Review: The Worth of a Shell

M. C. A. Hogarth’s The Worth of a Shell (self-published) is a complex, serious, well-thought-out extrapolation of the consequences of alien sexual biology marred only by the fact that one of its central premises is not at all credible.

The Jokka are presented as a humanoid species with three sexes; males, females, and neuters. There’s a tragedy built into Jokka physiology; under stress, the females often have strokes that decrease their intelligence. Giving birth induces such stress so reliably that after multiple pregnancies they generally become mindless animals who have to be strapped into a mating harness.

This novel tells of a disgraced neuter who finds renewed meaning in his life by becoming the protector of a female who rejects breeding because she doesn’t want to lose her curiosity and self-awareness. They seek the Birthwell, the legendary origin-point of the Jokka, where she suspects there might be an answer to the Jokka tragedy.

Much of this is well executed. Hogarth has invented plausible specializations for each of the three Jokka sexes and worked out what the resulting dominant social pattern would be like in both logical and evocative detail. Her exploration of the character psychologies arising from these circumstances is equally thoughtful and convincing; she does a particularly good job on her neuter viewpoint character. It is really too bad that Hogarth has screwed up something so basic in her worldbuilding that the whole edifice collapses in a heap.

No, it isn’t the trisexuality, in itself. It is true that premise is almost certainly impossible for a species that isn’t eusocial, like ants or meerkats; the bioenergetics of this have been investigated in some detail. But we can let that slide under the One-McGuffin Rule (a work of SF is allowed one impossible or highly implausible premise as long as the consequences are worked out consistently, and FTL doesn’t count).

The real problem here is the second half – most females going non-sophont after a few births. It’s the “most” that’s the problem here. If this disadvantage were wired so deeply into the Jokka genome that there was effectively no differential across germlines it might be stable. But explicitly it is not; for a few prized females (no one can predict which) the decline is slowed or halted.

This difference is not stable under selection. Remaining sophont in order to care for and advance the interests of your offspring is such a huge reproductive advantage that the alleles preventing the stroke vulnerability should have been strongly selected for in the Jokkas’ evolutionary past, and birth-related strokes should never have had anywhere above about 1% incidence.

The author’s apparent failure to even realize this problem is a crash landing that makes this novel a sad failure as SF. Doubly unfortunate because I can think of a couple of different fixes for it that would have had minimal impact on what the author apparently wanted to do.

Note for those unfamiliar with genre forms: it is allowed for Ms. Hogarth to have an explanation in mind that she has not revealed, but respect for her readers’ ability to play the game requires that she drop a clue to the explanation, or at least signal that she knows it’s a continuity problem that has to be resolved.

Further warning: this is another one of those first-of-a-sequence books that is not so labeled and doesn’t warn you that it ends without resolution. Turns out this may only be true of the ARC; the Amazon listing describes it as first of a series.

49 thoughts on “Review: The Worth of a Shell

  1. Good description of the rules of this sub-genre. I wonder how Hogarth might rescue the sequence, assuming she is aware of the flaw.

  2. I agree. A well-thought-out analysis.

    When I first encountered The Mote In God’s Eye, I wondered why the LGBT community never commented on its implications. Humans’ sex is very much a part of their identity, so that most people would view a change as catastrophic. The fact that Moties undergo that change over and over again ought to mean that their sex isn’t part of their identity at all, and prudishness is unlikely to exist either (with celibacy not being safely possible). In fact, if these facts about Moties became public knowledge in the Empire, I’d expect it to inspire an LGBT-rights movement among humans — and more likely, Senator Fowler’s commission would know this and would seek to prevent it by keeping the Motie ambassadors under wraps and classifying all information about their sex lives Top Secret.

  3. I’m not sure that’s really a flaw. Childbirth is risky for human women, but not all women die or get injured, even if there’s no medical care. Still, people haven’t evolved to make childbirth safe.

    Species (especially intelligent species) have a lot of slack for not being efficient, and (if I understand the setup correctly) having neuters to help with childcare would lower the urgency of females remaining sapient.

  4. >Still, people haven’t evolved to make childbirth safe.

    Huh? Yes, we have. Safer, anyway. Other primates don’t have the flared-pelvis thing going.

    >having neuters to help with childcare would lower the urgency of females remaining sapient.

    That’s one of the fixes I thought of, but as presented the neuters are neither psychologically nor physically adapted for this. It is plot-central that they have a strong drive to protect females, but they don’t seem to have much directly to do with the young. Had I been designing them, they would have the main responsibility for feeding offspring (splitting that off from the birthing risk) and probably even be able to nurse.

  5. First, if the cognitive abilities degrades to the point of affecting bringing up offspring (nursing etc.) only after the point of reproductability (2+ children in stable situation), there wouldn’t be much evolutionary pressure to fix it. This is the same factor as with us getting old – troubles after age of reproduction are not important to evolution. Especially if slowing decline has additional costs.

    Second, the slowing of decline might be environmental rather than genetic. Probably unrecognized environmental (like lead problems that were unrecognized for long time in our civilization).

  6. >This is the same factor as with us getting old – troubles after age of reproduction are not important to evolution.

    Older people can form social alliances to advance their relatives’ interests, and they can share child-rearing duties. Non-sophonts can’t do either of these things, so the impact on inclusive fitness would be much more severe.

  7. >First, if the cognitive abilities degrades to the point of affecting bringing up offspring (nursing etc.) only after the point of reproductability (2+ children in stable situation), there wouldn’t be much evolutionary pressure to fix it.

    2+ threshold of reproducibility or no, the ability to N+1 kids without going mindless will always make for more inclusive fitness than the ability to have only N. I think this would remain a really strong selective filter.

  8. >http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_gender#Biology

    Very interesting, but no bearing on the Jokka, because in all these cases all of the male “morphs” are semen-donating breeders – no true neuters.

    I wish I could find sources for the result that true trisexuality can’t bioenergetically work above a certain fairly primitive phyletic level. The problem is that I learned this from a science panel at an SF convention and don’t remember who the presenter was. I do remember that it was a woman who was a pretty well-known SF illustrator with a strong background in biological science. My mental associations for this include Niven aliens, which might be a clue.

  9. >The fact that Moties undergo that change over and over again ought to mean that their sex isn’t part of their identity at all, and prudishness is unlikely to exist either

    This is more relevant than you know. We are told that the Jokka undergo no fewer than three pubertal transitions (“turnings”) before arriving at their final adult sex. And that it is rare for individuals to have always been the same sex after all three turnings. The viewpoint character is notable for having been neuter-neuter-neuter.

  10. 2+ threshold of reproducibility or no, the ability to N+1 kids without going mindless will always make for more inclusive fitness than the ability to have only N. I think this would remain a really strong selective filter.

    When I read this, my immediate reaction was “well then, they’d evolve to have infinitely many kids!” and then immediately after that, “well, until limited by something else, like their lifespan”. Which raises the question of whether that pressure to maintain sentience was running into some other pressure. My first go-to in cases like this is energy requirements – sentience uses a lot of it. So maybe they “needed” to go non-sentient to conserve energy. That might make sense if they didn’t need it badly enough to raise that Nth child. Eric’s review implies that that point wasn’t made in the story (why were prized females getting treatment? Was more sentience objectively better, or was their culture simply trying to write checks their biology couldn’t cash?), but I can’t tell for sure.

    If the Nth child – the one that cost the female her mind – consistently suffered for that lack of mind in the story, it might also be possible that in evolutionary terms, N-1 offspring was enough to ensure the Jokka’s survival. Sort of like if you have a rope factory that makes twice as much rope as the competition, you don’t really care that much if the machinery screws up consistently on the last foot of each rope and you have to trim it off.

  11. Has anyone yet worked out why squid that reproduce die shortly afterwards in what seems to be a genetically-controlled self-destruct (IIRC, scientists have managed to quite easily prevent it, and the modified squid live a long time after bearing young.) The only explanation I have come across / thought up is the rather dubious reasoning of group selection.

  12. @Lambert: Not an evolutionary biologist, but the reason seems pretty obvious. Cephalopods in general are apex predators in their environment, they reproduce by squirting hundreds of eggs and abandoning them, most of those eggs die, and the few that hatch are competitive,not cooperative. If the parents lived, they would be competitors, and not just one more pair of competitors, but full-grown experienced competitors. Therefore, they die; the dead-parent scenario is the only one that allows the rest of their life cycle to work, and we wouldn’t expect to see that life-cyle without guaranteed lethality.

  13. Why are exceptions to the tragedy of the Jokka assumed to have a genetic, or at least heritable, basis? While the species might believe they have such a basis, being unable to predict which females will resist the tragedy suggests that it is not genetic, and also not due to some other strongly heritable factor.

  14. >Why are exceptions to the tragedy of the Jokka assumed to have a genetic, or at least heritable, basis?

    Because pretty much every kind of disease and disorder resistance in real organisms has some genetic component that can be selected for or against. Sometimes along with other cofactors, of course – but if a key part the answer were something simply environmental, like some kind of dietary deficiency, the Jokka would have been under enough pressure to have figured it out long since.

  15. Pressure isn’t enough– they have to think a solution is possible, and the solution has to be within the range of what they’re thinking about.

    It’s not as though we’ve solved ageing.

  16. But assume a limited period of fertility. Jokka female A has a career, and cares very carefully for her one or two offspring. Jokka female B is reduced to instinct after offspring 3 yet has 7. Do the math.

    We have a similar problem in the western world of humans. I don’t have any problem with choice, yet it must be done with full knowledge. Women who are over 40 are nearly infertile, so waiting until 35 when the clock is ticking to find a mate is bad enough. Playing the field, taking megadoses of hormones to avoid getting pregnant, getting abortions, getting STDs can render a woman infertile long before 35 and often silently (Chlamydia will scar the womb and prevent implantation but has no symptoms). We almost have a third reproductive gender in sperm banks and “rent a womb” women.

    Today, if you are a very smart woman, you will be encouraged to go into STEM, or some other career and NOT pass on your genes to any children. Women are most fertile in their early 20s and before. They are often from traditional familes so have lots of children. Even now the bell curve for men and women differ – women have a narrow one, men a wide one – there are more dumber and smarter men than women. Personally I think evolution (and its evil twin) is more myth than fact, but if you assume it is true, do the statistics on the number of children v.s. the Mother’s IQ. “Survival of the fittest” means those who actually manage to reproduce, not those we honor or would prefer reproduce. Exactly what do you (who are swimming in the selfish gene pool) think will happen to the genome when brilliant women are all barren or nearly so, and dumb (playboy?) bunnies, or worse welfare queens have large broods? Niven’s Kzinti comes to mind.

    I don’t find that part of the story the least bit unlikely, I find it ironic and a very good parody of modern society.

    If you don’t believe me, maybe you will believe Yew: http://www.popline.org/node/355763

    Then there’s hypergamy. A woman with a 150 IQ will have trouble marrying up.

  17. > Had I been designing them, they would have the main responsibility for feeding offspring (splitting that off from the birthing risk) and probably even be able to nurse.

    There was an unpublished sci-fi novel I found during my wanderings around the Internet when I was younger that did exactly that. One of the alien species in it had, IIRC, two pairs of genders, referred to as alphas and betas. The alpha females were fertile and bore offspring. The betas were not, and were responsible for nursing the infants and had other child rearing duties.

    I’d be tempted to provide a link, but I don’t recall the name of the story or the author.

  18. > Further warning: this is another one of those first-of-a-sequence books that is not so labeled and doesn’t warn you that it ends without resolution.

    On Amazon it’s listed as “The Worth of a Shell (The Stone Moon Trilogy 1)”.

  19. > but if a key part the answer were something simply environmental, like some kind of dietary deficiency, the Jokka would have been under enough pressure to have figured it out long since.

    Like we were so fast in discovering detrimental effect of lead?

    I am more interested in how neuter genes are spread…

  20. BTW. I think I saw the explanation why there are two sexes (having more than one sex helps evolving (single-sex species are short existing on evolutionary scale), having more than two complicates reproduction), and why there is difference between sexes (higher energy cost ovum / low energy cost sperm – equal energy situation is unstable equilibrium) in John Maynard Smith “The Problems of Biology”.

  21. Note: I haven’t read the novel, so this is all uninformed speculation.

    From your description, the neuters seem horribly under-utilized in an evolutionary sense. Their stated role is to protect females: but what incentive do they have to do so? They don’t get the fun of mating, they aren’t passing on their female-protecting genes to future generations of female-protectors, so I don’t see why they don’t wander off and play Warcraft all day.

    It would be much more interesting if the neuters were child-care specialists (though we still don’t really have an incentive). Perhaps you could handwave about kin selection, and have neuters look after either their sisters’ offspring or the children fathered by their brothers. (Creepy thought: this would give neuters an incentive to encourage sibling matings.

    Given this situation, it would create the additional tension that neuters wouldn’t really mind the progressive brain-damage to their fertile sisters . . .

  22. >Their stated role is to protect females: but what incentive do they have to do so?

    Has to be a kin-selection effect. But this is why you only get true neuters in eusocial animals – otherwise the kin-selection payoff isn’t strong enough to cover the disadvantages to the germline (that is, its neuters necessarily compete for resources with the breeders).

  23. I need to try and reread this. I got about halfway and abandoned it

  24. tz wrote:
    “We have a similar problem in the Western world. Women who are over 40 are nearly infertile, so waiting until 35 when the clock is ticking to find a mate is bad enough.”

    The problem may not be as bad as it us usually portrayed. Have a look at the link below.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/how-long-can-you-wait-to-have-a-baby/309374/

    Quote from the article:
    “The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations. In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not.”

    Eric should write a whole essay on this subject; it’s a perfect fit for his iconoclastic style.

    tz wrote:
    “Today, if you are a very smart woman, you will be encouraged to go into STEM, or some other career and NOT pass on your genes to any children. Exactly what do you (who are swimming in the selfish gene pool) think will happen to the genome when brilliant women are all barren or nearly so, and dumb (playboy?) bunnies, or worse welfare queens have large broods?”

    Answer: I think we are past the point in human evolutionary history where a strong sex drive is enough to ensure the species reproduces. The future belongs to those who want to have kids, rather than just those who want to have sex. We will see ongoing strong selection pressure for desire to bear and raise children. This isn’t going to have any effect in one generation, but over time it will do so.

  25. Perhaps your description is giving me a different impression to what the book itself would, but it sounds like the question of the female strokes might actually be the central mystery of the trilogy, in which case not explaining it in the first novel seems OK to me.

    Moving on to possible explanations like everyone else in this comment thread:

    I’ve never read a proper scholarly cite for it, but the claim that childbirth was the most common cause of female death throughout most of our history is pretty common. Seems the consequence of losing your life after N children is a lot worse from a selection perspective than losing your sentience.

    Another explanation could be that the intelligence of the average Jokka female only really provided a selection benefit when she was young and trying to survive independently of a social circle. Afterwards it becomes less important, so there isn’t as strong of a selection pressure.

    And of course tz’s point above about highly powerful social creatures (Humans and pretty much all fictional sentients) can actually have strong selection pressures against intelligence (and physical capability) in the child-rearing sex in certain social structures (ours for example).

  26. First, if the cognitive abilities degrades to the point of affecting bringing up offspring (nursing etc.) only after the point of reproductability (2+ children in stable situation), there wouldn’t be much evolutionary pressure to fix it. This is the same factor as with us getting old – troubles after age of reproduction are not important to evolution.

    This seems to me a non-sequitur. Human reproduction is not complete until the parents have taught the children whatever they know that will help the kids’ chances to survive and breed. Having parents die giving birth, or soon afterwards, should thus be disfavored by evolution except in species where the parents have little or nothing worth teaching.

    Such species do exist (fish where the father will eat his young come to mind), but for an intelligent species to fit that description, there would need to be some kind of biological “mind off” switch, which is hard for me to believe in. That’s how I reacted to Niven and Barnes’ The Locusts.

  27. This seems to me a non-sequitur. Human reproduction is not complete until the parents have taught the children whatever they know that will help the kids’ chances to survive and breed. Having parents die giving birth, or soon afterwards, should thus be disfavored by evolution except in species where the parents have little or nothing worth teaching.

    Agreed, mostly: the book describes the females as going non-sophont after multiple births, not just the first. If they’re lucid enough to raise the first few, the last one may not matter for purposes of species survival.

    This also raises the question of how long this trait has been around. How old was Jokka civilization at that point? Particularly, did their family units have other caregivers if something happened to the mother? Could this have had time to evolve? (It would take more generations than humanity has had, I believe, but I don’t want to make any assumptions.)

  28. > but for an intelligent species to fit that description, there would need to be some kind of biological “mind off” switch, which is hard for me to believe in. That’s how I reacted to Niven and Barnes’ The Locusts.

    You mean like the Sea Squirt which eats its own proto-brain upon finding a suitable place to settle.

  29. > This also raises the question of how long this trait has been around.

    From the protagonist seeking an answer at the Birthwell, my guess is that it originated between their sentience and their (re-?)development of history. As much as losing mental capacity hurts a sophont, it is catastrophic to the point of species non-viability when the rest of the species does not have division of labor or other earmarks of society, so I don’t think it would have been very early; but the species would probably have some Edenic mythology if it started in even late pre-history.

    If the author makes a point of the other species on the planet not sharing this trait, standard SF tropes would make that a hint that the cause of the malady is a critical plot point for later in the series.

  30. > The problem is that I learned this from a science panel at an SF convention and don’t remember who the presenter was. I do remember that it was a woman who was a pretty well-known SF illustrator with a strong background in biological science. My mental associations for this include Niven aliens, which might be a clue.

    Bonnie Dalzell?

  31. We have many species of small critters on this planet in which either the male dies during or after conception or the female dies upon or shortly after giving birth. We also have many species of very complex animals such as ungulate mammals in which the majority of males have little or no opportunity to mate.

    A neuter gender that helps socially but does not breed is understandable, as is the sacrificial breeder. Together I’m not as sure.

  32. >A neuter gender that helps socially but does not breed is understandable, as is the sacrificial breeder. Together I’m not as sure.

    Yeah. It is noteworthy that all known cases of both of these are in species with r-type strategies (low parental investment, many offspring). I’m doubtful that true neuters can pay off under a K-type strategy (high investment, fewer offspring) and pretty sure sacrificial breeders can’t.

  33. Here’s some spitballing:

    The ‘strokes’ and nonsentience are a consequence of some kind of alternate gene expression, triggered by pregnancy.

    What would be interesting is if the altered gene expression that is only seen in nonsentient females, had some kind of real value. As in, neuters are actually sexually underdeveloped males, and male offspring of nonsentient females develop into ‘true’ males (as opposed to neuters).

    Or again, neuters are underdeveloped males and only develop into males by adding something to their diet (like female bees and royal jelly). And that something is only produced by nonsentient females.

    But honestly, what has been described so far, as presented, sounds like either a feminist tract (the ‘nonsentience’ is just an extreme metaphorical stand-in for the actual temporary loss of intelligence caregivers experience due to the demands of caregiving – *years* of sleep deprivation do take a toll) or a manosphere false flag operation. Seriously, white-knighting *neuters*?

  34. More on those ‘neuters’…

    As has been mentioned, they are kind of dubious biologically. But they function with exquisite perfection as female wish-fullfillment.

    An entire (dare I call it a) gender whose sole purpose is to act as protectors and providers for females, with no competing goals or needs or desires of their own? Eternally, guiltlessly friend-zoned…. they’re neuter after all so there’s no need for the females to give anything in return. After all a neuter’s only successful genetic strategy is to serve a related breeder….

    Leaving the females, need for protector/provider/companion safely and completely selfishly met, free to pursue fulfillment. Naturally up to and including pleasurable sexual dalliance with any male of choice, with no need to evaluate and select a male for anything beyond fun factor. Of *course* in that situation breeding would be a terrible thing, with its imposition of unpleasant, unavoidable continuous ongoing duties and responsibilities. (That are as I previously mentioned real and severe enough to cause parents in the real world to lose actual IQ points, for years. There are reasons why night nurses are the latest parenting hotness for everyone who can afford them.)

    Or perhaps I’m being too cynical.

  35. Hmm, well maybe the neuters are a certain kind of *male* wish fulfillment here. After all with the neuters having no viable strategy other than to do the dirty dangerous jobs traditionally handled by males, males here are left as gigolos and sperm donors. And I’m sure they find time for some vid games.

    Or are the neuters symbolic of the welfare state? It would be funny if the neuters didn’t evolve naturally, if it were genetic engineering. If these aliens’ civilization were deeply cyclical- it proceeded in a natural two-gendered fashion until neuters were produced, leaving the fertile genders to enjoy a golden age. Until collapsing birth rates doomed that civilization to collapse and extinction, clearing the field for a ‘throwback’ minority two-gendered population to become dominant, develop civilization and repeat the cycle….

  36. With respect to childbirth causing damage, a thought for you — childbirth does, as a general rule, reduce the attractiveness of females for breeding due to the severe impact it has on the body, especially after multiple births. Saggy boobs and stretch marks don’t feature too often in porn, and let’s not talk about the impact on vaginal muscles, or, god forbid, use the word “episiotomy”. This doesn’t happen for all women — as recent controversies have revealed , some moms are apparently super hot a couple of weeks after childbirth. So why is that “error” not eliminated by genetic selection? If it hasn’t, and there are a number of reasons why it might not, why would those reasons also not keep your alien ladies from evolving away their “nuttier than a fruit cake” propensity?

  37. >So why is that “error” not eliminated by genetic selection?

    That seems pretty obvious. Saggy boobs are much, much less of a drag on a woman’s ability to contribute to the reproductive success of her germline (in particular the offspring she already has) than being reduced to the sapiency level of an animal and thus not being able to contribute to it at all.

  38. Actually reduced attractiveness after multiple births might be caused by the fact that evolutionary it is more viable to give more time to existing children (less children, more care) than to produce more (more children, less care).

  39. >Actually reduced attractiveness after multiple births might be caused by the fact that evolutionary it is more viable to give more time to existing children (less children, more care) than to produce more (more children, less care).

    I wouldn’t say “caused”, but “not selected strongly against” seems appropriate.

  40. I think Hogarth definitely gives clues about what’s up with the Jokka! The Birthwell itself is a major one, though I admit the benefit of hindsight, having read the whole trilogy and the short stories. I don’t remember if he talks about it in this particular book, but Roika very much addresses the strokes as an evolutionary problem. (It might be in his conversation with Thenet, if it’s in this book? It’s practically the whole *theme* of the second book, anyway. …well, one of the themes.)

  41. “Perhaps your description is giving me a different impression to what the book itself would, but it sounds like the question of the female strokes might actually be the central mystery of the trilogy, in which case not explaining it in the first novel seems OK to me.”

    having read the whole thing, this is the case.

    And yes, most of you are way too cynical. What I think this is is an extrapolation on something that happens to human women when pregnant– you get super tired all the time, and your brain drops things, like packet loss over a network. Having just had a baby, I can vouch for this. So what if the women never recovered? I think this is, to some extent, the central speculative point.

    Also, the social structure of the Jokka is such that there is no free selection of partners for breeding, and through most of the series, the only acceptable _romantic_ love is within one’s own gender. And the neuters are perfectly capable of sexual pleasure, though they don’t reproduce. Anyway, rational reproductive logic is not always immediately apparent as a strict if-then, there is always a lot of else.

  42. The process of evolution is not free of errors (http://wtfevolution.tumblr.com), and can lead to non-optimal solution – local minimum which is not a global minimum. Evolution is a step-wise process, and it makes use of what is already there. IMHO a good example is the construction of human eye that leads to existence of the blind spot; as opposed to co-evolved octopus eye.

    Another complication is the “selfish gene” – its the genes not the organism as a whole that are evaluated, see e.g. evolution of peacock tail.

  43. Oh! Another note before I forget – the neuters are absolutely in charge of children once they’re done nursing. It’s just that female kids are housed with the anadi for convenience, because of the weaker constitutions. That’s more explicit in the second and third books.

    Also, another clue: with enough exertion, especially in the heat, any gender can have a stroke, even the most durable neuters. It’s species-wide, not restricted to females in particular.

  44. The series states heat/environment explicitly as being the stressor on Jokka that causes their susceptibility to strokes/mind death, so put that together with the birthwell and you have logic dictating the Jokka migrated out of their natural environment into one that causes this issue.

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