In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Carrie Vaughn to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Amaryllis.”
What inspired the future depicted in your story?
The initial seed of inspiration was my ocean-going characters, who made their livelihood by the sea. I had to find a world to put them in, and I thought about what a positive post-apocalyptic future would look like. That is, the civilization-shattering disaster happened, but humanity didn’t lose all its technology (as I don’t think we would) and has managed, at least in this region, to build a successful, sustainable society. It would look different than our culture, but it wouldn’t be entirely alien.
I brought all this to Paolo Bacigalupi and had a talk with him about what it would take to build that kind of society, and he brought in the concept of social engineering versus technological engineering. That is, most of the problems we’re dealing with aren’t actually technological. We can solve the technology—it’s the social aspects, the social expectations that are at issue.
And then that brought me to a world where attitudes toward childbearing are quite different than what we have. Sustainability is achieved by avoiding overproduction, and that includes having kids.
Do you think science fiction is an effective tool for showing people the necessity of developing a way to forge a sustainable future?
Well, I think it’s a very effective tool for running thought experiments about what could happen if we don’t solve some of these problems. I’m not sure anyone really sees them as a blueprint for how to develop a sustainable future—stories are usually focused on conflict and problems rather than solutions. I worry that people with an aversion to cautionary tales don’t see past that aspect of that kind of story and so blow them off entirely.
What kind of things should governments be doing now to keep the kinds of extreme measures depicted in your story from being necessary?
I don’t know how much governments really can do. It’s back to the social engineering problem. The attitudes of people and the communities they form have to change, and that can’t be legislated.
At what point do you think that “family planning” becomes “community planning,” as it is in your story, and how close do you think we are to that tipping point?
There’s that overused saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I think we’re pretty darned close to some kind of tipping point, since so many family-planning issues are huge hot-button political topics right now: what defines marriage, how children should be educated, the legality of abortion, the necessity of strong sex ed programs, etc. This stuff used to be tucked away behind closed doors or taken for granted, and now it’s in flux, with diametrically opposed philosophies coming into vast, sometimes violent conflict over it.
This is part of why I question a government’s ability to do anything about this, since we’re dealing with people’s fundamental beliefs at this point. How do you convince someone who believes that God wants them to have 19 kids that that sort of lifestyle is unsustainable on a large scale? That the community might see that as a ridiculous drain of resources for one family to demand?
The real tipping point will come when most individual, nuclear families can no longer rely on themselves for the resources they need to survive. When a group of families in a community become interconnected to the point where they depend on each other for survival. When an individual can’t make decisions without having those decisions affect the entire community.
Right now, in the industrialized world at least, a financially successful family or individual can stay pretty isolated from their community, if they so choose. But if there’s ever a cataclysmic loss of resources, that could change.
One of the themes of your story is the faceted nature of “motherhood” and the relationship of mothers and daughters. How did your own experiences of motherhood—as a daughter, a mother, a mentor—go into shaping those aspects of your characters?
Well, the bulk of my experience that went into the story is as a childless woman in her late thirties who seems to lack any kind of biological clock and is frankly quite baffled with the spate of childbearing that’s been going on in my peer group for the last ten years or so. Lately I’ve been trying to tap into that dynamic of wanting kids, having kids, trying to have kids, etc. if nothing else so that I have something to talk about with all these new families. That’s part of why I focused the story on that—how would attitudes about childbearing change in this kind of environment? Will people ever get to a point where they believe that having children is a carefully-guarded privilege rather than something that nearly everybody does as a matter of course?
It’s almost an ongoing joke with some of me and my friends—you need a license to be able to drive a car, but absolutely anyone can have kids, at any time. What if that wasn’t the case? Maybe that shouldn’t be the case. And at that point you have a vast political can of worms. Which is just fascinating, isn’t it?
That brings in the pretty strong point in the story that a woman can be a mother without actually giving birth. The definition of motherhood itself will change in a situation like this. Marie is the mother of her household, and her household is absolutely a family, even though we might not immediately recognize it as such.
You have an interesting mix of high-tech and low-tech in “Amaryllis”: forced, surgically implanted contraception, but adobe housing. What were some of the challenges in keeping a future low-tech world believable?
I started with the assumption that a resources-related apocalypse wouldn’t instantly take society back to a pre-industrial level of technology. People would still have a lot of the bits and pieces—like solar power, wind power, etc.—of modern technology.
Adobe’s an interesting example, because living out in the west and southwest, adobe isn’t necessarily seen as low-tech. Instead, it’s ubiquitous—it’s widely used because it’s so well-suited to the environment, stays cool in the summer, retains heat in the winter, it uses readily available materials, etc. Same with wind power. Wind power is ancient and adaptable. It would be the first technology people would turn to in the absence of coal and oil.
Medical technology is something I imagined that people in this world would hang onto as much as they could. Also, the knowledge of modern fishing and canning techniques aren’t going to vanish.
I wanted to build a community that had obviously banded together to survive, had guarded and nurtured and passed down an important set of technologies to help with that survival, but also maintained a fairly low-tech way of life as a matter of survival.
This kind of thing is going on right now, to varying degrees. There are households using solar and wind power to get off the grid, that have turned to growing and raising their own food as a way to avoid some of the problems associated with industrial agriculture, and so on. I took that movement and tried to extrapolate it to an entire community.