In Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, sexless neuters form secret enclaves of scientists and artists. Neuters called spreaders engineer and spread plagues intended to prevent a human overpopulation disaster—until one goes too far.
What inspirations did you draw upon when developing the idea for neuter society?
There are actual human beings born without specific male or female sex characteristics, although I took several fictional leaps with the science of the neuts’ anatomy, biology, and abilities. In Western culture, these people are surgically and chemically turned into females, and may never be told that they were born as anything other than female. Basically, our gender is defined as “male” or “not male,” based on the presence or absence of one specific sex organ—a perspective that is based in culture, not biology. A part of the neuter society in the book is a rebellion against that, a separate place where the neuters can be who and what they are, according to their biology rather than social constructs.
How did you approach writing spreaders—Jin, in particular?
Before I even knew the story I wanted to write, I really wanted to see if I could create a mass murderer who was also sympathetic, and not just in a “hooray for the bad guys” sort of way. I didn’t want to rely on evoking sympathy from the typical causes, such as childhood abuse or an outside person or force making a good-hearted character do bad things, and I didn’t want the character’s likeability to rely solely on charisma or charm. I wanted to see if that was even possible. And I wanted my character to believe that what it was doing was for the best, so much so that the readers could empathize (though hopefully not agree) with the character’s methods. Mostly, though, as soon as I began to write and found Jin’s voice, I personally liked Jin as a character and wanted to find out what drove it, what went on in its head. Jin’s actions are based on solid information, and it has the statistics to prove that what it is doing helps. Other characters’ actions are based on hearsay and casual observation, and their actions don’t solve the problem. Yet, by human standards, Jin’s actions are capital-W Wrong, and the others are capital-R Right. Why is that? I think Jin’s sincere struggle to understand this question for itself is a large part of what makes it a sympathetic character.
For you, what is this story about?
For me, Necessary Ill is about contradictions and seeking balance. Each character in the book thinks that he, she, or it is doing what is best, not only for themselves but for those around them, yet many of their agendas conflict or are even abhorrent to one another—and none of them are all wrong or all right. They all want survival, and not just in a selfish sense. They all care about the people around them, but in very different ways.