In your story, “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue,” Birha spends her time ruminating, learning the musical languages of the aliens and their instruments, the poeticas, and working as a mathematician. Do you see a relationship between math, music, and memory?
I certainly do. Music is all about patterns, relationships and harmonies, and one can say that about mathematics too. I am not a mathematician, although physicists are related, intellectually speaking, but I have some training in Indian classical music. When I look back into my own past, I find music to be a significant trigger for memories.
Birha’s relationships play a deep role in this story—with Thirru, Rudrak, Ubbiri, and even the yellow dog. Which of these relationships did you find the most difficult to write?
I think it was Birha’s relationship with Rudrak, because unlike the others it is still forming, not yet defined, and Rudrak is not consistently Rudrak, right up to the end of the story. I wanted to make it clear that it was not a conventionally romantic relationship, but was nevertheless love. There are so many shades of love, most of which are ignored if they are not straightforward romantic. I wanted to explore the possibilities of one such relationship as it begins, again and again.
The structure of this story uses a lot of different conveyances—flashbacks, journal entries, poems, etc. Was this something that came together for you as you wrote, or was this all planned ahead of time?
I am one of those writers who can’t plan. I have a file on my computer for writing practice, where I give myself permission to write whatever comes to mind without regard to my internal editor. Some of the ruminations came about in this totally random way. Meanwhile I wanted to write a story about an old woman mathematician-scientist near the end of her life, and the bits and pieces seemed to come together quite naturally. It’s like stitching together odd scraps of fabric to discover that you’ve made something resembling a quilt, or a shirt, or a dress. Not at all planned!
There’s a familiar comfort in your prose when writing about stars, planets, and the cosmos. Did you find it necessary to do a lot of research in preparation for this story?
I did some digging around and some thinking. I am a physics professor at a small state university so I am used to thinking about the cosmos. There is of course a wildly speculative element to this story, but less obviously I wanted to play about with the idea of probability, which I find fascinating. How do chance and habit and the laws of nature play out on a grand scale? The origins of uncertainty in the macroscopic and microscopic realms are actually quite different, but in this story I’ve messed with that quite deliberately. I’ve also had to think about how we do science in the mundane world, including the unfortunate separation between what C. P. Snow called “the two cultures,” the humanities and the sciences. I wanted to come up with imaginative alternatives—because it is both important and interesting to think about alternatives for things we take for granted. Especially when one is writing speculative fiction.
If an actualizer existed and you could travel to another branch of the cosmic tree, would you step into that void, and use the actualizer?
Hmmm . . . I think I’d be rather like Birha. There is so much to discover right here, on our doorstep. I’ll leave the actualizer to the adventurers.
Finally, do you have any new projects you’d like to announce?
I have some short stories in first draft form that I look forward to working on this summer. My job is too intense to allow me to write during the semester, but it does generate plenty of ideas. Specifically I am planning to wrestle with a grand-scale space opera that’s been sitting on the shelf for some four or five years, and to work on a series of stories about global warming, continuing where my story “Indra’s Web” in the November issue of TRSF left off. I keep dreaming about a novel, but that won’t happen for a while.