Friday, November 7, 2014

Microscopic Invaders & Real Zombification

Which one is the fungus?
Perhaps you've heard of zombie ants.

A zombie ant is an ant that has been taken over by a specific kind of fungus found mostly in the tropics: Ophiocordyceps unilaterus.

The spores of the fungi attach to the outer shell of the ant, and soon break through its exoskeleton and begin to grow inside the unfortunate insect.

That would be plenty bad enough (for the ant anyway), but it gets much, much worse.

The cordyceps fungus has evolved to have more than a passing acquaintance with the ant's brain, such as it is, and quickly persuades the ant to leave its home in the trees for a moister, warmer locale on the forest floor.

There, the ant, now controlled by the fungus, attaches itself to the underside of a leaf, where it soon dies.

In the final phase, fungal hyphae (filaments) sprout from the dead ant's head and release spores, which float about the forest looking for another ant to stick to and start the cycle all over again.

Evidence of this kind of ant-parasitism has been found on leaves that are 48 million years old.

So this kind of thing has been going on for awhile.

Mice Who Love Cats

I know that right about now you are thinking, okay Pam, that's pretty weird but so what? What do zombie mice and Amazon fungi have to do with aliens?

I promise I will get to that, seriously.

Stay with me.

Research into a micro-organism that lives in cat feces called toxoplasmosis gondii recently has shown that when mice are infected with this teeny critter they lose their fear of cats.

Toxoplasmosis gondii causes an infection in pregnant women that can result in fetal abnormalities. In people who are not pregnant it is barely noticeable.

Not too long ago the only interesting thing about toxoplasma was that their existence meant that Dad had to clean the cat box for nine months.

However it turns out that toxoplasma have a lot in common with the fungus that zombifies tropical ants.

They are very gifted germs.

Toxoplasma actually change the behavior of animals who inhale their spores. In the case of mice, the loss of fear of cats benefits the t. gondii organism directly by making it much more likely than an uninfected cat will eat a friendly infected mouse and then spread the organism around some more by pooping.

Even more amazing (or troubling, however you choose to look at it), people who carry the t.gondii organism in their bodies, even when it is dormant and causing no illness, become measurably more outgoing and sociable--just like the mice.

Once the t. gondii organism is in a human body in a dormant state, it can't be removed, so the behavior changes are permanent; a finding borne out by the observation that mice who were cured of their toxoplasma infection retained their habits of sauntering up to cats to say hello unafraid of the consequences.

Evidence is also accumulating that dormant toxoplasma may be a partial cause of certain kinds of schizophrenia, opening up a new line of research in the cause and treatment of mental illness.

Researchers who discovered the capacity of toxoplasma to change human behavior decided to see if the same held true for other illness-causing micro-organisms.

Because the researchers did not want to infect volunteers with active sickness, they decided instead to follow a random group of people who had just gotten a flu shot, reasoning that the flu virus in the shot, while not strong enough to make them sick, would still be alive in the subjects' bodies for at least several days while they developed immunity to it.

They found that for the the week following an ordinary flu shot, even relative introverts got the sudden urge to shop, go to the movies, and in short hang out with large groups of people in any way that they could. All were completely unaware that their behavior had changed.

Get Your Flu Shot

I'm not saying that flu shots are bad.

I had some kind of pernicious flu in 1992 that was so bad it took me a month to recover completely. I endured a fever of 103 or more for six days and it hurt to blink let alone move.  By day six I thought, this is it, I'm going to die, but I didn't. The fever broke the next day.

That experience taught me that a small virus can do big damage even to a healthy body, behavior change or no behavior change, so I always get a flu shot.

Crap. I forgot to get my flu shot.
What has been bothering me for awhile though is how, when people get to talking about aliens, what they are  almost always talking about are humanoid creatures about our size and shape.

Maybe the eyeballs are bigger. Maybe these guys have no genitals. Maybe some of them have scales or are excessively tall and Nordic-looking. But basically, they aren't that different in size or kind than Uncle Fred when he wears his Klingon costume on Halloween.

Why should this be so?

Why wouldn't aliens be so small we wouldn't even see them, or so large they wouldn't fit in any UFO, not even the football field-sized craft of recent sightings?

Life on earth is so incredibly strange that it seems incongruous to me to think that life from elsewhere would be so easy to plug into a 50's B-movie.

Why would we even recognize alien life?

We can't even agree on what life is, right here, right on our very own planet.

What's Wrong With the Human Race?

A popular cable TV show talks about a time in ancient history when human beings were bred with aliens and set on an accelerated developmental trajectory that has resulted in rapid technological advancement and population growth.

This theory is appealing to lots of people, because it seems to illuminate many perplexing mysteries about the human race.

For instance, why did humans get along as hunter-gatherers for so many millions of years with so little change and so few problems, and then suddenly decide, for no apparent good reason, to grow wheat, build pyramids, submit to kings, wage wars, and get smarter and smarter and smarter (at least in their own imaginations)?

What the hell was that all about?

Must be aliens, right?

Well, maybe.

But maybe the aliens in question are more the size of a cordyceps fungus or a toxoplasma than a tall Nordic looking guy in a tunic or a lizard with huge eyes.
Take us to yer leader!

Some scientists believe that without fungus, life on earth would never have started at all. That one, tiny spore could easily have come here on a meteorite and seeded Earth in the same way the tiny jungle spores stick to jungle ants.

The theory is more plausible than you might think. Different types of fungus are responsible for creating the kind of soil that can accommodate trees, and fungi can even coordinate the growth and behavior of forests.

Fungi are amazing creatures, if they are in fact creatures.

Neither plant nor animal but something else entirely, the activity of fungi is intertwined with the development of life on this planet going as far back as anyone has so far been able to discover.

And this, you see, is what gets me kicked out of UFO groups wherever they spawn.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Recurring Dreams of Alien Invasion

For the past year and a half, my dreams have been invaded by a persistent alien theme, so much so that lately when they show up I think, "Oh crap, not these guys again."

My recurring alien invasion dreams started out as intense and frightening; not quite nightmares, but memorable and disturbing.

Over the past eighteen months these dreams have gradually taken on a more cartoonish aspect.

I no longer feel afraid in them. I no longer feel susceptible to alien capture or mind control, although the invaders are always trying to win me over.

Meanwhile, how is everyone else doing?

Let's just say, it's not going well for Planet Earth.

In my dreams, most humans have already fallen for the alien schtick.

No one ever sees the aliens directly. When they do show themselves it is in human form, usually in a uniform of some sort, yet everyone understands that this just a meat-suit, not how they actually appear to each other.

Really, we have no idea what they look like.

What everyone notices instead (in fact can't help but notice) is their airships. The airships are huge, silver, and unavoidable. You can't really run from them. You can't hide.

The ships are for us, not them. They are not 'in' the ships, they are just gathering us into them.

Their pitch to humanity is this:

"We can help you guys. Join us. We know what we're doing and we can make each of you into the highest, most realized personal form possible. Why would you not want that? Isn't that what everyone wants? So join us. We can help."

Most people do join them willingly, but shortly thereafter the joiners begin to change rapidly, to mutate into some bizarrely specialized form.

So, say the aliens decide your genetic code predisposes you to computer work. You soon grow to be a part of the computer, you stop looking like other humans, you instead take on a fleshy form compatible with what you are doing, Maybe you meld with the computer at head and hand level.

Once you are assigned a task, that's all you do, and you claim to be happy about it.

Basically, you become a slave, but a seemingly happy one. Bizarre to behold, but totally efficient.

If you decline the aliens' offer of help, they keep after you. They mean for you to have their 'help' one way or the other. They are constantly after you to join.

In the dreams, I don't want their 'help'. I'm horrified by the whole spectacle.

The only fully human creatures left on Earth are me and a few other misfits who won't join.

Just the Way It Is

I used to worry about these dreams. I worried that something was pressing down upon us, (or at least upon me), and that I was missing it. I thought the dreams were prophetic, a warning of some sort.

But lately I've been seeing these dreams as simply an imaginative reflection of how things actually are. As a species, it seems we are actively and rapidly transforming ourselves into an alien force: mutable, cancerous, bizarre. Comic, yet lethal.

Bad for Earth and all its other creatures.

Indeed, in our rush for profit and efficiency, for ever newer and better technology even before we know what to do with the stuff, we seem to be losing our humanity.

Once this interpretation occurred to me, I began to think outside the box.

More on that in the next post.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Truly Alien--Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy

Image courtesy of Bujo at Flicker CC
One thing that has always bothered me about ufologists and alien hunters is their surprising lack of imagination.

In 99 out of 100 alien movies or UFO treatises, the aliens are more or less our size, more or less bipedal humanoid creatures like ourselves, who more or less happen to share our madness for technology and also like sex with Earthlings, a lot.

I mean, seriously?

No one ever thinks that aliens might be microscopic, or bigger than multiple sperm whales, or comprised of something so strange as to be unrecognizable to human beings as life.

In fact, science is still arguing about what life is, even right here, on Earth. Definitions elude us. So, how can we look for life beyond Earth if we can't even quite understand the life in front of our noses?

The strangest life of all might be the life behind our own noses.

H.P Lovecraft understood this kind of existential strangeness, and understood how and why people avoid it. His imagination spawned worlds; he created an entire mythos around his unique and awful perception of our plight.

Lovecraft is rightly celebrated today, not just for his unique linguistic tics (settle down you eldritch cynics), but for the dense, murky tone of his writing, the way the words conjure up horrors so alien, so ancient, so beyond our most esoteric ramblings that even seasoned Lovecraft readers still shudder involuntarily when they read them.

Enter Jeff Vandermeer with his Southern Reach Trilogy.

Writing in the shadow of Lovecraft, Vandermeer takes language and chops it up in such a deft and horrible fashion that the reader is almost imperceptibly knocked off his or her personal linguistic moorings, whatever they may be, right along with the characters. In this way Vandermeer forces the reader to experience, if only vicariously, the end of personal identity and all the horror, wonder, and madness that necessarily accompanies that loss.

Vandermeer is not forming a Lovecraft tribute band with this series. He doesn't write like H.P. Lovecraft. Arkham is a good thousand (million?) miles away from the unnamed stretch of southern coast that comes to be known in his trilogy as "Area X", a mysterious tract of nature that is invaded by something preternatural and undefinable.

And yet the story is informed by Lovecraft, because early on it lays out the existential horror implied by loss of category.

Philosophy students will recognize what seem at first like gratuitous references to Jacques Derrida and Deconstructionism, but the Southern Reach Trilogy is not some dry exercise in intellectual snottiness. Although not an easy read, the trilogy zigs and zags between startling, even poetic descriptions of the natural territory and dry, irritating expositions of the inner workings of the minds of various characters.

The effect is to mire the reader inside Area X along with the characters; no small achievement, and it isn't until the last page that you realize you won't be able to forget the experience.

Annihilation, the first volume, is a good read, if a bit choppy. The choppiness is easy to forgive or ignore, because the story is original and interesting. You want answers to questions that are raised here. I, for one, could hardly wait for the second volume, Authority, to come out, even while resenting the fact that I had to wait.

But Authority, is a slog. Those questions keep the reader hooked and pushing forward, even while thinking, "Why are you doing this to me Jeff?" He has his reasons, which unfold in the final volume in ways that startle and satisfy and prove that answers are beside the point, really.

The final volume, Acceptance, really sings.  Parts of it are quite beautiful. Written in all three persons (first, second, and third) the events feel natural and preternatural all at once. At some point after finishing the final volume, I realized that I'd just read the first jazz horror novel.

Honestly it's quite brilliant.

I don't want to say too much more, for fear of spoiling the experience for readers new to the Southern Reach, but it did my heart good to see this genre reach these heights.

I think Lovecraft would have loved it.

I know I did.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

California by Edan Lepucki: Eat, Pray, Apocalypse?

About a third of the way into California, the main character Frida encounters a porcupine in the woods and runs back to her makeshift encampment screaming for her husband.

This would be a great scene in a satiric novel, and California could have been written as killer satire, but I don't think satire is what Lepucki intended.

For this reason, and so many others, Lepucki's first novel never really delivers on the cover promise of a "stunning and brilliant... wholly original take on the post-apocalyptic genre."

I wanted to love this novel. I love Sherman Alexie. Love Stephen Colbert. Feel zero fondness for Amazon and buy from Powell's all the time.

Lepucki looked like a nice person who was very excited to be getting this kind of 'bump' on her very first time out of the gate.

I like all of that.

I give Lepucki kudos for writing a novel and publishing it. I give myself kudos for finishing nearly 400 pages patiently hoping things would quickly turn around.

But for me, they never did.

Lots of opportunities were missed in this story.

Cal and Frida are not very deeply drawn and are not very sympathetic main characters. They seem as bland and blonde and California-ish as the state itself seems to people in other parts of the U.S., parts that already deal with severe winters, tornados, hurricanes, all manner of invasive species and diseases, and urban decay with roots in rioting and dead factories.

Again, if this was satire, that could work. It doesn't.

Missed opportunity number one: the title.

Why is the book called California? We never really find out. Frida's husband Cal is teasingly called "California' by Frida's obnoxious brother Micah (who later becomes a sort of terrorist/cult leader), but the story is more Frida's than anyone else's.

California could have been an ironic title, but it isn't. It's just kind of there, like Frida and Cal are there, and then, they're somewhere else, and then they're somewhere else.They leave the city for an unnamed wilderness. Why, it's hard to say. Frida clearly is not into it, and it is hard to understand how their woodland life is any better than their post-apocalyptic city life.

Missed opportunity number two: So much attention is paid to the fairly shallow (and endless) interpersonal dynamics that we never get a real sense of scene, and it seems to me that in a novel about a fallen-apart world, you have to deliver that at minimum. That is one of the must-do requirements of the genre.

The forest doesn't seem real, the apocalyptic landscapes are thin and poorly explained, and the weather is surprisingly bland, almost non-existent--and this when at the moment half of real California is either on fire or desperate for water. It gets cold, it gets hot. It doesn't storm. We see a porcupine, a coyote, and a couple of rabbits.

I need more.

Missed opportunity number three: The characters. All of them are sketchy, shallow, annoying.

Maybe it is because Lepucki is still young, I don't know, but she didn't go deep enough, not by half. We never really care about Frida, Cal, or Micah. At their most conflicted worst they irritate us as much as they irritate each other, but having seen the fireworks at ordinary funerals and weddings many times in my 60-plus years, I have to think the interpersonal drama triggered by survival issues would go a lot deeper than, "oh cool, Micah still has the bee toy Mom attached to his stroller," and "wow are our hands ever chapped!"

Missed opportunity number four: A plot.

OK, there is a plot. But it is maddeningly expository, like one of those bad sci-fi flicks where the characters fill in the backstory with longwinded impossible dialogue. Lepucki even kills, then reanimates one of the main characters for no apparent reason, breaking a rule that should not really be broken unless you can dazzle with your surprising plot skills.

The plot almost seems like an annoyance to Lepucki, something that she knows she has to deal with as a writer but that takes away from her focus on the tension between the characters.

I personally think that if your characters are annoying and unsympathetic, they should at least get eaten or something by the end of the novel, and hopefully in a spectacular, unpredictable way, but alas, it is not meant to be. This is what happens in monster movies, but not in Lepucki's novel.

By the end of California Frida and Cal are back in a 'community' not unlike the suburban plats we all see everywhere these days, where everything is beige and all the lawns are perfect. Frida and Cal stop complaining about their chapped hands and go back to complaining about bad clothes, bad food, stupid suburban rules, and they still don't seem to like each other much.

This is the way the world ends?

Not with a bang, but a whimper, tasteless nutritional shakes, and bad retail.

Why, God? Why?!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Most Invasive Alien Species Ever

Us. It's us.

If that sounds like some green terrorist guilt trip, I don't mean it that way, and it isn't even my opinion. I read it in a book called The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

If you want to get really discouraged and freaked out fast, read that book.

So many anthropologists and paleontologists and geologists now see modern human beings as the most planet-changing species ever to hit Earth that the modern era has been renamed the Anthrocene.

The name invokes our species-specific tendency to alter the environment in drastic ways while spreading alien species around the globe to the detriment of native ones. Apparently we are responsible for the spread of all kinds of species to places they really don't belong: viruses, fungi, zebra mussels, cane toads, kudzu, and on and on.

The upshot of all this altering and spreading is a mass extinction of the same (or greater) magnitude as the one that happened when that comet wiped out the dinosaurs.

The jury is still out as to who is going to survive this particular extinction, and how, but apparently, it won't be the frogs. The frogs are already nearly gone.

The book got me to thinking though, it might just be true that the aliens are us; that if we want to see an invasive alien species up close, get proof positive that alines exist, all we have to do is look in a mirror.

Since the Victorian Era, many writers and even scientists have floated the idea that human beings are actually from Mars--not just men, but women too, all of us. (Venus is too hot.) Many modern day scientists believe that fungi, those tiny strange organisms that make life possible and make bread rise, actually came here on some wandering bit of rock.

We are in a very real sense descended from stars.

Whether or not we as homo sapiens were purposively bred by big-eyed aliens who came to Assyria for the gold is not even the issue. Our very existence, our genetic makeup, the way we behave in such a naturally destructive capacity, proves us to be a cosmic pest.

Evidently, humans are the ape variant of purple loosestrife or Japanese knotweed.

It seems the Earth goes through lifeforms in a cyclic fashion. So you have your slow Darwinian evolution and random mutations and so forth, and then, every four or five hundred thousand years the Earth wipes the slate clean and starts over again with new critters and new plants, as well as a few hardy survivors from the last cycle.

If we are indeed in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, which animals will still be around when the next cycle starts? Rats? Roaches? Snails?

We might not be here to answer that question.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ebola & Emergent Viruses: Real Aliens

:"Pandora" Rackham Public Domain Image
A virus is a single strand of proteins. The ebola virus, an RNA virus, is composed of only 7-9 proteins.

Science cannot decide if viruses are alive or not.

Viruses might even be alien life forms, come here on some meteorite.

Or, they might not be lifeforms at all.

Some viruses can live for eons in an inert state, just waiting for a living host to come along. Once inside the host, they 'come alive' and reproduce themselves inside living cells, so vigorously that the cell ruptures and sends the (now seemingly living) virus in the bloodstream of the host.

From our perspective, we say the host has contracted an illness, is sick, but what's really happening is the virus is feeding off the host in order to reproduce itself. A really persistent virus will jump to other hosts while it does this so that even if the original host dies, it can keep reproducing in other infected bodies.

A virus exists to reproduce itself. That is its sole purpose.

Ebola virus is a scary damn virus, period. If you aren't scared of the ebola virus, you don't understand viruses and you don't understand ebola.

But what if I told you that the reason ebola is becoming such a problem is that our familiar Western ways of doing business are causing viruses that once hid in other organisms in self-contained ecosystems (like rain forests), are now forced to find new 'food' when those ecosystems are destroyed for profit?

That happens to be exactly what is going on with ebola, and it's happening with more and more strange new illnesses that 'jump species' (move from an animal host to a human one) when their habitat is destroyed.

Ebola spillovers into humans tend to take place near logging facilities.

Viruses like ebola that jump into humans for the first time are called 'emergent viruses', and they have steadily been growing as a problem and a threat over the last 50 years. Globalization has accelerated the process enormously.

Although our chances of being wiped out as a species by ebola virus are currently small, our chances of being wiped out or nearly wiped out by some other emergent virus are very high. When it comes to global pandemic, the question is not if, but when.

I find all this fascinating, not just because it is dark and scary (it is), but because it shows how connected every living organism in the world is to every other organism. It's a balance: remove one bit (like in Jenga) and the whole system falls apart and then rearranges itself.

Will we be a part of the new arrangement?

That is up to us, in large measure. So far, it doesn't look good.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Cryptoterrestrial Hypothesis

What if the aliens are from Earth?

What if we've been living side by side, right here, for thousands of years?

That may sound like the plot of 'made for Sy Fy' movie or series, but it's a theory that's been kicking around since the 1970s, when Jacques Vallee began to compare UFO encounters of the 50s forward to fairy folk encounters of previous centuries.

Now of course the idea of 'ancient aliens' is so popular that cable TV can't seem to make enough shows about it, and any ancient artifact featuring big eyes or a bird in it gets interpreted as proof that we were visited by space beings in early antiquity.

In The Cryptoterrestrials, Mac Tonnies offers a focused essay on why aliens and UFOs may well be creatures from right here on earth. Tonnies died not long after the book came out, which is tragic. He had a nimble mind and brought a critical perspective to a topic woefully short on intelligent criticism.

Here are a few things to think about:

  • Why would aliens abduct humans for the purpose of genetic merging? Why would we expect to be compatible in that way? Perhaps we are compatible because we are dealing with one branch of human creatures trying to borrow genetic qualities from another branch of human creatures, like Neanderthals and Cromagnons.
  • Alien abductions make the most sense as theater. Using two of the most powerful human emotions--fear and sex--the typical alien abduction seems to parody our science and the way we treat animals in the name of science. Maybe this seeming parody is the point.
  • Grey aliens look way too much like human beings. There are creatures right here on earth, countless creatures, which look nothing like us. Why do supposed creatures from 'outer space' look like more fragile, big-eyed versions of ourselves?
  • Accounts of kidnappings by otherworldly beings (such as fairies) go back hundreds and even thousands of years. Perhaps 'alien abduction' is just the latest cultural explanation for a terrestrial phenomenon that is much older. 
I personally like the cryptoterrestrial hypothesis and would like to expand up on it future posts, even though it is not all the popular at present.

In the meantime, check out Mac Tonnies' book, if you can get your hands on it.

It's sure the be worth more once it goes out of print.