Author Interview: Chris Panatier
Science fiction can be a powerful flashlight when it comes to shining light on our society. Take Chris Panatier's medical sci-fi novel The Phlebotomist (paperback, Kindle), in which blood and blood type are used to separate people in a way that's all too familiar.
Just so people know, what is a phlebotomist?
A phlebotomist is a person trained to draw blood for testing or for donation.
So then, what is The Phlebotomist about?
It is the year 2067, and the government has instituted a mandatory blood draw called The Harvest, which has resulted in a society segregated by blood type. In order to support herself and her grandson, Willa Mae Wallace works as "a reaper," a phlebotomist for the government blood contractor, Patriot. As you might imagine, The Harvest is a huge strain on the population. Most people have to sell their blood for extra money, and the value of that blood is dictated by compatibility. So, O-Negative, being universal donor, is worth the most, while AB-Positive (Willa's type) is worth the least. Hoping to put an end to it all, Willa draws on her decades-old phlebotomy training to resurrect an obsolete collection technique, but instead uncovers her employer's awful secret. On the run and with nowhere else to turn, Willa seeks an alliance with Lock, a notorious blood-hacker who cheats The Harvest to support the children orphaned by it. But they soon find themselves in the grasp of a new type of evil.
Where did you get the idea for The Phlebotomist?
The idea came to me one evening as I was going to sleep, angry over what was happening in my country (I'm in the U.S.). And I envisioned a world not far removed from our own where the upper crust, the most elite, the most wealthy and powerful, create a new, terrifying, way to keep that power and control the population.
The longer I've been writing, the more strongly I believe that social commentary in science fiction, whether directly or as satire, is unavoidable. I borrowed extensively from our present world to create the world of The Phlebotomist. It's just dialed up some. Science fiction does this all the time. Just read Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, Vox by Christina Dalcher, or Chris Brown's Tropic of Kansas series. They are all so hauntingly prescient.
So did you set out to write something socially / politically relevant, or did you just sit down to write this story and it naturally lent itself to being socially / politically relevant?
It naturally went to these places as I was writing it, and I was conscious that this was happening. So the commentary on the social and political aspects of our world was a little bit of both natural and intended.
Obviously, The Phlebotomist is a comment on our society. But it also sounds like it's a medical sci-fi story.
That is a great description, actually. Though this story touches on the horror genre as well as science fiction. I wanted to ground it firmly in medicine and science to make what grows from the initial premise realistic, and therefore, more horrifying. Also, when I drew out the story from the original setup, it flew to some crazy places.
Speaking of influences, are there are any writers that had a big influence on The Phlebotomist but not on anything else you've written?
Wow, that is a hard question. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, was influential for how he just lashes the reader to the characters. I learned a lot about how to invest the reader in a character's welfare from those books. And one story that has stuck with me for so long is the novelette "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang and translated by Ken Liu. It just does so much in comparatively few words. A richly rendered fictional world that mirrors the faults of our own in its physical state, with brilliantly sculpted and sympathetic characters. And by no way am I comparing myself to Hao Jingfang; I just feel a kinship with that story.
What about non-literary influences; do you think The Phlebotomist was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
Another tough one. Because of the popularity of the trope that this book touches on, one of my challenges was to not be influenced by popular shows or video games. But I will say it's kind of like a buddy movie where the buddies are kickass older women and they are trying to kill [REDACTED].
Artistically, in terms of the visuals that I tried to paint for the reader, I wanted to present a high contrast between the world of Patriot and those to whom it is beholden (the rich), and everyone else. Patriot, the big government blood contractor, occupies a headquarters that in my head at least, looked like one of the beautiful creations from Monument Valley, which is a simply gorgeous game.
So do you think The Phlebotomist could be adapted into a movie, TV show, or video games?
I think it's a stand-alone movie or short television series. I really do like the work that Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. are doing right now. I'd almost prefer one of them get the rights than a traditional studio. I just feel like the streaming services are putting out better quality, more original stuff. I was completely disappointed at what Fox did to The Passage.
Me too. So, if Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu did want to make The Phlebotomist into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I've thought a lot about who I'd want to play Willa. Alfre Woodard. Not even close. Alfre Woodard.
Paul Semel has been writing about books (and video games, and music, and movies...) for more than twenty-five years. For more of his author interviews, visit his website, paulsemel.com.
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