Spring! And mimicry.

Check this out:

xloebneriSyrphid (350x263)

This is my Magnolia stellata x loebneri hybrid, a little shrubby magnolia that, like its star magnolia parent, has no aspirations to become a Real Tree. You do see some bigger star magnolias, but basically you can plant one in the secure knowledge that it will not suddenly turn out to take up as much room as a two-car garage. It blooms at the same time as the star magnolia, just a week or so later than a saucer magnolia, but enough to miss the frost that nipped my saucer magnolia this year.

Now, the insect is not a wasp, but a wasp mimic: a syrphid fly, also called hover flies. There are many many many species of syrphids, mostly smaller than this one, which is close to the size of a honeybee. All the syrphids are pleasant little creatures, harmless and in fact beneficial, since their larvae creep around and eat aphids. It’s easy to recognize a syrphid: flies have MUCH BIGGER eyes than wasps, short stubby antennae instead of long graceful antennae, and their wings stick out to the sides more than folding back over the body. I must add that one large syrphid is a bumblebee mimic and I personally would not try to catch one in my bare hand, since they are VERY GOOD mimics. My grad school advisor would do that, though, because he could tell the different even on the wing.

Mary Doria Russell wrote SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD around the idea of biological mimics. Very powerful books, or rather, many readers find them powerful, including me. Readers’ responses to them actually fall into a distinctly bimodal pattern. My take: I agree with the readers who find the characters stereotypical and flat. But I believe they are meant to be. They are very effective for Russell’s purpose, which is to put the world and the first-contact situation front and center. Because they suit the books so well, many readers perceive the characters as well-rounded, which they are not. My only personal issue with the characters is that no one can be that witty all the time, but I sure do admire witty dialogue.

What happens to the main character is this duology, or rather the string of things that happen to him, constitutes the second-worse thing I’ve ever seen happen to any character. The thing with the hands is especially appalling. I don’t want to get into it. You can read a lot of Goodreads reviews if you’re interested. I will say: I absolutely do not believe in the biological mimicry situation described. There is absolutely no reason to expect either of those species to evolve intelligence, the herbivorous species because it’s herbivorous and I don’t see why it would tend in that direction, and the predatory species because it’s not social enough (I mean, sure, that species is social now; but it wasn’t very social back in deep time; we get enough of a picture of its early history to be pretty clear about this). That BOTH species would simultaneously evolve intelligence, it is to laugh.

I’m pretty sure that aspect of the duology isn’t one that bothers most readers, however. And it does present an interesting first-contact situation.

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