Date: 11/18/19 2:49 pm From: Constance Sidles <constancesidles...> Subject: [Tweeters] Off topic: A Magic Adventure
Hey tweets, for several months now, my husband John and I have been looking for a cultural adventure (centered around nature) to match our very first foray into our Year of Adventure (the moth concert, with wax moths giving a live performance during the premier of a concerto written for moths and human chorus).
On Thursday night, we found ourselves at a fundraising event for Hugo House, the local center for prose, poetry, and drama writers. The star attraction was renowned science fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose every short story and novel are his very own version of a Ted talk: witty, original, and most of all, thought-provoking. (You may have heard of Ted Chiang as the author of the work that led to the film Arrival.)
I suppose Ted could have chosen to recite the alphabet, and his adoring fans would have been thrilled. As it happened, though, he decided to read his exposition on the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Ted's talk centered on the idea that fantasy at its base is about magic, while science fiction is about science. Even deeper, magic posits a universe that is personal, meaning, the universe is intellectually and emotionally aware of each of us, responds to our power or pleas in a personal way, and runs on relationships, not rule of law. Science, on the other hand, posits an impersonal universe, one that neither knows us nor cares about us and is run on the basis of natural laws.
Magic is an anthropomorphic way of relating to the universe, while science runs the universe without requiring a person to activate its doings. Magic is idiosyncratic. It depends on the specific skills or power of each individual. It cannot be replicated, nor its products mass produced, as those of technology and science can. Magic is inherently unequal, favoring some individuals and limiting others, whereas technology can provide its benefits to the masses, potentially to everyone. On the other hand, unlike science, magic is deeply comforting, for it tells us that the universe acknowleges our uniqueness and importance. If we live in a magical world, the universe cares about us.
I am intensely interested in these ideas because I have often tried to make sense of the natural events I observe at the Fill, many of which can be deeply disturbing.
Is "nature red in tooth and claw" as Tennyson thought? We certainly have plenty of evidence that it is: the coot, still kicking and calling, being carried off by the eagle to feed its young; the garter snake repeatedly shaken by the heron until death finally releases its pain; the peregrine striking the pigeon in midair. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. These are the laws of nature.
But there are other laws too: the little Cooper's Hawk working himself to a thread trying to feed his five (!) babies; the grebe offering her own feathers to her young for their nourishment; even the chimp recently reported by Franz de Waals tenderly holding an injured bird in her hands, trying to help it to fly again. Selflessness and sacrifice, caring for others - these are just as much a part of nature as is the violence.
What to make of this? As I watch the birds flutter around me in their beauty and grace, as well as in their cruelty, I am led to believe that these names I give to interpret the events I see are human names, human values. Nature is neither kind nor cruel. It has no heart, no mind. Values and meaning are supplied only by us, by our own hearts and minds. This, to me, is an empowering thought. We can't always control or sometimes even choose what happens to us in the natural world, but in the world created by our own relationships to each other and to the world - in our humanity - we have the freedom to create our own stories, the ones that tell us what it all means.
Recently, John and I went on an adventure to the Big Island of Hawaii (more about that later). One night, we drove out to the most remote place we could find, away from all things human except a rough road hacked out of the lava and left to wind its way into the deepening night. We got out and waited until our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Then we looked up. A blanket of stars covered the sky above us, one glittering canopy arching over the entire planet, immense, eternal, shared by every living thing in the world. Nature did not mean to make it beautiful, but it was.