Caitlin R. Kiernan, Galápagos

Here is what the jury had to say:

Although we immediately loved this story, our initial reaction was that the centrality of a same-sex relationship in the place we might expect a heterosexual one wasn’t enough to persuade us that our understanding of gender was being explored and expanded. But the more we thought and talked about it, the more things we felt the story accomplished. Because a queer relationship does have a different connection to the reproduction of the species, to have a disturbing alien reproductivity routed through queer female bodies did feel radical and new. “Galapagos” made us think of the work of Octavia Butler. There can be no higher praise

Possible discussion questions:

Motherhood always suggests some form of cannibalization of the mother’s body.  Does this story speak to that or is the act of reproduction here so alien as to say nothing about ordinary human reproduction?

What do we make of the title and references to Darwin?

There is a docility in the woman in the hospital and also, arguably, in her lover in the spaceship.  What do you make of this passivity?

What is the role of science in the story?  Of religion?  Of love?

17 comments on “Caitlin R. Kiernan, Galápagos

  1. I found this story interesting, confusing, and disturbing. I’d love to grapple with your questions, Karen, but I don’t feel like I have enough of a handle on what happened to get into the deep thematic arenas you raise. What I want to know is what people think happened to the lover in the spaceship, to everyone else from the spaceship, and why? Or am I just being a dim reader?

  2. You raise a number of excellent questions, Debbie. The basic story, as I read it, is that the institutionalized woman is the only witness (and her only after the fact) to what happened on the ship. So first of all, Kiernan establishes the possibility that our only witness is completely crazy and completely unreliable.
    But if we ignore that and assume that her account is accurate, then I think we’re left with an alien form that took over the ship in some fashion, has killed everyone, leaving only her lover alive to serve as mother to what appears to be an entire alien ecosystem. Whether her lover is still alive, is also an unanswered question. The story references a couple of forms of the Stockholm Syndrome to open the possibility of her lover as a willing participant, perhaps a loving mother. But the description of her lover’s body is a shocking one and her lover’s voice is always carefully described as possible artifice, an AI representation, so we cannot know in the end if she is talking to her lover or to the alien presence as filtered through her lover’s memories.
    The facility in which the narrator finds herself appears to be some combination of hospital and debrief center so the government presumably has some interest in the answers to these questions as well. But except for the one quick acknowledgment that everyone else on the ship had to die, we’re not getting answers.

    • I’m not sure passivity is the term I would use to describe her. Should we see her as a victim of post-traumatic stress? Has she kept the secret of what she saw in order to give her lover’s “children” a chance to get established on Mars? If the people in power really understood what all she saw, would
      the ship have been “nuked”? After all, if those new creatures survive, they could become a threat to Earth…or maybe they’re more appropriate to survive (based on the wreck/extinction of other species that humans have been doing)?

      • Those are interesting thoughts! I’m not sure I see anything to suggest she’d want to protect these children. Every description seems steeped in her own horror. Whatever the government is up to remains completely mysterious — she seems too shattered to even speculate. I think that’s what I meant by passivity, that, in conjunction with the references to the Stockholm Syndrome, she doesn’t seem to care what she does or how she may be used. Post-traumatic stress is the more accurate description.

      • OK–I guess I got the impression she had remembered what she had seen on the ship but had deliberately not told until she was pretty sure the new species was established. I just looked at the end again and Amery says she did have a choice and what happens next is also of her choosing (of course, she’s also using the “royal we” so even that statement is problematic.) The next to the last paragraph is what makes me think Merrick was hiding the info until she was pretty sure the government had knowledge that something had survived on Mars. She clearly sees the new doctor as in cahoots with the government and doesn’t like her.

      • I’m willing to believe either (or both) that Merrick is too traumatized to remember what happened in a method that can be communicated or that she is refusing to cooperate for reasons of her own. I say possibly “both” because it is likely that she’s not sure of her own reasons.

        What occurs to me is that part of her, at least, believes that some part of Amery is still alive in whatever it is that took over the ship. After all, the alien being insisted on seeing Merrick, and only Merrick. I can see the presence of some of Amery as the reason the communication was allowed, though I can also see this as a brilliant ruse to buy time, because too much lack of cooperation would cause the government to destroy the ship. That would require the aliens to have gained an understanding of human psychology from taking over Amery and killing the others.

        I’m not sure this government is all that evil — we are seeing it from the perspective of someone suffering from PTSD, at a minimum, and who may be completely out of her head. Given that the government would be thinking in terms of preserving the human race, it is not unreasonable that they would use whatever psychological tricks they could think of to decide whether to destroy the ship or to try to come to some accommodation with it.

  3. So much going on in this story–In comparison to “Useless Things”: I find them both dark/depressing but “Useless Things” is more realistically frightening (I believe the events could happen)and this one is atmospherically dark. The government does not come off well in both stories: Are the government & doctor figures doing something to make her worse or are they just wanting to keep her from going public? Why did her lover on the flight out commit suicide? As for the title–I assume the alien is creating a new evolution from the human bodies that will be used to create a new ecosystem on Mars. However, the references are more nuanced than that…if we see the alien as monstrous for killing off humans to create her new species, that’s what humans do albeit in a less conscious fashion. I think the species mentioned are not only the ones Darwin studied but at least some of them are extinct. How willing was the lover to become a “mother” for a new species? She at least had enough of her memory left to want to speak to the narrator one last time. I think it does shape our view that the one still able to talk is a woman/mother; I’m not sure what difference it makes that she’s lesbian.

    • The suicide of her more casual lover is one of the major mysteries of the piece.
      I have to gather my thoughts better about the role of her lesbianism. I’m not sure it makes a difference and I’m not sure it doesn’t. There is maybe a heightened sense that any woman, no matter what her decisions and proclivities, can be reduced to her mere biology.

      • Ooh-I like that last line, Karen. I think you’re right that the alien had total control; did her lover agree to be killed off to start new species? Probably not, but the suggestion seems to be that she had some kind of positive reaction/desires to keep them alive after–sort of mothering instincts?
        This story made me wonder what was going on in the heads of the government people–even in the future, I think there would have been consternation about the request to bring a lesbian lover up to the ship.

      • Given the current shift of attitudes towards gays and lesbians in the US, I find it credible that a near future government would have no problem sending a lesbian lover up in this situation. It is quite conceivable to me that a government could become quite progressive in terms of sexuality while still being despotic in other ways. (Though I’m not convinced this government is despotic; I still see it as a government trying desperately to get enough information to decide what to do about this alien presence. It may do this clumsily — it may even be sacrificing an individual — but that doesn’t mean the government is actually doing the wrong thing here.)

      • Yes, I can agree that the government has reasonable, even good, motives for what it and the doctors are doing. I think I was reading it within the trope of all the bad government/corporation stories/tv/movies I know of. The line about choking on the feather suggests Merrick’s not impressed with them/the new doctor. I also like the idea that Merrick hopes something of her lover is left in the new species although I’m not sure how the references to Heart of Darkness fit in. That and the references to the extinction of species make the story seem negative about humans to me.

      • I didn’t think of that as a story-logic reason for the main characters being Lesbians, but it makes sense. I wonder how different the story would be/feel if one of the characters was male (especially if the lover who becomes the parent to the alien race was male).

      • I must say, I’d like to read a story in which the lover who became parent to the alien race was male. I wonder how this story would feel if both Merrick and Amery were male and still lovers. Somehow I think that would shake up my gender thinking more than the story does now.

      • It really would be quite a different story, I think. Maybe that’s the big take-away genderwise, that a paltry detail like making a character male or female can still change a story utterly. Also interesting to look for stories where making that switch wouldn’t matter — would Maureen’s story be so different, for example?
        Which brings me back to one of Margaret’s original points — does orientation matter much at all in the story? Since homosexuality seems to be a non-issue to those inside the story, it only becomes an issue if we bring it in from the outside.

      • Making Amery male changes the story because of the reproduction angle. Merrick could be either male or female in that case and it wouldn’t really change the story, except for readers’ attitudes about gay and straight relationships. Likewise, in the story as written, Merrick could be either sex and I don’t think it changes things much.

        Interesting thought about changing the character’s sex in Maureen’s story. I can see a man in that circumstance being just as passive, unprepared, and unwilling to deal with change as her character was, but I think he’d show it a little differently. And in the case of the situation out at Nick’s, when the kids show up, I suspect more readers would condemn him for bailing out, even though he would be no more competent than she would in dealing with the kids. I think that difference comes down to our cultural expectations. We expect all men to be able to deal with that kind of trouble, even though many, even most, wouldn’t be good at it. And when we think of a woman living alone in an unsafe world, the thought of rape — rather than simple burglary — is never far from our minds.

  4. This story strikes me in many ways as the classic one of first contact with an alien species we are incapable of understanding. Since as readers we are in Merrick’s POV, we tend to see it as a personal story, but at the same time we have an alien species perfectly willing to take over human beings to procreate and apparently looking to set up life on Mars. (No reason why this alien being couldn’t survive the descent onto Mars, no matter what Merrick was told. Humans couldn’t, but if there was anything human left on that ship, it was only as part of the alien.)

    If we remove ourselves from Merrick’s POV and try to think of ourselves as head of the space program or President or something similar, then we are faced with the decision of how to deal with these aliens. Do we try to destroy them? Can we destroy them? Can we find a way to communicate with them — sending Merrick appears to be an effort in that direction, though a failed one. Do they have something to offer us, something we are so greedy to have that we will risk our entire civilization?

    From that perspective, the lesbian relationship is the only gender facet to the story, if one looks only at the humans. However, the alien brings in a new idea of gender. It talks in the first person plural — is that just a sop to Merrick, a pretense that it includes Amery or is it in fact a group being? Is it female — after all, it has reproduced, but it does not seem to have done that by use of another gender of its own type of species.

  5. We seem to be coming to a halt here on Galapagos unless anyone has a point or issue not yet discussed? Margaret — in terms of teaching, it seems to me that asking students to re-imagine a story with one or more characters re-gendered is an interesting one that can be applied to almost any work. When does it matter and why? Maybe you already do this.
    I’m planning to move on to Lifelode on the 1st. I have to reread it myself first, which I haven’t done yet. But I think it’s going to be very interesting to talk about.