– 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.
Q: Please tell us a bit about “Through Mud One Picks a Way.”
A: It’s the second story set in the same future. The first was “The Nambu Egg,” published in F&SF a couple of issues earlier than “Through Mud One Picks a Way.” In both stories a planet has been found with a breathable nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere and gravity that can be tolerated by humans, but just barely. Only hardy specimens can survive for long on the slightly heavier-than-Earth gravity. A woman returns after sixteen years on the colony world. The means of travel is complex. The body is disassembled, information shot from one world to the other on tachyon jets, and reassembled with slight improvements when it arrives at its destination. Uxanna is back after sixteen years have passed subjectively, but four generations have gone by on Earth. She knows no one, is unfamiliar with the massive changes in the culture and rapid advances in technology, and is forced to do work for a man of questionable character to survive. Cobb, her employer, surprises her one day by revealing three Cetians in a muddy pit in the basement of the ramshackle building that he operates from. Uxanna’s job on Cet Four involved communicating with these creatures, so she gets down in the mud with them and does her best to see what’s on their minds.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
A: “The Nambu Egg” was a science fiction mystery, and it involved a mathematical construct posed by the Cetians to provide the solution. I felt that there was a lot more to be worked out in this particular universe, and one way to explicate it was through a character who had lived on both worlds in two different eras. Uxanna is not glamorous. She’s a big, powerful woman (necessary for survival on the colony world) who abandoned her own child and fled our planet. “Lighting out for the territory,” as Mark Twain put it. The story explores my ambivalence about politics, economics, and the uses of science, not to mention the entanglement of these disciplines.
Q: What kind of research did you do for “Through Mud One Picks a Way?”
A: I read books by Sean Carroll and Brian Greene in an attempt to keep up with physics, and seized on the recent discovery of planets orbiting Tau Ceti, a much closer star than we’d seen with planets before. Even so, I tried to maintain a sense of alienation, due to the vast distances in space and time involved even to the nearer solar systems, but my research among our own species was probably most important. I’m sort of an eccentric character collector. I get a kick out of meeting people who are out of the mainstream, and may even be difficult or cranky. Uxanna and Cobb are both eccentric characters, and would be in any time period, I suspect.
Q: Was this story personal to you in any way, and if so how?
A: That’s a tough question. All stories are personal to the people who write them, but in this particular case I think it’s my concern for where we are going as a society, both in the West and globally, and where the cascading revelations of science are taking us. There was a time when one could keep up with the new discoveries, more or less, but now they’re coming so fast and furious that most people don’t even bother to try. What will this mean for ordinary people, especially for those who are on the margins of society? I’m not interested in superheroes or masters of martial arts, but in people who might actually exist a few generations from now. They’ll make mistakes, fall on their faces, be confused by developments beyond their comprehension, but most of them will keep going regardless of setbacks. To my way of thinking, they’re the true heroes of our beleaguered species.
Q: Neat title. How did you come up with it?
A: It’s a line from a long narrative poem, “Red Cotton Night-Cap Country or Turf and Towers,” by Robert Browning. Gordon first saw the novelette under the title “Uxanna’s Friends,” but I didn’t care much for that and cast about until I found the Browning quote. It fits the action and flavor of the story.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got several in the works, including a sequel to “Through Mud One Picks a Way,” and a story about a mysterious crossword puzzle. I’ve been thinking about selecting stories for a collection, if I can find a publisher!
Q: Anything else to add?
A: Just that seeing my stories in F&SF is always a pleasure. I’ve been reading the magazine since I was a kid, and we’re almost the same age. I won’t tell you which one of us is a year older.
“Through Mud One Picks A Way” appears in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of F&SF.