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My reaction to the first sentence of this story was, “Dudes are pregnant? Yay science!” A few sentences later, my reaction had evolved to, “Wait, what?” A few paragraphs later and I was at the “Science is freaking terrifying, can we pretend this never happened?” stage. All that in only the first two pages.
Pregnant dudes? Yay science! And finally, guys can share in the joys of swollen feet, weird food cravings, and strangers asking you nosy questions about your body. Ladies, wouldn’t it be great if guys could really and truly know what being pregnant is like? Consider your wish granted.
Wait, What? These guys are not pregnant with human babies. When humanity made contact with an alien spacefaring species, they were willing to trade their technology and knowledge for fifteen months of our bodies. That’s the length of a skoick gestation. Along with carrying an alien baby, the surrogates also enjoy mind-blowing sex with their skoick partner. The future is weird.
Can we pretend this never happened? It was only after my chat with James Beamon that I realized this is not an “alien invasion” story, or an “us vs them” story, or anything having anything to do with a warning signal that was misinterpreted as a distress call. Reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” tap dances around the vastness of human hubris, jumping away and then subtly pointing back to the danger of making assumptions, of thinking that an alien species values the same things we value, or for that matter, values us as people the same way we value ourselves, the assumption that we were chosen to carry their babies. The hubris could be funny if it wasn’t so ultimately tragic.
I have always loved the intimacy of Beamon’s character-driven narratives. On the one hand, I feel like I am invading his character’s privacy, as I read conversations that should be whispered behind closed doors, conversations that revolve around the joy of pregnancy, the mental anguish of not being able to conceive, the spring in someone’s step that they were chosen for an honor, combined with the staring eyes of the judgmental. And on the other hand, while cocooned within the intimacies of these characters, I can feel the weight of this giant world Beamon has created around everyone, forcing their hands and impacting every day of their life. And yet? Life goes on. With a baby bump.
James Beamon is no stranger to the pages of Apex Magazine, we published his heartbreaking story “Soliloquy in a Cheap Diner off Route 66” in issue 92, back in January of 2017. What a treat, to see what James has been up to since then! Cranking out the short stories, he’s had adventures in self-publishing and publicity, written a series of short fiction featuring a self-aware villain who has a Teddy Ruxpin murder-bot, and playing with plenty of ideas about the barriers of language and those intimate character portraits I love so much. Since we last spoke, James’s new fiction has appeared in Sci Phi Journal, Escape Pod, Digital Science Fiction, and the anthologies Cat’s Breakfast: Kurt Vonnegut Tribute, Transitions and Awakenings, and No Sh!t, There I Was. His fiction has also appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Futuristica, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Ares Magazine, and in a number of the Unidentified Funny Objects volumes, along with many other anthologies. Enough with my squeeing, let’s get to the interview!
APEX MAGAZINE: I’ll admit it, when I realized this was a story about alien babies gestating in humans, all I could think about was Sigourney Weaver carrying around a flamethrower. But these pregnancies seem sort of voluntary and sort of harmless. From the “I’m fascinated with evolutionary biology” corner of my brain, what’s in it for skoicks to have another species carry their unborn babies? Do they travel the stars looking for healthy creatures who can handle the physical and mental stresses? Or were humans the only ones who said “mind-blowing, hot inter-species sex? Where do I sign?”
JAMES BEAMON: The skoicks, at least the ones with human birthing hosts, are elitists. There are plenty of the four-legged sloth creatures the skoicks traditionally use as birthing hosts … they raise them on farms on their home-world, on free ranges like we do with chickens and our happier cows. When a skoick wants a child, that skoick will go to the range and pick a host like we would go to the pet store. So, no shortage, these skoicks simply want humans the same way new parents here wanted Baby Einstein videos … because of an underlying belief that the advanced neural pathways humans will benefit skoick infants.
So these pregnant dudes are Baby Einstein videos. And there’s only one reason anyone signs up for a year and a half of that … mind-blowing, hot inter-species sex.
AM: I won’t spoil anything, but the story does go into some details about how these guys got involved in sexual relationships with skoicks and decided to carry a skoick baby. Were any of these guys married or in relationships before? What did their previous partners think about their men hooking up with an alien? Or do the skoicks only “flirt” with single guys?
JB: I imagine the overwhelming majority of guys were single. It’s kind of hard to tell your significant other, “Listen, I’m gonna go hang out with this interstellar being who’s literally gonna make every cell wall in my body quiver with orgiastic joy while I carry their young. Be home in about two years.” Can you imagine being on the receiving end of that exchange? That said, skoicks choose who they choose and any dude with a meaningful relationship who’s compelled to answer the call may stand a better chance telling their partner “I’m doing this for Earth! We need this tech!”
AM: The men in the story face a lot of discrimination; the kind of discrimination and assumptions that will sound familiar to many female readers. They are fired from jobs, harassed at work for needing a temporary accommodation due to pregnancy, teased by friends and family, and assumptions are made about their personal reasons to have a baby. Talk us about how you developed the scenes that discuss how society treats these pregnant men.
JB: As you point out, I had examples aplenty to draw from. I think the American corporate culture by and large allows the least amount of concessions for pregnancy than the rest of the Western world … and this is for human babies! Between that and general disdain for the “other,” with pregnant men being the newest “other” on the block, it was easy to extrapolate how people would treat these guys and how the government, not wanting hate crimes to spark intergalactic incidents and compromise trade, would set them up as a protected class.
AM: Not only am I fascinated by evolutionary biology, but I’m a language nerd. Language plays a fun (for the reader at least) role in this story, as the words the skoiks use to describe their chosen human partners don’t exactly translate into any language spoken on Earth. What else are we not understanding about how the skoicks view pregnancy and the overarching relationship between skoicks and humankind?
JB: I think the term “pregnancy” in and of itself is a misnomer, a word skoicks don’t really say or entertain. Their young gestate and for them considering either a sloth creature or a human as pregnant is akin to us looking at a womb grown in a vat of blue liquid in a laboratory and saying it’s pregnant.
AM: You and I had a chance to chit chat a while back, when your short story “Soliloquy in a Cheap Diner off Route 66” was published here at Apex Magazine in January 2017. Getting to do a follow-up interview with an author is a rare treat! Since we last spoke, what changes, if any, have you seen in the writing landscape? What do you hope to see in the next year or next few years?
JB: I think the landscape’s pushing towards more inclusion with stories from and about people of all different spectrums. That’s great for both readers and writers like me. And the public at large is on board for diverse stories if Black Panther’s box office numbers are any indication. I love to see that; I dug the movie, but regardless I feel Black Panther could’ve been written better. What do I hope to see in the near future? The return of the true ruler of Wakanda, King Killmonger. That and a book deal.
AM: In January of this year, you published an extensive write up on your blog of your personal experiences with the online publisher Inkitt. The ins and outs of how Inkitt does business is a different interview entirely, but I am interested in your thoughts on how authors are more and more becoming their own publicists. Is putting on your “publicist hat” a fun part of being an author? Is it the worst part? Or is being fully invested in publicizing yourself simply the new reality?
JB: Being your own publicist is the new reality but I don’t think it’s a good thing. Publicity is a profession, and like most professions, there is an education to be had in it as well as an art and a science to how you handle it. So, now a writer has two professions they’ve got to be proficient in, not counting that of editor (which many of us act as). The writer/publicist is probably better at one than the other … which means you generally will have a great writer whose work is largely unseen because they’re not great with publicizing or a great publicist who’s supremely adept at getting attention on their decent-but-average stories. Yeah, you may have a Renaissance person who’s a beast at both, but there’s a reason why most of the bigger names in writing have publicists. It’s probably the same reason even really good lawyers hire lawyers if they have to defend themselves in court.
AM: You’ve got a series of villainous short stories that feature the rather unlucky protagonist, Dastard Fantastic. Readers can find the first story at Daily Science Fiction. What can you tell us about Dastard Fantastic? Why is he so much fun to write?
JB: Everything’s fun about Dastard Fantastic, including his name. He’s counter-culture, he’s able to embrace his villain status while whole-heartedly feeling he’s the hero of his own narrative, he has a murder-bot programmed into a Teddy Ruxpin. Hopefully, the second one in the series will drop at Daily Science Fiction soon … the third one’s going out exclusively to those who sign up for my mailing list on my blog. I have to say that … I’m my own publicist, after all.
AM: You’re a fan of learning about, and playing with, emerging technologies. Smart speakers are a thing, Amazon has a grocery store where there are no cash registers, and even at my day-job we’re now using a phone app to punch and out for the day. What’s your current favorite new or emerging technology? What do you like about it? What still needs to be fixed?
JB: VR and AR! Honestly, when this stuff becomes mainstream, when everyone’s walking around with clear glasses that incorporate AR, which can wirelessly put you into VR, then I swear the world’s gonna temporarily break. You remember the holodeck from Star Trek? Imagine having one in your house and you can simulate whole worlds and awesome scenarios that are effectively indistinguishable from reality. How much work are you gonna be able to get done in Vanilla reality? When this thing goes mainstream, everyone’s gonna check out for a while … similar to what happened to the Brits when they first made gin … it became a national crisis with folks strung out, homeless on Gin Alley. It was kinda dark, but it was a temporary breaking of society. We’ll get stronger, we’ll adapt, and we’ll learn to responsibly use our holodecks.
AM: A holodeck in my house, and I can simulate anywhere and have awesome scenarios that are effectively indistinguishable from reality, and now my real life looks boring in comparison? You’re writing that story, right?