© 2016 Peter C Whitaker
Q. How on earth do you come to write a book like 'Eugenica'?
A. It happened by accident, I think. I had just finished 'For Rapture of Ravens', the second part of the 'Sorrow Song Trilogy' and felt a need to get away from 1066 for a while. I was reading an essay by Russell Sparkes titled 'The Enemy of Eugenics', which was actually about G. K. Chesterton's highly reasoned public opposition to the theory of eugenics. In this essay, Mr Sparkes observes that Britain had escaped passing eugenic based laws by the smallest of margins and I just thought to myself, 'what if we had not?'
Q. It seems poles apart from your other books.
A. It is. My novels on 1066 are historical fiction; 'Eugenica' is alternate historical
fiction, kind of a sub-
Q. Wouldn't you expect most people to think that this was a book about the Third Reich, especially as it is set in the 1930's?
A. Yes and no. When people think about eugenics today they do tend, quite reasonably, to think of Nazi Germany. The Nazis brand of negative eugenics, which is more correctly referred to as 'dysgenics', is now quite infamous because of the Holocaust, and rightly so. However, the principle of eugenics, the idea of improving the species, goes much further back, Theognis of Megara wrote on the subject in 520 BC.
Q. So 'Eugenica' does not concern itself with Nazi Germany then?
A. No, it is set in 1932 and for the most part in England. What most people do not realise about eugenics is that it was an Englishman, Sir Francis Galton, who was first to actually propounded a reasoned hypothesis for the improvement of the human species and termed it 'eugenics', which he did back in the 19th century. Galton was a was recognised as a polymath or a genius if you prefer. Despite great success in other fields his serious approach to the subject of eugenics is not so well received today.
Q. What is it about the subject of eugenics that interests you so much as to want to write a book about it; albeit a work of fiction?
A. The answer is complicated I suppose. On the one hand, I think that eugenics illustrates the precept that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sir Francis Galton set out only to rid humanity of the pain of disability, both mental and physical, through controlled breeding of the human race. I think that he himself believed that disability could be bred out of the species. Of course, we know better today, the science of genetics is far more complicated than the early eugenicists realised. The fact remains, however, that what started as an attempt to improve the species did become a cruel means of oppression and a basis for racism.
On the other hand, I am disabled myself, I suffer from two congenital conditions, the kind that eugenicists believed could and should be bred out of the species. If I had been born into a world ruled by eugenic law then I probably would not have survived as long as I have. Certainly, even in a benign eugenic society, I would not have fathered my two children.
Although Britain today is not exactly based on the kind eugenic principles that Galton and his fellow eugenicists tried to establish there is still a strong sentiment against disabled people here. I know some find that hard to consider but it is true, especially since successive governments have launched campaigns against the disabled to rob them not only of public sympathy but also of their hard won disability benefits.
Conversely, there have been attempts to focus on what the disabled can do rather than what they cannot, a policy that is used to both justify removing benefits and, apparently, for making our society more inclusive! Personally, I disagree with this approach on various grounds, not least because it is going through life with my disability that has made me the person I am today. If I were to be suddenly cured of my conditions then I have no doubt that I would change, after all, it would be a pretty tumultuous experience to find myself cured all of a sudden. No, I think it is a mistake to attempt to divorce a person from anything that makes them what they are, even painful and life limiting conditions.
In 'Eugenica' the principle characters, Grace and Tom, are disabled and face the dangers of a eugenic Britain accordingly. I wanted to portray disabled people as being capable of contributing positively in many different situations; they do not rely on others to save them. I believe that having to be dependent upon others is a good definition of disability actually.
Q. So, from that I might infer that you think disability is also a difficult topic for some, as difficult as eugenics perhaps?
A. I think the two go together because they are irrevocably linked. One attempts to eradicate the other, irrespective of intention, and the other resists because of the system of reproduction, the splicing of two strands of DNA, requires the principle of mutation to work. Without mutation we would not get individualism, everyone would look exactly alike, in fact, sexual reproduction without mutation may not even be possible. I'm not a geneticist, I would have to explore that idea, but I am pretty sure that combining the DNA from the mother and father requires a modification ability within the genetic material to work.
This, however, as interesting as I find it drifts away from your question. Yes, I think that disability is a difficult subject to write about. The very word has so many negative connotations in our society, even more so today; it seems to me, with the politically motivated media branding disability benefit claimants as cheats and worse. I know there have been attempts to balance things out, the Paralympics for example, but I find it ironic that I suffer more abuse due to being disabled when the Paralympics are being held than at other time.
Q. So how do you go about writing about two difficult subjects?
A. I think the answer is in the characters themselves. All good stories have characters that you can identify and empathise with, the reader has to care about what happens to them or else they are going to lose interest in the story. Disabled people are no simpler in their characters than able bodied people. They have dreams, fears, hopes, strengths, and weaknesses just like everyone else. They are not all bitter and twisted like Shakespeare's Richard III, nor are they little angels like Tiny Tim who suffer their lot stoically. First and foremost they are human beings and that is how I write them.
Q. Even so the subject of the disabled under a eugenic government would seem pretty heavy going to most prospective readers.
A. I agree, it does and it did to me when I started to write the book. Ultimately 'Eugenica' is about hope, however. I am an optimist, I believe in positive thinking, and that is definitely a theme in the book. I do believe that there are plenty of good people out there who would offer a helping hand if they could.
Q. Judging by what you have said so far I think that this is a very personal book or at least a very personal subject to you.
A. Yes, it most definitely is and that is probably because a lot of the material in the book is based on my personal experience. When my wife read the first draft she commented that she found a lot of anger in the text. In retrospect she was right. I did not set out to write angry, my work just became that way because so many of the things I was committing to the book were personal to me. I experienced a lot of the treatment that is meted out to Grace and Tom by the medical staff. I was also made subject to various experiments by a doctor who wrote a paper on me in a vain attempt to diagnose my condition. I have a copy of that paper; I found it on the internet a few years ago. The doctor discharged me from the clinic not long after it was published but before a formal diagnosis of the condition he was investigating was made.
Q. Do you think a subject can become too personal for an author to write effectively about?
A. I don't know, perhaps, but, thinking about it, no, I don't really believe that. J. G. Ballard based his novel 'Empire of the Sun' on his own experiences in China before and during World War II. Personal experience can authenticate even imaginative writing; it can inspire a passion for the story by the author like nothing else.
Q. You also term 'Eugenica' as an adventure; can you really have a book about eugenics that is an adventure as well?
A. I hope so! When I was growing up I enjoyed reading all kinds of adventure books, 'Treasure Island', 'The Three Musketeers', but I particularly enjoyed American pulp fiction like 'Tarzan' and 'Doc Savage'. As a child I never recognized the failings that an adult today would see in some of these books, they were just exciting stories set in exotic, faraway places and peopled with these colourful, larger than life characters. I think people still enjoy that kind of fiction, only perhaps a little more sophisticated. When 'The Raiders of the Lost Ark' was released I think it reminded people of the thrill of adventure, even the simple kind, which was why it proved so successful.
Perhaps it works as a counter to the negativity of eugenics; adventure I mean. The whole spirit of adventure! It allows the characters to demonstrate other qualities and, if the danger is convincing, it provokes the reader to react, hopefully sympathetically to people like Grace and Tom.
Q. Hence the chases in cars, trains, and aeroplanes?
A. And an airship; don't forget the airship.
Q. Does that kind of fantasy, the adventure kind, what with the beautiful Helene
Monroe who is also chillingly evil, the eugenic superman Doc Hunter, the self-
A. I think it does. I believe that the best literary fantasies are set against the darkest forms of oppression. We need to find a light in the dark, something that we can believe in when everything else seems sour and brittle and on the verge of turning to dust.
Q. It is like going from one extreme to another.
A. A simple act of juxtaposition, a common tool for writers. You know, eugenics became something of a fantasy itself, a very dark one. I think that many eugenicists realised very early on that it was an impossible goal, to breed a super race of humans, but the power that eugenics gave them over other people was too irresistible to surrender. You can see this in American history where eugenics was fervently pursued and the American legislature actually passed laws based on eugenic principles. They were designed to stop undesirable people from propagating their kind, forced sterilisations became legal, and eugenic fairs were held where people were exhibited like livestock. It all seems very bizarre to us now but it was real back then, very real and very legal. The more discomforting the dark side of the fantasy is the more imaginative the adventure side must become to dispel the shadows that the telling of the tale casts.