I’ve been a very late adopter when it comes to social media. It’s only been a few months since I gave up inscribing Cuneiform messages on clay tablets, and joined the rest of the world on Twitter and Facebook. One of the best things about joining twitter has been the chance to follow Chris Hadfield. There are a bunch of reasons why this is true, and I’ll probably end up writing about them all, but the two that stick out for me as a historical fiction writer are curiosity, and the opportunity he shared with all of us to look at the big picture.
After nearly six months in micro-gravity, Cmdr. Hadfield recently returned to Earth, and faced the daunting task of recovering the strength, balance and coordination necessary to live at one G again. With the relentless positivity that characterizes all of his communications, he stated that he approached this exhausting task with “curiosity.” He made his time as commander of the International Space Station look like a lark, but of course it was a rigorous and demanding role that was likely highly choreographed. Nevertheless, each day his tweets consistently conveyed his excitement to be where he was, doing what he was doing. Even in nearly six months, the varnish never faded from his enthusiasm. When you watch his amiable, intelligent YouTube videos, you can tell it’s all genuine. It seems to me that the root is curiosity. He says in many places how lucky he feels to have such an incredible opportunity, and you feel like what he means is, the opportunity to find out what it’s like to…. It seems like persistent curiosity is what motivates him.
If you have any impression of Cmdr. Hadfield’s time on the ISS, it’s doubtless centred on the multitude of pictures he took, and shared with the world. Even as a blind person, I was excited by his tweets because of his wonderful captions. In telling us what the image showed, he invariably managed, in less than 140 characters, to describe the picture in a way that drew all of us together. He would show, say, the Korean peninsula and caption it “…where millions of us live.” The first time I read one of these tweets I had the inevitable and telling moment when I thought, wait, he’s not Korean! Then, I got it, and I didn’t forget it. “Us” means all of us, not Canadians, not astronauts, all of us. He did with words what his camera did with pictures, reminded us that we’re all human together.
When I write fiction, it’s because I’m curious about what it’s like to be someone else. When I choose historical fiction to write, it’s because I have a deep curiosity about what things about us are consistent over time and space. What’s it like to be a man? What was it like to live through the Protestant Reformation or the beginnings of agriculture? What was it like to be a woman before we had equal legal status in society?
I’m not an astronaut, unfortunately, and I’m not a scientist, and the chances of me going into space are surpassingly slim, but Chris Hadfield and I have at least one thing in common, a persistent curiosity. I know I’m curious about what it’s like to live in micro-gravity, and maybe he’s curious about what it was like to be a 16th century woman. I have a million questions I’d love to ask him, and just possibly, he would find some aspect of even my mundane life to inquire about.
I once complemented a Scottish writer friend on his audacity in writing from the perspective of a Pakistani woman. To my surprise, he responded by complementing me for my audacity in writing from the perspective of a 16th century European. I’ve always remembered this because it brought home for me how much common ground we innately share with all humans, regardless of where or when. This makes it less daunting for me to write about the late renaissance, or Neolithic people. Somehow, each time I’d read one of Hadfield’s beautifully inclusive tweets, I’d feel reassured that I hadn’t taken on a hopeless task. In his ingenuous way, he manages that most delicate of achievements: balancing patriotism with a truly global perspective on humanity.
Tangentially, I’m delighted to say that, when several blind people replied to his tweets with gratitude for the excellent captions to his pictures, he acknowledged publicly that he was now aware he had many blind followers, and subsequently made a point of also tweeting sounds from the ISS. Each day, his tweets reinforce the virtues of curiosity and inclusivity. At the time I write this, he has 993544 followers on Twitter. It makes me happy every time I check this number because it just keeps going up, and I think each time someone reads one of his Tweets, the world is made just a tiny bit better.