Lodestar 2021 Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

We have a lot more reading time this year in the Hugo Awards than usual and I’ve found I’ve made some dents into categories I don’t normally get to. My biggest problem with longer fiction is that my reading time for novels is now almost exclusively when I’m exercising which means audiobooks. I’ve recently launched myself into reading Seanann McGuire’s October Daye series but that’s a post for a different day. The other foray has been into fiction for a younger audience in the other not-a-Hugo aka the Lodestar Award.

First book in that arena is Legendborn, a YA urban fantasy Arthurian romance and that’s a very nice cocktail of sub-genres. Chaste love triangles? It’s a Young Adult cliche, it’s how urban fantasy spawned paranormal romance but it is nothing new to the legend of King Arthur. The classic Matter of Britain is such a rich vein that Legendborn feels so natural a fit to its premise that I feel like it must have been done a thousand times before but I can’t think of any examples. It cleverly fills an empty niche and if it had done only that then Tracy Deonn would deserve plaudits if only for spotting an unfilled spot.

Clever sub-genre choices though aren’t what makes a book worthy of a not-quite-a-Hugo-but-yeah-really-it-is-a-Hugo-c’mon and the test is not picking a clever premise but doing clever things with the premise and I’m genuinely impressed with how Deonn works with the idea and then pulls out layers and layers while still delivering on the demands of the sub-sub-genre.

Bree Matthews is a bright student who gains acceptance to an “early college” placement at a notable college in a Southern US state. Her academic success though has been marred by tragedy — shortly after being accepted to the college, her mother died in a car accident. She now finds herself as a sixteen-year-old, in the quasi-adult world of university still grieving and with unresolved issues around her last argument with her mother.

On her face night, things get weirder when she encounters magical creatures and a clique of students who appear to have magical powers…

So if you want the magical school setting and the urban fantasy masquerade and all that stuff, Legendborn delivers from training montages to magical competitions and handsome but troubled young men. We quickly learn that (gasp) the legend of King Arthur is a cover story for a history of a secret war between magical initiates and invading demons. A historic secret society at the college is actually a front for an international society of descendants from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Each family of descendants of the knights have a chosen representative with the capability of gaining special powers matched to the lineage.

Clever stuff but…

Bree is Black and the secret society has all the baggage that you might imagine of a clique of wealthy families connected to a historic institution in America’s south. Legendborn isn’t a subversion of the standard tropes of its multiple genres but it does allow the plot and the character to dig into the history and assumptions of its own settings.

The mystery of her mother’s death drives Bree into involvement with the so-called ‘legend born but also leads her into looking into the history of her own family. There she learns not just about some of the deeper secrets of the secret society she has become embroiled in but also a different history and a different model of magic.

There are some really nice touches here and while I don’t want to give too many spoilers there are some subtle choices in the world-building. For example, in the Arthurian set-up, which is presented initially as the magical world in which Bree is initiated, magic is based on lineages and bloodlines. Inheritance and family are key aspects of having power. Later, as Bree taps into a different world of magic, family is still important but it is transmitted via oral tradition from grandmothers to granddaughters. The comparison and contrast between the idea of magic (and hence power) as a family legacy is very well done but it is subtle and woven into the more conventional narrative.

The novel is part of a series and the over-arching plot isn’t complete by the end but as a stand alone novel, it works and there is a good (and revealing) climax that shifts events and character relationships into a new state.

No big plot surprises but an excellent example of how to take what superficially looks like a by-the-numbers plot and do engaging things with it.

Covid won’t necessarily get naturally less deadly by itself

The topic of consensus has come up recently and it is interesting to look at the flip side of scientific consensus and look at broad rules of thumb that exist in wider society. With diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites etc there is a reasonable (but flawed) assumption that over time a specific disease will become less deadly. The assumption rests on a rough sketch of how evolution works. An infected person needs to be alive for the virus to grow and spread and so, killing the infected person is of less advantage to a virus than leaving the person alive and walking about. It’s a reasonable idea because we are all hosts to a wide range of viruses that cause common colds that usually just make us snotty and miserable rather than dead.

But it is no more than a rule of thumb and the reasonableness of the idea hides a whole pile of complexity. Also, there’s an underlying cognitive error we all fall into when considering how natural selection works that makes us pretend that there’s some sort of agency behind how these changes happen. A virus doesn’t want to kill people, it has no wants or any capacity for anything like wants or a direction nor does evolution strive for perfection. An additional reasoning error is a more subtle version of the old anti-evolutionary argument “if humans evolved from apes, how come there are still apes?” Evolution spawns new varieties of reproducing things rather than just replacing old ones with shiny upgraded versions.

A moment’s thought about examples of long term diseases that humans have faced shows that many diseases remain very deadly despite long histories. Evidence of smallpox is present throughout most of recorded history and its deadliness was reduced not by the virus becoming less virulent by itself. Obviously, there are related viruses to smallpox that are less deadly but humanity had to live with those as well as smallpox. Improved care reduced the deadliness, inoculation as practice (intentional infection of people with matter from a smallpox-infected person possibly first used in China) reduced the impact of the disease and eventually, vaccination led to the disease being wiped out.

Influenza keeps working its own happy way through the evolutionary gambling tables each year, throwing up variations that are more or less injurious. Every living (or not quite living) thing is a glitchy, cobbled-together trade-off of adaptations. “Less deadly” is one direction but there’s not a simple genetic switch or “deadliness” parameter a virus can turn up or down without affecting other features of the virus.

Now I’m not a virologist or even a biologist. I don’t know what the odds of new variants of covid being more deadly are. The rule of thumb isn’t utter nonsense, all other things being equal, I can see why it makes sense that maybe a more infectious & less dangerous version of the virus might become more dominant and maybe (if we were very lucky) also give people sufficient immunity that the nastier versions would fade away. I wouldn’t bet money on it though. Again, appealing to what we can see, covid currently is relatively slow to kill people and there’s plenty of time for an infectious person to spread the virus before they feel so sick that they aren’t out and about spreading the disease. Also, many infected people are asymptomatic, so the deadliness is not much of a disadvantage to the disease.

But we really can only get so far trying to think these things through with general knowledge and a critical eye. Expertise matters and literally whatthehelldoIknow. Expertise matters much more, particularly when evaluating multiple competing factors. Here’s an article by experts in microbial evolution and mathematical biology explaining some of the issues far better than I can: https://theconversation.com/will-coronavirus-really-evolve-to-become-less-deadly-153817

That article also links to an academic paper looking at the potential evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That paper looks at multiple ways the virus may evolve into new strains. On this specific topic it notes:

“A crucial question is how virulence will evolve [28]. As discussed above, direct selection on virulence is weak (Figure 3D,H). Thus, virulence evolution will be driven largely by the indirect effects of pleiotropy. In Figure 4, we consider two potential examples. First, consider mutations that couple a higher transmission rate, the βs, with higher mortality, ɑ (positive pleiotropy, Figure 4A,C), as might occur if mutations increase viral replication rates. In this case, evolution will lead to higher mortality (see inset bars), as an indirect consequence of selection for increased transmission (see Supplemental Information and also [12,29]). Alternatively, consider a mutation that alters tissue tropism such that the disease tends to preferentially infect cells of the upper respiratory tract, rather than the lower respiratory tract. Such infections could lead to a higher transmission rate but be less virulent (negative pleiotropy) [30]. This would generate indirect selection for lower mortality rates (Figure 4B,D).”

On the evolutionary epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2, Troy Day, Sylvain Gandon, Sébastien Lion, and Sarah P. Otto Current Biology 30, R841–R870, August 3, 2020 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7287426/pdf/main.pdf

[Word of the day: pleiotropy – when a gene impacts two or more unrelated traits https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiotropy]

So there you go, right? I’ve got experts and an academic citation from a paper with maths in it AND GRAPHS! Case closed, right?

Not really. I like the argument I just wrote but it is far from immune from being BS. I’m smart, STEM-educated and I can find academic papers and quote from them (and thank the Humanities for those skills). Yet, I’ve no real idea whether the academics I quoted are actually good at their jobs. I don’t know whether the two essays I’ve quoted are actually making well-known errors in the field of evolutionary virology or pushing some heterodox minority position. For all I know, the field of evolutionary virology is currently engaged in raging flame wars on this very issue and there’s a really, really strong argument that (aside from a few exceptions) viruses nearly always get substantially less deadly for reasons other than better treatment or vaccines. It’s not just that I’m not an expert on these topics but also I don’t know anything about the community of people who ARE experts.

Now, given the currency and high profile nature of this issue, I’m fairly confident that I’m not making an ass of myself and quoting a paper that virologists are scorning. Yet, this takes me back to the real topic of this post: consensus and truth not just in science but in any body of knowledge/field of expertise.

A body of knowledge is not a set of textbooks but a community of expertise in which opinions and experience matter. Those communities are flawed. They will have biases. They will be slow to adopt new ideas that are actually more true than old ideas. They will be vulnerable to professional and commercial pressures. These things are true because science is done by humans and communities of humans have these issues. That means we should not unthinkingly accept what any given community of experts say as the unimpeachable truth. However, the odds are that a community of expertise that adopts methods of self-correction and reasoning is far more likely to be a source of truth than our naive intuition about complex issues.

Do I have one more rhetorical trick up my sleeve to convince you that covid won’t necessarily get less deadly? I have lots but as this is a portmanteau essay on many things, including the art of rhetoric then I shall use a failed student of the art to convince you that covid can get worse:

“These utterly ignorant idiots don’t understand that it is the flawed vaccines that are causing the next variant to be worse, not the unvaccinated. If it had been left to progress naturally through the population, the virus would have become more infectious and less harmful, like every other virus in history. It’s already doing that, which is why the Delta variant is estimated to be 10x less lethal than the original one.”

Vox Day, https://web.archive.org/web/20210726205857/http://voxday.blogspot.com/2021/07/when-vaxxing-makes-it-worse.html

I call the move I’m making here the anti-appeal to a lack of expertise 😀

Susan’s Salon: 2021 July 25/26

😷📈💉🦠🦘🌏

Please use the comment section to just chat about whatever you want. Susan’s Salon is posted early Monday (Australian Eastern Standard Time, which is still Sunday in most other countries). It’s fine to be sad, worried, vaccinated, unvaccinated-yet, angry or maybe even happy (or all of those things at once).

Please feel free to post what you like (either troubling news or pleasant distractions) in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments.] Links, videos, cat pictures 🐈 etc are fine! Whatever you like and be nice to one another 😇

Sydney gets its own anti-lockdown protests

Rowdy and sometimes violent scenes yesterday as Sydney got its own anti-lockdown protest. In what must be one of the most stupid political movements, several thousand people attempted to march through the CBD despite the city being in a strict lockdown due to spiralling numbers of cases due to the delta-variant of covid-19.

The strangest and most widely shared incident being a protestor punching a police horse: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/antilockdown-protesters-descend-on-sydney-20210724-h1xdrl.html

Interestingly, the protests in Sydney were bigger than the ones in Melbourne https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-24/anti-covid-lockdown-protest-in-sydney-cbd/100320620 That is curious because while people in Melbourne have had a series of lockdowns and strict measures over the course of the pandemic, Sydney has had (overall) a relatively easy time of things compared to the rest of the world.

Covid: Trajectory

A few weeks in and Australia is still struggling to get on top of the recent delta-variant outbreak of covid. It’s apparent that the initially muddled and delayed lockdown in Sydney was too late to keep the virus bottled up and it is now spreading in more rural areas.

As regular readers will know, I’ve tried to stick with one fairly consistent way of looking at covid numbers: cumulative confirmed cases per population size. There are no perfect numbers and these figures have the same issues in terms of being dependent on testing rates. However, my point about the graphs has been that it is not so much the magnitude as the slope of the graph. Lower testing rates may obscure or delay how that graph gets steeper but when the virus is spreading exponentially it will show up in the numbers.

On the “delay” aspect with testing, I thought I’d illustrate that with a simplified graph. The underlying data is a number that increases proportionally by 1.2 times the previous “day’s” number. Two lines show 5% of the current day’s total (blue) and 1% of the current day’s total. Obviously, testing rates do impact the number of reported cases but inevitably the numbers go wooosh regardless.

Putting the curves side-by-side helps show how the pattern is similar but these two lines look identical if plotted with different scales on the vertical axis. The underlying shapes are similar in a mathematical sense where the difference is scale.

Anyway, still locked down for the time being and the curve is still going up.

Debarkle Chapter 51: Meanwhile…Donald Trump

It is 1987 and the question for American conservatives is who will succeed Ronald Reagan not just as President of the United States but as the ideological figurehead of the conservative movement. The most likely candidate for the Republican nomination is George H.W. Bush, the current Vice President but Bush’s credibility among the right of the Republican Party isn’t strong. Nevertheless, his role at Ronald Reagan’s side will make him a difficult candidate to beat. The alternatives to Bush include Bob Dole and Jack Kemp but many on the right are putting their hopes in televangelist Pat Robertson who was promising to clear out liberals from the apparatus of the federal government.[1] Robertson had built his campaign by appealing for millions of volunteers in his Evangelical Christian base to rally to his cause. Press coverage of the race has focused on the increasing influence of the radical Christian movement within the Republican Party:

Continue reading “Debarkle Chapter 51: Meanwhile…Donald Trump”

Debarkle Chapter 50: 2015 Aftermath — July to December

The Sad Puppy defeat could have been taken as a repudiation of what the Sad Puppies had stood for but in the wake of the Hugo Award ceremony, nobody had a clear idea what the Sad Puppies had stood for. Larry Correia’s original campaign had framed itself as promoting fun, honest action in science fiction as a blow against overly literary fiction yet Sad Puppies 2 had promoted Vox Day’s Opera Vita Aeterna, a story in which an elf discusses theology and Sad Puppies 3 had promoted the work of John C Wright, a writer even more obsessed with literary aesthetics and philosophical themes. Critics of Brad Torgersen’s original framing of the Sad Puppies 3 campaign had pointed to his anti-diversity rhetoric and yet Torgersen could genuinely point to a slate that was not homogeneously white and male. True, the impact of the Puppy slates reduced the representation of women on the ballot compared to 2013 but it was still a better balance than relatively recent Hugo ballots (e.g. 2007). Sad Puppy supporters had rallied around a claim that the Hugo Awards were biased against conservative writers and works but also the Sad Puppy leadership had denied that the campaign was political. In an attempt to prevent critics of the Sad Puppy campaign from framing the campaign in any particular way, defenders of the campaigns had counter-examples ready.

Continue reading “Debarkle Chapter 50: 2015 Aftermath — July to December”

Susan’s Salon: 2021 July 18/19

I promised Lurkertype a picture inspired by a comment in my last post.

Fixed it

Anyway…please use the comment section to just chat about whatever you want. Susan’s Salon is posted early Monday (Australian Eastern Standard Time, which is still Sunday in most other countries). It’s fine to be sad, worried, vaccinated, unvaccinated-yet, angry or maybe even happy (or all of those things at once).

Please feel free to post what you like (either troubling news or pleasant distractions) in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments.] Links, videos, cat pictures 🐈 etc are fine! Whatever you like and be nice to one another 😇

Fixing The Tomorrow War

Sorry, it’s just that this daft film is bugging me. If you are going to have a time travel plot then do something with it. Terminator 1 and 2 managed to be exciting, daft movies and still have some interesting things to say about determinism and time travel. The Tomorrow War pulled one emotional beat out of the set-up but otherwise the time travel aspect just lead to an absurd situation in which Chris Pratt and only Chris Pratt could work out what to do in the past to help the future. It didn’t help that Pratt is not good at conveying the idea that his character is a particularly insightful thinker.

Spoilers follow…

Continue reading “Fixing The Tomorrow War”