Some Things People Keep Asking About After Reading “To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer’s Lament”

Somewhere along the way, one of my stories got put on a HSC prep exam somewhere in Australia. On one hand, this is cool – I didn’t get into this gig to write things that do not get read.

On the other hand, it also means I have reached that point where I get semi-regular emails between June and September asking questions about what is a fairly obtuse story. Some of these emails ask very smart questions, which is great, but they’ve they’ve now become common enough that I rarely have time to deliver anything meaningful as an answer. To that end, I figure it will be useful to have a stock response I point people towards/show up if they Google the story, so I’m throwing some story notes up here on the blog that I can refer people to.

FIRST, SOME GENERAL CAVEATS

In general, when it comes to these sorts of questions, I am entirely the wrong person to talk to. I generally come from the same school of thought as Neil Gaiman in this matter, back when he regularly took questions on his blog:

  1. I won’t do your homework for you. Just pretend I’m a dead author and in no position to answer your questions — I won’t mind.

Actually, I’m worse in some respects, ’cause I’m used to teaching undergraduates in universities, so I’m firmly in the camp that believes critiques in English and literature studies are rarely about the authors intentions, but rather the reader response.There’s is absolutely no guarantee that anything I think in regards to the story will actually be useful within the context of an English paper. I fully subscribe to the theories put forward by a guy named Roland Barthes which state that the author is dead, and what an author intends with the story is actually pretty useless, since a large portion of the meaning is brought by the reader (this is a pretty good overview of this whole idea inside of 5 minutes).

In addition, the gulf between what writer intends with a story and what actually exists on paper is frequently wider than any writer would prefer, and usually involves a lot more “this seems like a good idea” than the answers below would imply. Mostly, writers tend to absorb a whole bunch of theories and ideas, then let them influence the work subconsciously, trusting that things will mostly turn out okay. It’s why writers generally blink and look confused when they get asked questions by English teachers. Especially since first reason I write anything is pretty simple: I have bills to pay, and I figured someone would buy the story when I was done 🙂

All of which is basically the long way of saying: you had a response to the story, when you first read it. Your response to the story is 100% correct, regardless of what I say here. Use that as your starting point. Especially since your English teacher is unlikely to take a blog post on the internet as a credible source.

All clear? Good. Now we can move on and look at some of the things I’m routinely asked about.

WHAT’S UP WITH ALL THE MENTIONS OF “THE OTHER?” WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

The Other is a term that gets used a lot in cultural theory, particularly when looking at issues of gender and colonialism. The basic theory is that in order to have a sense of “self,” there must also be a sense of “the other/not-self.” The wikipedia article on the theory is actually a pretty good overview of the theory, and the core ideas I was playing with in To Dream of Stars.

The bit I was really interested in related to this: in order for their to be a notion of what it means to be male/masculine, there’s a corresponding idea of a non-masculine Other, which has created all sorts of problematic ideas of masculinity in contemporary culture where the tradition notion of masculine was also associated with being in a dominant and privileged cultural position, but the culture is opening up to other narratives and re-positioning parts of the culture as Other (by virtue of race/gender/socio-economics).

SF has a long tradition of looking at metaphors and taking them literally within the text, so the metaphorical framing of The Other as alien became literal within the world, and from there became a way of looking at the way notions of masculinity and colonialism change when The Other becomes dominant and the colonizing culture.

The question of whether I did this well is entirely up in the air, especially considering I am a white, well-educated, middle-class bloke who is not traditionally regarded as Other by western culture. Plus, this story was written nearly a decade ago, where these discussions were not as widespread. Part of the joy of being on the internet over the last decade has been the rise of people talking about things that used to be tools of cultural critique and bringing them into the general conversation via tools like Facebook, tumblr, and twitter. Hell, it still blew my mind that I could read Facebook on my phone in 2007. And I still held a grudge against Facebook for taking over Livejournal’s section of the social media market.

But I digress. In short, the way we talked about notions of the Other and othering is different here in 2017, which often means the conversation needs to be more nuanced than it is here. Stories, in many ways, are a product of their time.

DISCONTINUOUS/POST-MODERN NARRATIVE

The narrative of To Dream of Stars is not particularly linear, largely because I tend to enjoy stories that are not particularly linear. I like the idea of treating story as a jigsaw puzzle, leaving gaps where the reader can make connections of their own. Within the context of this particular story, I was also interested in the idea that one of the key aspects of Othering is the idea that there is only a single story to be told about the Othered. Spreading the narrative across multiple points in the timeline is an attempt to create a sense that there are multiple stories instead of a singular one.

It’s also the reason why there are multiple aliens presented within the story, rather than a single alien species.

One of the things that fascinated me in 2007 – and continues to fascinate me today – is what a theorist named Jean-François Lyotard called the Collapse of Grand Narratives and the turn to small, local narratives as part of the post-modern condition. The stories we tell each other – the things that give our life meaning – have become increasingly broad and diverse instead of singular. There is not one truth, but many truths.

At the same time, we’re still fighting against a host of grand narratives that still govern our lives, especially the narratives that have built up around religion and statehood and government. As the internet is fond of saying, we “don’t know how to adult,” because adulting used to be a far easier concept to wrap your head around when there was only one way to do it.

WHAT GENRE IS THE STORY?

I get asked – quite a bit – if I’d call this story magic realism or surrealism, which largely makes me happy because I got fuck-all kind of discussion along those lines in high school and it wasn’t until university that I finally got exposed to the really good stuff.

For the record: I definitely wouldn’t this story magic realism, but it’s not quite surrealism either. There’s a branch of SF called Slipstream, which is probably the best fit – it’s basically focused on the strange and interested in the effects of post-modernism, and work that sits in weird spaces between genres.

Here’s the thing about genre though: they’re very, very flexible. They’re based on your ability to see connections between the work you’re reading, and other works you’re aware of. Slipstream is a useful term for people deeply enmeshed in science fiction, who occasionally want a way of distinguishing the weird stuff from the space-stuff from the near-future cyberpunk stuff from the honest-to-god-alternate-history-where-people-do-a-lot-of-research-instead-of-inserting-aliens-to-cover-their-arse.

WHY DOES “X” or “Y” HAPPEN IN THE STORY?

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Which, incidentally, was way back in 2007 according to my notes, and I barely remember why I made certain narrative choices in things I wrote in 2016. I’m afraid I can’t get give you any specific answers for this one.

WHAT ABOUT <<INSERT QUERY THAT IS NOT ON THIS LIST>>?

Well, then, we’re out of the bounds of the broad scope answers I’ve got prepared and into specifics I probably don’t have time to answer. Feel free to try your luck asking in the comments, but be aware that my ability to respond will largely depend on how busy I am and how many deadlines I’m chasing at any given time.

Leave a Reply