All posts by mirseidel

Tesla, recorded

Violet Fire, an opera about Nikola TeslaVio­let Fire, the opera about Niko­la Tes­la that I worked on as libret­tist with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son, is final­ly get­ting a stu­dio record­ing! It’s a lit­tle late—the world pre­miere and U.S. pre­miere hap­pened in Bel­grade and New York in 2006—but I’m still excit­ed. Last week, Jon con­vened a stel­lar group of musi­cians at a record­ing stu­dio in Brook­lyn to lay down tracks for the record­ing.

Jon Gibson, Gregory Purnhagen, Dean Sharenow
Jon Gib­son look­ing over score, left; singer Gre­go­ry Purn­hagen, cen­ter; record­ing engi­neer Dean Sharenow, right

I was able to sit in one day as the solo singers record­ed their parts. They includ­ed Scott Mur­phree, who played our orig­i­nal Tes­la; Peter Stew­art, our orig­i­nal Mark Twain; Solange Mer­din­ian, as Tesla’s friend Katharine John­son; Gre­go­ry Purn­hagen, as the Reporter; and Marie Mas­cari as the White Dove. The great Mick Rossi led the record­ing as music direc­tor and con­duc­tor.

Scott Murphree as Tesla
Scott Mur­phree, singing the part of Tes­la

Each char­ac­ter in the opera is there to show a dif­fer­ent facet of Tesla’s life, from the most inti­mate to the most pub­lic. Mark Twain, who sensed the mag­ni­tude of the inventor’s break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent and wire­less trans­mis­sion, sings in praise of his accom­plish­ments and glob­al influ­ence, while the Reporter offers com­men­tary on Tesla’s wax­ing and then wan­ing fame. Katharine John­son sings plain­tive­ly to her “dear and silent friend” who, devot­ed to his work, seems to have “no human needs.” Mar­ried to the writer and edi­tor Robert John­son, Katharine host­ed Tes­la at many din­ner par­ties. Her elo­quent­ly emo­tion­al let­ters to him reveal a deep but one-sided attach­ment to the inven­tor.

The real Mar­garet Storm wrote a book, The White Dove, that gave the opera its name: in it, she described Tes­la as “Prince of the Vio­let Fire,” and told of his being born on Venus and then trans­port­ed to Earth to offer his oth­er­world­ly knowl­edge to human­i­ty. And the char­ac­ter of the White Dove is inspired by a pigeon that Tes­la, late in life, admit­ted to lov­ing and car­ing for in the parks of New York. The opera took form around the sense that this bird should be allowed to sing.

Marie Mascare as the White Dove
Marie Mas­cari, singing the role of the White Dove

It was won­der­ful to hear Jon’s music brought to life again by these great singers and musi­cians. In the sin­u­ous melod­ic lines and slid­ing chords, I hear the sad­ness woven in with Tesla—not just from his self-imposed human iso­la­tion. When Scott Mur­phree, as Tes­la, sang the line “An end to suf­fer­ing…,” it car­ried both Tesla’s grand, glob­al-scale ambi­tions, and also the fail­ure to achieve them that would inevitably fol­low. Then there’s this line sung by the Reporter, tak­en near-ver­ba­tim from a poignant head­line in the New York World: “At night and in secret, Niko­la Tes­la lav­ish­es his love on pigeons.” Great explo­sions of ener­gy, secret com­mu­nion with birds, oth­er­world­ly visions—all these things are part of Tes­la, and they’re all in the opera, real­ized through Jon’s beau­ti­ful music.

After the tracks are edit­ed, a record­ing of Vio­let Fire should be available—soon, I hope. I’ll let you know.




American Bardo

A 19th-century stone carved angel in a cemeteryAs I read George Saun­ders’ dar­ing first nov­el Lin­coln in the Bar­do recent­ly, I was struck by its strange­ly close par­al­lels with anoth­er mem­o­rable and equal­ly risk-tak­ing debut nov­el, Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief (2000). Both nov­els use the Civ­il War as an entry point into crazed and orig­i­nal med­i­ta­tions on the real­i­ty of death.

In Lin­coln in the Bar­do, Saun­ders reimag­ines the Bud­dhist con­cept of the Bar­do, a thresh­old state of the soul that is thought to last a few days after death. His Amer­i­can Bar­do is a ceme­tery in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., filled with a mot­ley group of dead folks too short-sight­ed to real­ize they’re dead. At the heart of the book is a new arrival, eleven-year-old Willie Lin­coln, who’s suc­cumbed to typhoid fever, and his griev­ing father, the Pres­i­dent, who is a year into the blood­i­est war of the country’s his­to­ry. His­to­ry has left the tan­ta­liz­ing sug­ges­tion that Lin­coln vis­it­ed Willie’s crypt sev­er­al times after the boy’s funer­al.

Gob’s Grief takes place dur­ing and after the Civ­il War. The sto­ry repur­pos­es such real fig­ures as Walt Whit­man, who vol­un­teered as a nurse to injured sol­diers dur­ing the war, and the remark­able Vic­to­ria Wood­hull, a fem­i­nist, a medi­um, and the first female can­di­date for pres­i­dent, in 1872. The emo­tion­al crux of this sto­ry is the rela­tion­ship between Woodhull’s fic­tion­al twin sons, Gob and Tomo. Tomo runs off to be a bugler with the Union Army at the age of eleven, and is soon killed in bat­tle.

Gob is sick­ened by his mother’s insis­tence that his broth­er is alive and well in the Sum­mer­land, the Spir­i­tu­al­ist equiv­a­lent of Heav­en. Years lat­er, a grown-up Gob builds a mas­sive, Steam­punk-like engine meant to bring back to life not only Tomo, but all the sol­diers who died in the war. The engine com­bines “glass tubes and iron gears… bun­dles of cop­per wire,” human bones, and an array of glass neg­a­tives of fall­en sol­diers, float­ing above a set of ceme­tery gates.

Both books are wild­ly non-for­mu­la­ic and genre-bust­ing. Lin­coln in the Bar­do is told in a mul­ti-voiced cho­rus, shift­ing from the dead ceme­tery-dwellers to the living—the ceme­tery guard and the President—along with excerpt­ed his­tor­i­cal descrip­tions of Willie’s ill­ness and death. Gob’s Grief leaps around in time and inside many points of view. But it also alter­nates between nat­u­ral­is­tic depic­tions of events like the bat­tle of Chicka­mau­ga, and oth­er­world­ly hap­pen­ings and char­ac­ters includ­ing the mem­o­rably creepy child Pick­ie Beech­er, born out of Gob’s infer­nal machine. Angels appear in both books, hec­tor­ing the liv­ing and the dead.

Both nov­els are heat­ed into over­drive by the ten­sion between denial and accep­tance of death, two land­marks on the con­tin­u­um of grief. The ghosts sur­round­ing Willie Lin­coln suf­fer from major cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance as they strug­gle to explain their sit­u­a­tion, cling­ing to sad euphemisms: “sick-box” for cof­fin, and “stone home” for their tombs. Their lib­er­a­tion, and Willie’s, hinges on rec­og­niz­ing the real­i­ty of their deaths in this false stage-set they’ve cre­at­ed. An unlike­ly com­mu­nion with the dead helps Willie’s griev­ing father come through a sim­i­lar emo­tion­al pas­sage.

Gob’s Grief is infused with the crazi­ness of grief. Sev­er­al main char­ac­ters, includ­ing Walt Whit­man, are each haunt­ed by a broth­er or loved one lost in the war. Gob’s death-defy­ing engine some­how feels like the believ­able response of some­one who’s ready to change the rules of real­i­ty to bring back their loved one. Adrian’s lat­er nov­els, The Children’s Hos­pi­tal and The Great Night, show a sim­i­lar will­ing­ness to dive head­long into the deep­est waters where death and life, fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty mix.

The idea of the Bar­do came to the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 14th-cen­tu­ry Tibetan Bud­dhist text writ­ten as a guide for the new­ly dead, to help them move through the illu­sions of the Bar­do toward clar­i­ty and rebirth. In fact, Bar­do can refer to any tran­si­tion­al state, even our wak­ing expe­ri­ence. Is there some­thing dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can in the intran­si­gence of Saun­ders’ ghosts, and Gob’s obses­sive quest to undo his brother’s death? Their stub­born­ness may reflect our cul­tur­al prej­u­dice toward hap­pi­ness, toward hold­ing on to a more pleas­ant ver­sion of things, whether it’s one that exist­ed in the past, or some promised future. In what­ev­er Bar­do we find our­selves, only doing the hard work of acknowl­edg­ing what we’ve lost can lib­er­ate us to move ahead.



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 cal­cu­lat­ed destruc­tion is voiced by Obi Wan Keno­bi, say­ing he feels a “great dis­tur­bance in the force.” It’s hard to know how Leia feels about this dev­as­tat­ing event, since she moves right into war­rior mode and doesn’t men­tion it again.

Star Wars is great pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, of course, and it isn’t the only sci-fi sto­ry to fea­ture an explod­ing plan­et, or one that’s destroyed by nuclear or envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, from Superman’s home plan­et of Kryp­ton to the casu­al destruc­tion of Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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 con­sci­en­tious­ly on his own and oth­ers’ emo­tion­al avalanche 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 the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tions and ecolo­gies in her two “Mara and Dann” nov­els, set in a far-future Africa.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around such a mas­sive phe­nom­e­non, espe­cial­ly as 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 its real­i­ty. 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—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. [LINK]

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, appear­ing as a film watched by the char­ac­ters in his great late work, VALIS.

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.)LINK BELOW

Philip K. Dick is not the author I would 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