In this Author Spotlight, we asked author David Tallerman to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Jenny’s Sick.”
What gave you the idea of a world where people aren’t allowed to die? And in that particular world, what did Jenny find so unappealing?
The story began with Jenny and her peculiar addiction, and the world grew out from there. For Jenny’s situation to be unusual, it made sense that she’d live in a culture that was actively hostile towards it.
However, I wouldn’t say that people aren’t allowed to die, exactly. Death is heavily discouraged, just as it is in our own culture. This society has eradicated illness, and most people, of course, see that as a good thing. But the more you fix things, the more you have to watch to make sure they don’t start falling apart again, and so a great deal of energy goes into protecting against a return to what, again, most people perceive as the bad old days. Inevitably, that’s cost a few freedoms, created a few new hardships.
Partly Jenny is rebelling against that, the sterility of a world kept spotlessly clean. But it’s important to remember that Jenny is an addict, and it’s that more than anything that motivates her actions. I guess that one of the story’s themes is how anything can be addictive, even—or rather, especially—things that damage us.
The narrator seems to feel more indifference for Jenny than anything else, at first. Do you think he might have had more patience and understanding with her addiction, and/or condition, had he had loved her more?
I think the narrator is actually very fond of Jenny, though he’s perhaps too emotionally cut off to understand it himself. But by the time we meet them, what he perceived as a casual relationship has taken this whole new turn, and he simply isn’t invested enough to go the extra distance. Not only does he not understand why Jenny’s doing what she’s doing, he’s terrified that she’ll bring trouble down on him.
In fairness, though, I suspect most people would react in a similar way, and I don’t know if patience, understanding, or even love could have turned Jenny away from the course she chooses.
Despite the fact that he doesn’t want anything to do with her being sick—it’s taboo—he finds himself looking up more information on the matter. What intrigues him so much, and why?
For that matter, why doesn’t he just walk away in the first instance, or try and force help on Jenny? His feelings are more complex than he dares to admit. Again, it’s partly an addiction thing. The narrator is telling himself that he wants a certain lifestyle, but there’s a definite lure to what Jenny offers—danger, non-conformity, and as you say, something extremely taboo.
In a way, they’re two very similar characters undergoing a parallel experience. Jenny’s addicted to her sickness and the narrator is addicted to Jenny—at least as long as she’s sick.
Doctor Meier goes over options available for Jenny, and what’s not included on the list is letting Jenny die, which seems to be what she wants. Why has this society removed that as an option?
For the same reason ours has, I suppose. I guess the logic is that suicide is an irrational impulse, ergo anyone who’s suicidal is irrational and shouldn’t get to decide whether or not they stay alive. I’ve always been fascinated and a little bewildered by the fact that until the 1960s you could be legally prosecuted in the UK for trying to kill yourself. To some extent, “Jenny’s Sick” is that taken to an extreme.
Then again, Jenny isn’t suicidal at the beginning of the story. She has the option not the take the green pill, but she always does. So Doctor Meier may be right in seeing her will to die as another symptom of her sickness. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this one!
Our narrator struggles with knowing what to do for Jenny: does he let her go through gene therapy, or does he stay by her side through rehabilitation. Although he immediately agrees to the former, why do you think he struggles inwardly with his decision?
It’s important to remember that “Jenny’s Sick” takes place over a number of years. Imagine being called upon to take care of someone you’d been intimate with, say, three years ago, it’s certainly not something you’d rush into. Also, throughout the story, the narrator is wrestling with his own fears. Another aspect of the society in “Jenny’s Sick” is that good, well-paid work is extremely scarce. The narrator is astute enough to realise that if he doesn’t intervene, the results for Jenny could be catastrophic; he knows, if perhaps not consciously, what Jenny’s “cure” will involve. But taking the time to help her, and thereby missing a rare job opportunity could be almost as disastrous for him.
In a way, Jenny achieved the death she wanted in the first place. Do you think she hoped for that all along?
That was definitely how I felt when I wrote the story. Now, I’m less sure. Coming back to “Jenny’s Sick” after a few month’s absence, I wonder how much we can trust our narrator here. Is he perhaps too interested in wrapping up his own part of the tale? If Jenny was really cured, could he justify walking away the way he does? Jenny is profoundly damaged, in conflict with her society and herself, and she has an addiction that she can’t control, which escalates as the story progresses. People don’t get hooked on hard drugs because they want to die, and yet many, many people die from drugs.
Okay, I’m going to come right out and actually answer one of these questions! No, I don’t think Jenny wanted to die all along. I’m not even convinced that she’s destroyed herself by the story’s end.