Oceans have always mesmerized and terrified people–their beauty, their power, their capriciousness are hard to deny. They are alien, other, a place we didn’t adapt to during our species’ infancy or imprint on our evolving minds.
Or maybe not. In the amniotic fluid we recapitulate those first watery ages, acquire memories of gills and tails, memories that give us a sense of the ocean as mother–memories that help explain the appeal of Joan Slonczewski’s remarkable debut novel, A Door Into Ocean (1986).
I might as well admit up front that this novel has influenced my thinking deeply. Door is a science fiction novel–one of the best–and as such delves into the nitty-gritty of world making and the sciences; but it does not stop with introducing us to a consistent and plausible future. Slonczewski takes us much farther, creating believable and sympathetic characters and a nimble plot set against a difficult but all-too-familiar political and cultural situation. And beyond that, she offers insights on, and even solutions to, some of humankind’s most intractible problems.
The story is set some thousands of years in the future and concerns the fate of Shora, an ocean moon orbiting a “normal” water/earth world. Normal in every way, I should note: male-dominated, money-driven, technology-based, power-worshipping. In pointed contrast, Shora is home to a woman-only society that has been intentionally shaped to live in harmony with the rich ecosystem the moon’s ocean supports. But take note, all men who value their gender and who also are alert to the struggle for women’s recognition, respect, and self-expression–this is not a male-bashing novel. There are positive (and charming) male characters (such as Spinel, the teenage boy who must take a “stone-sign”–that is, find a profession); female characters who need some serious therapy (witness Jade, an interrogator); and an admission that even Shora’s admirable ecology at times depends on predation and suffering. And then there is Berenice, the liaison between Shora and the outside political system–who becomes Nisi on the ocean world and takes the self-name, “the deceiver.”
I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, so I will only say that Spinel’s decision regarding his stone-sign helped me make peace with my own calling as a poet and that I would be thrilled if people on our planet would adopt the custom of self-naming. Slonczewski offers many more suggestions concerning humanity’s struggle to create a truly peaceful and prosperous society.
And did I mention that the author’s prose is a delight? Sorry, I can’t think of any more reasons to not recommend this book. Take the plunge and read A Door Into Ocean, a novel utterly dedicated to the ideal of peace and happiness in our lives. –RT
Photo: Rogue Wave in the Bay of Biscay, 1940; NOAA; WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Amid the struggle and difficult decisions,
take a moment to step back
and feel the truth… RT
Photo: Gastropod Seashell; Author: Colleen Kirchharr; WikiCmns; CC 2.5 Generic.
Some readers will recognize the symptoms: a sudden, inexplicable obsession with a topic, question, or creative work that drives a person to drop practical considerations and even essential obligations so he or she can spend time researching or writing in the library, interviewing people, tracking people down on the internet, making observations on their telescope, and so forth. Yes, there can be no doubt: you or someone in your life has been inspired to make a contribution to the advancement of knowledge or the creation of beauty. The person in question is an independent scholar.
Just what is an independent scholar? Someone who is working on an research project or work of art without support from an academic institution or other organization. In other words, this is where the rubber hits the road; people have been known to live on the street while they’re researching, writing, painting, sculpting, making a movie…
But, thanks to guides like Ronald Gross’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook, the journey doesn’t have to be that hazardous. There are ways to organize your time and maximize your resources, grants that can defray your costs, volunteers who will support you because you’re doing important work, and support from other scholars, whether they be unknown like yourself or the most distinguished experts in your field. Patience, tact, and persistence can go a long way to easing the pain involved with any self-motivated act of learning and creation.
You might be wondering if a single book really can be the gateway to marshalling your resources and finishing your “inner assignment” (as Ansel Adams used to call his own creative work). And the Handbook does have one problem: it was last edition was published in 1993. Many of the specific suggestions it lists have disappeared or been reincarnated in internet and e-publishing guises. But then, come to think of it, cheap rent is still cheap rent.
External resources aren’t what’s at the heart of Gross’s book. What matters most is the way that he builds the independent scholar’s pride. Here is the sentence that opens Chapter 1:
This book is about taking risks of an unusual kind: risks in the realm of the mind.
His goal is to awake his readers to a sense of passion and purpose. Why? Because he realizes, that for most people, there is nothing of significance in their day-to-day existence. If we are to live fully, we must find the courage to do something really important.
So, in fact, a project that at first may seem impossible or just crazy turns out to have been the origin of many famous books: Barbara Tuckman’s A Distant Mirror, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, and E.F. Schumaker’s Small is Beautiful are all works of independent scholarship. And look at what people like Buckminster Fuller, Betty Friedan, and John Snyder accomplished.
And then there are the many quotes from other authors on living the life of the mind:
Many workingmen are self-taught intellectuals.
Ignace Lepp, L’Art de Vivre de l’intellectual
And finally, to round the book out, Gross provides a wonderful bibliography, full of books devoted to the theory and practice of the independent scholar.
The Independent Scholar’s Handbook has changed a lot of people’s lives. Maybe it could change yours. RT
Chinese Character: The Scholar. WikiCmns. CC 2.5 Generic. User: Magna. Magazine Cover: Hermes the Scholar, WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Searching for the origins of human language has taken RT to some amazing places recently.
For instance, what about animal intelligence? Reading around has left me with the impression that animals are smarter than I had suspected.
Here is a list of the cognitive abilities that animals have demonstrated:
1) object recognition (the ability to pick out an object in an animal’s field of vision)
2) problem solving (the ability to use cause-and-effect reasoning to achieve goals);
4) language (the ability to communicate discrete concepts, instructions, and observations to other members of the same species);
5) cultural adaptation (the ability to create behaviors unique to a group of animals);
6) political bargaining (the ability to create alliances between certain members of a species to gain control over other members of the species) ;
7) an ability to count;
8) self-recognition; and even
9) ethical behavior.
Golly, gosh, and gee! That’s a lot of thinking going on. And many species have demonstrated at least some of these abilities, including: mammals (especially primates), birds, ants, and bees are among the animals that have shown remarkable abilities to learn, communicate, and cooperate.
And in case any of the cognitive abilities listed above seem too basic to be taken as signs of intelligence, the struggles that computer specialists have had in creating robots that mimic even the most widespread mental functions, such as touch and object recognition, tell a different story. None of these skills emerged overnight.
But, truth be told, not many species demonstrate mental capacities that truly resemble our own. The short list: cetaceans, the great apes (chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and bonobo); and perhaps, the elephants.
Some of these animals have mastered vocabularies that include hundreds of words. And I make no extraordinary claims here–after all, a human language contains about a million words. The question then becomes: what are the differences between our conversations and talking with, say, a chimpanzee?
RT says: stay tuned for the next installment on this.
Photo: Bottlenose Dolphin; NASA; WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Here’s a love poem from poesie & pockets for National Poetry Day…& hope this day sees our poets industriously scribbling away…Enjoy! RT
◊ Putting aside the facts of his literary achievement, something about James Joyce epitomizes the Irish, or so this photograph of him (taken in 1915) seems to suggest.
His intelligence, intensity, and unassuming air have something to do with it, I think, but what really speaks to the Irish spirit is his otherworldliness, a distance that betrays a preoccupation with beauty and grief.
To be sure, one can surmise other traits–a fierce passion, an occasionally outrageous sense of humor–not so evident here. But anyone who wants to understand how a small island has managed to shape–and shake–the life of the world need look no farther. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. –Stephen Dedalus
Photograph: James Joyce, 1915. A. Ehrenzweig. WikiCmns. Public Domain.