future is not perfect
What kind of world would humanity build if given another right chance?
Tor Books, 2023 ($28.99)
Great stories often start with a tantalizing “what if?” — and the more irresistibly original the premise, the better.exist Reformera new novel from i09 founder and former Gizmodo editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz, centers on the existential crisis of our planet: Given the painful lessons we’ve learned no In order to build a sustainable and equitable future, what if people had the opportunity to create a cleaner and fairer Earth 2.0? Can we make it?
Without a doubt, the answer is a resounding “well, maybe”. Newitz’s powerful imagination cannot change the fact that people are people. Yet the novel deftly argues that people—especially when the term is expanded to include sentient forms far beyond humans—may just be the best resource on a planet. Even if it takes millennia of ingenuity to counteract the corruption of greedy corporations, unscrupulous developers, ineffective governments, and standards issues.
The first scene of the novel sends out the classic tropes of science fiction, “first contact”, where representatives of two civilizations meet on an alien world.That aside, the alien world is an early planet called Sask-E, modeled after the original Earth by a terraforming company called Verdance, whose first encounter took place on two very different planets. between versions Homo sapiensOne is a resource-grabbing, trash-talking, trash-generating, teleoperating agent, and the other is Environmental Rescue Squad ranger Destry, who goes on to show what happens when someone tries to destroy her boreal forest.
Sask-E appears at first glance to be an Eden of wild beauty and limitless potential. But as the well-meaning Destry discovers, the developers who created Sask-E — who hold both her work and her life in their hands — weren’t trying to make the world a better place. Not surprisingly, their real goal is profit. The discovery of an underground civilization on Sask-E forces Destry to choose sides in a conflict that changes the future of her beloved planet.
From here, the novel spans time. Terraforming is a slow process after all, and readers interested in Dursley’s character may be sad to learn that this isn’t her story. Newitz’s plot skips a few generations in the hunt for Destry – a really cute autonomous collective of rangers, scientists, engineers and a bunch of really cute sentient flying trains. If the villains in Newitz’s novels have shallow outlines, that’s probably because the novel’s big “what if?” Each character is answering whether well-meaning people can save the best parts of Sask-E from the worst predations of slimy corporate interests and a runaway consumer culture fostered by lazy governments.
As Sask-E’s rise, destruction, and slow path to redemption unfolded over millennia, Newitz focused on the complex symbiosis between technology and culture, which they also articulate in their writings. Another classic sci-fi trope to explore. 2021 non-fiction books, Four Lost Cities: The Secret History of the Urban Age. The technological innovations that propel civilization to new heights can also be complicit in its destruction.
On Sask-E, however, technology has enabled a whole new definition of personality. Animals, robots, hybrids, even gates and worms are communicating with future humans. Thanks to a galactic agreement dubbed “The Grand Deal,” they all have a seat at the table. Once the assumption that only humans are human is swept away, thorny issues of natural resource allocation, representative government, inclusive language, and sexual freedom need to be reassessed. (If you’ve ever wondered how a sentient train could bond with a robot or a cat, your answer is here. As one character puts it, “where there’s desire, there’s data.”)
As confusing as it all sounds, it opens up exciting new avenues, and hopefully, Earth 2.0 might succeed. ReformerRefreshingly, we are doomed, as opposed to the dystopias that have become so common in climate fiction. Newitz’s acerbic sense of humor frees the story from unrealistic optimism, but it’s easy to imagine future generations using the novel as a primer on how to embrace solutions to the challenges we all face. If we are to save ourselves from ego, then maybe what we need is a new way of thinking about ourselves. —Siobhan Adcock.
Siobhan Adcock is a writer and editor whose most recent novel is perfectionist.
A Cinematic Tour of Ambition, Greed, and Despair in Biotech
For blood and money: Billionaires, biotech and the search for blockbuster drugs
WW Norton, 2023 ($30)
“Finding new treatments that target only cancer cells without killing healthy cells has become the holy grail of cancer drug development,” said MarketWatch Executive Editor, forbes.for blood and money Following the path of one such product, targeted small-molecule drugs designed to fight blood cancers, has ended up pitting two biotechs against each other in a market competition and unimaginable paydays. Introducing readers to the machinations of Scientologists, restless entrepreneurs, clinical experts, and financial titans in search of the next billion-dollar blockbuster. In the midst of the friction of ambition and greed are the sick, hungry for healing and more time.
The story begins with Pharmacyclics, a small biotech company in California that was working on a drug to treat leukemia. Along the way, we encounter charismatic but sometimes volatile executives and investors, as well as a revolving door of employees being hired, fired, and new companies (and competitors) launched.
Vardi examines the worryingly slow process of the FDA’s marketing approval process, but the pace of the book remains brisk. With the focus on characters shifting from chapter to chapter, and including tons of names—people, companies, drugs—as details, one sometimes feels the need for a color-coded org chart to keep up.
A particularly troubling element in the biopharmaceutical quest for a panacea is how powerful investors can become drivers of medical strategy.The scientific quest for cures often seems to be outweighed by a scrambling desire to reap the highest rewards; one could be forgiven for wanting to rename the book for money and blood. Profits are astronomical, but investors are still considering how much they have left “on the table.”
Still, there’s meaningful collaboration, and many of the characters in the book genuinely want to do what’s right for patients with deadly diseases. Readers are still well aware of those who have benefited (and continue to benefit) from these drugs. However, the banks, investors and hedge funds who led the study highlighted how an overall healthcare system is skewed in its priorities.
Vardi clearly knows Wall Street and biopharma inside out, and he portrays the nuances of both in a lively and cinematic way. One can already imagine a movie version. —Mandala Chafa
Under the Ice: Pioneering years of radar detection in Antarctica
David J. Drewry
Princeton University Press, 2023 ($39.95)
Glaciologist David J. Drewry takes readers to the frigid research outpost where he and his colleagues pioneered radio echo-sounding techniques to detect the depths of the Antarctic ice sheet depth. Drewry explains how the new technology has emerged to fill the gaps of past methods, before sharing his own experience mapping unseen mountains and worryingly deep lakes that are melting faster. Numerous photographs and delightful personal anecdotes illustrate the inevitable excitement and frustration of scientific expeditions. —Fiona MD Samuels
by Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster, 2023 ($27.99)
Stephen Markley’s epic novel paints a panorama of a world ravaged by climate change, while also amplifying the struggles of those caught up in the vast and unrelenting chaos. Activist groups A Fierce Blue Fire and 6Degrees are both trying to get governments and industry to address the climate crisis, but their differing philosophies lead them down different paths as societies unravel. Markley’s dark portrayal of the near future is filled with vivid descriptions of climate catastrophe, but his intricate web of complex characters strikes a balance between precision and pathos, offering a fraught account of humanity’s relationship to its changing planet of ever-changing perspectives. —Dana Dunham
The only one: How an ancient idea holds the future of physics
Essential Books, 2023 ($32)
Which is more basic, many or one? Author Heinrich Päs argues that the fundamental unities expressed in physics are simple enough to be counted on one finger. If only physics accepted monism, its deepest mysteries would yield to that magic number. But monism was declared a heresy, first by the medieval church and then by the physicist Niels Bohr, according to Pass. Even if the connection between ancient monism and modern science is a bit far-fetched and Bohr is reduced to a caricature, history is thoroughly researched, physics is at the cutting edge, and Paz’s larger point resonates: most or all of what we think of as reality are a product of our limited perspective. —Amanda Geft