Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Following the Pharmers" Brian Stableford

In a previous post I raved about the opening paragraph to this story, so I have to let you know how it turned out. 'Twas a good story, but nothing really amazing. Basically it places an interesting scientific thesis in the midst of a greater debate about the role of science and engineering, and then that debate gives the plot an ironic twist.

The plot: the narrator is a pharmer - he grows illegal bio-engineered pharmaceuticals for the black market in a post-global warming flooded region of England. He's just trying to make a living, and mourning for a lost love. However, he's gotten a new, ambitious neighbor. She's using her inherited fortune to try to convince people to legalize bio-engineering so that humanity can correct evolution's mistakes and grab the reins of its own future. The narrator agrees with her, but wants no part of her plans.

So the greater debate is about mankind playing God. This debate has played out at least since Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. However, here both the main characters are on the same side of the argument, so Stableford's presenting this one as "case closed." (Instead of one character saying Yes and the other saying No, one character says Yes and the other says Yes and We Need to Take Dramatic Action About It.) The meat of the story revolves around the following thesis statement: "It may well be the case that it was the cultivation of psychotropic substances rather than foodstuffs that prompted the initial development of agriculture, while fungal hallucinogens like psilocybin and muscarine were probably the catalyst responsible for the initial development of human self-consciousness." (The fact that that sentence was delivered as dialog gives you a little sense of the overall tone and readability of the story.)

So the thrust of the story is that we only became agriculturalists because of an odd evolutionary quirk that caused us to react to psychology-altering plant chemicals that caused us to become self-ware. This seems fishy to me - putting the cart before the horse, as it were. However, my background is physics, not biology, so I don't really have the chops to evaluate this one. I also thought Greg Bear's claims about seemingly-intentional insti-evolutionary changes (in Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children) were ridiculous or at least implausible, but he (rather angrily) claimed at a Worldcon panel in 2006 that there were plenty of scientific papers backing him up (6 when he started writing that duology, more than 100 by 2006, he claimed).

So should I trust Stableford's research, or is it his responsibility to sell me on a concept so weird? I'm not sure. This is one of those stories where the climax is the infodump, so maybe some more detail wouldn't have hurt. Throughout the story Stableford deliberately conceals information that the protagonist is well aware of so that he can surprise/impress us with it at the end. He does answer all the questions that he raises, so that's fair. Unfortunately, having been formal and slightly stilted all the way through, the ending probably lacks the emotional punch that he was going for. This ends up being satisfying story in the presentation and examination of a cool scientific idea, but not much more than that.

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