Alumn

Hypergraphic Alum Publishes Their Science Fiction Debut by Tenacity Plys

Final cover art for,  What You Call by   Alma Elaine Shoaf .

Final cover art for, What You Call by Alma Elaine Shoaf.

Germ Lynn’s new short fiction chapbook What You Call explores one of the most vital aspects of human life: our ability to care for each other. The story, part of Radix Media’s Futures science fiction chapbook series, follows a humanoid cyborg programmed to support people. When the cyborg loses track of their charge they have to ask themselves who they really are without someone to care for. While in one sense we’re all our own people independently of others, we are also inextricable from the people around us who form a web of interdependency with us—Lynn’s story prods at that tension and asks questions about what it means to support another being. 

Lynn tells their story through the epistolary form, documenting their android’s journey searching for their charge through the android’s increasingly desperate messages to their assigned human. We get an inside view of their protagonist’s thoughts, through the telling framing of a monologue detailing all the emotional energy the android spends on their human. The only way we get to know this character is through their communication with their care client; the entire world and the character’s interactions with it are filtered through what’s relevant to their search. This gives extra urgency to the android’s parallel quest to find themselves outside the context of their programmed purpose in life. As the android struggles to both fulfill their duties and expand their self outside of those duties, we ourselves are provoked to think about how we relate to ourselves and others when it comes to empathy and care. 

The chapbook features illustrations by Alma Elaine Shoaf. More information about how to order a copy of What You Call and other chapbooks in the Futures series can be found on the Radix Media website. The story is a must read for anyone interested in science fictional subjects like transhumanism, cyberpunk, and empathy.

Your character in What You Call does work much like the work you do in real life! Would you say the conflict they experience matches up with your own? And how does your own experience in particular relate to the broader philosophical questions you're asking in What You Call? 

So I dedicated this chapbook to my sisters, because they both inspired different aspects of different characters, including the narrator, and they both do care work as well. I love that we all ended in the same field; it feels like we are team and of course, we all have our different approaches and philosophies that we share. My older sister, for example, works with an older population and is more regularly confronted with grief. Where my little sister, works outside of caregiving agencies, as an informal natural support to a woman who pays her under the table to do the work of a home health aide, essentially. She understands this work outside of the “work” and so she has her own set of tools. 

When I wrote this, I had a day job as an assistant to a horticultural therapist in a day program. And I also took on a job as a live-in companion so I essentially came home from my day job to my other job, which was also where I lived. So I had to think pretty thoughtfully about how I was going to go about doing this work at the level I was doing it and how to come into myself where I had very little space for the self. It’s just that so many hours of the day were dedicated to work. I was also afraid of losing everything. Not just the job. Not just the health insurance. But also room and board and if it was revealed that I was bad at this job, bad enough to lose it, would it be because I was a bad person, that I lacked real care and consideration? I had a lot of panic attacks because I literally felt I was going to die if I underperformed. But along the way, I learned a lot about accepting care. The people I worked with were always thoughtful and attentive and I would say, pretty much the authority on how to do this work. So I wanted the protagonist to take their cue from people who were interdependent and not one-dimensionally on the receiving end of care because that’s closer to my experience of care work. It was a way to shake the protagonist from that relationship, where they are on the other side, as one-dimensionally on the end of providing care. 

That really clarifies why your character struggles to define themselves outside of the care they give, and why the disappearance of the person they’re caring for is so jarring for them! Re: interdependency as opposed to a one-way care relationship, can you expand a little more on what you mean by that?

Well, the care work that I engaged in had a very medical feel to it, even though I was mostly an aide or a companion and that doesn’t feel like I’m an authority on care and it certainly doesn’t pay like a medical profession would. What I mean by a medical feel, is that under this system, the transaction seems to have this directionality: there is person receiving supports and there is the person giving them, a service is rendered. It’s confusing, for me, to think of it that way,  when you are essentially just sharing space with a person, helping them to access certain spaces or navigate certain spaces. It feels like a personal endeavor. It’s important to draw boundaries to sustain the relationship, like any relationship. But when I say I want more interdependency, I mean I want more peer supports. I want that for myself in mental health care, not exactly like leaning on friends instead of therapists, but in addition to therapists, I want a network of experts with lived experience to tap into, to give me an avenue outside of a medical model to feel accepted and not rehabilitated and also like an authority on my own experience. When I say that the folks that I supported are pretty much the authority on the care they need, I mean that I’ve actually met people who have shut down the institutions that they grew up in, that band together to work on problems relating  to schools, housing, and infrastructure, that freely offer natural supports to the community. So I think the medical model that a lot of care is offered in, in which a diagnosis must be made to render the service, is just one part of the story. 

It’s also worth noting that the “support unit” is thrust into a situation in which they need care. They are “broken,” “compromised” and struggling to navigate the world they are forced into, often treated like an outsider. I often think of the caregiving dynamic as very dynamic, at any point, you could be on one side of it or the other. 

You touched on your own experiences receiving care just now--was that another aspect of your own life that informed the story?

I think I’ve come to appreciate care in many forms. And whenever I sense that someone is doing something because they care about me, I take note of it. Like, I like how in the story the protagonist accepts a gift even though they don’t understand at first because they sense there is an element of care attached. I have found myself in similar situations, where I have to let people care for me even though I find it unintuitive. 

The person your cyborg is supporting experiences a loss of agency in the story that is a source of guilt to your protagonist. How does this conflict tie in to your exploration of how agency and support can/ should relate to each other?

The interior of  Radix Media  print shop in Brooklyn

The interior of Radix Media print shop in Brooklyn

Honestly, it’s a perpetual dilemma. I feel like there are a lot of instances in my work, where higher-ups intimate that it’s just important that people feel like they are in control. And there are even words, jargon-y words, for tools that will build that house. The word redirection comes to mind. So I wanted to tell a story, where the system is flawed or the system has limitations but there might be an alternative. It’s still a dystopian world though. People are scrapping and hoarding, and it’s telling that it’s the caregiver telling the story and not the person in need of care. That relates to much of my experience in care work as well, often the people doing most of storytelling and crafting the narratives that drive policy are not living those stories.

 It seems like at various points in this world’s history, support cyborgs have been pushed on people as a form of social control. Where does that fit in with what you’re saying about interdependency and agency?

 I am just not forgetting our history and how we once said that institutions were compassionate, almost utopian. We have self advocates to thank for waking us up to the reality of those places and we should listen to them now because they are telling us what remains of that system. I wrote this story where the policies of the state disrupted a caregiving relationship, which happens all the time, in ways big and small. I felt the only way I could approach that, given my experience, was to write a story about a “support unit” who listens to people with lived experience and ultimately surrenders control over their lives. And it’s an ambiguous ending. I still don’t know if it’s surrender or abandonment; it’s not like the world is as it should be at the end, it’s apocalyptic. 

So your story seems to counter the paradigm of a hierarchical and one sided care relationship with more peer-based and two-way relationships that exist in organic communities. Would you say that gives your story/ your ideology an anarchist flavor?

Maybe in the sense that I want a richer, more care-full community to provide alternatives. We all know how people work outside the system when it doesn’t work for them. I want people to share strategies. There are gaps in coverage, as I like to say, how do we close the gaps?

 Looking back on this story from the perspective of the caregiving work you’re doing now, how has your thinking on care and agency changed? Have you had any experiences since then that you wish you could weave into the story now?

That’s a good question. I think it has changed in the sense that I want to expand my team beyond my sisters and the folks I know doing similar work and invite in experts from all experiences: chefs, musicians, athletes etc. and inquire about what kind of care and consideration goes into their work and how to make that care more accessible.

And I want to dive more into this topic in a nonfiction realm. I want to gather people’s actual lived experiences with accessing care and let people speak for themselves. And I want to support and publish the self advocates speaking on this issue.

 Having the science fiction series to think through some of the dilemmas I find in this work was a cathartic process but I still think the people with the answers are the folks living the stories. So I’m dedicated to continued learning and listening. 

Rough sketch of interior art, by Alma Elaine Shoaf for  What You Call

Rough sketch of interior art, by Alma Elaine Shoaf for What You Call

Collaboration and communal mindset seem to be key! Would you say the community that makes an appearance in your story is an example of how you see that working, or a step along the road?

 I would say it’s a step along the road. It’s a very short story, so it’s just a glimpse into another world. But the community that the protagonist finds themselves in does demonstrate a lot of solidarity, compassion, and a dedication to human survival. I don’t think any vision for a self-sustaining community is perfected and the community that appears in the story isn’t a utopia; they are just doing their best given the circumstances. Stopping there, and learning, leads the protagonist to greater things. 

 Without giving away more than you’d like to, can you expand on what the title What You Call signifies for you?

I think some people think the “you” is accusatory and “what you call” comes with this air of suspicion or draws unnecessary distinction. But I think it’s important to realize when people are speaking different languages. So I return to the phrase a lot. ASL makes an appearance in the story as one of the dominant languages of the commune that the protagonist ends up in and at one point, the protagonist glitches into French. I wanted to demonstrate that the protagonist, as a cyborg, has an aptitude for many languages but they also hint that they have their own with the repetition of “what you call.”

 And finally, got any other upcoming projects you’re psyched about that you want to plug for our readers?

 Just that I’m working on a book of poetry. I’ve been galvanized by the workshops I’ve been lucky enough to participate in. Hypergraphic, which is where this story was workshopped and formed, gave me this great insight into fiction and now I’m excited to work on some poetry.