On the publication of “Remote sensing” by the magazine Occulto

Some remarks given on May 31, in Berlin, on the presentation of the newest edition of Occulto…

My name is Russ Hodge, and I’m honored that Occulto is publishing my short story “Remote Sensing” in the new issue. I believe this is the first time the magazine has published a short piece of fiction, and I hope it won’t do any permanent damage.

Originally I had hoped the story would come up here on stage with me. I would just introduce it and step back and let it speak for itself. But at the last minute it got cold feet. “You go ahead,” it said, “I’ll just wait here at the bar.” A lot of stories are shy in public, and the authors are to blame. Some writers bring their stories on stage and undress them, right there in front of everyone. As if stories don’t have feelings. Well, they can experience humiliation like anybody else. They can also be quite passionate. Check into a hotel room with a story sometime, order some champagne, light some candles, and you’ll see what I mean.

Stories shouldn’t need much introduction because they are small, complete worlds, self-contained and self-sufficient, like a universe within a snow globe. Inside a story, the normal rules of logic and even the laws of physics don’t necessarily apply. You wouldn’t want this strange reality to leak out into the real world. Suppose, for instance, you put some antimatter into a story. If it escaped it could cause what physicists call a naked singularity. I don’t know what that means, or why it’s naked, but I do know that a naked singularity could cause the end of the world, which one should avoid whenever possible.

This story is probably safe. There are no genetically modified organisms that might escape and destroy the world. There is a small amount of radioactive material, but it is handled with extreme care.

The topic is the relationship between a young man and his grandfather, during the last few months of his grandfather’s life. The story ends before anyone actually dies, which avoids a lot of medical terminology, gruesome details about the autopsy, or all the ways lawyers earn money on a fresh corpse. Some authors write on and on about these things, but that’s not my style. I killed a character one time and it made some of my friends so mad that they stopped talking to me.

That happened in another story, which was about a man who got bitten by two snakes. The first bite occurred immediately before the story began and the second came right at the end. Basically, by the first sentence, the guy was already dying. I did my best to save him, and he put in some effort himself, but it was no use.

Neither of us saw the second snake, hiding under a rock on the last page. Suddenly it was just there, and it scared the hell out of both of us. Now I’m a great believer in the craft of writing, and I know people who plan a story down to every detail. I’m not like that. Hemingway said, “If in a story there’s a gun hanging over the fireplace, it had better go off.” But you have to plan these things. Somebody grabs the gun and tries to shoot it, only to discover that the author forgot to buy any bullets.

But a lot of the process of writing is still a mystery to me. I start with a character, and a first sentence, and they seem to take over from there. Just about anything can happen. Like that second snake. Suddenly there it was, and it seemed inevitable. The same thing happened with this story: the final sentence appeared out of nowhere, through a process that I don’t understand. But you know it is exactly the right ending.

Well, my friends didn’t agree about the snake. The story was only about 10 pages long, but that was enough for them to develop a deep emotional attachment to this character. I tried to tell them that he was purely a fictional construct, and that he didn’t really exist. They would have nothing of it. You’d think I’d murdered a family member. A family member they got along with.

“You can’t kill him,” they said. “You’ve got to change the ending!” I apologized, but told them the matter was out of my hands. “It’s a story about a guy who gets bitten by two snakes,” I said. “That’s just how it is.”

This incident taught me an important lesson. Now I try not to kill anyone in a story unless it’s absolutely necessary. I also try to follow this principle in my daily life. Going around murdering people just for the entertainment value of it can cause all kinds of complications.

Well, I promise you there are no snakes in this story in Occulto at all. Which is really a bit odd, considering that the story is set in my home state of Kansas. I can tell you first-hand that we have plenty of dangerous snakes. Copperheads, rattlesnakes, water moccasins. The copperheads like leafy spots in the shade, rattlesnakes lie on rocks in the sun, and water moccasins hang out in the lakes and rivers. Basically, you’re not safe anywhere. All right, you could hide in your mailbox. You won’t find any snakes there, because the mailboxes are already occupied. By black widow spiders.

I never considered myself a “regional” writer until I moved to Europe and lived here for about 20 years. One morning I woke up and found all my stories moving back to Kansas. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Or some sort of neurodegenerative disease that is wiping out my short-term memory. Maybe I’ll wake up someday and believe that it’s 1966 and I’m in the second grade.

What I really think is that I’m experiencing a universal law of physics, or an old folk saying – it’s one of those two, I can’t remember which: You never fully appreciate something until it’s lost. That’s certainly true of our health, and of many more things. For example, your car keys. And life itself. The only people who can totally enjoy life are dead people. And the rule also applies to your mother-in-law. You never really appreciate her absence until she comes for a visit.

So maybe I should say a few words about Kansas. This is totally unnecessary in understanding the story, but I don’t know what else to talk about.

Kansas occupies the exact geographical center of the continental United States. On the maps they show us in grade school, the US is at the center of the world. This is somewhat inconvenient for the Russians, whose country is split in half, and to get from East Moscow to West Moscow you have to travel across the whole world, but we paid for the map.

In cosmological terms, astronomers tell us that all the galaxies in the sky are flying away from us at tremendous speeds. Put all this information together and you discover that Kansas lies at the navel of the universe.

People are proud of this location but we don’t make a big deal out of it. You have to remember we didn’t choose to live there. A long time ago when the government drew Kansas on a map, that’s where they stuck us. We would have preferred to be closer to one ocean or the other, but nobody asked. Somebody has to live at the center of the universe, and it just happens to be us. Anyway, we have lots of other things to be proud of. Right at the moment I can’t think of any, but ask me again in a couple of weeks. I’ll do some research.

This location is why so many aliens visit Kansas: imagine you’re traveling from one end of the universe to the other, at warp speeds; at some point you need a pit stop. We’re conveniently and centrally located. We have clean bathrooms, good coffee, and really good steaks. About a quarter of Kansans claim to have been abducted by aliens. The aliens don’t intend us any harm. They take you for a few hours, and subject you to strange experiments, hoping to find a steak in you somewhere. When the experiments show that you aren’t a cow, they let you go again.

Some facts about Kansas: the state flower is the sunflower, the state bird the Meadowlark, and our state song is “Home on the Range.” We learn it in the first grade, and it goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play…

When they teach us this song you think, this doesn’t sound like the Kansas I know. Sure, we have a lot of deer. If you live in the outer suburbs they come right into your yard. In deer season, you can hunt them right from the back porch. But you have to be careful. It’s easy to mistake your neighbors’ lawn ornaments for a deer, and people are awfully sensitive about having their lawn ornaments shot to pieces. In deer season it is not unusual to see garden gnomes, plaster statues of the Virgin Mary, and bird feeders outfitted in fluorescent orange hunting jackets.

But there are strange things about this song. Where the deer and the antelope play. Now we know that the plural form of deer is deer. Nobody, even in Kansas, puts an –s on deer. But the antelope… We’re not so sure about that one. “Antelopes” sounds fine to me. So in the song, they’re either talking about one specific deer and one specific antelope, or a bunch of deer and that one particular antelope.

Try as I might, I have never seen that animal. And I’ve looked for it, believe me. Every time I’ve driven through my state, I have kept a sharp eye out. But I’ve never seen the antelope.

And where are the buffalo that are supposedly roaming around all over the place? Your teacher says, “We killed them all.” Doesn’t seem like nice behavior towards an animal featured right there in the first line of your state song, but there you have it.

And the song neglects other prominent species in our state. Right now, for example, Kansas is up to its neck in llamas. Everywhere you go these days, somebody’s started a llama farm. I don’t think you can milk one, and their eggs are inedible, but a llama must be good for something. Whatever it is, we should consider changing the state song. For example,

Oh give me a home where the buffalo used to roam
And the deer and the camelids play…

The song goes on to say,

…Where seldom is heard
a discouraging word
and the skies are not cloudy all day.

Here, we’re talking outright lies. I’ve heard a lot of discouraging words in my time – a lot, it is true, from foreigners from places like Paris, and Nebraska, but every once in a while a native will rip you with a criticism. And we do have clouds. There is the tall and majestic variety, which look like clipper ships, or six-packs of beer, or Snoopy on his Sopwith Camel, and other times they’re low and grey, hiding tornadoes and hail and all sorts of other unpleasantness.

Or perhaps I’ve misinterpreted this line. Maybe the song intends to say, “The skies are not cloudy all day long.” In other words: “Okay, we have clouds, but they never stay in the sky all day long, because eventually the wind pushes them into Missouri.” In any case, you have to admit, the original is either a lie or is misleadingly ambiguous.

The state motto is Ad astra per aspera, which is Latin, which is interesting considering that the number of Latin speakers in Kansas is approximately the same as the number of ancient Romans. If you say it really fast, with a Kansas twang, it sounds like “a disaster for aspirin,” but you can run it through Google Translate. Our motto means, “To the stars with difficulty.”

They got that right. It’s difficult for anybody to get to the stars, but it’s a special challenge in Kansas. We don’t have any mountains. If you climb a mountain the stars are still far away, but they’re just a little bit closer. States with mountains have an unfair advantage when it comes to going to the stars.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

2 thoughts on “On the publication of “Remote sensing” by the magazine Occulto”

  1. Hey Russ, a mutual friend (Tiaguh) gave me your name as someone that could help with information about science writing (what I also do) in Berlin. Sorry to have to try and contact you this way but your institute never replied back to me. My email is articsnowfox@gmail.com if you are able to and want to get in contact. Any advice with science writing would be very much appreciated. Take care, Mel

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