Welcome back to Rich and Strange, where we’re taking a turn towards print again: this week’s story, “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer, headlines the current issue of Asimov’s, making it the first Asimov’s story I’ve read before seeing it nominated for an award. It’s good to be reminded that, as much as I discover loads of amazing stuff in online venues, and as much as the gratification of reading and sharing stories online is instant, there’s staggeringly good stuff an extra click or two away.
Full Disclosure: Fischer introduced me to Gunnerkrigg Court and for this I will be forever grateful. He’s a good friend and I’ve had the privilege of seeing early drafts of “The New Mother,” as well as suggesting emendations to it. I’m delighted to see its quality recognized by Asimov’s, giving me the opportunity to crow about its many felicities here.
Tess Mendoza is a freelance journalist writing a high-profile piece on the social implications of Gamete Diploidy Syndrome, or GDS—a sexually transmitted medical condition that renders men sterile and causes fertile women, in the absence of hormonal birth control, to risk becoming pregnant with what are functionally clones of themselves every time they ovulate.
Recall the old, familiar recipe: two cells, a sperm from a man and an egg from a woman, fuse into a single cell that grows into a baby. The sperm and the egg can fuse this way because they are, at a genetic level, different from all the other cells in the body. Every cell contains our complete genetic code, split up into twenty-three chromosomes. Most cells have two copies of each chromosome (one from Mom, the other from Dad) for a total of forty-six. This property of having two copies of every chromosome is called “diploidy.” Almost every cell in the human body is diploid. The lone exception are the gametes, the sperm and the egg. Gametes are “haploid”–they only have one copy of each chromosome. Being haploid is what allows two gametes to fuse into a single diploid cell with a new mix of chromosomes that will develop into a genetically distinct person. This is sexual reproduction, the way human beings have made more human beings from the beginning of the species until sometime in the last six years.
It’s a fantastic concept, and the whole novella is structured around exploring its every possible facet: Tess interviews scientists, politicians, lobbyists, religious fanatics, while her representation of the furor over the future of “motherhood” is complicated by her own position as a pregnant woman in a same-sex relationship, and the possibility that she herself has been infected.
I’m astounded by this story, by its elegant, thoughtful thoroughness: every character Tess encounters is fully formed, complex, no one of them limited to their narrative function. In a way reading this story is a master class in observing the manipulation of rhetoric: who, in this story, considers women with GDS to be human and who does not beautifully inflects their arguments to varying degrees—and seeing that rhetoric clash with arguments about fetus-personhood is completely fascinating. There is definitely early-West-Wing-era nuance in the partisan positions put forward. Consider this exchange between Tess and Bailey Rogers, a Texan senator:
“You’ve put language into the latest HHS funding bill that would prohibit federal funds from going to any organization that provides prenatal care for women known to have GDS. Can you explain the reasoning behind that for me?”
“Absolutely. This is a measure consistent with the track record I’ve shown my entire career. I have always promoted solid public health policy, with a special focus on women’s health issues. That’s what this new regulation is.”
“How is it in the interest of public health to deny care to pregnant women?”
“You’re looking at it completely backward,” said Bailey. “The question is, how is it in the public interest for the government to subsidize the spread of a plague?”
The story shows us Tess’ reading of others’ rhetoric in her note-taking, while also allowing us access to Tess’ interiority and fears and biases, and it’s all splendid and complicated and wonderful.
The story’s richness isn’t only in its concept: it’s in the characters, who, at novella-length, really have room to move and shine, but who are revealed in tight, controlled, beautiful ways. There’s a moment where Tess is eating lentil soup in her mother’s company that is just quiet and lovely and made me want to cry. There are sentences so understated in their prose and so resonant in their meaning that I was reminded of Terry Bisson.
I loved, too, how in a story where a great deal of the tension is generated by the policy implications of men’s fear of becoming extinct, it is mostly full of very different women talking to each other, having wildly divergent (and sometimes disturbingly understandable) opinions on the matter of their bodies, of others’ bodies, of motherhood, of society, of the future.
I confess, with no small feelings of shame, that I’ve been put off Asimov’s in the past as a venue that wasn’t for me—horror stories about its forums, an air of “you must be THIS science-y to read,” an exposure to some truly dreadful poems, etc. I was always aware of this reaction as being most likely unfair, but not sufficiently so to motivate me to pick up a copy and see for myself.
Reading “The New Mother” there makes me feel I have a lot of lost time to make up for.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey, and has thrice received the Rhysling award for best short poem. Her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. Her work has most recently appeared in Uncanny; in Lightspeed magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue; and in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter.