I was struck by the similarity to all the laborers in recent decades, who were prescribed Oxycontin to handle their pain, and the huge fallout that led to . . . which we’re still dealing with. It doesn’t seem like people who wind up addicted when they were just trying to keep working get much sympathy in our society, so I was glad to see your portrayal. Can you tell us what inspired this story for you?
This was a story that I’d been mulling over for some time because I know that one day, probably sooner than I think, I’m going to have to explain to my kids that our own family has some history of addiction. I still don’t know how I’m going to do it, quite frankly, but I think fiction offers a starting point of sorts—a way to be honest, but still safely distant at the same time.
A lot of the specifics came together when I read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. He tells a story about the moment he realized he was an alcoholic, when he was faced with the mountain of beer cans in his garage, his “dead soldiers.” And it was that imagery, the tangible accumulation of that dependence, that really struck me as something I feared and recognized. So that became the bookendings for this piece in its beginning and ending with the bottles. King’s initial reaction to his epiphany too—which was not to confront his addiction but to conceal and manage it—was a familiar throughline I embedded into this story as well. The narrator of the piece spends more time reciting rules that he’s “heard” to manage his habit than he ever does stopping himself, because those arbitrary limits and self-made regulations help some folks maintain the illusion of control. The story, for me at least, is about a man breaking through some of that illusion.
It’s interesting that you mention laborers addicted to Oxycontin, too, because I have family members whose work involves waging legal battles against opioid manufacturers, so while that wasn’t a conscious influence, that may have creeped in somewhat and does relate to a point I wanted to explore in the story. I want to be careful here, because addiction is obviously a very complex matter, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. But in my experience, I’ve found that the cultural conversation around the issue often dwells on personal choice or on genetics, either people tend to see it as an individual failure or fated in your blood. But one of the things I’m interested in is how economic incentives, environment, and social forces impact some professions, classes, and groups of people in this respect more than others. Attorneys (a profession I used to be a part of once upon a time), for example, have substantially high rates of alcoholism and substance abuse compared to other professionals. There’s an open acknowledgement and understanding in some lines of work, it seems, that some number of people will develop dependencies in the course of keeping a system running, and I think that’s true of a number of industries.
So with the barrier men in this story, I wanted to raise similar questions about the necessity and origin of their addictions. At first glance, the plasma seems like an obvious aid in their line of work, because it helps them protect their settlement from alien attack. But as you learn where the plasma comes from and the role of the settlement itself under the direction of a corporate entity, you might begin to wonder how necessary any of it—the conflict with the glyconids, appropriation of territory, prevalence of the “rot” in working frontiersmen—really may be.
I loved how the worms seem to use Feynman path integrals to predict the future, so I’m guessing you must have some interest in quantum mechanics. Can you tell us a little about that?
I wish I could say I’m that cerebral, but unfortunately my pop culture understanding of quantum mechanics pretty much ends with the phrase “Feynman path integrals”! I do have an interest in it at a very basic level, but my reasons for choosing a quantum-mechanic-like device had more to do with the character story I wanted to tell.
Most aspects of the glyconids, really, were developed with the narrator’s journey in mind. The fact that they are even these flying serpent creatures (they’re called “skyworms” pejoratively by the barrier men, but they strike me as slightly more majestic, if frightening, gliding snakes), came about because of the mystery of “the barn,” the place where the narrator’s son hears monsters at the start of the story. The sounds, we ultimately learn, are the narrator in the throes of sickness and slithering in the dirt, so knowing that, I wanted to pick a creature with imagery that would echo where he would end up. As the barrier men take more of the plasma, they begin to develop more in common with the glyconids, not just the ability to perceive potential futures, but the snake-like features as they become ill and develop damage to their extremities.
Similarly, I know “visions of the future” is a sci-fi trope as common as time travel or memory retrieval, but I really wanted to use the glyconids’ “prolepsis” in a way that had character and narrative significance that was specific to this story. Again, to me, this is about a man under the illusion that he can control his addiction. With the plasma, his journey involves coming to the understanding that even within a number of wildly different outcomes, his propensity for addiction is constant. At the same time, I don’t think he learns that he’s incapable of doing anything. One thing he can do, at least in the confines of the rules of this world, is recognize the dangers of the environment he’s in, and spare his family from facing those dangers.
I struggled with this ending a bit, too, because it could arguably be an example of the fatalistic view of addiction I mentioned and that I’d like to eschew. There’s a harsh reading of this, where you might say the narrator chooses abandonment and avoids self-improvement or trying to change his own future. But the rules are a little different with this lunar colony than with our reality: the future is semi-knowable, the addiction has a relatively defined source, and the technology to escape it exists. And that’s, really, what I view as the most fantastical/fictional element of the story. If I could guarantee with certainty that my kids would be spared some of these problems by changing the environment they grow up in, I’m sure I would. But real life, unfortunately, is a lot more complex, and as anyone with a family or personal history with addiction knows, it isn’t something you can just leave behind.
It seems like this frontier moon with its strange native life might be part of a larger story. Did you have any plans in that direction, or would you consider it?
I think this story encapsulated pretty much everything I wanted to explore about this world and about this aspect of addiction. But if I ever were to expand on it, I think there’s potentially more to discuss about the involvement of “Corporate” and what this institution might gain at the colonists’ expense.
I wrote another story with similar themes about a lawsuit that takes place on a lunar colony, “A Compilation of Accounts Concerning the Distal Brook Flood”, which was published in the April 2021 issue of Metaphorosis Magazine. There, the focus is much more about the knowledge and involvement of the institution that puts its laborers at risk. So if I were ever to return to this particular colony and ecosystem, I could see that being an angle I’d like to think more about.
What have you been working on lately?
I have another dystopian SF story out this month in Dark Matter Magazine, “The Liminal Men”, which is about a resistance member being hunted by an authoritarian state that uses paranormal soldiers.
And I have a few short stories in the pipeline, in various stages of drafting or submission. One is a dark fantasy that’s an inversion of some of the themes in “Where You Left Me”, about a father unable to leave or give up on a daughter who suffers from an altered state. Then a couple of other frontier science fiction colony stories about disturbing worlds, dysfunctional families, and the enduring, if imperfect, love that sustains people in those dire circumstances. I hope readers will get to see these future stories, or versions of them, soon!
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