There Is an Island Shaped Like an Avocado…

…And I Think We Should Learn More About It

A Map of Sri Lanka (slightly outdated, from 2001). Not sure of any critical changes since then.

A Map of Sri Lanka (slightly outdated, from 2001). Not sure of any critical changes since then.

I’m talking about Sri Lanka, of course. It’s a little island nation off the south eastern tip of India, and I knew little of it, aside from its existence, until a book I read recently made me engage with the topic and do some research to better understand what was going on in the story. I am always grateful for authors who put difficult issues out there in their fiction and open my eyes to things I have not considered before. I also enjoy learning about other places and cultures through the writing of people from those places and cultures. Reading about both in one book is like looking through another’s eyes, rather than simply seeing the statistics or hearing the news reports. The book I am talking about is like this, and it is called Island of a Thousand Mirrors, written by Nayomi Munaweera.

There are several different cover versions. This is the one from the library.

There are several different cover versions. This is the one from the library.

The novel begins with Yasodhara, a Sinhala girl, telling about her paternal grandparents, and her father’s upbringing, and how he came to Colombo (the capital) to receive his education. I can understand all of that. She also discusses her father’s sister, who has dark skin, “black-black,” as the women all say when she is born, and how her mother immediately despairs of every marrying her off due to this cultural disadvantage. This set me on my first round of investigations, where I discovered that the caste system was still lingering on in everyday prejudices, and that the Sinhala ethnic group prided itself on being lighter skinned than their Tamil neighbors, and how these kinds of little daily prejudices worked to build animosity between these groups. Directly after that episode, arranged marriages were highlighted in the story. I knew more about that topic, thanks to some pretty amazing English professors, and a World Literature class I took with one of them. I have read some modern (mid-20th c. to present) Indian writers, and the process appears much the same in Sri Lanka. It is close enough for comparison purposes. Parents of eligible brides and grooms scour ads looking for the perfect match for their sons and daughters. They consult astrological signs and consider education and job prospects, family lineage, the whole nine yards, before making a decision. The process is more like a college application or a job interview. Love marriages are frowned upon and viewed as a second rate option. It is said only the low-class and poor should have love marriages.

Then things began to get scary. The riots happen in Colombo. There are rumors of rebels in the northern villages and jungles. This story explores some heavy topics and should be approached with the awareness that war lies at the center of the novel. There is blatant ethnic discrimination, class and gender inequality, and devastating violence. There are depictions of death, terrorism and rape. This is not an easy novel. And why should it be? This story centers on the lives of women from two different parts of Sri Lanka who are deeply affected and changed by the civil war that breaks out in their shared homeland.

I had to do some research about this civil war. It lasted for nearly thirty years. This conflict was the culmination of decades of cultural tension between the Sinhala majority ethnic group and the Tamil ethnic group which makes up a majority of the rest of the population. The Tamils felt the weight of prejudice keenly and the first stirrings of rebellion were felt in the north. An anti-Tamil riot, allowed by the Sinhalese-led government, kicked the fires of war into an inferno. After that, Tamil insurgents and the Sri Lankan military squared off, with hundreds of thousands of citizens falling prey to the violence of this struggle. Both sides commit unspeakable atrocities. The second half of the novel begins with Saraswathi, a Tamil girl in a northern village, bringing a different perspective to the narrative.

This book is difficult, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. Rarely does an author achieve a balance of these aspects and remain relevant, but I think Munaweera succeeded. She kept my attention, I devoured page after page, and I felt for the main characters, no matter which side of the struggle they were on. There was a lot I was unfamiliar with, culturally and historically, that I had to research, but the effort was worth it for understanding the deeper implications of the novel.

Crack Open Those Books!

So it’s back to school season in my neck of the woods. Those big yellow beasts are rounding up kids and professors are abusing copier privileges before all the paper runs out for the term. I graduated from Slippery Rock University with a B.A. in Literature three years ago. I’ll be auditing a class at a different college starting Monday, and I’m actually quite excited. In the spirit of getting back into an academic mindset, I’m reading some classics from the middle and high school literary canon that I somehow missed the first time around. Here are my thoughts, Part 1.

My reading through pre-college schooling was voracious and varied, but not deep. I consumed books like a wolf consumes meat, quickly and without relish. It’s a shame really, and I can only remember some of the things I’ve read, and I’ve forgotten an awful lot of the good literature I came into contact with through chance. There are some staid classics of my childhood I still return to, but mostly I read just to read. Lately, as I’ve honed my close reading skills, through practice, my chosen major, and a general desire to [hash tag] read harder (thanks Book Riot), I realized I missed a few important ones that everyone else seems to have read. For example, I read Shakespeare and Melville while classmates were struggling with Golding and Lowry. I’m not sure how this happened, but it did. I never read The Giver, but I did read The Tempest. I never read Lord of the Flies, but I did read Moby Dick (which, as a result of wolfing down content at the expense of understanding, I don’t recall well. I’m rereading it now, and find it hilarious.) What madness is this?
In an effort to understand what the heck I may have missed, I’m visiting some of these missed books for the first time. My first read was the aforementioned book by Lois Lowry, The Giver, winner of a Newbery Medal. This classic flew through my radar, but I dismissed it as too easy and never bothered with it. I think it was read in some middle school classes, but I was tortured with Johnny Tremain instead. In my free time I consumed multiple volumes of the excellent Redwall series, by Brian Jacques. (Eulalia, dontcha know?) And by free time, I mean instead of paying attention in class, most days. I was sent off to the SpEd-Gifted program, and there I found Shakespeare.

So, did my effort to catch up pay off? Yes, and no. For one, I think my suspension of disbelief would have been much more effective if I read this at a younger age. I still appreciate the creativity and thoughtfulness the author put into this book, but it is on the simpler side to make it accessible to younger minds. The second issue is my lack of a peer group led by a teacher to foster interesting discussion about the book’s subject matter. Not that middle school was ever a hotbed of intellectual discussion, but I’m lacking the essential idea exchange that a book of this sort is aiming to promote simply by the nature of its ideas.

While I am certainly glad I read this book, and it opened me up to thoughtful reflection on the nature of safety/fairness versus freedom, I have a bone to pick with two things: the nature of the Receiver of Memories, and the ending of the whole thing. Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! This world that Lowry has conjured up is a sober world governed by rules and logic. Yet, when we first meet the Receiver of Memories a.k.a. The Giver, a lot of hocus pocus suddenly erupts from the page. At least, it seemed that way to me. People as memory receptacles does not seem bizarre to me, as an idea, but it does not fit the world. The ending however, was the worst transgression on the precarious belief I had developed in this world while reading. It seemed thrown together from vague ideas that evoked, in my mind, the endings of both The Little Matchstick Girl and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Alright, I’m done hating. There are three more books in the series, and I have yet to read them. Maybe they’ll tie up the loose ends hanging at the end of this story. I can only hope. By-the-by, did anyone see the movie? It has Jeff Bridges in it, but it looks so unpromising on IMDb that I never bothered with it, and I do not plan to.

Sensitivity Training

I read an article in The Atlantic which was brought to my attention by a friend’s Facebook post linking it. The article is on the longer side for today’s attention span, but well worth the time taken to read it through. Here’s a link to the article. It also spawned this poem, and it will, quite possibly cause backlash. I hope it also causes the intended effect of making us think deeply about the topic rather than jump to feeling offended.

I’m offended by this title.
Do you think I’m sensitive?
Maybe you’re just hardhearted.
There I go: Using accusative
“you” statements again.
I’m told the world’s a scary place.
I demand protection from every
trigger, microaggression,
noncontextualized statement
thrown my way. Oh, no,
they’re not directed at me personally,
just left around carelessly
like socks that have lost their mates.
I expect to be Molly coddled in the name of liberty. Free country,
free from anything that hurts
or frightens my thoughts.
I want shielding from the world,
but freedom to go out into it
expecting nothing less than to trip
naïvely through the woods
as all the Big Bad Wolves
leave me in peace to pass on through,
[Trigger Warning] unmolested.

Real Science in Fiction: How to Put an Astronaut on Mars

Log Entry: Week 3

After two weeks of the speculative and fantastic in my Mars-related sci-fi, I’m glad to have finally read a book with real science.

Yay!

Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Did you see what I did there? If you did, I bet you already found out how awesome The Martian is as a novel. It is also a blueprint for Mars missions. It seems many technological advances (especially ones relating to space and robotics) are fueled by the feverish dreams of sci-fi writers who share their vision with the world. Andy Weir’s book is no exception. Granted, he got his idea from a Mars colonization project thought of years ago. There is a new one that is already in the works, too. But he spent a lot of time thinking through the problems an astronaut would have if stranded there alone. Most projects involve safeguards to prevent that from happening. It is a worst-case scenario that presumes death. Most missions appear not to dwell on this possibility too heavily.

What happens in the novel is the exciting thing. Manned travel to Mars is already a standard program, and this group is not the first crew to set foot on the Red Planet. Those milestones have already happened before the story takes place. This is not to downplay the importance of these moments. Rather, it is to draw attention to how dangerous space travel and living on another planet really are, and how fragile all the equipment and procedures can be given an unforeseen circumstance. Even when it’s not the first time around, it is a delicate operation. This crew is the third crew to go to Mars. They do not feel as special or vulnerable as the first or even second. This set up places all the focus on how a stranded astronaut might actually survive in such a hostile and hopeless situation.

Mark Watney is a member of the six person crew of the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He is the team engineer/botanist (each crew member has dual specialties). The plan is to reside on Mars for thirty-one sols (each sol is a Martian day) in a Hab designed to let them live and work without a space suit. On sol six, all hell breaks loose. A mega dust storm kicks up, with wind speeds well above capacity for survival of their return vehicle. The mission has to be scrubbed. On the way from the Hab to the MAV (Martian Ascent Vehicle–basically the getaway car), Watney is nearly skewered by the communications antenna and dragged away into the storm. His crew cannot find him and they still need to leave the surface before the MAV is destroyed. The commander makes a difficult but necessary decision and the other five members of the mission return to orbit. All signs indicate Watney died on impact with the debris. They return to the space craft, Hermes, for the return to Earth.

Except, Watney’s not dead. He is alive, and he has a strong drive to stay that way. He also has a lot of training and basic intelligence on his side. Being an engineer also means he is like McGyver-in-spaaaaace. It was mind blowing to see the amount of science and math skills needed just to maintain the status quo in the Hab, but Watney also displayed determination and creativity, which allowed him to greatly expand his odds of survival in such a desperate situation. There is also a lot greater margin for error than NASA would ever be comfortable with when it comes to surviving the Red Planet, but the consequences of messing up are serious and unpleasant. Deadly, usually. Watney manages to get by with a lot of swearing and a healthy dose of humor. He alternates between the two and even combines them frequently.

Inside cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Inside cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Here are some gems:

“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” when he realizes he can make fertile soil and grow potatoes.

“I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die. Anyway, much more important: I simply can’t abide the replacement of Chrissy with Cindy. Three’s Company may never be the same after this fiasco. Time will tell.” in response to watching TV shows left behind by a crew member.

“I am fucked, and I’m gonna die! Okay, calm down. I’m sure I can get around this. I’m writing this to you, dear future Mars archaeologist, from Rover 2. You may wonder why I’m not in the Hab right now. Because I fled in terror, that’s why!” when he realizes he accidently turned the Hab into a time bomb with a hydrazine experiment.

“I need to ask myself, ‘What would an Apollo astronaut do?’ He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.” to gear himself up for leaving the Hab for a long trek over the Martian surface.

The story moves between Mark Watney’s log entries on Mars, NASA employees on Earth, and the Ares 3 crew in Hermes. This builds a full picture of the effort going in to rescuing Watney, once they realize he is still alive, as well as the effect this whole adventure is having on everyone involved.

So, The Martian is being made into a movie. There have been a few space based movies going on lately. Gravity and Interstellar to name two. I’m not sure about the levels of real science in either of them, but there is surely an interest in space travel again, especially with the news of a Mars colonization plan under way. The Martian promises to be an exciting adventure on the screen just as much as in the book. I think it will actually turn out well. It stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney. I’m not sure I like that, but we shall see.

All’s Fair in Love and War (or, Men on Mars and the Beauty of Poetical Fiction)

I just wanted to write a long title with a subtitle, to sound, you know, AWESOME! Speaking of awesome, Ray Bradbury is a masterful genius of the written word. Love, love, love. Aaaaannddd, there’s your emotional gushing for Valentine’s Day. Now, on to the review:

I never thought reading science fiction would make me want to read poetry, but then, Ray Bradbury didn’t exactly write a technical sci-fi story, did he? The Martian Chronicles, is in fact a chronological series of short stories that were pieced together and polished up. It works, though. And this book becomes so much more than a story about colonizing Mars, because the poetry is so evident. This book is a treatise on the human condition, the drive to expand exploration and civilization, even beyond our own atmosphere, and it was written before man went to the moon! There is longing, homesickness, faith, doubt, new beginnings and old problems. At the heart is humanity, desiring to escape the problems of Earth, but only succeeding in escaping its gravity. The people are still bound to their home world. I’m going to proceed to inundate this post with quotations, because what else do you do with poetry? There are certain lines that jump out and grab the reader; some able to stand alone, and some deriving their power from context, but either way, they have power.

In the very first part, there are a few lines that capture the feeling of excitement that the first manned mission to another world should elicit: “Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses.” Bradbury repeats the phrase “rocket summer” several times in this short section, like a mantra, building the tension and emphasizing the importance of the event. The witnesses are excited and curious, as this is something new, dangerous and momentous.

Next is a story about a Martian couple, in which the wife is somehow made aware–telepathically–of the coming of the First Expedition rocket. This sets off a chain of events with her husband: she shares the secret, her husband is upset, they quarrel, he devises a plan to stop the inevitable arrival of the Earth men. It is a story about anticipation, tension, and waiting, and it is described like this: “It was like those days when you heard a thunderstorm coming and there was the waiting silence and then the faintest pressure of the atmosphere as the climate blew over the land in shifts and shadows and vapors. And the change pressed at your ears and you were suspended in the waiting time of the coming storm.” And it was a storm, awful and unexpected, that eventually came. But the First Expedition never got far, nor did the Second or Third, but they left traces that opened the doorway, unknown, for the Fourth.

When the Fourth Expedition arrives, they find that humans have already left their mark on the planet. There are places long dead, but there are recent casualties, too. The vast majority of the Martian population has been struck down by something, and it shocks a few of the crew when they find out what can destroy such a glorious civilization. The explanation is twofold: “Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity. But the rest! Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name? No, in the name of all that’s holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child’s disease, a disease that doesn’t even kill children on Earth! It’s not right and it’s not fair.” This is where the Martian world leaves its mark on an Earth man, and transforms him. He identifies himself with the lost civilization. He rails, “It can’t be a dirty, silly thing like chicken pox. It doesn’t fit the architecture; it doesn’t fit this entire world!” It makes a lot of sense for this one man to feel so strongly though. This race is only recently gone, but it feels like an eternity because he missed it in its full life. He is an archaeologist, an interpreter of dead civilizations, and reclaimer of lost knowledge, and a reconstructer of old ways. The ancient, the buried, the half-forgotten are his siren song and he finds he cannot resist the call. He turns on his fellow crewmen and chooses to forsake Earth in favor of Mars. His fear is that “No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves… We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” This section is my favorite part, probably because the dissenting archaeologist quotes Byron, as well, with a recitation of the poem “So We’ll Go No More A’ Roving.” It is beautiful and haunting, and also serves to show the effect the Earth men will eventually have on Mars.

I’ll leave this discussion with two more summary quotes.

“The men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man.”

And,

“Mars was a distant shore, and the men spread upon it in waves. Each wave different, and each wave stronger.”

If I ever become a high school English teacher, I’m teaching this book. I did not get enough powerful, make you think about the world around you, literature when I went through school (until college) and that’s a terrible shame. This is such an excellent collection of seamless stories, all pointing out both the damning and redeeming qualities of humanity. I highly recommend reading it. Go get a copy now!

What to Expect When Invading Mars

This past week, I read Out of the Silent Planet (pub. 1963), by C. S. Lewis. You may know him as the author of the Narnia books, or as a writer of Christian non-fiction and friend of J. R. R. Tolkien. It may be a surprise to some, however, that he wrote a good science fiction trilogy, continued in Perelandra and concluding in That Hideous Strength. As a Christian writer, even his fiction is touched with the theological, but this aspect was more thinly veiled in the space trilogy than it was in the land of Narnia. All of that background information aside, Out of the Silent Planet, follows the kidnapped Dr. Ransom–conveniently, a philologist (one who studies languages)–and his captors as they journey to the Red Planet. One captor is Dr. Weston: professor of astrophysics, and self-proclaimed champion of the human race, protector of progress, and superior genius, who sees it as his duty to ensure the continuation of humanity into eternity, even if that means making possible the habitation of other worlds. Mr. Devine is the other captor: a man with a repugnant personality, yet capable of amassing enormous wealth and business contacts, who is the financial backer of this expedition and one who sees the potential for profit in this journey. Ransom gets mixed up in this whole thing because he was in the area, and doing a favor for a woman whose son works for these two men. This employee of theirs was to be the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, on the second journey to Mars (called Malacandra by the inhabitants), but Ransom’s intervention puts him in the boy’s place on this journey.

The bulk of the story takes place on Malacandra, as Ransom first escapes his captors and the creatures to which they were giving him, and then finds help among other creatures of the planet. What he finds out is the real journey. He learns, through the aid of his profession, that Malacandra is a world populated by three distinct rational species. There are the hrossa, whom he lives with for several months, and who teach him the language and some cultural points of the planet. Then, there are the seroni, whom he feared before reaching the planet, due to overhearing a conversation between Devine and Weston on the spaceship. The pfipfltriggi are the third species, of whom Ransom, and the reader, only see a little. Each has a skill set important to Malacandrian society, and they aid each other with these skills. There is no war, either intraspecies or interspecies. In fact, there does not seem to be a word for it. There is no word for evil either, and Ransom has to make do with describing his captors as “bent” men. All three species have a single entity they view as leader of their world: Oyarsa. Oyarsa has agents that do it’s bidding on Malacandra, spiritual things that exist on a different plane than the physical beings, but which still interact with them. They are like smaller version of Oyarsa. Oyarsa, in turn, owes allegiance only to Maleldil, the creator and ruler of the universe, and a greater being than the ones under it. The religious motifs are obvious here, when it comes to the hierarchy of spiritual beings. Earth is the titular Silent Planet, because it is cut off from the rest of the heavenly bodies due to a “bent” Oyarsa that rules there.

Out of the Silent Planet and the rest of Lewis's space trilogy.

Out of the Silent Planet and the rest of Lewis’s space trilogy.

Although sci-fi in style, the physics utilized is shaky at best, but that can be forgiven because that is not the chief end and purpose of this story. It is to show how broken humanity is when we depend soley on our own strengths and power, and how we were intended to be as creatures of God, and how we could be if we returned to trusting in him. The problem with Devine and Weston was the prejudice they brought with them to Malacandra. They were blinded by their worldly pursuits. Devine was corrupted by the idol of greed, and Weston poisoned by the twin gods of science and progress. In the name of wealth, one wanted to strip the world of all it was worth in metal, and in the name of posterity, the other wanted to strip the world of its current inhabitants. Weston was actually the worse of the two because he had good intentions but bad practice. He could not see that even as he preached the preservation of rational beings, he was excluding the very thing he wanted to protect (the three rational species of Mars) in favor of his own small-minded and quarrelsome species (us humans). C. S. Lewis is commenting on society in this book, not on the possibilities of space travel. He is an astute observer when it comes to the human condition, especially when it comes to faith or a lack thereof. I highly recommend this book even if you are wary of the religious undertones echoing throughout. It is a good story about grace and the nature of humanity, as well as space and adventure.

The Villain is Actually Scary in This One

Except the first impression of her reminded me of a dilapidated Bounce House Princess (any Adventure Time fans out there?).

After that, she got dang frightening. Neil Gaiman has done it again. This novel may be short, but it is populated with vivid characters. Gaiman is an expert at creating his own myths, and everything is soaked in a kind of magic at once improbable yet completely natural to its setting. This story begins with a the protagonist coming back as a middle-aged man to the region where he spent his childhood. He takes a drive down memory lane, except it is a literal, physical lane that takes him back to period in his life that he cannot remember, except when he is close to the source of the events. It was a frightening and dangerous time, although brief, and he is only vaguely aware of it, like a dream clearly remembered upon waking then quickly forgotten moments later. It is a memory that only leaves the impression of having happened, somehow, but with no details or sense of reality. Like the lane itself, which has changed so much that it only resembles the lane from his childhood the further down it that he travels, the memories of what occurred only resemble what happened as he gets closer to the end.

Once he reaches the little duck pond that serves as the titular ocean at the end of the lane, he begins to recall the events that led him to return. He remembers the odd, practical, no-nonsense Hempstock women who live on the farm by the pond, imbued with magical powers and ancient knowledge. He also recalls the girl, Lettie, whose courage perhaps saved his life, or perhaps from a fate worse than death. All the memories and knowledge come back to him as he sits by Lettie’s little ocean; he remembers things he was not aware he forgot. A picture is painted of a child, awkward and unable to make friends easily, who loves books and does not get along with his more socially well-adjusted sister. I can relate to this kid. I was awkward and bookish, getting lost in the world of the book I was reading (or books, as was often the case). Anyways, this kid, the narrator/protagonist as a young boy, finds himself in an all-too-real world of magic and monsters, set off by the suicide of a boarder at his parents’ home.

The terror and helplessness of a boy faced with unimaginable obstacles, and the disbelief of his parents, is palpable. I was actually a little frightened by the sinister machinations of the villain. I was also surprised by the explanation of the monster’s behavior, as offered by Lettie. I will not share it, because that might spoil the book, but it makes you think the whole time. Gaiman also leaves the door wide open for future stories based in this world he created, as well as a whole bunch of questions that long to be answered. Yet it would be a shame to answer all of them, as some of the power of this story lies in the unknown, the bits hinted at but just beyond view. It is like something seen in the periphery that vanishes when looked at head on.

I really, really like this short little tale of wonder, and childhood, and magic. I’m so glad I picked it up and dove in. Like Lettie’s ocean, it may appear small, but it contains a huge and special magic. It even has kittens.