For the second Better Dreaming conversation I got a chance to talk to Julie Nováková about her story, “The Ship Whisperer”, which originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (sharing a ToC, coincidentally, with my story “Do Not Forget Me” in that issue). We explore, along the way, many a science fiction rabbit hole. I came out of this conversation with a sense of wonder at Julie’s breadth of interest and thematic ambition, and with several additions to my personal reading list, which is already far too long . . .
RN: First of all, Julie, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. Better Dreaming is still a fledgling effort, and I appreciate your faith in the project. I think your story “The Ship Whisperer” is an excellent choice: there is certainly a lot to talk about here, in this story whose protagonist gets along better with a ship’s AI than with people. The closing line of the first paragraph is beautiful: “I might tell you my own story – the story of a broken mirror.” What I love about the line is how science fictional it is: the paragraph starts off by talking about one type of mirror, the “mundane” mirrors of our day-to-day world, and superstition about the breaking of mirrors, but later will we learn that the “broken mirror” being referred to is actually mirror neurons. Can you tell us a bit more about the hard science inspiration for the protagonist’s very specific way of being in the world?
JN: Sure! Mind you, I’m not a neuroscientist, just keep an interest in the field. My own background is in evolutionary biology. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons first discovered almost three decades ago in macaques in the brain’s frontal lobes, in the vicinity of neurons responsible for motor command (for instance controlling my hands’ movements as I type this). Mirror neurons, though, activate also when I watch another person typing (or pulling a lever, dribbling a ball, dancing… you get the picture). They “mirror” those movements, thus the naming. They probably help us learn new skills by imitating them without the need to actually physically perform the imitated task in real-time.
Since then, they have been discovered in multiple species including humans and in multiple brain areas, and widely studied. A number of studies suggest that they are involved in understanding the goals of others’ actions, contributing to empathy and the theory of mind (put simply, “putting yourself in another’s shoes”). That is their feature I used in “The Ship Whisperer”, whose protagonist Icarus Caille was born with a mirror neuron dysfunction, treated by neuronal growth factors and strengthening of selected pathways. Icarus can empathize with others easily – too easily for his own comfort, because it causes him pain to see and indirectly experience so much he doesn’t like in them. They, in turn, are often wary of him because the procedure he’s had rings too close to extensive neural and other modifications that are banned in their particular society – basically, they’re not keen on all aspects of transhumanism. That is why Icarus shuns the presence of people and prefers to spend time with the starship’s artificial intelligence.
But the real story of mirror neurons is much more convoluted (no neural network pun intended!). They have been popularly nicknamed “empathy neurons” and suffered from much hype, where their function has been either simplified as purely “empathizing”, or they have on the other hand been attributed a wide array of functions from empathy across language abilities to “social mimicry” and even aesthetic feeling. Again, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I like to at least skim the academic literature before potentially greatly embarrassing myself, and I’m wary of saying any of the above with certainty. The thing is, brains are complex and not easy to study, and especially with a relatively new direction of research like the mirror neurons, you’d be disappointed if you were looking for definitive answers and absolute scientific consensus. You rarely get these in science except the blatantly obvious, and it’s a good feature, because we really can say stone-solid conclusions about something with rarity. No methodology is perfect: imagine for instance a study whose participants were asked to watch someone grasp an object and also to grasp it themselves, all the while having their brain activity imaged. A class of neurons is observed to fire during both tasks. Voila, mirror neurons! But does it say anything about their role in understanding the goals of others’ actions? Wouldn’t we be making a great error attributing this function to them without a wider set of methodologies? Or imagine that we previously knew next to nothing about those neurons, only had the hypothesis that they would correspond to others’ and well as the subject’s movements. But we had no control situation, where we could discover for instance that they also fired when a drone moved in the subject’s field of view, or a bird flew there, or tree leaves were shuffled by the wind. Hey, they respond to any sort of movement! How could we have missed that at first? (No, mirror neurons don’t actually do that.)
I just made this example up and it’s intentionally taken ad absurdum, but hopefully it illustrates a bit that virtually any study necessarily has some kind of limitations, regardless of whether you’re looking at humans, animals, plants, microbes or the non-living world. There are always degrees of freedom. Things you either can’t account for, because it’s theoretically or practically impossible, or didn’t account for, because your methodology was found lacking (the made-up example), or we have yet to improve as they are very difficult (ever dove into the statistical analysis of fMRI data?), or we had no idea they would be important. I try to at least hint at these limitations in my stories, which often contain scientist characters.
So… what can we reliably say about mirror neurons? It’s reasonably safe to say that they play a substantial role in learning (albeit several specific mechanisms for that have been proposed and found some experimental support), perhaps empathy as well, but I wouldn’t call any of that solid. It’s a lively research topic that’s being addressed by new approaches all the time – now we can see studies imaging individual neurons and their activity. It’s brilliant and fascinating and we’ll see where it goes! (And I do welcome any real neuroscience expert to step in and correct me where I’ve almost certainly erred.)
RN: I really appreciate, above, your caution with science, and your stress on its complexity and uncertainty. I also use a good deal of neuroscience in my work (and I am also not a neuroscientist), and one of the most fascinating aspects of the field for me is its hypercomplexity. Unfortunately, that hypercomplexity also lends itself to a lot of nonsense interpretations of its findings – “neurological astrology,” I would call it, which is similar to the kind of “genetic astrology” that has led to so much simplistic popular interpretation of genes and their influence especially on human behavior. But I am also interested here in the way you use the mirror neurons as a metaphor, and I think that is a particular power of science fiction. I have said elsewhere that one of the keys to science fiction (I mean science fiction as a subset of speculative fiction) is that it uses science both in its “factual” sense and in its metaphorical senses. I think you do precisely this in your first paragraph. How do you see this relationship – science as “factual” and science as a metaphorical tool for storytelling?
JN: I must admit I do this mostly on the unconscious levels, where parallels find themselves, because they “fit” into the story. Where I do it intentionally is sometimes in science outreach, but rather in the opposite way – using the metaphorical sense first to convey facts, such as using the perilous journey of a fictitious interstellar spacecraft to get across what we know and assume about Proxima Centauri b, or illustrating facts about Venus by fragments of pulp age stories (which shows that you don’t just need SF that “gets it right” to communicate science – sometimes exactly the opposite is convenient). I think that SF has an enormous potential as a tool of science outreach, which is why I’ve become leader of the “science-fictional outreach” project team at the European Astrobiology Institute. Our first major act was creating a freely available anthology of astrobiological SF accompanied by nonfiction, titled Strangest of All. I’m immensely grateful to the amazing authors who contributed their reprint stories, do hope that readers are finding my brand-new nonfiction pieces intriguing as well, and plan to follow up on this project with a print anthology of originals. If a few more bullet points are successfully ticked, we shall hear more about it this year and see it ideally in early 2022.
RN: I downloaded the anthology and am looking forward to it – although I have to say I’m not sure how happy I am about having yet another intriguing book added to my already intimidating reading list . . .
Seriously though, I agree that SF does not need to necessarily “get it right” to communicate science – or perhaps more exactly, to be used as a tool to get people interested in scientific thinking. And even “predictive” SF, which is truly aiming at anticipating real developments in technology, etc. cannot possibly hope to be correct much of the time. I’m very suspicious of the idea of SF as “predictive,” and I mostly view essays about how “right” or “wrong” different SF stories were about the future as a juvenile misreading of the genre, or “genre policing.”
On the other hand, books like New Light Trough Old Windows, by Stephen Webb, which uses older SF stories to demonstrate concepts such as cryptozoology, transmogrification, etc. are fascinating – and I find them inspiring. My story “Año Nuevo”, which is coming up in Asimov’s, was in fact inspired by reading Stephen Webb’s nonfiction explication of one of the stories in Windows. So I look forward to reading Strangest of All, and hope the new print anthology works out as well.
JN: Thank you! I’m also wary of treating SF as “predictive”; adjectives such as “inspiring”, “thought-provoking”, “warning” or “exploring” stick much closer to the subject in my opinion. We need stories trying to anticipate real advancements and their impacts, but rather than simply predicting the future letting us explore its possibilities to better steer it ourselves. Novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for The Future, which I’ve recently started reading, are the type of important science fiction I mean by this.
Then of course there’s the question whether we “need” more optimistic, “we’ve managed to solve this” SF, or pessimistic, “we’ve screwed this up cardinally” SF for that. I like to think both are useful to elicit the right kind of response. Optimistic SF can perhaps lend us more traction, but also make us fall into the pit of “the future will bring solutions, it always works out somehow – why do something right now”. There’s often fear that pessimistic SF makes people think we can’t change the future enough, so why try at all, but I don’t think it has this kind of effect so frequently. On the contrary, it can activize from the opposite direction. So – which one to choose? Stick to Rowland or Watts? Well, both, of course. I’m always lousy at picking sides and view both directions as needed. And, naturally, I prefer the right blend of both – which, in my view, is what Robinson does perfectly.
RN: Returning to your story: The ship in “The Ship Whisperer” is named for Giordano Bruno, the cosmic pluralist Dominican friar who insisted the universe was infinite and could have no center. This naming is a wonderful piece of intertextuality, inviting the reader down a rabbit hole of speculation as to how the ship Giordano Bruno relates to the man, who was burned at the stake for heresy – related more to his hermetic occultism and religious heresies than his cosmological theories – in 1600. Why this man? What is it about him that drew you to name the ship after him?
JN: The first layer of the naming was rather straightforward and down-to-earth: “The shuttles’ quantum computers were less powerful than the ship’s by orders of magnitude. If Bruno was a human, Copernicus, Kepler, Brahe and Galilei might be lizards. The idea was to name this mission’s vessels after famous astronomers. Of course, the starship ended up named after the only one of them who technically wasn’t an astronomer.” Which, in my experience, shows how naming intentions often end up.
The deeper layer, though, connects to Bruno’s speculations about the plurality of worlds and life on them. In a story that deals with humankind’s first contact with evidence of another civilization, and given what the found device does and where the characters end up (no spoilers), I found the naming quite apt.
RN: I definitely saw that connection, given Bruno’s speculations about a plurality of worlds. But I also think there may be a connection to a “plurality of worlds” in the story as a plurality of individual viewpoints – or, given the radical nature of some of those viewpoints (which include the posthuman) “umwelts.” The characters in the story have different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view and capacities for understanding. Was that sense of “plurality” also intended? Can you speak a bit about that?
JN: Of course. The main characters of the story – the ship whisperer Icarus Caille, Colonel Torres, astrophysicist Lakshmi Ranganatan and the ship Giordano Bruno – each hold a very different view of the cosmic impossibility they came to investigate. Each relies on their particular experience, assumptions and working of the mind. Icarus is fascinated and astonished by what they encountered… but very aware that not all others share his kind of curiosity:
“However, I was not so naïve to think that all of us viewed the black dwarf with the same joy, awe and fascination. Take Ranganatan: For all her genius, she is without imagination. She can follow protocols she understands by nature, astrophysics comes to her as easily as breathing. She sees a problem to solve. She has no idea what this discovery means for the human race. It's just another equation to her."
But that is still a good option. She's a good person – even if she's very detached by most humans' standards.
"And then Torres. He sees a potential weapon; nothing else. He's got imagination – just enough to imagine encapsulating the Chara system and accelerating time to render its civilization to dust in a matter of nanoseconds in our time frame. Or to imagine sending it into an uninhabitable universe if he could.”
The ship’s views of the investigated phenomenon remain partly obscured until the end, when Icarus learns about Giordano Bruno’s final action. Imagination, curiosity, fear, problem-solving, caring – it all enters into the question.
It’s interesting that you mention the concept of Umwelt. Having studied at a university with a strong Austro-German tradition of education (heritage from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), at a department with a strong focus on the methodology, history and philosophy of science, Jakob von Uexküll [the author of the concept] was practically required reading. I like playing with the concept, but of course I’m by far not alone in that, nor among the best. Much of speculative fiction does that, consciously or not. One of my favorite authors exploring it is Terry Pratchett. He was a genius (not just in this) in using various umwelts in his Discworld books. They feature Sergeant Angua (a werewolf, whose sense of smell and differences in human or wolf shape perception are brilliantly portrayed), the witches (who can do Borrowing, temporarily placing their mind in animals – the issues connected to that, the effect of the umwelt on the mind, are just spot-on, unlike in most other stories toying with such speculations), and other characters whose senses and consequently style of perception and cognition are not entirely human.
Though we’re mainly exploring SF here, I think it’s an important reminder that you can find interesting scientific concepts even in fantasy. I’m currently revising a recently finished science fantasy novel of mine that includes a golem character loosely based on Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic’s classic Ganymede, down to the name Radovan (same as in Karásek’s novel) as a wink to the readers. My Radovan can for instance sense the magnetic field, which becomes crucial to the plot, and has extremely acute hearing with absolute pitch, but possesses no sense of smell. It’s also fun to include real-world figures – biologists Emanuel Rádl and the above-mentioned Jakob von Uexküll, art supporter and aristocrat Harry Kessler, and in passing physicists such as Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner and authors like Karásek himself and Gustav Meyrink – in the book, which takes place in the early 20th century. It allowed me to create a fantasy world that’s nevertheless strongly based on ours, including its history and science, and, well, plurality of worlds will play a role too…
RN: You definitely have me intrigued about the novel – seeing Jakob von Uexküll as a character is enough reason for me to read it. And I should mention that, while this particular set of conversations is (for now) focused on SF, I – like you – certainly don’t buy into the hierarchical binary that places fantasy at some lower level from SF: I think fantasy done well is just as powerful as SF. As is horror done well, or any other genre at its best. I want to make that clear. SF just has a set of affordances that differs from that of fantasy, horror, or mainstream fiction, or the historical novel or the essay. I don’t perceive any genre as superior to others, and I think there is also a great deal of productive overlap between all of them, with some of the most interesting writing occurring in the interstices. But in this particular set of dialogues, I’m interested in exploring the particular affordances of science fiction. I think the conversations will gain more coherence from that narrowed focus.
Another question for you: the particularity of your protagonist’s mind is one of the strengths of this work. The protagonist comes off initially as introverted, with stilted interactions with people, and an easy assumption to make initially is that this introversion comes from some level of Autism Spectrum Condition. But we learn that in fact, it is an oversensitivity to people’s emotions (and intentions) that leads to this introversion. I love this idea. My mother has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition, and it has always occurred to me that “The Spectrum” should be thought of as including all of us – a very long line segment along which can be located all levels of connectedness to the emotions of others, with what is thought of in today’s psychology as “The Spectrum” a smaller segment along that line. Can you talk a little about your inspiration for your protagonist’s oversensitivity?
JN: Of course. I have always been interested in the workings of the mind, its substrate and its inextricable connection to the body (the senses, the gut, the microbiome…). As to the specific example of Icarus, I guess my starting point was myself. I have always responded to people’s emotions more on the analytical level (such as reasoning “Oh, they lost their beloved pet. They must be devastated. I need to be sensitive, gently comfort them and offer to help with anything they might need.”, but not feeling their sadness myself). It works, it’s completely natural for me, the responses are appropriate and I don’t feel constrained in my social life in any way, but I have always had to use imagination to conjure the idea of feeling someone else’s emotion, sort of catching it from them. Only rarely do I perceive it as a drawback. Once, a friend of mine had a potential complication in pregnancy while we were traveling with her and her husband. They went to the hospital for a checkup and I stayed in the rented flat. I couldn’t do anything for them – there was no reason for me to come with them, I would only get in the way, and so far there was also no need for me to bring them anything. I opened my laptop and stared at it, knowing that I should be more worried. I was worried, but it was my emotion, certainly nowhere near as strong as theirs, and with it, I would be able to get on with working. There was no sense in fretting about, crying, biting my lip, compulsively cleaning, whatever one might imagine someone with a stronger emotional response might do. It would help nothing. I could do absolutely nothing to help for the time being and greater fear would definitely not help anything, whereas productive work would bridge the time from now to whenever I could potentially help, so why did I feel compelled to be beside myself with worry and guilty at not being so?
In the end, everything was fine and we could continue the holiday, but after that I decided to avoid this kind of response in the future. If the next time something like that happens, I’m beside myself with worry, so be it. If I’m again worried but well able to get something helpful in other ways done in the meantime, so be it and why feel guilty about it? I care differently than most people probably do, but caring it is, and being more analytical about it can be an advantage (for instance in adopting anti-pandemic measures, as I found when I shunned all social contact outside the immediate family, and even that very carefully, while a deeply emotionally caring, normal-feeling, equally intelligent and high-risk friend went to cafés).
I imagined Icarus having the opposite “problem”: feeling others’ emotions so well that he deeply disliked it.
I must confess that I often end up writing characters who are socially awkward, not well connected to others or choosing to avoid them, because they would connect too much. My characters often have some quirk or neuroatypicality, be it synesthesia (“mixing” of sensory inputs; induced synesthesia e.g. in “All The Smells of The World” [Analog 1-2/2019], “Étude for An Extraordinary Mind” [Futuristica, Vol. II anthology, podcasted by StarShipSofa] or “Dancing An Elegy, His Own” [Fantasy Scroll 2015]), prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces; e.g. in “Goal Invariance Under Radical Self-Modification” [Future SF Digest issue 6, March 2020] or my Czech SF trilogy Blíženci), or a severed corpus callosum (“A Mountain to Climb” [AVATARS Inc.]). I must point out again that I’m not a neuroscientist. However, I always try to do my research well before writing.
I have always wondered what it would be like to change my sensorium, perception or cognition in some way, and I can imagine that in writing. I experienced synesthesia twice, on both occasions olfactory-auditory when listening to music while on mild analgesics for headache or cold symptoms. What would it be like to have perfect pitch? Absolute recall? Extended senses? As it is, I’m just mildly augmented in a way many people are – I wear glasses in order to see clearly.
In my native Czech, I’m writing under a pseudonym a series of historical mystery novels whose protagonist has an extremely keen sense of smell, something for which he didn’t find much understanding in the early 20th century. It’s fun to write these stories, to give the readers a less usual “in-body experience” through the character and be able to make him slightly more modern and very quirky. I’ve translated one of the shorter pieces accompanying the novels into English, and I hope we’ll see it in print in the foreseeable future.
On a more serious note, writing about unusual perception and cognition, if done well and if well-researched, can hopefully make readers more empathetic and identify with characters very different from them. This, in turn, can eventually lead to more awareness and tolerance. A family member has paranoid schizophrenia, which is still a very stigmatized disorder, although many people can lead a fruitful life with it, and despite the still prevalent popular opinion, most are not dangerous; the rate of violence as assessed by existing studies is only marginally higher than in the general population. Importantly, schizophrenics are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, which is often overlooked.
With one character I wrote, Doctor Irena Belova in “From So Complex A Beginning” [Analog 9-10/2019, reprinted in Forever 9/2020], I hinted at this disorder – but at the same time showed her as a successful and competent ecosystem engineer, albeit on a personal level she had difficulty connecting with people and trusting them (and the crew of Ariadne station did not make it any easier for her). Another character, writer and reluctant exorcist Paul Leppin in “The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” [Samovar July 2020], was showing signs of paranoia for a very different medical reason – he suffered from late-stage syphilis, which is often accompanied by paranoia and mood swings. Leppin was an actual historical figure, and I can only hope I portrayed him (including his condition, which he had in real life) with accuracy and dignity, including his deep remorse over the death of his son. The point is, though, there are as many subtle variants of the “same” condition as people with it, and we need to generalize as much as possible for medical and scientific purposes to be able to reach any conclusions, while avoiding overgeneralization for the “human” purposes. A character, just as a real person, is never defined just by a condition, or origin, language, sex – anything you can imagine. All of that forms and molds us, each in a unique way.
JN: I’m drawn to less than typical characters in others’ work, too. After all, some of the characters I could best relate to were Sherlock Holmes, Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek: TNG, and Siri Keeton from Peter Watts’ Blindsight. Not that I were a genius detective, superintelligent android or particularly adept at “reading” others and making connections, but there is something in them that makes them easy to relate to for me. And given that I tend to be a strange generalist who likes to merge different disciplines, whose doctoral thesis topic concerns evolution of altruism and who at the same time meddles in astrobiology and planetary science and has written a conference contribution about the chances of pulsar planet characterization, it’s probably no surprise that synthesist, Siri Keeton’s job, is my dream profession. Any job offers?
RN: There is so much to talk about here that I will have to control some of my curiosity: there are dozens of possible questions I could ask. However, I will limit myself to two:
The first question: you say above that “On a more serious note, writing about unusual perception and cognition, if done well and if well-researched, can hopefully make readers more empathetic and identify with characters very different from them. This, in turn, can eventually lead to more awareness and tolerance. A family member has paranoid schizophrenia, which is still a very stigmatized disorder, although many people can lead a fruitful life with it, and despite the still prevalent popular opinion, most are not dangerous; the rate of violence as assessed by existing studies is only marginally higher than in the general population. Importantly, schizophrenics are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, which is often overlooked.” My natural father (I was adopted by my stepfather, and did not grow up in contact with my natural father, though I lived with him until I was three and met him later, as an adult) has paranoid schizophrenia, so mental health issues (I already mentioned my mother’s diagnosis above) concern me deeply. You say later: “there are as many subtle variants of the ‘same’ condition as people with it, and we need to generalize as much as possible for medical and scientific purposes to be able to reach any conclusions, while avoiding overgeneralization for the ‘human’ purposes. A character, just as a real person, is never defined just by a condition, or origin, language, sex – anything you can imagine. All of that forms and molds us, each in a unique way.” I view this statement as a kind of ethics: the idea that science must work toward generalization for medical and scientific purposes, while attending to the fact that each individual is never defined just by a condition – or by any single aspect, as you go on to argue. Do you think this is a commitment SF should make as well – not to forget the absolutely unique and uncategorizable experience of the individual, whatever the broader themes it explores?
JN: I think literature in general is well-suited to do that, whether SF or not. Science fiction has the advantage of being able to emphasize it by creating new worlds and new types of characters (e.g. posthuman or alien). But the best fiction of any genre does that – and even some nonfiction, such as really good history books. When I was a grammar school student [US readers might not know the concept of grammar school or “Gymnasium” – no connection to gyms; it’s usually an 8-year school where you transfer around the age of 11 if you pass the exams, but also 4-year program that is basically high school for academically talented kids], I disliked history lessons, because they were so boring. The teacher typically sat and read to us from the textbook, and it all seemed just like an endless stream of dates, coronations and battles. It lacked both the individual experience and the broader connections. Only when I started reading history books for myself did I absolutely fall in love with history. The best ones combined individual stories and viewpoints with broader context.
RN: I think I had the luck to have good history teachers from the start, or perhaps I simply filled the gaps of the boring lectures in with my own daydreams about that it would be like to be there, to be those people at that time. I always found history fascinating, and I can’t remember the experience of being bored by it, inside the class or outside. But that’s a digression. So here's my second question: Above you say “given that I tend to be a strange generalist who likes to merge different disciplines, whose doctoral thesis topic concerns evolution of altruism and who at the same time meddles in astrobiology and planetary science and has written a conference contribution about the chances of pulsar planet characterization, it’s probably no surprise that synthesist, Siri Keeton’s job, is my dream profession.” I like that idea of being a “strange generalist” – it’s a definition I think might work well for me as well, a writer with a formal education in semiotics and modern literature who works as a diplomat but maintains a lifelong interest in biology and biosemiotics, along with other sciences, hard and soft. I have said elsewhere that I am the kind of person who wants to know everything I can about everything. I always have been. And that I have always been a researcher, communing with the dead and the living, with the honest desire to understand. Writing allows me to then use all of that energy for something productive, but it also just gives me an excuse to carry out the kinds of research projects I would be engaged in anyway. Do you think that in some way you and I, and many others in our field, are already “synthesists” using SF to structure our curiosity?
JN: That’s an interesting point! I think you’re mostly right, because in writing science fiction, we can connect various disciplines and convey them to the general audience, and yeah, it gives us the excuse to go down the rabbit hole chasing anything from the temperature range of pulsars and speed of pulsar wind all the way across sources of magnetic anomalies, the visual range of houseflies or triggers of musth in elephants to the working of German opera in Prague in the early 20th century!
RN: So many rabbit holes, so little time! Thank you for going down these particular rabbit holes with me. Although we’ve talked about so much, I really feel there is so much more to explore. We’ll have to pick up the conversation at another time. Until then, I’m looking forward to seeing your future current projects come to life!