Greetings! Thanks to Jeff for giving me the opportunity to bring some thoughts and speculations your way. Today Iâ€™d like to start by talking about experiences that drastically change the way we view the world. Sometimes these changes take place over a long period of time, and sometimes they are sudden and dramatic. Iâ€™ve had my share of both. Iâ€™d like to share some paradigm-shifting experiences (including books) that have not only indelibly impacted who I am but have (naturally) affected how I write and what I write about. I invite others to share such experiences if they are so moved.
Certain such experiences are universal, I believe. As we grow up, our experiences with such things as death, sex, etc. redefine the world as we see it. I still remember when my daughter was just about a year old, and we were going for a walk on a paved path in the lawns of the apartment complex where we then lived. That day there were many large ants at the edge of the path, and my daughter was naturally intrigued by them. Leaning down to look at them, she inadvertently stepped on one.
The hapless creature wiggled a bit, then lay still. My daughter looked at me and said: â€œMake it all right again!â€ I had to tell her I couldnâ€™t; that the ant was dead. That this condition was final and irrevocable. Although I phrased this as gently as possible, she was utterly distraught. She cried and cried. Death had entered her world, and changed it forever.
Thanks to this and to another incident around the same time, when my daughter asked me to turn off the sun on a really hot day, and I had to confess that I couldnâ€™t, she learned early that her parents werenâ€™t the demi-gods she had thought we were. This revelation of our fallibility and our powerlessness was disturbing, but also allowed her to be indulgent with us in our imperfection.
For reading animals like us, certain books can be paradigm-shifting as well. There are books and authors who have changed the way I look at the world. Generally their effect has been more like a gentle seismological shift over time than an earthquake-like change in the way I think. Among the authors who helped me see the world in a new light was the Hindi writer Premchand, who wrote some of the most moving and harrowing short stories and novels about ordinary people in village India and the complex relations between genders, castes and classes. In English there was Ray Bradbury, whose book Fahrenheit 451 made a deep impression on me at the tender age of eleven. Before Bradbury Iâ€™d read Asimov and Clarke, and enjoyed Clarke in particular for his cosmos-sized imagination; his works were among those that planted the seeds for my life long interest in science. But what Bradbury did for me with Fahrenheit 451 was to show me that science fiction could be a tapestry — that it could draw not only from science and technology but from the sociological imagination, and that it could do so lyrically and beautifully. Iâ€™d always loved both the humanities and the sciences, and looking back, I can see in Bradburyâ€™s work the first indication to me that there were realms where one did not have to discard one for the other.
Later, at thirteen, I read Anne Frankâ€™s diary, which had a devastating impact. I still canâ€™t quite articulate how it was to first learn about human brutality on that scale. Then I came upon the non-fiction works of the British naturalist Gerald Durrell. Growing up in New Delhi, a city of several million people, I was already attuned to co-existing with a bewildering variety of non-human living beings — in fact, among my first friends were the pariah dogs of Delhi. I had been observing birds and animals since my early childhood as entities in themselves, with their own (utterly fascinating) lives and agendas. Durrellâ€™s books put it all into perspective: from them I learned about the worldwide threat to the continued existence of various species and this ultimately led me to being part of the environmental movement as a teenager in India.
By my teenage years, though, Iâ€™d lost my connection to science fiction. I couldnâ€™t quite articulate why at the time. It was only when I came to the U.S. as a graduate student of physics that the experience of profound alienation led me to seek out science fiction again. The experience itself was paradigm-shifting. To be in a place so different from home, where every possible thing was different, from grass blades and trees to light switches — where there were no crowds or pariah dogs, and where people drove on the wrong side of the road — it was strange, exhilarating, frustrating. I was appalled at the waste of resources (huge restaurant servings, one person per car on the highway!), confused by the norms of social interactions. It was truly like being on another planet. The only literature that spoke to my condition was science fiction. So I began to read it again. Over the years I got my Ph.D., published my research on quark physics, went back to India to work as a post-doc, got married and found myself, rather unexpectedly, back on American shores. That was the time when there was a huge shortfall in physics research jobs and my daughter was on the way, so I decided to take a break from academia and turn to an old love, writing. Except that this time I wanted to write SF.
When I went back to reading science fiction in my graduate student years, I realized what had put me off about the genre. There were no people like me in those imagined futures or alternate worlds. Even though we Indians were the second most populous nation in the world, somehow we had simply disappeared in those fictional futures. And that was true for other Asian and African cultures in SF too. I realized I loved science fiction because I loved science and literature and found the universe fascinating to speculate about — but was there any place for me there? And could I write it?
My brother and my husband had both been urging me to read an author called Ursula K. Le Guin for quite a while. So at last I got a copy of The Dispossessed, and read it. I read the Earthsea series and The Left Hand of Darkness, and my world exploded. I had never realized there could be science fiction (or fantasy) like this. It was then that I knew there was a place for my voice in the genre.
Some fifteen-odd stories and two childrenâ€™s books later I can now see where and how my reading and my experiences led me to be the writer I am. Iâ€™m still and always will be in the process of becoming a writer and my life experiences and some of the books I read continue to inform and affect what I become. There are a few other life-changing books I will mention as I cover various topics in the week ahead.
What books changed you?