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Interview: Nick Wolven on “Galatea in Utopia”

Tell us a bit about “Galatea in Utopia.”

Well, Galatea is pretty much what it claims to be. The title isn’t ironic. The world of the story is a utopia, which is to say, it can probably be accurately described as somebody’s personal hell. Any given utopia is someone else’s dystopia, after all.

Really, the distinction between utopia and dystopia is a silly one, since it largely comes down to a question of tint and shading. A better way to look at the matter, perhaps, is to say that both utopias and dystopias spring from the same insight, which is that once a community has solved its solvable problems, only unsolvable ones remain. Stability, security, basic sewage treatment—clear up those little hassles, you’re left with the real questions, the doozies. What’s a good life? And, supposing you’re bold enough to venture an answer—how can people can be convinced to live it?

Of course, one of those doozies, perhaps the dooziest of all doozies, is the problem of love, which I’ll define here as the problem of offering oneself to be transformed by another. It’s my conjecture that in a world where people are safe, free, and equipped with near godly technology, those transformations become all the more frightening. We will become as gods—and we’ll quarrel like Olympians.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Hmmmm, any story about identity is by nature very personal. And part of the point of writing a work of fiction is to make the personal impersonal, to put on a mask. So I should probably keep my mouth shut.

But I’ll say this much.

Right now, people are arguing a lot about gender identity. Those debates are shaped, I think, by an important fact, which is that the cost of coming out as anything other than cisgender is very high. So the people who do so are by nature people willing to pay a high price—mostly, people so strongly committed to a particular gender identity that they’re willing to put up with a lot of hassle. Anyone without such strong commitments can sort of hide out in the cis world, coasting along on the prevailing norms. If you suspect you’d rather be a woman, but you’re basically content to be a man, why make a big thing of it? Why not just lie low?

I’ll bet there are a lot of people who don’t fit neatly into the current, dominant, highly politicized categories. People who aren’t strongly committed to being masculine or feminine, or cisgender or transgender, but who aren’t exactly anti-binary either. People who might have a slight preference one way or the other, or preferences that slip and slide over time, or who feel playful or uncertain or experimental—and who have the luxury of passing as cis, even though they’re not deeply invested in that identity. The ambi-gendered and the meso-gendered and the flexi-gendered and the inchoately gendered, and on and on. If the cost of being non-cis comes down, more of those people will start to act on their preferences, and the cis/trans distinction that drives so much current discussion might melt into something more complex and various—leading to new categories, new divisions, new struggles.

Hence the idea at the heart of the story—well, let’s play the sci-fi game and call it a “prediction”—that we might eventually see the gradual, halting, and painful emergence of a new sexual distinction, one based on something other than what we usually call gender.

Picture two groups, locked in conflict. In our first corner, “fixers,” who are passionately committed to one gender but feel pressured to change for the sake of others. And in our second, “fluxers,” who feel pressured to pick a clear gender even though they’d rather play around.

So who’s pressuring whom? Who’s being treated unfairly? Can such different people, with such radically different experiences, ever learn to get along?

Those questions are the inspiration behind the story.


What would you want a reader to take away from “Galatea in Utopia?”

My ideal reader is always the same …

A thirteen year-old boy, thirty or forty years hence, who finds a moldering collection of forgotten science fiction stories in an ancient vacation house somewhere in the forests of northern Vermont. Frustrated by the building’s laggy and antiquated VR gaming hookup, he repairs to certain nooks in a shadowy upstairs hallway, where thumb-smeared bookcases are laden with the paperbacks of an era now described, by the chattering faces on the daily babblefeeds, as the Great Age of Literacy. Grateful, for once, for his e-school training in deciphering written script, the young boy (or is he something other than a boy?) spends an afternoon reading the forgotten literature of that bygone age, after which he yawns, throws the book aside, runs out to see what his robo-pets are up to, and promptly forgets everything about the tale he just absorbed. But a ghost of the written work lingers in his soul—a relict image—a resilient dream—like a transmission from some alternate universe encoded in his long-term memory. Over the years, it works its silent, insidious effect, this pseudoconscious parasite of the soul, this adventitious artifact of mind. And one day, decades hence, on a planet not our own, or on a vessel surfing the rifts between those strange concentrations of stuff we call stars, he remembers, this boy who is no longer a boy, a fleeting scene from another man’s recorded dream. Under its influence, steered by visions whose provenance he can no longer trace, he makes a choice that sways the fate of galaxies …


What was the most difficult aspect of writing “Galatea in Utopia,” and what was the most fun?

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: the worst part of the writing process is publishing the darn stuff. The fun part is thinking, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a story!” Everything after that initial rush always plays out like a slow loss of faith.


“Galatea in Utopia” appears in the January/February 2018 issue of F&SF.

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