The Big Idea: Jennifer Pelland

First, a thanks to the writers/editors/publicists who responded to the call for more Big Ideas — y’all rock. For everyone else, I got a lot of interest, and over the next few weeks, you should see an interesting mix of writers swing by here to share their ideas about their books. I know you’re a-quiver with anticipation. Well, stop. All that quivering is freaking me out.

Second, Jennifer Pelland — current Nebula Award nominee — kicks off March’s lot of Big Ideas, and is here to talk about Unwelcome Bodies, her new short story collection. The collection includes “Captive Girl,” the short story that has garnered her that Nebula Award nomination, but in this Big Idea piece, Pelland focuses on another story entirely: “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man.” What does it show? That short stories need big ideas, too, and how those big ideas can extend beyond the bounds of the story itself.


I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities–both wondrous and horrific–of the human body, but never quite realized how much that fascination affected my fiction until Teresa Nielsen Hayden suggested the name for my short story collection. Nearly every story in it deals with the body in some way, either as the main plot, or as a background element.

We already live in a time when plastic surgery and body modification are pushing the boundaries of what constitutes humanity. Right now, people are having surgery to change things as fundamental as their face or their gender. Are you the same person if you can’t recognize yourself in the mirror? If you have your labia and vagina turned into a penis? And what about the people who use extreme body modification to make themselves look deliberately inhuman, maybe by tattooing every inch of their skin, or by splitting their tongues, or having horns implanted in their scalps?

That’s happening now. What’s going to happen in the future as medical technology comes up with more effective ways to change our bodies? And on the other side of the equation, what about when things go terribly wrong with someone’s body? How does that change them in ways other than the obvious?

The story in my collection that probably best exemplifies the breadth this theme is “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man.”

Joseph Merrick is probably the quintessential example of just how horrifically a human body can go wrong. He was born normal, but his deformities began manifesting themselves when he was still quite young, until ultimately, they appear to have killed him at the age of only twenty-seven. I initially decided to write a story about him after seeing a television documentary on his life. They showed a close-up of his face, and in that close-up, I could see his humanity shining out through the small oasis of normality around his left eye. I wanted to save him, but he’d been dead for a century, so that’s where the fictional time machine came in.

And what kind of future should Joseph Merrick be brought forward into? A world where body modification had been taken to such an extreme that his body would be fashionable. In this story, I postulate a closed society that entertains itself by, among other things, radically and frequently altering their bodies. Extra arms, phosphorescent skull lumps, mouths that go from ear to ear, entirely absent genitals, limbs that disappear when held tightly against the body–when you can do all that to your body in just an afternoon, wouldn’t the naturally grotesque be the ultimate fashion statement? And so in the story, I “save” Merrick by putting him in someone else’s healthy body, while that other person walks around in Merrick’s.

Of course, then Merrick is forced to watch what this other person does in his former body, which brings up an entirely different set of issues over how body ownership works in a world where people can swap. How much of our identity is wrapped up in our bodies vs. in our brains? Based on how much time human beings spend fretting over our appearance, the answer to that seems clear.

I still don’t feel like I’ve pushed this issue nearly as far as it ought to be pushed, and I’m sure I’ll tackle it again in a more extreme fashion some day, but I really enjoyed playing with the tension between a Victorian man who lived in history’s most notoriously deformed body and a world where people gleefully become voluntary freaks. I don’t think that world is all that far off. I’m definitely interested in seeing how close we get to it in my lifetime.


Read “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” at Helix magazine. Visit Jennifer Pelland’s LiveJournal, and read this interview of her at QSaltLake.

Authors/editors/publicists: learn how you/your author can participate in The Big Idea here.

12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jennifer Pelland”

  1. I’m surprised you hadn’t seen body mutilation as a theme that runs through your fiction. Goes to show that sometimes you have to take a step back away from the forest to see what’s going on.

    Plus, it’s part of why you’re so creepy. :P

  2. I suspect that if body modification becomes cheap and readily available, it will lead to more conformity rather than wild experiments with deformity.

    Look at the situation today: even among the idle rich, you don’t hear of many people going to plastic surgeons and saying “make me look older and fatter”.

  3. John, I suspect he’s talking to me. Jason’s my editor, and likes to nag me about the things I can’t see in my own work ;)

    Seth, you could be right. But maybe the folks like Pete Burns and Jocelyn Wildenstein are actually a harbinger of something interesting. Time will tell.

  4. Seth, I’m not sure I agree.

    The concept of ‘beauty’ seems to me to be heavily tied into social constructs of wealth and status – e.g. a few hundred years ago the ideal of feminine beauty was very different then it is now (plump and pale being indicators that you didn’t have to do any actual work).

    I think it’s quite plausible that as body-mod technology gets cheaper and allows ‘ordinary’ folks to acquire those perfect movie-star bodies, the rich and idle will opt for ever more extreme and impractical (and expensive) changes.

    Really, some of those extreme plastic-surgery cases barely look human now – and that’s in the pursuit of ‘conventional’ beauty.

    Thanks for the post Jennifer… fascinating stuff. I’m going to have to check out your book now. The whole body-mod thing plays a significant role in my current project (yes, another aspiring Sci-Fi writer, zzzzzzzzzz…)

  5. I’m with JGS on this one. If ordinary people can afford to be beautiful by current conventional standards, then those standards will change. What they will become, who knows? But whatever it is, it will be something that most people would be unable or unwilling to achieve.

    On an aside *waves*. Hi Jennifer, it’s Cindy!

  6. JGS – We were all aspiring Sci-Fi writers at some point, so no worries about seeming dull.

    Cindy – *waves back* Mind you, I had to go to your blog to figure out which Cindy you were!

  7. Thank you for sharing your work. That was an absolutely fascinating take on Joseph Merrick. Very creative and thought provoking. I will also check out more of your work.

  8. I ordered this collection on the strength of the concept of body alienation, and was not disappointed. I’m glad to see it getting more, and more prominent, attention!

    Are you the same person if you can’t recognize yourself in the mirror?

    [oversharing] That’s the question I’m struggling with right now, made weirder by the fact that since all the changes and scars are hidden by normal clothing, no one else realizes they’re there and I have no cross-check. Even if the changes are an improvement and the absence of pain and growth in physical freedom a relief, it’s still tremendously disconcerting. [/oversharing]

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