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RICHARD POWERS b.

r957
In his second novel, Prisoner's Dilernma ( 1988), Richard Powers presents a theory of order his characters experience as the "Butterfly Effect, that model of random motion describing how a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking propagates an unpredictable chain reaction of air currents, ultimately altering tomorrow's weather in Duluth." The
human capacity to imagine and understand the real world (poetry) and the human ability to construct technologies capable of measuring it (science) combine in the sense of scientific wonder that $pifies his fifth and most popular novel, Gal^atea 2,2. How people and the forces that influence their lives keep pace with each other is the substance of Powers's work. Powers is one of several contemporaries (including Kathryn Kramer, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace) who write as the generational successors to Thomas Pynchon, whose novels, particularly V (1963) aid Gravity's Rainbout (1973), challenged readers to comprehend worlds that were virtually encyclopediac in range yet containable-barely-within the limits of printed novels, As the critic Tom Leclair has noted, Powers and his cohort, the ideal youthful readers of Pynchon, have adapted that author's intellectual overkill and applied it to conditions more rypical of latetwentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century America. What was in Pynchon's 1960s a paranoia about government secrecy and terroristic subversion had become, by the millennium's end, literal facts of life, creating an even larger challenge to the novelistic intelligence that would contain them all. To balance the increase of technological capability with the limits of the mind to comprehend things, Powers favors double plots that reflect microcosmic versions of the same theme. In his first novel, Three Fanners onTheirway to a Dance (1985), world war I and its global reorderings are related to the three young Dutchmen of the title, Prisoner's Di.lemma tells the story of the world's emergence into the atomic age with ongoing references to the fate oi one small family involuntarily caught in the process. This strategy of intersecting plots continues through an eighth novel, Tke Time of Our Singing (2003), which pairs a brilliant, mixed-race vocalist's struggle to sing the music of his choice with his parents' earlier struggle to raise their three children in a world free from history's racial constraints. A ninth novel, The Echo Maker (2006), a winner of the National BookAward, explores memory the homing instinct, and other brain function as they relate to one family member's caring for another. Powers was born in Evanston, Illinois, and raised on the far north side of Chicago, in the suburb of Lincolnwood, where his father was a school principal. when Powers was eleven his father accepted an appointment as principal of a school in Bangkok, and the family moved to Thailand for a five-year stint, not returning to the United states until 197 4, Nter earning bachelor's and master's degrees (with initial concentrations on physics and mathematics and ending in English) at the University of lllinois he worked as a computer-code writer in Boston. The publication of his first norel led to his being awarded a MacArthur fellowship, after which for several years he lir-ed in the Netherlands. In 1992he returned to the Universitv of lllinois as an artist-in-

3220 / RrcHanp Powrns


residence; since I 996 he has held the swanlund chair as a professor of arrc -- English. ---Dl he is formally affiliated with units in the science.
::Lr+ work: the scientific with the artistic, the historical with the fictive. of all the *nr*::s and works cired in the story (including powers and rwo .r r,i. n=_ mann,her illness, her books, and a re-r.ie* of them are "r*rJ, ""riui" yet her invented, status *u i created character makes the entire work fictive, as the author _""H h;;; ;;. The text is from Granta No. 90 (2005), with a revision by the author,

Powers's story "The seventh Event" shows the ".rd intersections

fi.r"

,.tr.

that characterize

The Seventh Event


Six
Theworld shallperkhnotforlackof wondcrs, butfor
Lack of

uonilen

accusing opening words:

When Mia Erdmann passed,away last May, ecocriticism lost a singuim voice and all of us who were changed and then changed her r*ro books lost rhe chance,t: "*.ir-U" #Eld";;itst -rghip.,J ,s"e,I"h:re"sh. lished her first book' Hitched to Everything,Tircrature andthe [Jnseemw,rni,& " or,* in 1989 at the age of thirry-two. I can stirr recail n.r,

-y

"[.r"." a,r,.* ,*i

in how we talk about literature, and

deal of literature talks about the world . .

To our embarrassment' we critics have belatedry begun to see a basic a corresponding lack in how a gom
.

scholars often cite Erdmannt book as the sharpest cry in the call to arm* that took shape at the end of the l9g0s. Her words gave the growing ecocr![ movement its most succinct.voice. I,iterary arralyJs, ,t" iiri.t"a] .igh* explores the links between written worlds the worlds trr"v r"pr".".rt. g* it wrongly stop-s' when making those links "ni at the gauge Reao ing her, I still feel her combinld amazement undrep-,rgrra;;;;;i; "rril i-r,i*"".belatec discovery. Personal relationships, family, society, even globar economics rmilr politics: Erdmann saw these ai nothing more riran ti"f ro".i ;;;;;'i" work so-large it should have made the f,rrman vanish " "*in embarrassment. -{nu. yet the human insisted that alr of life hung upon humanirv. app"il"a u,. hopeles_s parochialism, E_rdmann revived "* S;i;;j 'I have heard of a man who had a mind r"..fi f,i, ried a piece of brick in his pocket, which he shewed ;;;;;;ri^".,.o*age purchasers.'3 As Erdmann saw it, literary creation ", and interpretation hac increasingly lost itself at the scare of the brick, -hir. ;";J;;iin'"ior, - u large thar few had yet stepped back far !9use_ 1o ;;;" thing Iike a real architecturai sketch. we courd not ";;;h'l;;ffi "r,_ seeiow bd ,-il;nr";;; are. lVe rvere like those first-rime concert goers who tra stops tuning, thinking it the symphony. "pph;; "fi;;il";r:;;

i;ril

#ffi;J"; f,";;;,;Jr#i;;;

l.
3.

2. Irish satirisr

Drologrst and MiteL

John Burdon Haldane {1892-1964t, English


and poet (1667-1745). From "The Drapier's Letters,,(17j4), four let_

published under the pseudom arguing againsr Irish acceptaut new copper coins minted in Er. Srand under corrupt circumstances.

tere

i';t,ll^],jlR,9r or UU.U00 in

^by^Swift.

THs Srvewrn EvsNr

3221

Her book had its famous defenders and detractors. As for me, after reading her, I never wrote the same way again. In an act of private homage, I stole and recycled her Swift quote in my third novel, a story of molecular biology and ecolog/ which appeared two years after Erdmann's landmark book. IIv every subsequent attempt at fiction scrambled to rise to her challenge to describe the wider net beyond humanity's few square knots. Anr.thing less now seemed like failure. As Erdmann put it in that same remarkable first polemic in Hitched to Ewrything: Living things, faced with the pressure of changing habitat, must adapt or move. The only third choice is death. If the literary mode wants to survive the catastrophic climate change we ourselves have engineered, it must now do the same. Erdmann scared me out of the fiction of the self. But I feel a little fraudulent ignoring that self, a little fictitious calling her Erdmann like the rest of her public admirers. For in real life I never called her anything but Mimi. The author of two of the most provocative ecocritical works of the last fifteen years was, to me, the girl in my junior high class in International School Bangkok,s who, thirty years ago, at the height of the Vietnam war, performed
abizarre talent show send-up of 'Getting to KnowYou', singing it just like one

of Deborah Kerr's happy charges,5 while dressed in what everyone but the
teachers and administrators recognized as Vietcong garb. We were not exactly friends, in school. It wouldn't have been possible, at fourteen, for a six-foot-four-inch son of an American school principal to be friends with a four-foot-and-a-fraction daughter of a Canadian petrochemical company executive. But we did sniff each other out, two precocious and doubtlessly obnoxious kids, conscious, a little before most, that they might make a little noise in the world, if they chose. She was far more sophisticated and worldly than I was. But I was a quick study and not above stealing from her stance at a distance. I don't recall her showing any particular interest in nature or life science in school, although I do remember our freshman biology teacher, Khun Porani, declaring Mimi's frog pithing and dissection 'an aesthetic masterpiece'. When I reminded Mimi of this, in her hospital room last spring, four weeks before the end, she claimed I'd made up the whole story. 'Remember what KunderaT says,'she warned, 'Memory is not the opposite of forgetting; it is a kind of forgetting. Or something to that effect.' I left Bangkok in 1973 at the age of sixteen. By a coincidence that seemed stranger to me then than it does now, Mimi and I met again two years later, as freshmen at the University of lllinois, one of those massive educational factories whose strengths in the sciences made it a logical place for me to study physics and for her to study bioengineering. I was stunned to see her again, on the other side of the globe. The unlikelihood didn't seem to surprise her at all. I asked her how she had settled on her major, a choice I found bewildering. She replied, 'Are you kidding me) My entire life, I've dreamed about making a living thing.'
4.
Powers's novelTheGoldBugVariatiore(1991). of themusicalT}le Kngandl(1951),bytheAmer5. Oldest such school in Thailand, offering the ican composer Richard=Rodgers (19O2-1979\ nd 12

International Baccalaureate and the American

6. Kerr (b. l92l),

curriculum.

K-

a Scottish-bornAmerican

sinqer

the American lwicist Oscar Hammerstein ( 189 1960). 7. Milan Kundera (b. 1929). Czech norclisr-

i-

and actress. plays a governess in the movie version

3222 I RrcuaRo Powsns


we took freshman chemistry together, along with a couple thousand oth,er le'r students. we arranged to be placed in the same lab section. we became
Dartners,

'-.f.."f".

I ie*"-ber our being assigned to determine the unknown sample' % l"{ a-long flom particular one of weight Mimi just laughed. 'Forget thm perform. to urr"y, measurements of chart "ni \\fu noise. Look at it. Feel it. smell it. It's mashed up mothballs. Naphthalene. fu:work" some ourselves Save know the molecular weight of naphthalene. to accom-' ence, she declared, had to know when and how to cheat if it hoped

if

awkwarld ones.

plish anything.

' It disconc"lt.d ,n", being thrown

back together on the other side of ti'*. I tor* world, the long descent from Bangkok, Thailand to Nowhere, Illinois. briefr" were we I think the colnciderr"ce to be fate, a ki"d of obligation. me reler:,:irrrroirr"a, or something that passed for involvement. Mimi teased that rire interviewer an told even life. She later in lessly about the episo-<le helped her to come to terms with her own preference fiw

V."rig "r""fist-to-Le

women. Nlint'' Near the end of our undergraduate days, I drifted into literature and lost tracl we embarrassment' sank deeper into bioengin""ittg. Mostly orrt of headeo was she where no idea I had o'ther. By the time I left school, oi """h rl she planned to do. I took off for Boston without hunting her do$'' ro ., -t say goodbye. Memory is a form of forgetting, not its opposite'
Fitte
Et ery luxwry must be paid for, and ercrything is a luxury

starting'with -Paveses

the

wotld'

I canne I was living in the Netherlands and had written two novels by the time fellom a When later. years ten almost again, Erdmann Mia across thJname and' its call for a Eaerytking, to Hitched stutry critical the mentioned writer literature that tried to recover thl obscene majority of existence tyPicaltrlr b*rh"d aside by the novel of character revelation, I couldn't believe that mc persoD, old schoolfri".,i arrd this book's author might be one and the same I hunted else. be anyone couldn't it that enough But the name was unusual Th* photograph' no author it carried boo=k, academic An down a copy. noie identified her as an assistant professor ofliterary studies at the ""ttrort of California, Santa Cruz' University in life paths boggled me. But from the book's first sentence ih" rre* "#rrg" the prose ,til" bo." the stamp of that unmistakable mind. The writing Critsomervork. itself saving above not and limber, ilig i"a bold, remarkably i"i"r", tfr" ciaimed, hai treated American literature's centuries-long obsesjaded contempt-as sion with wildness-from early shock and awe to late
demonstrated, in damning shorthand, how all of the then leading schools

,i-pf" ""r."sions of the themes of self-fashioning, self-reliance, and seffishe transformation. It was time, Mia said, to put away such childish things'
literary criticism-Muoir-,
Deconstruction, even the emerging

rf

Posr-

8. Cesare Pavese (1908-19501. ltalian novelist, poet' and translaton

Tnr SrvsNrn Evpnr I

3223

Colonial studiese-were, to some extent, self-exempting, performing much the same kind of cultural work that they themselves were intent on exposing, For even as cultural studies exposed hidden social agendas, it participated in crimes against the non-human worse than anything humanity had eser committed against itself. And fiction, for its part, had for two centuries rvallos'ed in a bottomless vanity that promoted the individual self to be the measure of all things: 'We have let our shot at awareness be bought off with a bauble,' this Mia Erdmann put it. An infant is the soul of absolute narcissism, identifuing only with itself. Growth should be the steadybreaking down and enlargement of its identity. But judging by our literature, the true scale of the world may be too terrifying for even the largest acts of identification to grasp.
The prose, as many have commented, alternated between diatribe and epic It bore no relationship to the kind of prose required for academic Nor did the author bother much with close arguments. It's "drr".r""-"ttt.darnn it. We know the rnolecular weight of naphthalene. But I naphtkalene, knew, within five pages, that this book would stand the conversation on its ear. My old friend would make a name for herself. And it seemed I had always known this, as far back as junior high. The author had the force of moral certainty behind her, of incontestable urgency. And after my stabs of jealousy orr", ih" sheer force of her words, all I could feel in them was the pleasure of

poem.

recovery. Some have aligned Erdmann's prose and her position in this first book with

the more l1.r'ical voices of ecofeminism. Cheryll Glotfelty,' in her review in lnterdisciplinary Stud.ies in Literatwre qnd Em'vironmen'L2 calls Erdmann 'a diabolical Annie Dillard'.3 These comparisons slight what is most distinctive in Mimi's writing. A great deal of ecstatic, first-wave ecological criticism concerns itself with almost mystical communion with other living things. Such a possibility, in Erdmann, is at best problematic and at worst impossible. Even when her descriptions work the hardest to invoke something close to awe at the living world, her gaze is unflinching, less Protestant h)rmn than house
music rave. 'Life,'she declares,

is botched self-replication.

It stems from a single command: copy this, again and again and again. Crucially' that copying is not wholly accurate' Otherwise, we would have stopped at pretty crystals. Think of mitosisa as
trillions of slightly near-sighted, plagiarizing students-speculation on the loose. The crazed self-copier, DNA,5 is runaway and indifferent,
erecting endless botched, diverging organisms as delivery systems' Each

Respectively. the school of socialism promulb\ the Cerman social philosopher Karl Man ft A r S-i ee:t predicat ing the histoiical inevitabilit\ ofa communist society: a stlle oflilerary analysis nromulgated br French and {.merican theorists in t'he I c6ds and i 970s predicated on the rigorous intenogation of previouily unquestioned assumptions underllng texts; a style of literary and social analysis examining cultures of former colonies from an independent viewpoint. 1 . Professor of literature and the environnent (b. c. 1963) at the University of Nevada, Reno who
gated

9.

helped create the field of ecocriticism. -Official journal of the fusociation for the Study 2. of Literatuie and Environment' headquartered at the Universitv of Nevada, Reno. 3. American writer (b. 1945), famous for her responses to the environment in lytic prose. ,1. Nuclear division of a cell, resulting in two identical cells with the same number of chromosomes as the original cell. 5. Deoxwibonucleic acid, the major constituent of chromosomes; it stores the genetic code that is the basis of heredity.

3224 / RrcHaRo Powtns


one of its current twelve and a half million species serves as a postuiimd'

about its environment. Most of them are viral or opportunistic. .\ll anrt shaped for exploitation, dependent on the whole . . . We large ani-mrorh are hopelessly macroscopicentric. In fact, any life form bigger tha: a thimble is a flulcy, precarious, exceptional, composite kludge job. Thoc are more cells in a baby's finger than people in the world, and eachr d these cells is itself an ecosystem, already a colony of assimilated sla,,t species. A single Amazon6 tree top harbours three dozen species of a'm" What does it mean to be alive? The real, bedrock deal is vegetative. fun'" gal, invisible: superbugs, extremophiles,T bacteria that thrive on acid aldl salt, that never see the sun, that live in suspended animation 320 degrcsr below zero Fahrenheit, or mass in a spoon of soil in concentrariomr beyond anyone's ability to number. What would a literature that kneu nIl this look like? But for all her attempts to terrify the reader with the violent profligacr d nature, Erdmann's world is exhilarating once your eyes attenuate to it. Tiro book's conclusion still holds, in my mind, even after her youthful field's maurn
revisions and revolutions:

If we could stop using nature

as a metaphor for reflecting the human begin to how the human condition tsfls61s 56.* might see we condition,

small fraction of nature's relentless urge to speculate.

I wrote to the author, care of UC Santa Cruz. This was still back in the agr of letters, when you had to put the recipient's name at the top of the messagt and yours at the bottom. I told her how shamed and rearranged I had beem by wrestling with her book. And I asked her all the predictable and necessa:'r questions about how her life had gone in the intervening decade. What had happened to her after leaving lllinois? How did she end up in California? \\-as
she with someone? Was she happy? Her reply answered none of my personal questions. None of her letters eru did. She found personal details fulsome, indulgent and boring. The only ome of my biographical questions she thought even vaguely worth addressing rsa5 how she had gotten from a bachelor's degree in bioengineering to a PhD ir American literature. 'I got impatient. I wanted to make a living thing frorr. scratch. Those guys weren't quite as far along as they were promising. So I took a short cut.'I asked why, in that case, she hadn't become a fiction writer She replied, 'You had too big of a head start.' I hadn't realized we were competing. But then, I'd never taken as hard a look at life as Mimi had. In Hitched to Euerything, the living world was noc some stable, benign equilibrium that humans needed to rejoin after a lone self-exemption. In Mimi's view of nature, the two slowest-growing neighbouring sequoias were locked in a freeze-frame battle of life and deatlu stretching out over centuries,

6. River in
Rain Forest.

South America that drains the Amazon

7. Organisms that thrive in extreme conditioru "supeibugs": antibiotic-resistant bacteda.

Tnr SsveNrn EvrNr /


Four
ln
the long

3225

,"",

."

*4.#:!;

Even in the bloom of youth, she had been spindly and blotchy, one of the homeliest people I've ever met. She took great pride in this. She claimed selective advantage in being able to startle other creatures. I've mentioned that Mimi was short. She topped out at about four feet four. She was forever making a point of this, in her writing and in person. 'Small creatures tend to be scavengers,'she wtote, in the acknowledgements of her second book. The world looks different in the undergrowth than it does in the canopy. Small creatures hate to be beholden to large ones, but all of my friends' alas, seem to be giants. I have stolen from each of them.
She claimed to have 'stolen'the title of her second book,Tke Monte Cailo Game, from a citation in my third. But how that counts as theft from me, when I had stolen it already from Jacques Monod,e only a mind as scrupulously property aware as Mimi's could say. The full quote from Monod reads: 'The universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.'l I don't intend to rehash the controversy surrounding Erdmann's second book, controversy already too familiar to be useful again. Seven years had passed since Mimi's first study. She was not yet forty. The environmental movement had embraced her early work, to the point of suffocating it, and she was fleeing that embrace, even as she fled literature for a less compromised life science. Poetry made nothing happen, and to save herself from her admirers, she had to repudiate what she now thought of as the more sentimental aspects of her own first position. I knew before it existed that the second book would raise havoc. She wrote me often during its composition, sometimes with indiscreet, even brutal put-downs of what she called the 'owl worshippers':

They think that advocating on behalf of some gigantic, fluffy species exonerates them. If they knew for one instant the pressure their own mere existence puts on the rest of the cracking web, they would take their own lives.

Her writing in the book is only a shade more judicious. The central idea of The Monte Csilo Game grows out of the conclusion of her first book, but turns far darker. We invented nature. Everything that we mean by invoking the word natural must be understood as merely a social symbol with a long and changing history. She writes: When our stories yearn for
a vanished world, green and pleasant, they do suppressed, at the real look of the energy however of sheer terror, so out bazaar that truly surrounds and encloses us.

And elsewhere, she clarifies:


8. From Monetary Refurm Q92a), by the English economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). 9.

l.

French bioloeist (1910-1976). From Chanci and. Necessity (197 O),

3226 / RrcnaRo

PowEns

Any writer who invokes the environment or the non-human living *,oric motives . . . Any system that separates the natural from the human is already thinking anri-ecologically.

as a transcendental moral category does so out of very

tr-""

overnight. The environmentalists were on the run, and they wJre quick r: identiSr Mia Erdmann as a traitor to the cause. She defended herself in prini in a series of articles perhaps too subtle and combative.
Nature is not our zoo. we must get away from golly-green wide-eyed *-order. wonder is too easy a dodge, u -urri.." distraciion from the -.r.. p..saic question ofjust what toxins we are sending downstream. Maybe her critics are right, and Mimi suffered from a fatal perverse contrarianism. But that quality made her a useful writer. 'Life will survive all our theories of ecology,'she wrote in the May issue of Harper's in 1995. 'we carnot damage it. we will press it to the wall, and in its own time, it will come roaring back in spectacular speciation, like a forest after a fire.'That arricl* made her scores of enemies for life. But it also forced many to think abo,ur just what they meant by ecological thinking. with the passage of years. l-o,* Monte Caflo Gance has been attacked and defended in as many wuv, ."u* ", roro ers have needs. Ultimately, most ecocritics have conceded thai Erd'ma.r.r once again early in cautioning against mistaking the interdependence of c living things for a sentimental, universal affirmation.

of a congress that proved to be the most anti-environmental and or.' business legislative body in history. Decades of hard-fought enda.rge.ei species and environmental protection legislation were bling destror.*

The book came out at the worst possible moment, just before the electio-

will try every,thing at least once, not least of all perpetual cheating anr exploitation. The web of life does not mourn extinction. It rzses extinctior.
ing the spotted owl but about saving Homo sapiemi. sh" g."* fond of quc,iing John Maymard Keynes's 1930 article, 'Economic possibilities for o-.:: Grandchildren': 'with psalms and sweet music the heavens'l be ringing,, B:,r I shall have nothing to do with the singing.' Mimi and I didn't write each other often, and with the advent of email. m,e wrote even less. Something in the new medium felt too close for comfort. \{,nr
we didupclose, at the scale of grittypunctuation. when we did write, we arguerc a lot, challenged each other, and basically indulged various craclpot ideas abn,rr

Nature has no philosophy. It makes no judgements and writes no bool-s only we do that. we cannot look to nature foia moral foundation, for narrm

Her short pieces increasingly suggested that being green was not about sat-

two liked each other better in the abstract, at the level of ornate sentences.

thaun

literature's relationship to ecology that were not yet ready for the flee ma*e. I wasn't sure I understood the direction that her thinking was taking hel sometimes she sounded almost spencerian, like some horrific sterile hvbrid :r E. o. wilson and Richard Dawkins, or like a molecular-biorogieal A1n Rand- orist (1905,-1982), chanpim,of personar freedoms. Herbert Spmcer. (1820-1903). English phrtosopher nored lor his artempr to uni! all

2. Russian-bornAmerican novelist

and social

the-

knowledge-

Edwarddsbornewir"r"tu.

on the _basis of a single pm.o*

mologist and biologist. Richard Daw[ns rb. . :_ English zoologist.

iqzsi,;;"ricars'

Tnr SsvrNrn Evenr I

3227

with the indomitable Human Will replaced by nucleotides, a story where everything that life cobbles up or stumbles upon is Right, I tried dravving her
out; citing thernost predatory of her critics and asking her what kind of retaliation she was working on. She claimed that she had graduated from retaliation, that she was nos'e,rploring the possibilities of commensalism, or even mutualism. I asked if that meant she might be working on a book on s)rynbiosis-say, about literature and networked cooperation. 'I'm not working on anlthing,'she wrote. 'I'm just listening.' Tkree
We are relnodelling tke Alhawbra utith a steam-shovel, and. tve are proud of our yardage.

_Leopold3

Over the next few years, she wrote almost nothing about literature, When her name appeared anywhere, it was on nothing longer than reviews, thorny struggles with bools on the ecology movement that themselves had no patience for narrative fiction. Her earlier attempts to understand theAmerican Eden and the American Frontier-her great acts of slnthesis running from Jonathan Edwards to Jonathan Franzena-died away, replaced by terse social critiques and brute science. In these pieces, she moves away from the theoretical high ground of The Monte Carlo Game towards a simpler, statistical desperation. The evidence pops up in quotes scattered here and there through subtler arguments:

The six hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 1991 . . . The fossil-based phase of civilization is ending. The race has perhaps fifteen years to prepare for what happens next. Already, we consume twenty per cent more natural resources than the earth can produce, and the figure is rising steeply . . . Humans are quick at all things, and we are driving the seventh mass extinction three orders of magnitude faster than the natural background extinction rate. Ifpresent trends continue, one half of all species of life on earth will be gone in one hundred years . . . I learned of Mimi's illness from the Literature and Life Science LISTSERV5 How anyone on the LISTSERV found out, I don't know. She'd been ill for over a year without a mention anlnvhere. Contrary to popular knowledge, she did not have ALS, but a related motor neuron disease called Sandon's disease.6 Like ALS, Sandon's is a rapidly progressing degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. Like ALS, it is invariably fatal, usually running its course in three to five years. The National Institute of Health fact sheet says: 'The cause(s) of most MNDsT are not known, but environmental, toxic, viral, or genetic factors may be implicated.'
3. From A Sand Cwnty Almmc (1949), by the
American environmental

(1887-1948).'Alhambra":palaceofMoorishkings

witer Aldo Leopold

Diagrcsis and Therapy, The Mayo Clinic Famill'


Heahhbooh", or The American Medical Associatim Family Guide. "ALS": Amyorophic lateral sclero-

of Medical lnfomation, The Merck Manual of

near Granada in Spain, built in the l3th century 4. Respectively, the Anerican theological witer (1703-1758) and theAmerican novelist (b. 1959). 5. Electronic mailinglist. 6. No such disease is listed in The Merck Manual

sis, also knorm as Lou Gehrig's Disease for the American baseball player (1901-1941) who died from it, a degenerative muscular disease.

7. Motor neuron diseases. "National Institute of


Health": U.S. government institute responsible for medical research.

3228 / RrcnaRo PowrRs


I called her the afternoon I found out. Mimi was furious..'You go twentr years without telephoning, only to call because I have some disease?'She accused me of ambulance chasing. 'What is it about people? What's so damn exciting about talking to a sick person?'After a while, she calmed down, fascinated by how different my voice sounded, after all that time. 'Are you sure it's really you?'As proof, I reminded her of the International School Bangkok talent show, her chirpy rendition of 'Getting to KnowYou', delivered in blacli Vietcong pyjamas. 'Sadistic and flctitious,'she declared. 'It must be you.' Before too long we were talking again, as if we had just come out of freshmen chemistry lab. She was remarkably animated. 'I wanted to askyour opinion on something. A question I've been turning over a lot, lately. Why is it thar
ecosystems produce rich networks, while markets-including literary markets-tend to produce monocultures?'I had no answer, but she talked to me anyway. Over the next several months, as she lost control of her fingers, ue

used the phone more often. She went into a nursing home. 'It's like tirne travel,'she told me. Jumping into your own future. How often do you get to gaze upon your eighties, while you're still in your forties? Useful, realls Senescence is wasted on the old.' She got so she couldn't handle a phone, and she refused to wear a handsfree headset on principle. I went on writing her letters, but I don't know whar
she made of them.
Ttno
We are not

unifud.

I used a book tour with readings in San Francisco and Berkeley as an excusd to visit her. I don't know what I was expecting, but I failed to hide my shocl when I walked into her nursing-home room. Something like a capuchin mon. key was sitting up in the private bed, just waiting for the organ grinder uu strike up a tune. For her part, Mimi didn't seem to recognize me at all. It tooL me a moment to realize that she was suffering from the Sandon's 'mask'-*rc inability to move her facial muscles in anything like an expression. Bizarre pitched sounds came out of her, and it took me two phrases to recognize the song: Getting to hnow you. Getting to know all about you. I sat down at her bedside. Flustered, I said the only thing I could thinh of 'How are you going?' 'Going,' she responded, in a thick, deliberate voice. 'A fair amount of dread on this end, I keep telling myself that it's just the serotonine levels, but nnn Self keeps insisting, "No, girlie, it's dread.' " She didn't want to talk about he5 illness. 'Tedious,'she dismissed. 'It's not in the chest walls yet. Lungs and oesophagus still work. That's all that matters.' I spent the day with her. An eternity; an eye-blink. She wanted to rnlliL. about anything in the world, so long as it wasn't about anything concrete. 'It:$ all we're good for anyway, isn't it?'she claimed. 'Tiading abstractions. Talk and
8. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Geman
poet.

blood platelets. and brain.

9. Chemical found in the gastrointestinal ea$,

Tue Srvnrvrn Evrrur

3229

more talk.'She spent most of the afternoon taking issue with evervone. Peter Ward'sr belief that humans were immune to extinction struck her as quaint and beside the point. 'Do you know that ninety-nine per cent of erery species that ever existed is extinct?'2 I said that seemed almost hopeful. 'Annihilates every possible position,' Mimi said. To David Abram's3 assertion that political and economic institutions not aligned with earthly realities are not likely to last, she countered, '\A,'hat do you suppose he means by "last"? That's the final question, isn't it? \\lat should we care for? On what time frame? Who's "us"? How much, atlast, can we hope to connect with?' Her voice was faint and uninflected. I couldn't always understand or follow her. But then, that was nothing new. She was out ahead of me again, ahead of everyone, lying frozen in her bed, looking out on a future of superbugs and extremophiles, bacteria that wouldn't even be starting over again, after big life was gone, but just continuing. 'I'm struggling with consciousness,'she said, then laughed at the slippage, the treachery of words. 'Well, not vnth consciousrless, but with the idea of it. I just don't see the survival value. It seems to me revenue-negative. As far as

can see, what Einsteina called the 'optical delusion of consciousness'is

exactly what has pulled this whole game apart. Slows you down and leaves you permanently exiled. The so-called integrated self is exactly the thing that made us torch the place. If only we could grokt what the neuroscientists are telling us.'She banged her skull hard against the hospital bed headboard. 'A billion years of inherited apparatus, all those earlier species, still inside, still up there. A whole reef of neural modules, all updating each other, changed by everything we look at, and little bits of self scraping off on everything we brush up against. And we want to simpli$' all tkis into character? Personality? Self-realization?' She let me feed her, and she laughed at how pathetic I was. 'Not much practice at this, huh?'After lunch, she said, 'Want to go for a walk?'I practically had my coat on before I remembered. She laughed at me again, although not without s)rynpathy. 'I mean the other kind of walk. You know what I want to write? A book made up entirely of quotes. Or, you know: quotes inexactly copied.'

'Botched replication?' I suggested.


Yeah, what 7oz said. Actually,l arnv,rnting something. Have been, for a few months now.'She saw my reflex glance at her stiff body. 'In my head, dimwit.' I offered to find her someone to take dictation, but she didn't seem to hear. 'The hardest part is getting away from uonder, damn it. Not easy, in my present condition. At the same time, I hate the idea of being thrown back on activism. It seems so belated and lame, at the end of the day. But if I could get just one more volume out? I think it would have to be down and dirtv

. Professor of geological sciences and zoology (b. 1949) and curator ofpaleontolog;r at the University of Washinston in Seattle.
I

environment" and modes of perception.

(2001). 3. American ecologist, anthropologist, and philosopher (b. 1957) whose work emphasizes magic and the connection between human ercerience in the

2. Accordlng to Ward's Future of Etolution

4. Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-bom American physicist. 5. Science fiction slang for empathize, from t}e novel Stranger in a Strange Land. (1961\, b.v tk American science fiction witer RobertA. Heinkin
(

1907-1988).

3230 / RrcneRo Powsns


Environmental Justice Movement5 stuff. No literature; just law. Who shouk get sued for poisoning whom. No theory no threatened biosphere. nc microbes; just the downwind people versus the upwind people. It would dc nothing to slow the real catastrophe, of course. But we'd be able to disappean

with

a clean conscience about something.'

I asked her why not keep to the bigger story if it's about to erase all others She sighed, a little disgusted. 'Because humans can't follow a bigger ston They don't want to read anything larger than autobiography. At least Enrironmental Justice squeezes the story down into a shape some people migh recognize. I know, I know: it's tedious and formulaic. Hardly art.' All art was a formula, I said. I told her I was sure she could make jusricr interesting. She studied me, gauging whether I was ready for the truth. \\& were thirteen, all over again. 'I'm not sure you know what irateresting is, That + the problem with you, as a novelist. Man, you are sitting with your ass in tlr tropical rainforest ofprofessions. Everything there is, and look at everythinc that you haven't done with it. You should be writing deranged stuff, completely decoupled stuff. Anti-human. Non-bipedal. Fiction that could sa\ u$ all from rationality. Fiction that knows what real life looks like. Yours is the one line of work where a person gets to create species from scratch. Make t, up, damn it. Anything! Want to know the best thing you ever wrote? Thac ghost story in book five." I knew at once which ghost story she meant. Two men, llng in an old ho*pital, a heart patient and a quadriplegic. The heart patient, through seniorrity, has the bed by the windoq while the quadriplegic lies out of the line d sight. But the heart patient entertains the quadriplegic all day long with tale$ of life outside the window. Incredible stuff, a constant circus of activig. T.mdrils, trees, and vines in full flower. The teardrop pendant mosques of orio,le nests. Gravity-deffingwebbed mammals. Colonies ofJune bugs so thickther flowed like lava. Mass migrations blacking out the sky. The quadripleglu grows so envious of the view that, one night, when the heart patient su$es; an attack and reaches for the medicine on the bedside table between them" the quadriplegic, through an impossible effort of will, rises up and knocks thr vial to the floor. When they remove the dead heart patient the next da1'amfr
promote the quadriplegic to the window bed, he can barely contain his excir*. ment as he turns to see the view for himself for the first time. But when hc sees the window, the view that greets him there is a solid, grey wall. 'I love that one,'she said. 'Now that'sliterature,' 'But that one wasn't mine,'I objected. 'I got it from some 1930s storr omnibus that belonged to my father.' Would you listen to this guy? He wants it to be made up, and originall Od course it wasn't yours. A botched quote, stolen since Gilgamesh.s That's rrfi,m makes it great.' She insisted on watching the evening news. I'm not sure what was still m it for her, but she made me turn on the set, high on the opposite wall. \fo,* stopped talking and watched the night's installment-insurgency and occu-pation, suicide bombers and nuclear material proliferating thrqugh the spcm
6. A holistic effort to analwe and overcome
environmental
1980s.

powerstructuresthathave'traditionallyinhibited

the

refom, active since the early

7. Of Powers'snovelGalateaz.2(1995\. 8. LegendaryBabylonianking,herooftheeprcdi
the same name (c. 200 n.c.e.).

THB SrvENrn Evsr,rr

3231

black market. I couldn't tell what the images were doing to her. All I could see was the Sandon's mask. Pictures came onr from Mars. The two rovers, Spirit and Opportunitv. Surreal'landscapes, red and spectacular and void. A sound came from her bed: more words. 'Maybe that's why life needed consciousness. To make it to Nlars and see how the place was covered in water once. Now just pretty rock.' It was getting late. I fed her again, dinner. Then I had to go. I didn't lnorr how to say goodbye. 'See you in the lab?' She looked at me with that stiff face. 'Make me up?' she begged. 'Some demented story? One where I get to make something come alive?' I promised her I would. One
When we try n pick out anythinglry itself, thing else in the

Universe.

we

find it hitched to erery-

_Muire

When the Sandon's disease reached Mia Erdmann's chest wall, she went on a respirator. And when she'd had all the thoughts she cared to have, she weht off. Awareness-narrative imagination-is just the latest reckless experiment set loose by faulty transcription. Who knows what survival benefits it has? Natural selection may snuff it out tomorrow. The flaw of narrative imagination, in its current form, is that we can only feel the big in terms of the little. We have written the end of our current story but we cannot read it yet. I cannot begin to grasp the end of big animals, or even the mere extinction of humans. But I could invent Mia Erdmann, and make her up, and so almost
grasp her end.r Her estate executors sent me two pages. I don't know when she composed them. She must have dictated them to someone. The first page read: 'The new book or six things I think I think.'It consisted of a simple list.

l. Muir: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to every'thing else in the Universe. 2. Rilke: We are not unified. 3. Leopold: We are remodelling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and we are proud of our yardage. 4. Keynes: In the long run, we are all dead. 5. Pavese: Every luxury must be paid for, and eve4'thing is a luxury starting with the world. 6. Haldane: The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.
The second page was a letter, with no signature. It read:
Hey, Powers. I have a new story for you. Okay, it's not new. Just a little botched self-replication, variation on a theme. Thanks for taking me out
9.. From My Firt Sumer in the Siena (19 | l) , by the Scottish-bom American naturalist witer and erplorer John Muir ( I 838-1914). l. For reprinting in this anthology, the author
asked that this line be changed to its present

from that originally published, whici s.6 -Bm I could make Mij Erdman, and alnost gnsp he
end."

fm

"[

for a spin. Don't say I never paid you back. Ready? There are three prcople in the room: the heart patient, the quadriplegic, and a stroke vic^tirn. And when the quadriplegic gets promoted to ihu -i.tduw bed, and turnc to see that solid grey wall, and the truth of what he's done crushes hinhe stops, composes himself, swallows his murder, and teils the stroke rictiml 'You won't believe what's out there. you simply won't believe what I can see,'
2005