In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Caitlín R. Kiernan to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Faces in Revolving Souls.”
A motion like the “Provisional Proposition for Parahuman Secession” is a fascinating take on polymorphism. Did your knowledge of paleontology play any sort of role in writing this story?
I didn’t so much draw on paleontology specifically as, more generally, my background in biology and genetics. Though maybe my perspective, which comes largely from evolutionary biology, makes it easier to understand the mutability of species, of both genotypes and phenotypes.
It seems, eventually, given one’s stance on evolution and bio-engineering, this could be an issue in our future. How many years ahead do you think we’d need to jump in order for this to be a possibility?
I think we’d have to jump decades, at least, and assume nothing interrupts the current direction of bioengineering. We already have the technology to clone chimeras, hybrids, at an embryonic and chromosomal stage. There have already been successful transspecies fusions. People have applied for patents on chimeric organisms. The Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act has been introduced to the House of Representatives and the Senate, seeking to ban this sort of research. However, here we’re talking about making genetic and embryonic changes. Making radical changes beyond that stage, the sorts of changes depicted in the story, that’s an entirely different problem, changing an organism’s genetic makeup beyond the blastocyst. It’s the difference between germline engineering and somatic engineering, where, in theory, changes could be made to adults. That’s a big, big jump.
We feel Sylvia’s obvious discomfort and awkwardness throughout the story. She’s gone through quite the ordeal in trying to become comfortable in her own skin and with her own desires, which bears similarity to many common prejudices of today; race, gender, sexuality, to name a few. Was this intentional?
Very much so. I don’t feel like I write many “message” stories, not in a political sense. But in “Faces in Revolving Souls,” the metaphor is pretty obvious. As much as it’s a story about parahumans, it’s also a story about very real prejudices that are with us right now. The prejudices, the social and medical difficulties faced by transgendered persons comes most immediately to mind, but it can be extended to sexual orientation, race, sexism, and so on. Also, clearly, I’m addressing the prejudices encountered by people who choose any sort of extreme body modification.
Succession from the human race is an enormous issue, one I don’t think we’ve dealt with yet as a society. Why do you think these parahumans chose to make such a strong statement, rather than considering themselves just a different subcategory of humanity? Was it the severity of their biological makeup, or did it go deeper than that?
We’re already seeing the emergence of fringe groups who call themselves Otherkin, or therianthropes, or parahumanists. But, I think the point is, there are humans who do not see themselves as humans, and we get back around to issues of body image, dysmorphic psychologies, and morphological freedom. In the story, these people do not self-identify as human, and they feel so strongly about this they’re willing to risk social stigma, and maybe even the loss of fundamental human rights, to be seen as they wish to be seen. And, from a scientific perspective, if you could achieve this sort of somatic engineering, fusing the DNA of adult humans with that other species, you’d essentially create new species every time an individual was altered. They’d be unable to interbreed with humans, so would fail to pass the criteria for the biological species concept.
Things don’t go as Sylvia had hoped. She’s trapped—unable to truly be like the others she feels most at home with—and as the doctor says there’s very little hope of turning back, will her body break down completely? And that was a risk everyone took, in order to become the way they wanted?
Well, I intentionally left the story open ended. But yeah, that’s the chance each of these characters has taken to become a “species of one.” Sylvia knew the risks upfront, but made the decision to undergo the process anyway. Again, the comparisons with transgendered people who undergo hormonal and surgical alterations come to mind. Even now, those changes carry varying degrees of risks. Things can go wrong. What will ultimately happen to Sylvia? I don’t know, honestly. I would imagine she’s facing all manner of catastrophic illnesses following from the rampant emergence of retroviruses in her body, cancers and autoimmune disorders and so on. We see it’s already begun at the end of the story.