New year, new story, and this in a magazine I have long coveted publication. When I started reading contemporary SF/F/H again a few years ago, two of the first magazines I encountered were Shimmer and Clarkesworld and here it is–my first Shimmer story! It has the longest title I’ve so far come up with: “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita.”
I wrote the story last spring, conceived and drafted during the second trimester of my pregnancy, though completed during the third.
Pregnancy is miraculous and terrifying and cool and weird. You grow a new organ. Your senses of taste and smell change. Your emotions. Your centre of gravity. I thought a lot about the peculiar subjectivity of pregnancy, in which you are once yourself and not at all yourself. In which the idea of a distinction between self, brain, body, and mind seems increasingly ridiculous, since your body undertakes actions beyond your control, and rewires your perceptions and your brain. Of course, this is always true of the mind/body relationship– but pregnancy foregrounds it.
I came across the story of Mary Toft a few years ago, and it so horrified me I couldn’t pursue it in fiction, though I wanted to. I returned to her in those strange months midway through my pregnancy, and I began to seek out other reproductive marvels: mooncalves, and headless children, and maternal impression, and hens that give birth to prophecy-eggs. Several times I encountered the image of a reversed birth, of children returned—forcibly—to their mother, and felt a deep, visceral horror at the image.
So what do I do with all those feelings? I collect them, and watch the images play against one another, and try to imagine what sort of era produces this deeply awful image of reversal, of wrongness, a disorder so profound it unsettles the forward momentum of reproduction itself. This is probably why Mary Toft’s story speaks to me so viscerally: it is unnatural in a deep way, and witnesses a stealthy, awful sort of violence that is at once intimate and public.
Finally, a note on attribution: I borrowed two lines of poetry in one of the story’s subtitles, which reads “where children thus are born with hairy coats / heaven’s wrath on the kingdom it denotes” which is, as far as I can tell, from an anonymous seventeenth-century work attributed to Aristotle.
ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.
I’ve written a lot about the appeal of the archive and library: ”Water Logic” over at Capricious, and The Paradise Engine describe my own experience as a researcher, and the confusing and frustrating labour by which we make meaning out of things left behind. They’re my attempts to capture the pleasure and anxiety of archive fever.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is part of the same impulse. I started thinking about it when I first read about Paul Otlet and his Mundaneum, which was a kind of world catalogue, infinitely extendable, and designed to—eventually—take in all human knowledge. It was part of a huge and ambitious project, and an international movement, parallel to (and at odds with) the European arms race that led to the First World War.
My Mundaneum is quite different: it’s a museum and a junk-drawer and a wunderkammer as well as a catalogue; it’s a temple to the utopian dreams of Europe before 1914; it’s a physical wiki-binge. My story follows a young man left in charge of the Mundaneum just as the Imperial German Army crosses the Belgian border, transforming the world in ways he cannot yet imagine.
There’s a peculiar effect that archives have on you when you’re immersed in them, one that produces both insight and disorientation. You want, desperately, to know, but there’s always far more information than you can manage, even after years of practice. That’s the illness of the archive, an obsession with organizing what you see, making it into something accessible like argument or narrative. But the larger the archive grows, the less likely you are to find a unifying theory for its contents.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is about that preoccupation with order at the moment of its destruction, since it’s also about the chaos of the twentieth century smashing into a fantasy of total human knowledge. My narrator is a man trained to organize information and culture, and we watch him collide with mechanized warfare, which is ineffable, and which by its nature disorders the world, despite the rationality of mass troop movements and industrial military production.
In the end, war leaves behind its own archive: one constituted in bodies and objects half-destroyed and unstuck from their provenance, like the very substance of meaninglessness overflowing into the golden summer of 1914, and the beautiful dream of the Mundaneum.