, you end up with an endless series of genetically identical clones.

Using elaborate procedures to protect the process, these populations where divided every day, fed exactly measured doses of identical nutrients, and kept in a long, well-recorded and strictly observed set of protocols.

It took years of researchers meticulously performing the exact same operations every day across a large number of daughter populations before any mutations emerged. But they did emerge, leading to genetically distinct populations.

Similar longterm experiments have been conducted in the lab, and by learning from those controlled experiments how genetic alterations arise -- by chance alone rather than direct human breeding efforts -- and then propagate through a population, scientists learn what to look for to detect the markers of evolution in natural populations.

The result is a book that is simultaneously exciting -- and tedious beyond belief. Let's face it, when you're telling the story of people doing the same thing every day, until they get the tiniest variation that's worth studying, you quickly come to understand why you did not become a scientist.

Patience, not intelligence, is the first personal requirement of the genetic scientist studying evolution.

I was listening to Marc Cashman's excellent reading of Improbably Destinies in the Penguin Audio edition (downloaded from Audible), and I confess that this book did little to keep me awake on long drives -- even though I was fascinated by both the process and the result.

Here's a thought. If you have a child of high school age who declares an intention to study science in order to become a researcher, parents might want to invite the child to read Improbable Destinies, in order to find out if they actually want to do the kind of work that scientists do.

I entered college as an archaeology major. But in my first semester, I realized that I had no interest in doing archaeology -- I only wanted to read books about the findings of archaeologists.

Once I understood that archaeology required living in less-than-civilized conditions in some of the hottest (and wettest, or driest) places on Earth, doing endlessly tedious work at a glacial pace, keep careful records of everything, I realized that I would rather spend my life as an out-of-work actor than as a hard-working archaeologist.

I changed majors before the end of the first semester.

However, there are people who have the stamina and patience to conduct meticulous experiments requiring as much repetition as working the assembly line in an automobile plant, because they are so eager to find out the results of their careful experiments.

So in a way, Improbable Destinies is not just a book about science -- it's also a book about scientists, showing how their individual personalities, their personal insights and obsessions, shape and reshape their research decisions, observations, and conclusions.

No, it's not completely boring. In fact, at times it's quite thrilling. But if you don't read carefully through the tedious parts, you won't have any idea why the exciting bits matter so much, or what we learn from them.

Anybody who thinks science is a cushy job, think again.

And we're fortunate that Losos is a clear and candid writer. At some moments it feels like a tell-all memoir, so personal are many of the anecdotes. But that's one of the reasons why Losos is successful in writing to a lay audience -- he's able to get past the tedium of the process in order to lead us to the meaningful story.

So I highly recommend this book -- though I don't recommend it to keep you awake on long drives.

*

Short story anthologies require more from the readers than novels. With a novel, the reader has to become accustomed to the world of the story and become acquainted with and invested in a group of characters. But with a short story anthology, the reader has to duplicate these steps with each new story -- ten or fifteen times in the same book!

Thus in reading a novel, readers get involved in a single through line of storytelling. One author, one array of characters, and usually a single group of related settings.

With an anthology, you finish one story and, instead of moving on to the next chapter, you have to start all over again. And because there are multiple authors, readers who are compatible with one writer's style may be less comfortable with the work of another writer in the book.

Thus it's harder to come up with a good, highly readable anthology than a novel. And publishers, knowing this, publish far fewer anthologies than novels.

But now and then, there's an anthology with such a strong concept that readers do sign on. Bryan Thomas Schmidt, a noted anthology editor, has gathered, in Infinite Stars, stories by some of the most popular and highly regarded sci-fi writers. He found and reprinted noteworthy stories by dead writers. He asked living writers for new stories set in the universe of their most famous books.

Chances are that a large number of sci-fi readers will have fond memories of reading stories by several, or many, or all of the included authors. But even if they really want only one of the stories, it's worth buying the book to get it -- and, when you've read it, you still have the option of going on and trying stories by authors whose work you don't know as well.

There's a new tale from the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have a story set within the time frame of the original novel Dune.

I'm happy to say that I contributed "Renegat," a long story that includes not only Ender and Valentine Wiggin, from Ender's Game, but also the protagonist of my newest novel in that universe, Dabeet Ochoa from Children of the Fleet.

There's a story by Leigh Brackett (screenwriter on The Empire Strikes Back) and Edmond Hamilton, and classic reprints from authors like Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Drake, William Deitz, A.C. Crispin, and many others.

If you buy one anthology this year, this is probably the best investment for providing not only the pleasure of reading the stories, but also an education in much of the history of sci-fi, with some of the best work by writers living and dead.

But why would you buy only one anthology when the latest installment of the series Writers of the Future just came out?

The Writers of the Future contest, established and endowed by L. Ron Hubbard, was intended to be a way for him to give something back to the literary community in which he created much of his best work. During his lifetime he wrote many essays about writing principles and techniques. It was a topic he cared about.

The contest has quarterly winners each year, so that new writers who submit stories to the contest find out whether their story has won much sooner than most of the sci-fi magazines respond. That way, win or lose, their story isn't tied up for long.

But winning is really worth something. For one thing, the prize money is generous. More important, though, is publication in the Writers of the Future anthology.

This anthology is so respected in the sci-fi field that book editors read it in order to get a first look at brand new writers -- in hopes of signing them to book contracts. In other words, the anthology is not only full of stories about the future (as most sci-fi is), but also is full of new writers, many of whom will be writing the novels that will strongly influence the future of the sci-fi genre.

Because they're new, naming these writers wouldn't tell you much. They come from all over, and while they're new to publishing their fiction, they range from quite young to a much more advanced level of maturity.

In support of the contest, Galaxy Press, the publisher, not only holds a big event to launch the anthology and announce the winners each year, but also sponsors an outstanding weeklong workshop for the winning writers and artists, helping prepare them to move forward in their career.

This year the grand prize winner in fiction was Darci Stone, who thereby topped her husband, one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Eric James Stone, who was a quarterly winner thirteen years ago.

It's remarkable for a wife and husband to both be successful writers -- in part because every marriage should have at least one grownup in the pair, and in my experience, that grownup is rarely the writer. Someday I'll sit down with Eric and Darcy and find out -- or make a guess at -- which of them is the designated grownup in their marriage. Who knows? Maybe they both are. But what is certain is that they're both wonderful writers.

The Writers of the Future contest is paired with the Illustrators of the Future contest, with winning artists creating illustrations for the winning stories. This year's grand prize artist, Kyna Tek, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her family later immigrated to the United States, but you can imagine that winning this contest was a culmination to many years of high hopes and hard work.

Submissions to the contests have come from more than 175 countries over the years, and this year entries came from three new countries: Andorra, a tiny country nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain; Seychelles, a nation consisting of an island chain in the Indian Ocean; and Benin, an African nation bordering Nigeria (when I was young, Benin was still known by the name of Dahomey).

The contest has a worldwide reach, but the fiction reaches many worlds, some of them far more strange than any place on planet Earth.

The writing contest is administered by David Farland, one of the best writers of fantasy and science fiction working today, and a selfless and dedicated teacher of writing. Farland devotes an enormous amount of time to reading and judging stories. I have sometimes served as a judge of the final round, serving on the panel that selects the grand prize winner from among the four quarterly winners. I'm happy to say that every year, the quality of the quarterly winners is so high that the anthology is bound to show the excellence of all the selected fiction.

If you are, or know of, a beginning writer, you should keep in mind that the first place new writers should submit their stories is the Writers of the Future contest. Of course, after they've published some stories, they're no longer eligible -- you have to be largely unpublished:

"The Contest is open only to those who have not professionally published a novel or short novel, or more than one novelette, or more than three short stories, in any medium. Professional publication is deemed to be payment of at least six cents per word, and at least 5,000 copies, or 5,000 hits."

(See https://www.writersofthefuture.com/contest-rules-writers/ for the full rules.)

But the easiest way to come out a winner, without even writing a story, is to buy the Writers of the Future anthology and read not only the winning stories, but also essays by such distinguished luminaries as, well, me (I don't get royalties on the book, however; this review isn't going to line my pockets).

Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com

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