Sunday 23 July 2017

"What if?"

Melaleucas by the lake
The idea bounced into my brain one evening seven years ago, while I was at Smiths Lake working as a sessional tutor on a field trip for Macquarie University’s second year ecology course. An idyllic spot on the New South Wales Central Coast, the lake provides a wealth of species diversity, from aquatic to terrestrial, from microbes to fungi to flora and fauna. Students collected plant samples for identification, delved into the mud of the lake bed to extract diatoms, and went on dawn treks through the bush to spot birds and hear their songs. And in the evenings, after the communal meals, the staff would sit and chat over the bottles of red we’d brought with us from civilisation.

My mind wandered from the conversation, and I looked out into the darkness of the lake.

Host behavioural modification. Some parasites do far more than merely take residence in their hosts to obtain food, lodging and transportation. Some insinuate themselves into the brains of their hosts, hijacking their bodies, their movements. Hijacking their will. I knew of this occurring with Toxoplasmosis gondii-infected rodents, losing their fear of predators – cats – so that they virtually  invite themselves to be consumed, allowing the parasite to relocate into new hosts, to reproduce within the cat and continue their life-cycle. And I knew that an accidental host of Toxoplasmosis is humans, a dead end for the parasite, but whose behaviour, nevertheless, is altered in curious ways.

What if the parasite mutated?

What if humans became the primary host, and the changes in human brain function became so extreme as to start to change society itself?

What if, what if. The mantra of the fiction writer. The mantra on steroids for the speculative fiction writer.

And now, it’s written. ‘The Second Cure’. After multiple drafts (and multiple titles, some of which I will never reveal out of pure embarrassment) I typed the words that uncharacteristic superstition had stopped me writing before: “The end”. It’s beginning to go out into the world as I start to approach agents and publishers. Weirdly, I have been so engrossed and loving the process of the writing that the idea of the novel actually existing independently of me is almost startling. The concept of publication, while obviously my conscious intent throughout, seems almost foreign to the place my mind has been for so long. The words, the story, the characters, the rhythms. They have been my internal life.

Now I am a bleary animal emerging from a cave, blinking in the sunlight. Well, look at that. Out here in the world, people take these manuscripts they write, and turn them into books.

Yesterday, I attended the Speculative Fiction Festival at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, run by Cat Sparks. On one of the panels, John Birmingham spoke of having attended a science fiction writers’ festival early in his career as a novelist. As he found himself surrounded by speculative fiction writers, he realised he’d found his tribe. As I listened to the speakers yesterday, talking about nanotechnology, AI, androids, sex-bots, neural lace, digitising minds and other futures rushing towards us, I felt exactly the same as John had described.

These were my people, endlessly curious, endlessly asking, “What if?” And more importantly, writing "What if".