|"Since we have so many new faces," I said to the half-dozen volunteers, "I'll start with a tools talk. Safety points for the spade — the most important is that when you're digging, you push with the ball of your foot."|
This story was my first sale to Asimov's Science Fiction, and hence constituted a significant breakthrough in my career. For a few years I'd been selling consistently to smaller markets, while becoming increasingly frustrated at my failure to break into any of the top magazines (at that time known as the Big Four). But the disappointment of the long wait was partially compensated by my fortune in then making several sales in swift succession, with four stories appearing in Asimov's during 2006. (Some writers make an early breakthrough into a top market, but then struggle to follow it up.)
"The Hastillan Weed" draws upon my experiences as a conservation volunteer with TCV (formerly BTCV) and the National Trust. I've done many kinds of work: planting trees, maintaining footpaths, hedge laying, digging ponds, dry stone walling, building steps, combating erosion, and lots more. The task that inspired this story was uprooting Himalayan Balsam, which is an invasive plant not native to Britain. I've also done my share of clearing rhododendrons, another invasive import. Indeed, there are numerous non-native plants — many of them introduced by the Victorians as garden exotics — causing various forms of ecological havoc across the UK. Perhaps the biggest menace is Japanese Knotweed, which is almost impossible to kill, and will sprout from the tiniest displaced fragment. It spreads underground and will literally grow through tarmac and concrete.
From this background, it was only a short leap for me to imagine a plant from an alien planet becoming an invasive weed on Earth. Science fiction often depicts intelligent aliens walking around on Earth, comfortably able to breathe oxygen and thrive in our biosphere; but an issue often skirted — either because it's not relevant to the story at hand, or because the author simply doesn't appreciate the implications — is that if aliens could survive here, then so could many of their plants and parasites.
That was the story seed. I imagined aliens setting up an embassy on Earth, and bringing one of their plants with them. But what kind of plant? Was it released deliberately into our environment, or was it an accidental escape? I decided that the plant would be one of the aliens' recreational drugs, analogous to cannabis. Hence the story title "The Hastillan Weed" is a pun on "weed" as both unwanted plant, and alien dope.
In my original concept, the conservationist character had already removed the infestation of weed from the countryside, but he retained a small supply with which he became a drug dealer to the aliens. This had a rationale, and implications, that would have been explored at length.
However, I never wrote that version of the story. I decided to start the narrative earlier, at the point where the conservationists were clearing the weed from the wild. I came up with a new story that was a prequel to my initial idea — the ending was the set-up for the story I'd originally conceived.
When I submitted "The Hastillan Weed" to Asimov's, editor Sheila Williams said she liked the story apart from the ending, and asked me to rewrite it. I therefore crafted a new ending which wrapped up the story in a different way, without any scope for writing my original concept as a sequel. I was disappointed to discard my preferred storyline, and the material I'd prepared for its continuation, but the opportunity to sell to Asimov's was too great to pass up.
It's not easy to say why this story in particular was my breakthrough piece, when numerous earlier stories had failed. Perhaps it was largely a matter of luck — by firing enough arrows at the target, I was bound to hit the bull's-eye eventually, with another tale if not this one. But I think one factor in the story's success may have been its "aura of authenticity": the narrative is convincing because the author knows what he's talking about. Many of the details, such as the safety talk on the correct use of the spade, were based on real events.
Although this story draws on my background in conservation volunteering, the protagonist is not a version of me. I made the narrator thirty years older than I am, partly for story-related reasons, but mainly to create some distance between myself and the character. Experience has taught me that using an authorial surrogate as a protagonist has various drawbacks.
Appropriately for a story with an environmental theme, some background elements in "The Hastillan Weed" were later recycled elsewhere. In particular, the journalist Susanna Munro, a minor character in this story, subsequently became the protagonist of a rather different tale in "The Edge of the Map", which was my next Asimov's appearance.