All posts by mirseidel

Thinking about Gaia

Image of Earth from spaceIn this month of Earth Day and marching for science and climate, I’m thinking about Gaia.

A hashtag popped up on Twitter last week: #ifonlytheearthcouldspeak. Yes! That’s a good prompt to contemplate right now. The hashtag elicited a range of responses from funny and snarky to thoughtful and earnest. Some tweeters suggested that the earth is speaking, but we’re not listening. Would that be Gaia? The environmental scientist James Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, proposing that the Earth could be seen as one vast living and self-regulating system, and naming it for Gaia, the primordial Greek Earth goddess. The idea has been borne out since then, but its popularity may owe a lot to Lovelock’s naming it for the Greek Mother Earth, thus connecting it in our minds to the much earlier and long-lived human sense of the earth as a living force.

In the last week, the earth’s atmosphere reached an ominous new milestone: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels broke past 410 parts per million, after hitting 400 parts per million in 2013. The last time atmospheric carbon concentrations were this high was in the Middle Pliocene, 3.6 million years ago. Our continuing to pump carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, combined with the unknown effects of climate feedback, are cause for alarm. For those of us who don’t deny the facts, it’s a scary time. I’ll be at the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. in a few days, one of the hundreds of thousands of people needing to bear witness to the urgency of this moment.

But are facts enough to rally people to action? You can’t see carbon concentrations, and even though the earth is now experiencing changes that are much faster than the normal geological time scale, these changes are often too slow, too big, or too abstract for us to easily take in. As author Kim Stanley Robinson has said, “Fiction can tell us how new situations will feel, and also, what things mean.” Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, set in a partially submerged future New York, is one of several just-published works of climate fiction (cli-fi), the emerging genre that invites us to picture the human consequences of climate change. Robinson offers a vision of people muddling along and making their lives in the Venice-like canals of New York, both coping with the disasters that have occurred and aware there may be worse ahead.

But where is Gaia in this future? If Earth can be seen as a living thing, couldn’t we also benefit from trying to take its perspective—as different from ours as it may be? Science fiction has gone there already. Apparently inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, Isaac Asimov included a newly discovered, sentient planet named Gaia in his 1982 novel Foundation’s Edge. And Piers Anthony made “Gaea” a main character—an archetype of the Earth, embodied in a mortal—in Becoming a Green Mother (1988), part of his Incarnations of Immortality series.

The Book of Joan, an ambitious novel by Lidia Yuknavitch, just out this month, offers a character who is empathically connected with the Earth. Living only a few decades into the future, the visionary child-woman Joan of Dirt leads a rebellion among the survivors of an environmentally ravaged earth who are now living on an orbiting space-station sanctuary ruled by a billionaire dictator. This Joan of Arc for a nightmare future can manifest volcanic eruptions—her symbiosis with the planet allows it a form of expression that can’t be ignored. It’s a risky novel, also taking on issues of gender, sex and race, and it’s on my to-be-read list.

These and other cli-fi novels do a great service by bringing the human consequences of climate change into vivid focus, at a human scale we can reckon with. If they tend to be dystopian, that is the kind of future that seems to be staring us in the face, given the forces we have already set in motion.

The Earth is speaking to us now, in her own language, not just through beautiful sunsets, but through rising sea levels, droughts, and strange weather patterns. Of course we need to be able to imagine the human costs of climate change. That’s how we think, and it is the most promising way toward changes in policy. But I also feel the need to see things from Gaia’s point of view—even if it means facing eruptions of traumatic scale and strength. What may be dystopian for us, may just be a cloudy afternoon for our long-lived planet. We desperately need to de-objectify the earth, and to try to reengage in something more like an “I–Thou” relationship with Gaia—not of equals, but in respect, and awe and wonder. I hope more writers will take up the challenge of imagining what she is saying, and might be saying in the future.




Grieving for a whole planet From Princess Leia to Doris Lessing

Frozen PlanetWhen I saw the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, I couldn’t get past that moment when Princess Leia sees her home planet, Alderaan, blown up by the Empire. We didn’t even get to see her reaction shot—the first response to this planetary destruction is voiced by Obi Wan Kenobi, saying he feels a “great disturbance in the force.” How does Leia cope with this devastating loss? We never learn,  since after that she moves right into warrior mode.

Star Wars is great popular entertainment, of course. And it’s part of a long line of sci-fi stories featuring a planet that explodes or is otherwise destroyed by nuclear or environmental disaster, from the dying planet Krypton to an Earth frozen by ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. 

At another end of the spectrum, there’s a novel by Doris Lessing that has stuck with me since I read it, for its unrelenting deep dive into the feelings of a community as it experiences the death of its world. The Making of the Representative from Planet Eight (1982) is the fourth in Lessing’s five-novel series of science fiction novels, Canopus in Argos. It’s a quick but intense read, told in a voice that evokes folk tales or Scripture. (Lessing later adapted the novel as an opera with music by Philip Glass.)

We’re led through the story by Doeg, who lives on the peaceful, prosperous and temperate Planet Eight, part of the Canopus system. A mysterious cosmic realignment causes the global climate to shift, with blizzards causing a buildup of snow and ice—a swiftly cataclysmic, planet-wide Ice Age. Doeg, whose vocation is Memory Maker and Keeper of Records, reports on his own and others’ avalanche of emotional responses as everything about their previous life slips away.

In one poignant moment, the leaders stage a ceremony to help people accept part of their new reality: they now have to fish in their sacred lake for sustenance, a practice that has always been taboo. Standing on the shore, the community watches as a few people row out to demonstrate how it’s done. The sight of this is too much: “A groan or cry came out from the crowds, and this sound, which had been pressed out of us, frightened us all.”

In the end, there’s no escape—all life on the planet is extinguished. Doeg and a few others only survive in disembodied form, as a collective “representative” to the Canopic system. Their transformation reflects Lessing’s study of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Through that lens, the story can be seen as an allegory of the soul leaving behind the physical body (the “world” in which the individual lives). Lessing also pointed to another source for the story, in her lifelong fascination with the doomed British Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott from 1910-1913.

Now, several decades after it first appeared, and as we move further into our global climate crisis, it’s hard not to read the novel as a stark and cogent allegory of climate change—an early entrant in the growing genre of climate fiction, or Cli-Fi, as it’s been called by journalist Dan Bloom and others. Lessing didn’t talk about this aspect of the work, although she later revisited themes of ecological and cultural collapse in her two “Mara and Dann” novels, set in a far-future Africa.

Wrapping your mind around such a massive phenomenon is hard, especially when it looms over your own life, let alone the lives of your descendants. It is much easier to deny something like climate change while evidence of it builds around you, than to attempt to engage with the scope of what’s happening. But in the moment we find ourselves in now, we also need to learn to stretch our capacity to feel, and express, the worst that could happen, like the people beside the lake on Planet Eight.


An Alternate History reading list for this moment Or, Did Philip K. Dick foresee our current predicament?


Are we living in an alternate branch of history? I’ve been asking myself that question since waking up the morning of November 9, with the feeling that reality had turned sideways. Since then, many of us have shared the stages of shock, denial, anger and sadness that come after a great loss. But when so many people share these feelings at the same time, that sense of things being profoundly wrenched out of place, of being exiled from the world you know, takes on a different weight.

Elections can be turning points. Millions of people weighed in on the country’s direction—leaving aside the issues of how their opinions were influenced—and this time the joker came out on top, confounding the expectations of many. A shift happened, which we’re just beginning to live through, and which has the power to affect the world. Trying to make sense of this, I keep coming back to the imaginative precedents offered by alternate history.

The impulse to imagine alternate histories has long roots. Two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Livy speculated on whether Alexander the Great could have defeated Rome. Modern alternate history emerged along with science fiction, as in L. Sprague de Camp’s 1939 classic Lest Darkness Fall: an archeologist finds himself thrown back in time to a slightly different Rome in the sixth century CE, where he manages to insert enough technology and knowledge to prevent the coming of the Dark Ages.


The imagination of darker alternate timelines—with the Nazis and other Axis powers winning World War II, for example—has become an enduring strand in the genre. There’s Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which takes place in a post-war America carved up into protectorates of the Nazis and the Japanese. Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy plays out a timeline in which Britain has become a fascist dictatorship following a peace made with Nazi Germany, thanks to the influence of the appeasement faction and American isolationism. Simon Zelitch’s Judenstaat offers another possible World War II outcome, with a Jewish state arising not in Palestine but in the area that for us became part of East Germany, and falling inside the oppressive political orbit of the USSR.

Then there are novels that give us a vision of a homegrown Fascism taking power in the United States. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America traces an alternate historical path in the 1930s, following the election of Charles Lindbergh as President (in our time, he was a Nazi sympathizer). This leads to state-sponsored anti-Semitism that includes a Jewish relocation program. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here follows a Huey Long-like demagogue who, soon after his election to the presidency, uses military force to establish a totalitarian state. Technically It Can’t Happen Here may not qualify as alternate history, since Lewis was writing in 1935 about an upcoming election, not about a divergent event in the past.

I’ve seen many of these novels cited as parallels to the moment we find ourselves in now. But I haven’t heard anyone bring up a more obscure novel by Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth, which was posthumously published in 1985. Dick also adapted the plot as a story-within-a-story inside his great late work, VALIS, where it appeared as a film watched by the characters.

Set in the late 1960s, Radio Free Albemuth hinges on the election of Ferris F. Fremont, a corrupt politician associated with a right-wing populist movement. As it turns out, Fremont is also a covert Russian agent. Fremont was partly inspired by Richard Nixon, whose appeal to “Middle America” nominally qualified him as a populist. But as a parallel to our President Elect, Dick’s Fremont hits the trifecta: corrupt dealings, right-wing populism, and Russian influence.

It was Dick’s swirling mix of paranoia and reality-confusion that I thought of the morning after the election. The Man in the High Castle, for example, sets up not just one alternate strand but several: there’s a book-within-a-book by an author who imagines a different ending to the war, with the U.S. and Britain becoming the postwar superpowers, and this serves to sabotage the novel’s dominant reality. (John Gray delves into this aspect of the novel in an insightful piece comparing it to the current TV adaptation.)

Philip K. Dick is not the author I’d prefer to choose as the prophet of our coming political time. But the creeping ambiguity of his fictional multiverses feel like a match for the fear and uncertainty pervading the world we find ourselves in now.


Other Times, Other Worlds—Fran Wilde & Lawrence M. Schoen

Cloudbound and Barsk coversI’m excited to be part of All But True’s next author event, “Other Times, Other Worlds,” with two award-winning science fiction authors: Fran Wilde and Lawrence M. Schoen. It’s coming up on November 11—our second time at Mighty Writers West, and our first time focusing on speculative fiction. Here are my thoughts on the novels Fran and Lawrence will be reading from, discussing, and signing.

Lawrence M. Schoen’s 2015 novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard won the Cóyotl Award for excellence in anthropomorphic fiction, and it’s easy to see why. It describes a far future peopled by sapient descendants of elephants and other mammals, “upraised” by humans in the distant past, with the humans now long gone. The Eleph and Fant live in exile from the rest of the interplanetary Alliance, on the rainforest planet Barsk.

What I love most about this book is how Schoen extrapolates his humanized pachyderms from our own knowledge and appreciation of this endangered species. Fant society is matriarchal, with the more nomadic males moving in and out of the settled, female-centric communities. Adhering to the legend of the elephants’ graveyard, they know the time and place of their death. And they are keepers of memory and history, both for themselves and other species in the Alliance.

The Fants’ ability to speak with the dead, aided by the psychoactive drug Koph, is a natural and intriguing outgrowth of their strong attunement to the past—and becomes a central element of the story. Barsk builds through widening tiers of revelations, and by the end you’ll learn why and how the Fant became the outcasts of the Alliance, reviled by the furry dogs, otters, bears and other sapient animals in spite of their crucial role as the sole suppliers of Koph.

Cloudbound is the second book in Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe Series. Updraft, the first book, won Wilde both the Compton Crook award for best first science fiction/fantasy novel and the Andre Norton Award for outstanding young adult science fiction/fantasy. Updraft introduced a world where people fly on silk wings between living bone towers, and followed Kirit Densira’s discovery of her destiny as a Singer, along with the machinations of the secretive Spire.

Cloudbound picks up after the Spire’s power has been broken, and shifts to the experience of Kirit’s tower-mate Nat. With Kirit and a small band of outcasts, he flees the conflict-ridden City, traveling down into the clouds in search of long-hidden secrets. This book has a more communal dynamic than the first, and delivers the kind of deepening complexity that’s required of a second installment. Nat’s understanding of leadership is tested against unexpected betrayals and misuse of power by those around him. Cloudbound is as gripping as the first book, and as breathtaking in its development of this vivid and dangerous world.

All But True, a free author reading series hosted by the Working Writers Group

Other Times, Other Worlds—an evening of speculative fiction, with Lawrence M. Schoen and Fran Wilde

Friday, November 11 at Mighty Writers West

3861 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19104 215-244-4005



Ursula K. Le Guin: Telling makes the world

Maria Popova has written onstorytelling around the fire her wonderful website Brain Pickings about Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay on the nature of speech, “Telling is Listening.” This brought back to me the sense of how much Le Guin—a master storyteller herself—has made the importance of storytelling a central theme in many of her novels and stories.

In the essay, from her collection The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin argues that human communication is not some mechanistic process, involving the transmission of data bits from one brain to another, but is a complex and mutually created event. The message, she says, can’t be separated from “the relationship between speaker and hearer.” Language itself is social. In an image recalling the primal experience of listening to the storyteller around a fire, she says, “The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers.”

That very human experience appears again and again in Le Guin’s work, where she has meditated on its significance in different ways. In The Telling, one of her Hainish cycle novels, an ancient culture has been kept alive by the spoken sharing of its history, myths and poetry, while its sacred texts are hidden away from the authoritarian regime that now rules the planet. Then, even this connection is threatened when the authorities outlaw any gatherings to hear The Telling, as it’s called. Le Guin’s young-adult fantasy trilogy Annals of the Western Shore begins with Erroc, a boy who rejects his inherited gift for “undoing,” only to eventually find his calling as a powerful storyteller. In Voices, the second book in the series, Erroc helps the members of a people whose tradition of learning and literature is under attack by a fundamentalist group.

These books tell us that stories, spoken or written, are not just information, but the medium that weaves a culture into existence—in the same way that speech, for Le Guin, is the medium of a shared understanding. But in one short story of Le Guin’s that has stayed with me, and that Popova reminded me of, the power of storytelling goes even beyond this.

“The Shobies’ Story” is another Hainish cycle story, from Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. The crew of the Shoby, an intergalactic spaceship, embark on the first voyage with a new faster-than-light propulsion system that will involve a human crew. No one knows what to expect, and one crew member’s attempts to explain the new system make it sound more metaphysical than mechanical: “‘It is not physical, and it is not not physical,’” he tries. “‘So the ship will be moved,’” another asks, “‘by ideas?’”

The trip is instantaneous. But where exactly they’ve arrived is not clear; and, more frightening than that, everyone, from the old navigator to the children, seems to be having a different experience—they can’t even agree on what is happening. Something in the trip has fractured their shared reality, and different probable events jostle with each other, all equal in weight. In a later story, a character calls it “‘the chaos experience.’” It’s only when they all sit down at the hearth in their living quarters (yes, this ship has a fireplace) and start to tell a communal story of their journey, that space and time begin to knit back together into a narrative they can agree on.

Wow. “The Shobies’ Story” seems to suggest that we need the mutual creation of stories not just to share cultural knowledge, but even to create the perceived universe that we all agree on. Without the human sharing of speech and story, that understanding breaks down, and we’re lost in our individual dream worlds. This story may offer a mirror of Le Guin’s classic novel The Lathe of Heaven, a nightmare scenario in which one man’s dreams actually change the world he wakes back up to. But in the Shoby crew’s desperate and humble reenactment of an ancient tradition, Le Guin seems to suggest that the shared experience of telling, in some fundamental way, has the power to make, and remake, our world.


Living Tesla’s Dream

Cities at night seen from space
American Midwest at night – a piece of Tesla’s worldwide electric grid, taken from the ISS, 9/29/2011

Today is the 160th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth. Tesla was a seer of electricity, whose vision of a world transformed with an electric grid powered by his alternating current system surely seemed like a wild dream in the late 19th century. Tesla is claimed as a hero in both Serbia and Croatia, having been born and raised Serbian in what’s now Croatia—a treasured icon, kind of a cross between Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln.

Exactly ten years ago, I was in Belgrade for the premiere of Violet Fire, the opera about Tesla that I worked on as librettist with composer Jon Gibson, along with many other hugely talented artists and performers. Our opera had been invited there as part of a celebration of Tesla’s 150th birthday. In fact, Violet Fire’s opening night fell on Tesla’s birthday, July 9 (he’s popularly supposed been born on midnight between July 9 and 10).

National Theater in Belgrade
National Theater in Belgrade, showing the Violet Fire banner

My week in Belgrade was wonderful, nerve-wracking—as theater can be—and surreal. The first performance went well. The next night, many of us went to see another performance in the Belgrade summer arts festival (BELEF)—this one by Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde musician/artist who counts Tesla as an inspiration. After the performance I got pulled backstage to meet Ms. Anderson, and told her how much I’ve been inspired by her work.

I found myself in a dim bar-like room, with Laurie Anderson and Nikola Tesla—well, a performance artist dressed in Tesla’s distinctive formal attire, who had made appearances in various locations in downtown Belgrade that day. Several Croatians were there, including a tall young woman who was an aspiring filmmaker—and an actual descendant of Tesla. The group of us left the theater, led by the festival’s director through the balmy summer night to the open plaza of Republic Square.

Program image, Belgrade Arts Festival, 2006
Program image, BELEF (Belgrade Summer Arts Festival) , where Violet Fire had its premiere in 2006

There under the stars, across from the National Theater where our opera was still running, we joined a crowd of people in and around a strange looming structure—an ad-hoc building glowing blue from inside. This was Cluster, its maker explained to me—a participatory software project, housing multiple computers and sharing freely with all visitors. It was an inspired tribute to Tesla, who had envisioned sharing the fruits of his work freely with the world.

I felt like I had wandered inside a dream—walking with Tesla’s ghost, his great-grand niece and Laurie Anderson down dark streets to discover a pulsing blue thought-cluster. And this feeling, I’m realizing now, is something like what I struggle to describe about Tesla and his legacy. Our increasingly wireless world, with its lit-up nights, its virtually free streaming data, its electric cars, is an embodiment of Tesla’s visions for the future. We are living inside his dream.

Tesla also imagined the future as a peaceful place where war would be obsolete, where women would be equal to men, and we’d all be knitted together in a hive of productive work. Right now this all seems very far away from the intractable problems, suffering and discord that still surround us. Someday, maybe, more of Tesla’s dream will become reality.

More about Violet Fire:

More posts about Tesla


The radical leaps of A Wrinkle in Time

The witches of A Wrinkle in TimeI was in sixth grade when I was swept up in the world of A Wrinkle in Time, part of the first generation of girls to discover it. Madeleine L’Engle’s novel imprinted itself on my imagination and gave me a sense of what speculative fiction could be, before I had read much science fiction. Its tingling sense of possibility, and its fearless leaping into deep territory stayed with me, as I later found and read other pioneering authors like Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler.

What makes A Wrinkle in Time such a touchstone, a kind of pole star that has helped many readers, and particularly girls and young women begin navigating their sense of themselves in the cosmos? Many people have written about the power of encountering the anti-cheerleader Meg—a twelve-year-old girl who excels at math and science—not to mention Meg’s mother, Mrs. Murry, who is both a working scientist and a loving, understanding parent.

But it’s not just these two strong female characters that made this book different. L’Engle pulled off something wildly, radically original, marking her own path into a field that is still male-dominated. The title slyly announces its difference: it’s a “wrinkle” in time, not some grand, adventurous noun (Trek, anyone?), but a humble, domestic thing that normally reminds us of fabric—the tangible women’s work of sewing and ironing. Yet this image animates the Tesseract concept that allows Meg and others to leapfrog through space and time on their quest to find her scientist father. Likewise, the story roots itself in the creaky details of Meg’s shabby but welcoming old house before launching into its playful exploration of different planets and ways of being, all without recourse to any of the shiny, tech-heavy details that characterize hard science fiction.

That’s not all. L’Engle, who knew her world mythologies, offers three characters who are introduced as witches—one of them is even named Mrs Which. But these witches are thoroughly de-demonized. No shrill Queens of the Night or interchangeable Weird Sisters here; these are three old-lady pals who genuinely like each other, each with her own distinct personality. They are in fact mentors and helpers to Meg and her companions, and even as they shape-shift, shedding their gender to reveal more cosmic identities, they retain their profoundly good intentions.

And then there are the inhabitants of the planet Ixchel, where Meg is taken to recover from the near-death trauma of Tessering through the Black Thing. These huge furred creatures understand the world completely through sensitive tentacles, and communicate without words. Instead of nightmarish, Alien-like insectoids like those encountered in Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game, we’re given many-limbed beings with the enveloping tactile and emotional ambience of the mother-infant bond, as Meg is regressed and re-raised by an individual she names “Aunt Beast.”

No wonder publishers didn’t know what to do with L’Engle’s manuscript at first. The human characters (Meg and her mom) and the supernatural characters broke the gender barriers of their time. Two archetypal extremes are embodied as female: the celestial, sky-flying, far-seeing witches, and the feelingful, earth-connected species of Ixchel (the planet was named for the Mayan goddess of healing and childbirth). And there are no man-eating monsters among them. If A Wrinkle in Time has given boys something new to chew on in these recast archetypes, that’s great. On behalf of stargazing girls everywhere, I’m grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for letting her imagination fly.


Tesla in Bankruptcy

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower under construction
Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower

On March 18, 1916—one hundred years ago today—the New York World ran an article with the headline: “Tesla No Money Wizard; Swamped by Debts, He Vows.” The news followed a court filing that revealed the great inventor, Nikola Tesla, had no assets and owed thousands in back rent to the Waldorf Astoria, where he lived.

This moment in Tesla’s life marks a turning point: his great discoveries in alternating current, radio, telerobotics and other fields were all behind him. Tesla had been pursuing several projects, including the development of his bladeless turbine and marketing medical devices. But his company suffered from high overhead, and he was paying continuing legal fees in a fight to declare that his radio patents had precedence over those of Marconi. To have his financial difficulties aired so publicly must have been extremely painful for a man who made a point of living at the highest standards of Old World elegance.

Tesla’s financial trouble would also lead to the final destruction of his massive Wardenclyffe Tower. The domed tower, built at the eastern tip of Long Island, had been part of Tesla’s grand plan to beam information and ultimately, electric energy around the planet. By 1916, with the project stalled, Tesla signed over the Wardenclyffe property to the Waldorf Astoria. A year later, the hotel had it demolished, and its materials sold for scrap—a sadly anticlimactic end for a project that embodied a far more ambitious vision for radio broadcasting than Marconi’s.

Many inventors deal with terrible disappointments, and many find themselves swamped by investments in their own dreams. But Tesla’s ups and downs seem to have an epic sweep. While he continued to come up with large-scale ideas after 1916—including his “death ray” antimissile system—none would come to fruition. Instead, he became a sort of future-science seer, making predictions that were welcomed more as science fiction than as real-world technologies.

See more posts on Tesla:

Nikola Tesla







Link to Violet Fire, the opera about Nikola Tesla I worked on as librettist:

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola Tesla










Kate Atkinson and quantum physics

LifeAfterLife3Kate Atkinson has now won the Costa Book Award twice in the past three years—for her companion novels, A God in Ruins (2015) and the stunning Life After Life (2013). To celebrate, here are my thoughts on the first one, which I just finished.

Life after Life can be seen as a kind of thought experiment: what if a life, when cut off by early death, could be lived again, and again and again? Would anything change, and would the person who lives it learn anything from her previous experiences?

This is what happens to Ursula Todd, who is born, and then born again, and again, on a snowy night in England in 1910. She arrives stillborn the first time, but we follow her as she doggedly relives her own life, which gradually extends in length until she lives as far as the London Blitz and, once or twice, into postwar peacetime and poverty. A diagram of the book’s structure would look very different from most novels: more like a tree, with several of Ursula’s early lives cut off by accident and illness (in the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918) at the trunk, and then longer branches developing as Ursula moves into adulthood—some subtly altered, and others veering off in starkly different directions.

Some moments act as pressure points. One, a lazy summer afternoon in the yard of her large family’s comfortable home outside London, contains the seeds of events that fuel multiple divergences. Other moments feel like twigs rather then branches—possibilities for relationships that never come to fruition. In most of Ursula’s lives, she remains single, and only in one life does she have a child.

If this were a work of science fiction, we would expect the author to open her hand and explain, or at least suggest, how all this works. Is Ursula the only one who has, or is cursed with, this ability to relive her own life? Or are other people branching away into parallel lives as well? From one life to the next, Ursula feels intimations and omens from her earlier experiences, which can move her to act differently, averting the previous outcome. If she isn’t the only one this is happening to, is she the only one with the sensitivity to break through the membrane of death and benefit from her experiences?

Atkinson has little interest in spelling out her premise; the closest she comes is an allusion to reincarnation, in conversations a young Ursula has with her psychiatrist, to whom she is sent after a troubling incident rising from one of her trace memories. Of course, Ursula’s experience is different from the traditional understanding of reincarnation as the serial inhabiting of different lives over time.

But her situation offers a vivid illustration of one aspect of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics—what’s known as a Level 3 parallel universe, in which, at every moment, a person’s choices give rise to other probable universes, each slightly different. The theory doesn’t allow for communication among these universes, but that hasn’t stopped many science fiction writers from imagining it happening. Atkinson’s branching structure also suggests video game progressions, as well as, maybe, a hypertext story. I don’t think Atkinson meant the novel to be any of those things, but it brought up these questions for me as strongly as any science fiction narrative.

What she does offer, as the magnificent writer she is, is a deeply intimate, richly novelistic sense of a person living her life, and the people and events that surround her. For me, the repetitions and variations through Ursula’s many lives had the effect of intensifying the sense of being inside this character’s skin, as well as that sense of readerly poignancy when recognizing the return of a character or place, just slightly shifted.

When Ursula lives through several horrifying variants of the Blitz, it becomes more powerful for me, not numbingly repetitive. If a novel is a way of intimately knowing a person or a cultural point in time, then the refraction of Ursula’s experiences among her different lives gives a heightened, more-dimensional sense of her and her time—a kind of turbo-powered literary portrait.

I wondered at one point if this novel might crystallize a new genre: of alternate lives, as opposed to alternate histories like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. (Life After Life does venture a little into alternate history too.) If there are any more books like this, I’d like to know. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone doing it with more breathtaking intensity than Kate Atkinson has here.


Talking with Diane Burko on art and climate change

Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015
Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015

My conversation with climate artist Diane Burko has just been posted on Creative Disturbance, a podcasting platform for dialogue among artists and scientists on sustainability and environmental issues. We’re happy to join others on their Art & Earth Sciences channel, shining different lights on urgent issues relating to climate change—especially this week, as the international community gathers in Paris with the goal of reaching a universal agreement to slow global warming.

Here’s the link:

In the podcast, we talk about how Diane made the transition from painter of large-scale landscapes to an artist/advocate who has traveled to the Arctic and Antarctic, witnessing and documenting the loss of glaciers; and how she tries to convey the scale of climate change through her paintings and photographs, making her work a kind of bridge between scientists and the rest of us. In this painting, for instance, she has overlaid a sky-view image of the Eagle Glacier in Alaska with recession lines, brightly marking the retreat of the ice over 30-some years.

For more about Diane and her work: