We Are Completely Besides Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Over the last year or so, I had been steadily building a niche for myself when it came to the kind of science fiction I most enjoyed, and almost every one of these stories dealt either with animals, or aliens who could easily pass for animals. I am reminded, for instance, of Molly Gloss’s Lambing Season, or James Tiptree Jr.’s famous Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death. The former is a study of the alien through that very different lens of a shepherd, used to loneliness, dogs, sheep and the rolling, green hills. The latter is a stream of consciousness take on spider like beings who live, mate, die, but in Tiptree’s unique style, the matter of living — crude bodily functions, the visceral nature of the beast — is brought home in spectacular fashion. The mind-body duality is absent. Tiptree’s creature is one, cohesive, whole.

This latter aspect us humans are quite jealous of, I imagine. It’s a lost paradise for us – one at the expense of the other. So even when we live, we don’t really feel the sun on our skin, and the breath in our lungs like, say, a tiger would. Or even a dog for that matter. We can only write about it, imagine it into full being, but the true fullness of being, the living-with-every-molecule-in-your-body is not for us.

I think Fowler’s novel is an attempt at bridging that gap by having a truly unique protagonist narrate the tale, a woman brought up like very few. Revealing anything more about the story would be doing a grave disservice to how, for once, the twist actually is an essential part of the telling, much like in Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. Fowler’s novel, like Banks’s, is about slow revelation as well, and as, if not more, disturbing. Especially so because all of the crimes against animals written about in the book is unfortunately true.

In the telling of this rather special tale, we get a glimpse at a kind of life that could have been, that just might be possible, and of a relationship that speaks volumes more about who we are as a species than any one tome on psychology.

I loved it.

Animal Resignation

Resignation is a powerful process, certainly not in the empowering sense but in the sheer amount of willpower consumed , leaking out like entropic decay. What happens when you give up? A whole bunch of things, I’m sure, not to mention a whole lot of chemicals being pumped in (or out) of your system, but I’m more interested in the how, rather than the what.

In this regard, animal resignation seems to me to be an endless pit. That’s not really the case, I’m sure; animals snap too. There’s only so far you can despair while still staying alive. But I’ve always been haunted by animal deaths and despairs, because of the strange disjunction between their usual brand of quiet dignity, and bewildering, infinite potential for hopefulness.

A friend of mine had once told me a small story, one of those really clever anecdotes that leave you feeling all broken inside and you don’t really want to follow up with a lot of thought: a family goes off to vacation, leaving their pet dog in the care of their neighbour. But as they drive away, the dog is certain they’re leaving him for good. He chases after, yelping, thinking ” they’re leaving me behind for good”.

I still get slightly taken aback at how, every time I recount this anecdote, it strikes me as powerfully as it did for the first time. I have long since become skeptical (healthily, I hope) at so called truths that hit so hard. Everything changes, and one of the few constants in this universe that I am glad for is change, if not the only constant. But what is it about an animal despairing that has such an infinite quality about it? Am I confusing ‘animal’ with just a domestic one? Or is there something more in the very gaze that makes us disregard such excuses to think away?

Molly Gloss’s The Grinnell Method, and other thoughts

It’s so difficult to not sound grand when you begin something. Especially when you write. That, if anything, is the prime marker for our times, and the central source of conflict: avoiding sounding like you’re about to change the world with your sentences. If anyone still labours under such an idea, I have difficulty imagining what could drive them to write, or think that way.

It’s easier said than done, however, for intrinsic to any kind of writing is a desire to produce a sequence of words, and various strings of meaning, that is different from anything else that has come before. And any kind of desire is utopian in some way or the other, even when it seeks self-effacement. 

The literature of self-effacement is often mistaken for the impulse for non-involvement. The only way you can make sense of the bewildering array of data today accosting you from every direction is detachment. It’s a dicey game: you veer too much in one direction and you’re prone to miss what is lying under your nose. You involve yourself too much and again, you’re liable to miss out on seemingly smaller details, which might reveal themselves later to be more relevant than you’d initially thought.

Take Molly Gloss’s novella ‘The Grinnell Method’ as a case in point: it is littered with references to birds, techniques and a way of measuring the world that might seem irrelevant to people who are too busy with other things to pay much heed to them. The story is about a woman who takes notes and makes sketches of birds systematically. She does not betray much in the way of emotion if the tone of the novella is anything to go by. But in her systematic approach, and in her very detachment, we find a deeper need to negate the self when encountering the Other. It might not be entirely possible, and language, in its very nature, precludes absolute interference with the world. But she tries. And in trying, she bares an essential side to her being that transcends the scientist, the note-maker, the recluse: she is trying to make sense of the world by paying meticulous attention to those who are voiceless: the birds, and the waterfowl. In them is a key to understanding not just her predicament as a woman who desperately wants to be heard in an establishment that actively ignores woman voices, but also something much larger, more inscrutable: the silence, that blessed silence that permeates everything, that can be ‘heard’ in a sense if we are to just root the small silences out of everything that goes unrepresented and unnoticed under the heft of more ‘pressing’ concerns.

Molly Gloss’s timely novella – timely, in spite of being published in 2012 – brings to mind something more recent. In the school shootouts at Peshawar, Pakistan, some 180 school children died as they were murdered by insurgents seeking revenge. Calling the act ‘unprecedented’ would be damning those very children who were its victims with sensationalist brand of media mystique. Any thinking and reasonably aware human being knows that such events have been happening, are happening, in various guises across the globe. This is not to take away from the gravity of the situation, but merely to drive home the callousness of the adjectives showered upon such incidents. They are nothing new. Whether they could have been avoided or not is a different matter altogether, and will depend upon your own ideologies.

Nevertheless, it was thought provoking, even more so in light of yet another event that took place almost parallely: an oil spill at the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in West Bengal, home to several rare species of animals and plants, chief among them perhaps the Bengal Tiger and a certain rare species of Dolphin. 

There have been countless deaths since, I’m certain, but the social networks had been awash with news of just the former. Not a single ‘status update’ seemed concerned with the latter. As an aside, I’d like to point out that that’s exactly what it feels like nowadays: the status updates are divorced from the people themselves in their throwaway quality, emerging as entities as if of their own volition, with the recklessness and exuberance of human emotion. It’s as if the social collective are all simply machines trying out all the possible permutations and combinations, like that age old fable of monkeys trapped in a room with typewriters, churning out all the works of literature by pure probability.

One would expect even a single such proclamation to be sympathetic to the plight of the ecological life in the Sunderbans, but sadly that was not the case. I am aware of the dangers of taking such a view. I had not made such a notion public, not out of fear at a backlash, the possibility of which was certain, but because I’d come across as being yet another soulless activist about to use a sensitive event as an excuse to have my say about the general indifference plaguing the masses when it comes to matters concerning the non-human world.

But isn’t it a sign of political naivete to ignore one at the cost of the other? The media would have us believe that whatever it sees fit to be news is all the news there is,but we know better, ironically enough thanks to these very social networks which have been such a boon in dispensing with disparate chinks of information, eclectic as they are.

All of these bits and pieces form an elaborate, beautiful, often bewildering tapestry that begs to be evaluated as a whole. It is only then that the individual pieces can be interpreted in relief. I do not think I am unfair in my analysis of this plight, despite being certain that I am guilty of ignoring far too much that falls outside my current intellectual radar.

We return then to Molly Gloss’s novella, which I’d initially meant to be the chief subject of this article, but look how I’ve deviated. I am now sitting in a bus chock full of people. I wanted to say ‘cackling’, ‘sonorous’, ‘bombastic’, but then I’d be falling victim to that same wrongheaded fascination with adjectives. How many of them are bothered about Peshawar? How many with dolphins in some backwater region populated with thousands eking out a frugal existence, co-existing with Nature? If I am to stay sane, I have to tell myself, and I have to believe: several. Or at least enough. ‘Enough’ will do, for now.

Signs of Life, by M John Harrison

I read ‘Signs of Life’ almost right after ‘The Course of the Heart’, and in some ways, it does with science fiction what the latter does with fantasy, or the fantastic impulse: use both genres/modes to dissect the nature of desire, and understand how desire ultimately fails when it is essentially escapist. M. John Harrison is the ultimate genre contrarian writing in English in this regard, in that he takes an unflinching view of the literature and politics of escapism, and deconstructs it systematically, but also beautifully. This is no bloodless exercise in revealing the faultlines of genre fiction; Harrison clearly loves what he does, and his fiction shines because of this dedication. But he is not a blind loyalist either. His is veiled meta-fiction, and will be appreciated the most, I suspect, by those who understand what the fantastic truly is about: something that can never be distinct in itself without intersecting with our world. If it doesn’t seem to, thanks to some clever literary contrivance, it will ultimately ring hollow, or at least, that’s what I strongly suspect Harrison hints at. However, to say only that of his fiction is to damn it. This novel is a magnificent exercise in a close study of modern life and the loss of affect it engenders.’Signs of Life’ is, one one level, a story about two lovers, and how one of them yearns for the impossible and the other yearns for someone who she isn’t. In that, it is timeless, but it is also very timely, for the horrors of bio-science that it slowly reveals as being an essential part of the story is as apt as such things are for our age.

Science and Literature

I’ll make a few observations as I begin reading a book (The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science) on the intersections between Literature and Science, and note them here point-wise. They’ll probably be extremely naive (if not completely random) so my apologies in advance. Hopefully, later I will be able to collate my observations into a proper argument.

  • The dissemination of knowledge in the modern world operates primarily through specialized discourses, or languages, which are often too technical to afford cross-pollination of thought. This is termed in the book as ‘an operational difference’. Quite succinct. Operational difference has a nice ring to it.
  • Literary texts, as seen through the lens of both literature and science, are ‘technologies of communication and meaning, embedded in the medium of discourse and narration’. Take that, self proclaimed poets marauding as academics. When all’s said and done, you were merely communicating with your couplets. (I wish I could get people on Facebook irritated with this; but I have no wish of returning to that godforsaken land of narcissists).
  • Wikipedia informs me that: “Wissenschaft is the German language term for any study or science that involves systematic research. Wissenschaft incorporates science, learning, knowledge, scholarship and implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down. It did not necessarily imply empirical research.” Bah, knew it all along, and I don’t even speak German.
  • Okay, this is seriously enervating: for the longest time, intelligence was held to require a body. No more, in the digital age. Intelligence that does not require life. So where does that leave ‘life’? What is life without a body? How entwined is the notion of ‘living’ with bodily functions? And if, in order to counter with the humanist claim that intelligence is synonymous with life, we consider that ‘to live’ is to revel in the body as well as the mind, and if the body (as opposed to the mind, in the western sense) is ‘animal’, then doesn’t that undermine all the pretensions of human ethics, in the light of turning a blind eye to animal abuse? (As they say, ‘that escalated quickly’)