Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bryan Dietrich on Jor-El, Poetry, and Truth

I don't know if you're familiar with Bryan Dietrich, but you should be. He's written several books of poetry that, if you're reading this blog, you would probably like. His most important book is Krypton Nights, a cycle of poems based heavily on the Superman mythos. These are prize-winning poems, approved by the poetry community (whatever that's worth to you), and they're also really, really good poems. Trust me. Even if you don't think you like poems, you'd like these. Krypton Nights is out of print, but you can find it used around the internet. I was buzzing around Dietrich's website, seeing if he has anything new (and he does, a book of poems about the Universal Monsters), when I came across an interview section. I found this exchange particularly interesting (note: I've edited the transcript for punctuation, but not content):

Question: Out of your poems, I particularly enjoyed “The Mysteries of Azazel.” The question of what if we could know is intriguing. Would we want to know? And, if we did know, would it mean the destruction of life, as we know it? This is a dilemma we’ll never face.

My question comes, not from your poems, but instead from your intro to The Jor-El Tapes. As stated, the Jor-El Tapes comes from the “Transcripts of Binary Transmissions Recorded by the Very Large Array (Socorro, NM) - Originating in the Vicinity of Supernova 1993J.”

Was your use of this particular event in history intended for any particular purpose? The Supernova 1993J was discovered March 28, 1993. It has been estimated to have occurred 3.6 mpc away from Earth. As far as astrological distances go, an mpc=megaparsec. A single parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light years; a mega parsec is 1 million parsecs, or 3.26 million light years. Therefore, Supernova 1993J is located approximately 11.7 million light years from Earth.

As we learn, Jor-El has been monitoring Earth through a very sophisticated telescope/device, knowing events throughout history including more recent ones, such as Flight 19. It seems that, unless Jor-El had technology far beyond our mere comprehension, the area around Supernova 1993J would be too far to effectively view Earth or send transmission back to us. If he did have vast superior technology, it seems unlikely that we’d be able to receive his transmissions with our less advanced technology and equipment.

Dietrich: Okay, you caught me.

I will answer two ways, neither one probably very satisfying.

First, I'm a poet, not a fiction writer. Fiction bears a more burdensome responsibility of verisimilitude; in other words, in fiction, if you drop a hammer, it should fall. It should conform to rules of gravity. It may fall more slowly on a different world, but it will still fall. Fiction readers SHOULD expect this kind of attention to the "rules." Thus, in the film Outland (an old Sean Connery SF film), when the doctor draws blood from the top of the leg of a many-days-old corpse, and when the blood comes out liquid.... Well, even common sense should tell us that by this point the blood would be both congealed and resting in the bottom of the body. Both points are ignored by the writer and both points serve to further frustrate our tendency to want to suspend disbelief, particularly about a film taking place on Io, in space, in the future.

I don't know that poems--being more about philosophy and language, less about plot and character--need to conform to the same expectations. Nor most "literary" fiction. Do we really expect Gregor Samsa (the clerk turned giant pill-bug in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis") to follow the rules of the real world? If he were truly a giant bug, the size we are given in the story, he would collapse in upon himself via the inverse square law.

Now, though this is a problem for, say, "Tarantula" or "The Deadly Mantis" or even "Eight-Legged Freaks," it is a problem for these stories because ALL they have going for them is story. They are not about something else, at least not in the way that Kafka's tale is. Kafka's tale is not about the realistic portrayal of a giant bug. He is about the business of telling us our lives are like the life of a bug. The metaphor is important; the "laws" of nature aren't.

So, my first answer is I plead the defense of poetry. Ha, so there.

Now, for the second answer... Your question (and you are indeed the first to ask it, though I've long been waiting) is exactly why I put in the line "why not mind mites or temporal restrictions." I knew that the question would be asked, eventually, and I attempted to put a band-aid on it.

Evidently, Jor-El has knowledge we do not. He either has technology or he has understanding that surpasses what we understand of the speed of light. He may be using some form of "spooky action at a distance" to communicate, he may have harnessed Burroughs' 9th Ray, he may be sending the message via tachyon particles...I don't know. But he evidently believes the temporal restrictions WE understand to exist don't.

Yes, this is a little like the logic of, say, Star Trek V, but then...I'm a poet.

I love that the question is just like the type of questions asked by the geeks to Homer Simpson in the famed "Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie" episode (just imagine the Comic Book Guy saying, "are we expected to believe that Jor-El would use a supernova located 3.6 megaparsecs away from Earth as some kind of transmitter? Are you the creator of 'High and Lois' because you are making me laugh.") and I love Dietrich's attempt to explain himself by showing that he is a POET. I salute you, Bryan Dietrich.

(And I've just ordered a copy of his Universal Monsters book!)


Chad Nevett said...

I love that second answer, because that's the sort of answer I would give. The novel I'm currently writing for my MA is sci-fi and I don't bother to ever explain any piece of technology, because, fuck it, these characters know more than I do--if I could explain their advanced technology, I would build it myself.

I also had a story a while back that had the same sort of "faster than the speed of light" reasoning. We only think light is the fastest thing there is because of our limited perceptions. I don't necessarily believe that, but find it extremely funny when people just shoot it down as a possibility automatically, like modern science is somehow less likely to be proven wrong in a few hundred years than every other piece of scientific discovery in history. Maybe we have reached a point where we're right more than we're wrong, but I somehow find that unlikely. I can't but think that our current views on physics will one day be regarded the way we regard those who thought the sun revolved around the Earth.

Timothy Callahan said...

...but...but...we have ELECTRON microscopes. And, the internet.

Chad Nevett said...

And they had the wheel. Fantastic invention, but still...

Timothy Callahan said...

I don't know what kind of wheels they had in the olden days, but they probably didn't have wheels that let them read episode summaries of "She's the Sherrif."

THAT is science, my friend.