Brexiting Is Hard To Do

Hoof beats clatter on ancient cobblestone streets.  The rider, someone named Paul who has a heavy Eurozone accent, shouts into the night:  “The British are leaving!  The British are leaving!”  To coin a palindrome, we’ve been de-Revered.  And hard-core Brexiteers are showing the same understanding of Brexit’s consequences to Ireland, Scotland and Europe as King George III showed toward the American Colonies.

In a NYT Opinion piece, The Malign Incompetence of the British Ruling Class, Pankaj Mishra says that with Brexit, the Brits are getting a taste of their own medicine.  After all, the current crisis– the separation of the UK from the European Union scheduled to take place in just two months– is not the first, or even the second or third, example of a precipitous Brexit.

The British Ruling Class, composed largely of self-involved, elite former schoolmates, seem to have a very hard time withdrawing from situations where they have no reason to be, in the first place.  At the height of the Empire, they subjugated and enslaved native populations from Asia to Africa; exploited local resources; and applied military and political force to crush efforts at democracy– and then, when the Empire was no longer tenable, withdrew in sometimes haphazard fashion.  Most notably, the re-drawing of national boundaries was often done without knowledge or sensitivity to ethnic/religious/historical dynamics, resulting in many decades of needless regional suffering.

Palestine comes first to my mind, but Mishra points to the partition of India, Pakistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir when the British exited in 1947:

“Dividing agricultural hinterlands from port cities, and abruptly reducing Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs on either side of the new border to a religious minority, Radcliffe delivered a plan for partition that effectively sentenced millions to death or desolation while bringing him the highest-ranked knighthood.  Up to one million people died, countless women were abducted and raped, and the world’s largest refugee population was created during the population transfers across Radcliffe’s border…”

The terrible price of Empire and colonialism is a central theme in the Fourth World trilogy– second only to the ethics of genetic engineering at the turn of the 23rd century.  Here’s an excerpt from Child of the Fourth World, in which the PWE assassin Najib Singh struggles with his family’s past:

Najib’s grasp of history was more localized and had nothing to do with datadisc textbooks.  It arose from Singh family lore stretching back more than four centuries, carried forward from one generation to the next by the original social medium:  word of mouth.


Seemingly since the beginning of time, wars had played a primary role in his family history.  First, there were endless inter-tribal skirmishes and invasions for territory and grazing rights.  Then had come large-scale wars, brought by British imperial forces in the early days of exploitation, slavery and genocide; generations of Singhs had participated in uprisings against their colonial masters; India had been complicit in the Opium Wars with China (two of his great-great-grand-uncles had grown poppy to produce sticky black opium, to be bartered like currency for Chinese tea); and, at long last, as the sun was setting on the British Empire, the separation of Pakistan from India had set off a Hindu-Muslim war.  Remarkable: that vast empire, launched from a small island tucked away in a cold and foggy corner of Europe, was responsible for over two centuries of Singh family misery. Even after the transition of empire into the “family of nations” known as the British Commonwealth, Singhs who had naively migrated to the United Kingdom as Commonwealth Citizens had, decades later, been subject to deportation. That was during the reign of Queen Lizzie III; one of the great ironies of the previous century, thought Najib: deeply-rooted racism and xenophobia lying at the head— and, more importantly, at the heart— of a multiracial, fifty-nation “family.”

Had he forgotten anything?  Oh yes: it wasn’t all the fault of the British!  A branch of the family living at the Suez Canal had first been decimated by French colonials, then completely wiped out by the Israelis; the family coffers had been depleted by cyber-warfare between India and China in the late 21st century; countless family members had been killed by North Korean nuclear attacks in the Asia/Pacific War, and that was before the War of Unification finished off the rest.  The Singh dynasty of Hyderabad, once wealthy and powerful in government and the fashion and textile industries, had been destroyed by colonialism and war, then as a result of the great Indian diaspora (2104-2110), the few remaining survivors had been scattered like ashes to the four winds. Najib sighed deeply and whispered to himself: now that was real history.


It’s Alive Bwa-Ha-Ha II

Over the past several years, previous posts on this blog have warned of the potential dire consequences of tampering with the human genome before research can give us a more complete picture of secondary, tertiary– in fact, nth-degree– effects, and before policy makers worldwide use that vital picture to create strict regulations and enforcement procedures.

Changes induced in one gene, even when meant to prevent disease, may unintentionally damage or alter the functions of other genes, with unforeseen complications for that individual.  For example, might genetic changes imparting the advantage of HIV immunity be offset by a secondary effect, such as down-regulation of immune system surveillance, resulting in a tertiary complication, i.e. a higher risk of developing cancer?  No one knows, and yet “science marches forward” despite having blinders on.  Recently in China, Dr. He (who trained at Stanford) used the CRISPR technique to change the genome of an individual who is at risk for HIV, apparently disregarding ethical concerns, safety risks and international bans on such procedures.  Worse yet, it was announced that another such pregnancy is already in progress.  Similar experiments have no doubt been performed elsewhere, but the difference here is that these particular gene alterations (in a germ cell) can be passed on to future generations, entering the larger human gene pool and affecting uncountable millions of people in the future.  What if everyone who inherits this HIV resistance dies of cancer in their twenties?  China has stepped in to halt further work in Dr. He’s lab, but what happens to those already-altered individuals?  They may resist HIV, but will their overall health be harmed?  And should they be prevented from having children?

Nobody, including Dr. He, has the answer.  Scientists, doctors, ethicists and some lawmakers understand the danger, but incentives– including fortunes from industry, fame/notoriety, and even the Nobel Prize– are not aligned.  In search of these rewards, what’s to prevent rogue researchers from pursuing every human experiment they can dream up, no matter how bizarre?

It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction, an art which life is trying mightily to imitate.  The stuff of my nightmares.  Here’s an excerpt from Child of the Fourth World, the final novel in the Fourth World trilogy:

Beame interrupted, “You can’t use standard cloning procedures!  For instance, you first have to selectively suppress the non-human regulatory sequences.  Have you bothered to read my papers on this? In the July 2193 issue of Repro International, I provided a detailed protocol for multispecies cloning.  You’ve had more than a decade to catch up…”

He suddenly froze.  Meltzer was glaring at him with a ferocity that reminded Beame of someone… of whom?  He needed a minute to study the knitted brow and glistening forehead, the anger in those narrowed eyes, the tightly clenched jaw, before it suddenly dawned on him:  Meltzer reminded Beame of himself.  Perhaps they would manage to get along after all.

“Of course I’ve read that paper, Dr. Beame,” Meltzer responded, his tone as pointed and chilly as an icicle.  He sniffed in a dismissive way, as though the paper in Repro International were the source of his problems.  “We followed your protocol precisely, but in this instance, it was simply inadequate.  We were preparing for a fifth attempt, but then things got even more complicated. The subject, you see, was severely injured when captured by the PWE eight years ago, and has required a considerable amount of external support in order to survive.  Despite that support, three weeks ago, the subject showed signs of dying— and it chose the worst possible time to do so.”

It?  Beame recognized something else:  his own propensity to objectify his subjects as living pools of data.  But at least he also thought of them as people, not some dehumanized pieces of experimental material!

“Why?  What’s the problem?” he asked, genuinely puzzled at the great lengths to which Meltzer was going.  “Are you saying this… person… is in some way unique? Don’t you have other potential subjects like this?  A pool of volunteers to draw from?”

“Volunteers!  Other potential subjects!”  Meltzer snapped. That was the problem with outside consultants:  it took so long to bring them up to speed. With a theatrical sigh, he reached forward and, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat, abruptly tossed the white plastic covering aside.  “If you can find me a volunteer like this, Dr. Beame, I will be eternally in your debt!”

The two men stared at the supine subject, whose only movement was the subtle rise and fall of its abdominal wall as it took rapid, shallow breaths.  Now Beame understood Meltzer’s choice of words. Yes, it was an “it” indeed, he thought; the subject was a creature difficult to classify, being of multispecies origin and in such an advanced state of dissection, but it was at least partially a large example of the family Felidae.  That family included tigers, lions and other cats; Beame suspected the former, judging by the variegated stripes on its flanks. What remained of its external musculature was remarkably well-developed; its strength must have been prodigious.  The mid-feet were somewhat elongated, the ankles plantar-flexed: for greater running speed, he guessed. A large metal cable pierced the chest, and intravascular tubes and monitors were attached to all of its extremities, wherever the skin and muscles had not been peeled away.

It was a sight sufficiently wondrous for Beame to forget his rising resentment.  He felt like a young boy eyeing a toy construction set— or, in this case, more of a de-construction set.  “Where in the world did you get this?” he demanded excitedly, for the moment forgetting his vaunted humanitarian qualities.  “In all my years, I’ve never seen— never even heard of— a multispecies individual like this. It’s simply astounding!”

Virtual, Not Virtuous, Memories

About a month ago, several old college friends were gathered in Rochester, New York, to support a classmate who had fallen seriously ill. After we had sufficiently indulged our nostalgia over Bright College Years, the conversation shifted, as it often does among people of a certain age, to our deteriorating mental powers– in particular, our individual capacities for memory. It can be a bit of a fixation, when we remember to think of it.

“Good thing for computers,” one friend offered. “We can enter everything on our keyboards. Computers can remember infinitely more than mere humans!”

“But do you think that might cause our own capacity for memory to, you know, atrophy?— that is, if we don’t exercise our memory enough and instead rely on computers?” another countered.

I thought about this awhile before venturing, “You’re probably right. But it’s not only brain atrophy we should worry about, is it: doesn’t writing your memories down with your computer actually distort them in your mind?”

Atrophy and distortion. Was some sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work? No, much simpler; I was thinking of the two separate steps of 1) translating one’s perceptions into words in order to store them in computer memory, then 2) translating those words back into a thought “memory” at some later point in time. Each of these steps would introduce a certain degree of distortion. Before megabytes and integrated circuits, a new perception would send a neuronal signal directly to the brain, carving out a set of electrochemical pathways from which a memory of that perception could later be summoned (sorry for the oversimplification, neuroscientists!).

Now, if a newly-perceived event makes us first reach for our keyboards (or, worse yet, our cameras) to record it, those electrochemical pathways are left uncarved, and the memory exists only in our “peripheral brains.” In medical training as young residents, attending physicians would always admonish us for referring to index cards (our primitive peripheral brains in the 1980s, now switched out for iPads) while presenting patients at morning report; we were supposed to know the patients so well– every detail of their histories, physicals and lab findings– that a peripheral brain should be unnecessary. Using any artificial memory crutch meant that we had not committed the case to memory, and therefore had not tried hard enough to understand the patient’s situation. Employing peripheral brains in patient care led, I suppose, to both atrophy and distortion.

To my friends, I made the case that true, neuronal pathway-based memories are what keeps us true to ourselves as we age: our values, relationships, motivations, our sense of who we are. Without strong memories, we will zig and zag, the way one friend’s father suddenly took up bodybuilding in his seventies, then gave that up in favor of UFO-watching at night in open fields. His abrupt shift in fascinations seemed unmoored; as his memory atrophied, he had forgotten who he was at heart.

I’m pleased to report that I recalled this month-old conversation three days ago, when Bret Stephens wrote an opinion piece in The NY Times about Plato and the distortion of knowledge by Facebook. He begins the article with a story told by Socrates 2400 years ago and relayed to us via Plato’s “Phaedras”:

In ancient Egypt, King Thamus receives an offer from the clever god Theuth, inventor of many useful things. In this case, Theuth offers Thamus the gift of writing, with the argument that the use of words will greatly increase memory and wisdom among the people. But Thamus rebuffs the god: “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves… Written words give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

Thamus was speaking of Egyptians and hieroglyphics, while Stephens was speaking of the clever god Zuckerberg and Facebook. But Socrates spoke for mankind and human nature, as he so often did– and his words are well worth remembering.

The Trilogy is Complete (Shameless Commercial III)

Another reader made the following comments:


Fourth World Nation is available on Amazon; here’s a link to the Amazon site:

For those who have yet to read the first book in the trilogy, it really is best to start at the beginning.  Fourth World is also available on Amazon, as a paperback or eBook.  Here’s a link to that site:


Finally, I want to extend my sincerest thanks to all of you.  Child of the Fourth World is dedicated to all readers of the Fourth World Trilogy, who have been so generous and indulgent in sharing, at least for a time, the world of imagination with me.

With all my best wishes,

Chee Chow

If You Like Beer…

“I like beer,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh announced defiantly to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “I liked beer in high school.  I still like beer.”

I wonder how Kavanaugh reacted to the news earlier this week that global warming is adversely affecting barley, a drought- and temperature-sensitive crop.  As the world heats up, harvests of barley worldwide will steadily diminish, and one of its most popular products, beer, is projected to skyrocket in price as its availability plummets.

Sharon Lerner wrote in the NY Times this morning that now-lifetime-Supreme-Court-Justice Kavanaugh, when he was an appeals court judge, had a history of striking down environmental regulations– for example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 rule restricting the emission of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from air conditioners and refrigerators.  HFCs are the fastest-growing type of heat-trapping greenhouse gas on the planet, trapping 1,300 times more heat than CO2 does.

This reminds me of a seemingly innocuous question that my 7th-grade science teacher asked his class in 1967, in the early days of ecologic awareness:  “On a hot day, why not cool off your house by leaving the refrigerator door open?”  We stared at him dumbly.  “Yes, it feels cooler right in front of the fridge, but the cooling process generates more heat than it removes, and that heat comes out the back of the fridge!” was the answer.  We rushed home to our kitchens to check it out, and you know, he was right!  In 7th grade, I learned that leaving the fridge door open would heat up, not cool off, the entire house.

That’s entirely different from the question of HFC emissions, but since 1967, I have pictured all the air conditioners in all of the houses, apartment buildings, shopping malls and corporate skyscrapers, pumping heat out of buildings and into the air outside, as a sort of massive global refrigerator with its door kept wide open.  So the answer to global warming is not to turn up the AC during a heat wave– a classic example of short vs. long term thinking.  The answer is to stop trapping heat with greenhouse gases.

According to Lerner, alternatives exist, but replacing HFCs with ammonia, propane or iso-butane has been blocked, not by science, but by politics.  And politics threaten to encroach ever more on the rulings of the right-leaning Supreme Court.  More government regulations, environmental or otherwise, are likely to fail.  Imagine the irony, when Brett Kavanaugh one day reaches into the mini-fridge in his chambers for a cold beer– only to discover that there is no more beer!

Personally, my adult beverage of choice is wine.  But my concerns, at least in that particular area, parallel those of beer-lovers:  global warming is already affecting grape harvests.  Not long ago, I stood on a terrace in the Rheingau, in northern Germany, looking out at a hillside vineyard with the owner.  His family had been in the wine business for centuries, producing fine riesling at the northernmost latitude still hospitable to grapes of the original European type, vitis vinifera.  Because of steady temperature rises over the past two decades, he told me, riesling will now grow much farther to the north.  “German winegrowers will have to move to the North Pole,” he half-joked.  The land we were looking at will one day be more suitable for grapes grown in southern France!

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The third book, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, and I will post on this blog when it becomes available on Amazon.  In this excerpt, I have taken out a paragraph, so as not to spoil the plot for new readers.


Professor Neelin added a generous pinch of salt to the lovely stew of root vegetables simmering on his stove.  The dignified sweetness of parsnips, carrots, and onions: three-part harmony, in parallel with the strains of a Bach Cantata drifting in from his living room.  Add textural overtones: the pillowy comfort of soft-cooked potatoes contrasting with the mild firmness of beets. Ah, nuances! Earthy, seductive perfumes of cumin, coriander and cardamom.  The challenge of cayenne and paprika. A distraction of lemon zest. Magnificent.

You really should watch the salt, he reminded himself- but the cautionary thought passed as quickly as a false alarm ringing in a distant corridor.  Hypertension, vascular disregulation, auto-inflammation, endocrine imbalance: what did those matter, in this context? The stew was a masterpiece, destined for an important dinner with the Senior Fellows of Mellon College- blood pressure was several levels of concern beneath that.  Now, what about the wine? Neelin glanced at the snow flurries outside his kitchen window, the heavily bundled students hurrying along High Street, a Campus Police car pulling over to the icy sidewalk. A red, certainly: full-bodied, warming, with peppery spice to highlight the stew, low in intellectual gravity, perhaps, but high in immediate gratification.  He smiled at the thought. Grenache would be perfect. Yes, a Garnacha from the Spanish District- algo muy especial, verdad? There were only a few old bottles of Garnacha remaining in his cellar three stories down, but why not- they probably should be drunk up, now that their youthful tannins had melted away.


He gave the stew a final stir, carefully turned off the stove, took a wicker wine basket from his pantry, and donned a comfortable pair of leather slippers kept by the front door.  Life as Most Senior Fellow was good, undeniably, and yet he held an image in his mind of a peaceful retirement in the wine country of far Northern California- if only it weren’t in the Quarantine Zone.  The classic vineyard a hundred and fifty years ago would have been on a mountaintop overlooking the Napa Valley, but over the past century that had become too hot and dry, thanks to global climate change; the southernmost latitude suitable for the cultivation of cabernet sauvignon- or any variety of vitis vinifera– lay on the upper slopes of Mt. Shasta.  Still, far-northern California was a beautiful area. Neelin hummed with contentment as he opened his front door.

A campus policeman, obviously in poor condition, was laboring heavily up the last few steps to his landing.  Neelin recognized the man as head of security, often seen stalking around the Old Campus- and hadn’t his picture been on a poster denouncing drug abuse in the YaleConn community?  His name was Haley, or Halsey, something like that. He waited patiently for the cop to pass by, but instead, Halsey stopped at his door.

“Dr. Neelin?” he asked in between gulps of air.  “I’m. Torch Halsey. Security. Have to ask you.  To come with me, sir. Routine questioning. Recent events on campus.”

Ah, thought Neelin, his wicker basket dropping to the floor.  Here at last: inevitable, really. He closed his eyes. Perhaps the dream of retiring to Northern California wasn’t that farfetched, after all.

Nobel Intentions

The yearly Nobel prizes are traditionally awarded for great accomplishments in various fields– either singular achievements or those accumulated over a lifetime– but more and more, the winners seem to be chosen with the intention of shining a light on issues of growing worldwide concern, if not alarm.

On the same day that the United Nations warned that new studies indicate climate change and its disastrous effects are coming much faster than previous calculations had shown, and that we are already seeing irreversible damage to the environment, the Nobel Prize in Economics  (one of two) was awarded to William D. Nordhaus, a professor of economics at Yale.  Nordhaus created a model for analyzing the costs of climate change and has promoted a global system of carbon taxes to combat problems caused by greenhouse gases.  Having read the Freakonomics books, I have a strong feeling that the solution to climate change will come from the field of economics.  For those interested (and all of us should be), among books by Nordhaus on the subject are The Climate Casino and A Question of Balance.

After a year of the #MeToo movement and its effects on society and culture worldwide, the degree to which the movement is limited and as yet unformed becomes painfully clear when someone like Brett Kavanaugh is elevated to the US Supreme Court.  Despite “greater awareness”, some things still don’t seem to matter:  the fact that women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed (leaving aside the particular allegations of Dr. Blasey-Ford) feel that men in power don’t sincerely listen, and don’t prioritize their reality over politics; the fact that many abused women will no longer speak out, fearing the destruction of “stepping in front of a train that will get where it’s going anyway”; and critically, the fact that many men will see no need to challenge themselves to become better people.  In the immediate wake of the Kavanaugh debacle, the Nobel Committee saw fit to recognize Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad with the Nobel Peace Prize, for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”  No doubt the winners were selected some time ago, but the message is a timely one.

This year the Committee has also chosen more women for the Nobel Prize:  Donna Strickland in physics and Frances Arnold in chemistry.  Aside from the outstanding merits of their work, these winners may encourage more girls at school age to head into the STEM disciplines.

I have to admit, as Friday and the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize drew near, my greatest fear was that Donald Trump might win it (as a number of his supporters have chanted at rallies), along with the leaders of North and South Korea, for the negotiations over de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  The Peace Prize is often awarded, not for a goal already reached, but in order to encourage a peace process to keep on going.  But consider this year’s winners.  How insulting would it be to them, to award the prize to a man who mocked Dr. Blasey-Ford at a political rally; who bragged about committing sexual assault; who denies science and is withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, working to undo measures that increase fuel efficiency, and who favors coal and oil over clean, sustainable energy sources like wind and solar?

The Nobel Prize Committee has shown sensitivity and good sense (and yes, that includes Bob Dylan!).  May the Nobel Prize continue not only to reward human accomplishment, but also to shape our view of the human condition.

On the lighter side, here is an excerpt from Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  The pharmaceutical researcher Walther Beame has one eye on the Chimera Project, and his other eye on the Nobel Prize:

Dr. Walther Beame, recently-appointed Project Director at Eunigen.  Scion of a distinguished medical family, graduate of a prestigious internship and post-doctoral fellowship at MassMed.  Developer of numerous theraproteomic patents, holder of top industry awards. He was even listed, in a recent issue of Inner Circle Magazine, among New York Metropol’s most-eligible bachelors.  Ha! White-haired and balding on top, in his late fifties, still most eligible!

Yet never had he possessed the same gravitas as on this particular evening.  It was the culmination of years of work, and the potential for a major scientific advance could be compared to… well, there was simply no precedent!  Not the first multi-species gene created; not the first stem cell injected into a lab animal; not even the discovery, over two centuries ago, that DNA could be snipped apart and recombined.  But it wasn’t over yet- Beame glanced back at the two security men following him at a discreet distance, slowed his pace and forced himself to take a deep breath as he rounded the corner to enter the main lobby, where his guests were waiting.

Beame stopped abruptly and stared.  What he saw under the five-story-high ceiling looked distinctly like a religious tableau:  two women sat to the right side, heads bowed slightly in quiet conversation. By the entrance on the left, a third woman had the vigilant stance of a sentry.  And alone in the center of the dome-shaped lobby stood Benn Marr, looking so innocent and vulnerable (appearances certainly can be deceiving, thought Beame). Looming high in the air directly above Benn was a huge glowing holographic projection of Eunigen’s symbol, the caduceus entwined with a double-helix of nucleic acid sequences in lieu of snakes.  The caduceus rotated slowly on its axis, creating the effect of a giant drill pointing downward right at Benn Marr. It was one of those unplanned moments rich with symbolic meaning: He is the One. The message would hardly have been clearer if a golden halo borne by cherubs had suddenly been placed on top of Benn’s head.


A Warm Welcome to a Water-logged World

Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare organization in which I proudly served as an internist and rheumatologist for three decades, has made me proud all over again.  Its CEO, Bernard Tyson, has just announced that Kaiser Permanente, which has 39 hospitals and 12 million members nationwide, will become carbon-neutral in 2020, thereby removing 600,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year from our atmosphere.  Doing so will mean new energy storage systems and switching its sources of electricity to wind and solar power.  Tyson is among the speakers at the Global Climate Action Summit taking place in San Francisco on Wednesday through Friday of this week (you can view it live at

Speaking at the same summit will be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who will no doubt draw attention to the ongoing efforts by the Trump Administration to undo measures designed to combat global warming, initiated under President Obama.  For example, President Trump, who withdrew from the Paris Accord and continues to deny climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, is now trying to make it easier for the energy industry to leak heat-trapping methane into the air.

A key organizer of the summit is Governor Jerry Brown, who is setting ever more ambitious climate goals for California, such as reducing overall emissions to zero by 2045.  But why stop there?  By 2046, he wants California to pull more CO2 and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than it puts in!  At a time when Trump wants to revive the obsolete coal industry, Brown wants 100% of electricity in California to come from carbon-free sources by 2045.  (We’ve always been contrary:  see the Jan. 4, 2018 post on this blog, Most Likely to Secede).

My third novel, Child of the Fourth World, is now complete, along with the Fourth World trilogy– but while doing the final editing, I wanted to share with you the first half of the Prologue as a preview:

The winter of 2204 had been cruel, indeed:  that was the jaundiced impression Arno Descombes had formed by early February.  An unusually heavy monsoon had swept down from the South China Sea, casting its warm, soggy blanket over the morass of lowland rice beds.  Fat globules of water splashed in king-sized sheets, usually for days at a time, onto the lugubrious padis and surrounding dense jungle where he was now confined in exile.  And as it had rained in January, so would it continue to rain in March.  Quite the local meteorologic expert after seven endless years in the Malaysian District, he had accepted by this point that there were no true winters to be found here— or springs, summers and autumns, for that matter!

But still, he could not help feeling a keen disappointment.  In many ways, Arno yearned for his childhood in Paris, which had been rudely truncated at the age of eight.  Having run helter-skelter through the Jardin du Luxembourg as a young boy, breathlessly excited amid the blooms of April or the snow flurries of December— a halcyon time followed by nearly two decades in the achingly monotonous, hermetically sealed environment of a metrosphere on Mars— Arno preferred (he was desperate, really) to think of the Northeast and Southwest Monsoons as two distinct seasons.  True, the oppressive heat and humidity never varied from one “season” to the next. Nor, on any given day in the entire year, would Arno be shocked to discover a muddy torrent flowing down the road in front of Building 822, his six-story Kenny Hill apartment complex. “So much for seasons,” the self-styled expert had muttered more than once to himself. And yet there was definitely a northerly wind at the moment…  Ah, winter in Kuala Lumpur, he sighed, hugging himself about the shoulders: this was definitely his favorite of the two monsoons!

But all sarcasm aside, the orange-brown river of mud had been flowing rather copiously that afternoon, Arno noted with increasing concern.  He inhaled its aroma sharply, like a sommelier detecting earthiness in a claret. There it was as usual, that pungent metallic tang of iodine and warm, sea-salty rain mixed with so many tons of liquefied clay, all pouring straight down the hill.  How was that possible, day after day? Wasn’t there a finite supply of soil uphill, and when that ran out, would the gentle slopes surrounding Kuala Lumpur end up flatter than a roti canai?

At least for now, the corrugated-tin canopy hanging over the entrance provided adequate shelter— but barely so.  From time to time, frenzied raindrops managed to find their way to Arno, who began to wonder if he might be slightly overdressed in his clean singlet, white long-sleeved shirt (buttoned at the cuffs) and pressed, full-length khaki trousers.  Soaked from the knees down, he sat perched precariously on a squat red plastic stool on the leeward side of the building. Splayed palm fronds and the broad leaves of a banana tree flapped frantically in the wind, obscuring an ancient, rusted street sign just up the road.  Intermittently he could make out the faded lettering: Jalan Kenny Utara.

He knew that “jalan” referred to the road, and it also meant “walk”; jalan-jalan meant “run.”  Otherwise, these words were gibberish to him, and he found himself unwilling to learn Malay and Nonya expressions, straightforward though they may seem.  He also refused to absorb more than minimal Cantonese, or Hokkien, or that strange Singapore-style English known as Singlish! The lack of motivation to adapt, Arno liked to think, resulted from a stout denial of his current predicament.  It was almost a matter of principle (likewise, he had previously rejected the patois of the younger generation in Highland City, even though he was one of them— at least in a demographic sense). If his first decade as a stranger on Mars had felt like an unfair banishment, his actual banishment to the Southeast Asia Quarantine Zone— his imprisonment, to call it what it was— felt vastly more unfair.

It had been a difficult, and still woefully incomplete, adjustment for him.  Most obviously, on Earth he had lost his professional status, and his living conditions had shrunken in dramatic fashion; belatedly, Arno Descombes had discovered the importance of those two factors to his sense of worth and well-being.  On top of that, global warming, although slowing in recent decades, had created an environment even more alien to Arno than the desiccated surface of Mars— almost its exact opposite, in fact.

“It was not always like this, lah!” Ah Wing, the oldest person in his building at age 109, had recounted nostalgically over dinner the previous evening, assuring Arno that monsoonal rainfall was not nearly as torrential a century ago.  In those days, nighttime temperatures sometimes dipped below 37 degrees Celsius, making a good night’s sleep possible. Malacca, Ah Wing’s childhood home, and Penang, the city where he had taught as a professor at George Town University— both historic seaports on the West Coast— had not yet been rendered uninhabitable by constant flooding.  Also, when the PWE arrested Ah Wing in Shanghai (he had been spying for the Resistance while attending an academic conference) and exiled him to the Quarantine Zone fifty years ago, the jungle was not nearly so overgrown, so densely populated with deadly reptiles, amphibians, spiders and insects.

As if on cue, in the corner of his eye, Arno caught sight of a pair of shiny black antennae slowly emerging from a gap in the wall nearby.  Not an unusual sight at all, so close to the jungle— except that these antennae, waving inquisitively from side to side as if sniffing for prey, continued to emerge for quite some time.  Their visible length was proportional to the height of Arno’s anxiety; what’s coming out of that gap, he wondered: a lobster?  Could the local cockroaches (known to survive extreme radiation) have mutated to such a monstrous size after the North Korean nuclear strike in the twenty-first century?  That had been one of the key triggers for the Great War of Unification, he recalled, but there were many unintended consequences: among them, launching those missiles may also have launched a whole new branch of the animal kingdom.

“But no, lah— it wasn’t radiation-induced mutation.  Already big before the war,” his elderly cohabitant had once reassured him with the singularly discomfiting observation that cockroaches in Kuala Lumpur (KL, he called it) had always been gigantic.