Sunday 29 May 2022

The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens - and Ourselves, by Dr Arik Kershenbaum


I don't usually review non-fiction books, but this one is a very relevant exception. The author is a zoologist used to applying Darwin's theory of evolution to the development of life on Earth, and he applies the same analysis to explore how and why life might develop on other planets.  The Contents list gives a good idea of the author's approach:

Form vs Function: What is Common Across Worlds?

What are Animals and What are Aliens?

Movement: Scuttling and Gliding Across Space

Communication Channels

Intelligence (Whatever That Is) 

Sociality: Cooperation, Competition and Teatime

Information: A Very Ancient Commodity

Language: The Unique Skill

Artificial Intelligence: A Universe Full of Bots?

Humanity, As We Know It

Each of the characteristics of life are explored in detail, and the author's summary of how life logically has to have developed is worth quoting in full:

Early life was simple, gaining energy from non-living sources, perhaps mostly from the star around which the planet orbits, but also directly from the heat of of the planet and maybe from other sources, like radiation. 

The first innovation was that some life forms (I'll call them 'predators') began to get their energy from others ('prey'), exploiting the work of others in harnessing energy from nature. Freeloading is always an option, and game theory would seem to indicate that the evolution of this kind of 'cheating' is inevitable.

Both predators and prey are competing to achieve their goals of eating, and avoiding being eaten. Movement would then evolve.

Once organisms can move, social behaviour follows. Prey animals can reduce their chances of being eaten by aggregating, and this opens the possibility of more active defence strategies: sentinel behaviour, building structures etc. 

If any two organisms are to associate together, communication is necessary, at the very least so that they can find each other.

At this point (if not before) the complex interactions between organisms, both those that are helping each other and those that are competing (either with similar organisms or with predators/prey), lead to the evolution of intelligence: the ability to predict the world and to make decisions that are beneficial to you.

The combination of communication, social behaviour and intelligence leads to the evolution of communication system that can contain large amounts of information, leading to an ecosystem that would be very familiar to us. Alien creatures will be singing like birds, roaring like lions and whistling like dolphins, even if their precise forms, and even the chemical makeup of their bodies, will be entirely unexpected.

How long such an ecosystem continues like this, we don't know. Perhaps the next step is incredibly unlikely. We know that it occurred at least once in the universe, but it took at least 3 billion years from the first step in our story. Whatever the reasons and whatever the mechanism, at some point, complex communication evolves into language.

Finally, possibly inevitably, a social and intelligent organism, with the skill of language, develops complex technology. It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible. Soon, they will be building spaceships and exploring the universe - if they manage to avoid destroying themselves first.

Of course this summary doesn't do justice to the author's case; the book contains a mass of evidence to support his argument that Darwinian evolution seems inevitable, regardless of the setting, and that this is likely to result in intelligent life. Well worth reading.

Wednesday 4 May 2022

A Tapestry of Magics, by Brian Daley


Having recently enjoyed and reviewed Brian Daley's Coramonde books, I decided to re-read the only other book by this author on my shelves, A Tapestry of Magics. Daley creates an intriguing world (or more accurately, universe) centred on the Singularity, also known as the Charmed Realm. To quote: 

A fixed sphere amid the fluxes and flows of of the infinite Realities, the Singularity was buffered from them by the indefinite zone of mutability and access, the Beyonds. In the Beyonds, people and other things passed into and out of the Realities. If the opening were of the right sort, whole regions along with their populations might come into existence in the Beyonds, or leave them. Sometimes those who travelled between Realities found their way home again; sometimes they perished, or became lost and strayed into a Reality not their own.  Sometimes they arrived at the Singularity or simply found themselves a place, for a long stay or a short one, in the Beyonds. 

The Realities, better known to SF readers as the Multiverse, were apparently infinite in their possibilities (one of them being our very own Universe), although the story doesn't go there, all of the action being set in the Beyonds and the Singularity. The Beyonds were ungoverned and lawless lands in which almost anything might happen, and anyone turn up - including figures from our history and even those from fiction (Count Dracula making a cameo appearance at one point). 

The Singularity was, in effect, a small country in the usual medieval style expected of epic fantasy, with a feudal social structure and an apparently immortal King (no-one dared ask him about that, but since he was a highly competent ruler no-one was bothered). Magic sometimes worked, but what succeeded in one Reality might not work in the Singularity or the Beyonds.  Technology also sort of worked, but not reliably, so warriors generally preferred simple weapons. The story follows the activities of Crassmor, a young scion of a noble Singularity family and a reluctant knight who prefers the softer and prettier things in life, if only people would leave him alone. 

At the beginning of this three-part novel, the Beyonds are the stage for an epic contest between an invading barbarian horde, whose cavalry are mounted on giant lizards, and a seriously misplaced army from a technological Reality which sounds suspiciously like Nazi Germany.  These opponents pose a real threat to the Singularity, whose strategy is to get them fighting each other, which works well until the technologists run out of fuel and ammunition. 

Next we see Crassmor as a knight errant, patrolling the Beyonds and responding to appeals for help from various beleaguered citizens. In the final part, the Singularity faces an existential threat from within.

I wouldn't describe this book as a comedy, although it contains a lot of humour and is very much at the light entertainment end of the seriousness scale. Like the Coramonde stories, it is a lot of fun and well worth reading.