There’s something about looking up at the night sky and trying to find some sort of meaning beyond the magic and beauty. We might become transfixed for hours at both the light and dark parts of the night sky. Astronomers continue, at an exponentially faster rate, to discover new facts about space. But fiction authors may also discover new things, like the kind of imaginaries that connect environment to experience, while intersecting art and science or humanity and nature. This world eco-fiction series looks at the ways writers make these connections, and this month I’m happy to talk with the author of Dark Constellations (Soho Press), Pola Oloixarac.
About the Book
Translated by Roy Kesey, Dark Constellations is a slim science-fiction novel, set mostly in Argentina, that has its feet in biological exploration and its eyes on the future – on hacking and DNA research. Dark, mysterious, and surreal, the story has three main characters whose works connect with each other over the course of 150 years. Vivid images of the jungle as well as human-plant hybrids also fill the story. Dark Constellations rates in my top reads of 2021, and I am happy to be talking with the author. I think readers will agree with me that the cover is beautiful.
A Chat with the Author
I was drawn to Dark Constellations a couple of years ago and finally got a chance to read it recently. It’s intriguing and full of knowledge, which made me think that you are a wise author! How did you imagine and research this novel?
I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love playing with knowledge because I find it very playful in a way. Science and the things we take for granted, as when we “know something,” are a deep tissue made of stories. Many times, fortuitous factors determine which stories become more real than others, and are turned into validated science. Science and knowledge must be funneled through a lot of storytelling to actually make it into the books of the science genre. I find this process very inspiring. With Dark Constellations, I wanted to imagine a side story that didn’t make it into the big books, where species were organized differently, like an alternative dark history of the science of the South. I love working in libraries, which tend to be very helpful if you want to write in this vein; libraries become your vessel and the books find their way into your book.
You were born in Argentina, which made me wonder when I was reading the novel: Do you have great memories of viewing constellations, or the dark places between them, from when you were growing up? Can you briefly describe what dark constellations are?
Dark constellations were how the Incas named and organized their astronomic exploration of the night sky. In the southern hemisphere, unlike in the North, the dark spaces between the stars are much wider. Interestingly, the Incas built their characters and stories as written inside the dark spaces, and not around the lights dots of the stars like in the Western tradition. For the Incas, what others saw as noise (simple darkness) was in fact information. All their figures are constructed as shapes in the dark – a complete departure of how form and content, information and noise, are understood in the Western European tradition.
There are three timelines: starting in the 1800s, then forwarding to the 1980s, and then to 2084. Each story is intriguing. Can you tell our readers how they are connected?
One is the story of Cassio, a young hacker who lives in the South, between Brazil and Argentina. His story is a bit of a sentimental biography of the Internet, and the different moments of its development until the present day, which includes crypto. He begins making hacks to video games, then on the BBS (the precursor of chatrooms), and he discovers his power making viruses. He joins a company that is putting together banks of DNA and mining them. Niklas Bruun is an explorer working in the 19th century to define new species of orchids. He travels from the Famara crates of the Canary Islands to Brazil, where he joins a strange cult of men led by a rat who makes experiments cross-pollinating women and orchids. In the DNA mining company, Cassio meets a female engineer, Piera, and together they hark his hacking powers to break the surveillance state they live in. What unites these stories is the way they look at humankind as something in-between species; they’re all working on the edges of when human becomes inhuman, and vice-versa.
I’ve interviewed a lot of authors who deal with, in some way, ecology and fiction. It’s fascinating to see the different approaches. Being a fan of strong imagery of nature and how we connect to it made me appreciate your novel. So did the fact that the ecological aspects of our world are not always set apart as simply “nature” but are inherent in us all. It showed a lot of interconnectedness between humans and other objects we might call wild. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s interesting you mention that because what drove me to write this novel was a desire to show the intimacy between the realms of the humans and the orchids, insects, fungus, and the computer viruses that populate the novel. It’s a book about symbiosis. I wanted to write about humans who are becoming something else, and about plants and animals that are also undetermined in their capabilities – where possibilities of evolution are actually open and brimming with life. And the people who are witnessing this are feeling it too. All life is semiotic, and all life is making language, so I wanted to make a book sensitive to that.
It works so well. This intersection between information and biology, again, is fascinating. I recall the 80s clearly and might have met many similar characters (like Cassio), so there is comfort in reading about that time period – but of course, he is very different, a genius hacker who is interested in surveillance as well as control. What inspired you to create Cassio and his peers?
For a while, I fantasized about writing a book on the hackers I met in my youth in Buenos Aires. Most of the characters are inspired by my friends or real people I met. There was something about Cassio that attracted me particularly – his quest for knowledge is always haunted by darkness. I’ve met all of these people who “worked for the Evil side” or were white hats (the good side), and it intrigued me immensely. (White hats and black hats are common terminology in the hacker world.) There’s an aesthetic pleasure in hacking; it’s not only about the material outcome. If you’re just going after the material, that would make you a common thief with a computer. But Cassio is not that kind of hacker; he’s more interested in being hands-on with a kind of hacking closer to the sublime.
You recently published Mona. Can you tell us about that book as well?
Mona follows the eponymous character Mona, a young female writer from Peru, who travels to a resort in Sweden to participate in a literary festival. The book is both a comedy and a horror story set in the world lit scenario, or the contemporary international circuit of literature. Mona is running away from something horrifying, and the key to her secret lies in her body.
Thanks so much for your time, Pola. I am looking forward to learning more about your upcoming book. To the readers: Pola tells me that she is currently working on a book about the Amazon. I’m looking forward to it!
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.