Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Heartworm

This week’s Futures story marks the debut in the section of J J Roth, who presents a tale of lost love in Heartworm. Here she takes time out of her busy schedule to explain what inspired the story. As ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Heartworm

This story came together out of several divergent threads.

First, like most of my stories these days, this one started as an exercise for a writing class. The exercise called for a first person narrator who starts in a specific, concrete situation and then steps back to make a commentary about a larger societal issue.  I wrote the exercise in the autumn of 2013, soon after Wendy Davis’s dramatic pro-choice/women’s rights filibuster in the Texas state legislature.  The filibuster became national news in the United Sates. Looking back, having that news story in mind probably informed the ‘larger societal issue’ in Heartworm, which morphed into something broader than control over women’s bodies.

Second, I wanted to try writing a cyberpunk-flavoured story because I’m a fan of the genre, and particularly of the human–computer interface that’s often found in cyberpunk stories. In my day job, I work with a number of platform and network security engineers and find their work fascinating. The question of how computing technology can be used, for both noble and nefarious purposes, is something that comes up often in our discussions. A near-future form of that question found its way into this story.

Third, a year after I wrote the writing class exercise, I went to Boston, Massachusetts, for a family event. One afternoon, I took the T (what Bostonians call their underground) out to Cambridge to walk around the Harvard campus for the first time since I was a student.  I realized that I had not yet written a law student character into any of my stories.  In mentally rifling through exercises I might develop into a story with law student characters, I thought of what would later become Heartworm. At the time the characters had no names, and the exercise had no setting — just the passionate desire of a hacker to free his beloved fiancée from a technological prison of her powerful father’s making.  Zora and Peter volunteered as my first two law student characters, which added dimensions to each of their characters I hadn’t anticipated.

One of the things I enjoy as a writer is trying to put new spins on familiar tropes, or trying to turn them on their heads. It was important to me that given the larger commentary about sexual and emotional control over women, the story not reduce to a white knight rescuing a weak woman victim. I thought about reversing the sex and gender roles or other permutations, but in the end, I felt the commentary would be most effective if Zora was the controlled character.  Still, I wanted Zora to display agency. Finding a way to do that was difficult in a flash piece where, for the commentary to be effective, her emotions throughout the story are no longer her own. Her small, private rebellion against her father revealed at the end allowed me to give a glimpse of her character before the controlling algorithm took over her feelings, when she still had the ability to make her own choices.

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