Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: The tentacle and you

This week, John Wiswell makes his debut in Futures with an intriguing tale about human … evolution: The tentacle and you. John is a disabled writer who who lives “where New York keeps all its trees”. You can find out more about his work at his blog or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the genesis of the tentacle and how he came to write his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The tentacle and you

I began this story with a voice — what an early reader called “Billy Mays here, for the Tentacle!” It’s a commercial tone, enthusiastic for all that users are about to be subjected to, without any interest in actually filling you in. The perfect product was a baffling new appendage that did much more than hold your beer.

I have a lifelong fascination with consumer electronics. Such devices have been popular for my entire lifetime. Wear a band that tracks your heart rate and the number of steps you take, put these over your ears to hear different things, and these glasses will project things you’d rather see over your environment. As devices are tailored to better suit our biology and chemistry, it’s fun to imagine form factors for if consumer electronics ever graduate to consumer biologics.

Will you have a USB tentacle to put into your spine? That’s unlikely.

Will prosthetics for amputees further imitate biological forms? That’s more likely. In fact after Nature accepted this story, an animated gif started circulating Twitter of a prosthetic vine arm.

The notion of prosthetics immediately brought the mood of the piece to me. Disabled people will tell you about brutal physical therapists, nurses who weren’t properly trained to assist or interact with our specific conditions, and intrusions into our medical records and privacy. Often we are made to feel like a problem in need of a solution. Science fiction and medical tech frequently view disabled people as needing to be restored to normalcy and thereby be erased, regardless of what disabled communities want.

The pitchman voice was a great opportunity to share some of that feeling of being disregarded in the middle of a story that’s about yourself. In that way, the tone and creeping scope of the tentacle’s biological and social changes can be metaphors for much more than disability. Which is just what the tentacle would want.



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