Thanks for talking with us about your story, “Contact.” What can you tell me about where this story came from?
I wrote “Contact” at the very beginning of my fiction-writing career. I finished the first draft in 1976 while I was a student at Clarion in Michigan, and it was the occasion of several writing breakthroughs for me.
I’d gotten to a certain point in the story, about a third of the way through, and I found myself completely blocked. Basically I had a premise, a set-up, but I had no idea what happened next. I was discussing this with Kate Wilhelm, describing the story as far as it went. She looked at me calmly—her clear blue eyes seem to see through everything—and she asked a very simple question: “How does it end?” And I realized that I knew how it ended—I had always known, but I had never told myself. I even understood why I hadn’t told myself: I knew that the ending was going to be emotionally very difficult for me to write. After that, it was a matter of getting the story to that ending, which wasn’t easy, but at least I knew where I was going. For me that was a breakthrough: that it was okay to know the ending before you got to it.
The other breakthrough: This was the first story I wrote in which I tapped into, and consciously tried to transmute, my personal tragedies and joys. The discovery of how to do that, and really of the need to do that, was my most important creative takeaway from Clarion—second in value only to the deep friendships that began there and that have changed my life and sustained my art.
“Contact” is about, well, first contact with another intelligence, in unexpected places. How surprised would you be if we discovered (or recognized) additional intelligent species on our planet?
I think the story is only partly about first contact. It’s also an examination of what real contact consists of: the ability to understand another being, and to give it the freedom to achieve its own incomprehensible desires, to fill its own needs, even if they run contrary to your own. Also, I was trying, very specifically, to present death as an achievement, perhaps even as an accomplishment.
To address the intelligence issue, though: I think that we have discovered/recognized a number of different kinds of intelligent species on earth, although we haven’t really plumbed the complexities of those intelligences. Whales, dolphins, gorillas, bonobos, and elephants all seem to exhibit a complex, high-level intelligence that is different from our own. Historically, humans have been more interested in discovering intelligences that are similar to our own (and perhaps in subjugating them), rather than investigating another creature’s intelligence in a Martin-Buberesque, I-Thou relationship, trying to figure out what that creature might want beyond survival and food. (“So long, and thanks for all the fish!”) Frankly, humans have a fairly difficult time treating other humans in an I-Thou manner. Time will tell if they can treat a member of another species that way, recognizing its right to self-determination, its property and territorial rights, and the fact that it is more interested in its own species than in us.
How do you think we would recognize intelligence if we came across it? Do you think we’d recognize it in the first place?
Good question! I think it’s hard for us to recognize intelligence even in other humans, where we ought to be expecting to see it. Often we look for intelligence only in people who look like ourselves: race, class, gender, age, size, whatever. (And when I say “we,” I’m including me.) For humans, the act of recognizing another creature’s intelligence is often about recognizing that that other creature (human or not) has noticed you, that it is smart enough to have recognized how important you are. Maybe that’s why we like dogs so much.
Many people were enchanted last year by the YouTube video of a humpback whale that allowed humans to untangle fishing nets that were strangling it, and then apparently thanked its rescuers with a joyous breeching display. [https://youtu.be/tcXU7G6zhjU] What most people like best about the video seems to be the courtesy the whale shows in thanking the creatures with hands. What I am most interested in is that the whale seems to understand not only that the people are trying to help it, but that humans are fragile and can’t stay under water very long. It also seems to understand that it shouldn’t overturn the boat in its display of gratitude.
Lastly, do you have anything coming out that we should be looking forward to?
Thanks for asking! At the moment, I’m working on a novel that I’m very excited about, a metafiction set in the nineteenth century, concerning issues of gender, race, class, and the human imagination. Also, I have enough stories for another short-story collection, which I’m assembling now.
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