Posts tagged: books

Science Fiction These Days

So I’m procrastinating taking a break from studying, and I wanted to write something but I’m still not sure how I feel about posting things to facebook. These days I am sort of obligated to be more active on it, but I’m still not sure how far I want to take that. Anyway, so I think I’m going to open myself up to writing more random stuff here, though I do dislike being disorganized, but you can’t organize something that doesn’t exist yet, so.

I obviously don’t have time to do a full translation or any such thing at the moment, but a thought that occurred to me recently was that science fiction these days seems to end on more of a middle note than a good or bad note. Before college, I only managed to read one series (and it was a really long one) that ended on a middle note where “it’s not the end of the world” but it’s also not the best outcome or even an outcome we as readers were hoping for, for these characters we liked so much. As we neared the end all I could think was “no no no don’t let that happen” but then it did, but then the characters sort of figured out a way to cope with it so the bad effects were mostly neutralized.

Now, the “Hunger Games” trilogy (Suzanne Collins) ends on a middle note, with “they’re alive” but also “they’re not really anywhere around the vicinity of happily-ever-after.” The ending for the “Newsflesh” triology (Mira Grant) is on a more positive note than not (whereas “Hunger Games” is probably more negative than not), but also not really completely better because … oh, I don’t think I can avoid spoilers — or at least I don’t feel like putting in the effort to do so — she’s not the original so she doesn’t have retinal KA, which also means she doesn’t have the immunity that she ought to and he really can’t give it back to her the way he originally got immunity from her, and their relationship is kind of unsettling in our current cultural/societal expectations.

The “Infected” series (Scott Sigler) had a somewhat more straightforward ending, I think (it’s been a while since I read it), with a sort of middle ending because the main couple doesn’t get their happy ending, but we saw the deaths of some major characters coming a long way away (this is mostly what I mean by straightforward, as opposed to the previous two examples where the ending was only subtly hinted at but it seemed improbable that the author would actually take us to that conclusion but in the climax or resolution that conclusion was revealed), so I’m not sure if it entirely qualifies as being a middle ending… I suppose by definition it does because you don’t get the full resolution that you want, even though we do get resolution in the sense of plot points being wrapped up. (Sorry, got distracted and momentarily confused about what I was describing.)

Anyway, I guess I wonder why this is happening. Did we get enough black-and-white from the “Harry Potter” era and now we’re itching for more gray areas? Maybe writers are more interested in exploring nuances, which we should all really be doing more in our lives in the sense of staying away from prejudging as much as possible and looking for the little details that make us all unique instead of classifying people in one group or another (yes, I’m talking about racism, sexism, and the rest of that stuff). So maybe it’s a lesson we should be trying to apply? There’s pretty much always black in white and white in black, and good in the bad and bad in the good, and at least two sides to nearly everything. Remember that.

Book Reviews!

So I’ve actually managed to read two books recently, and am going to review them (gee, really? I’d never have guessed from the title of this post), especially because I feel, at least a little bit, as though I’d not have actually been able to finish the books if our gracious Skinner hadn’t allowed me to check them out from the library.

First off, Next by Michael Crichton:

If you’ve ever seen “Crash” or “Love Actually,” “Next” follows a similar structure of interleaving story lines every which way, although with slightly more focus on a convergence of a few of the stories, towards the end. The stories are fictional, but they are nonetheless grounded in varying levels of fact; each story centers around some issue of the current state of some aspect of biology research. One story draws attention to illicit organ-harvesting. Another brings chimerism to the reader’s attention. (Here, I would link to the wikipedia article about chimerism, but frankly, it sucks.) Multiple stories revolve around DNA testing and gene patenting, which was most recently in the news when the patent on BRCA1 and BRCA2 was overturned. Gerard, a talking African grey (parrot), raises the animal research issues, as does the story of a transgenic ape, and the idea of manufacturing transgenic animals for use in advertising or as pets, which was also recently in the news (check out the gallery). And perhaps one of the most frightening storylines tells of a mother and her son who are pursued by a bounty hunter intent on forcibly harvesting cells from their bodies because her father’s cells produce cytokines that seem to fight cancer; because his cells were bought (arguably illicitly) by a company, they then argue that they have a right to repossess those cells wherever they may occur, including in the source’s descendants.

Personally, I enjoyed the book, despite its abrupt jumps from one plotline to another, because it explores so many of the controversies that surround the field of biotechnology in this day and age. Some of the imagined possibilities seem quite ludicrous, but when you look at the news, it is disturbing to realize the extent to which some of the possible situations delineated in the novel are actually taking place around us. While is it true that the stories center around biology and people interested in such may be more interested in this book, I think that it has value both as a thriller and as a mechanism for bringing many current bioethics issues to the public’s attention.

And now, Feed, by Mira Grant — hmm, I just noticed that both of the books have monosyllabic titles…anyway! — the review:

This book was amazing. Totally full of awesome, is what I’d say. When I finished the book, I was in denial that the book was over, so I kept reading into the question-and-answer section, where Grant answers some questions about the novel and its sequel (to which my reaction was “OMG there’s a sequel squee!”) and the excerpt from the sequel. Arguably, this was a mistake, because it’s gotten me way too excited for the sequel because I thought this book was phenomenal. (Sadly, Deadline, the sequel, is currently slated for a May 2011 release date.)

Anyway, at this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “okay, so you claim that it’s ‘totally full of awesome,’ but where’s the evidence? What’s this book actually about?” Well, it centers around three bloggers in the post-apocalyptic world, circa twenty-five years after the emergence of a virus that takes over dead or otherwise vulnerable bodies and causes them to mindlessly aid in its propagation. Bloggers have gained attention in this world because they were the first ones to report on the zombie outbreaks when everyone else was still in denial about the existence of the virus.

The relationships between the characters and the mystery in the story are only the topmost layer of what makes this book as great as it is. I found similarities to Joss Whedon, superficially, in the naming of one of the main characters after Buffy of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but more deeply, in the juxtapositions of heaping helpings of humor in the face of serious situations and the very serious and evocative descriptions of the stark reality of the world that make it all too easy to conjure up images of the destruction and death that have become familiar to our main characters. It is, in my opinion, an original idea well-executed.

Please let me know what you think of the reviews; I plan to submit them for posting on the MITSFS website in the near future.

First Post!

So I guess I’ve decided to name this blog “SHM”, which stands for “Somatic Hypermutation” (and not “Simple Harmonic Motion” — sorry for all the fans of The Other SHM). Here comes the stream-of-consciousness word vomit of the why: Somatic mutations aren’t passed on — they take effect locally and don’t bother anything else in the body or future generations. Somatic hypermutation, more specifically, is one of the two processes that comprise affinity maturation, which is what happens when your body is reacting to an antigen that it has seen before. It’s called affinity maturation because your body is creating a bunch of new antibodies (well, antibody-producing cells, actually) that are all slightly different but still mostly attuned to recognize the particular antigen (somatic hypermutation), and then selecting for the ones that have a higher affinity for the antigen (clonal selection). Thus, affinity maturation is part of the immunological process that allows your body to “remember” antigens, and this blog, so far as I can tell at the moment, is going to serve as a memory dumping site bank for my random thought processes that I never seem to be able to remember once they’ve concluded themselves.

It’s kind of silly, actually — I’ll have some minor epiphany at the end of a thought process, and then forget that I’d ever thought about it until someday, maybe, when I start thinking about it again. Considering how many random thought processes I have about various topics, my remembering these minor epiphanies happens less often than I might like, because they’re not accessible to me when I’m trying to randomly brainstorm things, as, for example, for writing blog posts…uh oh. I think I see a problem here…. I guess I’d better hope that my longer trains-of-thought happen when I’m in front of a computer, although they rarely do, and this is exactly why I have this problem…. *shifty eyes*

Anyway, so I think I’ve kind of veered off-topic, except not, because the post was originally about the blog and the rationale for naming, wasn’t it? While I’m at this whole word-vomiting thing, though, I think I will ramble a little more about immunology.

I have a number of allergies, and it’s gotten to the point where I’m tired of just avoiding them and want to try getting rid of them (there are some other reasons and complicating factors, but anyway). I’ve been testing myself for allergies by exposing myself and checking for known reactions, but sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the things I notice are psychosomatic (stress aggravates allergy symptoms, after all) or whether they’re actually physically triggered. I mean, ideally I won’t eat more than the minimum to be sure that it’s an allergic reaction, but it’s kind of hard. Also, it’s somewhat cost-inefficient to obtain food for testing (that is, if I end up not being able to eat it because I am allergic, it’s a waste to just throw the rest away), so I try to do it as the opportunity arises to take part in the eating of $food.

So this plan of getting rid of allergies pretty much involves an elimination diet. I am not convinced that it will work, but I think that it is worth a try, maybe? I’m told that one of the CMEs our freshman year went on an elimination diet for some amount of time (O(1 year), maybe?), and afterwards she could eat anything again. So here’s my reasoning: allergic reactions are generally IgE-mediated. Pharma companies do make anti-IgE antibodies that cause them to be targeted for destruction, but this is generally inadvisable as a course of action for treating food allergies, and IgE antibodies are not terribly well-understood either; they seem to play a role in cancer detection (although the data supporting that theory is inconclusive). The drug is also rather expensive, and your body will just keep producing those antibodies anyway.

From a different angle, then: the half-life of IgE antibodies is approximately 2 days for unbound antibodies and up to several weeks for bound antibodies. Allergens present in the body stimulate T cells, B cells, mast cells, and basophils. T cells and B cells aren’t involved in the acute response, but basically, the T cells stimulate naive B cells to secret antibodies, and then other T cells signal the B cells to switch isotypes and produce IgG, IgA, or IgE antibodies instead of IgD or IgM antibodies, resulting in mature B cells that just churn out antibodies (and daughter B cells that do the same, of course). Mast cells and basophils, which are what actually cause imflammation and other acute reactions, get coated in the IgE antibodies that become bound when the allergen/antigen enters the body. Where am I going with this? Essentially, the idea is to eliminate the cells that play a role in producing the allergic response by not stimulating their proliferation until they die out.

Will it work? I don’t know. The human body has been known to produce antibodies that react to antigens last encountered more than thirty years prior, but not all antibodies hang around that long. And since allergies are so poorly understood…I really just don’t know.

The other possibilities that are out there involve building insensitivity to the antigens, which start off exposing you to small amounts of allergen and increasing the dosage with time to reduce the symptoms of the allergic reaction(s). (It’s  like in Le Comte de Monte Cristo / The Count of Monte Cristo, when M. d’Avrigny gives M. Nortier — who in turn gives Valentine — slowly increasing amounts of poison and the recipient’s system slowly builds resistance, except that was resistance to a toxin/poison, and this is immunotherapy to effect reduced sensitivity.) Sublingual immunotherapy is more widely administered in Europe than in the U.S., but it’s gaining popularity here and seems promising. The other option is allergy injections, which require a long-term commitment and are also not recommended for food allergies; they are generally used to treat pollen/dust/etc allergies, but given that there is a possible connection between food and pollen allergies, it’s certainly worth a try. One of the major concerns with injections, however, is the reason for the long-term commitment: pollen allergies vary by region, so different formulations are used in different areas depending on the local flora. Thus, changing environments that require a different formulation will render the former injection course less effective, and adjustments have to be made, etc etc, that just make it too complicated a problem to deal with unless absolutely necessary; hence, the long-term commitment requirement.

More research is necessary; more testing is necessary; I certainly would rather have a wider set of options open to me while I am on my elimination diet, if at all possible, so eliminating various foods as allergen suspects is tedious, frustrating, painful to some degree, but hopefully useful in the end.

[Edit:] I think that with this skin, writing out “Somatic Hypermutation” doesn’t look as bizarrely unbalanced, so the name of the blog is hereby officially changed! (At least until it lives up to its name, changes its skin, and wants a balanced title again ^_^)

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