Aesop’s Animals: Truth, Science, and Fable with Jo Wimpenny

What scientific truths lie behind the millennia-old collection of moral tales we know as Aesop’s Fables? Do the stories tell us something about real-life animal behaviour? How do our myths and metaphors match up to the realities of the natural world?

Zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny‘s new book Aesop’s Animals explores all of these questions, linking ancient stories to the latest research into animal behaviour, and challenging our assumptions about the animal kingdom.

Jo and I spoke on the eve of the book’s launch.

We might think we know what Aesop’s Fables are, but was there even really a historical Aesop? What do we mean when we talk about “Aesop’s Fables”?

An exact answer isn’t possible: Aesop’s Fables stretch back to something like two thousand five hundred years ago, which we know because certain ancient scholars of the time mentioned the fables in their writing. Those scholars certainly thought there was an Aesop, though it’s a disputed point; a lot of modern historians point to inaccuracies in descriptions of him, which suggest there may not have been a single author who bore that name. Today there are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but some of these may have been created later, building on the existing tales.

The standard view is that Aesop was a slave, who might have been Greek, Turkish or Ethiopian, who created little moral fables, moral messages. They weren’t about animal behaviour, and they weren’t based on science, because science as we know it didn’t exist at that point. They used animal and mythological characters to communicate moral teachings.

The story goes that Aesop won his freedom by being a master storyteller – that he used his wit and intelligence to entertain and educate people, impressing those in power into granting him his freedom.

The basis for my book is less about whether Aesop was a real person, and more about this very real collection of stories which verifiably does date back to the ancient world.

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“Why would you write it if you’ve already solved it?”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 3

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part and second part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about loss, change, her goals as a writer, and the histories of secret writing in her own family.

M: The book is so steeped in grief, and it’s a theme we see elsewhere in your writing; the play Phantasmagoria has this question, for example, “Do the dead truly leave us?”

How did grief come to the forefront in this particular novel?

C: Don’t you think that ageing is a kind of grief? We betray our younger selves, our ideas of who we were or what we wanted, as we move on in time. I’ve lost some dear people who are close to me, people who died suddenly and young, so I have a little more of that shock of grief than some — but I think that in any kind of long-term relationship, what people don’t tell you about marriage is that there is a slow betrayal of whoever you were on your wedding day. I think that if there’s not, you’re doing it wrong! 

You need to become another person when you make this commitment, and you’re very lucky if you can change alongside your partner in a way that you get to rediscover one another. I don’t really know how we manage to promise anyone else anything, except to be clear, and true, and kind.

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“Leap, and the net will appear”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 2

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about her practice as a writer and its connection to her experience as a person who stutters, and reflects on questions of point-of-view, identity, and appropriation raised by The Seep.

M: I was reading about your play Leap and the Net Will Appear. You talk about the play coming to you after a silent retreat. I wondered about what the balance between writing-as-inspiration and writing-as-carpentry was for you?

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“A wonderful way to tell yourself a story” – Interview with Chana Porter, Part 1

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

Trina Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, is the book’s protagonist. An artist who retrains as a doctor after the invasion, she cherishes “the casual overthrow of everything that had felt codified but broken for so long“ — until her partner Deeba decides to use the Seep’s power to be reborn as a baby, moving on to a new life. The book follows Trina along her spiral of grief as she begins a strange quest in a transformed world.

Our conversation touched not just on the novel, but also Porter’s plays and her work as an education activist. She is a founder of the Octavia Project which brings together young women and trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary teens to create speculative fictions offering “new futures and greater possibilities for our world”, blending creative writing, art, science, and technology.

Part 1 of the interview is below, or you can read the whole thing right now as a PDF transcript.

I began by asking Chana about her first glimpse of the idea that became The Seep.

C: There’s a secret book that probably no-one will ever see, written from the point of view of a teenager in my hometown. 

I was really intrigued by this concept of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style alien takeover, without it being a cut-and-dried thing of “This is good, this is bad.” This is also the feeling I have when I watch the 1978 Body Snatchers movie; it feels so brutal because we don’t really understand what these beings are feeling or what they care about, but the more that we understand as a scientific community about how trees communicate with each other, and protist communications, the more we question: what is alive? What is a life? What is social? What is a community?

When you use the lens of a horror film to reflect on these issues, when you consider the destruction we have wrought on the planet, it prompts you to ask: what if it’s not bad? 

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Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

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Travel to the other side of life

“We’ve been holed up in the apartment for a few weeks now.” In April last year, we’d just eased into our first lockdown, barely beginning to bite.

Normally, hiking would be the escape. Hills, cliffs, mountains, woods. A few trees in the nearby city park had to be enough. Within it, there’s just one spot where the branches meet enough to interrupt the sun, dappling the dirt where dogs dig, and shit, and scramble, and prevent the grass from ever growing over.

So the first attempt to get away was a landscape by proxy: reading, and writing about, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a strange, nervy Thirties thriller whose hero is pursued across pre-war Europe to a bolthole in the Dorset countryside.

Almost a year on and those well-written hills don’t offer the same respite, yet getting to real ones remains out of the question.

Over months, we have folded ourselves into new configurations, adapting to circumstances; lost ourselves in work, music, cookery, calls with friends, new books, old books, a little TV but perhaps not as much as everyone might expect. Movies, though, certainly; always.

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It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 3: A jaunt outside the fantastic

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets,is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe.

In the first and second instalments of our conversation, Nate talked about world-building, map-making, piracy, capitalism, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys”, writing for a licensed franchise.

In today’s final part, Nate talks about the seductions of fantasy, escaping a career in financial journalism, and finding satisfaction in more mundane genres.

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Are there any fictional worlds which have seduced you, until you found something dark about them which you had to question or critique?

Loads – but the easiest answer to this is Tolkien. If anyone so much as says, “Orcs are a bit racist, aren’t they?” – Tolkien’s orcs being black-skinned generic enemies – then people swarm from all over social media to defend him. Now, it’s not like Tolkien invented this. Soldiers in the Iliad are described just as Tolkien describes orcs; they’re dehumanized so they can be slaughtered. 

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Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 2: “Theft, but wet” and other people’s toys

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe.

In the first part of our conversation, Nate and I talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction. In today’s instalment, we talk about piracy, capitalism, empire, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys” in franchises such as Warhammer 40k.

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