If you aren’t listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast, you are denying yourself so much joy and comfort. Following the advice of Keh_squared on Twitter, I listened to episode 5 of Levar Burton Reads. Lavar Burton read Lesley Nneka Arimah’s award winning short story “What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky.” And then I listened again, and again for a third time. I found a PDF of the short story and read it. It might be one of my favorite books this year.
At some time in the future, the geography of the world has changed. North America and Europe are under water. Africa stands, but colonizers have done what colonizers do. A new mathematical formula has been found which allows for some extraordinary math. It allows people to fly. It allows some mathematicians to take away emotions. Nneoma is one of those mathematicians. The emotion she calculates and subtracts is grief. She works with parents who lost a child. Her girlfriend, also a mathematician, has recently broken up with her and then disappeared. Nneoma is a woman of privilege. Her work affords her protection and security. People wear wrist tattoos which designate their class. There is a rumor that the formula falls apart the further out it is calculated. The evidence is the man who fell from the sky.
The story is about privilege, math, emotion and survival. Nneoma does what we all do when reality intrudes on the story we have told about our life. She rationalizes that she knows more, that she understands the issue, and assumes that the discrepancy won’t affect her. The world is broken and it’s pain is too big for math or gated communities.
When things began to fall apart, the world cracked open by earthquakes and long dormant volcanoes stretched, yawned and bellowed, the churches (mosques, temples) fell, not just the physical buildings shaken to dust by tremors, but the institutions as well. Into the vacuum stepped Francisco Furcal, a Chilean Mathematician who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe, was infinite and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension, humanity had no end, was exactly what the world had needed.
“What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky” shows us the fractured world in which Nneoma exists and her place in it, the threat to her safety, and then it shows us the moment before the tipping point of change. Will she continue to insulate herself, or will she face the challenge? Like all but the very best or very worst of us, she could go either way.