Usually when a science fiction story revolves around blood it’s because there’s cloning or some terrible disease or space vampires. But in Chris Panatier’s medical sci-fi story The Phlebotomist (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), blood has become a way of separating and segregating people. In the following email interview about it, Panatier discusses what inspired and influenced this rather relevant tale.
Okay, to start, can you explain what a phlebotomist does?
A phlebotomist is a person trained to draw blood for testing or for donation.
And then what is your novel, 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 company phlebotomist, “a reaper,” 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.
It sounds like The Phlebotomist is a medical sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
That is a great description, actually. Angry Robot [the book’s publisher] is known for crossing genres, and this novel fits right in with them. First, I wanted to ground it firmly in medicine and science to make what grows from the initial premise realistic, and therefore, more horrifying. So this story touches on the horror genre as well as science fiction. Lastly, I’ll just say that when I drew out the story from the original setup, it flew to some crazy places. There are a number of shelves you might find this book sitting on, depending on the reader. It is a new take on a beloved trope, and hopefully I did it justice.
As you mentioned, you were inspired to write The Phlebotomist by what’s going on in the U.S. these days. I assume, then, that you set out to write something socially and politically relevant, yes?
My story naturally went to these places as I was writing it, and I was conscious that this was happening. So commentary on social and political aspects of our world was a little bit of both natural and intended.
The longer I’ve been writing, the more strongly I believe that social commentary, whether directly or as satire, in science fiction is unavoidable. I borrowed extensively from our present world to create the world of The Phlebotomist. It’s just dialed up some. I took so many elements from things that we are already seeing or hearing, and I think readers will feel that familiarity. 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. Sadly, I worry that my world may have painted a rosier picture for the future than what our current trajectory suggests — and the world I created is pretty terrible. But fun, though! I promise. This is “Fun Dystopia.”
Oh, good. I was worried there might not be cake. Anyway, moving on to the always popular questions about 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.
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?
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. So, I’ve sort of answered it in the reverse by not answering it. But I’ll 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.
Now, along with writing, you’re also an artist, and not only designed the heart on the cover of The Phlebotomist, but have done album covers for such bands as Desolated [The End], Dynahead [Chordata I and Chordata II], and So This Is Suffering [Palace Of The Pessimist]. Why then did you decide to write The Phlebotomist as a prose novel instead of a graphic novel or even an illustrated novel?
Wow, okay. It would seem natural that a visual artist would gravitate toward a graphic or illustrated novel rather than traditional, word-only story-telling. There are a few reasons I write novels and not the crossovers, and the answer goes deep.
As background, I am always wondering what medium for story telling is the least restrictive and allows you to give the person (reader, viewer, listener) the most from their imagination. I think the answer to that question is probably music and prose / poetry. Those venues get us, as the creators, closer to the mind of the person enjoying the work than other media. Just my opinion. It’s commonly said that reading is a two-party endeavor, right? The writer provides the words and the reader attaches their own understanding and experiences to them. I simply adore that idea. And while I am obviously a very visual person, for this endeavor I wanted to dictate as little as I could so that the reader might bring their way of seeing things into my world. I love that we as writers can have this quiet intimacy with perfect strangers when they pick up our stories, and that the way it plays out in their minds will be unlike how it goes in anyone else’s. It’s why I don’t think I’ll ever put an image of any of my characters on a cover, should I be fortunate enough to get future book deals.
The second reason I haven’t engaged in graphic novels is that I don’t like drawing the same thing twice. My hat is off to those artists. I would burst into flames if I had to draw the same characters over and over. I truly believe that comic / graphic artists have to have more patience than novelists.
Also, how often have people told you that your skulls remind them of Pushead?
Many times. John Dyer Baizley as well. It’s all very high praise to be compared to those guys.
Now, as you probably know, sci-fi stories like The Phlebotomist are sometimes self-contained and other times parts of larger sagas. What is The Phlebotomist?
The Phlebotomist is stand-alone that comes pre-wired for a two or three book series. I have lots of nuggets planted that I will work from if a series is in the cards. But it was written as a stand-alone because as a debut, you never want to assume a series is guaranteed. Whether or not there is a second book will be dictated by sales, so fingers crossed on that.
Just out of curiosity, how much of the series do have planned out?
Having already written a good bit of the sequel in the happy event that Angry Robot wants it, I can predict the series at probably three books. It’s too early to say if any further books will be published. However, the manuscript for number two is tentatively called Reaper’s Black.
You also have about a dozen short stories on your website. Are any of those stories connected to The Phlebotomist?
The Phlebotomist is actually nothing like my short stories. It’s completely different. I tend to go super slipstream in my short fiction.
Earlier I asked if The Phlebotomist had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. I assume it’s too early to ask if anyone has inquired about making a movie, show, or game version of your story, but if an adaptation was going to happen, which format do you think would work best?
I really do like the work that Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc. are doing right now. I’d almost prefer one of them get the rights than a traditional studio. I was completely disappointed at what Fox did to The Passage. I just feel like the streaming services are putting out better quality, more original stuff.
And if that happened, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
I’ve thought a lot about who I’d want to play Willa. Alfre Woodard [12 Years A Slave]. Not even close. Alfre Woodard.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Phlebotomist, what similar sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
If you like the themes and tropes of The Phlebotomist, I recommend the books I mentioned earlier — The Passage, Wanderers, Tropic Of Kansas, and Vox — as well as Docile by K.M. Sparza, The Light Years by R.W.W. Greene, Tal Klein’s The Punch Escrow, anything by Nnedi Okorafor just because I love her, and probably Dalcher’s new book, Masterclass, which looks awesome.