What triggered the idea of a person being offered a solution to a problem that did not exist for them?
I find psychology fascinating. How do people process sensory information? How do we react to adversity, or to opportunity? Which aspects of our lives are most important to our identity?
“Red Planet” is a counterpoint to a story I wrote a couple years ago. “Harmonies of Time” featured a deaf character who eagerly embraced first a newfound ability to hear, and later an alien time-sense of past and future. In “Red Planet,” I wanted to show a different perspective — someone who is happy the way she is and isn’t interested in acquiring a new sense.
You are a photographer, so sight must be an important sense for you. Was writing this story difficult or painful in light of that? Would you make the same choice Tara does?
It’s hard to say whether I would make the same choice. Certainly if I became blind now, after having had sight my entire life, I would jump at the chance to get my vision back. But there is a huge difference between losing sight as an adult (or even as a child) and never having had it to begin with. What would sight mean to me if I had been born blind? The closest analog would be if someone offered me a new alien sense that was potentially useful, but also disruptive to my current perceptions of the world. But that isn’t quite the same situation, because many aspects of our world are designed for people who can see. Gaining a novel alien sense would make me different. Gaining sight after having been blind made Tara more like everyone else.
Would I make the choice Tara does? In the story, Tara is someone who successfully navigates her life with the senses that she has. She is a scientist, thriving in the academic world, and the only major roadblock that she can’t overcome without sight is the vision test to get to Mars. If I was Tara, I might make the choices she made. Of course, I’m not Tara. So . . . maybe?
Did you research biochemical uses for electric eel cells or theoretical avenues for optical enhancement, or was the futuristic vision treatment something you just imagined?
Modified electrical eel cells for biomedical implants is a real line of research. I stumbled across an article about it, and filed it away as a cool idea that I’d like to use in a story. Modified eel cells make a great candidate for powering biomedical implants because, unlike traditional batteries, there is no danger of toxic chemicals being released if the eel cells fail. They’re just ordinary cells. So the entire system can be implanted under the skin, rather than having an external power source.
There were a couple other topics I researched to write the story — the effect of climate change on phytoplankton morphology, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as a treatment for depression. A common saying in writing is “write what you know,” but I think a good corollary would be “if you don’t know, learn.”
The experiences Tara has as a blind scientist felt authentic — did you work with anyone with a sight disability or have you had experiences that helped you connect to her?
One of the many inspirations for this story was an article written by a blind marine biologist, Dr. Geerat Vermeij, about his experiences in the field. The article gave me a feel for what it was like for a blind person to try to navigate the academic world. I also read articles about teaching biology to students who are blind, to get a feel for different approaches that might be used.
Any new projects on the horizon?
I’ve been playing around with a short story technique I call flashmash. Basically, I write a series of interrelated flash stories and then mash them together into a single story. “Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” was the first of these, and it came out in Clarkesworld last August. Since then, I’ve written a few other stories this way — one of which is forthcoming in Lightspeed later this year.
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