Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Don't know much biology . . .

(Sam Cooke, Wonderful World)

When I read Science Fiction, what's the one thing that gets up my nose? Lack of women writers in the Hugos? Lack of diversity amongst writers? Fanfiction?

Nope. It's the handwavy biology.

I almost gave up reading any SF after I read Greg Bear's Blood Music. Now, an SF novel has to have a thunderingly good climax where everything is just More! and Further! and Exponential! – that's how it's been structured since E. E. (Doc) Smith's days. But whereas writers can get away with that in physics – because I don't know the difference and a lot of people who do know don't seem to care – you can't get away with More! and Further! and Exponential! in biology. Biology is going to do pretty much what it always does, and the discovery of biological Unobtanium or Handwavium is really, really unlikely to come about. But I forgave Blood Music for its More! and Further! and Exponential! plot, and I still read SF, though with increasing reluctance.

Then I started hitting books where we didn't even have More! and Further! and Exponential! – we just had mundane, and now the biology was mundanely wrong. Often, it's blood they misunderstand (I'm aware I've ranted about this before). Blood is such a heavily charged term I think writers forget it has a natural origin. Sometimes the problems turn up in regular general biological knowledge, like the famous SF book which managed to have a pathologist character refer to someone's sputum "cultures" as diagnostic for cancer, say that when an animal wants to cool itself it erects the hairs on its skin to let the warm air out, and say that wolves and dogs can't interbreed. Oh, and that "ontogeny seems to recapitulate phylogeny" (true I guess), and therefore human embryos have gills (not so true).

I was reading Peter Watts' website the other day to see if he really meant to say something about evolution in his novel Blindsight that was irritating me, or if he'd just phrased it oddly and set off my admittedly oversensitive proximity fuse. I didn't find out the answer (so inevitably there will be more later on the subject), but I did find a long piece on his paleogenetically revived vampire species in which he joked that "none of our subjects developed any kind of aversion to garlic or to any of the Amaryllidaceaen [sic] species".

I couldn't figure out whether he thinks that vampires are affected by garlic AND one of the Amaryllidaceae, or whether some pun on Haemanthus (Blood Lilies) is involved, or whether he thinks that garlic *is* a plant in the Amaryllidaceae. The thought it might be the latter bugs me. It isn't. Garlic is in the Alliaceae, which is related to the Amaryllidaceae, but not at all the same thing. If you cut open a couple of Alliaceae bulbs (say, onion and garlic) and a daffodil bulb, you'll be able to tell the difference immediately, by smell. Those active sulfur compounds in the Alliaceae are knockouts.

Now, does the taxonomy of garlic *cosmically speaking* really matter? It wasn't even actually *in* his book, and he's a marine biologist and probably never says anything iffy about the denizens of the deep, after all. Nope, doesn't matter a bit. But it's like a splinter in my finger, something I just have to worry at until I've got it out.

I'm currently reading a Space Opera classic from 1992 and so far it seems to be about Space Usenet, with everyone nervously reading Space comp.risks. Their Space Data is delivered by Space Truck. But hey, at least we haven't had any unlikely biological science. Then again, I'm only on page 80.

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