Cosmic Shadows Upon A Lit Screen

Megha Spinel talks about the grounding truths of life and its resemblance to the mangrove tree. The large roots that work to support every aspect of the world around us, connecting existence into a living system. Read on to discover why “The Secret of Silphium” [on sale now] could never have been about Megha’s tree….

For the past 8 months, I have been studying a mangrove tree. I’ve made detailed graphs about the way water flows up from the roots and transpires out of the leaves in the sunlight, I know exactly how the trunk swells and shrinks as water moves up and down horizontal gradients created by the presence and absence of sugars in the internal vessels, I know what happens to my tree on sunny days and cloudy days and the all days in between them. I know the new cells burst into growth suddenly and joyfully when rain brings freshwater to the brackish, sandy ground thick with tangling roots, both fine and thick, both living and dead.

I’ve never seen my tree. Hit by Covid-19 travel restrictions, I didn’t gather the data, I just got an intimidating set of files full of numbers that, eventually, after months of work, made sense enough that the tree came alive across my computer screen, responding to every slight change in temperature, humidity and sunlight. And then I saw it.

And every fellow writer I’ve told this to says, inevitably, that it would be interesting to write a story about all this.

Why not, after all? People have published far stranger things. There isn’t enough plant science in speculative fiction for a certainty. Trees are important and alive, just as dynamic as stars and far more complex in their beautiful internal mechanics that do nothing but happen, happen, happen all day long, little entropy machines of life, just like us. More esoteric than fiction aliens and yet as close to us as the very breath we exchange with them. I’d love to write a story about my mangrove tree.

But I can’t. I’m too close to it.

Something that has always bothered me in science fiction is a certain clichéd description of mathematics. A commonly used phrase is “the cold, hard beauty of equations” and I hate it. When I was in middle school, the day before the final exam, there would be so many people at my desk asking for help in math that one time, in eight grade, my homeroom teacher told me to just come up to the blackboard and take the class through a set of problems that had most of my fellow students completely flummoxed. So I did, carefully and slowly, certain that no one, no one, is stupid. They thought they were, but I knew they weren’t. As I took them through the simple equations in detail, I heard little gasps of understanding, saw people’s eyes light up like stars as they suddenly got it! Everyone loves math when it’s taught properly. The answers appear from the axioms and principles like alchemy and it leaves you astonished as it all cancels out and balances so perfectly that I wonder if the development of math had any effect on humanity’s evolving ideals of justice. Everyone likes watching the terms cancel, everyone loves witnessing dazzling simplicity surface from the murky chaos. There’s nothing cold and hard about an equation. An equation is a lightening strike.

I can’t write science fiction about the science I do. Most people can’t. Even the hardest science fiction has a kind of madness, a twisting, lurid flexibility that the frustrating internal simplicity of real science doesn’t. But if science fiction isn’t about science, then what is it about? Delight, I think.

It makes me feel very calm to know that underlying all this variety are universal rules of energy conservation and entropy which, like beasts too immense to be seen, are only visible by their manifestations in our data patterns, cosmic shadows upon a lit screen: we see the structure beneath by studying the astoundingly gorgeous topography.

For me, it’s delight. I’m not a religious person, but it’s an immense privilege to live in a universe that is knowable. You look at things through your statical tools and they make sense, they make sense so much that their existence gave us the statistical tools in the first place: reality has medians and averages and measurable deviations from the mean, reality actually has all these different types of statistical distributions with their different peaks and various tails, fat and thin, long and short, to one side or the other. Reality is statistics. That’s where it all comes from.

What amazes me is that things exist in patterns that map onto other things. It’s insane that the same math that describes stars can describe pebbles, that the same math describing the fluid mechanics of our blood describes the immense ocean tides, that the heights of trees and humans and cats and mushrooms can be analyzed with the same, plain old statistical methods. It makes me feel very calm to know that underlying all this variety are universal rules of energy conservation and entropy which, like beasts too immense to be seen, are only visible by their manifestations in our data patterns, cosmic shadows upon a lit screen: we see the structure beneath by studying the astoundingly gorgeous topography.

We measured the universe and it miraculously turned out that the universe was measurable. 

Imagine if it wasn’t. Imagine if we just found layers and layers of chaos and not the kindness of recurring patterns. Even when we got into the tiniest levels of matter and energy, and the rules governing numbers finally shattered, it only opened a gaping maw into newer, crazier, more exciting math, another white-hot new beginning instead of a terrifyingly hostile dead end, a frightening refusal to reveal anything further. It’s insane that we weren’t just left hanging. Imagine if we were.

No answers. Only questions. Imagine having to live with it.

So yes, it’s delight. It’s thankfulness when I don’t even believe in anyone to thank. It’s hope. At it’s very best, even at its saddest, science fiction is in its essence is a cheerful hymn. It’s our trust in the universe, it’s our unspoken, ever present faith that we won’t just be left hanging. That if we work hard and think carefully and courageously aspire and keep trying, we will always find the important answers. If not now, then tomorrow. We know that we will know. It’s wonderful to be alive here. 

Megha Spinel studies ecology, and feels there’s a great deal of hope in the existing research about ecosystem rehabilitation. She wants to tell stories about a future where humanity collectively remembers that we’re an integral part of Earth’s ecosystem, and how technology could make that world fun as well as sustainable. She also loves history and feels speculative fiction has a place in our past as well as our future, because if they told stories about us, we should tell stories about them, and feel our human connection through time and space.

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