Plus on change

Neil Gaiman’s 1998 collection of short stories, Smoke & Mirrors, contains a tale called Changes.

Neil Gaiman, pictured yesterday, in 1998

The central story concerns a scientist, Rajit, who develops a drug which cures cancer, by causing the body to, effectively, reboot. A side effect of the drug is that it also causes the user to switch sexes. This change being reversible with another dose.

The 11 pages of the story map out the changes caused by this new drug, and perhaps more importantly, by its side-effect.

In Thailand and Mongolia it was reported that boys were being forcibly rebooted into girls to increase their worth as prostitutes.

In China newborn girls were rebooted to boys: families would save all they had for a single dose. The old people died of cancer as before. The subsequent birthrate crisis was not perceived as a problem until it was too late, the proposed drastic solutions proved difficult to implement and led, in their own way, to the final revolution.

Amnesty International reported that in several of the Pan-Arabic countries men who could not easily demonstrate that they had been born male and were not, in fact, women escaping the veil were being imprisoned and, in many cases, raped and killed.

Neil Gaiman, Changes

Change itself become a dirty word – the story mentions someone being prosecuted for wearing a t-shirt reading, “I’m a changed man!”. School children giggle at, “A change is as good as a rest”. Loose coins become know as coinage or specie. The common verb meaning to alter becomes shift.

The story doesn’t tell us exactly when all of this takes place, but it’s before the present, as the bio-pic of Rajit’s life (starring Jeff Goldblum) comes out in 2018. Despite its central focus being two things that we can’t do – cure cancer with a single pill and change a person’s sex – it’s a strangely dated story.

It talks of nightclubs running unchanged nights -evenings where the patrons are expected to attend as their birth sex- and employing door-staff (with a 97% accuracy rate in determining natal sex) to enforce the policy. There are people who have to reboot twice over a weekend, to ensure that their current sex matches those of their employment records.

If the story were rewritten now it would have to be in the context of a society where the nightclub and the workplace would be on the wrong side of social views and equality legislation, and the wonder-drug that allows sex changes was just the final piece in the jigsaw.

Not everyone is aware that we’re not there yet

With that, and the concept of loose change vanishing, it seems to be a tale from a different time.

Of course, the measure of a good science fiction story is not that it’s prescient in every detail, but in how it makes you think about the present. It makes me think about those child prostitutes, and the unwanted daughters, and the women trying to escape the veil, for whom nothing has changed in 22 years, and makes me wonder if the drug were real whether anyone really would want change.

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