Friday, October 10, 2008

The Creatures We Don't See

This week Vandana Singh has been guest posting some fantastic essays about India and fiction over at Jeff Vandermeer's Ecstatic Days. Today she writes about growing up surrounded by animals. Not pets, but urban wildlife: birds and insects and snakes and pariah dogs.
So it was surprising and disappointing to me, as I grew up (and still is) that these 99.9999…% of Earthlings didn’t figure much in our modern-day consciousness, from economic policy and city-planning to literature. As far as literature was concerned, if I wanted to read about non-human living things, I would have to look for them in a special section of the bookstore.[...]

I have come across this oddly blinkered view in other circumstances. For instance in almost every TV science fiction show I’ve seen, the ship that travels across space is a sterile, hospital-like environment where you rarely see a plant or animal. Even the living ship Moya in the show Farscape is strangely devoid (as far as I can tell) of other denizens living symbiotically within her. Yet we know that each living organism is an ecosystem — as attested by anyone who’s suffered a disturbance in the balance of their intestinal flora due to sickness or antibiotics. (Part of it is that we have this modern icky attitude toward germs, as though all germs are “the enemy” and health is a state of being germ-free — tell that to the mitochondrion). For a ship that goes on long, interstellar journeys, it makes sense to create an ecosystem inside it, to assure oxygen and a fresh food supply, among other things. The one book I’ve read where this is beautifully worked out is Molly Gloss’s stunning generation ship story, “The Dazzle of Day.”


So what I’m suggesting is this: just as there are and were “The Women Men Don’t See” as immortalized by James Tiptree Jr. and others, there are also the “Other living things humans don’t see.”
She speculates that this attitude, this blindness to nature, is one of the causes of our current environmental crisis.
A paradigm shift in our attitude toward other species is a prerequisite for change. Speculative fiction writers are practitioners of the art of imagining alternative scenarios — what would be the consequences of imagining a different relationship with other species? Which works of fiction have done that? (One that comes to mind is Ursula K. Le Guin’s extraordinary Always Coming Home). How would such works contribute to the shift in world-view that we need?
She imagines living in a Zoopolis, where humans lives are more integrated with rather than divorced from nature. The way she describes her vision is very appealing.

Go read her entire essay.

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