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When an author writes that he will tell you the truth and nothing but the truth, and rather helpfully frames his novel with meta-analytical comments throughout, you know you are in for a time. The only thing I had hope for is that the book is entertaining. Luckily, Ron Currie’s novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is in fact hilarious, dark, and observant of both external appearances and internal motives. I really liked it.

To begin with, though, there were a couple of novelistic ticks that red-lined my BS meter, even before the first chapter. Instead of an epigraph, we have an ironically pretentious discussion of why Currie avoided using a pretentious quote from Nabokov. Well, it’s more a justification for using a quote from the movie Rocky. The main character is named Ron Currie, and shares a similar biography, if not the same one, with the actual author. But why does that detail even matter for fiction? Yes, it’s that type of novel.

Oooh… that sounds bad. Let me start again. I mention the writing because, it’s the type of thing that can turn me off. However, Currie writes with a real brio and panache and makes the book work. The writing is compelling; there are enough chuckles in the beginning to capture the reader.

I thought the book essentially deals with the self-loathing, and if not that, then at least the self-destructive tendencies of the Ron character. The book moves along in a series of vignettes. Each scene offers as much exposition as it does thoughts and discussions. He jumps around in time; we know that he is narrating after the events in the novel. He writes about his time in New York, with his true love Emma, with his island drinking partner Charlotte, and with various island locals. Most importantly, at some point, he found it easier to leave his life behind. He fakes his own death. The novel is an attempt to frame Ron’s life in the context of this act.

The book works a lot like the movie Memento. Everything presented can be described as factual, but the order in which facts are revealed does matter. This is clever of Currie. Each scene or chapter is self-contained. Ron, the character, will tell us his thoughts or his version of events; one can imagine Ron just speaking, in a bar, over some beer or whiskey. He starts with some funny observations, and talks about island time and the locals; he tells us he’s following the love’s errand Emma sent him on; and he portrays his love for Emma as, ultimately, unrequited. In this way, we build up more sympathy for Ron than we otherwise would have. In short, Ron is an alcoholic and an asshole, who was not in a place where he could appreciate the good in his life. He takes more away from the world and the people around him than to add.

It gets much darker than simply gallows humor. Oh, Ron does seem to walk a fine line between being a downer and being outright nihilistic. The most symptomatic of this is that he treats his island housemate and erstwhile lover, Charlotte, badly. Here’s the thing: at some point, I forgot that he was writing about a time when he was in a relationship with Emma. His being on the island isn’t their being “on a break” or anything like that. Emma told him to wait while she finalizes her divorce and tie up loose ends. Sure, it is an overly long separation, but there was no question that she will join his life as soon as she works to close the current chapter. Ron just makes it out as if Emma will bail on him.

When we were introduced to Charlotte, he was more or less setting up Emma as an ice princess, as someone unattainable (more on this later). Emma was the manipulator and instigator, not a bystander or victim. When Ron wound up cohabiting with Charlotte (Ron makes sure to let us know that it’s her doing), it began as a drinking relationship. Due to her efforts, however, he does eventually enjoys her physical charms. His relationship with Charlotte, and its placement in the novel, makes for a fuzzy timeline as to what his precise status with Emma is. That’s a bit of good writing, I think. Random details are a setup, resurfacing later to give the lie to Ron’s story.

The story is structured to show two things: 1) that Ron hates himself, unwilling to invest of himself in order to better avoid being hurt,  and 2) that Ron cannot understand that Emma might need to work things out, independent of where they are in the relationship. To be fair, a lot of this book can be interpreted as either men not understanding women or as a cynical, male commentary on relationships. I see it as something more simple; Ron is self-absorbed, he requires of others that which does not himself offer. He does not want the doubt, the possibility that Emma has her own mind and may in fact choose a life without Ron. It isn’t that she would, but that there is the possibility. He refuses to accept that Emma is not simply a lover, but is an actual autonomous being.

Throughout the novel, Currie name checks Vernor Vinge and the Singularity. I don’t know what the reader’s background is, but it’s a simple take-home idea. At some point, the density of computing power will become so high, and so connected, that it may be able to contain and allow  for alien, superhuman intelligence to arise. Alien because its motives will be distinctly non-human understandable. This intelligence might be some mutated form of simple or weak “artificial intelligence” bots, to engineered, pseudo-intelligent decision-making algorithms. Regardless, it is possible that these programs may behave in a manner that feedbacks positively upon itself, and because of the speed of computational cycles, the generation time is much shortened and algorithmic evolution will be exponential.

True AI will arise, and we won’t know it nor can we stop it: it will process much faster than the human brain can. There are all sorts of attendant mythologies related to what happens when such super intelligences arise, but it is possible that humans will be 1) be unaware, left behind and wither away, or 2) be killed in some machine-engineered apocalypse. Regardless, we will not understand it, because the intelligence is hyper-intelligent and/or alien. There is a line of sci-fi writing that talks of humans transcending, a rapture of the nerds*, if you will, where humans will be able to engage the alien/artificial intelligence by uploading their thoughts into the computational network.

*Charlie Stross has written much about the silliness of the Singularity being a happy event for humans, let alone actually occurring. Stross can’t help but notice and poke at the undertone of the uploading into a mind-hive is actually quite similar to the mythology of a Christian Rapture. See Stross’s blog, here and here.

This is a long way to go to say, that, in the face of such potentially catastrophe for humans, Ron (and Currie, the author), invokes the Singularity as a way for humans to upload into the ether, instantiate as a part of the collective mind, and be able to offer its human life for computational forensics. Perhaps as a case for why humans were superceded by a superior intelligence form. In other words, the dream of Ron may be to be able to consider his relationship with Emma, such as it as, in perpetuity, by his uploaded mind or by the other aspects of the AI. It is a solipsist heaven.

That’s really also the novel’s main motif, I think. Ron is wrapped up with his thoughts and interpretation of events. Sure, perhaps Emma doesn’t help matters when she does also have an emotional distance. In fact, one might argue that she is the female Ron. She too cannot engage on a deep emotional level with Ron, perhaps because she is strongly independent. But I am unsure if we can blame that, as it might be that she realizes Ron isn’t the most reliable type.

This is the weird thing: what level of relationship does Ron need? At some point, it isn’t about the woman, but about Ron. It is his actions, his feelings, his hang-ups, his depression, his alcoholism that interferes with Emma. In the end, she does come to him. They spend time on the island. They are intimate. But he turfs it all, as if he can’t stand the “happily ever after” part, which he knows isn’t simple. He knows that work makes relationships work, not the romance and drama. His is unable to live in this moment, since he knows that the next bit of drama, the next moment, will be a break-up. That’s really the only next movie scene available. He sure as hell can’t enjoy paradise in the arms of a hot woman, forever. I can see it as a pre-emptive strike. Or it could just be his inability to deal. Either way, that’s the bit of ambiguity left for us to mull over; the fact is, motive almost doesn’t matter. He messes up the happy ending.

It’s the usual novel of the human condition, but it’s a really fun read. There’s a great courtroom scene (you didn’t think that faking one’s own death would be painless?) Reading this trial, I can’t help agreeing with Currie that events would unfold precisely in this manner. He also gives a resounding defense of the need for fiction in society; it’s a painless way to engender empathy. It might not sound like it’d fit, but it does.  The magic of the novel is that, although it is funny and dark, Currie treats each separately. It’s not a confused smear; it is comic and deep in equal measure, dosed out at the proper times. Something that Ron can learn from.

 

I just read Arthur Krystal’s piece “Easy Writers” (behind paywall) in the May 28 (2012) The New Yorker, in which he examines the critical response to genre writers and makes some attempt to explain the differences between literary writers and mere story tellers.

Every time I read a piece such as this, whether it be by high-brow critics or writers, I can only become saddened by what seems to me their increasing irrelevance. I might not have the talent to be such a writer, but I can certainly see it as nothing less than self-sabotage by telling your potential readers that 1) they do not have the intellect to appreciate your verbiage describing the mundane and that 2) even if they think they do, they should not bother (as if one making money from one’s book precludes one from writing a literary masterpiece – because, you know, it means that the language is somehow too easy and accessible to the proles.)

Krystal rehashes the basic gripe against genre writers: by definition, they write with a formula in mind, and this formula is propelled by plot. The fact that a detective must catch the killer or that a lawyer must find evidence to exonerate his client limits the tools a genre writer can use. Because the writer needs to resolve the plot, the focus is lessened on dramatic closure or catharsis than on solving the case. More often than not (and the critics would argue, always), stereotypes reserved for short stories are transplanted into a full length book. The result is that heroes and villains are good and evil, black and white, with nary a shadow cast to suggest a more complex reality.

One final point Krystal makes is that the word-craft seems to be missing from churn-it-out modern day pulp (I mean, genre) writers. As the self-named guardians of quality (which I find ironic; I find today’s a great many literary authors today compare poorly to luminaries like Melville, Wharton, James, Thackeray, and Hemingway) continue to cycle towards irrelevance, in the very same issue of The New Yorker we find a brilliant surrogate for the plotless, psychological profile that Krystal suggests is the domain of the literary writer.

David Grann’s profile of William Alexander Morgan (“The Yankee Commandante“) is exciting, with all the elements of an adventure tale. Except that Grann also presented actual, documentary information from the FBI, CIA, and various intelligence personnel assessing Morgan’s use to them. In other words, we actually have evaluations of Morgan’s psyche, or at least opinions from people whose livelihoods depend on making judgments about people.

My point here is that, with the wealth of historical and biographical works available, drawing on real events and the analyses of people of significance, do we really need self-congratulatory high-lit writers teaching us about the human condition? And even if we disagree with the authors of these biographies, isn’t it desirable that we focus on actual historical persona, where we can rely on documentary evidence and not the imagination of a fiction writer?

Let us move on from this idea of the genre versus the human condition (or, plot versus characterization.)

Now, I happen to agree that, for the most part, most published books are dreck; it isn’t that we need to elevate genre writing, but we simply must recognize that good writing can come from many sources. It is the same heavy handed message at the end of Ratatouille, when Anton Ego, Remi’s nemesis, recognizes that popularizing cookery does not elevate all cooks, but that it makes the ground fertile to nurture more talent from non-traditional sources.

This point is, I believe, at the essence of the Jodi Picoult criticism of the high-brow crowd. Popular writing might be awash in mediocre writing, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we do find excellent writing from genre authors.

Hence we arrive again to Krystal’s thesis. He points to a 20th century literary giants, for example Auden, who felt Raymond Chandler to be a high-calibre talent, despite slumming it. Krystal echoes this sentiment, which I find condescending. Why should we grade Chandler’s writing on a curve, judging him against his peers? If literary standards were actually objective, then one can simply judge all authors by some criteria for good writing.

Either Chandler is a good writer, or he isn’t.

I was left annoyed by Krystal’s piece, not because of his opinion, but in that he seems unwilling to follow the high-lit stance to its conclusions. Krystal identified both the type of novel and the writing style as paramount to be considered worthy literature. We must delve into the psychology of a character using highly stylized language.

I would argue, as do most high-brow writers and critics, that the beauty of language is paramount (naturally, we differ in specifics). Where we truly differ is the idea that plot and story must take a back seat to laying bare the psychology of protagonists.

I wanted to have my say, but Charlie Stross has made similar points on his blog, in better way.

Interestingly, he launched some salvos against the perception that science fiction can be defined by the presence of technobabble and spaceships. His point can be summed up by this quote:

In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant “The Quantum Thief” — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in “Schismatrix” (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.

Can you imagine? He’s criticizing reviewers (but also readers) who ignore that another approach to high-brow fiction might actually be the depth of characterization of the context surrounding the actors in a story.

In the same way that high-lit authors seem intent on showing us that humans are complicated, one can imagine a writer describing complex interactions with technology, with societal changes, with ethical dilemmas in medicine, and so on. Just as people are not saints or demons, our relationship to our culture is not simple. That an author chooses to make prominent a battle scene before detailing the devastation of his hero’s psyche does not mean he has become a writer of war stories.

Clearly, most critics do already focus on language. Gary Shteyngart and David Foster Wallace are two examples. The blending of science fiction and absurdist elements into their shrewd commentary on society hasn’t hurt their acceptance. Onion skin ™ pants? Augmented Reality updates as to one’s consensus f***-ability? Paraplegic Canadian commando assassins? Ending a novel with a firefight? I think Super Sad True Love Story and Infinite Jest were actually enjoyable stories, in addition to being a showcase for the talents of the authors.

My problem with the so-called gatekeepers of literature is that they confuse their form with what they wish to achieve through fiction. Their form is the novel; what they wish to achieve is understanding of the human nature. Clearly, there are many paths to this understanding; biographies, long-arc histories, a study of society are some of the other means. Since a novelist is not a scholar, the burden of proof, as it were, is relaxed.

Instead, the means of demonstrating the human truth lies in the aesthetics and beauty of language, and perhaps bitter and disquieting ideas can be made palatable by a bit of storytelling, of entertaining. To assume that the whole enterprise can succeed only when we drain the pleasure from novels (like seeing interesting things happen to interesting people) seems to mistake the novel for a dry social science text. If that is their goal, then there is actually no point in fiction.

Over dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, I was recommending Gordon Shepherd’s book, Neurogastronomy, to a friend, who is a foodie. He seemed really interested in it, having read Herve This’s Molecular Gastronomy and other books like it. I’ll say here what I told my friend.

Shepherd brings with him both expertise and experience on the subject, having actually worked in olfaction for many years. The people he works with are my friends and peers, as I have also worked in olfaction until recently.  The way this book is presented is a model I wish to emulate; it is a  synthesis of both scientific findings and their meaning to us. By combining these elements with clear descriptions of the experiments involved, Shepherd is able to place the mechanics of smell within the context of odor and flavor perception. How the system works, how quality of life can be impaired, possible evolutionary consequences, and ultimately how we can subvert human flavor perception to improve our diet, nutrition, and yes, pleasure. 

Gordon Shepherd has made a huge impact in neurophysiology and in the field of olfaction. I think it is wonderful that he has written this book, to emphasize that olfaction is an important sense, playing a role in shaping human culture by its role in flavor perception. This is a direct counter to the notion that the human (and primate) olfactory system compares “poorly” against other sensory systems because the amount of brain space devoted to processing olfactory data seem so small. It also counters the perception from an olfactory detector consideration, such as that other mammals have both a greater number and variety of odor sensors, and thus as a result that they are better smellers than humans.

For me, I also had the vicarious thrill of seeing people I know depicted in a book meant for a wider audience.

***

From the standpoint of a neuroscientist, it was refreshing to see how a distinguished scientists view as the most important pieces of neurophysiological evidence fitting into the concept of flavor perception.  This is the bit of curation that I am such an enthusiast for. We have a wealth of data, and often, scientific reviews are a great place to being reading about a field. Reviews are as much about synthesis of existing scientific threads as much as about historical perspective and charting future research directions (i.e. what hasn’t been yet addressed).  With so much great writing today, having forty or fifty years of experience may not be necessary to provide proper context for a given research environment.

With that said, it is always nice to see someone with the stature of Gordon Shepherd present such a broad picture of the field and to hew closely to underlying research.

He spends the first chapters discussing some anthropology findings, laying the groundwork for the importance of flavor in shaping human culture. It seems that cooking – with its transformation of food at the molecular level and in the unlocking of huge stores of nutrition – provides a huge impetus in humans retaining a strong smell sense. The rest of the book recounts both his own and others’ contributions to the field of olfaction.

His presentation of neural activity is that brain works by encoding and extracting information that can be described as literal, physical patterned activity. Evidence from open brain surgery, to anatomical tracing, to functional imaging supports this idea. In each case,  patterns arise from ephemeral neural activity, grouped into physically discrete locations on the brain. Hence one hears about the visual and audio cortices, the somatosensory cortex, the hippocampus as a site of early memory formation, and so forth.

For the olfactory system, this is also true: at increasing levels of topologic precision, we can say that the main olfactory processing structures include the olfactory bulb, the olfactory cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. As we progress to more microscopic descriptions, we can describe groups of active neurons within these structures. The whole point of the brain’s wiring is to funnel external stimuli into combinations of activated neurons.

The connections between these neurons tend to lead to reactivation of the same groups of neurons to the same stimulus. Brain centers located downstream than operate on these patterns, recognizing them, storing them, retrieving them, and matching them. At some point, this stream of information is combined with other sensory inputs (aural, visual, taste, smell, and touch), resulting in higher order, conscious thoughts.

What I say next is not meant as a criticism but as a way to understand why Shepherd is so effective at presenting the science behind “neurogastronomy”. He left out a significant area of research, that of timing. A full description of how the brain works will have to include not only which neurons are active, but when they are active. There is not enough space in such a book to detail the underlying mechanism of smell: the identity of active neurons, how they are connected, and the timing of their activity.

My old boss (among others) was combining smell discrimination-decision making behavior task with simultaneous neural recordings. He, and others, have shown that within a sniff a rat can gain sufficient information to make a decision. This is on the order of a quarter of a second. Such a system likely functions as a time-based code. This is a huge part of understanding how the brain works.

Yet I have to say, it isn’t necessary to Shepherd’s story. Shepherd paints a compelling picture by simply presenting neuronal activity as a pattern, allowing him to describe a huge arc in a few strokes. But this stroke does reveal his thinking; he clearly places a central role in the anatomical organization of the brain, which groups neural activity into patterns. At ever more minute levels, the specific connections underlie the feature extraction processes going on in the brain. In a sense, the fact that neurons, at some point, activate represents the mechanics of actualizing information processing that we had already determined to take place in these neurons, based simply on how they are connected.

Depending on your viewpoint, when the neurons activate may prove important in these processes. Is timing then a peripheral phenomenon, since the most important observation is how these neurons are wired, or could the same wires actually transmit different “information”, depending on the sequence of activity? These are questions researchers continue to spend entire careers answering.

I can imagine a different investigator may have written the same book, but emphasize the ephemeral nature of neural ensembles where the real significance may lie in timing of the activity. In this case, the sequence of neurons firing, how their activity coincide, and the precise synapses activated in downstream neurons are just a few of the parameters that affect perception.

It isn’t a matter of discrediting one versus the other; it is just a point about presentation. In no way am I suggesting that the viewpoint put forth by Shepherd as deficient, merely that he probably made an editorial decision to provide a coherent framework for the edification of non-scientists. I really admire this book, as an exemplar of a rigorous book meant for popular consumption. Most importantly, I feel that he has described the wealth of experimental detail about how current theories of olfaction and flavor perception were arrived at.

I spent most of my reading time reading back issues of The New Yorker, accumulating on my Nook Color since January. I found a few gems:

  • a Jonathan Franzen piece (2/13/2012 – 2/20/2012) on Edith Wharton’s “Big 3” novels,
  • a Jonah Lehrer essay (3/5/2012) on the mathematics of altruism,
  • an Adam Gopnik discussion (4/3/2012) of the philosophy of Albert Camus.
  • Ken Auletta (4/30/2012) on how Stanford University resembles a tech incubator more than a school.

I read Franzen’s The Corrections; I never thought much of it. He represents the best of the worst kind of modern fiction, confusing the ubiquity of the mundane with significant insight into a common human condition. I think Franzen wasted his talents; it accounts for something to have developed five unique personalities, each one an asshole, but each in his or her own way. His piece on Edith Wharton brings a sensitivity to literary nuance, a deep reading, and historical context to an overview of her works and their significance. In short, I really liked his essay; it felt like I learned something.*

Franzen makes a connection among Wharton’s great novels, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, drawing attention to how Wharton maintains our interest in the novels is that she draws upon our capacity for sympathy. Ironically, Wharton herself, and, her protagonists, as Franzen reads it, are not sympathetic characters.

When asked, I cite Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and The Age of Innocence as my favorite novels. The former is somewhat stereotypical for a person of my background: I am a scientist, I like mathematical modeling and games, I enjoy programming, I actually like reading and writing about science and math, and I greatly admire feats of mega and micro-engineering.

Usually, I relegate things emotional to the sphere of other – that is, our Weltanschauung (philosophical, mystical, and religious perceptions and so-called human truths), to my mind, clearly belong in the realm of non-science, opinion, and meaning. As I had written, I believe this not to be a slight; it’s just that how we engage with empirical, materialistic Truth is every bit, and perhaps more important, than what that Truth may be. That I think so highly of The Age of Innocence is due to the fact that its theme, with a big pay off near the end, exemplifies the very best of this fuzzy, but rich and vibrant, realm.

I would not have characterized The Age of Innocence as a work that draws on our capacity to identify; the plot is simply of love requited but unconsummated. I can see how the reader might be drawn in, rooting for the eventual uniting of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski. Regardless of how one might see Archer, I argue that he is the prototype of Don Draper of Mad Men. Archer is dissatisfied with his life and although he does not transgress the oath of marriage, he has, in an emotional sense, already left his wife for another woman. Don Draper is simply the apotheosis of this; a man who indulges in his every desire. Archer is a percursor of this, very much embedded in the social forms of his time. His emotional conflict can be viewed as tragic or shameless.

What I find most compelling about The Age of Innocence, and it is the thought and feeling that comes back to me time and time again, despite having read it many years ago, is that in the end, we find out that Archer’s wife, May, knew and even appreciates him for having stood by her and building a life together. In other words, she understood his sacrifice. Her reaction is rather traditional – and fantastical in our modern world – that she is so forgiving and actually thanks him for what can only be described as the only proper course of action.

No, the thing that I find unforgettable is that Archer’s wife knew. She understood him as much as one human being can of another. She sympathized with her husband, knew him fully and deeply. To be fair, I think that she might have appreciated that Archer did not cause a scandal or rupture her standing in their community – she is fully a creature of Gilded Age high-society. That is a recurrent theme in Wharton’s novels; the rich have customs and formalities that must be attended to. Her protagonists all try to enter that society or to make a life within it. Regardless, in essence, May’s understanding captures fully what novels should do for us; it gives us an opportunity to appreciate the mind and soul of another.

I remember feeling rather ambivalent about the novel until that scene. Part of it is because Archer’s behavior is atrocious. If he did not have the courage to buck against the pressure of making an approved match for his peer group, it can only be seen as cowardly for him to become an adulterer.  That is, he would be having it both ways; conforming to the customs and also satisfying his desires. Seeing the novel as a romance (between Archer and the Countess) seems to pervert that very ideal.

Instead, the would-be adulterers remained platonic – barely, and only after May decided she needed to defend her hearth. There is something to be said about not committing a physical sin and executing the oath one takes. It thus surprised me to find that the ending was so cathartic; I felt relieved and elated that May realized all of this. I hate to say it, but I did think that it would have been a waste if all this remained in Archer’s and Olenski’s heads. Having May realize helped the novel transcend its tawdriness. It became a tale of sacrifice, such as passed for it in New York high society.

*My reaction to it reminds me of another writer, whose fiction I did not care for: Margaret Atwood. I had written, about The Handmaid’s Tale:

I didn’t have a problem with this book, and then I did. The language is stilted, simplistic, and monosyllabic in this book, and at first, I thought that was great. The protagonist is a woman who is kept down, and the main tool is the withdrawal of education. I had actually thought the language reflected the mind of the handmaid. Then I thumbed through another Atwood book and to my chagrin, she wrote in that same stilted voice, and I revised my feelings for this book.

I had neglected to mention that I felt her tale to be overwrought, excessive, and without nuance. It is as if her talents were better spent on expository works and not novels. My opinion received some validation when I encountered her essay in Seeing Further, a retrospective and appreciation of the Royal Society. Her essay had the same quality as Franzen’s; erudite, nuanced, funny, and sharp. After this essay, I wound up reading Oryx and Crake. Despite the obvious nature of the cautionary tale against abuse of science and the concentration of power, I felt that the ending was haunting and the prose lively. 

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