A Body of Evidence

My son Christopher, a first-year medical student, has just begun his Anatomy course, marking with a pen the body landmarks and dissection lines on the skin of the female cadaver assigned to his dissection group.  Lines in place, the scalpel comes next.  He said it was his first experience in medical school that imparted such a visceral sensation, with no pun at all intended.  Unlike him, I remember needing to lean lightly on humor on my first day in the very same Anatomy class, when the four of us students first met our cadaver in the fall of 1976, that of a skinny man in his nineties:  it was surely a solemn, awe-inspiring moment, but also made us (I had just turned 21) a bit nervous and anxious– and in such circumstances, we often resort to humor to ease our discomfort.  With all respect, we voted to name our cadaver Slim.

In the year 2196, organs are grown in situ by injecting specialized stem cells intravenously, but there have been notable mishaps.  Here’s an excerpt form my first novel, Fourth World, in which Dr. Nestor Neelin demonstrates on a cadaver, whose name is Bob.  The course he teaches is Recombinant Anatomy:

Neelin dived in quickly:  “Now if you’ll observe:  here in Bob’s brain, there sit not one, not two, but look– three temporal lobes!  Bob, you see, suffered a devastating stroke in his sixties, and in those early days of therapeutic stem cell infusions, an effort was made to replace the lost brain tissue.  This effort marked a step forward in stem cell technology, prior to which most tissue types, such as brain, liver, eyes and so on, required engineering in vitro, then transplantation of the developed tissue to the patient.  The new targeted stem cells, in contrast, could be infused intravenously, and would find their way to their appropriate location, guided by seeker molecules implanted in their membranes.  There they would differentiate to the desired organ, thus obviating the need for a transplant procedure.  In Bob’s case, the infused stem cells did develop into a temporal lobe as planned, but unfortunately, growth stimulators infused at the same time caused the partially necrotic lobe to regenerate within his already-crowded skull– leaving him, quite literally, with not enough room to change his mind!”

Many in the audience, confused by this last phrase- was it meant to be funny?– consulted their data-discs only to find their screens blank.  Only one laugh could be heard, a loud “HA!” coming from the opposite side of the hall, some twenty rows below Lora.  “Ha-HAH!” the same voice persisted.  And that was how Lora finally located Benn.

…..

Neelin held his right hand up.  “I have one more example of quackery to show you.  Bob, you see, was a victim not only of technical incompetence, but of outright fraud.  Late in his life, he fell out of a Banyan tree while bird-watching in the district then known as Australia.  He sustained a pelvic fracture and had to enlist the help of a migrant clinic in the back country, in order to regenerate the broken bone.  They infused him with an unidentified stem cell, his diary shows, but the end result was only discovered at Bob’s post-mortem.”  Neelin appeared to be rummaging around in Bob’s intestines.  He finally pushed them toward the back with outstretched fingers, exposing two thin bony structures pointing upward from the pelvis.  Puzzled interns frantically interrogated their data-discs, again without success.

“Their treatment provided Bob, bless his original heart, with these two extraneous bones, which you see protruding here.  These bones did nothing to help Bob with his pelvic fracture, but he would have found them useful– very useful indeed– had he… been… born… a…”  Neelin paused expectantly.

“A kangaroo!” shouted Benn triumphantly.

Neelin released Bob’s intestines with a loud flop and whirled around to face Benn.  “A kangaroo or any marsupial– excellent!  Young man, you are the first intern in over two decades to recognize these as epipubic bones:  their function is to support a marsupial’s pouch.  Excellent!  Your name, please?”

 

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At a large trade tasting of the wines of Bordeaux held in San Francisco yesterday, a friend– the owner of a great chateau in St. Julien– told me he had downloaded and started to read Fourth World Nation, the second book in the trilogy.

“Oh no,” I replied (despite an initial flush of success and gratitude– maybe it was time for a translation into French!).  “The series is meant to be read in order– so it’s better to start with Fourth World, and then move on to Fourth World Nation.”  Otherwise it would be hard to understand Benn’s abilities, his relationship to Lora, and why they are running away from the Pan-World Electorate.

In going back to Fourth World, my friend would probably be amused by Chapter Eight, in which Dr. Nes Neelin holds a tasting of the Greatest Wines of the Century in the Mellon College dining hall.

Ever since Fourth World Nation came out on Amazon, I’ve been working assiduously on the third novel in the trilogy, in which the setting shifts from Mars back to Earth– in particular, my old stomping grounds of Malaysia and Singapore.  With a minimum of spoiler alerts (I won’t even mention its title), here’s an excerpt:

As a young linguistics student at Cambridge University, Wesley Stuart had appeared in numerous collegiate theatrical productions, including some by his favorite playwrights, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.  Which one was he channeling now?  Someone in between, perhaps.  Chou Xia-Yu had found his classmate’s talents amusing, and was therefore willing to tolerate his sporadic spoofing of British Peers, or “p-p-pompous p-persons of p-p-privilege,” as Stuart sometimes put it.

How had a charming but harmless thespian, a Bohemian polyglot such as Wes Stuart, ended up as the PWE Superintendent of Singapore?  Chou knew very well the final step, having promoted Wes to that position during his time as Leader.  Before that, Wes had served for eighteen years as a minister in the British Parliament, a local governing council of the Pan-World Electorate.  There was, of course, no longer a distinction drawn between the House of Lords and the House of Commons (nor had there been for almost a hundred years), but the Stuarts had occupied a seat in Lords since the seventeenth century, and on the day Wesley Stuart had staked his claim by strolling ever-so-naturally through the grand entrance to Parliament, no one had thought to object.  Even the vehement stand taken by The London Stage, a cultural review published and edited by Wes, against the long-lost traditions of aristocracy— which still glowed in the hearts of many Britons like a warm coal among the morning ashes— had drawn nary a negative comment from his fellow ministers.  He may have written and acted as a traitor to his class, but that class now existed only in a dense fog of London nostalgia.

As he closed the front door, Stuart affected a different accent.  “Roit this wye, lidees and gents,” he pronounced like a circus barker, with a bow and a broad sweep of his arm.  Lora walked slowly past him into the living room, pausing to gawk at two huge bronze Buddhas flanking the entryway.

“Wes, you haven’t lost your touch,” said Chou.  He flashed a momentary smile, then cleared his throat pointedly.

“Ah.  By that you mean my touch of craziness,” replied Stuart, feigning embarrassment.  “Well, you were ever the serious one, Chou.  Always getting straight down to business, eh?”  He gestured at the furniture crowding his living room, which consisted of a club-style sofa and three leather wingback chairs (“Water buffalo,” he announced proudly) surrounding an ornately-carved Indonesian hardwood kopi table with a tall Chinese vase at its center.  Bookshelves overflowing with publications in several different languages lined the walls.  Everyone settled into a comfortable seat, but Ari plopped herself down on the edge of the low table, shifting it sideways on the marble floor by a millimeter or two.

Stuart lunged forward and steadied the vase, even though they both knew there was no danger of it tipping over— and besides, it was made of an indestructible polymeric material, the product of multispecies recombinant DNA.  “Oi sye, steady on, young pip!  That’s from the Ming Dynasty, innit?”

Not bloody likely, not unless the Ming Emperors had access to genetic engineering, thought Stuart with an inward laugh.  Ari felt a wave of irony and smiled innocently at her host:  she had liked him immediately, sensing his openness, his affection for Chou, and above all, his excellent humor (what Wes himself might have termed his “infinite jest”).

 

Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have to obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.

 

 

Mars or Bust II

It’s really happening.  Among Earthbound, upward-gazing humans, there has always been a deep-seated fascination with outer space; witness the huge popular reaction to the recent solar eclipse.  But efforts by SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and other commercial companies to fly folks into low Earth orbit in conjunction with NASA signal an acceleration of that interest, or what has been called a “new space race.”  When rocket factories, cargo missions, passenger flights and space exploration open up “a whole new world of business,” you know that momentum will build.  According to a NASA director, a manned mission to Mars is “the pinnacle of Mt. Everest” at this point– but once Everest has been scaled, what will keep the momentum going?

In my science fiction novel Fourth World, NASA’s Tharsis Colony on Mars is left stranded when a great war results in the formation of one world government (the PWE) and the elimination of NASA.  Here’s an excerpt:

“At other times, Mr. Walker suggested that the colony’s downfall actually preceded the PWE, that the slow death- he termed it the “apoptosis”- of Tharsis Colony was encoded in its DNA at the very moment it was conceived.  To explain this apoptosis, Mr. Walker would use his guiding principle:  follow the water.  The second manned mission to Mars, launched in 2049 (thus nicknamed “The New Forty-Niners”) discovered significant quantities of liquid underground water, which had only to be mined in order to allow large-scale colonization. Of course, water was necessary for supporting life, but beyond that, water was found in perchlorates, hydrated salts which could be converted to solid rocket fuel (this was before the harnessing of nuclear fusion, Mr. Walker reminded them).  The seminal discovery of water, he said, sweeping both arms dramatically to his left, then to his right, essentially divided the history of humanity on Mars into the pre- and post-Forty-Niner eras.”

Regarding the former, Mr. Walker reviews for his second-grade class the decades-long history of Mars exploration:

“… Many other missions contributing to the ultimate colonization of Mars, such as Mariner, Pathfinder, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity and Spirit, were never forgotten by history.

Also never forgotten:  the fact that the United States agency NASA had been responsible for all of these missions.  Sure, Mr. Walker allowed, successful probes were launched by Russia, Europe, China, India, Brazil, New Zealand, and even private enterprises.  But only the United States had the means to access the water- to monopolize this most vital of natural resources- and establish a full-fledged colony.  Tharsis was a triumph for the United States, but to the rest of the world, it was only the latest example of American empire-building and colonialism.”

But merely finding the means to colonize Mars doesn’t explain the need to colonize, does it?  There have to be assets to exploit once you get there (and in Fourth World, it turns out, there are valuable resources to discover).  Absent such assets, would escaping Earth justify the trouble and cost of such a long journey?  Despite Hurricane Harvey’s devastating effect on Texas and the startling rise in the number of 500-year floods in just the past decade, climate-change deniers in Congress and the White House still determine US policy.  It seems we will continue to prop up the coal industry until all the coal mines are under floodwaters.  In the original Mars or Bust (which appeared on this blog January 7th, while I was still in post-election shock), I coined a name for the manned SpaceX mission to Mars:  Elon’s Ark.  Let’s hope commercial space flight literally takes off:  when climate change can no longer be reversed, we’re going to need a lot more than one Ark!

 

To Join This Couple

If only it were possible to love without injury- fidelity isn’t enough:  I had been faithful… and yet I had injured her.  The hurt is in the act of possession:  we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.”

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

 

Proximity to several weddings and anniversaries has got me thinking not only about hope and wonderful relationships, but also- this may seem a bit neurotic- about the impossibility of attaining the ideal:  complete mutual understanding.  Ideal goals, almost by definition, are impossible to reach- and yet (one hopes) we strive on, grinding the rough corners, losing the old baggage, constantly adjusting our attitudes toward one another and admonishing ourselves to be better people.  In other words, if we are “too small in mind and body,” we need to keep growing!  If only there were an easier way; if only we had chimeric genes or the drug-induced ability to escape our limited dimensions and merge together, like Benn and Lora in Fourth World, both projecting their auras in an out-of-body experience:

“HUH!” was all Benn could manage as their two auras met.  It was not so much a physical joining of bodies- not the sensation he had hoped for, alas- but more like a merging of two liquids.  Lora feels like oil, the odd thought came to him: he pictured a large drop of oil falling into a pool of water.  As it splashed, the strong natural repulsion between auras took immediate effect:  the drop embodying Lora displaced a smaller drop- a portion of Benn’s aura- which rose straight upward.  Then the Benn-drop fell back in and splashed up an even smaller droplet- Lora again- which in turn fell, and so on, until inevitably the last micro-sphere of Lora was captured by Benn’s surface tension and could no longer escape.  As separate liquids, the two of them had different viscosities:  Benn flowed easily, whereas Lora’s character was thicker, more unctuous.  Their collision caused long, finger-like projections of Lora to penetrate into Benn’s aura, causing it to blush red before snapping back to attention.

He recognized her myriad layers, those melodic strains, the steady internal rhythm he had so admired.  With their thoughts intermingled, mutual understanding arrived instantaneously, and no longer required the cumbersome verbal exchange of ideas expressed ploddingly one at a time, over periods measurable on a stopwatch.”

If only we could do that!  But in the sequel, Fourth World Nation, Benn wrestles with the ups and downs of sharing auras:

“Benn thought long and hard before giving his answer.  Even though she had quickly apologized and even made a joke about it, Lora had meant what she said about the survival of their relationship.  Admittedly, he often worried about misconstruing her intentions, being insensitive, and appearing apathetic when he really did care; why would she not have her own set of worries about appearing moody, contentious, or needy when she was anything but?  Only when their auras fused together was there instantaneous and true knowledge of one another.  Who wouldn’t want a relationship completely free of misunderstandings, mistrust, manipulation, projection, guilt, dishonesty or domination?  No more mumbling, lapses of attention, slips of the tongue or difficulty hearing, either!  What could be better?”

Unlike Benn and Lora, the rest of us remain in separate, finite minds and bodies.  It’s as though we are talking through a wall, in different languages, our voices muffled and disguised.  Of course we’ll never achieve complete understanding that way, so we need to keep growing, grinding, adjusting.  But come to think of it, this continual striving on our parts reflects an untiring commitment to our relationships, doesn’t it?  We may not hear each other perfectly well, but that untiring commitment, I think, is at least one ideal we can attain.

 

 

Just Act Natural, If You Can

In my early practice, I used to have a patient- a handsome, urbane Chinese man in his thirties- who had appeared in a number of car commercials.  He seemed successful, and yet at every doctor’s visit, even before mentioning his health, he would complain about the lack of acting roles for Asian actors.  It was more important to him, he said, than his blood pressure!  This turned out to be a widespread frustration which has resulted in activism, educational endeavors, signed petitions and quasi-political gatherings across the country.  George Takei (Mr. Sulu) has been particularly outspoken on the topic.

In the 1930s, the Chinese stereotype depicted in movies ranged from the super-smart, respectful and submissive Charlie Chan to the super-smart, evil and insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.  These were two Chinese extremes, and yet, as Asian activists love to point out, Charlie Chan was played by a Swedish actor, Warner Oland, and Fu Manchu by another Caucasian actor (I forget his name) in yellowface.

Another stereotype is the martial artist, and here at least, we see Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and other Chinese actors in kung fu movies.  And who can forget Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?  All fighting with hands, feet, sticks and swords.  But where is the Asian Meryl Streep, Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, or even Woody Allen?  Maybe there won’t ever be one.  Does the necessary depth of character and experience lie beyond what Hollywood expects from such actors, based on Asian stereotypes?  Now Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are departing from the cast of Hawaii Five-O, allegedly because of unequal treatment and pay.  The show is based in an Asian-dominant environment, and yet the Asian actors are considered secondary.

When I wrote the sci-fi novel Fourth World, I chose a Chinese youth- Benn Marr- as the protagonist, the hero/anti-hero.  True, I was motivated by concern over the exploitation of post-colonial Third World countries; the European nations’ intolerance of their colonial subjects, now transplanted minorities in the homeland; and- part of the autobiographical element in Fourth World- the difficulty finding acceptance when coming in from the outside.  I wanted Benn to wrestle with not-belonging, and to crystallize these types of issues.  But it’s also true that, in thinking about my long-ago former patient, I wanted to create a leading role for a Chinese actor (John Cho?), in case Fourth World ever becomes a movie!  I know, dream on…

China On The Rise

Last night, Harvard Prof. Graham Allison gave a talk, moderated by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, at the Commonwealth Club in SF.  The topic was his new book, Destined for War:  Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?  Five centuries BC, Thucydides noted that the threat from a rising power, Athens, as perceived by Sparta- the ruling power in ancient Greece- led to the Peloponnesian War.  He drew a parallel with US/China relations- acknowledging some of the shortcomings of such a comparison, which have been amply pointed out in various reviews of the book.  China, he said, has caught up with the US in every major parameter, and surpassed it in some.  For example, when Reagan was president, China’s GDP was 10% that of the US, and now it is 110%.  In many aspects of technology, China is taking the lead:  social media, AI, robotics, clean energy, electric vehicles etc.  The US still leads by far in the military arena, but China may not care as much as we suppose (Allison reminded us that, when US and South Korean troops once pushed back a North Korean invasion almost to the Chinese border, China used conventional weapons to fight the sole nuclear power on Earth, all the way down to the 38th parallel).  Economic “warfare” is just as important these days, and as the US withdraws from the world stage (see TPP), you have to wonder:  which country now represents Sparta, and which Athens?  Sharing common interests- such as avoiding nuclear holocaust and preventing global warming- lowers the risk of war, but then having a belligerent and unpredictable president who denigrates NATO and pulls out of the Paris Accord weakens those commonalities.  It seems to me that under our Chaos President, fear of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and climate change may not be enough to prevent war.  Also, the strong chauvinism and national fervor among Chinese- not mentioned in the talk- may tilt the balance towards war when a crisis erupts, for example on the Korean Peninsula or South China Sea.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog (A Day Without Women), the world is a lot more complicated now, but Thucydides may be right after all.

Here’s an excerpt from my sci-fi novel Fourth World, in which Chou Xia-Yu, leader of the world government in 2196, ponders the fate of expatriate anomaly Benn Marr:  will he have to be destroyed?

Chou silently nodded his satisfaction at the inherent justice of it all:  descendants of the American colonists on Mars had paid a steep price to atone for the imperialist policies of their ancestors.  And now, he speculated, this Benn Marr represented another level of reward for years of experimentation.  The ability to read and to project thoughts was similar to what Chinese monks (particularly in the Tibetan District) had been practicing for a thousand years.  The difference was that Eunigen had given Benn his abilities by modifying his genes, so that they could be passed on to future generations in large numbers:  the hypothetical implications for the PWE were staggering!  Unfortunately, Benn Marr, although of Chinese descent, had lost touch with his ethnic roots on Mars, and had no understanding of his rich cultural heritage.  As with all traditional Chinese, Leader Chou harbored the conviction that the Chinese civilization had greater value- it was simply superior- and should be promoted above all others; Benn was unlikely to feel such loyalty.