Friday, July 6, 2018

The New Pandora

by Jean Roberta

For me, there is a thin line between an unfinished piece (usually a short story that wants to be a novel when it grows up) and one that is more-or-less finished but apparently not publishable in its current state.

I recently took another look at a long story I wrote several years ago. It is based on Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a male monster in his makeshift lab, and it refers to contemporary same-sex parenthood, especially lesbian couples becoming parents when one of the women is artificially inseminated, often with sperm from a man in her partner’s family.

The problem with my story is that it has two parallel plots: a dispute over the creation of a “daughter” in the present day, and a set of letters (roughly circa 1818, when the first version of Frankenstein was published) written by Margaret Saville, ancestor of the present-day mad scientist.

This is all probably too much for a short story. The original version was rejected for an anthology, and lately, a shorter version was rejected for an on-line journal of speculative fiction.

It seems as if I have to limit the story to the contemporary plot OR rewrite it as historical fiction, saving only the letters about the creation of the monster, the “new Pandora,” in the late 1700s. Or else I have to rework the thing into something long enough to stand on its own, probably with alternating chapters in different eras.

Here is the opening section of the current version, "Pandora II:"

To make things clear from the beginning, I’m Liz the librarian. I never thought I would move in with a science nerd like Victoria (who doesn’t accept shortened versions of her name) until I did. I wasn’t thinking with my mind.

After two years, we talked about having a baby. Some of our friends thought that lesbian couples who go sperm-hunting to have their own babies are slaves to the capitalist patriarchy. I didn’t care. I wanted to become a mother while my biological clock was still ticking. Having a girl was less important to me than having a baby who would be related to both of us.

“Babies take so long to raise.” Victoria sighed. “And I don’t think there’s a way to guarantee you’ll get all the features you want in a kid: intelligence, good health, strength, beauty, female plumbing.”

Victoria seemed to be at her peak: her classic features and creamy complexion were photogenic, and she was athletically slim. Combining our family genes seemed like a good idea. A procedure involving her brother’s sperm could result in a little miracle.

I tried to imagine the sensations of breast-feeding. Then I remembered that motherhood was not supposed to be overtly sexy.

“You can’t control everything in life anyway,” I told her. “You have to go into parenthood with an open mind.”

She slid her feet to the floor as she sat up, making room for me to sit beside her. Victoria was in a long-hair phase, at least where her scalp didn’t resemble a closely-mowed golf course. Her dark braid caught the light as it swung forward.

“We both disappoint each other sometimes, honey,” she reminded me. “I’m not complaining, but think how much more frustrating it would be to raise a child, trying to instill our values in her, coping with colic and scraped knees and birthday parties. And when she seems almost grown, we lose her when she rebels against us, drops out of school, and runs off with some asshole man.”

I didn’t think that outcome was inevitable. “But if we show our child a better way—“

“We’d still be fooling ourselves.” Victoria stood up. “We need a daughter who already has the right mind-set. We don’t have to leave it to chance.”

“You want us to adopt? How would that be risk-free?”

“You need to meet someone.” She stood up, turned off the overhead light, and walked through the indoor dusk to the coffee table where her laptop waited to be of service.

I saw the logo of Bio-Tech Laboratories, Victoria’s employer, on the small screen. Victoria continued typing.

A transparent, three-dimensional image of a woman appeared in front of me. “Hello, Pandora,” Victoria greeted her. “She’s a hologram,” she explained to me.

“Good – evening, ladies,” came a hesitant but fluty voice from the laptop. The image appeared to dip slightly in a delayed curtsey. She wore a full-skirted gown that obscured the shape of her body below the waist. Her hair was gathered into a large bun at her neck.

“What the fuck?” I asked.

As if in answer, the voice explained: “I am five feet tall, and seven stone in weight. I was created in 1795 from the remains of three gentlewomen who were chosen for their beauty and their accomplishments. I was named Pandora after the first woman formed by the gods of ancient Greece: she who had every gift.”

Pandora turned around slowly. As she did, her clothing disappeared. She looked like a ghostly female statue with small, high, well-shaped breasts, a visible ribcage and hipbones, graceful buttocks, and girlish legs. The eerie smile on her face never changed. It reminded me of the “Attic smile” on the faces of Greek statues.

I felt shaken. “I bet she didn’t go out like that in the 1790s.”

Victoria grinned. “How do you like her?”

“I want to know why you brought her into our front room. And what she has to do with our conversation about raising a child.”

Victoria pressed a button, and Pandora disappeared. “She’s the project I’ve been working on. The biologist who hired assistants to put her together in the 1790s left notes and diagrams, so we reconstructed her in this form. The next step is to –“

“No,” I interrupted. “Don’t tell me you’re going to dig up bodies to bring her back in real life. There’s a certain novel about a monster that a mad scientist made that way as an experiment. The story doesn’t end well.” I knew exactly where to find that book in the public library, and how many borrowers asked for it every week.

“The novel was based on the real case, Liz. We know a lot more about human development now. We don’t have to raid the cemetery for material. Some tissue can be grown in the lab, and we won’t set her loose to wander the countryside.” Victoria radiated the energy of a fanatic.

“Okay. Okay.” I stood up and turned on all three table lamps to shed light on the subject. I felt a headache coming on. “You and Eric can have fun building an antique woman in the lab. I won’t even ask what you plan to do with her after you’re finished. But she’s not living here with us.”

“It’ll probably take us another year to finish, anyway. Think about it, Liz. She’ll be custom-made. Nothing left to chance, or the randomness of heredity. You don’t know how much love she has to give to her family, the ones who accept her as their creation.”

Ice-cold fear raced up my spine. “Jesus, Victoria. Can you hear what you’re saying?”

“You don’t know her background. She had so much potential. Everyone knows about Frankenstein, but no one outside the family knows the real story because the actual letters were never published. There are five printed copies, and I have one. You need to read it.”

“Whoa, woman.” I paced the floor because I couldn’t stand still. I grabbed Victoria by both hands. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

She pulled away, and closed the laptop. “About reading Margaret Saville’s letters? You’re always reading, Liz. Why don’t you want to read them?”

“You’re talking about three or four things at once. I’ll read anything you give me to read, but we were talking about having a baby. Or adopting, or whatever. A baby of our own. Why do you want to bring a dead woman back to life?”

“That’s not really what we’re doing,” she explained patiently. “No one knows how to create a child in the lab who will grow up, unless we start with a fertilized egg, and that’s not much different from normal conception. Same process, different location. Do you see what I mean?"

My head was spinning.

Victoria was on a roll. “If we have to give Pandora an age, I’d say she’s only about twenty-one.”

I had seen library patrons in their early twenties, and I wasn’t convinced that Pandora had anything in common with them. I looked at Victoria, trying to beam common sense into her mind. “I need a drink. We’ve got an open bottle of merlot.”

“Bring me a glass, baby. Maybe that will help.”

By the time I returned from the kitchen with two glasses that glowed ruby-red in the lamplight, Victoria was holding a leather-bound volume. “Petticoat Lazarus, or The New Pandora,” she read aloud. “These are the letters of Mrs. Margaret Saville, my English ancestor. Eight or ten generations back. I’m not sure, but that’s not important.”


Note on names: in the novel Frankenstein, the central character, Victor, has a fiancee named Elizabeth. (In the original version, she is his cousin.) Margaret Saville is the sister and confidante of the sea-captain Robert Walton, who sends letters to her about the strange, pitiful man, Victor Frankenstein, whom he rescued somewhere in the Arctic, and whose story he relates.

In my version, Margaret Saville and Lady Roberta Walton are discreet lovers who run a home for gentlewomen in distress. One of their tenants is a certain Swiss lady who calls herself Victoria Beaufort because her actual family name has become notorious. (In Frankenstein, Beaufort is the maiden name of Victor Frankenstein’s mother.) Mademoiselle Beaufort says she is grieving for her child, but then the two Englishwomen discover that her “child” is an adult woman that she constructed out of body parts, and who resents being called an abomination. She resents it so much that she kills those who insult her, or who sexually assault her, and the inventor feels responsible for the carnage.

It seems I have made a monster out of different story-parts. I really hope I don’t have to kill it.


  1. Very interesting beginning to your story! It's the kind of thing that I love to read, but my muse doesn't give me to write myself. I think you should keep trying to bring it to life! Pun intended.

  2. Thank you for the encouragement, Fiona! I should probably work on it this summer, while I have the time. Making it grow to at least novella-length looks easier than cutting out parts I want to save. :)

  3. It does sound intriguing, and worth a longer form to handle all the information as well as the action.

  4. Another vote of confidence! This is encouraging.

  5. I agree that it sounds like there’s just too much going on for a short story. I am always sad when I have a story that feels like it has something to it but I can’t find it a home or figure out the problem. This seems clever and worth the attempt. So add me for one more vote!

  6. Jean, I think you should let your imagination run free (not to mention your impressive historical knowledge). Don't try to shoehorn it into the constraints of a short story. You've got so many wonderful ideas swimming around in this excerpt, but my feeling is that you're diving in too quickly. This cries out to be extended at least into a novella.


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