In Asking the Prophet we use our alien probes to pick the brains of sci-fi and speculative fiction writers. This week, we spoke to Joseph Wallace about how wasps could bring about the apocalypse.
How do you go about conceptualizing your ideas into stories that feel plausible?
Before I started writing fiction, I was a nature and science writer for many years, so I was sort of fascinated by the odd corners of science. It’s also what people are often interested in reading about. To me, wasps are really fascinating because they’re extremely highly evolved. They’re still not completely understood. For example, the venom in an average wasp sting has so many chemicals in it that they’ve only figured out what constitutes a tiny percentage of it — even with the most advanced techniques of studying such things. So I love the idea of something that’s evolved to be as complicated as that.
But mostly it’s that they have an extraordinary ability to get their way through enslavement. My most vivid example of this is that within the last couple of years, I’ve come up with the fact that there’s a virus only found when wasps inject it into the prey that they are going to lay their eggs in. It is used to help disable the immune system of the prey so the wasp’s eggs can thrive. As far as I can remember, it’s not found anywhere else.
So when I was sitting there trying to figure out a way to end the world, it was inevitable to me that wasps would make for a good vehicle for that.
And what made you want to end the world in the first place?
My first novel was a historical novel set almost entirely in Brooklyn in the year 1923, all from the point of view of one character. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do next, I wanted something completely different.
I wanted to do something contemporary, global, and from many different points of view. That led me to wanting to do something that was a big thriller. The reason that I focused on becoming apocalyptic was probably the same as a lot of people that take on the end of society. It seems to me from my amateur scientist point of view that we’re living now as sort of skewed data.
When I look at my two kids texting each other from different ends of the house, and realize that that communication requires satellite to get done, there’s no way on Earth that this is going to last forever. So having the idea that we’re sort of dancing on the fringe that we weren’t evolved or designed to dance on led me to the idea of how easy it would be to shove human society over the edge — and how our political and social systems wouldn’t do anything to prevent the apocalypse.
I sort of worked out from those feelings. When I was growing up, I really dreamed of exploring a big empty Earth. Not a big utopian, nuclear-blast empty Earth, but a recovering, pure Earth. I had missed by about 200 years the chance to do that.
There’s still wilderness, but it’s not the same as big explorations. So I wrote a book where I got to send people on this sort of expedition I dreamed of sending them on. Obviously the plot goes in a lot of directions, but the essential idea was what it would be like to explore a world where you didn’t know what was on the map.
Is there any piece of current technology or current scientific discovery you’ve read about recently that’s got you thinking?
I’m working on a nonfiction book where I’m supporting the photography of this brilliant National Geographic photographer Robert Clark. The book is going to be about evolution. I’m very focused on Slavemakers and this book on evolution. Just the fact that we have the technology now to understand not only life on Earth and figure out the genome, but to understand the way it changes; the way evolution exists.
Way after I could use it in the book, scientists found that, because of climate change, fruit flies were evolving into a new kind of species. I’m talking in a matter of years, not hundreds of years. The wasps that prey on the fruit flies were evolving into new species as well. Over a 20-year period we had a bunch of new species showing up, because that’s how fast evolution can work. We tend to dream of it as something that takes millions of years.
I love the fact that first of all, that things like this exist and teaches us new things. Secondly, the ability to study up close enough to be able to understand that. What we have now is miraculous that we can see that so closely.
And what are some of your fictional influences?
I could say Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, because he took me to a world that felt as magical as the world I want to travel to. But it’s hard to not look back to formative science fiction and fantasy influences in terms of what I was reading when I was growing up. John Wyndham brought the world to an end in a sort of quiet way, so it wasn’t this dystopian post-nuclear world. That was very inspiring to me. The idea of a world the day after the apocalypse. It would kind of still have the technology, but we don’t have the ability to keep it in order, we don’t have the ability to make new ones, so we gradually move backwards towards a post-technological society. It doesn’t happen overnight, it happens gradually, but the point is it’s going to be gone, so do what you can while you still have it. Airplanes, cars, you’re not going to be able to keep these things going and you’re not going to have the ability to build new ones.
It was very inspiring to me because I thought, growing up in the Cold War, the way the apocalypse was going to happen was everything ending up as a waste land. And he said, “No, not necessarily.” Just because the humans are going extinct, doesn’t mean the Earth is. I thought that was really important.