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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Coauthors Erika Hammerschmidt & John C. Ricker talk about their book Kea's Flight

Today, I'm pleased to welcome two authors,  Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker, the coauthors of a new science fiction book, Kea's Flight.

Once, in a college creative writing class, I showed a short story to my critique group. They didn’t know that the story was almost entirely true, based on a conflict I had with a paraprofessional during my junior-high years as a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome in the special ed system. By college, I had learned to hide or work around most of the symptoms of Asperger’s, and my creative writing class had no idea that I had any psychiatric diagnosis at all.

The story didn’t use my name, referring to the protagonist instead as “The Autistic Child.” It was a clumsy attempt to make a statement about how people on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s, end up getting identified with their label, to the point that they aren’t seen as individuals. Given that I was familiar with this phenomenon, I should have seen my classmates’ reaction coming: They found the story unrealistic. An autistic child wouldn’t act like the kid in the story. An autistic child wouldn’t be so smart, and someone so smart would never be so socially inept. They spent the entire critique session telling me that my experience from junior high school could never have happened.

That was when I learned that there is a certain divide in literature between realism and believability. A story that is extraordinarily true-to-life will often be hard for readers to believe, because it is so different from what they are used to seeing in books. In real life, each of us sees at least a few astonishing coincidences every year, but when we see coincidences in a book, we consider it bad writing. In real life, people are so complex that you can know them for years and still be shocked sometimes by things they do. In books, people are expected to be so simple that you can know them well enough, within the course of the book, to be certain whether or not their actions are “in character.”

And when a true-to-life story deals with a subject on which many people have misconceptions— like autism— it is the author’s responsibility to explain to the audience why the story is not unrealistic. I should have added a paragraph in my story where the protagonist thinks about being labeled and stereotyped, about her special ed workers characterizing her as Rain Man based on the diagnosis they saw on paper, without realizing that the autism spectrum is so wide that it shades into the “undiagnosible nerd” spectrum on its milder end.

In a way, I have been facing a similar challenge in Kea’s Flight, the science fiction novel I have co-authored with my husband John. We’ve created a very different world in this novel: it’s the 25th century, and global dictatorship has prevented the degree of technological advancement people were expecting, but a few big new inventions have managed to dominate society. Space travel has progressed to the point that ships can transport people to other star systems at just under the speed of light... and, more central to the plot, the technology of prenatal medicine has changed in ways that make a huge difference for those who have genes for mental disorders.

Abortion has been outlawed and replaced with “removal tech,” the extraction and cryogenic freezing of a live embryo, which can then be saved until it is no longer unwanted. At first glance, this seems like a good thing, but two factors make it a disaster. First, there are too many unwanted embryos for Earth to raise... and second, genetic screening of embryos causes many to be rejected based on predispositions to disorders.

Unwilling to destroy the extra embryos, but not wanting them on Earth either, the government sends them into space to be raised on starships and colonize other planets. The story takes place on a ship carrying away thousands of Earth’s rejects. Grown to young adulthood under constant surveillance and strict discipline, some of them find ways to rebel.

Kea is one of the rebels: a linguistically gifted, emotionally troubled young woman who invents secret languages using board games and named herself after a species of parrot. She joins forces with an awkward computer hacker who calls himself Draz, exploring the social confusion of first love while unraveling a conspiracy that threatens the safety of the ship. The complex surprise ending of the book is part linguistics and part computer science.

Writing these characters realistically was a difficult task. Kea and Draz tested positive for Asperger’s Syndrome in the genetic screening, and their resistance movement includes friends with other diagnoses. It is never completely clear, though, how much of their abnormality is genetic and how much is a result of being raised as abnormal kids. Asperger’s Syndrome does appear to have a genetic component, but it’s not as clear-cut as the chromosomal abnormality of Down’s Syndrome: there may be many environmental factors that can affect whether or not the genes actually develop into Asperger’s.

So John and I knew that basing our characters directly on ourselves, or on other autism spectrum people we know, would not necessarily be the best course of action. Their situation is unlike anything on Earth. Based on genes that might or might not imply a disability, they have been treated as disabled people since early childhood, and yet they have been constantly under pressure to become more normal. Their caretakers have mostly been robots, with a little help from exiled convicts. One can only imagine that all these factors would combine to create a strange mixture of behaviors and personality traits, some more autistic, some less. We could only guess at what they might be.

Still, in creating their world, I was able to weave in some of the same elements from that story I wrote back in college. The patronizing speech of Kea’s teachers— its sweet droning sound, the over-use of phrases like “good choice” and “poor choice,” the predominance of the phrase “you need to” as a command— is straight from my real junior-high special-ed experience. When writing about a world that doesn’t exist, we can’t always write what we know, but reality will find its way in somewhere. 

Author Bio:
Erika Hammerschmidt was born in Minnesota and graduated from Augsburg College with two language majors and an art minor. She was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the age of 11, and has written Born on the Wrong Planet, a memoir about her childhood. Her husband John C. Ricker was born in Hawaii, received a diagnosis of Asperger's at the age of 24, and studied computer science before working in vacuum technology. They live in Minnesota with their parrot, Rain Man. Together they have co-authored the science fiction novel Kea's Flight. 

Kea's Flight synopsis:
 It's the 25th century, and humans have learned how to end unwanted pregnancies by removing and cryogenically freezing the embryos to save for later. But they never planned for how many there would be, or how much control people would want over their offspring's genetic makeup.

Kea was an exile before she was born. Grown from an embryo that was rejected for having autism-spectrum genes, she has been raised on a starship full of Earth's unwanted children. When a sudden discovery threatens their plan to find a home, Kea must join with other rejects to save the ship from its own insane government.



Places to buy the book:
ebook for Kindle on Amazon, for $3.89
ebook for Nook on Barnes and Noble, for $3.89
epub for iPhone, iPad, etc. on Lulu, for $3.89
PDF download on Lulu for $3.89
569-page paperback version on Lulu for $15.00, without ISBN, on standard paper

Excerpt from Kea's Flight:

I was five years old. I grew too fast, moved too much, used up every calorie on fidgeting and running around. Every day at lunch I sucked the tube empty of nutrient fluid, poked my tongue into its tip until nothing remained of its flavor, ate my whole energy bar in four bites and licked every molecule of taste from the wrapper that it came in.

I didn’t understand the system that rationed food based on body size, or the flaws in that system that resulted in underfeeding for some students and overfeeding for others. I just knew that I was still hungry after meals.

“More,” I demanded of anyone who might be listening, one day when my stomach felt so empty that the meal only whetted my appetite. “Give me more. Now. This wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even nearly enough.” I waved the empty energy bar wrapper around at the roomful of students, none of whom seemed to care.

At that age, despite my vocabulary, I possessed only a shaky understanding of how communication worked. I’d been punished for things I said, even when I spoke in an empty restroom or re-ed room, and so I’d never developed the idea that people had to be present in order for me to talk to them. I spoke whenever I wanted, whether or not the person I addressed were anywhere nearby. I didn’t know that the surveillance was what made me audible to people I couldn’t see, and that only certain BGs could hear me through it.

“More. I want more food.” I couldn’t see any BGs right then, but I knew there were always some patrolling the lunchroom, walking up and down the aisles keeping an eye out for any problems the bots couldn’t handle. Someone had to be close enough to help.

A boy nearby was dawdling, taking forever to eat his energy bar. Two whole bites’ worth of it were just sitting there uneaten, and it had been bigger than mine to start with. The boy wasn’t skinny like me. He had extra fat on his sides and his neck that wiggled a little as he moved. It wasn’t fair.

“You. Give me that bar now.” I walked toward him, reaching out for his food. “I’m still hungry. They gave you more food than me, and you don’t need as much. So give it to me, right now.”

He made eye contact, curious, holding out the bit of energy bar as if to ask me if that were really what I wanted.

Beep. Beep. Beep. One of the cafeteria robots rolled towards the boy, taking away the morsel. I looked at the bot expectantly, wondering if it would correct the unfairness and give it to me. But it simply opened a compartment in the front of its body, inserted the food, and then grabbed the boy and held him down. A tube emerged from just above the compartment; one of the robot’s steel claws helped push the tube up the boy’s nose and down his throat, force-feeding him the now-dissolved energy bar. The high-tech lubricant-anesthetic mix that coated the tube didn’t do much to keep the boy comfortable; he thrashed horribly. Then he was back in his chair, wiping his mouth in distaste, and the robot was at rest again.

I felt my face screw up into a wrinkled knot, anger burning at my limbs like an itch. The discomfort in my empty belly exacerbated my mood toward some too-close tipping point. I was hungry, and he wasn’t, and he was the one who had been given more food. A five-year-old’s over-sensitive perception of justice was wearing hard on my control.

And then Screen Man was there, one of several BGs assigned to patrol that section of the cafeteria, and right now the most likely human authority figure to be able to help me. “Screen Man, give me more food. I’m hungry and my food was not enough.” I stared up at him, challenging him, my finger pointing at the boy who had just been force-fed. “If the robots can give him extra food that he doesn’t even want, then they have to give me enough food, don’t they? I’m hungry. My stomach is almost all empty. My food wasn’t enough, Screen Man.”

“Karrie, you need to not call me names like that,” he warned, his voice thick and smooth and sticky-sweet.

I glared. “You don’t call me names like that! I’m Karen. Not Karrie. And I’m hungry. I need more food.”

His bulbous bald head shook back and forth, the small tolerant smile on his face not changing. “What do you say?” he crooned.

I squinted my eyes. Was he asking me what I’d said? I’d spoken clearly; how could he have failed to understand me? I repeated myself, enunciating every word to perfection. “I am hungry. My food was not enough. Give me more food.”

He shook his head again. I could recognize condescension all too well, even when I didn’t know the word for it. His singsong voice vibrated at a frequency that caused my eardrums actual pain, even as it simultaneously insulted my intelligence. “No, that’s wrong, Karrie. What do you say?”

I knew what I’d said—he had no right to tell me I had quoted myself wrong. “I said my food was not enough,” I insisted, almost shouting. “And I’m hungry. And give me more food.”

Screen Man knelt down and put a hand on my shoulder. His fingers were scratchy, and he smelled like soap and sweat and robot grease mixed together. “No, Karrie. You say please.”

I clenched my teeth, finally recognizing his words as instructions instead of a request for information. “Please,” I muttered, pushing the word out against every instinct I had except hunger. “Please give me more food.”

He stood up. “No, Karrie, I’m sorry, you can’t have more food. The robots give you as much as you need. You can’t have more than you need, because then there wouldn’t be enough for other children. Those are the rules.”

I let loose a scream then, hurting my own ears, going on and on. I clawed at Screen Man, punched him with all the tiny, malnourished strength I had, until the robot came and pried me away from him.

“You’ve made a poor choice,” he droned, his voice as sweet as ever. “You’re going to have to go to the re-ed room.”

“No. No. No.” My voice ascended to a screech in the middle of each “no,” ending on a sob. I pounded on the robot as it took me away, kicked it, bit it until my teeth hurt, but I could do nothing.

My name is Kea. I was born Karen Irene Anderson, but it was a computer that chose that name. As far as I know, my parents never cared what I would be called.

This part I can only do my best to reconstruct, based on the skeleton of history we were given in class as small children, and the scraps of contraband data that Draz and I managed to collect years later. I gather that it all began in the embryonic stage, when the routine genetic and developmental tests were done to make sure I was going to be a healthy baby. For the most part, the results were good. A physically normal girl. Sandy brown hair, hazel eyes, light olive skin. Probable height and weight in the average range. Better-than-average hearing, and an excellent immune system.

Yet the test also found genes that, under certain circumstances, could be expressed as Asperger’s Syndrome.

It was a diagnosis that had been introduced in the twentieth century and re-defined several times over the years. What I had was just a predisposition, of course. The effect those genes would have on my development was uncertain, but the focus was placed on the worst-case scenario.

The disorder would not be as devastating as low-functioning autism, my expectant parents were told, but it was still on the autism spectrum. I would be slow to grasp social rules, and possibly violent. I might be unable to hold a job. I might be gifted in some extraordinary way, but I would never gain fluent skills in relating to normal humans. Even if I were able to support myself, I would always be, in effect, a nerd.

My parents, under the usual pressure from doctors, government, and society in general, made the only choice anyone ever makes anymore. They didn’t want to raise a difficult child. They didn’t want to risk having to support me for the rest of my life, an expense with which the government certainly wouldn’t help. And in any case, nobody wants to be the parent of the unpopular kid.

So, since genetic alteration is playing God, they simply ended the pregnancy. Which meant that I was removed from my mother, cryogenically preserved, and set aside to be put on a trash scow... in other words, a spaceship bound for a far-off planet that the Terrans had discovered through highly advanced telescopes, deemed livable, and given the tentative name of New Charity III.

At the age of six, I was a secular Inquisition, asking too many questions on absolutely the wrong subjects. “Screen Man!” I called out in Sunday school, looking up from the Gospel of Matthew on my hand-comp screen. “Come over here. This must be wrong.”

Quietly he approached my seat. “Calm down,” he murmured. “Don’t call me that name, Karrie. And you don’t mean ‘wrong,’ you know. You just mean that you don’t understand it.”

I shook my head. “This is wrong, Screen Man. I mean, think about it. In the other Gospel, the Luke one, it said ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Like, don’t jump off a cliff and expect God to send angels to catch you. It was in the part with the Devil and the temptation, remember?”

Screen Man nodded, massaging my shoulder. “Yes, I remember. But that has nothing to do with this part, Karrie. This is the part about the lilies of the field. You know better than to make a mistake like that. Now be quiet and go back to reading.”

I pushed his hand off my shoulder, my autistic senses outraged, as always, by what I considered an invasion of my personal space. “But look at this!” I said. “He’s saying don’t worry about preparing for the future. He’s saying give all your stuff away and, and, and wander the world and don’t even try to make sure you have a home—just trust that God will give you food and shelter, as if you were a bird or a lily. That’s putting the Lord your God to the test! Isn’t it?”

Screen Man grabbed my hand, pushed it down onto my lap, and very deliberately laid his own hand on my shoulder again. “Karrie, there is a difference,” he said, as slowly and clearly as if I were half deaf. “Jumping off a cliff is testing God. Trusting God to feed and clothe you is simply having faith.”

I tensed, all my muscles and organs seeming to merge together, becoming a tight, solid core. His hand’s rough skin scratched at me through the fabric of my secondhand shirt, and a faint body smell came off him that made my nose twitch. “There isn’t any difference,” I protested in a small cold voice. “Dying from jumping off a cliff isn’t any more dying than if you starve to death or freeze to death. And if you give away all your stuff, and stop preparing for the future, and just trust God to feed you and clothe you, then you will starve and freeze.”

Screen Man squeezed my shoulder one final time, patted it, and then stood up. “I’m sorry I have to do this, Karrie,” he said, “but you need to learn how to behave.”

He tapped a button on a wristband under the cuff of his shirt. The nearest robot raised its head, taking interest in its surroundings. Beeping and whirring, it headed for me.

“You’re going to the re-ed room, Karrie.”

“No!” I shouted, the injustice a physical feeling throughout my body.

“Yes. You need to be taught how to understand what you read, and think before you speak.”

“What?” I said, panic rising as the robot came nearer and nearer. “No! How can I understand what I read if I don’t get to ask questions?”

“Be quiet, Karrie,” he said, the voice still sickeningly sweet, even and calm and smooth and infuriating.

One pair of the bot’s arms hooked under my shoulders; another pair seized my legs. I kicked and struggled and shouted incoherently at Screen Man.

“You have made a poor choice, Karrie, and choices have consequences.” Screen Man was giving me a look of mild concern, an infinitely patronizing wide-eyed, tilt-headed look. “I’ll see you again after you’ve had some time to think about your choice. Goodbye, Karrie.” Then the robot turned around and I couldn’t see him anymore.

My story isn’t really about removal tech. In all my years growing up on the ship, I was never able to form a moral opinion on it. For me, and for all rems, it was simply a non-issue.

Along with our psychiatric meds, contraceptives had been in our food ever since puberty. Boys got the male version of the drug, as well, to drive the odds even lower. The BGs were taking no chances with the possibility of having more disabled mouths to feed while we were still confined to the limited space of a ship. Even if the total lack of privacy and the constant abstinence education didn’t stop us from getting knocked up, the meds would.

Nobody liked the thought of kids on birth control. It wasn’t even allowed on Earth, for fear it would encourage underage sex. But on the Flying Dustbin (one of my many snide names for this vessel) none of the rems were told what was in their food, so the only ones who found out were hackers like Draz, and hacker allies like me.

For that and many other reasons, I had never thought of abortion or removal as choices I’d ever have to make. That controversial old question had always been just a concept to me. I had come up with arguments, most notably the one that was still on my disciplinary record from the age of twelve, but mostly I had just let the two sides of it rest on opposite shores of my mind. On one side the gross inefficiency (and, one could say, cruelty) of removal tech and the garbage ships; on the other side the indisputable fact that, given Earth’s intolerance for mental disorders, I wouldn’t be alive if removal hadn’t replaced abortion.

The point was moot; I was alive. Earth was millions of kilometers away, and over a thousand years older than when we’d left, thanks to our relativistic speed of travel. Someday, when we all turned twenty-one, we would supposedly reach a little planet called New Charity III and have to build a home there. Then, if I ever had to manage my own birth control, I was confident that I’d be organized enough to do it right... if they would ever let me lose my virginity in the first place.

My objections were all ideological, abstract. I didn’t want the descendants of the rems to keep being ruled by the descendants of the BGs for generations. Whatever laws our planet colony ended up having about reproductive rights, or anything else, I wanted those laws to be chosen by all the people—not just forced by the ruling class because they were the tradition on Earth. The issue in my mind throughout life had not been abortion, removal tech, birth control or any specific moral or religious question—it had been nothing but a caged creature’s urge to get free.



N. R. Williams said...

What an amazing premise. I wish you great success.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium said...

What a unique concept. I would probably be hesistant to read it, because it sounds complicated and books that require me to do too much thinking about whether it's plausible would stop me in my tracks. But this sounds like it might work.