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’)

Imagination and unease: a few thoughts

Why the unease with imagination? I can understand how saturated the market is with fantasy archetypes: elves, dragons, vampires, what have you. It’s being aggravated by Hollywood and TV series cropping up like weeds all over the place. Quality control is a thing of the past, and high production values guarantee a minimum number of viewers. But how do we break out of this muck and see the fantastic for what it really is?

It is more than a tool for subversion, of course. If that was what it was, then it would be as polemical as any other form of reactionary literature. The fantastic image contains within itself volumes of meaning, to be used as the author wants. The truly gifted author, however, will always leave several parts of the fantastic territory he chooses to work with unmapped and unclaimed. She will let these regions — some brand new, some fallow — grow wild, and build an identity for themselves.

The thing that has always interested me about speculative fiction is how grown up men and women write about what is usually considered to fall within a child, or adolescent’s range of interest. Is it because these writers realize that what is relegated to being a child’s is actually an entire hive of truths that people would rather not think about? Is it because they realize that Reality is about as stable as the status quo?

What often passes for sophisticated within the realms of the fantastic is often lazy. You are not being sophisticated and clever if you identify Shakespearean shades in what is a cookie cutter medieval world with the magic and dragons played down, with lots of psychological realism and breasts. Sure, the writing is mature, and a definite step up over 90% of what popular literature used to read like in the 80s. Everything’s gritty. But so what?

To truly be imaginative requires the author to synthesize a wide range of influences, and not necessarily from what passes for the common body of fantastika. Synthesis is the name of the game, a chimerical mash up of seemingly disparate images and ideas, finding its identity in a fertile and intelligent Imagination.

Women and Science Fiction

I don’t know the next thing about beginning an article that talks about women, leave alone how women write, or how they write science fiction. Do women write differently? I have no idea. Unless I answer this question, I cannot get around to answering whether they write science fiction differently.

Let’s take for starters the following belief: women favor individual experience over collective experience when it comes to writing. Women prefer characterization over outright scientific, or sociological speculation. Women would much rather take us through what a single person faces over the period of a story than what a single person thinks is wrong with the establishment, or a method, or a technique, and what that person goes on to do or say about it in a story.

I might be very wrong in suggesting that that is an actual belief. Again, I’m at a loss, because I don’t know whether generalization is bad, or good. I don’t know whether there is any truth to stereotypes. From personal experience, I will say that I have seen women veer both ways, but admittedly, more so in the direction favoring outright emotion over rigorous extrapolation.

But then again, I have known too few women, and too many of those few came from similar financial and social backgrounds.

When it comes to science fiction, you can either choose to blur the distinction between experience and the conceit, or not. If you blur it too much, some people would cease calling it science fiction, because structurally it chooses to betray the genre’s strength, that is, an explicit working through of an argument. Most of the women writers I have come across seek to do the former.

Let’s create an example. Here’s the skeleton of a possible science fiction story.

1. Alien A crash lands on Earth.

2. Alien A decides to befriend woman.

3. Since Alien A befriends a white Caucasian woman, Alien A has decided to shape shift into white Caucasian Man, someone whom the woman presumably might find attractive.

4. Alien A spends a long time with her at a local carnival, trying out the rides and candy floss and popcorn.

5. Alien A sees the woman having a good time, and is pleased to elicit a response in her. He decides he is having a good time too.

6. Alien A sees woman home, and since he has no idea of what a good night kiss means, he doesn’t bother. Neither does the woman.

7. Alien A walks down road on cold winter night, hoping to see her again.

8. Woman heads to bed, but as she does, she changes into a different form, that of Alien B. Unbeknownst to her, she has hung out with a member of her own species. Unbeknownst to Alien A, he has done the same.

So, this could be a typical ‘Golden Age’ SF plot. How would Male Writer Stereotype (we’ll call him Maws) handle this story?

Well, he would handle the story in much the same way that it’s laid out up there. He would take us through the motions, and have the Big Reveal hit us like a brick in the end. Presumably with a reveal of how the alien looks (gills, tentacles, webbed hands, tails, etc.)

How would Female Writer Stereotype (we’ll call her Faws) deal with this plot?

Well, she might approach it either from the perspective of the man or the woman, but get this: she might not be too interested in how alien the Aliens really are. The way she might begin the story could be read as any other story that deals with how someone alien to White Caucasian Culture tries to date a White Caucasian Woman. Him looking like a White Caucasian Male could simultaneously be real (within the confines of the story), but also a metaphor for a foreigner trying very hard to act like a local.

In approaching the story from such an angle, she would be steering the science fiction conceit of something that isn’t human adapting to human life towards something different entirely: instead of speculating upon what makes us human, she would transform the time-worn plot of the culture-clash into something new, namely, how a conflict of cultures gain a fresh resonance when seen through the angle of gender politics. She might also provide enough hints for the reader to assume that both people are Aliens, and not resort to a surprise ending.

What this achieves is essentially transfusing what could otherwise be considered ‘literary’ with a strength that is very much science fiction’s, only having shed the 12 year old’s fascination for how the alien might actually look. Whether he has blue skin, or gills, or tentacles.

Therefore, what this would achieve is twofold. One, the pleasure to be had is not in the twist ending, it is in the actual interactions between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. And two, if she is passionate about science fiction, and has pulled the story off successfully, it can also be read as a story about someone who is not human trying to be human.

But this begs the question: what is wrong with a literary fascination for the imaginative and the colorful? Is such detail escapism?

I will try to answer that question in a second blog post.

For actual stories with similar treatments, check out: Standing Room Only, by Karen Joy Fowler; Lambing Season, by Molly Gloss; Seven American Nights, by Gene Wolfe; Passengers, by Robert Silverberg; Frankenstein’s Daughter, by Maureen McHugh; Sur, by Ursula LeGuin; Beam Me Home, by James Tiptree Jr.