De Nieuwe Batavia: For Want of A Nail

One reason I’m behindhand on De Nieuwe Batavia posts here on N2S is that I feel like someone has already written what I was going to say next. And she’s also included interesting characters, a nicely symmetrical plot, and really good prose, which puts her several strides ahead of what I’ve been toying around with.

The story in question is For Want of a Nail, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Her (unnamed) generation ship feels a lot like the mental shape of De Nieuwe Batavia I’ve been slowly developing. I’ll probably plod along, proving out and detailing the areas she sketches in a few paragraphs, but it’s difficult to see how I’ll match her verbal grace.

“For Want of a Nail” is the entirely deserving recipient of this year’s Short Story Hugo award. You should go read it; it’s free at that link. Then come back and tell me what you think of it.

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11 Responses to De Nieuwe Batavia: For Want of A Nail

  1. Fade Manley says:

    What a fascinating and twisty story. It did a lot of interesting things with ingrained cultural assumptions on the part of the locals, and I really liked the note about the huge expense of pulling every family pod ever up from storage. Worldbuilding all over the place!

  2. Yes. My only hangup was this line:

    “…As a girl, it’s your biological imperative to reproduce. You have to keep your womb warm and ready to go. Not me. I have to beg to be allowed to spill my seed in some test tube on the off-chance someone will want it.” Ludoviko glared at Cordelia. “My application was denied on grounds that my personality was unstable. Exactly how unstable would you like me to be?”

    It sounds like the ship is not running on a the one-adult, one-child model of population control, which is what I was thinking, but rather the one-woman two-children, male-variable model. I have my doubts about that; it means everyone on the ship gradually becomes more closely related.

    On the one hand, that approach does weed out bad gene lines. An unstable, disruptive personality, assuming it’s a genetic expression rather than the product of upbringing, would be something one wouldn’t want to reproduce. On the other hand, there are traits in there you’re going to want at your destination.

  3. Cynthia W says:

    Hmmm. Yes that does seem a little off. I could readily see why they may not have someone with undesirable traits reproduce *now*, in such a closely defined space, but I would expect sperm contribution to be mandatory, because you might need that genetic variety later. It’s not like it takes a lot of space to store enough sperm for a great many children down the line. Not to mention leaving the possibility of reproduction open for the future helping to prevent Ludoviko’s brand of bitterness, and giving him more investment in the continuation of the ship beyond himself.

  4. Fade Manley says:

    I really wonder how much it might add to family stability if all men did sperm donation, and then there was a subset selected for Desirable Traits, all of it stored long-term Just In Case, and no actual revelation as to who was fathering a given child. Several cultures seem to do just fine with “men should feel attached to the offspring of sisters-from-the-same mother” rather than direct paternal investment, and given that they seem to be doing discreet family groups, matrilineal descent with a board supplying mixing on the male side for genetic variance seems fine…

    I mean, it’d be a hard sell for people coming from certain cultural backgrounds; but “go to the recyclers when you get dementia” would also be a hard sell for a lot of cultural backgrounds, and that seems to have worked its way in as a Basic Moral Value anyway. (Okay. For most. I think it’s an interesting commentary on either the length of time the ship has been going, for generational differences, or just on individual variances, that someone presumably raised with that cultural value would go build an exception into the rules for himself when he saw dementia coming on.)

  5. You know, I hadn’t thought of sperm donation. Obviously, in space, it wouldn’t be very difficult to freeze, either, since cold (along with vacuum) is not in short supply.

    I’d been thinking a Banks-Culture structure, where every adult has the right to have one child (if they can persuade another person to cooperate). The slight surplus needed to deal with pre-reproductive mortality and childlessness could then be auctioned off, awarded to exceptional people, or assigned by lot. Most people would probably pair off with someone and have two children between them, but other relationships are certainly possible.

    But I kinda like the idea of either a matrilineal society, or a Brin-Postman one, where the father of a child isn’t necessarily related to it. And there are some great plot points in the machinations of the committee that decides what range of paternal genetic contributors (PGCs) are available for parents to choose from, or even which PGC each couple gets assigned. (The committee would also determine the gender of the child produced.)

    The possibilities for corruption are interesting and complex, because the damage to the ship is subtle and kind of weird. You see, paternal genetic contribution may be timeless, but maternal genetic contribution is not. So the ship can lose some good maternal gene lines if they’re wasted on inferior or incompatible PGCs. And every choice made comes with an opportunity cost, because some gene lines that might appear in a generation or two will be cut off by choices made now.

    The gender selection is even more interesting. One would tend to select for male children in gene lines that are “complete”, because then that sperm can be frozen and re-used repeatedly. But gene lines that haven’t reached their full potential would be better producing female children, to run them through a few more cycles before they’re stored as sperm. And again, there’s an opportunity cost if the Committee decide that two gene lines that could otherwise be crossed should both be expressed as the same gender in a given generation.

    In the end, one begins to sound like the Bene Gesserit.

    An Atreides daughter could’ve been wed to a Harkonnen heir and sealed the breach. You’ve hopelessly complicated matters. We may lose both bloodlines now.

  6. Serge Broom says:

    “For Want of a Nail” is the entirely deserving recipient of this year’s Short Story Hugo award

    I was backstage and saw her reaction after she calmly gave her acceptance speech and got off. She was gasping . Never believe that your vote doesn’t matter.

  7. Lenora Rose says:

    Fade Manley: Wouldn’t an entirely unknown father raise an issue of potential inbreeding? Or are you positing something where the records are in a computer bank and excessively close inbreeding is flagged for the offspring? (Since, if you’re talking about preserved sperm, a mother and her daughter and her granddaughter could potentially be given sperm from the exact same donor if it’s not recorded.)

    But inputting the data into a computer to prevent that ends up meaning *someone* knows actual paternity, or can figure it out from studying the records, which leads to potential for all forms of abuse.

  8. Lenora Rose says:

    I should say, too, yes; an excellent story all around. And I can see why the worldbuilding, slipped into every aspect of every interaction, drew your attention.

    I do hope, Abi, that it doesn’t stop you writing your own works and thoughts.

  9. Lenora Rose @8:

    To a certain extent, I posted this to get it out of the way. Every time I wanted to go on to Reduce & Recycle, I’d be blocked by the choice to either quote (and then praise) “For Want of a Nail” or skipping a really good opening quote. It was a peculiar form of vapor lock.

  10. Fade Manley says:

    Lenora Rose, I did think that something along the lines of the Who Gets To Breed committee would still exist, and still be tracking these records… But that in general, no given male would know who specifically they had fathered. The idea isn’t to maintain Complete Secrecy on that point, especially because, as you point out, matters of inbreeding are relevant; the point is to decouple “children I provided sperm for” from “children who continue my genetic line” for men, so that they can invest in their sisters’ offspring (with whom they share genes).

    If you want specific families to remain sort of Specific Families, instead of everyone blending together into a big general family with all the crossover, or dictating that one specific sex moves into the other family on child-producing, it’s one way of handling it.

  11. Lenora Rose says:

    Abi: So there will be more posts. Hurrah. (I may not comment on everything, but I read.)

    Fade Manley: I expected as much, I just wanted to be clear. Though I still think having anyone with access to genetic data when such data is meant to be “Kept from the fathers” would lead to some kind of complication or abuse, where someone will get access they weren’t meant to.

    I actually did write a story in which male parenting and actual paternity are often separate categories, due to a combination of non-human biological imperative and ingrained cultural ideals. But there was no attempt to be secretive about the matter — and it still led to some conflicts and odd exceptions.

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