Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl

“Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” is a short story by Kathleen Ann Goonan published in the  intriguing collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (2014).

The main focus of the story is about the importance of literacy, neural plasticity, and individualized learning. Oddly it actually makes a good case for post-literacy instead.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


Set ~200 years in the future but reflecting on experiences 100 years prior to that, the story begins by noting that “in the early twenty-first century illiteracy was classified as a public health problem” (p. 40).

Alia learns about her grandmother’s path from dyslexia (and resulting illiteracy) to advanced literacy through a newly invented “learning neurobiologic” call OPEN ROAD (p. 49) which “accelerates the process of learning to read for everyone” (p. 61). The quest is for universal literacy (p. 67). Against all odds Melody, the grandmother, learns to read and becomes a mentor for others. Heartwarming.

All well and good but Alia, herself quite literate, does not learn about this from reading or even from hearing Melody talk about it. Rather she learns about it through a “grok.” Most of the story is the description of what happens during that grok.

Grok: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.” Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

The grok is a total immersion experience where Alia fully and deeply understands the ideas and feelings of her grandmother. As Alia herself says, the grok provides an intimacy and awareness “like reading words … but a lot more powerful” (p. 44). Or, put another way, better than literacy. Bring on the grok.

Here’s how Alia describes the grok being given to her:

“I see that Melody has assembled spheres, which glow in the air like juggling balls, unaffected by the wind. She tosses me a golden sphere, a green sphere, and one that looks like Jupiter, pulsing with many dark swirling colour. I catch them – they feel like northing but a slight tingle – and press them to my chest, where they melt into the interface on my skin. I smile … I close my eyes and grok.” (p. 43).

Incidentally Melody has invented Zebra “a three-dimensional language” (p. 43) which seems to be related to the grok delivery system but is never fleshed out. Too bad.

So, ironically, “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” is a plea for the value and importance of literacy but describes a capability and a set of tools that are clearly more powerful. In the end it is a story about the triumph of post-literacy.


Kathleen Ann Goonan. “Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. New York: William Morrow, 2014, pp. 38-73.

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