An interview with author Victoria Sullivan about her novel Adoption
By Isabel_Anders on May 13, 2011
Polyploid: pol·y·ploid (p l-ploid) adj. Having one or more extra sets of chromosomes.
Adoption is about a race of polyploids: beautiful, gigantic humans who spring to life like lustrous plants, and mature with strength and intelligence enough to threaten ordinary humans in every sphere of society.
It asks: To what lengths would the church, the government, and ordinary individuals go to protect themselves and their own children against such rivals-to-power over the earth and future generations?
When six-year-old Mary’s mother dies unexpectedly, she is “adopted” by her neighbors, Val and David. But nothing about Mary or her adoption is normal. She’s a giant—nearly seven feet tall, brilliant and beautiful, the result of her mother’s in vitro fertilization at a clinic in Vermilion, Louisiana. What happened? Did something go wrong? Or was it planned by doctors experimenting on humans? And if so, is it still happening in other fertility clinics in the United States, Russia, and North Korea?
Val, a reluctant mother and professor of biology, becomes detective and protector. Her own research on the genetics of polyploid plants that have multiple sets of chromosomes give her insights and sympathy for this super, but outnumbered, new race of humans. A new race that is threatened by a fearful government and public, who want to eliminate them (and their differences) at any cost. Murder, mystery, speculative science, and a mother’s love blend in a novel that asks us to consider what would happen if life were just a little bit different.
Victoria I. Sullivan is a writer and botanist. She studied biology at the University of Miami and has a Ph.D. in biology from Florida State University. She has published poetry, flash fiction, numerous botanical papers, and nonfiction articles. She held a faculty position in the Department of Biology, University of Louisiana at Lafayette for 20 years. I recently interviewed her in Sewanee, Tenn., about the writing of her book:
Vickie, what led you to write about the story of Adoption?
The germ of the idea came from my own botanical research, which involved discovering that plant species of Eupatorium have numerous races with multiple sets of chromosomes. Several startling characteristics of these polyploid races include their large size and success at colonizing niches unavailable to plants with the normal two sets of chromosomes.
When I left academia, I left that research behind also and explored the craft of writing, mostly short pieces of both fiction and nonfiction. One of the first short fiction pieces I wrote, but never published, concerned polyploid humans with features like those of my research plants. Adoption embellishes this idea considerably, and the short story I wrote bears very little resemblance to this novel.
Are such mutations/manipulations possible?
In my book Adoption, humans are engineered to be polyploid with four sets of chromosomes, instead of the normal two, as well as having genes from other animals inserted into their genome to enhance them in various ways. I'll stop there so as not to further give away the plot. In reality, polyploid humans do not exist; however, races of polyploid frogs, fishes, salamanders, etc., exist in nature, just as they do among plants.
Do you envision a future when humans and plants, and humans and animals, share genetics as hybrid creatures?
I do, but sharing genes among species is fraught with ethical and biological problems. The idea of curing genetic diseases through replacement or substitution of defective genes with healthy DNA from other organisms is welcomed. However, dangers lurk in unsuspected outcomes. An example of the kind of problem that can occur in replacing defective genes is the successful treatment of children with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. Inadvertently, a retroviral element was also introduced that caused six of the 10 children in the original test group to die of leukemia.
Using genetic engineering to change eye or hair color, make us taller, stronger, etc., has serious social implications. Only the rich could afford to engineer their offspring, and such enhanced humans might out-produce offspring of poorer parents.
Researchers have successfully engineered animals for the benefit of humans, but there is great resistance to employing such animals for human use. The FDA has approved very few. In 2008, the FDA approved the use of goats engineered to produce an anti-clotting protein in their milk for humans with such a deficiency. The FDA has approved production of glofish, an aquarium fish, stating that they are not a threat to humans. Glofish are genetically engineered Zebra danio fish that have genes that cause them to glow. Research is active in genetically engineering pigs with human genes in order to produce hearts for humans that will not be rejected. Genetically modified crops are being marketed, although not universally accepted for consumption.
I say in my review of Adoption that it is “parable-like.” I won’t explain how, as the reader needs to work up to that realization through the narrative. Was this one of your intentions, to bring readers to the “Aha!” moment and beyond?
I like that comment in your review that Adoption is “parable-like.” The story is about a race of people who look like us, but their exceptional size makes them stick out, while other unusual genetic features are not so obvious at first. They come full-blown on the human scene, and are ignorant of their origins and differences from normal people. The parable aspect of the story concerns the moral obligations of regular humans, when they discover how different the new race of people are. Are they a safety threat? Should they be allowed to reproduce? Should they be isolated from the regular people? I bring the church into the picture as well to see how their representatives will respond. Jesus seems never to come up as a model, and I never have them asking “what would Jesus do,” a question every parochial school student is exhorted to ask when encountering a tough choice.
Is there an allegorical aspect to the work, as you see it? Is it really about “something else” that these unusual creatures signify?
People by nature are xenophobic and the more enlightened we become the more accepting of differences we become. We have difficulty tolerating homosexuality, skin color differences, deformities, religious differences, and so on. But how far will even the enlightened go in accepting differences? Adoption deliberately stretches differences beyond belief and asks what will we do with this exceptional new race of people?
Are you optimistic or pessimistic in general about the direction the human species is headed? Why or why not?
I guess I'm pessimistic in the short term, but optimistic in the long term. Throughout history we act in ways that contradict our own belief system for short-term ends. Perhaps we have to be shocked by our own inhumane actions, for example, dropping hydrogen bombs on cities in Japan, genocide of Native Americans, assassinations and wars, before we step back and reassess. Wisdom seems to come after our missteps, not before.
Will there be a sequel to Adoption?
Readers of my novel ask me, to a person, if I’m writing a sequel. I say I’m thinking about doing so, but haven’t started writing yet. Their retort in various words is, I hope you will. Surely, this is the best compliment a writer could have.
Thank you so much, Vickie, for this illuminating and thought-provoking analysis—a wonderful background or afterword to the novel itself. Clearly these are issues we need to be thinking about seriously, and working on how sound moral principles might guide us in this brave new world.
Vickie’s provocative, ground-breaking novel Adoption, released earlier this year, is available at:
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