The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Collapsing Sadness

When I was in junior high, I knew this girl who claimed to be a test tube baby. She claimed a lot of fantastic things, like that she had no sense of smell because of the scientific tinkering of her experimental origins, and some other odd physical anomalies. I pretty much knew this was bullshit, but this was back before I could spend 15 seconds typing into a screen on my cell browser “first test tube baby US” and get the name and birthdate of Elizabeth Jordan Carr, born on December 28, 1981. Ms Carr was the 15th test tube baby in the world – as the NYTimes article notes,” in vitro,” the more commonplace term now, means “in glass” – born a full 7 years after the girl I knew had been born. I remember questioning my friend gently about her sense of smell: do you have trouble tasting things? Is it all just bland like you have a cold? Oh no, I taste everything fine. Oh, I thought, bullshit. We were never close or anything – in truth, I didn’t like her much – but I let all this slide.

Even with my somewhat flimsy adolescent class sense, I knew how poor her family was. They – she, her mother, and a round-robin of her mother’s “boyfriends” – lived above a corner grocery, the kind that sells Campbell’s soup for double its price, cigarettes and 3.2 beer. Her family didn’t even have a phone, but used the pay phone on the corner. They weren’t the only ones, and there was this complicated set of protocols and negotiations when you called it – gather ’round children, because pay phones used to exist, and they used to accept incoming calls: the guy who would bang on the door to the stairs leading to their apartment, leaving the phone hanging, the guy who wouldn’t, the corner store owner with an angry, thick accent who would go through periods of 86ing her family (I think for non-payment of their credit, but also for more noise-centered complaints). Corner store owners used to extend credit, young’ens, in a notebook-under-the-register kind of way. They still may, if the great gossiping neighbor center who is Mohammed at the corner store on my block is any indication. I’ve certainly walked out of S-Mart with goods I didn’t have the money for, but just because I forgot my wallet like an idiot. I could be into him for hundreds if I were closer to the edge. There but for the grace of God, etc.

So I knew what she said was bullshit, but I got why she was running that line of bullshit. The science fictional aspects of her supposed conception added a shine of dramatic ethics to her impoverished upbringing. Again, children, this was long enough ago that the whole concept of “test tube babies” had this op-ed worthy hand-wringing about it. You could still run the false-Darwinian line about how in vitro fertilization was violating the spirit, if maybe not the letter, of survival of the fittest with a straight face – nevermind any business about God and His Will and whatnot – and you could run it without hitting millions of children who have been conceived this way since then. I myself know at least a half dozen. I’m not saying that the ethics of in vitro fertilization have been solved or anything. I got into a surprisingly fractious argument with my husband about a specific messed up situation created by IVF, and we concluded our argument with the understanding that even people who generally agree about the broad moral questions are going to get tripped up by issues of gender, personhood, and ownership. At a certain point, all that crystalline logical scaffold teeters and collapses into hard core interpersonal gut-reaction.

Catarina is five years old when her father returns one day with an android named Finn. Cat is five, so she doesn’t quite get what Finn’s extraordinary assistance might mean. There have been automata and AI in this scorched, rebuilding world, but Finn is unique, more and less human than anything that came before. But five years old does not mean but be. She decides Finn is a ghost, because that makes sense to five. My daughter just turned six on Christmas, and we recently had a long conversation about how the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy are obviously me, but Santa is real. As much as I’ve always believed in not running bullshit on my kids, I just didn’t know what to say there. I figure in a year or two the world will inevitably crush her understandings of Santa’s precise reality, and it’s not like I need to be the messenger there. Which is one of the many things that clove me about this story: the way I completely empathized with both parent and child, feeling the hard shocks of understanding when Cat’s mother snaps at Cat’s choices – I wasn’t built to be a housewife; no girl is – while bleeding for the casual judgement. Jesus, what we do not in the name of love, but because of love and our studied ignorances. Finn acts as tutor to Cat, and the world and its ethical understanding changes around them as they change. They move from a world in which the term test tube babies dissolves into the commonplace in vitro fertilization, but that doesn’t mean the hard core interpersonal gut-reaction is just semantics.

I kind of don’t want to get into the mechanics of the plot, because I’m not sure concrete action says anything about the long tides of lived lives. Cat grows; she goes to school; she marries. That’s just facts. But about halfway through, I sat up on the couch and said to my husband, this is so sad, I’m not sure I can take it. I spend the next half of the book near weeping, and if I’m going to be honest, weeping. We are such disastrous creatures, humans, and it’s not such a huge surprise that the consciousnesses we create will be disastrous too. Part of this is that on a very overt level, this is an unrequited love story; this is an emotional response to intrusive technology, and the cultural scaffold is less important than the teetering and its fall into the personal.

I was very careful in the last paragraph not to use the word romance in relation with Finn & Cat, which I think belies in me a certain discomfort with love and sex and the domestic in fiction. Certainly, the term romance applies in many ways, though more in its capital-R incarnation: the Romance. Romanticism attempted to inject strong emotion into the bloody warfare of Classicism, valued folk art as authentic craft, got its rocks off on rocks, trees, and landscape. That’s all in here: a brooding, personal recollection of the world after ecological disaster, with an eye towards the beauty of that devastation; the folk art of weaving that Cat takes up, confusing her scientist parents, and on some level, herself; the near-Gothic near-Freudian setting of the family home, with the father in the basement and the android in the aerie. The opening section, with Cat catching fireflies in a jar, was almost too much for me – such vividly worn shorthand for wonder – but I promise this works long term.

Anyway, at some point, Clarke tips her hat to Kazuo Ishiguro and Maureen F. McHugh, and I smiled at the tip. We’re at the edge of science fiction here that thrills and bleeds with the literary wasteland of cool sentences and felt emotion, that understands that it’s not about whatever jibber jabber about the great Frankenstein’s Oedipal monster, but his daughter, growing up in a world that has transmuted from test tubes to in glass, but in glass in another language. There was a comment thread recently about this odd edge of genre, about how at a certain point science fiction sails over the edge into some more literary metafiction, and the literary metafiction sails right back, and they stand silhouetted on the water. Ishiguro’s clones, McHugh’s chimera, Atwood’s genetic engineering, Whitehead’s zombies, Boudinot’s Age of Fucked Up Shit – these creatures and stories all fall into this strange edge of the science fictional or the literary, one or the other or both in a quantum uncertainty.

But The Mad Scientist’s Daughteris also a romance. It is about love. It is about love in the most collapsingly personal way there is. God, and it’s so, so sad.

I didn’t understand why this novel had been published by Angry Robot, because, so far, what I’ve read from that publisher has been much more pulp sensible. (I am not using the term pulp as a brush-off or indicator of poor quality. Pulp doesn’t give a shit where it’s shelved.) But in writing this review, I get it now. The literary and the science fictional have been doing a dance since New Wave, running the ethics of technology met up with our humanity and the inherent surrealism of such a project, into a martial art of which part of the bookstore to shelve such a thing. Add in romance – the stories of love and the childhood bedroom, of uneasy marriages and disappointed parents – and the dance becomes something…maybe not new, but old, the way we who have lived through gigantic technological upheavals – and that is all of us – navigate the old, messy questions of consciousness and emotion in new mediated ways. This book takes a cell phone and calls that payphone on the corner. Who answers will break your heart. Or, in any case, it broke mine.

I got my copy from Netgalley and Angry Robot, in exchange for a fair review. Thank heavens.

Deck Z: Unsinkable. Undead

SPOILER ALERT: THE BOAT SINKS.

I was talking to a friend about these monster history things. It seems there are two broad classes of them, the classic mash-up (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies et al.) and the secret monster history, like Deck Z: The Titanic: Unsinkable. Undead. It wasn’t the issues of state’s rights as a stalking horse for slavery, it was vampires that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was fighting. I’ve pretty well sworn off the former, because if I love the book enough to read it again with some hastily graphed monster fight scenes, then I love it enough to get all huffy and snobby about liberties taken with tone, character and interpretation. (Don’t even get me started about the shit show that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls; ugh.) And if I haven’t read the classic in question, there’s no way I’m going to screw up my (possible, eventual) read of it due to some monster b.s. But secret histories? Even dopey, pulpy ones? Sure, why not. 

On the face of it, the Titanic disaster should marry well with the concept of zombies. There’s an Onion headline from Our Dumb Century that reads: World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg. 

The Titanic disaster and its aftermath seem almost ridiculously fraught with issues of class warfare and technological hubris, a big floating microcosm which tore open and showed the ugly realities of class divisions. When you sort the dead by class, you see precisely how lethal it is to be poor. (See also, Hurricane Katrina, but in a much messier form, and adding in the always fun factor of race in America.) There’s all these great characters and tidbits from the sinking too – J. Bruce Ismay getting absolutely walloped by Congress in the weeks to come, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the musicians playing their last concert on the deck, Guggenheim and other industrialists choosing the heroic but kinda silly-looking end in their smoking jackets, Capt. Smith going down with the ship, etc. etc. 

Zombies are often about class and colonization as well. Or at least, the Modern Granddaddy of Zombies, George Romero, has gone that way a good deal, especially in latter day stuff like “Land of the Dead”. There’s always more have-nots than haves, and they are hungry. They will storm your moated enclave once they realize you are in it. Their appetites may be unnatural, but, hey, that’s consumerist culture for you. Add in the fact that ships are cramped floating disease-breeders, and you have a built in reason why the zombie outbreak was contained – they’re all that the bottom of the sea – Titanic and Zombies seems like a really good idea. 

…which is all stuff I thought when I checked this out of the library last week, and is a good example of me letting my usual over-thinking set up unrealistic expectations for the pulp crap I read. Jesus H. Christ, Ceridwen, you are reading a book about zombies on the motherfucking Titanic. Chill the fuck out with your socio-metaphorical jibber-jabber. God. Suffice it to say, all the garbage I went on about about the metaphorics of zombies and the sinking of the Titanic was either non-existent or so lightly touched as to be just an artifact of the memeplexes of those things, and not, like, deliberate. Which is totally fine, and I’m not going to throw a big tantrum about not getting the things I unreasonably want. 

A somewhat mad scientist type, a one Dr Weiss is sent to Manchuria to deal with an outbreak of plague that has a new alarming strain. In an ethically problematic move, he collects the Toxin from the brain of an infected shaman woman, at which point he figures out that the German (?) government wants to use that Toxin as bioweapon against the Russians (?). I don’t really know, and I admit my history is spotty. There’s a big chase involving an Agent who is maybe a Russian Jew working for the Germans or something – seriously, I just wasn’t paying that close of attention. He ends up on the Titanic running to America to set up a new mad science lair and find a cure for the plague. The Agent steals the Toxin, and then predictable zombification of the lower decks ensues. There is also a gender-switching moppet who is best not spoken of. Moppets, man, I hates them. 

At which point the story becomes somewhat first person shooter, with Weiss, moppet, Capt Smith, and various redshirts leveling up through the decks of the ship. The secret history is a little stupid, in that it’s like, oh, but Ismay was still a skin-saving knob, but now it’s because of zombies and not just the regular imminent death he faced. Smith was giving confusing orders because he’d just battled his way through Deck Z for 24 hours, and was more concerned with keeping the zeds off the life-rafts than whatever other reasons he was being confusing. The zombie fighting stuff was passable, but not particularly interesting. At one point there’s a huge fan they have to stop and then crawl through, restarting it so that the zombies would all get chopped up, which seems like a great idea, but reads real flat. Plus, I just started laughing remembering the bit from Galaxy Quest about the stupid spinning fan that was in every episode.

My ears perked up when Weiss started droning on about plague, which I eventually figured out he meant Black Plague, and I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the Black Death. It ended up being one of those things that was annoying to me because I know too much about it, which I think is generally the death of this kind of fun. But, the incubation period! But, the survival rates! But, Jesus Christ, you are still reading a book about zombies on the Titanic; cut that out. My knowledge of the Titanic disaster is completely pop cultural, but I imagine to the knowledgeable, this would be annoying as hell. Like, I seriously googled if Captain Smith was ever in Afghanistan where he learned to be a swordmaster, and I’m thinking not. Shrug. I don’t care, but others may. 

Oh, and one zombie nit-pick. For whatever reason – and I have my pet theories, believe me – zombies are almost never called zombies in zombie fiction. Walkers, biters, skels, zed-heads, Zack, the infected, ragers, phone-crazies, etc. Given that the term zombie, referring to the contagious undead and NOT a semi-golem in the thrall of a sorcerer, pretty much originates with Romero in 1969, everyone jumping to call these plague victims zombies is a little bullshit. I feel like vampyr would be a more historical appropriate term, because in the early part of the 20th century, vamps were still the yucky contagious undead and not romance heroes yet. And because Weiss is (probably) German. The zombie was still an individual monster. 

Motherfucking TITANIC with ZOMBIES, Ceridwen. Shut your face. 

So there.

Zombies Vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns is a solid collection of zombie or unicorn themed short-stories. Sadly, there was only one story that featured both, which let me down a little. Of course, when I think about it, a bunch of stories that only were about zombies fighting unicorns would have gotten old fast, but I really would have liked to see just one zed/uni battle. Just one. Somebody write this for me, please? I did not like the “humorous” “banter” between the two “Teams” – it felt like semi-witty Internet banter which is hilarious when it’s happening, but doesn’t read well when you come back to the thread a month later. Certainly the editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier had a really good time though, and that is nothing to sneeze at. Go Team(s).

So, to the individual stories:

“The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix: Aw, Garth, man, you know I love you, but this story was not a success. It displays his typically good writing, but the story doesn’t go anywhere. It felt like the beginning of something interesting about the source of power, of rule, of justice, something that could have developed but it strangled off way too short. Shame, really. (Points for being the only story with both a zombie and a unicorn.)

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson: I liked this one a good deal. A zombie story, but with a novel explanation for the zombie protagonist, who is not a shamber or a groaner, but instead an emo teenage serial killer with a prion disease. God help me, it’s also a love story, one that was surprisingly effective. (The zombie kid’s not really dead though, so I didn’t have to freak out. Necrophilia = gross.) The zombie metaphor usually comes down to the whole mass consumerism/inevitability of death thing, but this twisted the drive of hunger with desire, along with some Oedipal fun. The romance is between two boys, and I know there’s something here about coming out and passing and all that, but I haven’t sorted all of that out yet, which makes the story surprisingly layered for a short story. I also really enjoyed how the characters talked about music and art, not in a topical name-dropping way, but in the obsessive enthusiasm and status-displaying name-dropping way that captured something really perfect about adolescent courtship rituals. Yup, I am a dork and grown-up for writing that sentence that way.

“Purity Test” by Naomi Novik: Urban smartass meets smartass unicorn. I don’t know, this didn’t really work for me, but I think it’s really more me than it, and the smartassery was pretty solid. There was something tonally off for me between the hungover runaway teen sleeping in a park set-up, and the bubbly, cheeky froth that was the dialogue. But, I give it tons of points for a solid Leia reference.

“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan: Yeesh. Very effective and beautiful story about the daughter of an island dictator after the zombie apocalypse. The story ripples with nostalgia, which gets its throat slit in the final pages. Tears the hell out of wish-fulfillment narratives.

“A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan: Now, this is the stand-out in this collection, no contest. I didn’t expect a unicorn story to creep the freaking stuffing out of me, but this does. I really expected something different from the set-up: a peasant boy finds a ravaged noblewoman in the forest. You can almost write it from there: his tender ministrations, blooming love, whatever. No. Reminded me strongly of one of Angela Carter‘s wolf stories, the way it plays with narrative voice, the creation of folklore, bestiality (!), a bunch of other stuff. My word. Forbidden love never seemed so wrong.

“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson: Maybe I’ve read too many zombie short stories, but this hit a lot of marks I’ve seen in the zombie dance before, but a lot less effectively. I just didn’t like the barely coded references to certain actresses, her rainbow tribe, and her hot actor boyfriend. (No, not Josephine Baker.) Felt lazy. Points for creepy kids though, even though creepifying kids is maybe too easy too.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund: This is another one where my disinterest is probably more personal than objective. I found myself shimming a lot, because there seemed like a ton of extraneous information, which in a short story seems weird. I found the concept of the venomous unicorn silly beyond the telling of it, and I thought the set-up of the religious household and their weird ideas about the return of venomous unicorns (seriously, it makes me laugh to write that) both underdeveloped and overdetermined.

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld: Hmm, liked this, but it felt like an opening act, and I wanted the ideas explored more fully. So it’s pretty great as a teaser, but fails a bit as a short story, because it’s certainly not self-contained. Maybe that’s a bs thing to complain about – wanting more – but sometimes I think not enough credit is given the the form of the short story, its conventions and expectations. I’m not a short story aficionado or anything, but it bugs me when the thrust of the story can be spoilered in a short sentence in the editorial opening.

“Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot: My affection for this story is certainly beyond its literary merit, because it’s going to be dated in 15 minutes, and might be overly teen-y for some. A girl is given a unicorn by an aunt who always gets the gifts wrong – you know the aunt, the one giving you teddy bears in your mid-twenties – a unicorn who farts rainbows – literally! But then, date rape! sexting! the boy next door! Super fun to read though, and you go, girl!

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare: Fail. I’ve heard tell of this Cassandra Clare from all the flaming and whatnot on the bookblogoverse, but I’ve never read anything by her. I think I’ll leave at this. Other than a bunch of other niggling nitpicks, my biggest problem was where the eff is this taking place? It’s all medieval whatever Dukes and public hangings, but then there’s CDs and pop cultural references, and the set-up is all, hey this one sorcerer cursed the town, and I’m like, okay, then, we’re in England? Wait, just kidding, England doesn’t actually have magic, and the monarchy is constitutional these days, so, seriously, where and when are we? Plus, everyone sounds like Americans. It’s a frustrating lack of coherence, one that started me picking the threads, and then the whole story fell apart. The more I think about it, the more this story fails – seriously, why don’t they just burn the dead – curse over! – and rrrromantic stories with zombies grrrrrosssss me ooooouutt.

“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey: Another metaphor that I did not expect to be explored through unicorns, this time centering on their healing powers, but I don’t think this one worked as well for me. It’s told through the voice of unicorn, a voice which is pretty boring and overly expository, and would probably be better served through a third person narration. Good though; not perfect.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray: A really nice sucker punch of an ending on this collection. The zombie apocalypse takes the adults first, leaving a town of traumatized teens aping adulthood. They play at jobs, take drugs, try to reenact the rituals that mark the movements from one stage of life to another. Yeah, right. Here it comes.