The Big Idea: Kelly Jennings
“Nature versus nurture” is a question that humans all through the years have weighed in on, and it seems likely in the future they will continue to do so. Or at least, in the future of Kelly Jennings’ new novel In the Deep, that question, or more accurately a unique spin on it, comes into play.
Even since I discovered what genes are, which was when I was about ten, I have been interested in how much our genes control who we become, and how much of who we become is subject to the choices we make (or think we are making).
In 2018, I wrote a novel, Fault Lines, about a genetic engineering program, the Calypso Project, run by immense multi-planetary corporations called Combines. The Calypso Project aims to create ruthless leaders for the Combines and ruthless soldiers for their Security forces. And by “ruthless,” we should read “intelligent psychopaths.”
In Fault Lines, Brontë Ikeda, heir to a powerful Combine, just barely escapes being killed during one of the frequent coups that sweep the top power echelons. Wanting to rescue her missing security cadets, Brontë enlists the aid of Velocity Wrachant, Captain of the Susan Calvin. Velocity was also heir to a powerful Combine, but chose to leave that society altogether and take her chances as a free trader. Through the events in Fault Lines, Brontë and Velocity learn that they, as well as Brontë’s cadets, have all been created by the Calypso Project. As the novel ends, the Susan Calvin is heading out to join forces with the Pirian fleet, long-time enemies and technical superiors of the Combines, hoping to learn more about the genetic mix that has created them.
In the Deep, the second in the Escape Velocity series, takes up the thread three years later, as Velocity and her crew, now working for the Pirians, come to a Combine-held planet, Durbin. Their mission is to retrieve Pirians who have been impressed into labor on that planet, and evaluate the planetary population’s potential for rebellion. They soon learn, however, that someone has been collecting Calypsos on Durbin: over 1500 Calypsos now live, and are reproducing, on Durbin. That’s only the first complication to what should have been a quick and easy job.
The question of genetics and free will was one of the big ideas I wanted to wrestle with in this novel – indeed, in this series. But I’m also fascinated by common misconceptions of how genetics work, and the problems those misconceptions create: notions of genetic purity leading to inbreeding, for instance; or the belief that we can breed humans for such attributes as intelligence or specific talents. My Pirians have a relatively small population which went through a genetic bottleneck as it escaped Earth; my Combine citizens have deliberately created, through strict endogamy, a dangerously limited gene pool. Can either population science their way out of the catastrophic situations they find themselves in?
I’m also interested in how culture controls what we’re allowed to see, and whether those blinders can be shucked off. The Pirian fleet sees the universe one way; the Combines another. In the first book in the Escape Velocity series, we saw how the Combines warp their population. This time I take us into the Pirian fleet, which has a different sort of enculturation; as well as to that planet filled with Calypsos, most of whom have been very strongly enculturated indeed.
In one sense, the crew of the Susan Calvin – polyamorous, shaped by the various cultures they have fled, and strongly bonded to one another – are an answer to these questions. They seem to have free will, and seem not to be controlled by their genes or the worlds they came from. How completely can any of us remove our cultural blinders, though?
That’s the final big idea I’m exploring in this series of books: how we manage to see past what we’re allowed to see; and specifically how the act of learning to do that is not a single act – we don’t just strip off the blinders in one victorious moment of enlightenment – but a difficult, ongoing and endless action.