These are amazing — and shockingly accurate. Did you know there’s a “Bechdel test” for female scientist biographies?
They know about this in Poland. They’ve known it for over a month
now: my imminent retirement from the field of science fiction.
Genre SF has been in decline for a number of years. My own work has been declining even faster. They say Young Adult is where the action is, but I suspect in time even that fad will run its course. YA is but one step on a staircase heading down into the basement. As humanity grows ever-dumber, readers will inevitably gravitate towards simpler tales that don’t tax the intellect and which never stray from familiar, predictable paths (anyone who’s read the Harry Potter books will know what I mean).
When readers reach the bottom of that incline, I intend to be waiting for them there. Henceforth I will be writing only storybooks for children aged four through eight. I have already begun. (Although given the sudden dismaying popularity of— I kid you not— Coloring Books for Adults, you have to wonder if even writing for preschoolers is aiming low enough.)
I am collaborating on my next work with my wife, on a book called The Tale of Nellie the Nephron. It’s the story of a kidney cell who gets tired of filtering urine all the time and sets out to see the world. Her
wanderlust is fed by the red blood cells, dumb but amiable beings who stoke Nellie’s wanderlust as they bumble past in their capillary beds. The other nephrons never deign to talk to the RBCs because they’re a vulgar lot who don’t even have nuclei, but their oft-repeated salutation “Heart is where the home is!” makes Nellie long for other organs to explore, other cell types to be. (The thumping of the heart can of course be heard down in the kidneys, but it is a distant sound, an endless and unquestioned bit of background noise as far as Nellie’s fellow nephrons are concerned.)
All the other nephrons warn Nellie that leaving the kidney means certain death; every now and then some sick or dying cell gets swept away down the ureter and is never heard from again. But Nellie is resolute. One day, screwing up her courage, she filters one last aliquot of urine, pulls free of the cortex, and heads off down the ureter.
She nearly dies right then, caught up in a torrential cascade of urine squeezed from the bladder into a blinding cold world of bright light and terrifying open spaces. It is only the merest luck that she finds herself saved by some great celestial hand that catches her and wipes her back onto a vast open plain (the “Plains of Perineum” as she later learns). Hanging on desperately by her Loop of Henle, Nellie manages to find a dark puckered crack in the landscape and finds her way back into the welcome darkness of her world.
Now her journey truly begins. She climbs through the rectum and the colon, and there— amongst the great sluggish boulders of developing feces— she meets Tony the Tapeworm, the parasite with a thousand faces. She meets the cells of the intestinal epithelium, and encounters the diffuse lurking evil of the Gut Brain, plotting its insurrection against the hated Brain in the Head. Up on the Pancreatic Front she encounters White Blood Cells, the Navy SEALs of the body’s immune system, and nearly dies helping them fight off an infection. She visits their training camp in the bone marrow, where new recruits are grown. She befriends the cardiac communist collective known as Percy the Pacemaker, and finally shoots the rapids of the Carotid Artery all the way up to the legendary Head Brain.
At every step in her journey, Nellie asks: should I be a gut cell? Should I be a liver cell? A cardiac cell, maybe even a, a— a brain cell?
And so Nellie the Nephron tries to become Nellie the Neuron— but of course she’s no better at this than she is at all the other roles she’s tried on. All she’s really built for, after all, is the filtering of urine. Her attempts to contribute to the brain’s decision-making process go horribly awry when the body starts voting Conservative and develops a fetish for golden showers.
Eventually, the other cell types help Nellie see the error of her ways and return her to the kidney where she belongs, letting the smarter brain cells make all the important decisions. (She even rats out the insurrectionist Gut Brain for extra brownie points!) And the moral she learns— the moral of the whole book— is threefold:
We thought that Nellie could be a big seller here in Canada. It fit so neatly into the ideology of the former Harper government that we could see the Harperites ordering multiple copies for every school library, passing legislation to mandate its inclusion in primary-school curricula across the nation. (Hell, someone might even do an adult coloring-book edition.) Unfortunately, Canada finally awoke from its long slumber and booted those asshole out of office, so we’re looking for another market. Maybe south of the border. If we can just figure out some way for a sapient nephron to learn that extrajudicial drone strikes on civilians are a good thing, we might have a big seller in the US.
At the very least, it’s got to make more money than science fiction.