January 28, 2009

Delightful Cognitive Science Fiction

I just finished the best novel of 2009 ... and while it's early in the year, I am confident this will still be towards the top of the list at the end of the year.

Stephanie Kallos' Sing Them Home is delightful, and also relevant to cognitive science, language, and library science. Here's how:
  • Cognitive Science. One of the characters, Larken, is an art history professor who sees people in color. She does this throughout the novel, and I was reminded of synesthetes each time. Here's an example:
"Sometimes Daddy was yellow - not Mommy Yellow (the color of egg yolks in the mixing bowl, prescrambled and paled by lacings of milk, the color of Hope [the mother] when they were reading together at bedtime), but his own special Daddy Yellow: intense, glossy: the pudding-y filling inside lemon bars served at church de bachs; dandelion flowers after a downpour." (p. 93-94)
  • Language. The novel takes place in the fictional town of Emlyn Springs, in southeast Nebraska near Lincoln with strong ties to Wales. Many of the characters speak or sing Welsh, and there are many Welsh rituals. Kallos' loving portrayal of the language and rituals, is touching and might be appreciated by those who enjoy language.
  • Library Science. One small but terrific scene takes place at a library in nearby Beatrice, NE; it nicely illustrates principles of good reference librarianship that I try to instill in my students. Viney, the not-quite stepmother, goes to the library to send an email to a Welsh acquaintance, and she asks for help. Emphasis is mine, with [comments] explaining just why this is such great reference service.
" 'I'd be happy to help you,' the librarian says, coming out from behind the information desk. 'Follow me.' This librarian is no pinched, spinsterish matron wearing a cardigan and spectacles. She's a big girl, twentysomething, and she walks like a man. ...

" 'I'm here to write an email letter. Can I do that?'
" 'You bet.' The girl lays her hand on a silver, dinner-roll-sized object on the desk and expertly starts sliding it around. ...
" 'This is called a "mouse,"' Addison remarks. 'Sadly it's the only named part of a computer that has any poetry.' "

Addison the librarian goes on to show Viney how to select a username in gmail and says "'While you work on that, I'll go help those folks at the counter. As soon as you've got something we’ll get you started, okay?' " [librarian gives patron information, lets her work, and goes to help other patrons, promising to return]

Viney thinks and tries several names until she finds one that works. "Addison is back. 'How you comin' along?' she asks." [returning as promised, still helpful.] They figure out a good username for Viney (Addison's is "Sad bison at gee mail dot com;" Viney ultimately selects nutriyogavine) and Addison explains how to write the "email letter:"

" 'Now,' Addison continues, 'We’ll get the cursor moved down to where you need to start writing ... Now you just start typing the way you would on a regular typewriter.' Addison's fingers move with incredible speed." She shows Viney how to send the message when she's ready, and then says " 'You'll do great. I'll be right over there if you have any questions." [Addison is so patient with Viney, and she ends the encounter with good closure, inviting Viney to ask for more help if she needs it.] (pages 290-292)
If I were writing this up for a reference observation paper (which is an assignment I ask my students to complete), I would demonstrate the many ways that Addison meets the ALA /RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers. And does a great job of helping a patron we care about in the novel ... as I know many public librarians do in the Real World.

Kudos to Stephanie Kallos for portraying good library assistance. The novel is good in a lot of other ways as well, but for the purposes of this blog, I recommend it for the cognitive and information science tidbits strewn here and there.

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josephgambit said...

I don't really understand what being a decent librarian has to do with science fiction

Hillary said...

I have an advanced reader's copy of this book sitting on my "to be read" shelf...and will now get to reading it. Sounds great!

CogSci Librarian said...

I realize I have tagged 7 novels as "cognitive science fiction" (a play on the term "science fiction," joseph; sorry for the confusion) in LibraryThing