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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Verbeek

Fact or fiction: Do penguins fall on their backs?

penguins on ice

And, more importantly, when does twisting a fact discredit every other fact in the story? There is a lot that I wanted to talk about in the Si'Empra series: beauty, causes of poverty, friendship, the wonder of nature, fantasy, and so on. Over the years, I've gathered bits and pieces of information and I have, indeed, woven the fact in with the fiction. Especially when discussing themes of human interactions, I stayed as close to fact as I could. In describing the context of Si'Empra, I confess I often let my imagination fly. Where I worry about my imagination is when I describe something that could be but isn't. For example, there's one place where I strayed because I just thought it too cute not to: In the first chapter of Ülrügh I describe an incident involving penguins: Ellen says: "There's a whole lot of penguins all huddled together in a tight group facing the sea. They're looking at birds flying overhead. They have their beaks up in the air and they're all looking at the same bird so that when it flies over them they all turn together - all their heads and beaks move in unison. Now they're all looking at a bird flying the other way and - yes, all the beaks are turning at the same time … There's a fulmar out to sea. It made a really loud noise … (all the penguins are) looking at it. It's flying towards them. It's flying over their heads - their beaks are going up - up- up - Oh! I don't believe it! Their heads are tipped back and - they've fallen backwards on top of one another …" I didn't completely make up this story. I've changed the details but got the idea from this story: A Mexican newspaper reports that bored Royal Air Force pilots stationed on the Falkland Islands have devised what they consider a marvelous new game. Noting that the local penguins are fascinated by airplanes, the pilots search out a beach where the birds are gathered and fly slowly along it at the water’s edge. Perhaps ten thousand penguins turn their heads in unison watching the planes go by, and when the pilots turn around and fly back, the birds turn their heads in the opposite direction, like spectators at a slow-motion tennis match. Then, the paper reports, “The pilots fly out to sea and directly to the penguin colony and overfly it. Heads go up, up, up, and ten thousand penguins fall over gently onto their backs. —Audubon Society Magazine (1994) The story is, actually, an urban myth. In the hours that I watched penguins on my visit to the Antarctic, I did indeed see them sometimes raise their heads and look at birds flying overhead - and rightly so! Dangers as well as irritations come from overhead. I didn't actually witness any penguins fall onto their backs as a result of looking up, though. In fact, mostly, penguins raise their beaks to the sky (as the one in the image is doing) to call out something in that braying way they do. So, my musings about that particular description concerns whether I've done myself a disservice with a 'twist' that plays to urban myth and discredits other facts - that is, whether it puts a chink into the context of the story. There's sometimes a quibble about whether fiction should stray into fact at all and whether readers read fiction to get away from dealing with fact (that is, to be entertained) and read non-fiction to grapple with fact (that is, to gain knowledge). It's a silly quibble. A well-written non-fiction book can be very entertaining (e.g. James Gleick's book, Chaos, was, for me, a page turner because it gave insights into not only the development of the theory of chaos but also the people behind the theory) and a well-written fiction book can impart much knowledge - even cause social change. Mark Twain (author of books like. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) wrote fiction but made an impact on people's thinking about slavery. Fairy tales often have a moral basis that people can learn from. There's been a blending of fact and fiction - entertainment and social learning - for as long as people have been telling stories. I suspect that a reasonable 'quibble' arises when someone (whether storyteller or reader/listener) claim that one is the other rather than enabling the reader/listener to sort the lessons out from the context. I remember studying modern history when I was at school and being bored out of my mind by the history of Britain's Corn Laws (1815 and 1846). Rather than continuing to study the dreary history book, I started imagining that somehow I'd fallen into 1815 London - a girl whose family was struggling to make ends meet in the face of cheaper, imported farm produce. Yes, the circumstances of me in a farming family in 1815 was completely made up but I created a context in which something that really did happen had relevance and I could understand the arguments that were being put - oh so drearily - in the history book. In fact, a few years later, a more enlightened history teacher thrust a bunch of fiction books into my hands when I was studying independence in India. Those books, far more than the list of historical events, let me understand how India came to independence and how that triggered a period of religious turmoil. What the fictional context did was enable me to give facts relevance - and relevance, is, of course, absolutely important if we are to retain facts or, more importantly, utilise facts. Knowing about Chaos Theory was not even on my radar when I picked up Gleick's book. Having read it (and freely admitting I am a loooooong way from understanding Chaos Theory) I have been enriched because I understand things that border chaos much better and understand how that Theory impacts our lives today. In Skyseeker Princess and Ulrügh, I developed a context of a nation that is disintegrating. There are many reasons for the disintegration and each of these reasons are ones that we (us humans) really are experiencing - predominantly, our inability to change social behaviour even in the face of evidence that the behaviour is destructive (e.g. acting on climate change more than two decades ago when it was revealed to be a problem - or, to put it more broadly, stopping the harvesting of a resource even when the evidence is that a resource is being over-harvested). I give instances of how greed, love, delusions, hope and avoidance of responsibility all play a part in fostering a climate that causes ongoing decay. For example, a conversation between Ghuy and Ellen in Skyseeker Princess is based on what is really happening in China as the Chinese Communist Party seek to gain more control over the lives of China's Minority Nationalities. I don't bend those 'truths' about our current human travails, and I think it's clear when I'm being 'fantastical'. I ibelieve that my readers can work out the fact from the fiction. Penguins falling on their backs, however, may be misleading - it's one of those things that 'could' happen but doesn't …

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