Saturday, May 31, 2008

SciTalk: Science Advice for Authors

SciTalk is UK web site created by bioscience consultant Ann Lackie (who writes under the pen name Ann Lingard), that acts as a matchmaker between authors and scientists. You can search their databases by scientific subject, which gives you the name of a scientist or scientists in that field. You then can arrange to meet her or him to discuss your fiction. As their logo suggests, the biological sciences are well represented, from bacterial genetics to xenotransplantation.

For example, SciTalk set up a meeting between novelist Clare George with neuroscientist Jonathan Cole, who both approached their meeting with some trepidation, but ended up having a useful conversation:
"Sometimes you come up against scientists who don't understand what it is like not to understand." However, [George] says that with Jonathan this was not a problem. She found him easy to understand and not at all condescending.
It sounds like an incredibly useful resource for authors who are in the UK (or willing to travel there). I wonder if there is a similar resource for US authors and scientists?

If you are scientist interested in sharing your expertise, you can apply to be listed in their database.


Friday, May 30, 2008

The Singularity: An IEEE Spectrum Special Report

The June issue of the IEEE Spectrum has a special report on "The Singularity". Is you'd expect from a journal by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, most of the stories are about machines and artificial intelligence. But the technology that would allow us humans to transcend our physical bodies likes at the interface between man and machine, so biology necessarily must be taken into consideration.

A few of the articles:

Computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (and who's 1993 article "The Coming Technological Singularity", that introduced the term) introduces the special report and looks at Signs of the Singularity. Not surprisingly he sees the signs are there.

Spectrum editor Glenn Zorpette has his own, less glowing, intro, "Waiting for the Rapture."
The leading spokesman for the life-everlasting version of the singularity is the entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who’s also behind the movie The Singularity Is Near and a recent book of the same title. Why should a mere journalist question Kurzweil’s conclusion that some of us alive today will live indefinitely? Because we all know it’s wrong. We can sense it in the gaping, take-my-word-for-it extrapolations and the specious reasoning of those who subscribe to this form of the singularity argument. Then, too, there’s the flawed grasp of neuroscience, human physiology, and philosophy. Most of all, we note the willingness of these people to predict fabulous technological advances in a period so conveniently short it offers themselves hope of life everlasting.
University of Sheffield polymer physicist Richard A.L. Jones looks at "Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture: Biological nanobots could repair and improve the human body, but they'll be more bio than bot." The article points out that the science of molecular nanotechnology is still in its infancy.
It's not that the singularity vision is completely unrecognizable in today's work. It's just that the gulf between the two is a bit like the gap between traveling by horse and buggy and by interplanetary transport. The birth of nanotechnology is popularly taken to be 1989, when IBM Fellow Don Eigler used a scanning tunneling microscope to create the company's logo out of xenon atoms. [. . .] However, it is a very long way indeed from a top-notch tennis racket to smart nanoscale robots capable of swarming in our bodies like infinitesimal guardian angels, recognizing and fixing damaged cells or DNA, and detecting, chasing, and destroying harmful viruses and bacteria. But the transhumanists underestimate the magnitude of that leap. They look beyond the manipulation of an atom or molecule with a scanning tunneling microscope and see swarms of manipulators that are themselves nanoscale. Under software control, these “nanofactories” would be able to arrange atoms in any pattern consistent with the laws of physics.
CalTech professor of biology and engineering Christof Koch and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Guilio Tononi ask Can machines be conscious?

Data from clinical studies and from basic research laboratories, made possible by the use of sophisticated instruments that detect and record neuronal activity, have given us a complex if still rudimentary understanding of the myriad processes that give rise to consciousness. We are still a very long way from being able to use this knowledge to build a conscious machine. Yet we can already take the first step in that long journey: we can list some aspects of consciousness that are not strictly necessary for building such an artifact.

They makes an interesting point: while consciousness requires brain activity, it doesn't actually require any input from or interaction with the environment. It doesn't require emotions, or attention, or memory, or language - all the things that seem to make us human. Instead consciousness has to do with integration of information, and that gives scientists a place to start for the development of conscious machines. They argue that trying to replicate the human brain is unlikely to happen "in the foreseeable future". Instead they suggest that it might work better to start with a simple "brain" and let it learn and evolve in the hopes it will develop consciousness on its own. In a related sidebar Koch asks "Do you need a Quantum Computer to Achieve Machine Consciousness? " The short answer: no.

IEEE Spectrum writer Sally Adee looks at "Reverse Engineering the Brain." Her focus is the work being done to map the fruit fly brain at Janelia Farm "a kind of Bell Labs for neuro-biology." Director Gerry Rubin points out that the basic wiring of the human brain should follow the same rules, so understanding the fruit fly's mind is a way of understanding our own. But that doesn't mean it's a simple task:
In Rubin's mind, solving the fruit-fly brain is a 20-year problem. “After we solve this, I'd say we're one-fifth of the way to understanding the human mind.”
In "Tech Luminaries Address Singularity" the Spectrum asked scientists and technologists their opinion on whether the singularity and/or machine conscious will occur. The interviewees include Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University who studies computer modeling of mental processes, Jeff Hawkins of Numenta (and Palm Computing), John Casti - computer modeler of "complex human systems" like the stock market, writer and cofounder of the futurist Kenos Circle, TJ Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, software entrepreneur Eric Hahn, Microsoft's Gordon Bell, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Gorden Moore of Intel, Jim Fruchterman of Benetech Initiative, and "commentator and evangelist for emerging technologies" Esther Dyson. Interestingly, only Casti, Hahn, and Fruchterman think the singularity will occur within 70 years. Maybe they should talk to the biologists.

Other articles in the report:
The special web-only content is not online yet, but it looks interesting enough to check back later. It will include an interactive 3D model of a human showing where high tech body parts are already a reality. There will also be videos of Verner Vinge on "How to Prepare for the Singularity" and by Christof Koch on "Teaching Machines to Watch Blade Runner."

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Science of Battlestar Galactica

Wired contributing editor Patrick Di Justo has started a new blog on The Science of Battlestar Galactica. Most of the posts so far have been on space and physics, but he has asked an interesting question: Is the current population of the BG fleet - ~39,000 - genetically viable? He answers in the first paragraph:
It probably is – genetic populations of as little as 500 people are genetically viable, if the 500 are as genetically mixed as possible. The real question comes from the demographics of the remnants of the colonial fleet.
He goes on to discuss his assumptions on the demographics of the fleet, which I think might be off. Go check out his analysis for yourself.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

GenPets: Bioengineered Pets Perfect For You

Have you ever wished you could get a pet with just a personality to match your own? Bio•Genica Genetic Engineering and Manufacturing company has developed several different types of "GenPets", so you can easily find the personality you are looking for:
Through extensive psychological testing done in the last century, certain behaviours and moods can be linked to specific colors and shades.We have taken the bioengineering of our Genpets one-step further, by altering and embedding certain personality characteristics into each type. Each personality type of the Genpets has been linked to its respective color, and that color is then used as a base for each package. For example, a child wanting a tougher, more aggressive Genpet™ would choose a red color coded one, rather than a more calm, green coded one.
GenPets were developed using well-established genetic engineering technology.
We use a process called "Zygote Micro Injection" which is quickly becoming a favourable method to combine DNA, or to insert certain proteins from different species. Most notably it was used in 1997 to splice mice with bioluminescent jellyfish (link) and has since been used to create glowing rabbits, pigs, fish, and monkeys (link). Since then, human DNA has been injected into rabbits, chimpanzees, spider DNA into sheep, and now, Genpets have arrived!
And no matter which type you chose, it will be an excellent pet.
Genpets™ learn and adapt. They are fully living pets, but better, modified to be as reliable, dependable and efficient as any other 'technology' we use in our busy lives.
Each package even comes with it's own fresh strip, so you can be sure the GenPet you take off the shelf is not past its expiration date. Check out the reseller catalog (pdf) for all the details.

GenPets are unfortunately not yet available to the general public. However, you can purchase Bio•Genica and GenPet-related merchandise from Cafe Press.

(via The Filter)

Images: GenPets by Bio•Genica. The right side of the image at top shows a segment of rat chromosome 6. (Brown et al. Mammalian Genome 9(7):521-530 (1998))


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pohl on Science Fiction and the Changing Future

Every so often someone trots out the argument that science fiction is becoming less popular or boring or irrelevant or d-o-o-m-ed because we are now "living in the future". Take, for example, this article in the London Times, "Why don't we love science fiction?", which quotes Brian Aldiss:
“The truth is,” Aldiss has written, “that we are at last living in an SF scenario.” A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant.
I have to disagree. Science and technology are ever changing, and so new technologies and scientific (and social) changes don't make science fiction obsolete. It just means that the science fiction needs to evolve along with society. The present only looks science fictional from the perspective of the past*.

Of course not every science fiction author feels that way. Frederik Pohl wrote an article for the September/October 1989 issue of American Heritage Magazine that looked back at science fiction and his own experience in SciFi fandom from the pulp fiction era of the 1930s to the "present" (which was nearly 20 years ago). He saw the "science" part of science fiction changing with the times, with the biosciences and the microcomputer fresh fodder for storytelling.

But science fiction is a reflection of science, and science has opened up immense new horizons—some wonderful, some terrifying. Molecular biology, cloning, gene splicing, and all the other things the life scientists are learning to do have suggested any number of stories. Consequently, writers like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley, and many others are showing us possible future worlds in which human beings change their appearance, and even their gender, almost at will. The computer is with us—only in its babyhood stage so far, but getting more pervasive and more powerful every year. Because of it, there is a whole science-fiction literature, grotesquely named cyberpunk, about how people may behave when every human brain has a computer implant to help it learn, remember, and act.

It hasn’t been all gain for the science-fiction writer. As science goes on converting science-fiction ideas into hard facts, any number of stories can no longer be written—they’ve happened—but the scientists give with one hand what they have taken away with the other. New opportunities present themselves with every fresh-cloned genetic string and smaller, faster microchip and new discovery about the evolution of the universe. However many ranges on the landscape of the imagination we may cross, there is always another one on the horizon. The future of the future remains promising.

What will the world be like 20 or 100 or 500 years from now? None of us can know for sure, except to say that it will be very different from the present - and square in the realm of today's science fiction.

(American Heritage Magazine article via Beam Me Up)

* And there are many ways in which the present is not SF-like: no off-Earth colonies or routine space travel, no extraterrestrials (that we know of), no easy cure for cancer or the common cold, and (thankfully) no nuclear apocalypse.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Will Phoenix Find the Potential for Life on Mars?

Yesterday afternoon the Phoenix lander safely landed on the northern arctic plain of Mars. It's primary mission is to "probe the history of liquid water that may have existed in the arctic as recently as 100,000 years ago." It's (related) secondary objective is to perform a chemical analysis of the soil, looking for "life giving" elements like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, and the presence of compounds that might be toxic to biological growth.

And there is always the remote possibility that Martian microbial life will be discovered. We know that some Earthly bacteria can survive for millennia encased in ice. A few years ago, such bacteria - named Carnobacterium pleistocenium - were discovered in Alaskan Arctic permafrost estimated to be 32,000 years old by NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover and colleagues. So perhaps during that brief period when there was liquid water on Mars life developed and now lies dormant in the Martian soil.

Or maybe the lander will find something completely different from life as we know it.

Image - top: Camera on the Mars orbiter caught an image of the Phoenix lander with its parachute open during landing. (How cool is that?!). More Phoenix images.
Image - bottom: Living Carnobacterium pleistocenium bacterium recovered from ancient ice are stained green (via LiveScience). Gor the technical details, see Pikuta et al. (2005).


Cultured Meat

This post was crossposted to SCIFIRAMA.

The aristocrat of Dorm Ten was Herrera. After ten years with Chlorella he had worked his way up – topographically it was down – to Master Slicer. He worked in the great, cool vault underground, where Chicken Little grew and was cropped by him and other artisans. He swung a sort of two-handed sword that carved off great slabs of the tissue, leaving it to the lesser packers and trimmers and their faceless helpers to weigh it, shape it, freeze it, cook it, flavor it, package it, and ship it off to the area on quota for the day.
He had more than a production job. He was a safety valve. Chicken Little grew and grew, as she had been growing for decades. Since she had started as a lump of heart tissue, she didn't know any better than to grow up against a foreign body and surround it. She didn't know any better than to grow and fill her concrete vault and keep growing, compressing her cells and rupturing them. As long as she got nutrient, she grew. Herrera saw to it that she grew round and lump, that no tissue got old and tough before it was sliced, that one side was not neglected for the other.
~The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth, 1952
On January 17, 1912, Nobel prize-winning physician Dr. Alexis Carrel placed a part of a chicken's embryo heart in a nutrient medium in a glass flask of his own design. Every forty-eight hours the tissue doubled in size and was transferred to a new flask. The cells derived from the original heart tissue were cultured for 34 years, at which time they were intentionally destroyed. The long-lived culture caught the public imagination - the New York World-Telegram even marked the culture's "birthday" each January. It's not so surprising, then, that the ever-growing slab of muscle tissue in The Space Merchants was derived from a chicken heart.

It's been nearly a century since Carrel began culturing his chicken heart. So why aren't we all eating meat grown in tanks? It turns out it's not quite as simple as tossing some muscle cells in a Petri dish.

First off, when we eat a nice juicy steak, we aren't just eating muscle cells - muscles are made up of large bundles of the cells or muscle fibers. Cells growing in a Petri dish form a sheet of cells rather than a structured muscle, and, as PZ Myers put it, is likely to "have the texture of slime and would not sell well in test markets". There is at least a partial solution: grow the cells on a nutrient-soaked scaffold that allows the developing muscles to be stretched, causing them to naturally bulk up (so to speak). Even using that methodology New Harvest, an organization devoted to the development of meat substitutes, notes that texture is still a significant obstacle to creating a replacement for animal-grown meat. Of course if you want a replacement for ground beef rather than a ribeye, then texture is probably not as much of a problem.

Then there is the issue of nutrients. Typical cell growth medium contains calf serum (or fetal calf serum), which obvious isn't ideal to use if you are trying not to involve actual animals. The growth factors and other components found in serum can be replaced with synthetic chemicals and plant and mushroom-derived products, but that is both more complex and more expensive than serum-based media.

That's not to say that it's an impossible task. In NASA-funded research at Touro College, Dr. Morris Benjaminson and colleagues demonstrated that chunks of goldfish muscle could grow in culture. They even cooked up the resulting tissue (with garlic, yum!), and it looked edible, but apparently no one was willing to actually taste it. Back in 2003 the Tissue Culture and Art Project cultured muscle from prenatal sheep and a still-living frog as part of their "Disembodied Cuisine" project, and actually ate the results (image to the left, and video). Neither project produced anywhere enough meat to be practical for commercial sale - nor even a complete meal.

Despite the technical limitations, commercially-produced cultured meat may become a reality in the near future. A January 2007 Times Online article reported that growing a kilo of meat cost $10,000, however at last month's In Vitro Meat Symposium, a report estimated that the meat could be grown as cheaply as $5200 per ton.

But that doesn't address perhaps the greatest obstacle to the adoption of cultured meat - the squick factor. As Wired reported, even the scientists involved in developing the technology aren't necessarily keen on eating what they produce:

For all the talk of high-tech meat production, attendees of the first In-Vitro Meat Symposium didn't put their stomachs where their mouths were. Instead of sampling early versions of in vitro meat, they stuck to local fare.

"We had some excellent Norwegian salmon, which was very tasty," Bennett said.

I like to think that I'd be more open minded if offered a sample.

For more science fictional examples of meat grown in vitro, check out Technovelgy and Wikipedia lists.

Top Image: Cultured chicken embryo heart cells (
Middle Image: Prenatal sheep skeletal muscle cells cultured in a bioreactor on a biodegradable polymer scaffold to create "semi-living steak" as part of the "Disembodied Cuisine" art project.
Bottom Image: In the Eureka episode "E=MC...?" chicken parts grown from cultured cells were grown under conditions that caused them to produce a GABA blocker, so everyone who ate a piece becomes very dumb.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

SciFi Blunders Hall of Infamy

The sci-fi science blunders hall of infamy has a noble and unending mission: "documenting and commemorating bad science in TV & Movie SF". There is a heavy emphasis on space and physics, but it also covers a few biology and medical blunders like hereditary sterility, easy instant cloning, and interspecies breeding.


How is Superman like a beetle?

One of the most powerful aliens in fiction is Kal-El of Krypton AKA Superman. But what kind of anatomy and physiology would be required to be faster than a speeding bullet? Perhaps a protective hard chitinous shell? Find out more in this clip from a TV show about the science of Superman. (The section on super-physiology starts at 3:09.)


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Biology in Science Fiction Roundup: Spring Cleaning Edition

Spring is almost over, so I figured it was time to clean out some of the links I've been accumulating over the past couple of months:

Written SciFi

Damien G Walter blogs for The Guardian about mundane science fiction. And what is the apparent epitome of mundane? Biotechnology. (Caption from the associated image: "It may not look thrilling .. a scientist indicates an image of one of the first cloned human embryos at the Newcastle Institute of Human Genetics in 2005. ")

Mark Alpert writes in Scientific American about the need for more fiction that accurately portrays scientists (AKA Lab Lit). Allera Goodman's novel Intuition, which features the intrigues in a lab studying a genetically modified virus that might shrink tumors, is given a special mention.

Nancy Kress talked to SciFi Wire about her Nebula Award-winning novella "Fountain of Age:
Although the story is SF, there's minimal science in the story. "Cancerous tumors are cells that don't die (unless you poison them)," Kress said. "That became the basis for my anti-aging treatment in the story."
The Tor Books MySpace TV channel has an interview with Daniel Kalla his novel Resistance.

PZ Myers writes about Jay Hosler's comic book Optical Allusions:
Wrinkles the Wonder Brain is an animated, naked brain working for the Graeae Sisters, and he loses the one eye they share between them — so he has to go on a quest to recover it. I know, it sounds like a stretch, but it works in a weird sort of way, and once you start rolling with it, you'll find it works. Using that scenario to frame a series of encounters, Wrinkles meets Charles Darwin and learns how evolution could produce something as complex as an eye; talks about the sub-optimal design of retinal circuitry with a cow superhero; discovers sexual dimorphism with a crew of stalk-eyed pirates; learns about development of the eye from cavefish and a cyclops; chats with Mr Sun about the physics of radiation; there are even zombie G proteins and were-opsins in a lesson about shape changing. This stuff is seriously weird, and kids ought to eat it up.


The Andromeda Strain miniseries is set to air this Monday and Tuesday nights on A&E. SciFiCool and Ain't It Cool News have reviews, and it isn't looking too good. I'll probably record and watch later, so I can fast forward through the dumb and/or boring parts (and commercials 'natch).

Eva at Easternblot writes about her "Facts Behind the Fiction" articles for the Canadian series ReGenesis.


At LabLit Jennifer Rohn looks at the portrayal of the scientists (and science) in I Am Legend.

io9 writes about Jurassic Park IV, which apparently has been "heavily reworked" from the leaked plot which involved gun-toting government-agent dinos. If you are interested in the science that likes behind the Jurassic Park movies, check out the "Science of Jurassic Park" FAQ created by the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Miscellaneous Bioscience

PLoS One published a paper last week that demonstrated the insertion of a gene from the extinct Tasmanian tiger into mice - the first time "DNA [...] from an extinct animal has functioned inside a living host." The PLoS blog rounds up the media coverage, which leaned heavily on Jurassic Park references.

If you've ever wondered why aliens haven't contacted us, check out Charlie Stross's post on the Ferm Paradox revisited. Robin Hanson has a slightly different take.

At io9 Annalee Newitz has a quick overview of science fiction diseases, sexually-transmitted and otherwise.

At Cocktail Party Physics Jennifer Ouellette references Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book in her post on the bubonic plague.

ScienceNews reports on scientific research within Second Life. Students could listen to microbiologist Joan Slonczewski "discuss science and science fiction" on the American Chemical Society's island, while at Second Nature 3 Drexel neurobiologist Corey Hart has created an evolving virtual ecosystem. Sounds pretty cool. I just worry that if I download the software I'll never get up from my computer! (via BoingBoing)

Ben Bova's March 8 column for the Naples [Florida] Daily News: "Evolution just a theory? That's just fine."

Scientific American looks at current research on human body part regeneration.

At Tetrapod zoology Darren Naish writes about dinosauroids and the intelligence of dinosaurs.

The Rockefeller University has posted videos of the lectures at it's recent symposium "From RNA to Humans: A Symposium on Evolution". There are a number of interesting talks from the big names in evolutionary biology, including Jack Szostak on "The Origins of Cellular Life", Luca Cavalli-Sforza on "Evolution of Human Populations", and Svante Pääbo on "A Neanderthal Perspective on Human Origins." (via Afarensis).

The Chinese are growing giant pumpkins, cucumbers, eggplants, chili peppers, watermelons and tomatoes from seeds that orbited the earth on the Shijian 8 satellite. (via Posthuman Blues)
How sending seeds into space produces such enormous fruit is yet not fully understood, but it is thought cosmic radiation, micro-gravity and magnetic fields may play a part.
The March issue of National Geographic has an interesting article on "Animal Minds".
The April issue of National Geographic has an interesting article on "Biomimetics".
Both have lovely animal photography.

CNET reports that IBM is experimenting on creating chips built on a DNA scaffold (via The World in a Satin Bag).
"These are DNA nanostructures that are self-assembled into discrete shapes. Our goal is to use these structures as bread boards on which to assemble carbon nanotubes, silicon nanowires, quantum dots," said Greg Wallraff, an IBM scientist and a lithography and materials expert working on the project. "What we are really making are tiny DNA circuit boards that will be used to assemble other components."
Seed Magazine took a look at the Blue Brain project, which is attempting to create a supercomputer that models real brain behavior.
It took less than two years for the Blue Brain supercomputer to accurately simulate a neocortical column, which is a tiny slice of brain containing approximately 10,000 neurons, with about 30 million synaptic connections between them. "The column has been built and it runs," Markram says. "Now we just have to scale it up."
Vaughan at Mind Hacks writes about Ray Kurzweil and conscious AIs.

Big Think has video of Methuselah Foundation founder, chairman and chief science officer Aubrey de Grey talking about his scientific ideas and answering questions. Futures in Biotech has an episode on "Aubrey de Grey on the Thousand Year Lifespan."

PhysOrg reported on Jim Mielke's wireless "Digital Tattoo Interface" that is literally fueled by blood.

Protein scientist David Baker has teamed up with game designer Zoran Popovic to create a protein-folding game called FoldIt. Humans are "better at seeing the big picture than computers are", so the game uses human brain power to improve computer-designed proteins. Play FoldIt yourself.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Black Oxen and the regain of youth

If you like stories featuring Jazz-age high society, you might want to download Gertrude Atherton's 1923 number one best seller Black Oxen. What's the biological and/or science fiction connection? It's the story of the beautiful Countess Zattiany, who causes a stir when she appears in New York because of her mysterious background and strong resemblance to the elderly Mary Ogden, who also is a Countess Zattiany. Have you guessed the twist? The young Countess is Mary herself, having undergone a rejuvenation treatment in Vienna. It's oh so scientific:

"It may relieve your minds to hear that I was at first as indifferent as all of you no doubt would have been. The war—and many other things—had made me profoundly tired of life—something of course that I do not expect you to understand. And now that the war was over and my usefulness at an end, I had nothing to look forward to but the alleviation of poverty by means of my wealth when it was restored, and this could be done by trustees. Life had seemed to me to consist mainly of repetitions. I had run the gamut. But I began to be interested, at first by the fact that science might be able to accomplish a miracle where centuries of woman's wit had failed——"

"Wit?" snorted Mrs. Vane. "Ignoble vanity."

"Well, call it that if you like, but the desire to be young again or to achieve its simulacrum, in both men and women, has something of the dignity which the centuries give to all antiques. However, at the time, you will also be glad to know, I was far more interested in the prospect of reënergizing my worn out mind and body. I was so mortally tired! And if I had to live on, and no doubt with still much work to do in distracted Europe——"

"But what did they do to you?" cried Mrs. Tracy. "I'd have done it in your place—yes, I would!" she said defiantly as she met the august disgusted eye of Mrs. Vane. "I think Countess Zattiany was quite right. What is science for, anyhow?"

"Go on! Go on!" murmured Mrs. Goodrich. She was too fat and comfortable to have any desire to return to youth with its tiresome activities, but all her old romantic affection for Mary Ogden had revived and she was even more interested than curious.

"I am trying to! Well, I must tell you that the explanation of my condition, as of others of my age, was that the endocrines——"

"The what?" The demand was simultaneous.

"The ductless glands."

"Oh," said Mrs. Prevost vaguely, "I've seen something——"

"It is all Greek to me," said Mrs. Vane, who felt that unreasoning resentment common to the minor-informed for the major-informed. "You promised to avoid technical terms."

Madame Zattiany explained in the simplest language she could command the meaning and the function of the ductless glands. The more intelligent among them looked gratified, for the painless achievement of fresh knowledge is a pleasant thing. Madame Zattiany went on patiently: "These glands in my case had undergone a natural process of exhaustion. In women the slower functioning of the endocrines is coincident with the climacteric, as they have been dependent for stimulation upon certain ovarian cells. The idea involved is that the stimulation of these exhausted cells would cause the other glands to function once more at full strength and a certain rejuvenation ensue as a matter of course; unless, of course, they had withered beyond the power of science. I was a promising subject, for examination proved that my organs were healthy, my arteries soft; and I was not yet sixty. Only experimentation could reveal whether or not there was still any life left in the cells, although I responded favorably to the preliminary tests. The upshot was that I consented to the treatment——"

"Yes? Yes?" Every woman in the room now sat forward, no longer old friends or rivals, affectionate or resentful, nor the victims of convention solidified into sharp black and white by the years. They were composite female.

"It consisted of the concentration of powerful Röntgen—what you call X-Rays—on that portion of the body covering the ovaries——"

"How horrible!" "Did you feel as if you were being electrocuted?" "Are you terribly scarred?"

"Not at all. I felt nothing whatever, and there was nothing to cause scars——"

"But I thought that the X-Rays——"

"Oh, do be quiet, Louisa," exclaimed Mrs. Tracy impatiently. "Please go on, Countess Zattiany."

"As I said, the application was painless, and if no benefit results, neither will any harm be done when the Rays are administered by a conscientious expert. My final consent, as I told you, was due to the desire to regain my old will power and vitality. I was extremely skeptical about any effect on my personal appearance. During the first month I felt so heavy and dull that, in spite of assurances that these were favorable symptoms, I was secretly convinced that I had forfeited what little mental health I had retained; but was consoled by the fact that I slept all night and a part of the day: I had suffered from insomnia since my duties at the hospital had ended——"

Yes, they X-rayed her ovaries to make her young. If only it were so simple! A contemporary reviewer in Time Magazine was not completely convinced :
The scientific probability of Mary Zattiany's rejuvenation has caused considerable discussion. Such cures have been affirmed. Whether they are sufficiently established to warrant Mrs. Atherton's use of the idea is another matter.
I guess that's the difference between science fiction and other literature - science fiction can use science that's not in the least "established" to create an entertaining story.

• Download Black Oxen from
• Download Black Oxen from Project Gutenburg

(via Futurismic)

Image: still from the 1923 movie version of Black Oxen, from the Project Gutenberg HTML version of the text

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Alien DNA Detector

Tokyoflash Japan is selling a "Biohazard" watch that is perfect for SF-lovers and the paranoid:
With the threat of Alien Invasion growing ever closer & the distinct possibility that "they" are already here, it's about time we had a device to detect the humans from the human-oids. The Biohazard wrist scanner probes the immediate vicinity for Alien DNA & displays the results so that you may assess the threat level.
Of course it doesn't really detect anything, but I think it's pretty cool looking, in a geek-chic kind of way.

(via Eye on DNA)
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Mysterious Plague Hits Sydney?

What would you do if crowds of people around you started collapsing? Would you try to help? Would you call for emergency assistance? Would you pack up all your family and flee to the Pennsylvania farm country?

An ImprovEverywhere-style group enacted a scene from M. Night Shyamalan's upcoming movie The Happening among the crowds of the Pitt Street Mall in Sydney, Australia. Most of the passers-bye seem puzzled and concerned, but it didn't look like anyone was trying resuscitation. Check out the video:

Of course, being an M. Night Shyamalan movie, exactly what is killing people has purposely been left mysterious - and apparently won't be revealed until the end of the movie (no surprise there). Is it a virus? Killer mosquitoes? Pollution? All that we know is that it's a story of nature against man:
The idea for THE HAPPENING came to Shyamalan as he drove across the New Jersey countryside, watching a lush, green world whir by through the windshield. "I was on my way to New York," he recalls, "it was a beautiful day and the trees were hanging over the highway, and I suddenly thought to myself, "what if nature one day turned on us?"
The Happening is supposed to be the modern version of paranoid Cold War-era films like The Birds (1963), Godzilla (1954) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which "left audiences with the sense of a brave new world in which the earth might go on but the human species might not make it."

We'll have to wait until its release on Friday, June 13 to find out.

(video via Bloody Disgusting)


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

H.P. Lovecraft and the science of resuscitation

The first horrible incident of our acquaintance was the greatest shock I ever experienced, and it is only with reluctance that I repeat it. As I have said, it happened when we were in the medical school where West had already made himself notorious through his wild theories on the nature of death and the possibility of overcoming it artificially. His views, which were widely ridiculed by the faculty and by his fellow-students, hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes. In his experiments with various animating solutions, he had killed and treated immense numbers of rabbits, guinea-pigs, cats, dogs, and monkeys, till he had become the prime nuisance of the college. Several times he had actually obtained signs of life in animals supposedly dead; in many cases violent signs but he soon saw that the perfection of his process, if indeed possible, would necessarily involve a lifetime of research. It likewise became clear that, since the same solution never worked alike on different organic species, he would require human subjects for further and more specialised progress. It was here that he first came into conflict with the college authorities, and was debarred from future experiments by no less a dignitary than the dean of the medical school himself – the learned and benevolent Dr. Allan Halsey, whose work in behalf of the stricken is recalled by every old resident of Arkham.
~ "From the Dark"
(collected in Herbert West: Re-Animator), H.P. Lovecraft
Aschwin de Wolf at Depressed Metabolism has an interesting post about the science of resuscitation in H.P. Lovecraft's 1922 stories about Herbert West: Re-Animator* West is depicted as a serious (and flawed) man of science who invents a reagent that can bring the dead back to life.
West does not only anticipate the future science of resuscitation, but also the phenomenon of selective vulnerability of certain brain cells because we know that West fully realized “that the psychic or intellectual life might be impaired by the slight deterioration of sensitive brain-cells which even a short period of death would be apt to cause.”
As Aschwin points out, though, actual resuscitation is unlikely as described because injection of the serum wasn't followed by some form of artificial circulation. I'm sure there's a good explanation . . .

Read "Herbert West: Re-Animator".

* Herbert West: Re-Animator was originally serialized in Home Brew Vol. 1, No. 1–6, an amateur magazine published by his friend George Julian Houtain." Lovecraft supposedly wrote the stories for the money, and heavily parodied Shelley's Frankenstein. And, yes, the 1980s Re-Animator movie was based on Lovecraft's stories.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Aeon Flux is Biological Science Fiction

Nina Munteanu has a nice review of the live-action movie version of Aeon Flux: aptly called the motion picture “biological science fiction”. Says Oren, Trevor’s treacherous brother who betrays him: “We’ve beaten death. We’ve beaten nature.” The film’s clean organic high-tech look faithfully captures the “sense of biotech gone wild” of the TV series by exploring several paradigms inherent in a society that lives deliberately in the absense of nature’s chaos. Indeed, the lack of connectivity resonates throughout the motion picture in its exploration of friendship, family, loyalty, and purpose.
Both her description of the movie and the animated series that inspired it make them sound worth watching - something I didn't get from the trailer when the movie was released. Go read the whole review.

If you like Aeon Flux, you might be interested in the interactive comic. There is no way for me to link to it directly (curse you flash-only web sites), but you can go to the official Aeon Flux site, click on "Features" in the left menu, then select "Interactive Comic Book."


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Amy Sterling Casil: Perfect Strangers

Denny was born with HLHS. That's an acronym for hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome is universally fatal, if left untreated. Even now, there are babies that do not survive, even with full-lenght clone DNA therapy administered in-utero.
When at five months of pregnancy, Carolyn went for a high-level ultrasound that determined Denny had HLHS, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to try gene therapy. The doctors explained how the heart healed itself as the baby grew.
~ "Perfect Strangers", Amy Sterling Casil
Amy Sterling Casil's "Perfect Strangers" is a touching story of a father and his genetically engineered son. Her preface notes that the story was inspired by her own experience, which makes it all the more moving for me:
My son Anthony died in 2005. He was born with Down Syndrome. I began thinking about what this story became when the genetic counselor discussed chromosomal abnormalities with me, saying that a cure for them was a long way off, but other genetic illnesses would soon be cured. Every therapy mentioned in the story is currently being developed. The story is fiction; the feelings are real.
While the technology is certainly being discussed and developed, I don't think we are anywhere near to routine human genetic engineering. It's not just that there are technical difficulties (and there are), but serious ethical concerns. Take, for example, this week's report of the first genetically modified human embryo. The scientists didn't attempt to make any changes to human genes; instead they inserted DNA that encodes a fluorescent protein allowing the modified cells could be tracked. The embryo that was used was abnormal and nonviable, and was never intended to implanted or even develop beyond five days. Even so, there research provoked intense debate and discussion. I do believe that genetic engineering technology will eventually improve to the point that it can be used safely in humans, but the ethical concerns that arise from the technology will be harder to overcome.

"Perfect Strangers" was originally published in the September 2006 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read it free online (pdf).


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cancer Killing Virus Are Real - But Unlikely to Destroy the Human Race

In the recent movie version of I Am Legend the plague that kills off most of the human race starts off as a genetically modified measles virus that was designed as a cure for cancer. Mutation causes the virus to become lethal, rapidly killing off 90% of the human population. According to Science Daily, the engineered virus the movie depicts (in its cancer-curing, not human-killing, form) came as a big surprise to one virologist:
Early on in the movie, survivor Robert Neville (Will Smith) replays a three-year-old TV interview which foreshadows the impending disaster.

“So, Dr. Krippin, give it to me in a nutshell,” says the TV interviewer.

“Well, the premise is quite simple,” responds the scientist. “Um, take something designed by nature and reprogram it to make it work for the body rather than against it.”

In his airplane seat, Dr. [Patrick] Lee’s jaw is dropping. Not a movie-goer, he didn’t catch the movie in theatres when it came out last Christmas, although a colleague at McGill thought he should.

“That’s my research. I can’t believe it, that’s my research,” he says. “I was the first one to use a virus to target cancer cells.”

Lee's current research at Dalhousie University uses human reovirus, rather than measles, to target cells with an activated form of the proto-oncogene Ras or the Ras signaling pathway. For more information about how the reovirus works, check out this video from Oncolytics Biotech and US Patent 6110461. Clinical trials are currently underway.

Despite the similarity to his research, Lee is certain that his virus won't run amok and destroy the human race.

“I thought the movie was very entertaining but the scenario it presents is highly unlikely, almost impossible,” he says.

With a pause, he adds: “Scientists don’t like to deal in absolutes, but in this case, I would say absolutely impossible."
Hopefully he's right about that . . .

Image: Electron micrograph of Rotavirus, a type of Reovirus.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Science in the Movies: Science Fiction that Gets it Right?

Michael Marshall at New Scientist has picked out five science fiction movies that "contain some accurate, plausible science. They may not be completely realistic, but they get it right when it matters most." Three of their five choices are based on the biological sciences:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) makes the list for its depiction of how memory is stored.
Sensibly, the film depicts memory as essentially a network of links. In its frenetic second half, Joel is asleep while the technicians "operate" on his mind. We follow as he careens from recent memories of his relationship to those of his earliest childhood.

(1979) gets a thumb up for its depiction of the alien's life cycle, despite it's fantastic growth rate.
Every element of the life cycle can be found in nature, variously in parasites, robber wasps and social insects. Much of the film's suspense comes from the filmmakers' decision to let events unfold without too much explanation – the viewer has to piece the life cycle together for themselves.

Perennial favorite Gattaca (1997) is included for its "grimly plausible vision of a society dominated by genetic prejudice."

The other two on the list are 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for its depiction of space travel and Solaris (1972, 2002) for its "portrayal of the limits of science and of human understanding."

The great thing about all these movies is not just that (at least some) of the science they depict is plausible, but that they are entertaining. There is no reason why the science has to be awful to make a good movie.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Artifical Womb vs. Human Uterus

Mr. Foster duly told them.

Told them of the growing embryo on its bed of peritoneum. Made them taste the rich blood surrogate on which it fed. Explained why it had to be stimulated with placentin and thyroxin. told them of the corpus luteum extract. Showed them the jets through which at every twelfth metre from zero to 2040 it was automatically injected. Spoke of those gradually increasing doses of pituitary administered during the final ninety-six metres of their course. Described the artificial maternal circulation installed in every bottle at Metre 112; showed them the reservoir of blood-surrogate, the centrifugal pump that kept the liquid moving over the placenta and drove it through the synthetic lung and waste product filter. Referred to the embryo's troublesome tendency to anaemia, to the massive doses of hog's stomach extract and foetal foal's liver with which, in consequence, it had to be supplied. Showed them the simple mechanism by means of which, during the last two metres out of every eight, all the embryos were simultaneously shaken into familiarity with movement. Hinted at the gravity of the so-called "trauma of decanting" and enumerated the precautions taken to minimize, by a suitable training of the bottled embryo, that dangerous shock.
[. . . ]
Which brings us at last," continued Mr. Foster," out of the realm of mere slavish imitation of nature into the much more interesting world of human invention." He rubbed his hands. For of course, they didn't content themselves with merely hatching out embryos: any cow could do that.

~ Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
io9's resident Biogeek, Terry Johnson, looks at the human uterus and the possibility of artificial wombs in fact and fiction. His conclusion isn't too inspiring if you were hoping to have a bottle baby any time soon:
As surprising and weird as this all is, we're still many decades away from a safe, human uterine replicator that can bring an embryo from conception to zeroeth birthday party. Even once we've sorted out the technical aspects of the womb itself, we'll have to deal with what the rest of the mother's body contributes to development. Hormones have already been mentioned, but baby also borrows mommy's disease-fighting machinery. Our replicator will require nearly complete endocrine and immune systems, too.
The human uterus may not be perfect, but it works. Even if a safe artificial uterus is eventually developed, I'd expect it to be much more expensive than natural gestation, meaning that it would be an option limited to the wealthy and well-connected.

I don't think it's that far fetched to think that instead of artificial wombs, natural mammalian reproductive systems might be repurposed for carrying human embryos. There have been a number of cross-species surrogates that carried embryos from endangered species. Of course there are kinks to be worked out, since it doesn't always work, but at least the environment is basically friendly to embryonic growth. And why stop there?
It annoyed Io's best friend to give birth to a four-kilo cylinder of tightly wound, medium-grade, placental solvent filters.

For five long months Perseph had kept to a diet free of sugar, sniff or tobac – well, almost free. the final ten weeks she'd spend waddling around in the Bedouin drapery fashion decreed for pieceworkers this year. And all that for maybe two thousand dollars' worth of industrial sieves little better than a fabricow might produce.

~ "Piecework", David Brin
Already "pharming" techniques have been used to engineer goats that produce insulin or other drugs in their milk. The next step could be to use wombs for industrial fabrication of organic materials, not unlike the "fabricows" and poor women in David Brin's creepy short story "Piecework". Even in Brin's future world, the most delicate and important product - human babies - are still only human produced.

For more detailed background on research on artificial wombs, see this related 2005 article in Popular Science.

Image: "Suspended Fetus 3" by moyix on flickr
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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Stories Hollywood Should Film

This week's Mind Meld at SF Signal asked what SF stories Hollywood should make into movies. There are answers from authors Lou Anders,John C. Wright, Michael Wentz, Michael Blackmore, Angela @ SciFi Chick, and me. Check it out.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Aliens at the Montreal Science Centre

The Montréal Science Centre currently has a cool-sounding exhibition on the science of aliens. According to an article in The Star, the exhibition focuses on what the plant and animal life might be like on two possible planet types:

Using the expertise of a number of renowned scientists, the exhibition presents ideas on what aliens might look like, taking into consideration biology, astronomy, and the laws of physics and chemistry.

"It's fiction, yes, but it's science-based science fiction," says Louise Julie Bertrand, the head of exhibitions at the Centre. Such an exercise, she adds, will appeal to both kids and adults. "People are often attracted to the bizarre and intriguing and weird."

The stars of the exhibition are these alien forms envisioned by the scientists to fit the specific characteristics of two "planets," such as carbon content, the temperature, the type of atmosphere.

"It was a real attempt to come up with creatures, that, although fanciful, are plausible," says Michael Meyer, an astrobiologist and the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

There are two fictional planets in the exhibition. "Blue Moon" has a very dense atmosphere, which allows a great variety of flying critters. "Aurelia" closely orbits a star much cooler than our own sun:
The top predator on Aurelia is the bipedal gulphog, which has a long neck and a claw-like beak, and stands 4.5 metres tall. It might feed on six-legged mudpods that scurry on the ground, hide in burrows, and swim like crocodiles. There are also stinger fans, which look like plants but are actually animals that use tentacles to capture a weak star's energy.

Assumptions were made when the planetary flora and fauna were being designed: there is oxygen in the atmosphere, and alien evolution proceeds similarly to evolution here on Earth. The idea was to make the life forms plausible based on what we know about biology.

In addition to the fictional planets, a section of the exhibition looks at aliens in science fiction movies and books.

If you are thinking of going, you might want to wait until Sunday, May 25th, which is Montréal Museum Day and all the exhibits are free. If I were in Quebec, I'd definitely go check it out. The exhibit runs through September 1.

(This is a exhibit created by "the science of . . ." that has already exhibited in London and Miami. It is also currently showing at the The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo, Japan through June 16. )

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Bad Biology in Cloverfield

Mad Biologist Carlo Artieri has an interesting post about the bad biology in recent monster movie Cloverfield. The biggest problem: "the monster violates the rules of rules of allometric scaling." Go read his post to find out what that means.

If that's not enough for you, Michael LaBarbera's Biology of B-Movie Monsters has a more detailed analysis of the biological problems with very big (and very small) creatures.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ann Halam's Young Adult SF

John Scalzi has an interesting post about the science fiction to be found in the young adult section. It never occurred to me to go looking outside the adult areas of my local library and the nearest B&N, mostly because there are so many books on my "to read" list already. But now at least I know to be on the lookout for novels that aren't shelved in the regular SFF section. By coincidence I recently ran across a young adult novel that sounds quite interesting: Dr. Franklin's Island by Ann Halam (the YA pen name of SF novelist Gwyneth Jones).
We were flying to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We were going to stay in a hotel there, before traveling overland to the rain forest base. It'll be all right once we've settle in, I told myself (hoping it was true). We'll be working, helping the scientists, learning about the wildlife. It's easy to talk to people when you're doing something together. Back at home, my brother and my parents were getting ready to go to Jamaica for their summer holiday. My brother thought I was mad to prefer going on a science trip, and I was beginning to agree with him. But I wasn't going to get downhearted. Even if I didn't make any friends, even if I never had a single conversation beyond "could you pass the graph paper" or whatever, this had to be th trip of a lifetime. Meeting real scientists, seeing the Galápagos . . .
~ Dr. Franklin's Island, by Ann Halam
Three children survive a plane crash on an isolated island, and find that they are not alone. There is a military research facility manned by a Dr. Franklin, who uses genetic engineering to create human-animal hybrids. If the plot sounds familiar, that's probably because the novel is loosely based on H.G. Well's Island of Doctor Moreau. As Halam explained in an interview with her publisher:
Dr. Franklin’s Island is sort of an argument with The Island of Dr. Moreau. When I started thinking about my transformation story, The Island of Dr. Moreau immediately came to mind and set the scene on the “desert island”–the isolated place where the mad scientist could do his will, undisturbed by public opinion. When I reread the story, I found I didn’t like the ideas in it at all. This is different from not liking the story. I think it’s a great story, but I didn’t like H. G. Wells’s ideas about animal nature versus human nature. Part of what happens in Dr. Franklin (though this isn’t Dr. Franklin’s intention!) is the wonder and joy of being reunited with the animal kingdom, rediscovering the delight of being an animal, at home in the living world–but still this special kind of self-aware, conscious animal that is a human being. H. G. Wells comes to a very different conclusion about his “beast men.” I won’t try to explain it; read the story and make your own judgment. In short, I like H. G. Wells’s terrific stories, but I’m not much of an admirer of his opinions.
The (long) Wikipedia summary of the plot makes it sound both horrific and thought-provoking, and Lisa DuMond at SF Site gave it a very positive review.

Some of Halam's other novels also have biological themes. In Siberia, a young girl and her mother are living in a prison camp, where the mother secretly creates and harvests animal life using a "Lindquist kit". From Bookslut's review:
At some point in Siberia’s future, the world has lost touch with nature and become a cold wasteland separated by domed cities. The people in the cities are distanced from those who live in the wilderness, and all of them are distanced from nature. Animals are now raised in fur farms (dogs, cats, everything) and wild animals are rare. Sloe’s parents were city scientists who opposed the government’s decisions concerning the destruction of wild animal DNA. After her father was arrested and killed by the government she and her mother are to a camp; a camp that sounds a lot like a Soviet era gulag. It is there that she learns about her mother’s “magic” and the compressed DNA she smuggled out of the city and now safeguards until they can one day escape to the safety of the almost mythical city on the other side of the forest. This compressed DNA, referred to as Lindquists in the book and named by Halam in honor of real life MIT biologist Susan Lindquist, is able to express itself in many forms. In essence, Sloe and her mother have the future of every wild animal in the small kits they hide beneath the floor of their Siberian hut. What will become of these kits after Sloe is sent away to school and her mother is arrested by the government authorities for teaching her daughter science is the crux of the story. Can Sloe save them and successfully travel to the safety of the northern city, and more importantly, can she learn enough about how to control the DNA so that they can save her from those who wish her harm (and want the DNA).
And Halam's novel Taylor Five is the story of one of the first human clones. From the description:
Taylor Walker seems like any ordinary 14-year-old. Ordinary—if you overlook the fact that she lives on the island of Borneo, on a primate reserve run by her parents, and knows how to survive in the jungle. Obviously, Tay isn’t just like everyone else. But she is like one other person. She’s exactly like one other person. Tay is a clone, one of only five in the world, and her clone mother is Pam Taylor, a brilliant scientist. When rebels attack the reserve, Tay escapes with her younger brother and Uncle, an exceptionally intelligent orangutan. As they flee through the jungle, Tay must look within to find her strength: Pam’s DNA, tempered by Taylor’s extraordinary life. And she looks to Uncle for guidance—for Tay knows that the uncanny bond between Uncle and herself is the key to their survival.
All three novels sound interesting, and I love that the protagonists are all smart resourceful girls. I've added Ann Halam to my reading wish list.

Previously: Free fiction by Gwyneth Jones

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