Originally printed in 1986, do you feel like the theme and message of “The Brains of Rats” has changed — or could — according to the status of gender in the current climate? What kind of changes in gender equality do you feel adds to the strength of the story?
Gender identity, for many of us, is not binary. It’s pleasantly hazy, or can be pleasant, and should be. It’s slippery. Today there’s a growing consciousness of this inherent fluidity. There are pockets where the words “male” and “female” are obsolete, even offensive. Where L, G, B, T, Q, and Z are beginning to lose their meaning. But these pockets are few and far between. The vast majority of our country and our world is as rooted in the same gender definitions and stereotypes as ever. This is changing, and I expect will continue to change. Global warming has taught us that even glaciers don’t last forever.
From a biological standpoint, gender identity — and the physical effects of gender identity — is no different today than it was 100,000 years ago. We have the same X chromosome, the same Y. This, of course, will also change. Genotype will catch up to phenotype, possibly through natural selection but more likely through genetic engineering. We’ll tweak our X and our Y to produce perfect offspring, with perfect gender identities, perfectly adjusted, in perfect environments.
Could you lead us through the inception of “The Brains of Rats”?
To be honest, I don’t remember the story’s “inception.” I doubt there was a single, triggering flash of light. Joan of Arc played a part, that innocent, ingénue face of hers as brought to us by Ingrid Bergman in the ’48 film version. Innocence, culpability, gender identity, and sexual politics have been recurring themes in my writing and my life.
“The Brains of Rats” has also been classified as a horror story, and many often feel that horror brings out a lot of elements about humanity that we can explore more effectively through science fiction. How do you think the horror aspect of this story illuminates the science fiction element?
The things that are horrifying to us, that paralyze us with fear, release their grip somewhat when we speak them aloud. Fear lives in the primitive brain; stories come from the outer edge adept (more or less) at sympathy and rationalization. Science fiction is the quintessential art, the great joke, of imposing reason on what is essentially irrational.
The big laugh in this story is hard to pin down . . . there’re so many.
Given the knowledge of genetics and medicine in this story, how much of a history did you have with the subjects before writing “The Brains of Rats”?
I’ve been a practicing physician for nearly forty years. Most everything medical in my stories is either true or could be. I’ve had a particular and lifelong interest in genetics. My very first job, back in the ’60s, was in one of the early genetics labs. In my recent story, “Success,” I discuss the relatively new field of epigenetics, and propose another, as-yet-undescribed, higher level of genetic organization, which I call perigenetics.
What might we be seeing from you in the near future?
My newest story, “Your Quantified Self,” is a look at the quantified self movement. You can read an abridged version of it in the December issue of New Scientist (newscientist.com/article/mg22430004.700-your-quantified-self-a-short-story.html). My current project is a look at common problems and themes of health and disease from the ages of twenty to fifty. Part memoir, part instruction manual, part musings of a lifelong observer of our bodies and minds: a work of non-fiction, one hopes.<
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