Book Review #8

2 Jun

GonodactylusHB’s Note: Since this is a book review, I would like to sell some books. My wife and I are moving back to the States this summer, and I would like to unload as many of my tomes as I can before leaving. I’ll have an inventory soon. If anyone is looking for Law-, Korea-, or International Relations-themed books, both fiction and non-fiction, comment at the end of this post, or email me at josephjsteinberg@gmail.com.

If you find the prospect of encountering a Lucihormetica luckae (via SGU #411) scary but just a little awe-inspiring, you would find Caspar Henderson‘s The Book of Barely Imaginary Beings utterly rapturous. A thousand authors could probably recreate Henderson’s bestiary, itself a tribute to Jorge Luis BorgesBook of Imagined Beings, and put only a small dent in humanity’s ignorance of the worlds around them. It’s not a Disney experience.

In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings Caspar Henderson tells us that “for much of human history attempts to understand and define ourselves have been closely linked to how we see and represent other animals.” Bestiaries are not just classical or medieval works, but part of a tradition that stretches back to the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet, art that is painstakingly accurate as well as possessed of great symbolic power. Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, he asked himself if it would be possible to create a modern bestiary that was populated not by fabled animals, but by real ones. In his introduction he observes that we have so little knowledge of most of them that, for the most part, we have “barely imagined them”.

Probably the most shocking of the zillion factoids stuffed into the bestiary came at “U”, for “unicorns”. All those creatures equipped with a harpoon sticking out of their heads are not looking to gouge an eye out. The “horn” actually serves a multitude of purposes depending on the animal, but sophisticated detectors, reading magnetic or electric signals in the ocean depths. Really, the ocean is a very “loud” place. Whales sing, and animals and plants can detect various signals through a variety of organs. Eyes might not be eyes, but light detectors, or something more like an ear. And, narwhals are like floating lightning rods.

When not puncturing myths, Henderson delves into concepts like neoteny. The strangest entry is “Human”, the marathon-running animal whose head is too big for a woman to eject and needs to mature outside the womb. It’s not all biology and philosophy. Nautilus evokes a discussion of submarine technology, which fits a bit dangerously with the entries on whales and dolphins. Actually, there’s a bit of schadenfreude here. The last place one might encounter a crown of thorns might be Henderson’s book, at the least a screaming jeremiad about disrupting the web of earthly life.

Or, the terran garden’s best source for aspiring science fiction writers needing strange creatures or alternative concepts. But, it’s not fiction.

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