Readers, Digest

In a recent New Yorker article about food, wine and recipes found in fictional novels, Adam Gopnik wrote, “There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

The Fourth World trilogy has many examples of the second and third kinds, from Fourth World‘s tasting of most-famous wines held in Mellon College to Dr. Neelin’s musings on a complex vegetable stew, just before he is arrested for sedition.  In Fourth World Nation, our hero Benn Marr innocently attends the highly-politicized Mayor’s reception in Highland City, one of the Martian colonies, and sizes up the PWE’s dangerous Head of Security.  Here’s an excerpt:

 

“Well, I promise I won’t try to escape again,” Benn said uncertainly.   He was being truthful, wasn’t he? There was no reason to escape. As Benn had already pointed out to Lora, the goals they hoped to achieve by “escaping” the PWE somehow always seemed to align perfectly with those of the PWE!  Until they didn’t, he supposed.

“I am glad to hear that, because there isn’t much time to devote to that sort of thing,” Salman began, stopping abruptly as a dour-looking Asian waiter leaned over and placed a small bowl before him.  “Caviar with blini, on shallot-citrus foam,” mumbled the old man in a mechanical way, carelessly dropping another bowl onto the table in front of Benn. On impact, a shiny black cube, which had sat balanced on a mound of some white foamy-gelatinous substance, tumbled onto one side of the bowl, where it lay sadly on its edge:  minus ten points for presentation, thought Benn. Salman, whose black cube remained perfectly centered, eyed the retreating waiter, still taking his rapid mental notes. His aura flared violet at its borders.

…..

Late that evening, when Benn finally returned from mingling with the elites at Dr. Montero’s townhouse, he found Lora waiting in his dorm room… (she) had completed a pile of overdue charting in the other room, then brought back a loaded tray from the cafeteria.  Benn hastily declined her offer to share the multicolored sponge-like cubes on the tray, as he was already struggling with gastric discomfort at the memory of his caviar-and-blini cube on shallot-lemon foam; the “bovine organic essence” (extracted from liver, thymus, spleen and other organs) topped with a crispy cornflake crust; the bean strings sauteed in organic brown dairy oil (don’t ask); then there was the fifty-layer corn-syrup gateau which had brought his dinner to an impressive, if nauseating, conclusion.

 

In the final novel of the trilogy, Child of the Fourth World, the action shifts, along with the range of food flavors, to a Quarantine Zone in Southeast Asia.  Here’s another excerpt:

 

On that score, at least, Arno had no complaints.  He had heard that feeding the Quarantined Class in the three Western Hemisphere Zones was seen by PWE planners as an opportunity to rid themselves of a mountain of excess corn and its by-products.  Here in Southeast Asia, the excess crop was rice, genetically engineered to concentrate starch in grains the size of large grapes; the PWE, under the scrutiny of a “free press” which reported the more obvious human rights abuses, gladly supplied heaping bowlfuls of rice, at least ten to twelve grains per bowl.  That was filling enough, but it was the accompanying dishes that made all the difference: instead of the gummy, corn-based Vitacubes in artificial flavors manufactured by Synthedible Corp, here in this non-industrial zone they were fed the local “peasant food” as a default, or even as a punitive measure. No bread?  Let them eat curry!

How ironic, he mused:  surely the PWE had never intended the lowly diet of prisoners to be so nuanced and flavorful— it was simply delicious!  After a few initial weeks of gastrointestinal distress, Arno’s palate and gut had adjusted to the high level of spice, and now he could not imagine returning to the bland diet of his past.  Never having sampled real chicken, beef or seafood, he did not recognize the substitution of dried bean curd for poultry, farmed fruit bats for conventional red meats— and for shellfish, a smaller version of the “lobster” he had spied earlier crawling out of the wall.  He thought longingly of Nonya chicken curry; beef rendang; Indian fish head curry; Penang prawns in sambal tumis sauce: to Arno, if this diet was meant to be punitive, Southeast Asia was indeed the culinary briar patch of Quarantine Zones!

 

At the urging of generous readers who have grown accustomed to my characters and admit they “hate to see them go,” I am considering writing another novel.   However, the main story line of the Fourth World trilogy is pretty much spent, so there will have to be a separate narrative– perhaps set many decades in the future– involving the youngest of the original characters.  In the meantime, an entirely different sort of project is already underway:  a collection of culinary memoirs from Singapore/ Kuala Lumpur days, based on stories told by my mother and others of her generation (see the previous post on this blog, Crazy Rich Memories), complete with recipes which we are now refining in the kitchen.

The young-cousin generation has participated in this project with enthusiasm, so there will certainly be value for our family.  But given the growing number of Asian immigrants to this country, other families with similar experiences, these culinary memoirs may well find a wider audience– stay tuned, and bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

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Crazy Rich Memories

As Christmas nears, I begin to anticipate the big family gathering on December 25th:  the laughter of cousins, the white elephant gag gifts, the rekindling of kinships.  But perhaps foremost comes the anticipation of the daylong meal, which launches at about lunchtime and whose vague glide-path ends on the far side of sunset.  This year the culinary theme will be Singaporean food– perfect for this crowd, some of us born and/or raised in Malaysia, and others of us having been submerged in its culture since childhood.

The sweet perfume of gado-gado and sayor lodeh.  The spicy wallop of beef rendang.  The deceptive simplicity of Hainanese chicken rice.  Memories will abound.  As the holiday season itself is nostalgic anyway, and the sharing of such a meal often clarifies how individual relationships have shifted over the years (helping to define our “angles of repose”– with apologies to Wallace Stegner), I expect Christmas Day will be particularly poignant this year.

My mother, the kids’ Grandma, is in her nineties now, and there is a certain sense of urgency.  We want to hear and record her stories from days so long ago in Malaysia, from the Japanese occupation to Kuala Lumpur high society; tips on recipes for these dishes; advice for grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Her legacy is measured in so much more than genetics, and although some of that legacy, inevitably, has already been lost to the hazy distortions of memory, we want as much as possible of the younger generation’s heritage to be passed on.

In the wake of Crazy Rich Asians, a movie in which Singapore is made to look like an impossibly glamorous city of the future, I found myself struggling to recall elements of the past, including the patois of not-so-rich Asians.  My mother proved to be a good source of these expressions, which I worked into the conclusion of the Fourth World trilogy, Child of the Fourth World.  Here’s an example from one scene:

 

Reaching her destination, the unshaded Building 714, Anh passed her hand over a sensor then waited, it seemed interminably, in the blazing sun.  She rang the doorbell repeatedly, until a dishwasher who must have been in his eighties, drying his hands on his dingy white singlet, finally ambled all the way from the kitchen to slide open the front door.

“Ayah, come inside, lah!  Banyak panas, so hot, no time to be outside,” he fussed, before squinting at the note of introduction Dr. Wheeler had scribbled for Anh.  He looked about for someone named Abu, who was apparently the doorman/porter/security guard. “You come to work here, is it? No one to receive you, cannot lah!  That Abu, so dida apa, man!”

Anh, having only arrived in KL within the past week, had never heard that particular Malay expression.  She only knew how to say thank you, an early and universal necessity. “Sorry, what did you say?  Dida…”

“Ayah, you speak English only?  Okay, lah. Abu, you ask him: Abu, where have you been hiding, and Abu say dida apa, never you mind.  Sleeping, I tell you. Alamak! Lazy and good for nothing, that one. Pai see! Pai see! So bad, so bad.”  Tut-tutting to himself, the dishwasher, who presently introduced himself as Ah Loong, led Anh down a long concrete hallway.  At the far end, he ushered her into the unmanned registration room, where the most noticeable item was the glowing red Eye on the wall next to the door.

“Any open apartment okay,” said Ah Loong, pointing to a wide panel on which only four out of three hundred lights in the Occupied columns remained unlit, indicating that 296 rooms had already been taken.  “Wah, lucky, man, four rooms left in basement. Look like nobody choose basement: sometime get wet during heavy rain, sometime smell funny. But not so bad. Come, lah. You pick a room, then look straight at Eye.”

Anh hesitated at first, then chose one of the four rooms at random by touching a button.  Further encouraged by Ah Loong, she stared into the Eye, which promptly recorded her retinal pattern and filed it with the PWE Superintendent’s office in Singapore.  All she could see was that the Occupied light next to her room number, B2, had blinked on.

The garrulous dishwasher walked her back to the lobby, where he pointed at a stairwell facing the entrance, then repeatedly jabbed a forefinger toward the floor.  “Basement… stairs… you go down,” Ah Loong explained in a slow, exaggerated manner, as though speaking either to a deaf tourist or a simpleton. “Remember your room is B2, second room on left, okay?  Don’t forget, B2, or you will… lost, lah.” He wiped his hands (already so dry his knuckles were peeling) on the sides of his knee-length khaki trousers. “OK, young lady. Suda lah, I go back to kitchen, wash dishes now:  banyak kotor, very dirty!”

Anh recalled the Malay expression of thanks.  “Um… terima kasi?” she ventured, and the old man turned around.  Because she was making an effort to speak one of his native languages, Ah Loong beamed at her in a paternal way, his wizened face losing ten years in the process.  It was completely unexpected, triggering in Anh a sudden pang of nostalgia— a yearning for parental approval, for her lost home, departed family, or just anyone who cared whether she lived or died.  She shook off the nostalgia, which she knew could quickly degenerate into self-pity. Even a hint of that would be treacherous, something Anh had never allowed to encroach upon her feelings.

“You welcome, lah!  Maybe later you look around.  But not too far— you will lost.”  He held up his hand and with two fingers imitated the motions of a person taking a stroll.  “Piki jalan, okay?” She nodded her understanding.

 

To all my readers, I wish you greater understanding, a piki jalan on Christmas Day and a holiday season redolent with glorious memories!

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:

https://www.amazon.com/Fourth-World-Nation/dp/1973142503/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509379909&sr=8-1&keywords=Fourth+world+nation

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:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LWVNG6A/ref=cm_cr_ryp_prd_ttl_sol_0

 

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.