Ray Nayler’s “A Rocket for Dimitrios” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now!] follows up on “The Disintegration Loops,” from November/December 2019. Below, Ray offers us a look at the story behind the stories, as he sits down with Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. to discuss the metaphor of the Mojave Desert creosote bush, the human connectome, the importance of curiosity, the constraining and defining factor of “place-time,” and much more.
Some Background (Ray Nayler): In 1996, I entered the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was a transfer student, having spent two years of junior college at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills (a place clearly named by monolingual English-speakers), California. Junior college had been the only option for continuing my education: I graduated from high school with a GPA of 1.86, ranked 400in a class of 440.
I came to UC Santa Cruz from a spectacularly broken home, with parents whose divorce battle, in and out of the California courts, would last longer than their marriage had. They had been getting divorced since I was twelve; when I entered university, it still wasn’t over. When I graduated, it still wasn’t over.
The day before high school ended, the vice principal called me in to his office. “Congratulations,” he said. “You graduated from high school in three years. Quite an accomplishment. I just added up all of your sick days, truancies, and suspensions. You managed to miss a full year of high school over these four years.”
A lot of those missed days were suspensions: if you cut school, they gave you a day of Saturday school. But if you cut Saturday school, they suspended you. I never understood the logic: suspension wasn’t a punishment—it was a two-for-one deal. And if I didn’t want to go to school on a Tuesday, I certainly didn’t want to go on a Saturday.
I don’t remember what I said in response to the vice principal; I don’t remember much at all from that hazy last week of high school. I knew almost no one at my school, outside my small circle of disaffected friends.
When I couldn’t escape school, I sat in class thinking of escape. Luckily, I did have a few escapes: there was my skateboard, and there was my writing. I had started writing when I was a little kid, but for those last few years, as I staggered through high school waiting for it to end, I had begun to write more and more. I had two poems published in my high school journal, and carried a notebook with me everywhere.
By the time I got to UC Santa Cruz, I’d had a few stories published in small literary journals, and had started to think of myself as a writer—maybe. I had also been a Dean’s List student at Foothill College. Without the poisonous atmosphere of high school in my lungs, I actually enjoyed education. I was lucky enough to have a few very good teachers at Foothill, who—like my English teachers in high school, and a few others along the way—opened a small window for me into a different world.
But Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. was the one who would throw open the door. Over my three years at UC Santa Cruz, I would take classes from him in detective, suspense, and speculative fiction, as well as an independent study course on film noir and a senior seminar on Plato’s dialogues.
In my senior year I was Earl Jackson’s proxy, with professor-level access to the library, where I sometimes spent twelve to fourteen hours in a single day, leaving only for food. I was working full-time to support myself, and playing upright bass in a band; my life, which had been empty just a few years before, was crammed full. And much of it was filled with learning.
Earl’s extraordinary intellect was central to all of that: I felt, in his detective fictions class in the fall of 1996, when I first encountered semiotics and the work of Charles Sanders Peirce through Earl’s teaching, as if the fog of stupidity spread over my whole childhood had finally begun to clear. Mine was a childhood lived in a California cult of dumb, where shallowness was cool and using too big a word would get you punched in the mouth. Where reading was a dirty habit. Where the only things rewarded were popularity—just another word for dominance over others—and athletic accomplishment in the team uniform.
But here at UCSC was another world, where intelligence and study counted for something. Where the originality of ideas was rewarded. All around me were people who were respected for their thoughts and ideas. For the first time, I felt like I belonged.
It was such a strange feeling that it took me years to even recognize it.
I found Earl again, more than a decade after graduation. By then I was a Foreign Service Officer, posted to Vietnam, and Earl was a professor in Taiwan. I managed to contact him, and he came out to visit me in Ho Chi Minh City, and then in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We have maintained, for years now, a correspondence and a friendship that I treasure.
Earl’s teaching literally changed my life. This is not an exaggeration. It is a straightforward evaluation of a fact. I cannot think of anyone I would rather have a conversation with about my work in science fiction than him. So here is that conversation—or rather, a part of a conversation in progress. Earl and I have been having a conversation for many years about many things, and I hope it will continue for decades to come.
Earl Jackson, Jr: Many years ago, you told me something that has always stayed with me, about the desert. It might have come from your research for your hardboiled detective novel American Graveyards. You told me there were ancient plants in the desert with very complex root systems. The plants died, became extinct, but the tunnels where their roots formed a system remained, like a memory the desert held. I’m sure I’ve gotten details wrong here, and please correct me. But this came back to me reading both “A Rocket for Dimitrios” and “The Disintegration Loops.” It seems when Sylvia engages the loops she is attempting to read a system similar to the one you describe in the desert, except complicated with the affect-effects of memories. Could you speak to this?
Ray Nayler: I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. What I was referring to is the Mojave Desert creosote bush. The bush is not a single, continuous organism, but rather a clonal colony. The original stem crown splits and fragments over centuries into segments, genetically identical to the original, which produce new branches along their outer edge—like a tree trunk with the center rotted away and only the outer tissue producing branches. The oldest known plant among the creosote, nicknamed “King Clone,” may have started from a seed almost 12,000 years ago. Now it is a ring of living plant tissue about 50 feet in diameter, tapped into an extensive system of roots that are both its own, living roots and the pathways of its ancient roots carved out over millennia, which have since died.
But there is more to the story: in fact, when the seeds of the creosote initially grew, they sprouted in places where the root systems of Ice-Age trees had been. Those root systems led to deep water, and following them down into that soil made it easier to get to that moisture. So now, when you look at a creosote “forest” (it’s hard to use that term for something that would rarely be more than knee-high), you are looking not only at a series of creatures who may have begun their life cycles before the Mayan pyramids were built—you are also looking at a map of an even older forest, the forest which was there before the creosote came. That primeval forest’s root pathways still inform and nurture the present structure. It is, in a sense, a “ghost forest”—but it isn’t a ghost; it is a history. This scientific fact is fascinating in itself, but it is also a metaphor, to me, for how history “haunts” and shapes the present, which grows within the system that history long ago established. Even an extinct system influences the shape of the present system.
I think in some ways the key 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. The loops in “A Rocket for Dimitrios” function in this way. On the one hand, they are a technological concept, a “novum” which drives the story. On the other hand, they are a metaphor. As a metaphor, the loops address themes of memory, distortion, loss, and haunting.
“I see myself as a researcher whose primary task is to find out more about the world, and our existence on it, so that I can more richly communicate those discoveries to the reader and build them a better story.” -R.N.
EJ: Your work is far too complex and draws on far too many sources to be reduced to a single totalizing metaphor. But I think how you have operationalized the natural history of the creosote serves as a compelling transitional metaphor for your work. Not only does it resonate with both the neural systems visited in “Dimitrios”, the method you use regarding the creosote is very productive and I see it across your work. I’m trying to develop this as a question, but it keeps ending in admiration. But here’s one: you use science and biosemiotics to see the world both literally and metaphorically. Could you talk about the advantages of this dual perspective?
RN: I see writing as the building of complex rhetorical machines that change the way we see the world. A good piece of literature should alter the way we see our own world slightly, but forever. As a science fiction writer, I make machines for thinking about the world by demonstrating how it might be otherwise. My goal is to create a machine that offers a glimpse of a different world’s internal workings—the meshing of its gears, the pattern of its structure. That glimpse, I hope, will push the reader to ask questions about the machine of the world they live in, and its underlying structures.
I also don’t think the modernist line drawn between “science” and “philosophy” or “science” and the “humanities” is healthy or valid: like the scientific exploration of the creosote’s structure and the use of that structure as a metaphor for thinking about the world, I see science and philosophy and literature as firmly intertwined, and in fact, they are intertwined. The seed of science took root in an “enlightenment” system that continues to dictate, for better or worse, its shape. Science then informed, through its metaphors, other disciplines, including philosophy. Think of the way Darwin’s (much misinterpreted) scientific theories were rooted in capitalism but then also became a system in which other ideas took root: ideas of social structure, competition, efficiency, and adaptation that were borrowed by Darwin from capitalist, machine, and factory metaphors, and then became themselves “scientific” metaphors used to justify the worst excesses of industrial capitalism. Those “Darwinian” concepts still shape how we think about society today.
The Darwin instance—the metastasis of his ideas about natural selection into a justification for exploitation—is a good example of how misunderstanding and misusing scientific theories, as well as failing to see the flawed systems in which those ideas are rooted, can stunt our discourse. But the creosote example is, for me, an illustration of how nuanced scientific understanding of the world can encourage more complex ways of thinking, and how we can then use the richer metaphors of science as tools for examining our human condition.
EJ: I’m glad you brought up the misuse of Darwin for aggression. It is such a terrible misreading, and unfortunately dovetails with the modern misuse of Descartes. His human exceptionalism, rooted in Renaissance superstition, centered on a cogito rationalized, wanton cruelty against “soulless” non-humans, and a false separation of the mind and body, with the mind depicted as a rational, coherent entity unattached to the physical world. Ironically that Renaissance superstition was actually supported by visual technologies—geometric perspective in painting abetted the idea of a centered disembodied self behind the eyes enjoying mastery of what it sees. Fortunately work like yours de-centers and dispels that false, Cartesian idea of “self.”
Another question for you: When Sylvia goes into Dimitrios, she knows that he was raised a Greek speaker, who then functioned in Russian, German, and Turkish at least. Where did the expectation that she would understand him come from? Since Dimitrios understood the conversations he had, would that understanding in his neural net (if that’s the proper term) be directly transferred as an understood speech to Sylvia independent of the language that had actually been spoken?
RN: One of the mysteries of the loops has to do with inhabiting the neural connectivity that constitutes memory itself. This novella, and the story “The Disintegration Loops,” which is its prequel, are inspired by present-day research into the human connectome: the neural network, which is a massively complex forest (to pick up a metaphor from the first question) of neurons. Being able to map this connectome would provide us with a sort of “wiring diagram” for the human mind, and would be the key, of course, to any sort of “uploading” or “downloading” of human consciousness, as well as having an untold number of other uses. But the hypercomplexity of the human connectome is a major challenge.
The idea is that in the loops, Sylvia inhabits that connectome, and has access to what the dead person had access to—so she expects to understand what the polyglot Dimitrios understands, including languages he understands.
There is a catch here, however: the loops are an alien technology. They don’t function in a way Sylvia or anyone else really comprehends, and certainly not exactly as the human expectations of them suggest. As we see in the story, Dimitrios speaks to Sylvia directly—something a dead man should not be able to do. There is some volition in the network, and suggestions that the sense of Sylvia “inhabiting” the network is not—exactly—accurate. So yes, she should “understand what Dimitrios understands”—but Dimitrios may also be controlling what Sylvia understands, and “narrating” memories to her. In several scenes he is speaking to her directly—“haunting” the root systems of his own connectome.
The loops are also “sticky,” in the sense that they pick up parts of Sylvia’s own fears and memories, and that they “stick” to her consciousness and tangle her experiences with those of the person she is trying to “read.” The loops also deform and decay with each replaying, the way magnetic tape is, over time, distorted and eventually destroyed by playback. So, the system Sylvia is navigating is not only hypercomplex, it is also a system accessed via a technology nobody fully understands. For me, these uncertainties the loops generate are metaphors for uncertainty about the edges of identity, about the wholeness and boundaries of the self.
Learning to communicate in another culture isn’t about “common ground” at all: it is an act of translation. It is seeing ourselves from another perspective, and shaping our signals to the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the new context. -R.N.
EJ: Sylvia’s encounter and its consequences suggest so many productive re-visions of first engagement with the unconscious, such as Freudian countertransference and also the re-reading of the ancients on new terms—in other words, honest communion with the dead. I know that when you’re not writing, you set yourself marathon reading tasks. You read all of Shakespeare. Another time you read all of Tolstoi’s War and Peace in Russian. How do your reading projects relate to your writing?
RN: Writing, for me, is a form of listening. I know that sounds strange, as the act of writing seems more related to speech, but for me it is primarily about listening and reading. The goal of writing a good story for my readers provides me with a structure for my exploration of the world—a reason to listen, to attend more closely to what others have said and are saying. I see myself as a researcher whose primary task is to find out more about the world, and our existence on it, so that I can more richly communicate those discoveries to the reader and build them a better story. Writing gives me the excuse I need to engage in massive research undertakings like reading all of Shakespeare, or War and Peace in the original, and gives me a use for that activity—a place in which to put it. An end goal of creation.
But the fact is that I am the kind of person who wants to know everything I can about everything. I always have been. From the earliest age, I was exploring and finding out everything I could about the world—from insects to dinosaurs to Shakespeare’s plays to Buddhism to the ancient Greeks to octopuses to space. I have always followed threads: I was the kind of kid who opened a history book and saw the picture of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition at the South Pole, and then went to the library and found his entire polar journal and read it, thousands of pages, cover to cover. And then read Amundsen’s accounts, and then read about Erebus and Terror, and so on. I was the kind of kid who read a poem by Wilfred Owen in my literature textbook and then ended up studying World War I and the poetry of the trenches for years. I have always been a researcher, communing with the dead and the living, with the honest desire to understand. I want to know how, and why, and how it felt, and where it happened, and how those things fit together into the worlds that others lived in. 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.
EJ: Your active and roving curiosity energizes your prose; your prose is curiosity in action, while your curiosity as a general attitude toward the world is also a kind of ethics.
RN: I think curiosity is a kind of ethics, in fact. C.S. Peirce said it best: “In order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think. There follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.” I think “Do not block the way of inquiry” is a moral imperative. Inquiry is movement toward truth, no matter how far off that truth may be. Reactionary forces have always been, and always will be, blockers of the way of inquiry, who seek to stop the progress of thinking and lock us in an end-state, a state of error that suits their purposes.
EJ: I really admire the alternative history the story is set in. It’s as if you’ve distilled a ’40s nostalgia and superimposed it onto several decades into an accelerated future (thanks to the alien technology) but then turned around and made that a critical nostalgia. Could you talk about that decision and how it imagines domestic and global politics?
RN: There are so many alternate histories in which the Nazis won World War II, for one reason or another. When I was in high school, I loved The Man in the High Castle, a prime example of this genre. The “alternate history” subgenre of science fiction fascinates me, and that mid-century moment around World War II of massive destruction and societal change is also fascinating, as well as being a rich mine of “might-have-beens.”
One of the things I wanted to explore in “A Rocket for Dimitrios” is the idea of power. The question asked in “Rocket” is a reversal of the typical World War II alternate history. Instead of “What if the Nazis had won World War II,” I wanted to ask a more subtle question: “What would have happened if the United States, rather than winning World War II in the way that actually happened, and having to share global power with the Soviet Union, had won it completely, and ended up with the vast share of the world’s technological power (through happenstance, in this case) and become completely geopolitically dominant? What kind of world would that unilateral dominance have created? And what kind of influence would unilateral dominance following World War II have had on the nation, its leaders, and the international system?”
Another question I wanted to ask is something I have always thought about: At some point, people have lived in the “declining” period of an empire—the point at which the empire has passed its peak and has begun its decay. This point is identified retrospectively by historians, often with some (likely spurious) sense of exactitude. But would it have been possible for people living, say, in the declining period of the Roman Empire or the late Ottoman Empire, to have identified that the world they were living in had entered a state of collapse? How would they have known? And how would that knowledge inform their lives and behavior? Where are those “tipping points” and how would we see them from inside history? How can we know when a system has slid into corruption, and how long is a society able to sustain a myth of itself as the “good guys” when there has been a tilt toward authoritarianism?
I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can fail to recognize that my host family in Turkmenistan cannot understand my actions, but that won’t make my actions intelligible to them. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. -R.N.
EJ: Your life in so many different countries and cultures certainly inform your worldview (if that’s a cogent term) beyond superficial “cosmopolitanism.” Could you give an example of an experience in one of the places you’ve lived that has affected your writing dramatically?
RN: At this point, I’ve spent nearly half my life outside of the United States. I’ve lived in Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and now Kosovo. I won’t generalize about any of these places, as I think there is an unhealthy tendency for Westerners in general to use the rest of the world, when they travel through it, as an “other space” in which they go out and learn things, and then bring those things back to the West like trinkets to display. But maybe part of my experience in Turkmenistan, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer, can provide a good example of something I learned.
In Turkmenistan, I lived with a host family for several months. I have always been a person who enjoys spending time with people, but also needs to spend a good deal of time by myself—reading, processing my thoughts, just being alone. I had my own room in my host family; it was a rule of Peace Corps that volunteers have their own room. I was the only one in the family, in fact, who had my own bedroom; most of them just slept on a dushek, a traditional mattress, wherever they wanted to sleep that night. Quite often they rolled their dushek out in the common area, or if it was hot, outside on the tapjan, a low wooden platform in the courtyard.
Because I had my own room, I would retreat into it in the evening to read, after dinner. The days were long, full of language-learning and new experiences, so it felt good to get away for a bit. Inevitably, though, I would be there for only five minutes or so before there was a knock at the door. I would open the door, and there would be my host brother or sister, asking me if anything was wrong. Was I feeling well? Did I need anything? I would say no, and go back to reading. Five minutes later, a knock. The same questions. Was I all right? Did I feel ill?
Soon, I came to realize what the problem was: my host family never spent time alone. Their existence was entirely collective: they ate, worked, talked, watched television, read the paper, drank tea—always together. At night they didn’t lay their dushek down in a place where they could sleep in privacy: they laid it down next to someone else in the family and chatted until they fell asleep. They saw my retreat into my room and my shutting of the door as a sign of illness. To them, it was the behavior of someone who must be sad, or ill, or offended.
When I understood this, I had a sort of revelation. I realized that my behavior was sending out signals that I did not understand or intend. I had grown up in North America and I knew what my behavior signaled there, but here in Turkmenistan I realized that, if I wanted to communicate properly, I would have to alter my behavior. My host family wasn’t going to suddenly “understand” why I wanted to be in my room by myself. In their culture, this was the behavior of a person in distress. I was going to have to change the signals.
So I did: I started reading in the living room, near them, next to my host brother while he did his homework. And the other members of the family left us alone, and let us go about our tasks without interruption, content that we were with the group. I hadn’t found a “common language” with them—I had altered my own behavior. I had learned how to communicate properly within their system.
What did I learn from that experience? I learned that individualism, in the firmest Western sense, is a sham. We aren’t individuals; our ability to communicate is collective: it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. We are totally embedded in that system. When we move to other systems, we must shift our own behaviors to adapt to those systems, if we want to be understood. Learning to communicate in another culture isn’t about “common ground” at all: it is an act of translation. It is seeing ourselves from another perspective, and shaping our signals to the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the new context. That sense of communication across cultural divides as an act of translation and of self-alteration has stayed with me ever since, and certainly informs my writing.
EJ: Absolutely (to everything you just said). Learning languages—especially non-Indo-European languages is really a complex of windows not only opening onto the world but traveling into them. And I love how you never characterize your facility with any of these languages as a “mastery”—in fact it’s just the opposite; you demonstrate a multi-plex humility through letting them inform your ways of being in the world.
Another question: Delany contends that science fiction is informed by a priority of the object, and that the subject is conditioned by the object or the object-world. The loops really are a rich and intricate demonstration of this premise. Could you talk about your conception of subjectivity that you illustrate in the story?
RN: I completely agree with Delany, and I would add to that idea: This is a story about how the subject is conditioned by the object world, in the Delanian sense: technology, and who possesses it, alters the historical facts of the world, and we look through that altered lens into a past that is both like ours and changed. But what I am also exploring is the way in which the individual is embedded in history, and how historical positionality conditions us: how our choices are shaped and limited by the opportunities and happenstances of the world-moment in which we live, and our position within that world-moment. I call it “the self in place-time,” playing on the Einsteinian concept of space-time. We inhabit, of course, a position in space-time, as physical beings, but that position in space-time becomes a “place” when it is suffused with human culture and ideology.
Space has a shape that is physical—there are “things” that really exist, both technological and natural, that do not go away when we stop believing in them, and these are the physical elements of the world. But there is also human culture, human political structure, human ideology, which turn “things” into “objects” and turn that “space” into a “place.” A good metaphor for this might be the difference (often uninterrogated) between a “house” and a “home.” A house is a physical structure consisting of materials and constructed in such a fashion as to provide for living. It is a space. A home, on the other hand, is that same space once it has accrued an identity as a “place” in which human beings are carrying out (and narrating) their lives.
Human beings who live in a house suffuse the materials of it with meaning and turn it into a “place.” But that place is also given meaning by its position within human-structured culture. A home in Berlin in 1939 is not the same as a home in Kansas in 1893, though they may be referred to by the same word. And neither one of those homes, even those same physical structures, unaltered, would be the same “home” today. Each place-time provides a different set of constraints and possibilities, and the people who live in them must function within those parameters. So it is with Dimitrios: he is a creature of the place-time that exists when he is thrown into it. How responsible is he for his actions? For the person he becomes? And how responsible are Alvin and Sylvia for their actions? To what extent are they “individuals,” and to what extent are they produced by the place-time in which they are embedded?
EJ: I think this distinction between space and place is very compelling. Could you expand on this?
RN: Okay. Philip K. Dick had a simple, elegant definition of reality which I love: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I think this is a perfect definition, and it works on many levels: first of all there is the fact that things in the world exist, whether or not we perceive them: Mount Everest is there, in all its physicality, no matter what my set of beliefs is. Even if I did not know it was there, it would be real. It is real, as a thing, even in the absence of consciousness to perceive it. Everest exists in space-time. But there is another level here to reality: Human constructions. These are also reality. They are structures built up of ideology and traditions, structures, like the metaphor earlier of the creosote, seeded into the extinct systems of even older structures. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They exist in place-time, the world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”
These actualities define place-time. I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can fail to recognize that my host family in Turkmenistan cannot understand my actions, but that won’t make my actions intelligible to them. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.
So, what kind of freedom am I left with? I do not think the answer is “none,” but certainly the fantasy individuality of the Western subject is a Cartesian farce. Tolstoy demonstrated this in War and Peace more than a hundred and fifty years ago. He laid it out for us over more than a thousand pages, but we still haven’t absorbed the full measure of that novel and its message.
That is the central question of “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” What, as individuals trapped in the warped grid of place-time, can we do to make a difference? And it’s the question I ask myself every day. It is the question that drives me to keep writing.
EJ: I cannot add anything to that. One of my favorite phrases in English is “a conversation in progress”—this conversation shows just how vital that experience can be. Thank you.
RN: Thank you, Earl. I hope you know how vital your teaching has been to me, and how much you changed my life for the better. And I hope these conversations remain in progress for a long, long time.