Friday Fiction: “A Very Young …” by Jill Krementz

(L-R) Book covers: A Very Young Dancer, A Very Young Skater, A Very Gymnast.

This week’s Friday Fiction is a threefer of nonfiction books that follow young kids doing cool things: “A Very Young Dancer,” “A Very Young Skater,” and “A Very Young Gymnast”, all by Jill Krementz. (Krementz had a whole series of “Very Young X” books, of which these were likely the most popular.)

What is it about ballet, ice skating, and gymnastics that is catnip to (certain) little girls? I don’t know, but they enchanted me as a child. When I moved to the US at age 7, one of very few entertainments I had available to me was the public library. I was barely able to read English at the time, so I wandered the aisles aimlessly and somehow stumbled into those books. With their beautiful photographs and minimal text–the books are all “narrated” by their 10-year-old subjects–they were perfect for me. All three follow affluent young white girls growing up in New York City in the late 70s, training for each of those passions.

“A Very Young Dancer” follows Stephanie (last name not given, but easily searchable), a girl training in ballet at the famous School of American Ballet–the one that Balanchine founded and that feeds into the New York City Ballet. She lands the role of Marie/Clara–the star!–in SAB’s Nutcracker. It follows her through the performance and then sees her settle back into the rhythm of regular hard work at SAB, post-Nutcracker.

“A Very Young Skater” follows Katherine Healy, a girl training in figure skating. It ends with Healy doing a figure skating exhibition event.

And “A Very Young Gymnast” follows Torrance York, a girl training and competing in gymnastics. She qualified for the Junior Olympics while the book was in publication.

As a person with an obsessive personality, I realize now that what I loved about these books, in addition to how beautiful these athletes’ movements were, was the obvious amount of dedication and love that these kids were putting into their work. I loved the thought of my job being to do something beautiful over and over until it became even more beautiful.

(“A Very Young Dancer” was also my introduction to ballet, of course. I didn’t get to take lessons until I was in my 30s, but what can I say, the book worked.)

As an adult, I went back and wondered what became of these kids. Google told me.

York probably had the most conventional path in life. After the events of the book, she was invited to train at an Olympic gym. Although that was once her dream, she turned it down on the grounds that she felt satisfied with what she had already accomplished and did not want it to consume her life. Today she is a photographer and has, as far as I can tell, no links to gymnastics.

Athletically speaking, Healy was by far the most successful of the three. She wanted to be a ballet dancer herself. She also entered SAB and danced the Nutcracker lead in 1978 and 1979. (I have not been able to stop wondering: did she and Stephanie ever meet? Stephanie’s book came out in 1976, so I suspect they just missed each other.) I have seen Healy called a child prodigy in both skating and ballet. I don’t know about skating, but I’d agree about ballet–check out these videos of her dancing at age 10 and at age 13. I’ve seen pre-professional students who don’t have her quality of movement. Her command of movement and port de bras makes me want to weep.

Healy won a handful of international ballet competitions and when she was merely 15, joined the English National Ballet as a principal dancer. That’s the kind of thing I’d say was too unrealistic for a story. Today she teaches ballet and I think also skating. I’m honestly a little surprised that she isn’t more famous. Just imagine if she’d been born in the Instagram era.

What about the actual very young dancer? Although her book inspired a generation of girls to take up ballet, Stephanie’s dance career was over just after it began. Despite having danced the lead in Nutcracker, she was, to be blunt, kicked out of SAB just a few years later. It’s not really clear why, and anyone who knew has long since passed. That said, what evidence remains does suggest that she was not progressing as quickly or as well as her teachers would have liked. As one might imagine, it was a shock going from a literal poster child for ballet to being booted from a famous ballet school. Stephanie now lives in Wyoming, in a life as far removed from ballet as possible. (And if you didn’t believe me when I said that this book was popular, well, I hope the fact that a New York Times article focuses on her after-story is convincing. That, and the mention that superstar Wendy Whelan got inspired to dance from the book.)

I went back to the books to see if there was any hint of these outcomes–any seeds of the future–in the children’s own words about themselves. It’s easy to read too much into these things, but one thing I noticed what that York and Healy come across as more serious and, well, professional in their books. Unlike Stephanie, they discuss technique in their narration, which implies a deeper level of understanding and ownership of their work.

That’s probably far too much tea-leaf-reading to apply to the words of 10-year-old kids, but it does align with what I know to be true. If you want to succeed at the highest levels, you pretty much have to be your own coach. Of course it helps to have piles of wealth and privilege and the world’s best teachers behind you (as all three girls did), but even then, they can’t do it for you.

A bigger issue is probably that, at least according to her interview decades later, Stephanie didn’t actually enjoy ballet enough to progress in it as a career. She said that classes were laborious and unpleasant. I’ve heard the same … from professional dancers. You’re going to have shit days. There is no job in the world with no shit days.

None of this is to judge Stephanie in a bad light. Shit days are much harder to deal with when you are 10 than when you are 30, unless you are one of those preternaturally mature children (I have the feeling that York and Healy both were). I am only sad that she didn’t get to discover for herself that ballet was probably not her calling, and that the choice was ripped away from her so abruptly and quasi-publicly. As a child, it must have been enormously difficult to process.

I suppose all that is to say: for all that I idolized these girls, and for all that society loves to fawn over stories of successful children, there are benefits to being a grown-up. Like maturity. Perspective. Context. Fantasies aside, I would never have been able to handle being a professional ballet dancer at 15 or training for the Olympics at 12.

I once heard a successful older woman who runs her own business say that that professional success comes for you when you are truly ready for it. While that flatten a lot of aspects, for me, I find that it has been overwhelmingly true. So I hope that we can all have, and take, the time that we need to get on our own paths, Very Young or not.

E&M and Electromagicians

four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell
Four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell, who is absent from “The Homunculi’s Guide.” Images from U.S. Patent Office via Google Patents.

A couple of weeks in, it still boggles me to think that “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” is out there in the world.

This is probably the most “me” story I have ever written. Not so much “write what you know” as “write what you obsess about.” One such obsession is electricity and magnetism–the physics discipline–which is often abbreviated as E&M. This discipline is heavy on the math, but the applications of the math are immediate and powerful. If you can solve this equation, then you can explain why electricity does that thing but not the other thing. Therefore, theoretically speaking, if you can set up your equations correctly, then you can tell electricity what to do, and when, and how.

To me, those equations have always felt pretty close to casting a magic spell: you can use a simple thought, a trick of your brain, to shape the world around you.

In real life, you have to actually put together your theoretical machine. But what if there was a kind of magic where having a sufficiently deep understanding of the theory was enough to make the theoretical become real?

That thought is where the magic system in “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” started. Of course, it ended up going significantly beyond “magical physics,” but I hope that it retains some grounding in those concepts.

Although the story is fictitious, I invoked a number of real-life scientists, because I am not nearly creative enough to make up laws of physics that are weirder than the ones that already exist in our universe. And also because I admire the immense amount of work that went into their discoveries, which continue to shape our existence.

So if you will indulge me, I’d like to talk a little about the scientists that I referenced in the story, who helped describe the magic physics system that we actually live in. And because I cannot resist the urge, I’m also throwing in my headcanon about what they did in the Homunculi ’verse.

In order of birth year:

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) was an incredibly influential mathematician. At 21, he published a landmark book on number theory. And he didn’t stop there. His name is attached to many, many, many concepts. These come to mind first: the Gaussian (aka “normal”) distribution in statistics, the Gaussian blur in your image processing program of choice, and not one but two of the equations in Maxwell’s Equations. The list could go on for quite a while.

While most of his work was of the theoretical variety, he applied his mathematical abilities to fields like astronomy, geography, and of course physics. In 1833, Gauss collaborated on building an early version of a telegraph. Today there is a replica of this machine at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

Gauss was a bit of a jerk, though: according to a grandson, Gauss “did not want any of his sons to attempt mathematics for he said he did not think any of them would surpass him and he did not want the name lowered” … well, he certainly lowered himself in my estimation with that sentiment.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Gauss made his name entirely in the scientific realm. But his children became well-known magicians in their own right. In particular, his daughter Therese became a famous electromagician.

Michael Faraday (1791–1867): a bookbinder’s apprentice who taught himself physics from the books that he bound, he went on to experimentally discover many fundamental principles of electromagnetism.

No slouch in the innovation department, Faraday invented useful things like the Faraday Cage, which is that metal mesh covering microwave doors. This mesh, poetically speaking, traps the electromagnetic dance that goes on inside a microwave whereby a frozen burrito gets nuked. As a result, said electromagnetic dance does not radiate outside and nuke your face.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Faraday invented the Faraday Ward, which traps electric spirits inside any mathematically defined closed surface. He also developed and formulated theories on how to store magical forces. The Farad, a unit named in his honor, describes the ability of various mediums–aether, quartz, bottle gourds and so on–to store magical energy, be they electrical or otherwise. Faraday was the first to study this quality experimentally. For this achievement, Faraday is venerated by all magicians.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879): best known for the eponymous Maxwell’s Equations. These are four foundational mathematical equations that showed that electricity, magnetism, and light are all different manifestations of the same thing: electromagnetism.

That may sound bland but it has very far-ranging implications. Maxwell’s Equations can describe (the electromagnetic component of) how an MRI images your brain, how power plants generate electricity, and how signals travel down coaxial cables to bring you this blog post.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Maxwell was an early electromagician who tried … and failed spectacularly to show that all types of magic are related to a fundamental magical force. However, in the process, he did come up with his three Maxwell’s Electromagical Equations, which state and formulate the following:

  • Gauss’s Law of Radiative Souls: Human souls produce electromagical fields. The electromagical flux across a closed surface is proportional to the amount of soul enclosed.
  • Faraday’s Law of Flux: Souls that fluctuate in time produce electromagical fields.
  • Ampère’s Law of Currents: Non-magical electromagnetic phenomena, when applied to souls, produce electromagical fields.

Note that Maxwell’s four Equations of electromagnetism also exist in the Homunculi ’verse. Any competent electromagician must master both sets.

Also note that the Gauss referenced here is Therese.

Maxwell also posited that spirits can be communicated with by means of radio waves. He was correct, though he did not live to find out. Nor did he leave any homunculi behind.

Tivadar Puskás (1844–1893): a Hungarian inventor who, among other things, came up with the first telephone exchange. An exchange is basically that switchboard you see in retro photographs, where you have rows and rows of operators (usually women) manually connecting phone calls. Today, these functions are carried out automatically by machines.

To be honest I wish I knew more about him. Wikipedia’s article certainly makes it look like he lived a very interesting life.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Puskás is revered as the closest thing that the homunculi have to a god. The telephone exchange opened the door to the dark world inside the wires, and Puskás gave that door a very hard kick.

Max Planck (1858–1947) is famous for being one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. While working for commercial electricity utility companies, Planck tried to calculate the energy emitted by light bulbs. That turned out to be a much more complex problem than one might imagine. Long story short, the only way Planck could make the math work was to propose that light itself existed in little “packets” of energy–indivisible units, somewhat like atoms. He was right, and today we call these packets photons. He received a Nobel Prize for this work.

The “Planck second” referenced in my story is the amount of time that it takes light to travel a certain distance (derived from a handful of other constants). It is an incredibly small amount of time–5.39 × 10 −44 s. In fact, it is, in a sense, the smallest unit of time. Below that amount of time, the concept of time itself has no meaning due to quantum mechanics.

In the framework of the Big Bang theory, by the way, it took one Planck second to go from the beginning of … everything … to the beginning of the universe as we know. We may never know what that first Planck second was like.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Planck was the first to take a stab at calculating the energy and dimensionality of the human soul. While he had no notion of the homunculi, Planck did theorize that there existed a quantum unit of the smallest amount of energy possible in a human soul. He was correct.

Kikyou Tachibana did not exist in our world, but if you will indulge me one last time …

In the Homunculi ’verse, Tachibana (1924-?) was a very successful developer of integrated circuit technologies. After selling all three of her companies, Tachibana retired early and became interested in electromagic. She joined an institution for magical studies, where she made a number of contributions to the practice before her mysterious disappearance at the age of 74* in 1998. She is, of course, best known for coining the name “homunculi” to describe telecommunications ghosts.

*Tachibana was, although no one ever knew it, the first person to figure out how to join the homunculi. Which she promptly did, out of sheer curiosity, but of course she could not return. Her homunculi have long forgotten who they used to be.

If you actually read all this way, thank you, and I hoped that was somewhat entertaining and/or educational. Oh, and may the electric gods bless you and your internet connection today.

Friday Fictions: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This week’s Friday Fiction is “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine. I want to thank @superyarn for cluing me into this book. She did so by first recommending Martine’s short story “The Hydraulic Emperor,” which was so cool that it made me want to read “A Memory Called Empire.”

By the way, if you’ve already read one story, I think you would probably like the other. Both feature poetic and Borgesian turns of phrase and an aesthetic that I think of as cyberpunk Byzantium (Martine is a historian of the Byzantine Empire). Their aims are quite different though–Hydraulic Emperor is an incisive thought experiment that instantly put me in mind of a William Gibson/KJ Parker mashup, except with aliens.

Whereas Memory is a gorgeous sprawl of space-opera-as-political-thriller. What surprised me was how much it luxuriated in every beat of the plot. The story never rushes, even during scenes where characters are dying. The bulk of the plot–flashbacks notwithstanding–takes place over a couple of sleepless days, which you wouldn’t guess from the sheer mass of the book. Which you also wouldn’t guess from the e-book (which is the version that I bought, because living abroad discourages the purchase of paper books), because the engine of the story flowed so frictionlessly that I was never tired or bored or anything but gently propelled from one page to the next.

Speaking of plots. Lsel Station is an independent world near the enormous and enormously influential Teixcalaanli Empire, which spans multiple star systems. When said empire abruptly requests a new ambassador from Lsel–without disclosing what happened to the previous ambassador, Yskander, who had been there for decades–Mahit Dzmare is chosen for the role.  She must go to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s capital city-planet and try to untangle the situation, not to mention survive.

Fortunately, or so Mahit thinks, she will have help in the form of an imago: a chip surgically implanted into her brainstem that carries the knowledge and personality of her predecessor. It’s not another person in your body. It’s more akin to the Trill/Symbiont situation from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, only the Symbiont is another member of your own species.

Naturally, the imago promptly malfunctions when Mahit, and the ghost of Yskander, face their first crisis. Now Mahit can only rely on herself … and the Teixcalaanli people around her. Who consider her rather a credit to her inferior culture.

This sets up Mahit’s primary internal conflict. On the one hand, she knows that Lsel is always in danger of being swallowed up by the ever-hungry empire. On the other hand, she loves consuming the empire’s culture: its language, its names, its popular culture.

And through Mahit’s point of view, we experience the gorgeous culture. The capital planet is a lush and golden place where you may dine on stuffed flowers (plus or minus poison), where jewel-colored birds dance in vertical gardens, where the emperor sits on a sunburst throne of golden spears.

(A brief aside. Although Lsel’s technology is far more important to the plot, and the #Teixcalaanli #Aesthetic is generally about being lush and beautiful and quite literally organic (Mahit says at one point that Lsel station doesn’t have many animals), there is one very important bit of Teixcalaanli that is technological: their capital city is run on algorithms. The subways are fully automatic based on traffic patterns, and–anxiety of our times–the city’s police force, the Sunlit, are an unholy fusion of people and AI into a collective mind. They are literally faceless and indistinguishable behind their identical gold masks. The algorithms governing their actions are said to be flawless and impersonal, but the text reminds us that no algorithms are. Very au courant.)

Even Teixcalaanli names are gorgeous: they are mathematical poetry. We meet Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, et al. Speaking of poetry, the Teixcalaanli cultured elite communicates through poetry to an extent that is, in my opinion, only matched by Chinese palace dramas.

There is a scene where Mahit watched several Teixcalaanli natives spontaneously play with poetry forms, and she realizes that even though she has studied their language and culture all her life, she doesn’t have that skill. And she is pulled apart on the inside between wanting to have that skill and being ashamed of having that want. Because the Teixcalaanli Empire are colonizers who would swallow her world whole. Because to Teixcalaanli citizens, she is and will always be a barbarian who cannot compose such verses, who does not have that native fluency in language and cultural understanding.

This was the part where I fell in love with Mahit. Because I know that immigrant feeling all too well, even though we have experienced vastly different aspects. The major difference between us–other than her ambassadorial status–is that I applied for citizenship. I joined the empire. (No regrets. But that’s a different blog post.)

SFF is full of empires, because empires have power and power makes for stakes and stakes make for plot (YMMV; I’m being general here). What’s interesting to me about “A Memory Called Empire” is that Mahit, an outsider, is helping to stabilize the Empire. You don’t see this a whole lot. You get overthrowing the monarchy and restoring the rightful heir and so on, but rarely do you get a protagonist who decides that the only winning move is not to play.

At the end–mild spoiler alert–Mahit gets to ask for whatever she wants from the Empire. She asks to be allowed to go home before the Empire can conquer her, too. In a book full of politicking and rebellion and murder, it’s a zen moment when she seizes back her destiny. She knows that in a day, a week, a month, a year–she could get recalled anytime–but in the meantime, she is home.

I think the part of the fantasy that grabs me the most isn’t even how gorgeous the Teixcalaanli Empire is, but that Mahit both wants to go home and has a home that she loves to go to. My home is different now, and I’m happy enough with it, but I am very slightly envious of Mahit. Only very slightly, because who knows what will happen in Book Two, which I have preordered! (Well, book one set up a future plot involving aliens so I imagine the payoff will come, or start to come, in book two).

But in the meanwhile, I would like to imagine myself there on Lsel Station, in spirit, to welcome Mahit home.