Maybe Sci-Fi Can Make Us All Empathize With Fungi
“The Great Silence,” a story written by science fiction author Ted Chiang and artists Allora & Calzadilla, ponders the question of why humans are so obsessed with the idea of communicating with aliens at the same time that we show such vast indifference to endangered species like parrots, which are perfectly capable of communication. The story achieves much of its emotional impact by being told from the point of view of a parrot.
Author Karen Joy Fowler recently selected “The Great Silence” for inclusion in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, which she co-edited with John Joseph Adams. She says the story struck her in particular because of the extensive research into animal intelligence that she did to write her 2013 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
“I really was the perfect reader for it,” Fowler says in Episode 224 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I had prepped for about five years to read that story, so when the time came I thought it was pretty fantastic.”
In fact, Fowler was extremely pleased with each of the 20 stories she selected for the anthology. She says the stories, which include works by authors such as Salman Rushdie, Adam Johnson, and Kelly Link, show that the golden age of short fiction is now.
“I think the people that we have currently writing short stories, I would put them up against anybody, anytime, anywhere,” she says.
“The Great Silence” isn’t the only story in the book to grapple with the issue of how far we should extend our empathy. In “Three Bodies at Mitanni,” characters must decide whether or not to exterminate colonists who have been genetically engineered to have no consciousness. In “The Mushroom Queen,” a bored housewife gains a whole new perspective when she’s transformed into fungus. Fowler feels that such flights of imagination are vital.
“I have come to believe very strongly that the whole project of literature is to expand our empathy beyond people we see as like ourselves,” she says. “Books are the way that you learn to care about people and things and creatures who are not like you.”
But does that really extend all the way to fungus? Fowler says it’s worth considering.
“Fungus is very smart, incidentally,” she says. “As a system, they’re a very smart system.”
Listen to our complete interview with Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams in Episode 224 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Karen Joy Fowler on discovering science fiction:
“We had had just a couple of dates, and [my future husband] said there were a lot of things he liked about me, and he listed some of them. I don’t remember what they were. What I remember is the one thing that he said he didn’t like about me, and the one thing he didn’t like about me, he said, was that he could tell—even though we had never had a single conversation on this subject—that I was the kind of snotty reader who thought she didn’t like science fiction even though she had never read any. And I was pretty outraged by this statement, partly because of its accuracy. I didn’t want to admit to that, so I told him he was quite mistaken, that I read a lot of science fiction, that I loved science fiction. And then between that conversation and our next date I went to the bookstore and said, ‘Get me some science fiction. I need some science fiction.’”
Karen Joy Fowler on crashing Stanford:
“I was home for the summer—I went to school at Berkeley, but I lived in Palo Alto, my parents lived in Palo Alto—and a friend of mine said that he was taking a fabulous science fiction class from H. Bruce Franklin over at Stanford, and that it was quite a large class and nobody would notice if I just walked in, so he said I should join it, and that’s what I did. … It was during the Vietnam War, and it was very political. H. Bruce Franklin was fending off all sorts of threats over his radicalism. The books that I primarily remember from the class were the Russians, whom I had never read before—we read We and The Roadside Picnic. It was not an easy class but it was a fabulous class, and I felt guilty every second, because everybody else in the class had paid tuition to take it and I had not.”
Karen Joy Fowler on genre boundaries:
“There has been a certain amount of chatter when I work inside the field of science fiction and fantasy that I’m not actually doing that, that I’m writing something else that doesn’t belong. And when I move outside, I know that it has been problematic for my editor to determine which part of the bookstore I belong in, and where my proper shelf is. I can see that there are problems involved because of where I live and who I run around with, but it’s just not something that I’ve given a whole lot of consideration to. … I frequently meet people who ask me if I think I write ‘science fiction,’ and I tend to try to determine—based on where I am and how they phrase the question and what my assumptions about them are—to try to give them the answer that will irritate them the most.”
David Barr Kirtley on “Three Bodies at Mitanni”:
“There’s a human spaceship, and their job is to travel around to different colony worlds that have been seeded by seedships, and check in on these colony worlds, and destroy them if they seem to potentially pose a threat to Earth. They find a world that was supposed to be habitable, but it turned out to basically be an uninhabitable world, but the seedship colonists have managed to survive on it by genetically engineering themselves to not have consciousness, because consciousness is something you can’t afford to have in such dire circumstances, because it’s just sort of a distraction. And so they project that these genetically engineered people with no consciousness are so capable and competitive that they’re guaranteed to subsume normal humans given enough time, and so the question is, are they justified in destroying them? What’s the value of life without consciousness?”
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