The Crucible of Time: a book review

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner (1983)

I recently re-read The Crucible of Time by science fiction author John Brunner (1934–1995). It is one of the last great triumphant-rise-of-human-progress novels where, in spite of all kinds of natural disasters, the inhabitants of a planet drag themselves through thousands of years of scientific development in order to escape their doomed planet (around the 80’s, science fiction became darker and more dystopian, as indeed, many of Brunner’s other novels are). What makes this novel stand out from a rather dull subgenre is that the characters are not human at all, but are some kind of mollusc. When you can get your readers to identify emotionally with a sort of intelligent slug or squid, then you’ve got serious writing talent: “‘But – !’ She sank back, at a loss. For the first time it was possible to see how pretty she was, her torso sleek and sturdy, her claws and mandibles as delicate as a flyet’s. Her maw still crowded, she went on, ‘But I always thought you and Professor Wam were enemies! When I heard you were giving a lecture and she had agreed to reply to you, I couldn’t really believe it, but I decided I had to be present, because you’re both on the other side from my parents. They are crazy, aren’t they? Please tell me they’re crazy! And then explain how you two can be acting like friends right here and now! I mean,’ she concluded beseechingly, ‘you don’t smell like enemies to each other!’

At one level, The Crucible of Time is a strange tirade against religion, having set up a universe in which the religious leaders are, by construction, dangerously wrong. This gives Brunner’s characters some more immediate opponents than the impending disaster itself, but these opponents seem a little too much like cardboard cut-outs most of the time. I was left somewhat confused as to why the universe of the novel contained religion at all. An evolutionary argument was implied, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

The novel (or rather, collection of linked stories) does have some fascinating descriptions of a civilisation that’s built mostly, but not entirely, on biology – in contrast to ours, which is built mostly, but not entirely, on physics. Brunner avoids tedious descriptions by giving animals names that suggest English equivalents. The alien equivalent of a domesticated camel is a drom, for example. The large domesticated water-creatures that perform the function of ships are barqs, briqs, and junqs: “‘Correct! Well, if a mindless plant can find a way to spread beyond its isolated patch, why shouldn’t we? Did it ever strike you that there must have been a first person who pithed a barq or briq, just as there was certainly a first who tamed a junq? Then, folk were confined to continents or islands, and had to trudge wearily from place to place unless they had a drom—and someone, equally, must have been first to ride a drom!’

In a similar vein are words like laq, sourgas, and stumpium (named after the planet Stumpalong). Checking Internet reviews, this aspect of the novel seems to be both loved and hated.

But I consider this novel to be one of the great science fiction classics; it’s well worth a read. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary.

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner: 3½ stars


Spineless: a book to look out for

Spineless by Susan Middleton (October 2014)

Here is a beautifully illustrated book to look out for: Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life, by Susan Middleton.

I have no review, but here are some of the lovely images from the book. Wired and the Smithsonian Magazine have more. It looks fantastic!

Phylogenetics and snails

A recent article in Wired highlights some interesting work by Leonidas Salichos and Antonis Rokas of Vanderbilt University, which they have recently published in Nature.

Salichos and Rokas point out the inconsistent phylogenetic trees produced by different DNA studies. There is disagreement, for example, on whether gastropods (left, below) are more closely related to bivalves (centre) or scaphopods (right).

Image on right by Hans Hillewaert, others public domain

Gastropods are grouped with scaphopods here, for example, but scaphopods with bivalves here.

While Salichos and Rokas give some answers, part of the problem, in my view, is the common tendency to use maximum-likelihood methods to produce a single phylogenetic tree. The standard algorithms will always produce such a tree of course, but it is important to give the equivalent of error bars, and indicate the range of possible trees supported by a given dataset. Phylogenetic networks, like the one below, are a way of doing this. Occasionally, the data forces us to say “we’re not quite sure” to some questions that have been asked.

Phylogenetic network by Katharina M. Jörger, Isabella Stöger, Yasunori Kano, Hiroshi Fukuda, Thomas Knebelsberger, and Michael Schrödl (see their paper)


The study of shells leads to many wonderful images. This one, by H. Zell, is part of a gallery of shells on Wikimedia Commons. Udo Schmidt also has a great collection online.

…Building their beauty in three dimensions
Over which the world recedes away from us,
And in the fourth, that takes away ourselves
From moment to moment and from year to year
From first to last they remain in their continuous present.
The helix revolves like a timeless thought,
Instantaneous from apex to rim
Like a dance whose figure is limpet or murex,
cowrie or golden winkle…
” – Kathleen Jessie Raine

A passion for Coleoptera

Wired recently reported on the fabulous beetle collection assembled by amateur entomologist Udo Schmidt, from Bavaria. Schmidt’s website and Flickr page display many marvellous photographs. Schmidt also collects and photographs molluscs.

Udo Schmidt recently turned 70. Happy Birthday, Udo, and thanks!