Languages of Nature

 

Frederik Sjoberg’s entomological memoir The Fly Trap deserves much better than my month late musings, but here they are.

The titular fly trap is the Malaise trap, an essential piece of entomological collecting equipment devised in the early twentieth century by the Swede Rene Malaise, when he noticed that flies had a tendency to collect in the highest corner of his tent.  Malaise made several extraordinary collecting journeys, to Kamchatka and Southeast Asia, and uncovering something of the man is one of the driving forces behind Sjoberg’s book.

Sjoberg’s own interest is in one way the polar opposite of Malaise’s: for years Sjoberg collected only on the island of Runmaro, not far from Stockholm, and mostly in his own garden.  He found more than two hundred species of hoverflies in this way, these being members of the widespread but rather inconspicuous insect family Syrphidae.  Some of these harmless creatures are very convincing mimics of wasps and bees, which is a source of amusing aggravation when the entomologist is accosted by ignorant summer vacationers.

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Insect Collection, from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY David McClenaghan and CISRO

It bears remembering that in common with many other insect taxa, there remain many things about the life history and distribution of hoverflies, and no doubt many species, that are unknown to science.  Many of Malaise’s specimens lie unsorted in museums to this day.  Hence it is possible for the dedicated hobbyist (it’s not clear but I gather that Sjoberg supported himself with translation, and perhaps the civility of the Swedish state) to make real contributions that are truly appreciated by a small community of specialists.  Amongst them, memories are long and the appetite for new reports tremendous; after a long summer of collecting Sjoberg describes settling in for the winter with his cabinets and writing to his colleagues about his most interesting discoveries.

He talks about the Legendary Flies, and it’s really hardly funny at all; it’s awe inspiring, these animals that are seen twice in a century, if that.  He tells the incredible story of the Fly Tree, a giant which stood for centuries in a Swedish town until it was brought down with dynamite by insane government busybodies.  It was so named because every summer night it was surrounded by a cloud of flies, some of which are speculated to have bred only in pools of water that collected high in the trunks of ancient trees.  Where are they now?

Birds are my current pursuit in the domain of natural history, and I asked myself if there are legendary birds.  There have been so many people looking for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker that it’s very hard to believe that it’s not extinct.  Others, like the condors, whooping cranes, or Kirtland’s warbler, they are extremely rare, but, still, I think, more accessible than the Legendary Flies.  Something I have yet to attain to.  On the other hand, Sjoberg’s discussion of learning natural history the way one learns a language is, I think, quite widely applicable and accessible.  He has invested so much time in learning hoverflies because reading the Book of Nature is so pleasurable.  Simply looking is pleasurable as well, but that’s not all there is.  I’ve learned that one has to know at a glance many species of warblers to feel the full impact of a really busy day of spring migration.  One has to go out a lot, and listen carefully, to really appreciate the explosion of cedar waxwings in Boston in the first week of June.

I’m wondering what language I want to learn next.

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Rocks with Guts

I’ve just read a book about freshwater mussel conservation.  While I’m sure I could just as well have read a similar book about frogs or bats or sedges, I’m pleased to report that Sarah Gascho Landis’ Immersion is a fairly decent example of the genre.  And mussels may just be especially weird, hence the quote in the title of this post.

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Some freshwater mussels (U. S. Fish and Wildlife)

I’m a bit of an amateur naturalist, but I’ve barely paid attention to mussels.  Perhaps nondescript shells don’t seem very remarkable when they turn up on the banks of a slow moving but seemingly healthy river.  Or maybe studying them in situ doesn’t seem worth the effort.  Landis has some good stories about that, searching for mussels in rivers choked with (sometimes full) beer bottles, dead cats, or simply a big snag that seems determined to drown someone.  What I find interesting, though, is the mollusks’ ability to hide and turn up in the strangest places or under the worst circumstances.  I still remember finding a huge black crawdad crawling through the grass on a rain soaked roadside.  Mussels have a similar ability to push the boundaries of their aquatic habitat and run up against our terrestrial ways.  I’m fascinated by the idea of hundred year old bivalves in the deep eddies of tiny, rocky creeks far up in the mountains.  There are even mussels that live in ponds!

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A mussel displays her lure.  (U. S. Fish and Wildlife)

How do they do it?  Fish, mostly.  Landis is apparently mesmerized by the mussel reproductive cycle, and it is pretty amazing.  Mussels don’t come together to mate; female mussels must capture free floating sperm from the water.  Once they have nursed a brood of baby mussels, many mussels rely on a fish to host the babies, and then release them elsewhere.  Lampmussels deploy an astounding minnow shaped lure to bring in a predatory fish and then reward them with gillsful of mussel larvae.  Some mussels have evolved the ability to defeat the immune response only of specific fish; overall, it’s a specialized and vulnerable reproductive strategy.  Fish, mussels, and thousands of tiny streams throughout the piedmont region of the American southeast have somehow combined to produce a hotspot of unrivaled biodiversity, including some three hundred mussels species.  I wish Landis had tried to say a little more about the long term evolution of the group; it seems like it would be a fascinating story.

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The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a massively disruptive 200 mile link between the Tennessee and Mobile Rivers

Lately mussels have taken a tremendous amount of abuse.  Droughts, water pollution, and the complete restructuring of watersheds are taking an even greater toll than the freshwater pearl and button crazes of the late nineteenth century.  Of the three hundred or more species of lampmussels, snuffboxes, pigtoes, pistolgrips, etc., dozens are federally listed.  Landis has a few heartening stories of mussels rebounding in habitats that were completely dried or polluted to death.  Often these successes came through a lot of hard scientific work (a mussel hatchery sounds like a daunting engineering project) and enforcement of environmental law.  Overall, though, the outlook does not seem good.  There are different ways of looking at this.  Landis presents the case that mussels are a convenient measure of the overall peril of water pollution.  She also writes movingly in a more personal register of the intrinsic value of biodiversity.  She says that learning to see mussels is like discovering a hidden library.  Even if I never see more than a handful of these species, I know that I want to live in a world that boasts of these strange “rocks with guts”.

Larry McMurtry’s Names

I spent a couple of commutes highlighting the names of all the characters in The Last Picture Show.  I’ve gotten used to reading on the Kindle app for my phone, and this is one of the advantages.  It’s a slightly dubious advantage of city life that my commute is too short to get down to serious reading.  I think I’ve mentioned McMurtry in passing as not serious enough for me to blog about, but maybe I’m just embarrassed by titles like Lonesome DoveThe Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment.

The Last Picture Show is my favorite.  It’s hard to summarize.  There are two young men, just out of high school in a small Texas town in the early fifties.  There’s a girlfriend who’s out of their league, and an ailing father figure who runs the pool hall.  It’s a whole catalogue of perversity and violence, from nude swimming to bestiality and from fisticuffs to broken bottles and maimings, along with an appalling amount of drunk driving.  According to Wikipedia, the raunchy high school/college sex comedy genre begins with Animal House in 1978, but this is obviously wrong.  In 1971, The Last Picture Show won two Oscars and a bunch of nominations.  Porky’s and American Pie are sad shadows of McMurtry’s apotheosized potboiler.

In a recent issue of the New York Review, there’s a brief appreciation by Ian Frazier of McMurtry and The Last Picture Show.  I learned that three of McMurtry’s novels have been released as Thalia: A Texas Trilogy.  Surprisingly to me, the other two are the also-filmed Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne.  I hadn’t realized that there were more Thalia books beside the sequels to Picture Show, at least one of which I had read and found wanting.  Frazier remarks on the pleasure of reading these novels, despite their basic sadness.  He’s right that the sadness is partly a result of the fate of small town America, though I would maybe stop short of tying a novel like this to a political point.  He’s also right that the pleasure comes from the perfect dialogue.

I think I would be extending Frazier’s point (and not simply ripping it off, but I don’t have the magazine in front of me to make sure) in remarking that there is a kind of perfect super dialogue as well with which McMurtry effortlessly recounts the town’s minor scandals and introduces his huge cast.  Why do I conflate dialogue with narration?  I wonder if I’m just being sloppy, but it seems to me that in this super dialogue, he inhabits the voices of his characters to achieve superb ironic effect.  This accounts for the great pleasure I took in simply gathering the names of the characters: Sonny, Billy, Sam the Lion, Coach Popper, Duane, Joe Bob Blanton, Frank Fartley, Abilene, Charlene Duggs, Jacy Farrow, Gene Farrow, Lois Farrow “the only woman in Thalia who drank and made no bones about it”, Lester Marlow, Miss Mosey, Frank Crawford, Genevieve Morgan, Dan Morgan, “busted up in a rig accident”, John Cecil, Agnes Bean, Leroy Malone, Ruth Popper, “the home economics teacher, a frail little man named Mr. Wean”, Wilbur Tim, Bobby Sheen, Jackie Lee French (“Is your name really French or is that just something you like to do?”), Annie-Annie, Sandy, the Bunne brothers, Junior Mosey, “an obliging little girl named Winnie Snips”, to name a few.

A Lost Library

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Mt. Chocorua, Sanford Robinson Gifford via Wikimedia Commons

American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise.  It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books.  William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl.  The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.

Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others.  One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife.  It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living.   It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow.  I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective.  And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic.  (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.)  Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.

Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it.  The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics?  The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research.   I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school.  I found the biography more memorable.  Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”.  He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.

 

Coming to America

I’ve been looking for my own copy of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s edition of Chuang Tsu for at least five years.  I found one the other night at the Brookline Booksmith.  My parents have one; almost as soon as I moved I was able to find a copy of the matching Tao Te Ching.  I mentioned it here.  I was surprised to find the Chuang Tsu at all.  Although it seems a reissue is available on Amazon, the copy I found is dated 1974, and I’m sure it’s less common than the Tao Te Ching.  Chuang Tsu is described as the Plato to Lao Tsu’s Socrates, his Inner Chapters the “perfect expression” of Taoism.  He is the source of the image of the man who dreams he is a butterfly wondering if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.  I’ve actually read the poetic and epigrammatic Tao Te Ching, but I have to admit it may be some time before I do more than look at the gorgeous pictures in this one.

Gia-fu Feng came to the United States after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.  The period comprising the fall of the emperor, the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the communist takeover was obviously a time of great chaos and destruction.  I know almost nothing about it, and, what’s maybe worse, I don’t even know a book I should read.  The 25th anniversary edition of Feng’s Tao Te Ching contains a tiny snippet of autobiography; here and elsewhere there are tantalizing hints of a longer memoir.

This post was precipitated by a thought that struck me suddenly while poking around after information about Gi-fu Feng: After the fall of the old order in China, there must have been an exodus on the same order as that following the Russian revolution, and yet it doesn’t seem to be given nearly the same credit, so to speak.  I would say that in my mental map of the twentieth century American intellect, the influence of the Russian diaspora far outweighs that of China’s.

This is truly shocking to me, after a fashion, not least because one of my best friends growing up was a recent Chinese immigrant.  But I am really not thinking in such personal terms.  I know almost nothing about it, so perhaps I’m wrong, or merely repeating western prejudice.  It may even be a matter of East Coast versus West Coast, of New York and Boston versus California.  Unlike my father, I never went to school in the western U.S.  It also occurs to me that the Russian influence is closely related to the colossal impact of the Holocaust.  Indeed, it appears that Vladimir Nabokov, the only figure that immediately jumps to mind as a Russian emigre of great importance for American culture (perhaps quite sufficient on his own), lived in Berlin after leaving Russia, and it’s easy to guess why he left.  The cultural effect of the revolution was not immediate, and, similarly, Einstein had his annus mirabilis of 1905 long before he removed to the United States.  Perhaps the impact of the Cultural Revolution is yet to be appreciated here.

Here’s what I want to know: does the cultural impact of the Russian Revolution on America really outweigh that of China’s, despite the obvious parallels?  How far does the effect extend, and are there vast intellectual movements, a hundred and more years old now, whose stories have yet to be told?  Is the translation empire of Pevear and Volokhonsky rooted in the upheavals at the beginning of the twentieth century?  Who, besides Nabokov, am I missing?  Leafing through the Inner Chapters, I found a discussion between Confucius and one Yen Hui.  What is Confucius doing in the Taoist text?  Is there any parallel in the Platonic dialogues of philosophers and demagogues, and the efforts of later and lesser writers like Philostratus to untangle them?  Who can tell?  Without greater cognizance of these matters, do we in our political moment risk throwing away something of inestimable value?

Tolstoy’s Cossacks

When I think of Tolstoy, I think of War and Peace. There’s a lot to it, of course; for some reason my take has become colored by the notion of Tolstoy, born in 1828, writing in the 1850s and ’60s, attempting to understand the colossal struggle of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations against Napoleon. I was a little awestruck when it occurred to me that, if only chronologically, I stood in a similar position relative to World War II. What I tend to forget is that Tolstoy lived a very long life of his own. He served his own time in military, and there is a lot of writing dealing with his very different experiences in the Caucasus and elsewhere. I just read The Cossacks, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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Tolstoy lived long enough to be photographed in color, in 1908, by the incredible Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).  You have to check out this photographer.

The Cossacks begins in Moscow, where the young nobleman Dmitry Andreich Olenin takes leave of a couple of friends and sets out in the wee hours of the morning for the Caucasus, having obtained a post as a cadet officer. This initial scene has so little to do with the main part of the story that you might forget it entirely. Olenin, who has gambled, been introduced at court, and toyed with women’s affections while never falling in love, reflects constantly on the triviality of his life up until this point. Heightening the effect of dislocation, before Olenin reaches his destination, the scene changes abruptly to the frontier outpost where we are introduced to the other protagonist, the young Cossack brave Lukashka.

“Cossack” is a challenging term in Russian literature, at least for the dilettante. It falls somewhere between an ethnicity and a job description. For many purposes one probably just needs to imagine a taciturn cavalryman of lower class than the usual aristocratic protagonist. What I gather is that Russian authorities permitted frontier settlements under special law, essentially exchanging land for military service. The Cossacks in the novel speak Russian; this seems to be the general rule, if one allows that the demarcation between Russian and other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian is fluid, and that a Cossack could be expected to pick up a local lingua franca like Tatar. Tatar is a Turkic language, and thus quite unrelated, not only to Russian, but to the Indo-European languages generally. For a final twist, consider that the word Cossack, in Russian, is nearly the same as Kazakh, as in Kazakhstan. It appears to be the same root, but the Kazakh language is Turkic. As usual, the linguistic classification seems to give a secure handhold in a difficult case, while also casting doubt on the notion of ethnicity generally.*

At any rate, the Cossacks were instrumental in a long drawn out conflict known to Wikipedia as the Caucasian War. Between this war and the Cossacks, one could speculate endlessly on comparisons between the Russian Empire, the American, and what we think of as quintessentially imperial Britain or Spain. That Russia seems so bad to us now must have something to do with our unacknowledged similarities. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the latter part of the century, the Russians pushed into the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (The Cossacks takes place in 1852).  The territory of the U.S.S.R. extended well southwards of the highest range of the Caucasus, when it included the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Today the border of the Russian Federation appears to follow that highest range along a nearly straight line from sea to sea; among the southernmost federal subjects are North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Russia has been at war in the Caucasus since Tolstoy was a kid.

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The Caucasus (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossacks were famed for horsemanship, but Lukashka, in the beginning, hasn’t got a horse. He serves in an outpost on the banks of the Terek river, between the steppe and the mountainous heart of Chechnya. He’s never very far from the village where his mother, sisters, and sweetheart live. It’s depicted as a bucolic, sleepy place, and Lukashka’s fellow soldiers are mostly interested in drinking and hunting. Shortly before Olenin is billeted in the village, Lukashka wins glory by shooting a Chechen who swam across the river at night. Olenin, who seems to have little real military work to do, is shocked by the Cossacks’ bluff indifference to the killing. Overall, though, it fits with Olenin’s idea of the Cossacks as an uncomplicated people living a life as pure and natural as the stags he hunts with the garrulous old Cossack Eroshka and even the mosquitoes that plague them.

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Another of Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits, from Dagestan (between 1905 and 1915?)

So Olenin experiences a spiritual conversion. He rhapsodizes about the landscape and the people, rails against Moscow society, and tries to keep himself apart from the other officers. He is generous towards Lukashka and Eroshka, who drop in at all hours to sponge his liquor, food, and weapons. This might come off as ironic, but Tolstoy has a very gentle touch. What’s more, one of the people Olenin idealizes is Maryanka, his landlady’s daughter and Lukashka’s betrothed. The love triangle is so obvious that I don’t know how I could stand it. But again, Tolstoy handles it skillfully. I guess the reason is that it’s hard to tell what Olenin really likes more: his new philosophy or the lusty Maryanka.

* I was reading the Maude translation that is free for Kindle. Somewhat unusually, I encountered three words that sorely tried my immediate lexicographical resources, including the OED and a small Russian dictionary. Presumably the Maudes left these untranslated because they are not standard Russian: abrek, chikhir, and kunak. Searching online can be tricky too. An abrek is a mountain man or rustler, the connotation depending on whose side you are on. Chikhir was obviously a drink, often served by the bucket, probably from grapes, but it’s still not clear to me whether it might be distilled and whether it is interchangeable with vodka. Finally, kunak refers to a friendship with serious obligations, perhaps guest friendship, as for example, “This abrek invited me to his house for chikhir and said I could take anything I wanted, so I took this great sword; we’re kunaks.”

The Three Body Trilogy

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Cixin Liu’s trilogy consists of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. It is first contact fiction of an abstract bent. Liu’s story is episodic; the trilogy ranges very widely and does not focus on any particular character.  Although I read the books happily enough, it’s not easy to say what I liked about them. I suppose I enjoyed them for Liu’s unpredictability and for some dramatic set pieces. Liu does not worry much about the details or even the plausibility of the technological devices he introduces, but the results are entertaining. I won’t try to discuss them without spoilers.

The three body problem is to predict the motions of three bodies, usually celestial, according to the normal laws of gravity and motion. Mathematicians have wrestled with it since the discovery of calculus and it is known that it’s not susceptible to exact solution in all cases. Characteristically, Liu draws a beautiful portrait of a mathematician plagued by restlessness of soul until he loses himself in contemplation of the beauties of this problem. The character does not appear again. Much of the first book takes place in a game world where the problem serves as motivation for a primer in the history of science, and an introduction to an advanced civilization threatened by its location in a ternary star system. Liu’s telling stories within stories reminded me of Ender’s Game, but in a lighter mood. For example, Turing, Newton, and the emperor of China construct a computer out of a vast host of flag waving medieval soldiers, but they cannot predict the motions of the three suns for long. Despots and sages argue with operatic exaggeration while their hapless subjects suffer the indignity of being dehydrated and stored in warehouses to be gnawed on by rats while they wait for the next spell of fair weather in their chaotic planetary system.

Contact between Earth and the Trisolarans is initiated by an astronomer despairing at the worst depths of the Cultural Revolution. Despite this extreme example (and granting the existence of numerous inhabited worlds in the galaxy) Liu handles the question of whether humanity poses a greater threat to itself than the one posed by alien civilizations with subtlety. He makes the conflict between planets nearly intractable; Liu’s strength is spectacular set pieces of utter, beautiful destruction wreaked by enemies capable of manipulating the structure of matter and space. One of the Trisolaran weapons is the sophon: a proton unfolded unfolded from its string theoretical eleven dimensions to form a surface vaster than a planet and etched with computer circuitry. Rerolled, it becomes a smart particle, capable of travel near light speed and instant quantum communication, and able to bring human science to a halt by lurking in particle colliders.

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These picture from the Hubble Space Telescope are in the public domain.

Human strife is not a major part of the novels.  Panic at imminent alien invasion leads to destruction, but in a madcap register; glassy arcologies tumble down, it’s Lord of the Flies for a little while, but no resentment ensues. It seems to be Liu’s contention that despite the horrors humanity is capable of inflicting on itself, we can and must cooperate to face the universe. But I have to qualify this; as I said, Liu is more subtle than that. Another of Liu’s painstakingly created bit players, after a trying ordeal, communicates vital guidance to earth in the form of a classical fairytale. In the tale, the bad guy destroys his enemies by depicting them in masterly, lifelike paintings.  The world’s powers work together to interpret the tale and are nearly successful, but not quite.  When a few starships escape the solar system, they carry the same people who advocated most heroically for human solidarity and morality.   I wonder if Liu had Thucydides in mind when he wrote of the uncomprehending acrimony that comes between the terrestrial authorities and the spacefarers. It reminded me of the mutinies in the Athenian fleet in Asia, of the zeal with which Athenians prosecuted the leaders of failed campaigns, and the shapeshifting of Alcibiades.

In what I’ve read about the big bang it seems to be a commonplace that conditions early on in the universe were quite different from what we find now. In the dense early universe, fundamental particles, and even laws governing the forces between them, did not take on the different forms we distinguish today. Physicists hope that by understanding the origins of the universe, we might resolve problems like “electroweak symmetry breaking”, or so I’ve read. Or where six or seven or eight extra dimensions got to, presumably. In the struggle to protect themselves from scarcely comprehended threats, Liu has humanity begin to unravel some of these questions of fundamental physics.  But it proves to be a tangled web indeed. I’m now desperately trying to remember if and how Penrose, Hawking, et al, have used the words “Eden” or “Edenic”, to describe the early universe, and whether they might have dared to load that term as Liu ultimately does. (To Orson Scott Card’s name, I might add that Liu reminds me of Neal Stephenson and Philip Pullman.) It’s in these terms, of Eden and the big bang, that Liu counterposes the question of facing the universe with that of facing ourselves.