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Interview: Michael Blumlein on “Success”

- What was the inspiration for “Success”, or what prompted you to write it?

I’ve had a lifelong interest in the field of genetics. The real exciting work these days is happening on three main fronts: genetic engineering, which has been the subject of countless pieces of fiction (including my own); nanobiotechnology, which is just getting rolling but promises to have a huge impact on our lives; and epigenetics, a field that is crucial to understanding how we interact with our environment and evolve. For nearly 200 hundred years the idea that there could be such a thing as epigenetics was derided and scorned. Now, every day we get a new study showing the importance of our environment, not only in how our own genes are expressed, but in how our offspring’s genes – and their offspring’s genes – can be affected. Obviously, this has profound implications for our future, and I wanted to talk about that.

I also wanted to extend what we know about genetics and epigenetics into the future and what we don’t yet know. What might come to pass. What could. This, of course, is the prime directive of science fiction. My speculation about “perigenetics”, a word I coin to describe the ultimate unifying principle of Life on Earth, is my attempt to do this.

It’s a real attempt, but it’s also somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It flows from the character (and comes from the very mouth) of the story’s male protagonist, Dr. Jim, a highly original, if eccentric, thinker of exceptional intelligence. He’s a brilliant scientist, but his brilliance is matched by a tendency to float above reality, rather than be grounded in it.

His soul-mate and wife Carol is the opposite, which makes the two of them a perfect complementary pair. I wanted to write about this, too: what’s the recipe for a successful relationship? Why do people fall in love, and how do they stay in love? How can love continue to thrive through the ups and downs we all experience?

One of the ways I believe this happens is when we’re honest with ourselves, when we don’t shy away from who we are. And who we are is a composite: what we think of as ourself is, in fact, many selves. We have public selves and private selves, selves we present to the world and selves we present to our loved ones, which may differ. We also contain selves we’re less comfortable with, selves we may be embarrassed by, selves we may prefer to hide.

Some of these selves are quite primitive, so keeping them buried is understandable. But under certain circumstances they can rear their heads. Stress can trigger their appearance. Hunger can do it. Competitiveness. Passion. Heightened desire of any kind.

This is interesting to me, and it, too, is part of the story.

Not all of the triggers for these hidden selves to emerge are internal. Many come from outside. Other people, for example, have a profound effect on us. So does the food we eat and the air we breathe. Basically any situation we find ourselves in alters us. Broadly speaking, these situations fall into the category of external forces and pressures. In a word, our environment.

This brings us back to epigenetics, which is the system that governs how we interface and interact with our environment. It functions on a sub-cellular level, but in a metaphorical sense it functions on all levels. Emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively, spiritually, we’re in constant flux and constant communication with friends, acquaintances, loved ones, strangers, animals, minerals, plants, molecules, particles of air, and who knows what else. It’s a big world, and each of us is at the center of it. Simultaneously, we’re orbiting everything else. This, I’d say, is the guiding principle and rule number one from the as-yet-to-be-written Perigenetics Handbook.

“Success” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of F&SF.

 

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