Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"After This Life" by Janna Silverstein

The first germ of this story was planted when I saw a news piece about a prison inmate named Tommy Silverstein. He’s no relation of mine (though the fact of our identical surnames certainly drew my curiosity), but he is the longest held prisoner in total solitary confinement in America, possibly the world, maintained at a supermax prison in Colorado. I was fascinated and horrified by every angle of the story. It led me to try to learn more about him and other prisoners, to read the online diaries of solitarily confined and death row inmates, and to think deeply about how I felt about such treatment.

The second germ of this story came out of the fact that I am an unrepentant fan of Star Trek and have been interested in the idea of teleportation for years. I always wondered, among other things, where the developer of such technology would find human test subjects.

The last germ came from a challenge that writer Michael Heibert and I posed to each other, to write a story in which a coin played a prominent part. I wrote the first draft of this story with these three ideas in mind. I didn’t go into it with the idea that a parent-child relationship would play any role in the story at all. That theme, however, crops up again and again in my writing. I have learned to let it be, so once that element appeared, I knew it was there to stay.

It was science fiction writer Michael Burstein who led me to reading more thoroughly about the theory behind real teleportation. If I was going to write science fiction, he insisted (and quite wisely), the science had to be there. Part of me rebelled; I just wanted to write the story, dammit, and not bother myself with all that pesky research. He was right, of course. The reading was fascinating. In the end, the horror of what I discovered—that every teleportation would be a death—took me that last step toward making this story what it ultimately became when I submitted it to IGMS. Edmund’s insightful revision requests made me think about who would be willing to sacrifice lives to develop such technology.

Friends who read early drafts criticized my softening the details of prison life, suggested that I’d made Jake too smart, too sensitive, too sympathetic. But if I learned anything by reading all those inmate diaries, it’s that prisons are full of people who are intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and very sharp. It’s a frightening thing to consider: that people who share characteristics that we on the outside value highly are incarcerated for committing acts that we could never conceive of committing ourselves. This is the line between us, and it’s a fine one indeed. It wasn’t my intention to diminish the horror of what such people have done with their own hands. It was one of my goals, however, to find the animal commonality between us, to consider what it means to look into the abyss and the possibility of coming out the other side. To suggest that Hell may be what we create for ourselves rather than anything supernatural. If I haven’t dwelled on the details of prison life, if they don’t appear harsh enough, and if I haven’t espoused one position or the other on the question of capitol punishment, well, these issues aren’t really the point of the story.

I didn’t decide to deal with Louisa’s spirituality until very late in the writing process. By the second-to-last draft (and this story went through more drafts than almost anything else I’ve ever written), I found myself wondering if the story shouldn’t have been told from her point of view. Ultimately, she changes more than Jake does. On the other hand, I wanted very much to be inside Jake’s head when the teleportation started, when he faced his own end in the wake of the deaths he caused, to see where his thoughts might lead, to feel the process as it occurred.

If I hope readers come away with anything from “After This Life,” it’s that they find themselves wondering about the costs of technology to our own humanity. It’s also that they find an awareness of how fragile our lives are, how our choices rest on an edge fine and wicked as a paper cut, and ultimately to find some kind of compassion for the people around them, each one being faced with the same decisions moment by moment every single day.


An Anonymous Blogger said...

Jake's crime was triggered by passion: love, hate, jealousy. We've all felt them, to some extent. I, for one, understand the urge to do what Jake did. Most of us don't act on these urges. But, he did, and suffered the consequences.
There are plenty more hells to explore here, created by greed and other passions.

Or, maybe I'm missing it entirely? Are all hells the same, no matter how we create them?

Anonymous said...

I think that Hell is different for each person, so I think that we do agree. As a Jew, I never feared Hell as a place, an ultimate damnation. Rather, I thought that--as the story suggests--we create our own hells, whatever they may be. So yes, you got it. :-)