Q+A with Eugene Fischer

Eugene Fischer went to college at Trinity University where he got a B.S. in physics. In 2008 he attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at UCSD, and then in 2011 started his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There he established a course on Reading and Writing Science Fiction, the University’s first creative undergraduate science fiction course, which is still being taught. His novella The New Mother was the cover story of the April/May 2015 edition of Asimov’s magazine. It won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction that explores or expands notions of gender, came in second place for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short science fiction, and was nominated for the Nebula award for Best Novella. That Nebula nomination got it translated into Chinese for Science Fiction World, and the Spanish edition was just recently released by Cerbero PressNueva Madre is now available for purchase here. Fischer currently resides in Austin, Texas where he spends his time working on fiction.

The New Mother is told through Tess Mendoza, a journalist devoted to covering the recent phenomenon of GDS or Gamete Diploidy Syndrome. GDS is a sexually contracted mutation that allows women to reproduce without men. Part of the women population begin to involuntarily and incessantly bear what are essentially small clones of themselves, thus threatening the future existence of men everywhere. Tess travels all over to interview politicians, scientists, women who have contracted GDS for her next big article. The New Mother is a fascinating “What if?” that unravels the various and intricate dynamics of society.

Rebecca Marino: You have a background in science, which is not at all surprising to hear after reading The New Mother. Can you tell me about how you came up with the concept for the novella and how much of it was informed by that background?

Eugene Fischer: As an undergrad I studied physics and mathematics, but I’m very interested in biology and have tried to stay as literate in the field as possible, being a layman. One of my college friends who was a biology major introduced me to a genus of bacteria called Wolbachia that infects insects and can cause many fascinating and complex changes to their reproductive behavior. There’s one variety that infects aphids and basically does to them what GDS does to human women in The New Mother, switching them from being sexual reproducers to asexual reproducers.

When I heard about this, it was immediately clear to me that it could be the seed for a very good science fiction story; there’s a large body of SF literature exploring parthenogenesis, but I was pretty sure having it be an infectious condition would be a new twist on the idea. I was also pretty sure that I wasn’t yet myself a good enough writer or knowledgeable enough person to tackle the project. I think that would have been around 2006, and I didn’t write the first draft of the story until I started grad school in 2011, so I spent five years thinking about it and worrying someone would beat me to it whenever I saw popular science articles about Wolbachia.

RM: As with most great sci-fi, you explore the political response with a lot of depth and from every angle. Was that difficult? Did you feel any personal alignments change when considering each perspective?

EF: Part of the task I set myself for the story was thoroughness. I’m a great admirer of the work of Ted Chiang, who never leaves any meat on the bone when exploring his speculative conceits. I wanted The New Mother to feel as thoroughly imagined as one of Ted’s stories. But I was writing it while a grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was at that time just starting to really embrace genre fiction (there are now lots of SF writers there, with plenty of institutional support), so I wanted it to also be a story that employed the tools of interiority I was learning from the many fine writers of psychological realism among my classmates and teachers. My goal was to produce something so rigorously conceived as to satisfy a hard-SF aficionado but sufficiently character-driven and complex to engage readers of realist fiction. And yes, this was difficult. I went through seven drafts over three years before reaching the published version.

Being thorough about the political implications involved a ton of research into such things as social responses to disease and the ways that gender is politicized. People who’ve read Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On will easily recognize it as an influence. I was reading Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender around the same time, too. And in ways more to do with style than content, the feature writing of Gene Weingarten was quite influential. I also surveyed past SF treatments of parthenogenesis to make sure I was finding something new to say about it. A lot of work went into making the world feel as rich as I wanted it to.

As for my own political allegiances among the many articulated in the story, the only real shift of opinion I can remember came from Randy Shilts’s persuasive argument that lifestyle profiling of blood donors to exclude high-risk populations was a necessary evil during the initial, pre-HIV-test years of the AIDS epidemic and could have saved many lives if done sooner. I grew up with the ban on gay men giving blood as a clearly discriminatory practice, absurd when blood donations were routinely and trivially screened for HIV. My surprise at learning that systemic demographic profiling was once the prosocial, humanitarian choice is reflected in Tess’s interview with Donald Noyce in the story.

Aside from that, the real challenge wasn’t finding my own beliefs among the many perspectives I wanted to explore but rather making sure I didn’t put my thumb on the scale too heavily. I wanted to show actual diversity of opinion, not a series of straw men to be toppled in service of my own views. (It helped to anchor the narrative in a partisan viewpoint character; Tess tries to be professionally impartial but isn’t very good at it—a conceit that allowed the presence of a biased perspective to be illustrative of character rather than indicative of specific authorial endorsement. At least, I hope it did.)

I personally think our sexual dimorphism is nothing more than a happenstance of evolution, not invested with any kind of fundamental ethical importance. There are many in the story who believe that GDS heralds the extinction of men, and while the validity of that fear is left up to the reader, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable thing for people in the story to worry about. If GDS were to occur in the real world, I would have sentimental and aesthetic reasons to want preserve the human male phenotype if possible but not at the expense of individual human rights, which are ethically charged in a way that supersedes aesthetics and sentimentality. I’d rather see my own morphology disappear into history than persist via the subjugation of other people. But I suspect that would be a minority opinion among those facing the prospect of ecological irrelevance, and I know that readers of the story have come away from it with very different feelings about GDS, ranging from the utopian to the apocalyptic. I consider that a kind of success.

RM: The New Mother has already been translated into Chinese and now Spanish. What’s that process like? What would you like to see next for this novella?

EF: Having my work translated into other languages has been both very exciting and surprisingly mundane. I find the idea of translation fascinating; I grew up reading Michael Kandel’s translations of Stanisław Lem and marveling at how the intricate wordplay and verbal playfulness could be transported across language barriers. In grad school I had friends in the translation program and saw they were exploring a body of scholarship at least as deep and nuanced as my own. But often the translation process happens completely independently from the original author. The New Mother was translated into Chinese for Science Fiction World as part of a series they did translating that year’s Nebula Award nominees. I signed the contract, then time passed, and I received my money and contributor’s copies of the magazines, but I don’t even know who did the translation, nor the accompanying illustration. On my end it was very much just a matter of signing my name and waiting.

The Spanish version was a little different. For Nueva Madre I was approached directly by the translator, Arrate Hidalgo, who was a fan of the story. She asked if she could translate it and arrange Spanish publication, and I was again happy to consent. It just came out this week from Editorial Cerbero with a gorgeous cover by Cecilia García. Since I was already in contact with Arrate, I was able to talk with her about the translation, a thrilling experience for me.

Writing a story, I spend hundreds of hours making thousands of decisions about word choice, structure, tone, information release—so many careful choices and alternate possibilities and discarded trials that are invisible to the reader. The process involves an investment of energy and emotion and time that is completely private; there’s no real way to make it a shared experience. The only person who comes close to having as intimate a relationship with the text as the author is a translator, who also has to engage with it as part of a detailed sequence of aesthetic decision-making. So it was great to talk to Arrate about the choices she made translating various parts and why she made them and what works differently in Spanish and how that had to be accounted for. I think I asked her questions about the experience of translating my story for two hours, awash with voyeuristic glee.

As for what I’d like to see next for the story, right now I’m not sure. Readers of the initial publication in Asimov’s will recall the note that I was working on a novel set 20 years later. That work got interrupted when The New Mother was optioned for television, and I instead spent a year iterating treatments for a TV adaptation (I have outlines for four seasons of television arcs). I believe that project died on the vine, possibly due to neglect on my part.

I confess that recent political events in the United States have made writing near-future political SF a less exciting prospect for me. Back in 2013 I was thinking of terrorism researcher Louise Richardson’s research that the formation of terrorist movements requires three things: a disaffected population, an enabling group, and a legitimizing ideology. It seemed to me then that the so-called men’s rights activists and related folks in the more entitled regions of the Internet had the latter two elements but were in fact quite privileged despite their claims of disaffection. But if GDS were to arise, the terroristic radicalization of such groups seemed a likely science-fictional extrapolation, and one worth exploring, just as I wanted to explore the role of polyphony and internecine conflict within progressive movements.

Currently, though, writing about the radicalization of entitled American men feels less like science fiction and more like depressing allegorical journalism. I was at a wedding reception recently where someone made the argument that while these connections are clear and disheartening in my head, a narrative that explicitly connects those dots could still be of social value and that recent events don’t invalidate the importance of looking at the mechanisms of compromise between individual and group actors within progressivism. I think she had a point.

But still, after the 2016 election I took a bit of a break from the material and haven’t decided how to return to it yet. I still know many more stories in this world that are probably worth telling. I guess if anyone wants to make a TV show about women giving birth to clones of themselves without men involved and how that makes society go apeshit, talk to my agent?

RM: “Feminism isn’t merely a threat to male privilege anymore. Now a woman’s right to biological self-determination is viewed as targeting not just the patriarchy, but the very existence of men.”

This extrapolation is amazing. The world of science fiction (as with just about everything) is dominated by heterosexual men, so it was really refreshing to not only read this story from the point of view of a queer woman but to see that feminism played such a prominent role. Was this central to things from the beginning? Or was it something that just naturally revealed itself as you thought it out?

EF: When I first had the idea back in 2006, I knew very little about feminism and certainly wouldn’t have self-identified as a feminist. But I was aware that there was a ton of extant thought about the relationship between gender and society and that I would need to become conversant in it to write the most artistically successful version of the story that had begun to vaguely coalesce in my mind.

I first attended WisCon, the annual feminist science fiction convention, in 2009 and have been going ever since. By the time I started graduate school in 2011 I was already a feminist, and so feminism was shaping my thinking when I wrote the first draft. In that respect it was central from the beginning.

The creation of Tess as the story’s POV character was a very top-down process rooted in thematic concerns. I knew I was writing a story about a shift in long-established social norms, one that would result in scrambling redefinition of ingroup vs. outgroup for many people. The correct viewpoint to observe such a shift seemed to be a character who would experience those lines of allegiance moving beneath her feet.

I wanted someone who, with respect to the “mainstream” (that is, your aforementioned dominion of white, heterosexual men) was as distantly displaced into the outgroup as possible yet might still be claimed as ingroup after GDS-inspired realignment. “Sure, you’re a Lebanese-Mexican-American lesbian, but you’re still a sexual reproducer who could birth a baby boy, so you’re on our team” was about as far as I could envision that thorny, self-serving olive branch extending. I built the rest of Tess Mendoza from that seed.

An anecdote: At the afterparty for the 2016 Nebula Awards in Chicago, I was sitting exhausted on a couch, searching myself for any remaining social ability, when A. M. Dellamonica—an award-winning author and gay woman herself—claimed the seat next to me with palpable authority, turned, and said, “So, E. J., I’ve been wanting to ask you: Why lesbians?”

I, being a predominantly heterosexual and masculine-presenting individual who is in no fashion a lesbian, thought, OK, some words are going to come out of my mouth now; I hope they’re good ones and offered a tired-tongued version of the above explanation. I guess it was satisfactory because she would later buy The New Mother for reprint in Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. Her introduction to that volume opens with the question, “Why lesbians?”

RM: What are you working on now?

EF: The vast majority of my work hours are currently devoted to reading for the 2017 Tiptree Award, for which I’m a juror. It’s an award for SF that explores or expands ideas of gender, and anyone can nominate things for it at Tiptree.org. As you might imagine, there are a lot of nominees to get through.

As for writing, most actively I’m working on a story that I’ve been describing to people as Carmen Dog meets A Star is Born, starring Betty Boop. It does literally star Betty Boop, or at least a version of her I’ve created drawing on the public domain portions of her filmography. I’m hacking my way through the second act now. I’ve read the first part of it at a couple of conventions, and people seem to like it. I hope to finish it by the end of the year, though that’s starting to look unlikely.

I’m also taking another stab at a science fiction story about determinism that I’ve been trying to make work for years now. It’s a philosophical concept and project to which I am obsessively devoted and therefore approaching with likely self-defeating perfectionism. I’ll figure it out someday but have settled into an attitude that that one will just take as long as it takes.

I have a completely realist story I’m trying to sell titled “You Are An Invalid”; it’s about infirmity, addiction, and the way attitudes toward health and health care can warp relationships. I’m inordinately proud of how it turned out, and so is nobody else, as this story is now responsible for over 50% of the rejection letters I’ve gotten in my career to date. It’s still floating around out there.

RM: What are some of your favorite sci-fi books and authors?

EF: Octavia Butler (literally everything she wrote, but start with Lilith’s Brood or Bloodchild and Other Stories).

Ted Chiang (literally everything he’s written, but start with Stories of Your Life and Others, and resist the temptation to seek out copies of all his other stories because he’s under contract for another collection).

Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and What I Didn’t See and Other Stories).

Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners and Get in Trouble).

Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties).

Stanisław Lem (The Cyberiad).

Thomas Disch (The Genocides, Camp Concentration, and On Wings of Song).

Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle).

Walter Tevis (The Man Who Fell To Earth).

Greg Egan (start with Permutation City or a short story collection).

Jo Walton (My Real Children).

Iain M. Banks (the Culture series and The Algebraist).

China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, The City and The City and Embassytown). 

Maureen McHugh (everything she’s written, but start with China Mountain Zhang).

George Saunders (Tenth of December, also everything else).

I’m pretty sure I could keep at that indefinitely, so I’ll stop. Also, several of those authors wrote things that wouldn’t be considered SF and might not even think of themselves as SF authors. This is all fine and healthy.


Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX.

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