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Interview: Joseph Tomaras on “Caribou: Documentary Fragments”

Tell us a bit about “Caribou: Documentary Fragments.”

I’m not sure what I could tell about it that would be any more enlightening than what is already on the page. I wrote it; now’s the time for me to learn what readers bring to it and take from it. That’s the dialogic function of literature.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Being an obsessive reader, the prompts for my writing often come from things I have read, or their fortuitous juxtapositions. In this case, the fortuitous juxtaposition was between two texts to which I explicitly allude in the story: Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and a New Yorker article about optogenetics that took the form of a profile of Karl Deisseroth. As I read the latter, I began to imagine how work that I am aware of through the scientists I work with could, in combination with optogenetics, be used to engineer new methods of memory suppression. The most speculative aspect of the science is the discussion of the possible molecular basis of memory. I am indebted to Prof. Jason Castro, of the Neuroscience program at Bates College, for help in making sure that the science seems remotely plausible, though of course any errors or absurdities are mine and mine alone.

 

You’re a research administrator for a college in Maine: are there any interesting scientific advances or research you can tell us about?

As I alluded to, the engineering of my story is based in part on postulating a successful future outcome to a collaboration that is just underway, between Prof. Castro and someone in Bates’ physics department, Prof. Travis Gould. Prof. Gould is an expert in methods of microscopy that go beyond the diffraction limit. The basic methods were pioneered by the folks who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014, but there’s more work to be done, to push spatial resolution higher, to take time-resolved images, and to be able to work through deeper tissues and other cloudy media.

As it happens, their research has taken a somewhat different technical direction than I had been imagining when I wrote the story. And there’s always the possibility that developing a sub-diffraction limit image of what goes on inside neurons could turn out to be more difficult than I imagine, or that these guys and others could have a hard time getting funding for it. The relative scarcity of research funds–and there will always be a relative scarcity, under any possible political or economic system, because the frontiers of human knowledge are infinitely folded and fractal, and there is always more that could be done–is what makes my job possible and necessary. So my story may have already been “falsified” as a future-historical account. The wonderful thing about fiction, whether science fiction or otherwise, is that its truths are plural and operate in more dimensions than the mere correspondence between proposition and fact.

Because I work at a small college, rather than at a large, research-intensive university, my perspective on the frontiers of research is an odd combination of the comprehensive and the partial. In theory, someone with my type of job title at a place like MIT or Johns Hopkins would be able to take a synoptic view of the advance of human knowledge in all disciplinary areas. In practice, what they are doing is managing large teams of underlings to try and cope with a torrential workflow. Some of those underlings may have a chance to get a glimpse of the frontiers in the specific departments or research groups to which they are assigned, if they ever get a chance to look up from their desks. I have the luxury of being able to work very closely with a small number of investigators, whose interests span nearly all possible ways of looking at the universe. Not only mathematicians and natural scientists, but also social scientists and scholars of the humanities. I stumbled into what may be the perfect job for someone as intellectually restless as I am. But because, in order to advance the frontiers in most disciplines one must have some very strictly specialized expertise, it is as if I am in an observation tower with a panoramic, 360-degree picture window, most of which has been blacked out, except for some narrow slits. I get to peer through the slits–far in the distance, in many directions, but never getting the full picture.

So I can tell you about how NASA and physicists from around the country are working to develop a set of experiments that can be performed on Bose-Einstein condensates–hypercooled atoms that exhibit quantum mechanical behaviors that can be observed at a macroscopic scale–aboard the International Space Station, asking fundamental physical questions about their properties that can only be observed in microgravity. I can tell you about how fossilized clam shells can provide insights into climate fluctuations in the Arctic going back thousands of years, and what that may tell us about the effects of the anthropogenic climate changes underway right now. I can tell you about the role of RNA in how the bacterium that causes Lyme disease modifies its gene expression, or the molecular mechanisms of environmental toxicity in embryonic development, or how tree xylem responds to drought, or some of the intricately mediated, non-linear ways that oxytocin levels seem to impact human behavior. But I can’t tell you very much about those things, because what I know about them is second-hand and filtered through my own imperfect understanding. And in between those things are vast swathes of scientific knowledge where I can only say, hic sunt dracones. Not because there are dragons but because I have imagined them, or they have appeared, a la Stanislaw Lem, at random in the quantum vacuum of my ignorance.

And let’s give due credit to the social scientists and humanists as well: I can tell you why eyewitness testimony, on which our criminal justice system relies so heavily, is so unreliable and subject to social pressure; I can tell you about a map of Maine being developed that will give meanings and variant pronunciations for place names derived from the languages of the Wabenaki peoples, thus helping those peoples preserve their languages and further document their historic ties to the land; I can tell you about a book that is in the works giving a feminist re-evaluation of philosophical theories of mind, which I am really looking forward to being able to read.

These things haven’t factored into my stories, yet. I am sure some of them will eventually.

 

Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Its action spans the length and breadth of the state in which I live, with a detour to my former home of New York City. It is certainly expressive of my frustration at how the practices of war, illegal detention, and torture have become normalized in the United States, with all candidates of both major political parties pledging fealty to the drone and the razor-wire fence. Also, at the time I wrote it, many residents of the state were in the grip of a panic about the Ebola virus, triggered by the fact that a nurse who had been to eastern Africa was from Maine, and the way that our governor opportunistically seized on the situation to benefit his re-election campaign. There is much to love about Maine, but the propensity of many people here to fear outsiders and their literal or metaphorical contagion is despicable. Since I cannot help but be something of an outsider anywhere I find myself, my sympathies are always with the outsider first and foremost.

 

What would you want a reader to take away from “Caribou: Documentary Fragments?”

If I were to dictate that, then it would interfere with the dialogic function of the story as literature. Perhaps take away from it the desire to comment on my blog (http://skinseller.blogspot.com/), if only to tell me how much I suck. What I would prefer, of course, would be the desire to read it a second or a third time.

 

“Caribou: Documentary Fragments” appears in the May/June 2016 issue of F&SF.

You can buy that issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1605.htm

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