"Ministry of Karma" by Ian Creasey — story background

Anthea wriggled on the willow chair, trying to find a position where the bark didn't dig into her skin.  Her back itched, and her belly felt cold exposed to the air.  The cleansing flame in the centre of the room gave off more incense than warmth.

"Relax, dear," said the dowser, a plump middle-aged woman wearing a kaftan embroidered with the Web of Life.

How could Anthea relax when the omens had been so bad?  Her horoscopes and crystals kept outdoing each other with gloomy forecasts.  As the pregnancy progressed, her husband obsessively spread a tarot deck every morning, his face becoming grimmer by the day.

According to my notes, I got the idea for this story on 14 June 1999, while washing the dishes.  At sixteen years from initial idea to eventual publication, this is certainly one of my longest gestating stories.

Yet the idea is simple enough.  My notes begin with the basic premise: "What if all New Age crap really worked?"  Here the phrase "New Age crap" is intended to encompass every type of pseudoscience and mysticism.  My initial list included acupuncture, angels, astrology, auras, chakras, charms, crystals, dowsing, feng shui, karma, ley-lines, oracles, reincarnation, souls, spirit guides, tarot, and many other forms of hocus pocus.

The large scope of this list gives one clue as to why the story took so long to reach fruition.  I needed to do a heck of a lot of worldbuilding to bring everything together and make it feel coherent.  The first draft of the story was 6,500 words and plainly insufficient; the second draft was 13,500 words and much improved, but a hard sell at that length.  The published version is midway between those early drafts, at 10,000 words.

Another issue was that the premise did not in itself generate a plot.  I had to ask myself what kind of problems might arise if all this stuff "really worked".  I eventually decided that anything with genuine effects must also have side effects.  If science-based technology has drawbacks such as pollution, then surely magical phenomena would have equivalent problems.  Thinking about this helped me integrate the worldbuilding and envision how society worked in this milieu.

I still needed a protagonist with a specific, individual problem.  I hit upon the idea of a pregnant woman going for an prenatal check-up.  In a world where "New Age crap" is empirically real, prenatal checks might include an examination of the foetus's reincarnated soul:

"I'm sorry I have to tell you this," said the dowser.  "I've touched many souls in my time, but I've never seen any so dark as I saw today.  Whoever he is, whatever he did in previous lives — there's only one word for it.  Evil."

The word hung in the air like stale incense.  Anthea felt a stab of despair.  Self-reproach followed, even though she knew she'd done everything that new mothers were advised to do.  I should have worn more charms.  I should have upgraded my crystals.  I should have —

"How is that possible?" demanded Boyd.  "Don't evil guys reincarnate as worms or something?"

Mrs Moonwings frowned.  "The Wheel of Life is not so simple as that.  But the mysteries aren't my province.  I can say what the child is, but not why."

"It's obvious why," said Anthea, striving to keep her voice steady.  "Ever since karmic scans came in, women have been aborting any foetus that's less than a saint.  There are hordes of dark souls in limbo, a legion of evil struggling to be born."

The story is not a tract about abortion; that's simply an example to illustrate the milieu and lead into the larger issues.  Ultimately, the story says that there's no such thing as a free lunch.  The longer you postpone the bill, the higher the price you must finally pay....

Page last updated: 1 June 2015