How did “Transitional Forms” start for you?
I was invited to contribute a story to the annual science-fiction edition of Technology Review, the magazine published by MIT. I wanted to write something about biotech, and started to think about a variation on the famous William Gibson quote—“The street finds its own use for technology.” But suppose—what would happen if technology found its own use for itself. What would happen if it started to modify itself? To evolve?
The hot zone is a place of disruption; the technology not only affects the physical environment nearby but the economy, causing a political and legal quagmire. Janine, too, is a massive disruption in Ray Roberts’s life. What role do you see these disruptions having in transitioning Ray and Janine’s society?
We’re a species that has a deep history of massive transitions caused by technology. From stone axes to agriculture, gunpowder to the internet. We’re never quite in control of the things we create. And biotech doubles down on that sense of loss of control, which is why it is hedged around with so many regulations, and is regarded by the public with extreme wariness and, quite often (especially when it’s applied to modifying human bodies and human reproduction) moral queasiness. The hot zone is a zone of containment. An attempt to quarantine, outside laboratory conditions, something that, because it’s evolving in every direction, is too interesting and valuable to be destroyed. And of course attempts at containment out in the world almost always fail. The question is, perhaps, can something useful come out of that failure?
In this story, the reader parses Janine’s story of the yeast scientist as received by Robert. Revealing matters to readers this way really worked for me in terms of me “buying” the emotional content of the work. This seems to illustrate pretty well the relationship between author and reader. What other aspects of your process are there to sort of, well, make the reader meet you halfway? What inspired you to use the story-within-a-story technique?
The stories we choose to tell, and how we choose to tell them, can reveal as much about character as our actions. And it also reframes the story that contains it in what I hope is a useful and amusing way.
One way to read the ending is that Ray seems to believe he can’t be a transitional form, that in some sense he was not ready, or missed his window. Do you think he’s correct?
It’s possible that he knows all along that he’s the equivalent of an evolutionary dead end. But that doesn’t mean he’s irrelevant. Crocodiles once shared the world with dinosaurs. Their evolutionary clock has ticked over very slowly compared to that of, say, birds. Yet they are still pretty fearsome predators, in their particular ecological niche.
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