Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The impossibility of forever

Incandescent bulb

Her desk had been swept bare. There is only the incandescent bulb above it, giving off light and heat.
All is still.
The blind has not been lowered, and headlights can be seen moving along the main road at sporadic intervals now that midnight has passed.

She is sitting at the desk, like someone who has never known suffering.
Not like someone who has just been crying, or is about to.
Like someone who has never shattered.
As though there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever.
— from The White Book, by Han Kang.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Emptiness is a type of existence

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, takes its name from the problem of physics to do with gravitational systems and the predictability of the movement of those bodies. Finally I'm motivated to read this book, as it's up for discussion at bookclub.

What I did not expect was the background of the Cultural Revolution, a physics professor persecuted for teaching the (reactionary!) theory of relativity (developed under "the black banner of capitalism"), and a woman traumatized by the experience of seeing this man, her father, die.

(The author claims he's not interested in social commentary; the stories of science are far more profound. Maybe it's true, or maybe it's just something he says.)

I did not expect to be confronted with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring:
It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.
Nor did I expect to be fully immersed in a virtual reality game, encountering historical personages and simulating famous mathematical conundrums (and with an homage to Flatland).

Also this sentence, which I keep rolling over, trying to make sense of it: "A woman should be like water, able to flow over and around anything."

And Buddhist teachings: "Emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness is a type of existence. You must use this existential emptiness to fill yourself."

And bits of poetry: "This kind of experiment is akin to looking for a raindrop of a slightly different color in a summer thunderstorm."

This is a massive story, and it feels like it's barely just begun (this is, after all, just the first part of a trilogy of books). The plot proper ostensibly opens when Wang Miao, a nanotech researcher, is called in to assist in the investigation into a rash of mysterious deaths of several prominent scientists.

He has occasion to meet Ye Wenjie, astrophysicist and mother of the latest victim. Much of the novel is devoted to Wang learning about Ye's past, including how she had watched her father be executed and herself was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

And then, wow, contact. And that first message is a warning, or maybe a threat, or maybe a cleverly laid ruse.

Much of the rest of the novel is consumed with Wang playing the VR game, trying to solve the three-body problem, which turns out be a very real problem for a very real planet with three suns. The Trisolarans have adapted to their extreme environment — their bodies can dehydrate and be stored during chaotic periods — but the end is imminent and they must find a new home.

I finished the book despairing over humanity, not so much concerned over its ultimate fate as disappointed in our actions along the way — how many betrayals against our species along the way, whether at an individual or community level or on a planetary scale.

I am torn between resistance and welcoming our alien overlords.

It was quite the humbling realization to realize we are but bugs before them, but...
Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it . . . this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.
Excerpt.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The spawn's heartbeat

Ruta once heard the life of the mushroom spawn. It was an underground rustling that sounded like a dull sigh, and then she could hear the gentle crackle of clumps of earth as the thread of the mycelium pushed its way between them. Ruta heard the spawn's heartbeat, which happens once very eighty human years. Ever since she has been coming to this damp spot in Wodenica, and always lies down on the wet moss. If she lies there for a while, she starts to sense the mushroom spawn in another way, too — because the spawn slows down time. Ruta falls into a waking sleep, and sees everything in a completely different way. She can see individual gusts of wind, the slow and graceful flight of insects, the fluent movements of ants, and particles of light that settle on the surfaces of leaves. All the high-up noises — the warbling of birds, the squealing of animals — change into booming and rumbling, and glide along just above the ground, like mist. Ruta feels as if she has been lying like that for hours, though only a moment has passed. So the mushroom spawn takes time into its possession.
— from Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Like a dull sigh. Takes time into its possession.