Trains, Brains, and Computers

When I teach my speculative fiction class (there’s a section this weekend, by the way!), I like to talk to the students about the most popular varieties of speculative poetry. A lot of speculative poetry is narrative, or works with imagery from mythology and folk tales.

One of my favorite varieties is poetry that uses science as a metaphor for understanding the human condition. Using sciencey science–the kind we teach in the classroom–may be relatively recent in the scope of human history, but as far as I can tell, people have used elements of the natural world to describe their inner lives as far back as we can track.

Concrete descriptions of the external world provide a way of translating ineffable internal states into concrete, shared experiences. I may not be able to point to the sensation of happiness, but I can point to grass–or photosynthesis–as something that exists outside myself in the world we share.

As our understanding of the world grows to incorporate more science and technology, our metaphors grow to include them. The static human behavior of looking outside to understand ourselves combines with an evolving society to give us reference points that shift over time and cultures. I love the throughlines like this we can see through human history, the ways in which we stay the same and also become different.

Here’s a cool example–apparently when we’re trying to talk about the human brain (at least in Western culture over the past couple of centuries), we tend to analogize it to cutting edge new technology.

Right now, computers are a dominant metaphor. We might talk about broad anatomical restraints as being similar to hardware, while software installation represents training that occurs within the anatomical structure. We run various programs to accomplish various tasks–our email helps us communicate, our search functions help us shuffle through data recorded in our memory banks, etc.

Before computers, there were other ascendant technologies, such as trains. Instead of comparing mental functions to hardware and software, they’re described as engine parts, or infrastructure. The things that keep trains on track become metaphors for the things that keep the human brain ticking.

In some ways, these are useful, clarifying metaphors. In other ways, they elide the plasticity of the brain. To risk extending the computer metaphor in the wrong direction, our software changes our hardware and vice versa. If we think of ourselves too strictly as machines, we risk ignoring the many other ways in which humans are not predictable systems of inputs leading to outputs. Like all metaphors, brain-as-technology rides a line between clarifying and confusing.

Science fiction wrestles with how to figure out the universe and our place in it. Poetry allows writers to focus on metaphors and internal states. Science fiction poetry can get straight to the point and ask, “What can we learn about ourselves from the world around us?”

Here’s a poem I wrote using the moon as a metaphor:

Moon, part II

White,
like the blankness
of a page.

Distant,
like friends
I’ve lost,

Like time
that’s passed,

Like youth
whose optimism winnowed
into the finite.

Alone,
against the stars
with no one to call,
no man, no lady, no rabbit,

only the footprints of men
who won’t return.

You can register for the class here: www.kittywumpus.net/blog/speculative-poetry-with-rachel-swirsky/

This entry posted in brains, Essays, metaphior, Poetry, Rachel Swirsky's poetry, science, SFF, Verses of Sky & Stars, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 

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