Too Like The Lightning – Other People’s Takes

I’m still typing up notes but I thought it was time to look at other people’s reviews and takes on Ada Palmer’s book.

Intellectus Speculativus has strong issues with how gender is portrayed in the book. They make a strong case that it is problematic in a number of ways. Obviously, there is a distinction between the book’s representation versus how Mycroft deals with gender (likewise with religion) but they look at it deeper than that: https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/the-problematic-presentation-of-gender-in-ada-palmers-too-like-the-lightning/ I’m back to the dilemma of whether this is a *good* book or a cynical one which partly hinges on whether the society here is intended to be (somewhat) utopian, or a disguised dystopia or a future history in which we are forced to draw our own conclusions (although then why has the author chosen this world to build?).

Meanwhile, Crooked Timber has gone full-in Ada Palmer with multiple articles on the book and some broader ackground by Palmer http://crookedtimber.org/2017/04/20/ada-palmer-seminar-begins/  This article by Lee Konstantinou offers a positive perspective by focusing on the Utopian faction in Palmer’s world http://crookedtimber.org/2017/03/20/ada-palmers-great-conversation/

The Book Smugglers doesn’t have a review but it does have an article by Ada Palmer about why as a historian she writes SF http://thebooksmugglers.com/2016/05/like-lightning-ada-palmer.html

The book has TV Tropes page http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/TooLikeTheLightning

Strange Horizons has a review by Paul Kincaid with a strong opening “Had Too Like the Lightning lived up to its aspirations, it would have been one of the most significant works of contemporary science fiction. That, perhaps inevitably, it fails in this ambition leaves a book that is engaging, entertaining, and interesting, but that contains too many confusions and contradictions to be fully satisfying.” http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/too-like-the-lightning-by-ada-palmer/  I wonder if that captures the mix of feelings here – an ambitious work that for some (many?) doesn’t fulfil its ambitions?

The New York Review of Science Fiction takes a different tack and directly compares Mycroft to Alex from A Clockwork Orange http://www.nyrsf.com/2016/12/two-views-too-like-the-lightningby-ada-palmerreviewed-by-stephen-gerken.html

WIRED asks ‘Should this book have an index?’ https://www.wired.com/2016/08/wired-book-club-too-lightning-2/ well it should have a set of footnotes by the time I’m done 🙂

How much of this doubt about the book a reflection of the doubts we have about Mycroft.

Well, it certainly rates 10/10 for ‘capacity to generate conversations’. I can’t doubt ‘ambitious’ as a description and I think ‘significant’ as well. ‘Good’? Aye, there’s the rub.

Notes Ignota: Part the Fourth

Notes on Ignota
A collection of notes and queries on ‘Too Like the Lightning’ compiled by CAMESTROS FELAPTON, at the Request of Certain Parties.

Page numbers and text are from the 2016 Tor US hardback edition. Errors and typos are mine except where indicated. The notes are not authorised by the author or editorialised by the editor. I’m speculating people! Latin translations are my best guess from Google translate and I don’t really know much Latin – corrections welcome.

Page 31 Chapter the Third: The Most Important People in the World
•    Dante’s Purgatory. Dante degli Alighieri 1265 – 1321, Italian poet famous for his Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy is in three parts, Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory) and Paradiso (heaven). Purgatory being the place in the Catholic conception of the afterlife where repentant sinners go before being admitted to heaven after atoning for their earthly sins. In the book Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain divided into terraces. Each terrace is assigned a sin and sinners repent that sin under guidance. At the top is the earthly paradise (i.e. another kind of utopia) the final spot before heaven.
•    ‘Krepolsky’s earliest spectacle cities’ – the top hit for the name Krepolsky is the tor.com extract of this book.
•    ‘a butler for his master’ – just noting that theme again.
•    ‘Square and compass’ – a masonic symbol intended to represent the measurement tools of stone workers. It often is shown with a ‘G’ inside, which would be appropriate given Martin Guildbreaker’s surname.
•    ‘Familiaris Regni’ – familiarise regis is a person who is part of a monarch’s entourage. This may include high ranking servants, courtiers and advisors but essentially people who speak to the king and act on his behalf.
Page 32
•    ‘Annus Dialogorum’ – years of dialogue? Actually explained later in the text.
•    ‘Sanctum Sanctorum’ – the holy of holies, the most sacred place inside a temple, in particular within the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem where the ark of the covenant was kept. Masonic tradition claims descent from the builders of Solomon’s temple.
Page 33
•    ‘Black Sakura’ – sakura is the Japanese term for cherry blossom. Blossom keeps cropping up.
Page 34
Page 35
•    ‘set-set nets’ & ‘Cartesian’ – of or pertaining to Rene Descartes e.g. ‘Cartesian coordinates’ refer to his system of rectangular coordinates. More relevantly ‘Cartesian Theater’ is a term coined by cognitive philosopher Daniel C Dennet for a view of the mind in which our we see ourselves as sitting within our minds watching the input from the outside world. Alternatively given ‘set-set nets’ it is possible this refers to the Cartesian product which isa kind of multiplication of sets. For example the cartesian product of the set {a,b,c} and {1,2,3}  is {a1,a2,a3,b1,b2,b3,c1,c2,c3}. Maybe it’s both.
•    ‘It was common in our eighteenth century’ – Mycroft shifts to a dialogue format and says that it was common in the 18th century. Given he has expected us to keep up with a wider ranging set of references, it is odd that he points out how common dialogues used to be. Most famously, Plato’s work are written as dialogues and much later works (e.g. by Galileo) often presented arguments as dialogues.
Page 36
•    ‘Utopians’ – a subset of Mycroft’s society but also a reference to Thomas More again.
•    ‘Eureka’s bed’ – ‘Eureka’ being the famous exclamation of Archimedes the famous Greek mathematician who was later killed by a Roman soldier.
Page 37
•    “Good morning, Nepos’ – nepos was latin for grandchild and then later nephew, from which we get the term ’nepotism’. Julius Nepos was arguably the last of the western Roman emperors.
Page 38
•    ‘There is not no truth in such speculation’ Mycroft claims that this ‘awkward precision’ results from Martin translating from Latin. His statement implies that there is some truth in the speculation but is expressed as a negation.
•    ‘President Ganymede’ – this is another Troy connection. Ganymede was a beautiful youth who was adopted by Zeus to serve the gods on Olympus (there is a sexual implication). Ganymede was the son of Tros, who founded the city of Troy.
Page 39
Page 40
•    ‘cherry tree blooms pink’ blossom again
•    Machiavelli – Nicolo Machiavelli 1469-1527 is of course, well known. Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot saw his infamous book ‘The Prince’ as a satire i.e. that Maciaveli was attempting to warn people about tyrants rather than write a handy manual on how to be a tyrant.
Page 41
•    ‘Ojiro Cardigan Sniper’ Cardigan is a place in Wales and the Earl of Cardigan led the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war. The knitted waistcoat of British officers became known as ‘cardigans’. It is not really a name. ‘Sniper’ is another name-verb-name, a snipe is a bird, to snipe was to try and hunt such a bird hence ‘sniper’ for a person who shoots precisely from a distance. I don’t know if ‘Ojiro’ has military significance.

Notes Ignota: Part the Third

Notes on Ignota
A collection of notes and queries on ‘Too Like the Lightning’ compiled by CAMESTROS FELAPTON, at the Request of Certain Parties.

Page numbers and text are from the 2016 Tor US hardback edition. Errors and typos are mine except where indicated. The notes are not authorised by the author or editorialised by the editor. I’m speculating people! Latin translations are my best guess from Google translate and I don’t really know much Latin – corrections welcome.

Chapter the Second: A Boy and His God contd…

Page 19
•    ‘These men are called Aimer, Looker, Medic, Stander Yellow, Stander Green, Croucher, Nogun, Nostand and back there the late Private Pointer’ – most of the soldiers are named by the actions their stance suggest. Verbs to names.
Page 20
•    ‘origami animals’ – any culture with paper has some sort of paper folding arts but Japanese origami is the most famous – although cross-fertilised with Chinese and European traditions. Notably an important art form with ceremonial aspects during Japan’s Edo period 1603-1868. Yes, it is just one word but up until this point, you’ll note the references have all been to either Western Europe or the cultures that Western Europe regarded as foundational (Ancient Greece and Rome plus the Bible).
•    ‘Humanist boots’ – explained later in the text.
•    ‘Mestizo’ – a term that was used to describe a person in South America who was of mixed European/Amerindian descent.
Page 21
•    ‘anti-proselytory laws’ – numerous countries have laws against attempting to persuade people to adopt a given religion. In most cases these are laws aimed at wealthier Christian groups attempting to evangelise in other countries – this includes laws in Russia designed to help protect Orthodox churches from US protestant and Mormon missionaries.
•    ‘Chance, Providence, Fate or the whimsy of pool ball atoms’ – these seem to be the main perspectives on events in Mycroft’s society.
•    ‘Cielo de Pajaros’ – my Spanish is nearly as bad as my latin but I think this means ‘Birds of Sky’ like ‘All the Birds of the Sky’ I guess, if you want another Hugo coincidence.
Page 22
First page where I didn’t make a note. Hoorah!
Page 23
•    ‘Master, do you believe…’ – “master” here means the reader as previously established.
Page 24
•    ‘If Troy’s Queen Hecuba, impossibly mother to fifty sons…’ – Queen Hecuba, wife of Priam of Troy. A character in the Illiad by Homer obviously but also in multiple other classical works about Troy and the fall of Troy and the aftermath of the fall of Troy. King Priam had fifty plus sons (depending on your source) but Hecuba wasn’t mother to all of them. However, she did (according to legend) have lots of children most of whom ended up dead or enslaved (or enslaved and then dead) as a consequence of the Trojan wars. So Queen Hecuba is almost proverbially somebody with lots of tragic offspring. Yeah, yeah, you say, but what’s that got to do with the Enlightenment?
•    Time for some Immanuel Kant. Kant was a rare breed – a Scottish-German and one of the most insightful but unreadable philosophers ever. Here is the preface of one of his attempt to save metaphysics from scepticism:

PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION, 1781
Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.
It falls into this difficulty without any fault of its own. It begins with principles, which cannot be dispensed with in the field of experience, and the truth and sufficiency of which are, at the same time, insured by experience. With these principles it rises, in obedience to the laws of its own nature, to ever higher and more remote conditions. But it quickly discovers that, in this way, its labours must remain ever incomplete, because new questions never cease to present themselves; and thus it finds itself compelled to have recourse to principles which transcend the region of experience, while they are regarded by common sense without distrust. It thus falls into confusion and contradictions, from which it conjectures the presence of latent errors, which, however, it is unable to discover, because the principles it employs, transcending the limits of experience, cannot be tested by that criterion. The arena of these endless contests is called Metaphysic.
Time was, when she was the queen of all the sciences; and, if we take the will for the deed, she certainly deserves, so far as regards the high importance of her object-matter, this title of honour. Now, it is the fashion of the time to heap contempt and scorn upon her; and the matron mourns, forlorn and forsaken, like Hecuba:
Modo maxima rerum,
Tot generis, natisque potens…
Nunc trahor exul, inops.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses. xiii

Yup, that’s Ovid who we mentioned earlier. “A moment ago I was endowed with the greatest things, so many sons and daughters, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law and my husband.”

Now Mycroft mentions Queen Hecuba not to make a comment about metaphysics but about scandalous progeny. Kant though uses Hecuba as a metaphor for a mother whose children (the sciences) have gone off their own way and no longer acknowledge their mother. Of course, Mycroft is making his analogy about Carlyle whose profession and interest is…metaphysics.
Page 25 to 27
Aside from how Mycroft and others use gendered and ungendered pronouns, there is nothing specific to note here.
Page 28
•    ‘Cato’ – Cato the Younger famous Roman politician and opponent of Julius Ceaser
•    ‘At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas More’ – Mycroft has his centuries mixed up here. Thomas More was born in 1478 and hence did not exist at the dawn of the FIFTEENTH century. He did, however, publish his famous book ‘Utopia’ (in Latin) from which we derive the term ‘utopia’ in 1516. Mycroft meant to say the SIXTEENTH century.
•    ‘Persian judicial system’ – this is more or less as described from Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’. Technically it is a vassal state of Persia that adopts this unusual practice.
Page 29-30
•    Togenkyo – I think this is a Japanese rendition of the name of the place in the Chinese fable ‘The Peach Blossom Land’. A kind of Shangri-La like place i.e. another utopia.

That’s it for Chapter Two – other chapters don’t have quite so much

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Can you make a light-hearted comedy space opera about abusive parents? Um, sort of I guess. Guardians of the Galaxy is back and with an opening fight scene in which the camera sticks with Baby Groot dancing to ELO, letting the tentacle space monster fighting action go on behind, it knows that the music, wonderful images and jokes will carry the day.

It is not a substantial spoiler to say that the plot focuses on the return of Peter Quill/Starlord’s father in the form of Kurt Russell. Unfortunately, that means the primary theme of the movie is how the rag-tag gang is really a family and family, family, family. It isn’t a terrible sentiment but with Fast and Furious franchise relying on the same schtick, it feels more cliche than heartwarming in places. Worse, two key characters (Gamora and Nebula) were brought up by wannabe death god Thanos, and his misuse of both of them as weapons growing up (not depicted but described) makes for some clumsy tonal shifts amid the jokes about blowing things up.

The plot feels thinner than Volume 1 but the jokes are more frequent and most play well. You’ll all watch it for Baby Groot dancing anyway and, well why not? Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan get more a story arc than volume 1 but there is an element of a redemption arc for Nebula. There was a point where I thought she’d get her own band of space pirates and I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t.

Review: Doctor Who – Smile

There isn’t much to say about the story in itself. The main feature is that it is a serviceable Doctor Who style SF story with a weak resolution and ending. The look and overall design, as well the cute/creepy emoji robots, mark it as recent but in other ways, it could have been a story from any era of Doctor Who.

So what’s that all about then? Stephen Moffat is many things but one thing he is is a very self-conscious producer of TV shows. He attempts to change rules and dynamics of the shows he runs, often unsuccessfully. He also tries to avoid doing a season of Doctor Who the same way twice – again often unsuccessfully.

Based on just the first two episodes it does sort of look like this time Moffat is trying to do Russell T Davis. Again, Moffat has tried to evoke past Doctor who eras before. We know that this season will have a major shout out to the William Hartnell Doctor with the return of the creepy and ungainly ‘Mondasian’ cybermen, but my sense of this season so far is more Christopher Ecclestone than Hartnell.

Is it an intentional ‘back to basics’ approach? Could be, after all, what could be more different from Moffat’s previous over-complex story arcs than shifting back to the first season of the revival? A new companion allows a new introduction to the Doctor, and with Peter Capaldi retiring at the end of this season from the role, it also marks a chance for a handover like Ecclestone to Tennant. That next week’s episode takes our heroes to Victorian London also means the first three episodes match the same pattern as the first three of the revived season 1 (ep 1: present, ep 2: far future, ep 3: Victorian times).

Notes Ignota: Part the Second

Notes on Ignota
A collection of notes and queries on ‘Too Like the Lightning’ compiled by CAMESTROS FELAPTON, at the Request of Certain Parties.

Page numbers and text are from the 2016 Tor US hardback edition. Errors and typos are mine except where indicated. The notes are not authorised by the author or editorialised by the editor. I’m speculating people! Latin translations are my best guess from Google translate and I don’t really know much Latin – corrections welcome.

Page 14 Chapter the Second: A Boy and His God
Oh, thank goodness. The story has actually started! Hopefully, this note taking lark will settle down after awhile…but not yet! The good news is, that while the novel does keep referencing things, it loops back to the same people, myths, places etc. so later chapters need shorter notes. This first page proper of the story has quite a few though.
•    ‘Carlyle Foster’ – another first name that derives from a surname (a variant spelling of the North of England town that is near the Scottish border). Most likely [later confirmed by the text] a reference to Thomas Carlyle 19th century Scottish philosopher and essayist. Carlyle expounded the great man/hero view of history (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Heroes,_Hero-Worship,_and_The_Heroic_in_History ) At times seen as a liberal, he also later became notable for his reactionary view particularly on slavery https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occasional_Discourse_on_the_Negro_Question The character of Carlyle in the novel seems to be quite unlike Thomas Carlyle in most things other than intellectual curiosity.
•    ‘March the twenty-third was the Feast of St. Turibius, a day on which men honoured their Creator’ – There are several St. Turibius but the one mentioned is probably Turibius of Lima who died on March 23 1606. A Franciscan missionary who notably sided with the indigenous population of Peru (up to a point obviously – he was also trying to convert them to Christianity. The Fansciscans were one of the three major Catholic orders that swept through South America along with Spain’s invading armies. The other two were the Dominicans (aka Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition) and the Jesuits. When dragging a pair of teenagers around the churches of Cuzco I differentiated the three orders as Franciscans = Gryffindor, Dominicans = Slytherin and Jesuits = Ravenclaw. Yes, trivialising but it works surprisingly well.
•    ‘Fisher G Gurai’ – note another first name derived from a surname. ‘Fisher’ is a common name in English and in German ‘Fischer’. I note it is a noun from a verb from a noun (fish – to fish – a person who fishes) and we’ll meet other names like that (Bridger, Sniper). Don’t know why.
•    Cousin – My note here says ‘A sensayers title? Like ‘father’ or ‘brother’ for a priest or monk’ This is incorrect but it is explained later in the text.
•    ‘Thisbe’ – a main character, whose name you may recognise from the play within a play “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Shakespeare’s a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. However, the story of frustrated lovers is actually from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One of the great trio of ancient Roman poets (the others being Virgil and Horace), Ovid notably found himself exiled by Emperor Augustus and ended up living in what is now Romania (the Black Sea port of Constanta has a very statue of him. For extra bonus trivia: the influence of Rome goes beyond statues of poets in Romania, the language is also a Romance language appropriately enough. Later writers influenced by Ovid, relevant to these notes, include Petrarch and Cervantes (and Shakespeare obviously).

Page 15
•    ‘each five centimetres tall’ – approximately two inches and suggestive of the standard 54 mm size of 1:32 scale toy soldier scale (1 inch of toy equals 32 inch of real person). Larger than the small plastic soldiers but smaller than the GIJoe/Action man style.
Page 16
•    ‘Bridger’ – another noun-verb-noun name and surname as first name.
•    ‘Voltaire’ – The pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet. The name is an anagram of Arovet-Li a latinised pun on ’The young Arouet’. In 1700, Voltaire would have been 6, so the learned crowds that Mycroft mentions would have been right to be sceptical and Voltaire probably wasn’t a wordsmith at that point or called ‘Voltaire’ but I’m just being picky. We all get Mycroft’s point. By the end of the century that 1700 presages, the dynasties of Europe would be much more worse for wear than the start including missing a few heads and/or colonies.
•    ‘Thou too, Mycroft Canner?’ – reputedly the last words of Julius Caesar after being stabbed by his former friend Brutus. Widely cited prior to Shakespeare, but the use in the titular play is probably the most famous use of it. Caeser was stabbed March 13 (the ides of March) 44 CE, i.e. 10 days and 2410 years before the setting of the story – which is nice if you like round numbers. Note that Mycroft makes us speak to him using the familiar ‘thou’ perhaps to better match the Latin (although he sticks with it). Thee’s and thou’s are now archaic in English but they lingered on in some dialects e.g. the “tha” in Northern English (increasingly vanishing).
•    ‘How can your servant answer you, good master?’ Mycroft casts himself as the servant and us as his master
Page 17
•    ‘…the priests of Pharaoh when Moses’s snake…” – I assume you all know this one but the biblical story is notable as it implies that Moses’s god was one of many gods but more powerful than the gods of Egypt. Also, in the context of the story, an overt BIBLICAL reference is possibly a tad scandalous given the way people of this era avoid things that suggest ‘cult’ associations.
•    ‘Ockham’ – William of Ockham 1287-1347 was a Franciscan monk (another one!) and logician who lived in Britain in the fourteenth century. Most famous for his principle of parsimony known as Occam’s razor.
•    ’No!’ Spanish punctuation
•    ‘a polylaw’ – explained later in the text
•    ‘a Mason’ The freemasons attempt to date their movement back to many time periods including antiquity. However, the movement really sprang up in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In context, it’s spread through Western Europe and Britain’s North American colonies is contemporaneous with The Enlightenment.
•    ‘Sensayers live for metaphysics’ – Metaphysics is the study of being and what it is to be named after the main topic of the book by Aristotle that followed “The Physics”. By back-formation “meta’ has become a prefix to describe a subject beyond that of another, for example “meta-mathematics” is study of the structure of mathematics. Aristotle is, as you all know, the three of the big trio of Greek philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
•    ‘the nonexistent Latin verb senseo’ – Latin, verbs turned into names and what ’sensayer’ means all appear here.
Page 18
•    ‘Mertice McKay’ – I’ve got nothing, sometimes I guess a name is just a name.
•    Romanova – looks like New Rome [text later confirms this but also looks like Romania.
•    ‘Let us create a new creature’ – which reminds me of Frankenstein aka The New Prometheus by Mary Shelley, which you all know as a central text in the origin of Science Fiction. Written in 1818, it is also a work of the Romantic aesthetic movement in the arts, which was to some extent a reaction against some aspects of the Enlightenment (e.g. Frankenstein as a man whose spirit of natural inquiry dehumanises him). In this case the ‘new creature’ is also a reaction to a social movement and comes in the form of the sensayer – a secular priest-like person. [Yes, I wrote this before Frankenstein makes a less subtle appearance later!]
•    ‘to diagram the derivation’ – ‘to diagram’ is usually applied to the grammar of a sentence than to the derivation of a name but Mycroft has a point.

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]