The Genetical Book Review: White Cat

So, welcome back to the Genetical Book Review, where we use concepts from evolutionary biology and genetics to talk about novels. In this installment, we are going to talk about White Cat, written by Holly Black. This is the first book in the Curse Workers fantasy series, the second book of which is set to be published in April. Holly Black may be familiar to some readers as one of the authors of The Spiderwick Chronicles.

White Cat is, broadly speaking, the same flavor of book as the Spiderwick series. The story has a contemporary setting, but in an alternate history in which a subset of people, known as “curse workers” or just “workers,” possess special abilities. The book’s protagonist, Cassel, comes from a worker family, but has no special abilities himself. One of his brothers is a “luck worker,” who is able to give people good (or bad) luck, while his other brother is a “body worker,” meaning that he is able to hurt people. His mother is an “emotion worker” who is able to manipulate people by, for example, convincing them that they are in love with a particular person. His grandfather is a “death worker,” who is able to kill people with his touch.
In fact, all workers’ skills require that the worker touch their target. Thus, in this alternate history, everyone wears gloves, and approaching someone with bare hands represents a potential act of aggression. In this world, curse workers are subject to “blowback,” which results from a sort of conservation law. For instance, whenever Cassel’s grandfather uses his ability to kill someone, a part of his body dies, such that when we first meet him, his fingers are blackened stumps, the consequence of a lifetime of death work.
Artist imitates art. Holly Black dons eponymous gloves in an effort not to accidentally curse herself when she touches her face. Image from the Holly Black website.
In this alternate history, curse work has been outlawed, so that curse workers live somewhat in the shadows and are employed by organized crime families. Much of the book’s social commentary focuses on issues that arise from this situation. There are discussions that parallel arguments about prohibition and drug legalization. There is a political movement to require people with abilities to register with the authorities. These subjects are handled largely in subtext, providing a layer to the book that will be interesting to adult readers.
I won’t go on further here about the premise or plot, as describing more would risk revealing some of the book’s twists. In terms of summary judgment, let me just recommend the book. It is fast moving and well written, and easily the sort of book you might find yourself finishing in a single sitting. It has some dark elements that might make it inappropriate for younger independent readers, so I would not necessarily buy it for your grade-school son or daughter. On the end of the spectrum, if you are an adult who enjoys this genre of young-adult fiction (e.g., if you like the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud), I suspect you’ll have a great time reading this book, which is aimed at an older age bracket than Spiderwick.
What we will focus on here is the nature of the genetic variation that underlies the ability to perform curse work. The ability clearly has a genetic basis and seems to run strongly in families. There is also an explicit discussion of the fact that there is a high frequency of workers in Australia, due to a high frequency of the trait in the founding population.
The premise of a magical ability with a genetic basis underlies many fantasy franchises, including Harry Potter, X-Men, and television’s Heroes. In each case, there is some variation in the extent of the ability among those who have it, but there is fundamentally a binary distinction between those with abilities and those without them.
The clean, binary division between wizards and muggles means that no matter how enthusiastically you grip that broom between your legs, you’re never actually going to fly. Image of the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup. A real thing that real people do. For real.
Franchises differ in how they conceive of the structure of variation among those with abilities. In Heroes and X-Men, for instance, each mutant has unique abilities. (Or, to the extent that two mutants share abilities, it is generally looked upon as a lack of creativity or lack of attention to detail on the part of the writers.) By contrast, in Harry Potter, witches and wizards have, by and large, the same set of abilities. They differ in the degree of proficiency they display in different skills, but the variation seems to be fairly continuous.
We could say the franchises differ in the extent to which the mutant phenotype is canalized. In contemporary usage, the term canalization is used to refer to mechanisms that buffer the phenotype against genetic and/or environmental variation. It is an inherently relative term, in that it makes no sense to talk in isolation about a trait being canalized or not. However, it is sometimes possible to compare the extent to which a trait is canalized in two systems. For example, if the pattern of wing veins in one species of fly is invariant in response to changes in the temperature at which the flies are raised, while the pattern in a second species changes with temperature, we could say that the patterning was more canalized (with respect to temperature) in the first species than the second. The term comes from a metaphor in which different genetic variants or environmental influences get channeled into a “canal” representing normal development.
The canalization concept is usually used in the context of stabilization of the wild-type, but we can just as easily talk about canalization of a mutant phenotype. In Heroes and X-Men, it seems that the mutant phenotype is almost completely uncanalized. These franchises employ the “Anna Karenina Principle.” To quote the most over-quoted Tolstoy passage ever, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Despite the fact that a specific mutation is responsible for the superpowers in Heroes and X-Men, some interaction involving the mutation (presumably with other loci in the genome) results in a wildly different phenotype in each individual.
Whenever scientists want to say that something breaks in all sorts of different ways, while at the same time establishing their credentials as cultured intellectuals, they cite the “Anna Karenina Principle,” referencing a book that they know to be important, even if they have not actually read it themselves. This mapping of a diverse array of scientific observations onto a single reference represents a kind of literary canalization.
In the Harry Potter books, the genetic basis for wizardry is less clearly articulated, but the trait appears to be more canalized than the analogous traits in Heroes and X-Men. If there were less variation in the abilities of different witches and wizards in different areas of magic, we would say that the trait was even more highly canalized.
While canalization is often currently thought of as a buffering mechanism that applies to the entire phenotype, when the idea was first introduced by C. H. Waddington, he was also interested in the idea of cell-type differentiation. He introduced the concept of the “epigenotype” to refer to distinct sets of traits that could develop from the same underlying genotype. The cells in your brain and the cells in your liver have the same set of genetic material, but the morphology and behavior of the cells is wildly different. Thus, in this original concept of canalization involved the notion of multiple, distinct canals, each of which uses some sort of buffering to produce a stereotyped outcome.
Waddington represented development as a ball following one of a set of distinct, stereotyped pathways, like the character arcs on “reality” television.
The curse-worker phenotype in White Cat is like this notion of canalization. There are a handful of very distinct types of curse work that seem to occur in fairly well defined relative frequencies. Based on Cassel’s family, the capacity to do curse work seems to be strongly genetic, but the type of curse work one is able to do may be largely stochastic. It is sort of like Plinko: the genetic mutation hurls you onto the board of being a worker, but then random processes determine which curse-work canal you wind up following.
A Plinko contestant drops a hockey-puck type thing onto a board with a bunch of pegs on it to determine which kind of curse work he will spend his life doing. Genetics works exactly like this.
There is another form of canalization that we can see in the world of White Cat, a sort of historical canalization. Like many books in this genre, White Cat takes place in a world much like our own, but with a couple of key changes. Part of the appeal of many science fiction and fantasy books of this sort is seeing how the author takes a couple of key changes and imagines how history might play out differently. What if the Roman Empire had never fallen? What if Germany had won World War II? What if Martin Sheen had only had one son? And so forth.
The characters in White Cat occupy a world that is as precisely like our own as it can be and still support the premise of the story. The forces of history are so highly canalized that you can rewind the tape hundreds of years and give a small fraction of people magical powers, and you still wind up with Facebook. Tolstoy would be proud.

WADDINGTON, C. (1942). Canalization of Development and the Inheritance of Acquired Characters Nature, 150 (3811), 563-565 DOI: 10.1038/150563a0

Update: I had originally described the book as having been written by Michael Frost and Holly Black, which is what it says on the Kindle version, where I read it. Upon further investigation, it seems that Michael Frost is responsible for the cover art, but not the writing in the book. Everywhere else, Holly Black is the only listed author, so I have corrected my review accordingly. It strikes me as odd that the only place where he would be listed as a co-author is on the Kindle, where there is no cover art, but there you have it.

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