Thursday, October 11, 2018

Genetic Modification in the Pages of a Children's Book AKA an Anna Rant

Purple Pup


Author: Karl Steam
Illustrator: Joshua Lagman
Published: November 27 2016
Publisher: Karl Steam

Goodreads Summary: Lav and his friends are the first of their kind, genetically modified to be wonderful pets. They quickly teach the humans that modifying DNA is easy, compared to controlling the animals that are created. Join the adventures that help them discover where they belong in this world, and what they are meant to do. 

My Thoughts
This book was unlike any other I have ever read, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. I've read plenty of books from the dogs point of view - Call of the Wild by Jack London, Thy Servant a Dog by Rudyard Kipling, and  A Dogs Life: The Autobiography of a Stray by Ann Martin to name a few. None of them even tapped into the world of genetic modification. Maybe that was a good thing.

Let me start out by saying that I have a degree in Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation, I've studied genetics, community interactions and species needs. I have strong opinions on quality of life for animals kept in captivity. I may not be as excepting of this story as others without my background.

This story explores the world of genetic modification and GMOs through the eyes of Lav the purple pup. And it's disturbing. I hate animal experimentation. I felt uncomfortable by the pain that the puppies and other creatures went through at the labs. I did not like the idea that making animals smaller removed them from their niche. Niches are one of the fundamental pillars of biological and ecological communities, and you can't just erase that and expect an animal to still function properly. The idea that "scientists" would willingly remove an animal from their part in the circle of life was baffling to me. Yes, zoos remove animals from the wild and place them into (hopefully) spacious contained areas where they can be viewed by humans. However, they still have their basic niche. Lions are still given dead gazelles to eat, or at least large forms of meat. They still have their pride, and still get to raise their cubs. Genetic Valley tried to remove the wild from the animal. After shrinking down a lion, they didn't then give him a habitat to suit his needs, they kept him in a cage, and later gave him away as a pet - to live with a regular cat. Just because an animal is smaller doesn't mean it isn't still wild. A lion that can be attacked and killed by a raccoon has had it's DNA messed with by someone pretending to be God, and I don't agree with that in any way, shape or form.

There are three parts to this story - Escape, The Return, and The Wild. Each part changed my ideas as to who the "villain" was. During Escape, in which Lav manages to escape from Genetic Valley, the scientists are clearly the bad guys. At one point it is hinted that they plan to experiment on children. Not good. Creepy. Gross. 

The Return continues that theme, except it becomes clear that some of the animals are being modified to better help humans. Some dogs have extra sense of smell to help with Search and Rescue as well as drug detecting. In fact two dogs have this extra skill. But, they are slightly different, the one that was super modified is mean and wild. I found this to be a hint that the scientists had gone too far. 

The Wild pits the main characters against, well, the wild. They actually join a pack of wolves. It works for some of them. It is during this section that we find out what Genetic Valley is really trying to do - provide humans with good genetically modified items. Crops that promote good health, Cows that can give twice as much milk, dogs better suited for rescue, but also dogs modified simply for color, and softness, animals made luminescent simply for kicks, and wild creatures shrunk down for human enjoyment. Here I think the reader is supposed to realize that Genetic Valley is actually helping people, science just sometimes has a rocky start. I agree with the crops, and search dogs, it's okay to enhance something's natural abilities - to a point. But to change the role of the creature in nature is abhorrent. To make natural camouflagers "glow-in-the-dark" means that they could never be placed back in their natural role. Animals become the way they are through natural selection, and we shouldn't try to reverse that.

Oh, also there's this part with a baby that has glowing yellow eyes . . . which was fun . . .

In the end everything turns out okay, but I was left in a state of confusion as I tried to gauge who the audience of this story even is. The title seems to scream "It's for kids!" and the story telling itself leans that way, but the content is deep, disturbing and over the heads of most children I know. This seems to be a social commentary for adults hidden in the pages of a "children's" story. 


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Wading through prejudice in Jeffrey Bardwell's 'The Knight's Secret' (relaunched)

Title: The Knight's Secret
Series: The Mage Conspiracy Series (#1)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy 
Pages: 217
Publisher: Twigboat Press

What Goodreads has to say:

Sir Corbin, retired Hero of Jerkum Pass, rides for honor, glory, and his pension with the aid of a magic ring. The knight’s mission takes him to the capital of the Iron Empire. The city is in an uproar. The emperor has been slain by rogue mages. The new empress is livid. Soon all mages are suspect . . . including Corbin’s daughter. 

When Corbin dies on the eve of the mission, his granddaughter Kelsa dons his armor and his wrinkles to save her mother. Hidden behind the magic ring, she infiltrates his old regiment. The army has become a slithering nest of vipers. Imperial mages and cavalrymen move warily around each other. Both sides snare the disguised hero in tight coils of suspicion, politics, and lies. When the vengeful empress launches a vendetta against all mage kind, Kelsa must decide whether to save her family or preserve the empire. 

Unravel The Knight’s Secret, the first fantasy adventure of The Mage Conspiracy series. Discover a world of lurid entanglements and political intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.

What I have to say:

First of all, this is The Knight's Secret relaunched: version 2.0. (I reviewed 1.0 here.)

Now twice as gritty, twice as thrilling, and twice as thought-provoking.

Also twice as much sex, but we'll get to that in a minute.

This book gave me a lot to think about. In fact, while I've found all of Jeffrey Bardwell's books to be at least somewhat thought-provoking, this one takes the cake. 

There are two issues at the heart of The Knight's Secret: gender and prejudice. Both are beautifully illustrated in the way the story unfolds, and both feel extremely relevant right now. So I'm going to talk about them.

The gender divide

Our hero is a girl (Kelsa) -- disguised as a man. This isn't just a Shakespeare in Love situation; Kelsa is under a (voluntary) enchantment that makes her look and talk like her recently deceased grandfather, Sir Corbin Destrus. The longer she spends in his body, the more she begins to think and act like him, until it seems Corbin may have taken over entirely. But not quite.

Elsewhere, we have an empress who's just taken over from her deceased father. Wow -- wait. Didn't even think about that parallel until I wrote that sentence just now. Cool.

We've also got Maven: a mage and Corbin's former lover; and Drake: an old warrior and Corbin's best friend. 

Of course, there are plenty of other characters as well, and the gender divide plays out on smaller scales in all of them, notably in Kelsa's mother and father.

OK it's time to talk about sex.

So like, yeah, having sex with the woman who may or may not be your grandmother is super awkward. But like, Kelsa seems to have no problem with it so.... whateves.  

(This is where I point out that this book is PG-13. Like, it wasn't super graphic or anything, but definitely there's some... stuff... going on.)

Here's one of the places we see the gender gap most clearly. It's a different experience for each gender: Corbin and Maven. But since Kelsa has experienced it from both sides, she picks up on that difference. Then she makes love to a woman the way she knows women want to be loved.

But it's not just in the bedroom that gender differences come to light. It's in the story of the Battle of Jerkum Pass, where two women and one man make a fatal mistake -- and no one but the three of them ever know the true story. It's in the plots and intrigues that swirl around the city -- to which men and women give different responses. It's in the way Drake and the empress treat Maven -- calling her a witch and disrespecting her at every turn -- when they treat Corbin with evident respect and deference. 

And Kelsa? She's the bridge. Corbin and Kelsa in one, she brings the two genders together, just as she tries to bring the mages and soldiers together.

The mage prejudice

So I only realized this time through that this book takes place way before the events of The Artifice Mage saga. (I mean, there's literally the year at the beginning of every chapter so IDK how I missed that, just unobservant apparently.) Once I realized that, I was excited to see things like the mage detectors and the Black Guards coming into being, because those are already mainstays of Devin's world in The Artifice Mage saga. But enough plugs.

Just as there's a divide between men and women, there's a growing divide between the soldiers and the mages of the Imperial Army. While they're still on fairly good terms (depending on who you ask though, really), there's definitely tension in the room -- and it's building. 

It doesn't help that the empress seems determined to ramp up that tension for her own purposes. But just as she tries to bridge the gap between men and women, Kelsa tries to hold fast the growing divide in the army. 

So maybe there's only one issue at the heart of this book after all. It's about more than just the gender gap or societal prejudice. (Though those are pretty big issues in themselves.) 

In other words, it's not the difference itself that's the issue. 'Cause there will always be differences, whether they're differences of gender, ability, race, class, you name it. It's not hard to find the differences. It's hard to find the similarities.

And what this is all about is that we hone in on the ways we differ when we should hone in on the things we share.

That's The Knight's Secret.

And now that I'm in real danger of waxing too poetical, I'll wrap up. Thank you Jeffrey Bardwell, as always, for another rousing, darkly fascinating adventure. I look forward to sharing the next part of Kelsa's journey. And I look forward to sharing more literary travels with all you lovely readers, because at the end of the day, that's why we read, isn't it? To know we're not alone.


Until tomorrow.