Spoiler alert. Not many, but there are some spoiler elements in this episode. If you’re going to read “Superluminal” and “Dreamsnake,” written by Vonda N. McIntyre, and want to avoid spoilers, do not listen to this episode.
Yes, dear fellow absorbers. We’re going to talk about love. We need to talk about love, because it’s gonna be Halloween soon, and what better occasion to talk about love than when we’re remembering the dead? Death and love go hand-in-hand. I believe if we had been immortals, the concept of love would have been an extremely weak one. Perhaps we might have treated love as something as frivolous as pompoms. Because, in that which is fleeting, there is tragedy. And if there is no tragedy, or at least the possibility of tragedy, there is no love.
But, my kind of love aside, let’s see what Vonda N. McIntyre has to say about love. Both “Superluminal” and “Dreamsnake” are science fiction books. Science fiction isn’t usually the genre that people associate with love, which, in my opinion, is intensely odd. I think science fiction is the genre where various more practical scenarios of speculative love can be dealt with, especially because technology in our real world is shifting so quickly, and what is depicted in science fiction might very well become a reality in ten years. Science fiction, in that regard, is different from fantasy—although, if you subscribe to the Clarktech line of philosophy… can I call that philosophy? If you believe that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” then fantasy material could be considered a broader realm of science fiction. Eventually, fantasy, just like science fiction, might count as reality. Meaning, in a way, science fiction stories are the closer future scenarios, but fantasy stories don’t exist on a separate spectrum; they’re just the future scenarios that are farther away.
That said, “Superluminal.” “Dreamsnake.” Both have romantic elements in them, but love isn’t the main plot and hence it’s science fiction and not category romance. In fact, these books aren’t romantic science fiction either. Romance is in the background—which was actually why it stood out, in both books.
Another reason the romance stood out in these two books is that they don’t just deal with any random love, they specifically deal with love at first sight, although nobody in the books calls it that. On top of that, it was love at first sight of an even more specific kind, which made me wonder about this episode’s theme: Love at first sight isn’t as first as it might appear at first sight.
Now, I am going to introduce four people, two from each of these two books. To be more specific, I’m gonna introduce two couples.
In “Dreamsnake,” the protagonist’s name is Snake. She is named thusly because, in this post-apocalyptic, somewhat dystopian world, she uses snakes to heal people, and the name Snake is given to a remarkably skilled healer. Her romantic interest is named Arevin. He is a member of a nomadic clan. It seems that his people don’t believe in our modern concept of a job. His people travel with the seasons, from the desert to the pastures, with their animals.
Now, the other book. In “Superluminal,” the story unfolds in a world where inter-dimensional travel is possible. In this story, the protagonist is slightly less clear. In fact, the blurb states this. Quote, “Two women and a man are caught up in a mystery, and now they are changing every world they travel in, and every life they touch.” End quote. It almost sounds like a love triangle story, but it is not. The reason I guess they chose to mention two women and a man in the blurb is that this is, again, not a romance story, it’s just a story with romantic elements. And thus, the way these three people are tied to each other isn’t solely a romantic way.
But, despite this tricky situation, I would still say that the protagonist of Superluminal is Laenae. And I have no idea how to say this name. It is spelled L-A-E-N-A-E. I’m just gonna say Laenae. She is a pilot. She is the one who travels inter-dimensionally on a ship while being awake. All the crew members sleep during the trip, but she is awake. And in order to be able to do that, she, at the very beginning of the story, got surgery to replace her heart with a mechanical pump. This, the story says, is necessary for long-distance space flight.
And, Laenae’s love interest in “Superluminal” is Radu. He comes from a different planet, one of the faraway planets. He also travels inter-dimensionally, but not as a pilot. He works as a crew member.
So, we have Snake and Arevin from “Dreamsnake.” Then we have Laenae and Radu from “Superluminal.” These couples, respectively, fall in love at first sight.
And it’s quite subtle in the book. In the case of “Dreamsnake,” you don’t know if Snake and Arevin will ever see each other again after the first encounter. And in the case of “Superluminal,” they’re so instantly attracted to each other and go straight to the bedroom, I wondered if they’ll part ways just as quickly as they got together.
But nope. Not so. In both cases, they were each other’s endgame. Which is such a dramatic word, really. Endgame, per Merriam-Webster, is defined as, quote, “the stage of a chess game after major reduction of forces,” end quote. But this word is used so frequently when referring to love interests in fiction that Urban Dictionary lists it as, quote, “Pertaining to a couple you ship on a TV show that you hope ends the series together.” Basically, if the couple is meant for each other—it’s destiny, there is no other love, they’ll live and die together—then they’re endgame. Dun-dun-dun. The drama. See? There is always tragedy and death in any kind of love definition with any sort of gravity. You can only be endgame if you go to the end. Basically, if you’re not gonna break up unless one of you dies, and even then, you’ll be each other’s one and only, that’s endgame. And that dying part is, I think, almost more important than living together.
Anyway. Snake and Arevin, and Laenae and Radu, respectively fall in love at first sight, and they also seem to be endgames for each other. You might be wondering, how the hell was that not the center of focus in a science fiction story? Because, love like that in science fiction is rare. I’ve read some really sterile, really cerebral, nothing corporeal, super intellectual science fiction books that are entertaining in their own way, just not in a romantic way. And many science fiction books don’t even mention sex as a concept. Meaning, it’s beyond the characters not having sex; it’s like they don’t even consider it a possibility.
Which, sometimes, I feel like is not very believable, because, come on. If you’re in a spaceship and you’re stuck with a hundred people or something, you don’t think you’re gonna consider sex with this or that person? Or romance? I would predict, realistically speaking, within a year or two, everyone will end up in a Gossip-Girl-like situation, unless they really intend to avoid a situation like that. You know, the TV series, Gossip Girl? By Gossip-Girl-like, I mean, everyone will sleep with everyone, eventually. Now that is… that is weird. Call me conservative, which would be hilarious, but how the characters in Gossip Girl sleep with their ex’s best friend or their best friend’s ex is beyond me. It’s hilarious. It’s like, you know the series will not end until those two particular remaining people over there have sex together, because that’s the only way the circle will be complete. The circle of sharing. Of sex.
Anyway. Back to “Dreamsnake” and “Superluminal.” How the hell, even though the main characters fall in love at first sight, did it not become the focus of the story? How, when such love is often not mentioned in science fiction?
So I thought about this, how Ms. McIntyre approached the topic of love. And in that process, I found the key to this mysterious phenomenon. It was because none of the characters obsessed over love. Even when it was love at first sight, none of them obsessed over it. Love was just part of their lives. And that was the only way in which love could possibly exist in their lives.
These characters want love, and aren’t shy about it, but they can’t just up and go after it, abandoning everything that makes them who they are. If they were to abandon everything, they would be a different person—if there was love at first sight or any kind of love, that love would die the second they went chasing after that love. So, although the story makes it crystal-clear that these characters are meant for each other, getting together isn’t easy.
In “Dreamsnake,” Snake and Arevin meet fairly early in the story, but for the entire remainder of the story, they only think about each other and don’t know if they will ever see each other again. They don’t even know if the other side likes them.
And in “Superluminal,” Laenae and Radu confirm each other’s feelings very quickly, but then they realize that because of Laenae’s heart-replacement pump and/or because of Radu’s physical condition—which is that he survived a contagious disease from which a lot of other people from his planet died, but he survived it—eh, because of their respective physical states, they realize that they cannot be together. They basically repulse each other, physically, even though in their minds, they want to be together.
But. Even with these obstacles. Even while all of these four characters know that they’re meant for each other. None of them obsesses over love.
And this had the effect of me, as a reader, finding various clues about how they should be together. And in noticing those clues was it revealed that they’re perfect for each other, they’re love at first sight, and, most importantly, today’s theme: that their love at first sight isn’t as first as it might appear at first sight.
Because, there were many things that these characters could know immediately upon meeting. It wasn’t that they were acting recklessly, or purely reacting to a physical urge. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but… physical urge… endgame… Not easy. Anyway, there are surprisingly many things that you can tell about a person when you first meet them.
Let’s go to the world of “Dreamsnake” first. When Snake and Arevin first meet, Snake was visiting the camps of his people as a healer. She was there to heal a little child. And Arevin was asked to help with handling Snake’s serpents. He was tasked with this duty, even though everyone in his clan is terrified of serpents. These desert people have very bad memories about serpents killing their loved ones, and they also seem a little bit superstitious. They don’t trust Snake to heal their child, even though they asked her to heal the child.
So what does that tell Snake and Arevin about each other?
Well, Snake can tell that Arevin is healthy. He is fit. He is brave. He doesn’t cry easily. He, of all the people in his tribe, is one of the few who does what Snake asks him to do to save this child’s life. And because he belongs to this clan, he can handle animals, he can ride horses, he can survive alone in the desert, or probably anywhere else, for that matter.
What can Arevin tell about Snake? Well. Snake is capable of handling these terrifying snakes, most of the time, unless it’s special circumstances like the one through which she and Arevin meet. Snake chose a profession in which she is literally bitten by serpents to build up immunity. Her hands and other places on her body are full of snake bite marks. This is a woman who knows what it means to sacrifice something. She went through rigorous training. She is smart. She is traveling alone and can protect herself just fine.
And, yes, although the book doesn’t go into too much detail, it seems that they’re both fairly physically attractive. Sure. That never hurts.
Something very similar happens in “Superluminal.”
Laenae is a pilot. This means she is ambitious. She is a person who is willing to get her heart taken out to have it replaced by an artificial pump. If this artificial pump doesn’t take, it’s not like she can just go back to being a crew member, apparently. The story makes it very clear. Laenae chose a path where it was either her surgery goes well and she becomes a successful pilot, or she will be a nobody. She is a risk taker. And very importantly, all the pilots in this story show off their scars. They wear clothing that reveals the cut on their chest. So it is abundantly clear what kinds of sacrifices Laenae went through.
As to Radu? He survived the contagious disease, but it still took something from him. He has scars on his face. Imagine that. It could be traumatizing enough for him to never leave his room, but nope. He ventured out of his home planet. He became a crew member. He is able to leave everything he knows and go to places unknown to him.
And, again, it certainly didn’t hurt that Laenae and Radu are, also, apparently, quite attractive, physically speaking.
And other elements stand out in both books’ love scenarios. Everyone—Snake, Arevin, Laenae, and Radu—is nomadic. None of them have family ties.
Snake was adopted—that’s how healers nurture the next generation of healers, because healers actually cannot have babies. Healers, because they let themselves be bitten by serpents in order to build up immune systems, cannot have children.
And Arevin, he could have a child, but why didn’t he already belong to a partnership when Snake came around? Partnership is what this book calls a sort of long-term marriage-like arrangement involving two or three people. Yes, in some clans, threesomes are the norm. Anyway, why didn’t Arevin already belong to a partnership? It doesn’t seem that he is super young. He was basically, literally, I think, waiting, for someone like Snake.
And Laenae—again, pilot. She’s gonna be traveling inter-dimensionally all the time. Nomadic, no possibility of a family beyond one that consists of a couple.
Same with Radu. He’s a crew member. He’s gonna be traveling inter-dimensionally all the time. Nomadic, no possibilty of a family beyond one that consists of a couple.
So. Imagine meeting this other person who is not only physically attractive, but literally has no attachments whatsoever in a way that is so very similar to you. By the very nature of their professional calling or their cultural background, it is evident that they have no attachments right at first sight. You can see Snake’s scars, you can see Laenae’s scars, you can see Radu’s scars. Wow, come to think of it, I think the only person who doesn’t have scars is Arevin. Maybe the reason “Dreamsnake” begins in the camps of Arevin’s people is that Arevin is the only one among these four characters who doesn’t have a physical scar. Thus, the setting had to be the scar—a mark that showed Snake who he was. The scars were there to be seen at first sight, for all these four characters, telling so many stories in a second.
Add to that the fact that you can tell they’re brave, they’re smart, they’re fit, and, most importantly, they weren’t gonna change who they were. They weren’t going to perform some grandiose gesture to turn each other’s lives upside down. I mean, how reassuring is that? The certainty that the person you fell in love with, at first sight or otherwise, is going to stay the same person. That certainty is incredibly powerful. If this had been a story where the characters sarifice everything for love, someone abandons their careers for the other person, they suddenly thinks that being together means having a million children—which they will hate, they will hate it, because if they wanted children, they wouldn’t have had this lifestyle prior to meeting each other… So, if the characters had adone any of those stupid things in the name of love, I bet they wouldn’t have been in love anymore by the end of the story. Only because they were able to let the love be, only because they didn’t abandon who they were—meaning, their nomadic, unattached selves—could they, ironically, become attached. They still lead nomadic lives at the end of the stories after they’re together. It’s only, nomadic in a different way, and being nomadic together. There is even a child. It’s just not the biological child of any of these characters.
I mean, all this. Being able to basically read this in a second. Being able to tell what the other person’s going to prioritize in the future, before such a future arrives. These are the kinds of things that characters like these would instantly value. And they were able to see this when they first met, because of the scars, because of how the other side’s life was before, because of how the other side didn’t just completely abandon that life in the name of live, and on and on and on.
Can you really call this love at first sight? There is so much history to be discovered at first sight.
Let’s bring this to our world. I wonder if such a thing as love that is truly at first sight could possibly exist. And this is the case, even when we cannot know anything about the person’s family background, cultural background, or professional background.
Take our bodies. Not all of us are visibly scarred, but so long as we’re contained inside a body of some kind, the body alone tells a lot of stories, without using a single word. Is the person slouching? Are they standing tall? How much time do they look like they spend on their hair every morning? Do they smell nice? Does their voice sound nice?
I don’t think paying attention to such physical cues is necessarily vain or superficial. If someone has a body that is obviously well-maintained, doesn’t that say something about that person’s personality as well? What about facial expressions? The perfect smile? Such things say a lot about a person, and not just what we see at that first moment of encounter. Something like a facial expression, say, like wrinkles and things like that, they aren’t from that moment. They existed before that moment, and many other moments accumulated to create those wrinkles.
And there is a book called “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk. This author is a trauma researcher. And the title of the book pretty much sums up what it’s about. But, from the blurb, quote, “The author explains in clear terms the physical causes and manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), how vast the population of sufferers is, and the devastating repercussions to society in general as a result of inadequate treatment. Anecdotes of patients from all walks of life are used to illustrate how trauma rewires the brain to create dissociated memories.” End quote.
So, the book is about traumas, but, less traumatic events in life would also affect the body. It’s not like the body sits there with some digital binary measurement stick with a zero and a one, and ticks off “Oop. That’s a traumatic event. Check one.” And then “Oop. That event is too insignificant. Check zero.”
No. All events of life would exist on an analog spectrum, and nobody knows where trauma precisely begins and ends. And it’s different from person to person. And even positive events have an impact on the body, so, yes indeed, the body keeps the score.
Add to this the expansion of the online sphere. We meet people online, all the time. And the funny thing about online encounters is that you never know what the first point of contact will be. It might be neither here nor now. It could be not-here, because it doesn’t happen in the meatspace, and it could be not-now, because it doesn’t happen live. This is possible, because things from the past and elsewheres can exist into the future and into the various heres.
I think that in some ways, it is possible to learn more about a person in cyberspace than in meatspace. This is because many people in cyberspace assume they’re anonymous or pseudonymous, even though, it is really very difficult to ensure any sort of privacy in this day and age. People assume that other people or companies don’t see what they’re doing. Heck, I publish things and even then, when someone directly contacts me about something I put out there several years ago, I’m surprised every time. Because that me, who wrote that thing years ago, is dead. She isn’t here anymore. I have a vague memory of her, but pretty soon, all my cells will be replaced. They say all the cells in our body are replaced… every seven years or so? Ten years? In a few more years, the molecules that contributed to my writing that story will be gone.
Here is a romantic notion. Seven years after meeting your special someone, there won’t be a cell left in your body that has never known that person.
Anyway, there are books, movies, blog posts, Youtube videos, artwork, songs, photographs, all kinds of things that just. never. die. They live forever and forever in the interwebs. And someone, in some way, can always find them.
And, because in some cases, they were put out there with the assumption that nobody was gonna notice, sometimes such things tell more about the person than any encounter in the meatspace ever could. Think about it. You meet someone in the meatspace and you spend the first ten minutes on small talk about the football game or something, even though you have zero interest in American football. Compared to that, what people put online frequently and overtly ignores rules and traditions. It’s take it or leave it. Everyone knows you can block, delete, or unfollow on the interwebs. If you don’t want something, you shut it out of your life. But because of that ease, there is some very personal, deeply moving stuff out there, which such people never would have shared in the meatspace.
Especially writing. Yes, I am biased because I write fiction, but still, I would say in most cases it’s more difficult to fake writing than to fake body odor, acne, or hair loss.
It is the weirdest thing. There’s got to be science about this, but I don’t know where to look for it. The moment you see someone’s writing, either you click or you don’t click in the first few sentences. And I’m not talking about good writing and bad writing in some Literature with capital L literati academia critic bullshit way. And for gods’ sake, I’m not talking about grammar or punctuation—such things could affect your overall impression, but they are by no means the only elements that affect how you feel about a piece of writing. In my experience, many many people who write in a foreign language still write better than someone who is using their native language, if the former just clicks with the reader. You cannot translate voice. No, I should say, you could destroy it, but you cannot create it. The voice is already there. It is embedded into the writing. The voice includes the topic, the sentence length, the paragraph length, the rhythm—such as, maybe they always use adjectives in threes, or they never do that—and also the frequency of writing, the conclusion, the… it’s everything. Voice is all of that.
It’s the soul of the writing. Either it’s there for a reader or not. And often, the exact same writing rings with one reader but not with another. I do not know any person who doesn’t hate at least one of the so-called classics. Same with the so-called bestsellers. Or award-winning books.
You can tell soullessness too. I mean, not in a derogatory way, but, in a practical way. You know, one of my family members who shall remain unnamed is in the arts. But not in the field of writing. So when this person writes emails, it is polite, it has all the elements of communication in it, it is prompt—all of which says a lot about this person. But, it’s not like there is any soul in a simple work email. More importantly, this person doesn’t write enough for the soul to show through an email. At all. In any shape or form.
This person uses writing the way I use a kitchen pot. Some cooks could create magic with the pot I have. But me? I just use the pot. It’s for boiling stuff. The end.
And so it is with writing. Sometimes you can tell nothing from the writing, but many other times, you can. Either you write and the other person just gets it because something clicks, or not. And it’s not necessarily because it’s good or bad writing. They might be great cooks who know how to use the pot. But many times the timing is off, maybe you’re not hungry, maybe the weather is too hot and the food is also hot, or maybe you can’t eat spicy food.
So when you find writing that clicks with you, it’s always nice. And Ms. McIntyre’s “Dreamsnake” and “Superluminal” were two such examples for me. They weren’t very plot-driven. I mean, the plot was there and important, but it wasn’t driven by the plot. I think there is a difference between an absence of a plot and the lack of drivenness in a plot.
And these characters’ falling in love at first sight makes sense, because when you look at the situation closer, it wasn’t first sight. All the key moments of the other person’s life was visible, right there. It was love at multiple sights. Love at future and past, present sight. Or some such thing.
Lastly, I want to emphasize this. When I say their fallingin love makes sense, I don’t mean that they calculated it. “Making sense” is just me looking at their situation after the fact. When you’re in that situation, you don’t control it. If you wanted to, you could have put Wanted posters out there, listing the qualification criteria that you desire. But you don’t do that. Why? Because when things make perfect sense, only chance can add beauty to it.
There needs to be something inexplicable, otherwise love will become like an equation to be solved, and you will be able to trace your way back. You could undo the love easily. In which case, there is no such thing as the endgame. You would be in perfect control, and thus that would be the end of love. There would be no tragedy, no death. You could live forever, eternally safe in your control. Which is its own kind of tragedy, but certainly not love.
So. With all this said. I wish you tragedies that are worthwhile. Or, maybe, since multiple tragedies might be too painful, I wish you one beautiful tragedy that you’ll never regret falling for.
- “Superluminal” by Vonda N. McIntyre:
- “Dreamsnake” by Vonda N. McIntyre:
- Endgame, per Merriam-Webster:
- Endgame, per Urban Dictionary:
- Gossip Girl:
- “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk:
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