Essay: “The Invisible Worm”, Brian Stableford, 1991.
Stableford operates in domestic comedy mode in this one, and it’s firmly placed in the future history of The Third Millennium, circa The Period of Transformation 2400 to 2650. We have the living gantz houses and cooperative marriages of more than two people who raise decanted children (well, a child).
Our story opens with Rick, the designated caregiver of the week for Steven, a baby whose cries drive Rick up the wall. The other members of this cooperative marriage are Don and Nicola (both working somewhere in South America), Dieter (“a mud-and-sand gantzer” who has a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door), Rosa (who works remotely in the “Ed and Ents” – Education and Entertainment — sector), and Chloe who is plugged into some robominer working on the mid-Atlantic trench.
Trouble starts when Rick notices a sick rose on the living wallpaper of the house’s recently installed nursery and that the bathwater for Steven is contaminated. (This is not the last time in this series we will see the motif of gantz houses decorated with walls of permanent living flowers created by genetic engineering.)
So, Rick calls up the house doctor, Dr. Jauregy – a literal doctor for the living homes of this future. She tells him to take a few samples, bag them, and put them in the house’s disposal unit. She’ll analyze them remotely. Rick helpfully says the nursery was only put in a couple of months ago and the house doesn’t have a womb. Steven was “collected after delivery”. He says the wood in the nursery and the wallflowers are, of course, all dextro-rotary and, therefore incapable of being eaten by “feral organisms” and immune to “natural pathogens”.
Jauregy cautions Rick that there’s now, due to genetic engineering, a lot of “de-DNA” about now. Something might have gotten into the house when it was manufactured and then lay dormant. Or it could be something else like a fault in the house’s silicon/biochip interface. She asks if any members of the household are involved in “cutting-edge biotech”. She’ll come over to investigate. She’ll also keep her analytic systems hooked up to the house’s. And then, to Rick’s surprise, she asks him if he has any enemies.
After the call, Rick talks to Rosa who says, of course, they don’t have any enemies. Who would sabotage a nursery? She asks him if he’s checked the rest of the house. Everything except the cellar he says. The cellar is where all the waste-recycling is done and from which deep roots grow to get minerals and water for the house. They bought the best, state of the art nursery system. That may be the problem, says Rick and asks if Dieter could have brought anything back from his work in the Kalahari Desert. Rosa exasperatedly asks where in the Kalahari he would have picked up de-DNA?
Rick doesn’t find Rosa particularly supportive even though – contrary to strict taboos about loving one co-spouse more than the others, he feels vulberable around her.
Steven starts acting up again, so Rick takes him off to the dining room though he doesn’t know how he’s going to feed him without the nursery’s teat. Make one from the house’s library even though that’s a “bit twenty-first century” Rosa tells him. But Steven won’t like it. Rosa, who is, of course, the household expert on child rearing, says it’s not good for babies to get bogged down in routine.
Jaugery shows up. The labwork is done and the sick rose’s DNA “looks a bit iffy”. She’s called in some help, but there’s nothing to worry about. Said help is Ituro Morusaki of the International Bureau of Investigation. He’s concerned their house may be a crime scene but, of course, they should not jump to conclusions.
Dieter and Chloe have finally come out of their rooms. Chloe insist she’s “squeaky clean, greewise”. She didn’t bring any exotic DNA home. Now Dieter . . . Dieter insists, given that he’s working to reclaim the Kalahri, he wouldn’t be the target for any Gaian terrorists. Now Don and Nicola, working in the Amazon . . . Rosa quashes that insinuation by noting they’re mere “techs, not planners”, so “Mother Earth’s Avengers” won’t have anything agains them.
Meanwhile Steven is still fussing, and Rick is trying to feed him which brings some not very helpful comments from Chloe about feeding the baby gently.
Rick can’t keep Steven quiet and he needs to be fed and wrapped in a blanket. Rick almost suggest they take “care of the little brat”.
The next consultant shows up, Lionel Murgatroyd from the Ministry of Defense. What, is World War Five starting, asks Dieter? Just a routine investigation whenever novel DNA is found. However, they going to have to seal the house up and take control of all its systems while they investigate. The somewhat panicky Dieter thinks there’s a bioweapon lose in the house. Chloe reasonably tells him it isn’t a weapon if it only eats dr-material.
Just then, Rick realizes the blanket wrapping Steven is now soaked in urine. And the garbage chute won’t open. So, it’s off to the basement to take care of it there.
In the basement, Rick will have a very trying time for several pages. It seems the basement is damp – because the house’s wastewater system is flooding the basement. And the door back upstairs won’t open. And all the controls in the basement won’t work. And it’s very soundproof. He tries, unsuccessfully to smash them or signal something is wrong by attacking the house’s roots. Things look bleak on the top step with the water rising, and Rick holding Steve.
Then the door opens with his very unsupporative spouses regarding Rick as panciky and not understanding the danger he was in.
The investigation of the house has concluded, and the three scientists are very excited. It seems they have discovered a virus of “newly-devolved dr-DNA” in the house. It’s not a bioweapon, “just the first of many minor nuisances that will soon be cropping up”. Dextro-rotary gantz houses are a “wide-open ecological niche just begging to be colonized”. The Gaians will probably see it as a hero of the ”Counter-Evolution”. And, no, it’s not patentable and, no they won’t be mentioned in the upcoming scientific paper.
The story ends with Steven finally feeding from an old fashioned bottle and Rick feeling that he’s bonded with the baby during their brush with death. That’s plausible.
If this story is to advertise the benefits of a co-operative marriage over a traditional one, it doesn’t succeed. The spouses bicker and aren’t very supportive of each other. On the other hand, maybe Stableford is ironically noting that this new kind of marriage will have the same problems as the old kind.
They also are very rigid about who cares for Steven. They bitch about how Rick handles Steven, but they won’t step in to help. There doesn’t seem a lot of parental concern. I find the whole notion of co-operative marriages successfully taking care of children not genetically their own implausible in successfully raising children. It’s well known that parents aren’t as attentive to children they don’t share genes with hence the many evil step parents in stories which, as it turns out, is one of those stereotypes statistically validated.
The genetic underpinnings of our common family structure (at least in the WEIRD people) probably were shaped in the long paleolithic of human history, and there are probably lots of genes that would have to be tinkered with to make Stableford’s version of marriage and childrearing superior to our current one.