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