Just a note to say I have revived my sabbatical blog, which has to do with my other life (inextricable from this one). I took a sabbatical last year to learn something about Arctic climate change. Since then climate change has only got worse, carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, and as the world burns, the powers-that-be are focusing their energies on finding more fossil fuels to burn, such as in the until-now pristine Arctic. (See the breaking news about Shell’s drilling, which has just commenced). I can’t just stand on the sidelines and wring my hands in despair. I continue to learn, and investigate creative ways to communicate on the issue and to act in ways that make meaningful change. The revived and updated blog is one small step in that direction. It is a repository of thoughts, comments and updates on climate, and also includes my scientific-travelogue-style account of my Arctic trip in April 2014.
Note: I wrote this just after the fabulous photos came back from the Pluto New Horizons mission but only had a chance to post it now.
Once it was a round dot in the night sky, distant, cold, too small to be a planet, too far to be on one’s mind. It was a dead rock in space, accompanied only by a moon almost as large as itself, with whom it danced about their common center of mass. Discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto was far less interesting than the nearer planets. It famously lost planetary status in 2006, being demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ after the discovery of similar-sized objects in the Kuiper belt. Science fiction writers dreamed up fantastic scenarios, such as Stephen Baxter’s lovely “Gossamer” (1995).
I was never all that interested in Pluto, which paled quite literally before the mysteries and gorgeousness of such glamorous rivals as Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. Then in 2005 two little moons of Pluto were discovered, Nyx and Hydra, and in 2012 Kerberos and Styx joined their numbers. Pluto had courtiers! I had the chance to let my non-science students infer the presence of these moons on their own from a series of photos, much as Galileo did with the Jovian system. A great teaching moment, especially in the absence of much press coverage (combined with the general lack of interest American students exhibit in keeping up with the news) but it didn’t really turn me on to the Plutonian system, which was, after all, still blurry and distant. Now, in 2015, I am grateful to have seen, along with millions of other people, the face of Pluto in gorgeous detail. And I’m in love!
Note: I wrote this little essay about a month ago, when New England was still under a thick shawl of snow. I lost the essay, and just found it again. So here it is.
The day after New England’s first blizzard of the season, I saw tracks on the snow. The snow was 2-3 feet thick, and except where I’d ploughed a canyon through it, was smooth as a blanket. Looking carefully, though, I saw a single line gouged in the smoothness, from the elm tree all the way to the covered porch. There is a space under the porch that is home to a mysterious animal, which may be a possum. (When my dog was alive I always knew, from his excited sniffing, when our tenant was home). There were rabbit tracks all the way to the front door, and a more delicate tracery of bird footprints. These spoke to me of recent histories almost as explicitly as if each track, each footprint, was a letter or pictogram of a language inscribed on the featureless white page of snow.
That Nature speaks – that animate beings and inanimate things communicate – is perhaps no mystery to the scientist or artist. The world is full of stories, although we humans seem to be disproportionately tuned to the exclusively human ones. But animals, trees, protons and stars are always telling stories, and it is our loss that our selective deafness shuts out these other tales. To the naturalist, the nibbled tips of a wild plant, or the change in flow of a stream, hint of certain animal presences. To a geologist walking through a canyon, the colors, striations and textures of rocks tell a story of the earth’s past. To a particle physicist looking at particle tracks, the intangible mysteries of the sub-atomic world are, for that moment and context, revealed. There is an aesthetics of science that is missed by most non-scientists, and sometimes by scientists as well. Ultimately what pure scientists do is to listen to, and interpret through mathematics and conceptual structure-building, the stories Nature tells us.
The stories told by inanimate things is truly fascinating, and is part of my work on creative new ways of teaching physics, but that is a whole other post. Today, while snowbound during yet another storm too soon after the last one, I want to think about communication and language in the context of our non-human fellow earthlings.
I’ve seen cartoons about the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, on the “Are We Alone?” theme. A human looks through a telescope at the stars, wondering if our species is an anomaly in the universe. What I’ve always found ironic about this trope is that we are surrounded by other beings that are constantly communicating. I am a fan of the search for life beyond Earth, don’t get me wrong — I think that the huge numbers of exoplanets discovered on a near-daily basis indicate that life, (‘intelligent’ or otherwise according to our standards), may be rather common outside of our little rock – but my point is that we are so arrogantly or ignorantly unaware of all that is being spoken around us that it would be laughable if it wasn’t also sad.
Ah, the kindness of strangers! We are having a second snowstorm, too soon after last week’s blizard, so I trudged out into the whiteout to get started on the shoveling, despite my annoyingly persistent respiratory sickness. To my surprise I found that somebody had already started carving canyons out of the snow behind my car. Yesterday I had left a note with my neighbor, whom I barely know other than the occasional hello, asking whether she knew someone whom I could pay for snow removal. So it must have been her, I thought, and then I saw her coming toward me, shovel over shoulder, like a modern day knight-in-winter-gear. She’s a cheerful woman, one of my town’s many Brazilian immigrants, who lives with her husband and stepsons and dog in the house next door. I got a lovely scolding to ‘get back inside so you won’t get sicker’ and that ‘we’ll take care of it, there are four of us!’ So I thanked her profusely and went back inside.
It’s not the first time that I’ve been at the receiving end of altruistic acts from people I don’t know, or don’t know well. One of my most remarkable and humbling experiences was at a convention several years ago, when a particularly virulent stomach bug hit, laying low hordes of attendees. I was afflicted particularly badly, lying in my hotel room with high fever, far from home. My roommate, understandably concerned about her own health, moved out. I contacted one of the organizers to request some dry crackers and ginger ale, and the result was extraordinary. Not only did this woman come in with a bag of edibles, but she re-arranged my ticket, and, because the hotel didn’t want sick people staying on, took me to her house, where she took care of me as a sister would, for three days. We may be used to the tender care of a daughter when we have the flu, or the comforting touch of a mother when we fell sick as children – but a stranger who would go to such lengths is a rare phenomenon. I lay on her couch and we talked about life, the universe, and everything, while she cooked bland stuff that I could eat. She herself got a mild version of the virus later on, but not for a moment did she complain, or indicate in any other way that my presence was anything other than a delight. I will never forget her. Sickness, or the threat of sickness generally brings out the worst in non-sick strangers. But then there are people like her, to restore my faith in humanity. One day I will write a story in her honor. I’ve already started exploring the theme of the kindness of strangers in my fiction (my Project Hieroglyph story ‘Entanglement’ being the first), but so far I haven’t written anything deserving of a dedication to someone like her.
Over at the Aqueduct Press blog I have an article about the stand-out books I read in 2014. I start the article by talking about how the imagination, experience and intent of the writer, and the reader’s own context and desires form a separate little world, a bubble universe for the duration of the reading experience. Each reader therefore creates a different, unique world during his or her interaction with the book. Sometimes these worlds leak into our everyday existence, so that the books reverberate through our daily lives. Our inner selves are shifted subtly. Who knows – small shifts in the moment might well lead to large changes in the long term. My own life has been changed by many things, and books are among them.
In the article I wrote about a dozen or so remarkable books. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish one of the books I had hoped to include in 2014, because I was already way past the deadline for the article. So I want to mention something about it here.
I’m talking about Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, Blasphemy. I saw it staring at me in the library; I had heard of Alexie but had never read him. With a title like Blasphemy, how could I resist?
I’ve long intended to read Saramago, and by a curious chance I came across mention of his book “All the Names” (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) somewhere on the internet. I was having a difficult day; I performed various necessary tasks, trying to put the book out of my mind. But the description of the book on the internet was too compelling. So last evening I made my way to that temple of words and worlds, the public library, and returned triumphantly bearing the book in question. I sat down to read it yesterday evening, intending to get a taste of it and then set it aside for other things. Instead I read the whole thing in one sitting.
It is a slight book, physically speaking. The story, at first sight, may seem slight as well, given weight only by eccentricity of concept. Senhor Jose’ is a middle-aged bachelor, a clerk in the unnamed city’s Central registry. Alone in the world, his sole interest outside work is to collect clippings of famous people. A chance mistake leads him to the birth certificate of an ordinary woman, a stranger. Like a thread that has come loose from a great weave, this small record of an unimportant life among millions of similar lives is something he feels compelled to follow, to unravel. His journey across the city in search of this woman is paralleled by his secret nocturnal trips into the labyrinth of the Central Registry after dark. Appearing in his life from moment to moment are other people who are part of the unknown woman’s story. The enigmatic figure of the Registrar hovers in the background. The story sounds Kafkaesque but I don’t think it is, despite superficial resemblances.
The idea of the thread that is unraveled, or the thread that must be followed to lead the way into the darkness, is written into both form and content. The story confounds the usual rules and conventions of the novel – sentences go on and on, conversations are not separated by quotation marks, and there is no attempt to ‘hook’ the reader with sex, or violence, or even an irresistible first sentence. Yet I found I could not put the book down. It begins prosaically enough, with a description of the Central Registry of Births and Deaths, but each sentence is a thread leading into the darkness. Ariadne’s thread, which was given to Theseus in the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth, is explicitly mentioned in the book, and in fact employed by Senhor Jose’ when he must venture into the darkness of the section where records of death are kept. This is a book about loneliness and love, and compassion, and the tenuous, yet undeniable connections between strangers. It is heart-rending in a very quiet way, taking one’s own defences apart fibre by fibre during the act of reading. I found my tea grown cold, the hour advanced to nearly midnight, and the stereo had long since stopped playing. Today my day was filled with small reverberations, little aftershocks and resonances from the story that I cannot quite explain or articulate.
Living in modern urban culture, it is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a world beyond one’s ‘narrow domestic walls’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s pithy phrase). I am intensely interested in the world, but the daily circumlocutions of work and home, the breathless rush from one deadline to another, at times distances me from the wider reality we inhabit. I know full well that the lives we live perpetuate the illusion that the tiny pocket universe of our daily existence is all there is, and all that matters. We read of school shootings, police brutality, war, oil spills, and the heart clenches for a moment, and for that moment we are lifted out of that illusion. We are helpless before the horrors of the world. What’s the point of expending emotional energy on something we can’t change? When there are jobs to do, and children to raise, and bills to pay? It is so much easier to run back into the hidey-holes of our lives, especially if we are privileged enough to be far from the scenes of violence and destruction. Privilege, after all, means we can afford to not think about it.
But I am a writer. And I like to think of a writer – at least the kind I aspire to be – as a student of the world, immersed in the world. I know there are writers who believe in cutting themselves off from the world so they can work on their art. But the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have, in some form or another, been full participant-observers in this world of ours. So when I am tempted to look away from various external horrors to my own concerns, I remember this — and I remember also what I’ve learned through orbiting the sun for over a half-century: that avoiding or denying painful truths has terrible consequences, personal and otherwise.
I’ve argued before and I’ll say this again — there is no substitute for authors from a particular culture or community writing from their own perspectives, whether they are writing SF or something else. So I just want to give a shout-out to this website for American Indian Writers of Children’s Literature. It has some famous names like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, but there are many, many more! While I’ve appreciated, every once in a while, the writing of a white author about another culture, even the good outsider writers can’t speak in the voices of those who grew up in that culture. What an outsider sees or fails to see is entirely different from the gaze of the insider. And when the culture being written about has been subjected to colonialism and related ills, all the more reason for its own writers to speak out and own their histories, their stories, their words.
I am not saying that people from one culture, dominant or not, should not write about any cultures than their own. Writing shouldn’t be a ghetto divided into watertight compartments. But white writers in particular and outsider writers in general should approach such writing with care, and recognize that however wonderful and important their works might be, they cannot do what the insider writer can do, cannot see what they can see.
I am increasingly conscious of my own responsibility in this as I write — increasingly — about cultures and geographies outside of India. And part of that responsibility is to bring to the attention of the world (or at least to whoever reads my blog) the works of the great insider writers from various cultures. I’m particularly interested in Native American writing. So watch this space!
“…Would we not shatter it to bits and then
Remould it closer to the heart’s desire…”
(Omar Khayyam, as translated by Fitzgerald)
The June 2014 issue of Lightspeed is a special issue called “Women Destroy Science Fiction.” With an all female guest editorial team and an impressive roster of women writers, the issue is a great start toward a newer, richer science fiction. I have not finished reading all the stories, but the ones I’ve read achieve a fine balance of style and substance. There is of course no doubt in my mind that women can write science fiction, being one of those women myself. But in many ways I feel we are still at the start of the journey. The journey began with Mary Shelley, with Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain, later it got a fresh start with Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Eleanor Arnason, Octavia Butler among others, and even later with a new crop of women writers, increasingly international and diverse, among whom I feel privileged to count myself. Each start was from a different place, and each part of the journey carried all of us women writers, and indeed science fiction itself, into new and strange places. It is in this sense that I refer to the special issue as a ‘start.’
So what does it mean to ‘destroy science fiction?’ The guest editor, Christie Yant, says this:
Why “Women Destroy Science Fiction”? Are we really trying to destroy it? As you read the stories in this issue, you may very well think so. Here you’ll find galactic gastronomy and alternate astronomy, far-future courtship and a near-future food court—right alongside alien invasion and deep-space salvage missions. My hope is that one or more of these stories will reach a reader who never realized that kind of story is science fiction, too, and will seek out more like it. And I hope that one or more will convince those writers—the fantasists, the poets, the ones more comfortable in Middle Earth or the Midwest than on Mars—that they, too, can create science fiction stories and participate in the expansion of the field.
I finally saw the movie “The Namesake.” Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, it is a story about the struggles of a young Indian-American man, born of immigrant parents, growing up in America. What lends freshness to this tired old theme is the particularity of the story, and the fact that it doesn’t cater to stereotypes. I thought the movie was pretty good, but a bit thin on substance. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, an immigrant story, a story about belonging, identity and maturity, done rather well. But it (the movie, not the book, which I haven’t read) reminded me of a comment my mother had once made, years ago, upon starting to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
The Vikram Seth book is apparently a multi-family saga, centered around a family’s search for a groom for their daughter. It is a doorstopper of a book. My mother’s point was – why write a novel (and such a fat one at that) about ordinary, everyday things that happen in so many families? What’s so special about that? Where’s the story?
Some people have compared Seth’s monumental work to Tolstoy and Dickens. I will read it at some point when I have enough time to tackle a tome that voluminous. I don’t want to detract from its virtues, which are spoken of as many – suffice it to say that the amount of drama in my family, particularly the maternal branch, is enough for a dozen novels that would put most fiction to shame. This is kind of where my mother was coming from when she made that comment.
Nevertheless I want to pursue the notion of story from various perspectives based on my personal encounters, viewpoints, eccentricities, and sets of assumptions. When we say “that was a good story,” and shut the book reluctantly, with a sigh, what are we saying? How might personal quirks, cultural and other assumptions determine a ‘good’ story for one person and a bore for another?