The Persistence of Vision by John Varley
In a post-apocalyptic near-future, a middle-aged drifter roams from commune to commune in the Southwest United States. Each of these groups has its own culture and he stays a while at each, doing whatever he needs (e.g., going nude, praying, chanting “Hare Krishna”) to fit in while he’s there. This works well for him — he stays fed and sheltered and moves on when he’s ready for a change of scenery.
But when he comes across a walled-in settlement in the middle of Native American land, he finds that he can never fit in because the group who lives there are the adult descendents of women who contracted rubella while pregnant. All of these adults are both deaf and blind, though their children are not. At first the drifter is fascinated by the ways they’ve developed to get around their “handicap,” but soon he learns that, in their community, he’s the one with the disability because he will never be able to understand their language — a language that is a lot deeper than mere spoken words could ever be.
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about perception, I was fascinated by a culture that can’t see or hear, and I enjoyed the parts of the story that dealt with how the group overcame their obstacles. Also, the idea that communication without the masks of fake facial expressions and deceptive body language could be more informative than the “normal” methods is appealing. We get a lot of information about someone’s internal state through visual and auditory cues and it’s hard to imagine that tactile methods could compensate for missing this input, but John Varley is suggesting that people who are born blind and deaf might develop these sorts of paranormal abilities when normal sensory input is lacking. It is true that some people who are blind or deaf have sensory abilities that seeing and hearing people don’t have, or at least never realized they have (e.g., blindsight, echolocation). Perhaps Varley’s idea isn’t so far-fetched.
The Persistence of Vision, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, will make you think. It will make you consider what kinds of wonderful abilities might be unmasked if you lost some of your “normal” abilities. Would it be worth the price?
I listened to Peter Ganim narrate the audio version produced by Audible Frontiers. It was a great production and I’m pleased to see so many Hugo- and Nebula-awarded stories in their catalog.