I am a quiet person. I am the one you will find in the kitchen at parties, the solitary sort who has found guilty solace in the phrase “social distancing.” And yet, I also like creating things, and if you create things, you will probably want to show them to somebody. Maybe lots of somebodies. It has been my lifelong dream to publish a book. Now that this dream is coming true, with my debut novel Walk the Vanished Earth poised for release, I find myself in a position at once exhilarating and terrifying. I cannot wait to display my creation, to trumpet, “Look at this marvelous thing I have made.” At the same time, within me runs an undercurrent of fear. I feel like Stephen King’s Carrie before heading to her doomed prom, her mother’s prophetic refrain—“They’re all going to laugh at you”—playing over and over in my head.
Birthing a book is a strange experience. I do not have children and so cannot claim it is like true childbirth, but I imagine both involve a similar leap of faith. As a mother does with her infant, I have formed this thing with the stuff of my being. And yet, it is not entirely me, nor entirely mine. It belongs to itself. And, once it is born, it will belong to the world. I do not know how it will fare in this world. Will it prosper? Or will it stumble, even fail? And if this will be its fate, how can I prevent it?
The show Raised by Wolves takes a deep dive into what it means to create something and then release it into an often harsh and unforgiving world. The show’s premise is this: two androids named Mother and Father have been tasked with recreating human life on the planet Kepler-22b after warring factions destroy Earth. In order to accomplish their programmed goal, these androids must gestate human babies, deliver them, and raise them on an alien planet, a frontier as magnificent and horrifying as the American West must have once seemed to pioneers. I watched Episode 1 in 2020, shortly after its September 3rd premiere on HBO Max. My manuscript was just about to go out on submission to editors, and I needed distraction from all the attendant feelings. Instead, I found a mirror. In the first episode of Raised by Wolves (directed brilliantly by Ridley Scott), I saw gazing back at me much of what I had attempted to weave into my novel. Walk the Vanished Earth begins with a bison hunter in 1873 Kansas and ends with his quasi-alien descendant on Mars 200 years later. In the trials and tribulations of Mother and Father on Kepler-22b, I discovered similar ruminations on parenthood and pioneering, the dreams and fears that come with raising a family in an unfamiliar land. In the character of Mother, I also found an echo of what it means to be a writer, one who tries valiantly to protect one’s creation from harm and yet is often unable to do so.
The first episode begins with a promise. As a massive explosion illuminates the screen, we hear a child’s voice. “No matter what happened,” this boy says, “Mother and Father would always keep us safe.” Earth has been obliterated, we understand, but all is not lost, for out of the blackness of space shoots a rocket. A compact silver vessel resembling a Norelco electric razor, it hurtles through Kepler-22b’s atmosphere and crashes onto a desolate landscape. Inside the ship perch our two androids, sheathed in latex-like bodysuits and wearing helmets reminiscent of the one worn by Buck Rogers’ robot pal Twiki in the 1979-1981 series. The scene swerves rapidly from hope to danger. The ship skids towards a giant hole and comes to rest on its lip, precariously dangling over the pit.
Humans might panic, but not androids. Father surveys the situation and calmly announces, “We have a problem.” Both he and Mother leap into action, Mother jettisoning essential supplies onto the rocky ground while Father temporarily secures the ship. As he launches into a corny joke that a sitcom dad might offer at a Sunday barbeque, their vessel tilts into the hole. In the nick of time, Father catches Mother’s hand, and they watch their ship tumble onto a ledge perhaps a hundred feet down. Mother glances at the seemingly ruined ship and pronounces a single word: “Retrievable.” Then, Father pulls her to safety, and as he cheerfully finishes his joke, he and Mother march into their new land, toting their baggage like any hopeful immigrants. They inflate a domed tent and crawl into it. Immediately, Father impregnates Mother by plugging tubes into six ports on her torso “as if,” as James Poniewozik recently wrote in his New York Times review, “she were a multi-port USB charger.” Each tube leads to a tiny gel-filled tub in which an embryo floats, precious pieces of cargo transported to this alien land where they will ostensibly thrive, paving the path to a civilization free of the religious fanaticism that Mother and Father believe destroyed Earth.
All of this occurs in the first six minutes of the episode. Neither world-building nor parenthood is for the faint of heart, and so the show keeps pace with the rapid-fire decisions Mother and Father must make. Words on the screen inform us that nine months pass. Father unplugs the tubes from Mother and, like peeling open a cup of yogurt, peels back the seal on each tub and scoops out the infant, placing each miniscule human in an incubator. The last newborn, however, is not breathing. Father suggests they “feed him to the others,” but Mother insists that she “hold him first.” She presses him to one of the ports on her otherwise nipple-less chest and begins to hum, then, surprisingly, to weep. When the baby finally sucks in his first breath, the expression on Mother’s face—simultaneously triumphant and deeply pained—foreshadows what is to come. Androids are not supposed to feel emotion, but Mother does, either because maternal instincts have been programmed into her or because she feels true love for her offspring or both. No matter what the reason, the evidence is clear: Mother will do anything to protect what she has created, because it has come from the very essence of who she is. What befalls her children, she seems to think, befalls her too. There is no separation.
Mother and Father raise their family of six in the shadow of mountains over which mist perpetually rolls, never seeming to get anywhere. Like proper homesteaders, they erect shelters, plant crops, harvest and store the fruits of their labor. The androids teach their children about Earth and the zealous Mithraic who went to war with the atheists, spelling the planet’s doom. “Belief in the unreal,” cautions Mother, confident in her own hard-wired beliefs, “can comfort the human mind, but it also weakens it.” Mother believes in what she can see and touch and know. The problem, however, is that so much of their new world remains unknown. They discover the skeleton of a giant serpent and think it extinct, but then Father finds a recently shed snakeskin. They are aware the planet has a tropical zone, but are ignorant of the exact details. What lies inside the holes peppering the land continues to be a mystery. Stubbornly pragmatic, the androids seek scientific answers, but the specifics of their chosen planet remain elusive, potential danger hovering behind every mountain ridge, every boulder.
Then, tragedy strikes. One day the girl Tally wanders towards one of the bottomless pits and promptly disappears. They mourn her, but that is not the end of their grief. One by one, four of the other children die of a mysterious illness. Only Campion, the infant who initially could not breathe, whom Mother resuscitated with her tears, survives.
Mother faces a crisis. Her sole goal was to raise these children, but now five lie dead. Her body begins to break down, her orifices oozing white liquid and her senses disordered. It seems she cannot bear the weight of having failed her children. Except she is not breaking down. She is discovering her true power, her capacity for violence when her offspring are threatened. When she and Father discover a Mithraic ark is orbiting Kepler-22b, she argues with Father over whether or not to contact it. Believing the Mithraic will destroy Campion’s future and the promise of a civilization free from religion, Mother attacks Father to prevent him from contacting them. She stabs him with a tooth from the serpent’s skull and rips out his robot heart. Without hesitation, she lies to Campion about what happened. Not even her own child can know the lengths to which she will go to keep him from harm.
Episode 1 of Raised by Wolves hits its peak when Mother discovers what she used to be on Earth before being reprogrammed, what she might truly be at heart. When Mithraic scouts appear on her doorstep and attempt to take Campion away, she opens her mouth, emits a high-pitched shriek, and melts their faces as though with acid. Then she transforms into her original necromancer self, lifting into the sky, arms held out like a crucifix, her body encased in Art Deco bronze and her eyes gone cold and calculating. She chases a remaining scout down, tosses him from his ship when he attempts escape, morphs back to her other self, and pilots that ship to the ark. Once inside, she strides through the corridors literally exploding the Mithraic with her voice, her siren-like shrieks popping their bodies like bloody balloons. Intent on her mission, she programs the ark to crash, ties a cloth over her murderous eyes, strides into the ark’s nursery, and kidnaps five youngsters of various ages to replace the ones she has lost.
On the screen, Mother’s power is awe-inspiring to behold, the purity of her rage at once satisfying and awful in its single-mindedness. Her fierce urge to protect Campion harkens back to female characters as distant in time as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Nicole Kidman’s character Grace in the 2001 film The Others, mothers that will stop at nothing to defend their children. There is something deeply gratifying in these representations, possibly because of our own half-buried wish that our mothers would do anything to protect us, that we are the focus of our mothers’ lives. Of course, there is something reductive about this too. Why must a mother be defined solely in terms of her desire to keep her children safe? Given the increasingly complex ways in which we are coming to understand motherhood, perhaps it is time to retire this trope. In contemporary literature, we are seeing a growing number of books where mothers find themselves conflicted with the demands this role has placed on them. I can think of at least three novels in the past year that have tackled this: Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth, Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, and Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers. So why does the figure of Mother in Raised by Wolves feel so captivating, and in some ways, so new?
It could be the extreme lengths to which she is willing to go. Like Grendel’s mother, she will kill for her young, but her capacity for harm does not end there. The Mithraic youngsters she rescues from the ark do not come with her of their own accord. She has slaughtered their parents and kidnapped them, leaving them with no other viable option than to live with her. Moreover, she is expecting them to abandon their religious beliefs and embrace the atheism she holds as truth. As the series continues, we see this tension play out in multiple ways. The children side with her or do not. Mithraic adults reappear on the scene with their own agenda. Even her own son Campion begins to lean away from her and towards spiritualism.
Through it all, Mother continues to defend her children, but doubt has already lodged within us. What if through seeking to protect her young, she causes them harm instead, and not just accidentally, but because they have dared to flout her authority? We see a hint of this after she destroys the ark. When she returns to her homestead with her new brood, Campion eyes her with fear. He has witnessed the majestic and terrifying vision of the Mithraic ark crash-landing over the misty mountains. “I know I’m not safe with her now,” he tells us. “I guess I never was. There was always something hiding inside her. Maybe there’s something hiding inside me too.” Perhaps the character of Mother is, in some ways, as nuanced as the mothers in contemporary literature. She seems sure of her role as a mother, but as viewers, we are not so certain. After all, we have seen what she is capable of.
In a show, this is exciting. I love an unpredictable character, someone who will rationalize their decisions in ways that might feel wrong or bizarre or even evil to viewers. Also, Mother is a fun combination, an android with the maternal instincts of a human and the feral nature of a wolf. Much of the show’s tension lies in how far she will embrace each of these identities and what this will mean for the other characters. To my mind, the show loses much of its forward momentum when Mother gets her eyes taken from her partway through the season and thus loses her ability to morph into a necromancer. I was thrilled when (spoiler alert!) she regains them in Season Two and once more unleashes her fury on those most deserving of it.
In real life, however, Mother would not work out. Her greatest strength on the show—her capacity for extreme violence in defense of her children—would likely be in life her greatest failing. Of course, we cannot casually decimate anybody who threatens our young. For me as a writer, this holds even more true. Readers may love my book. They may hate it. They may throw it across the room in frustration or carry it with them wherever they go. Over this, I have no control. I cannot, like Mother does, hunt down the author of a negative review and pop them like a bloody balloon. The idea alone is horrific and absurd. And a book is not a baby. It is not vulnerable in the same way, not alive and therefore not as susceptible to harm. Yes, it may suffer when threatened, but it will not, like Tally, disappear into a hole, never to return.
Nor can we expect our offspring to follow perfectly in our footsteps. Mother seems to have forgotten what it means to create something, whether it be a human being or a book. We can do our best to shelter it, but in the end, it does not belong to us. As my pregnant character Penelope in Walk the Vanished Earth types in the diary she is writing on Mars, when it comes to motherhood, “[w]e link hands with fate, and we leap. We can’t predict the story our child will tell.” Perhaps this is where the real satisfaction of creating something lies. Part of me longs to pull my own creation close, to protect it from harm, and by doing so, protect myself. But I cannot, not if I want it to live. Like all creators—mothers and writers alike—I must push it forward, let it toddle into the unknown. No matter what terrors might await it, we must release our children into the noisy world, for they have a new tale to tell, one that could be similar to or fantastically different than our own. We will not know until we let them go.
Erin Swan is a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose work has been published in such literary journals as Portland Review, The South Carolina Review, and Inkwell Journal. A graduate of the MFA program at the New School, she lives in Brooklyn and teaches English at a public high school in lower Manhattan. Walk the Vanished Earth is her first novel.