My first thought when I finished this story: Rachel, you are absolutely crazy. And I mean that in a good way. Such a daring story, complex, layered, well-constructed, subtle in some ways, and disturbing. I can honestly say, I could come up with a lot of questions around this piece. But I need to narrow it to a handful. “The Debt of the Innocent” originally appeared in Farah Mendelsohn’s Glorifying Terrorism anthology, whose introduction said, “the purpose of the stories and poems in this book is to glorify terrorism,” which was meant as a statement against the Terrorism Act 2006. On the state of health care and specifically on keeping children alive, and the disparity that not everyone has access to life-saving resources, Colleen Mondor reviewed this story (in “The Right to Read Science Fiction” at bit.ly/2jF3Dcp), saying, “we are already here, living it, although many people, who have likely never been truly poor, would deny that.” If we agree with Mondor, then what this story does is nothing less than bring middle/upper class America into the experiences of those who struggle considerably more. Do you agree with this assessment, and if so, was this part of the intention?
In a way, this spans two questions. First, there’s the urgency of responding to the kind of censorship that the U.K. was trying to impose on writers and readers in the Terrorism Act of 2006. The Act sought to bar anything that could be construed as “glorifying terrorism.” On the surface, this may seem appealing—after all, terrorism is bad. But even laying aside the free speech argument that can be made in response, a law so broad is inherently a problem. The United States was founded by traitors, and their acts could have been considered terrorism. Yet I’m proud of the founding of the United States, and would write with pride about those men and their actions. (Also, as Mondor points out, there’s the whole Star Wars franchise which would have to go.)
Then, of course, there’s the specific form this story takes. I think Mondor is right that we live in a society closer to the one that’s being depicted than a lot of people think we do, especially now that we’re seeing the rollback of the progress we’d made toward universal health care. When I wrote the story in 2006, I was writing in response to news stories about poor infants having support withdrawn because their parents couldn’t pay. After reading this story, a friend and critique partner told me that this kind of thing would never happen in the United States; we wouldn’t let babies die because their parents had no money. But it had indeed been happening at that moment.
So, yes, I suppose I was writing in Mondor’s mode. At its best, fiction can reveal things to us about ourselves or our world. Near future science fiction is poised in a particular, unusual way that can sometimes reveal things that are already happening. Paolo Bacigalupi has discussed this as an element in his books. Children are already used as labor in intensely dangerous salvage industries; children are already mutilated and traumatized as soldiers for horrifying causes that aren’t their own. Adding a science fictional element—in the case of this story, a widely adopted policy with a cause that people recognize; in Bacigalupi’s case, adding an affiliation with the United States—can give people a new angle for looking at ongoing global situations.
The role of socio-politics in fiction is controversial. Ian McEwan, in Sweet Tooth, portrays governments actively attempting to manipulate society through fiction. Do you think it’s important to make a stand or a statement through fiction? Is fiction, by its nature, political? Or is it better, or even possible, to attempt to tell a story that doesn’t send some sort of social or political message?
I believe that fiction is by its very nature political, and that it is impossible to write fiction that doesn’t have political implications (which is different than carrying a deliberate message). This story contains issues that many people recognize as political: health care, energy use, terrorism. The story also includes issues that some people consider political: racism, interracial adoption, gay marriage, and surrogate motherhood. But really there are plenty of background things that no one much thinks about. The story depicts a money-based economy, unrestricted travel between continents, nuclear families, and a lot of other things that are part of the background noise of our society. Hand it to an ancient Roman, and they would probably find many things I’d never notice which nevertheless have sociopolitical consequences. Even if art does nothing more than hold a mirror to reality, reality is political. (And, of course, mirrors always create a degree of change and distortion.)
Ruling classes throughout time have always regarded fiction as potentially dangerous to their power. There are poems forbidden to be written, songs forbidden to be sung, books considered to be so hazardous that they must be put to the fire. We don’t have the Hays code regulating Hollywood anymore, but we still have film ratings, and even if ratings are overall a positive (I think the issue is more complex than “all good” or “all bad,” but even if so), they’re still ways to assert political control over content.
McEwan’s government wouldn’t be the first to use fiction for propaganda, and there will be many more. You can argue the United States does it now when we pass on mythologized versions of our history like George Washington’s cherry tree. Historical narratives and fictional narratives intersect in a lot of ways. Humans think in stories, and act in societies. The two are always going to be intertwined, at least a bit.
Obviously, there are a couple of topics on offer that some people would find shocking, or even hard to read. For many, terrorism and violence against children are triggers. Was this story difficult to write for those reasons? Not to mention, on the other hand, do you worry about the ways in which people might read it, and does that make the writing difficult?
This was a very difficult story to write. One criticism people have made of it is that I don’t do as good a job getting into Jamie’s head as I do into the heads of the people whose children have died. That’s quite possibly true, and if it is, then I expect it’s true for obvious reasons. Thinking of killing children—of killing anyone in your care – is deeply distressing and incomprehensible to me, as it should be to anyone. Killing at all is something terrifying that I can’t comprehend, but killing someone dependent on you adds a deep, abiding horror. (This is not to say there’s something wrong with parents who have the fleeting intrusive thoughts about hurting their infants, something I understand to be common—those people tend to be deeply, appropriately distressed by the involuntary images.)
That said, one way I deal with fear is to write about it, or try to imagine it. I’m comically afraid of blood, for instance, so the idea of fetishizing it makes my stomach do a flip—that’s why I wrote a story in grad school about someone who does. Trying to write about an act like this is a way of staring directly into that fear.
I was about fifteen minutes away from the towers on September eleventh. I don’t want to co-opt anyone’s grief or terror about that. Fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes, and fifteen minutes is a big deal. I didn’t lose anyone. I didn’t watch the towers fall next to me. I was afraid of more terrorist attacks, but not with anywhere near the same justification as many, many others. Yet, I think I’ve spent so much of the past sixteen years emphasizing that I have less right to be upset about it than many others that I’ve also denied the fact that it did impact me greatly. I was nineteen, still adjusting to living away from home, and it was the defining moment of my young adulthood, one that severely and lastingly changed the world I’d grown up in.
Several years ago, I became obsessed with disasters where people are trapped somewhere by malevolent human agency in a way where escape is visible but unattainable—mostly fires and sinking ships. Over time, as I’ve learned the outlines of this particular obsession, I’ve come to believe it’s my way of trying to learn about and cope with the impact of 9/11. At nineteen, we made jokes about how we wouldn’t get bombed, because, what, were terrorists going to target tiny liberal arts schools? But running beneath the jokes was a very real, electric fear.
Whenever we write something and put it out into the world, we know that people will make their own way with the words we’ve put down. When John approached me about reprinting this piece, I was initially very hesitant. I don’t want people to misread the story as an endorsement of violence, whether terrorist violence or state violence, and my concerns about both types continue to mount as I read about things like the normalization of stabbings or shootings at protests.
But I also don’t trust the idea that because something is hard to discuss, we shouldn’t discuss it. Precisely because this topic is frightening, it’s something we need to confront. This takes us all the way back to the premise for the anthology where this story was initially published, I suppose. Banning anything that “glorifies terrorism” only seeks to destroy hard conversations, pushing painful concepts deeper into subterranean territory where they can fester. We learn by talking about things, not ignoring them.
This story seems to have a fresh relevance, scary as that is. Without health care, babies will die. We can and must be prepared to fight without violence.
One of the points on discussion here is the effect of diminishing resources, specifically fossil fuels. It’s a discussion that is prominent in the SF community. Is this a topic that is personal or important for you?
Unfortunately, I think it’s personal for all of us.
I was definitely pre-occupied with this topic when I wrote the piece in 2006. I’m not as preoccupied with it anymore because I don’t think hitting peak oil will be the first energy-related disaster we have to deal with. I think we may see catastrophic, unignorable climate change disasters before we are close to tapping out our oil reserves.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this story that I haven’t asked?
I can talk a lot about this story, and my motivations in writing it, and what I hope people will glean from reading it. But at a certain point, I have to rest on what I’ve said, so I think I’m going to rest here for now.
Rachel, thanks so much for this story. I personally think it’s incredible for so many reasons. What are you working on now that we can look forward to?
I just finished moving from the place where I’ve been unhappy to a new, thriving, creative, and beautiful city! This is already making it way easier for me to work and create.
The easiest way to get a bunch of my new work is to sign up for my Patreon: patreon.com/rachelswirsky.
Every patron receives a new piece of flash fiction or poetry each month. For January, I released something light and funny: “An Open Letter to the Coffee Table Currently in Residence at Mrs. Tabitha J. Mountwhite’s Home, Family Room, By the French Doors.”
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