Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/08/2010]

AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS by Oliver Sacks (ISBN 978-0-679-43785-7) is a collection of essays on neurology and related fields. In "To See and Not See", about a man who regains his sight after almost an entire lifetime without it, Sacks quotes another researcher with a way of describing blindness that could have been the inspiration (but probably wasn't) for Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life": "[Alberto] Valvo comments, 'The real difficulty here is that simultaneous perception of objects is an unaccustomed way to those used to sequential perception through touch.' We, with a full complement of senses, live in space and time; the blind live in a world of time alone."

The centerpiece of AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS is the title essay. "An Anthropologist on Mars" is by Oliver Sacks, but the title originates with its primary subject, Temple Grandin, an expert on animal behavior who is also perhaps the best-known "high-performing" person with autism. Sacks sees these two aspects of Grandin as somewhat paradoxical, since one of the effects of autism is that it makes it difficult--in fact, often impossible--for its victims to comprehend the meaning of many human behaviors. For example, someone with autism could see another person crying and not realize that meant that the person was sad (or, again paradoxically, happy). In fact, they might not even be able to explain what "sad" or "happy" was. Hence, Grandin describes herself as being like "an anthropologist on Mars." Not surprisingly, a lot of people with autism who are science fiction fans are big fans of Mr. Spock and Data in "Star Trek".

Autism has another (or perhaps it's really the same) aspect: people with autism see the world "slightly skewed". Grandin looks at the night sky and doesn't see (or even understand) any of the usual poetic images people without autism see. But this is not one-sided: what she sees is not something that those without autism can understand either.

All of this seems very connected to the whole idea of the Museum of Jurassic Technology (which I described/reviewed in 2005 on my web page at ), where everything is slightly "off" from our understanding of the world. And autism has another relation to Jorge Luis Borges's stories, in that those with autism often have unusual memories, perhaps not as complete as those of the character Funes, but certainly more so than the average person's. For example, if you ask someone how many cars were in the store's parking lot, they might answer, "About fifty." But someone with autism might well reply, "Twenty-one black, twelve beige, four red, two blue, and one green." At one point when Grandin gave directions to Sacks, he stopped her and asked about the last direction, at which point she repeated the entire set of directions from the beginning.

Coincidentally, about a week after I read "An Anthropologist on Mars", I saw the HBO film TEMPLE GRANDIN, which made clear a few more details about being an anthropologist on Mars. The really key point is that Grandin was the first person with autism to tell the rest of us what life was like to people with autism--what they saw, what they felt, how they thought. Throughout the film, you see visual images of how Grandin's mind works, and you see a lot of doctors and other "experts" on autism who are completely wrong in what they believe.

Assume you are given a sequence of numbers and asked to provide the next number. For example, "2, 4, 6". Is the next number 8 (the nth term is 2n)? Is it 10 (the nth term is 2 times the nth non-composite number, or the nth term is 1 less than the n<1th prime)? Is there some other more complicated rule? That was the sort of guesswork the doctors were doing. Grandin was able to tell them the rules.

In science fiction terms, what we are seeing is a first contact situation. By this, I don't mean that those with autism are a separate species, but that their mode of thinking is so unusual that there is a certain parallel to such a meeting. And rather than just observing and guessing, people could ask Grandin (and eventually others) what was going on in their minds. (For example, one of the things people have said about teaching other primates sign language is that we might be able to ask a gorilla why gorillas beat their chests. Two-way communication is irreplaceable.)

(The essay "To See and Not See" also has references to Borges in its footnotes.)

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/31/2010]

Coincidentally, I happened to read THE ISLAND OF THE COLORBLIND by Oliver Sacks (ISBN 978-0-375-70073-6) at the same time as GENOME. This is really two long essays: "The Island of the Colorblind" and "Cycad Island". The latter never caught my imagination, but "The Island of the Colorblind" fit in perfectly with GENOME. The "island" is really two islands, Pingelap and Pohnpei, and then for good measure Sacks visits two more (Guam and Rota) to study a family of neurodegenerative diseases. And of these two sections, again it was the first that was the most engaging. I think a large part of that is that colorblindness is fairly easy to understand, both its cause (a single gene) and its effect (everything looks various shades of gray). While these are not entirely accurate statements, they are not grossly inaccurate either. But lytico-bodig, which produced wildly varying symptoms and which no one cause had been agreed on, is just too elusive.

To order The Island of the Colorblind from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/18/2005]

Oliver Sacks's THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT (ISBN 0-684-85394-9) is a collection of essays about various peculiar neurological syndromes. The title essay is about a patient with the inability to interpret visual images: show him a rose and he cannot identify it as a rose, but let him smell it and he has no problem. "The Lost Mariner" is about a man with retrograde amnesia (a.k.a. Korsakov's syndrome). I can't remember if it used the term, but that is what the film MEMENTO is about. I would be surprised if the writer of that was not at least partially inspired by Sacks. And this is not the only pop culture derivative of Sacks's work. Just a few weeks ago, the "B" story on "House, M.D." was almost precisely the case described in "Cupid's Disease". (And the writers of "Medical Investigation" seemed to have taken their pilot episode from Berton Roueche's "Eleven Blue Men". This seems to be the season for taking television plots from classic medical case histories.) Michael Nyman has even written an opera based on Sacks's title essay. At times the writing is a bit dense, but still readable. (Roueche, mentioned earlier, wrote for a wider audience and is somewhat easier to read. Paul de Kruif, with his MICROBE HUNTERS and MEN AGAINST DEATH, predates both of them in this genre.) The consensus among our book discussion group, however, was that the descriptions of the cases were far more interesting than Sacks's philosophizing about them.

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