I found the character of Jonah to be absolutely repellent at the outset, but no more or less than the receptacle at the Full-Term place—and Fen’s giggling at his horror story. It all seemed eerily plausible. What inspired this world and this story?
I’ve only limited notes on how this story came about, but it looks as if I was taking as my keynote the paintings of Australian painter Albert Tucker in Melbourne during the Second World War. Some things people have said about Tucker’s art of that period seem to chime with this story:
“In [the exhibition] Images of Modern Evil, Tucker eviscerates the human body for moral meaning. The results are tortured and tormented figures, their warped forms transformed into creatures part human, part monster.” —Janine Burke.
“Tucker’s shock at the disintegration of the world, symbolised by the blacked-out wartime city of Melbourne, led him to imagine a city of darkness inhabited not only by humans but a horde of biomorphic forms.” —Andrew Sayers.
There’s a kind of reverse biomorphism in ”Fifth Star,” with things that ought to be defined living organisms—e.g. human babies—degrading towards the abstract or freeform, and unable to sustain their own life. You can perhaps regard Jonah as one of those things.
The matter-of-factness with which we now regard IVF technology (those of us with the money to access it) is probably another major touchstone. And concern about environmental degradation casts a pretty thick pall over the story, too.
It was fascinating the way you flipped the trope of reproductive value on its head—sperm means multiple payouts but eggs mean only one. What was the thought process behind separating out those values—sperm, separate from eggs, further separated from incubation and mothering?
That came only from the facts of human biology—human women only do have a set number of eggs to donate, whereas men continue to manufacture sperm throughout their lives. So in a society where viable eggs and sperm are rare (and egg-harvesting technology has moved on somewhat from what we have now), women are only going to get the benefit of (i.e. paid for) donating their eggs once, whereas a man can reasonably expect to get some kind of regular income out of donation.
The separation of incubation and mothering from egg and sperm donation was (probably) meant to indicate something of the class system of this future Australia. Having viable eggs and sperm is a chance thing, but if a working-class person happens to get lucky and conceive healthy offspring, we’re not leaving that child’s upbringing to chance. New, well-formed life is such a rarity that it is immediately taken over by higher powers and given every advantage—much as budding athletes these days are transplanted to the Australian Institute of Sport and plied with money and privilege, to give our nation the best chance at the Olympics.
I re-read the line, “I went to the chair; it exclaimed in pain and surprise under me,” several times. It drew a fascinating parallel with Jonah’s response to Malka under him, and the shouting of women giving birth. How do these moments speak to Jonah’s humanity, or lack therof?
I suppose the whole story is about Jonah’s ongoing pain and surprise, which he exteriorises to things like the chair so that he can affect to be cool and unperturbed by everything the world throws at him. He hasn’t got much of a life—very little money, a drudgerous job, no family, not much of a community around him—and in his victimhood, he bears a grudge against pretty much every person or institution he encounters. He’s emotionally and intellectually stunted; he has a sense of the man he ought to be, the family he might have created around him in a different time, the society that might have supported that man and that family, but he’s got no idea, stuck as he is in his own moment, how he might make any move towards that ideal.
Jonah’s like any person who’s been well kicked around and humiliated by life; he’s so busy attending to his own day-to-day needs (and what he sees as his own basic rights) that there’s no room in his life to care for anyone else. He registers all other distresses, but only as far as they help him reassure himself that he’s still staying afloat.
This story dives face-first into taboo material and attitudes without telling us to feel one way or another about them. What is the primary message you’d like to convey?
I don’t generally think of my stories as carrying a message, but hindsight often makes them seem to be clearer statements than they were at the time. I think in this case I’m trying to make the point that environmental degradation ultimately degrades us. If we stop caring, not just about the wholesomeness of our physical environment and the preservation of the natural world, but about the education and quality of life of all levels of our citizens, as a civilization we haven’t a lot to look forward to. How preachy that sounds, said baldly outright instead of in a story!
What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
I’m finishing off the third volume of the Zeroes trilogy, which is an action-packed teens-with-superpowers trilogy I’m writing with Scott Westerfeld and Deborah Biancotti. I’m also writing some new short stories to add to a mostly-reprints collection coming out from Allen & Unwin in Australia next year, called Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories.
Spread the word!