The Story of my Book: Claire Corbett on When We Have Wings
Would you give your child genetically altered wings, if you had the chance? Author Claire Corbett guest blogs about the science and the fictions behind this question, and how her imagined world might not be as far from the present as we think.
…Just like the mouse with an ear on his back, one day soon a winged human will force us to re-examine the fundamentals of human life.
—Johann Hari, ‘I’m having my wings done’, The Guardian, 2002.
Imagine my surprise when, having already completed several drafts of my novel When We Have Wings, I found the above article, in which plastic surgeon Dr Joe Rosen says, ‘Human wings will be here. Mark my words’. My novel explores a world in which the wealthy can be surgically and genetically modified to fly. I’d been finding it tricky enough staying ahead of advances in science but never dreamed there were already doctors like Rosen, eager to graft wings onto humans as soon as he received ethical approval.
While other plastic surgeons dismiss Dr Rosen, we should remember how quickly cosmetic surgery has moved from the monstrous to the mainstream, with procedures carried out on millions every year. These operations are still dangerous, invasive, expensive and painful but attract far less censure or even comment now.
I thought about the history of plastic surgery and of fertility technology while writing the slightly futuristic ‘When We Have Wings’. I say slightly futuristic because these technologies of the self are already here, they show us what will happen as our power to alter ourselves colludes with economic power: we will stop at nothing to get what we want, especially for our children.
One of my main characters, Zeke Fowler, private detective and non-flier, is wracked with doubt about whether to help his little son get wings. When my other main character, the young flier Peri, asks the reason for his final decision, he says ‘I think it all came down to one thing: you try telling a small child he or she can’t fly. That you won’t allow it.’
The ethical dilemma always presents itself in the guise of that which we most want: a lover, a child, riches, health, life itself (why shouldn’t we buy organs from poorer people if they’re willing to sell?). That’s why I wrote When We Have Wings with many alluring elements.
Some reviewers have called When We Have Wings a dystopia. This label is fascinating because I deliberately made the world of When We Have Wings gleam seductively, stalked by genetically modified pet lions and studded with skyscrapers growing a patina of gold, a world also teeming with slums and superweeds. The world of my book is no bleaker than our current reality. The gap between rich and poor is no greater than the one we bear now, with little distress to the comfortable.
Amanda Lohrey captured this brilliantly when she launched When We Have Wings, saying, ‘So the book is a kind of political allegory about where the advances of science may take us … in the next thirty to fifty years. It’s not in that sense … even a science fiction novel. It’s about an amazing dilemma that we are on the cusp of … the manipulation of what it means to be human.’
When you show people aspects of our current reality, at just a slight angle, they cry, ‘Dystopia!’ And that’s great because it means the book has achieved one goal of art, which is to make strange the familiar, bring the fantastic elements of the ordinary into focus. So, dystopia is right here, right now.
How far would you go to give your child an advantage? Would you give them wings?