Category: Reading list

Springer have a new series of “scientific novels” – and they’re delightfully nerdy

At Loncon I picked up a few volumes published by Springer in their “Science and Fiction” series. The series is accessible online via many of the Springer database subscriptions. One book I bought is called The Hunter. It is one of a number of “scientific novels” (quite a few of which were on display at Loncon), written by flight technology expert from the university of Turin, Giancarlo Genta, not usually known for writing fiction. 

I spoke to the series editor at Springer at Loncon, who told me that the “scientific novels” of the series are written by scholars who are primarily active researchers in their respective areas, but some of whom have admitted to trying their hand at writing fiction, too. Springer now publishes this fiction, written by scientists. Each volume comes with an appendix titled “the science behind the fiction”. I’m going to post a proper review of The Hunter when I’ve finished reading it, but what I can say at about 30 pages in is: it is delightfully nerdy! It is definitely not be the most polished piece of fiction I have ever read, but I am more than happy to go along with it. 

I ask myself who the intended audience is, though. Again, at about 30 pages in and after having a quick flip through the scientific appendix, I would conjecture that scientists might feel under-challenged by the fiction, and that readers of science fiction might want more hard science in the appendix. I would assume that those who follow SF literature are familiar with acronyms such as FTL or ideas such as terraforming, exoplanets, warp drive, and space elevator, which are explained (among others) in the appendix. But: I’ll say more about that in a review to follow. 

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Catholic Cyborg – Mary E. Pearson’s “The Adoration of Jenna Fox”

“Faith and science, I have learned, are two sides of the same coin, separated by an expanse so small, but wide enough that one side can’t see the other.” (from Mary E. Pearson. The Adoration of Jenna Fox, part one of The Jenna Fox Chronicles)

***Spoiler Alert***

In the story, set in an unspecified near-future, teenager Jenna Fox finds out that her parents have replaced 90% of her body with sophisticated biotech in order to save her life after an accident. Jenna doesn’t find this out until about 40% into my Kindle edition of the book. In the world of the book, it is illegal to replace such a high percentage of a human body.

I found it interesting that religion, especially a religious site, plays a small but distinctive part in this narrative, which is a classic coming-of-age story:

Jenna’s grandmother Lily, who opposed Jenna’s parents’ decision to save her life by making her into a non-consenting cyborg, is a practicing Catholic and takes Jenna with her to a Catholic monastery. Jenna, experiencing amnesia, is still unaware of her new cyborg identity when she visits the church for the first time. Christ, though, she seems to remember – almost like something eternally present – but the solemn atmosphere of the church does not evoke any feelings at her first visit, or so she reports (it is a first person narrative).

Then, though, her presence in the church evokes a sudden memory of her own baptism at two weeks old: one of her first suspicions that something oddly different is happening to her brain. She feels like she is not supposed to remember events from such early childhood.

Still unaware of her cyborg body, she sees her soon-to-be boyfriend Ethan at the Mission for the first time.

To me, the locale of the Mission in the book appeared as a sort of static place. Almost a blank space, where references to the past are made, references to traditions, Saints, cemeteries. The old Mission is  dedicated to nurturing plants with unadulterated DNA: yet another way the locale is characterised as a sanctuary, as something restorative, since the disaster that catapults this book into the “slightly postapocalytpic” sub genre is attributed in part to genetic engineering.

After Jenna learns about her new cyborg body, she confesses this (and her “illegality) to Ethan in the Mission.

At her final visit there, she feels, well, something: “Souls, if there is such a thing, are nourished and mended here.” And, indeed, at the end of the book, her skeptic grandmother Lily – who for most of the book has treated New Jenna as a “thing”, entirely different from old organic Jenna – baptises Jenna, so that the strange memory of her baptism at two weeks old arches all the way to the end of the book to her second baptism, as cyborg Jenna, with her grandmother finally acknowledging that there must be a soul that transcends the body.

In his essay “Parables for the Postmodern, Post-9/11, and Posthuman World: Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth Books, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox” (published in Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers (Basu, Broad, Hintz, eds.), London/NY: Routledge, 2013, pp. 189-202) Thomas J. Morrissey writes, interestingly and accurately, that YA dystopias encourage a posthuman perspective: “At this point in our history we are figurative cyborgs whether or not we know it or accept it” (Morrissey, 191). I quite agree with this statement and would therefore read Jenna Fox as essentially arguing that the very human trait of religion is passed on to what humans create.

Jenna says, “The world has changed. So have I.” So has religion.

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By way of footnote: I highly recommend Basu, Broad, and Hintz’s edited volume mentioned above. Do read!

“The Scientist as God: A Typological Study of a Literary Motif, 1818 to the Present” by Sven Wagner

It’s on my reading list, but hasn’t arrived yet. In the meantime, might I refer you to a review of this book by John Hedley Brooke in Zygon: The Journal of Religion and Science, Vol. 48.1, pp. 236-238, February 2013.