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Passion Play

The rabbit had been dead for some time and its body was furred with a poisonous-looking mould. Blackbird wanted to eat it but was mindful of her teachings. The mould could be dangerous, it might be imbuto: its invasive hyphae might penetrate and infest her own crusty mycelium, drawing the life slowly from her body.

Unable to decide, she lay down and spread her wing-like underarm membranes in the hot spring sun. She closed her eyes and crooned softly in her wattled throat. The warmth felt good, penetrating her microflora, soaking through the fungal outer layers of her skin. With long fingers she groomed the matted surface of her arms and legs and as she did so she watched the unmoving rabbit. She needed the energy for the approaching display but still she was wary.

The sun was aiding her preparation, anyway. It helped her relax, eased the tension that had been dogging her. She had displayed many times before, and had never suffered from nerves. But now she was a star.

Gradually the more experienced women had secured their partners and most were now back with their mother groups, proudly bearing their children in love-humps. Blackbird and her sister, Streak, were now at the top of the heap; the others were too young and inexperienced to mount a serious challenge. Streak was the oldest and should have expected to find a partner first, but Blackbird's voice was sweeter, more alluring; that was why Blackbird had been named for her soft tones and Streak only for the silver strip that ran down the centre of her otherwise plain green back.

As children, Blackbird and Streak had lived with their mother group in the skeleton of an old pink-stoned house. There had been no roof and no windows and the children had all been scared by late-night stories of what might live beyond their walls. That house had been secure and Blackbird's vague memory-images of it made her feel good. The fears had been forgotten. But she did remember the lessons the mothers had drilled into her, time and again. Never go into a strange house alone. Keep away from the Old Town.

The dangers of the countryside were subtle and insidious, like the rabbit with the possibly invasive fungal coating that Blackbird so wanted to eat. But the dangers of the Old Town were more direct. Animals lurked in the buildings and the old underground tunnels. Beasts that could walk faster than Blackbird could even run, with her slow, shambling gait.

But she had needed something that would help her perform better than Streak, so on the morning of the display she had gone to the Old Town, shuffling along over an asphalt strip that was pitted with holes and tufted with clumps of spring flowers.

The houses were square and made of red bricks, not the rounded pink stone she associated with security. She had visited the Old Town as a girl, but then she had been one of a group; the mothers had been scavenging and, at the same time, teaching the children the dangers of the world. Then it had been an adventure. Alone it was terrifying. There were strange noises, strange creatures scurrying away through the fallen masonry, strange scents of decay and — more frighteningly — smells of vibrant, active life.

She had chosen a house more or less at random. Leaving the road, she had advanced cautiously, skirting a high pile of bricks that was topped by a pungent, writhing crown of moss. A puppy had snapped at her feet but its roots were planted firmly in the rubble so she ignored it.

Once inside the building, smells of animate life diminished and Blackbird managed to relax a little. She pulled at a cupboard door and a cube fell out and landed at her feet. Immediately a curious pink head, fringed with brown hair, appeared in the air above the cube. Despite its strange colour the head looked almost human. Its eyes looked straight at Blackbird and its mouth opened. "Darling," it said. "I still love you but it's bad for us both. I'm sorry." The head vanished.

Its words were strangely formed, like the words of the songs Blackbird was seeking. She nudged the cube with one foot and the head re-appeared. "Darling. I still love you but it's bad for us both. I'm sorry."

Blackbird turned away and began to search through the cupboard. Eventually, in another room, she found what she was looking for. It was a cube, much like the first, but this one didn't cast up a ghostly face when it was moved; instead, it played a song. It was beautiful, a tune she had never heard before. Mentally, she shaped her tongue to the words and committed it all to her memory. When the final notes had left the cube Blackbird struck it against a wall. It broke in two, then crumbled and finally the pieces vanished into the air. Blackbird's new song was her own.

The tune had played through her mind many times but she would not sing it out loud until she was on the display ground with a male to hear it. The sun had reached its highest point and Blackbird rose from where she had been lying. It was nearly time to sing her song.

She eyed the rabbit again. One of the girls from the mother group had eaten food coated in a fungal layer that had been imbuto. It had invaded her body, taken it over, and she had been driven away to die in the wilderness. The poisonous spores from her corpse could have killed the entire group. Blackbird still had nightmares where all she could recall were the pain-filled screams of her imbuto friend.

Eventually there always came a time of commitment: eat it or leave it. In the end you have to fall back on instinct. She left the rabbit.

On her way to the display ground, she scooped up some berries and folded them into one of her false wings. Instantly tiny nerve-filled hyphae penetrated the fruit, like eager babies' fingers. As the nutrients began to pass into her body she knew that the fruit was good. Slowly she walked on, the refrain of her new song filling her head.


Girls on the fringe were faltering in mid-song and Blackbird knew that something was happening. She hoped desperately that the disturbance was due to the arrival of a man. There had been occasions recently when they had performed for most of a day without a man appearing on the scene.

There were at least thirty women gathered for the display. The senior performers held territories in a central patch of flattened vegetation, raised slightly and edged with kerb-stones. The less experienced women performed on the surrounding circular road and in the openings of other roads that radiated from the circle.

Blackbird had been one of the last to arrive; she knew that nothing ever happened in the early stages. A young pretender had been in her space, crooning and flashing her false-wings at anyone who cared to look. The girl had fled when Blackbird approached.

Streak had arrived a short time later, crossing Blackbird's patch to reach her own. Blackbird had cursed and sung a threatening cascade of notes at her sister but Streak had only waggled her throat wattles in mock apology. They both knew that this was the big showdown.

Striving for calm, Blackbird continued her warm-up and tried to ignore the disturbance. She would not look until her sister had done so first.

One by one, the experienced women glanced towards the fringes and then stepped up their displays.

By now Blackbird was sure that a male was on the display ground and the need to look diminished. As if struck by the same realisation, Streak spread her false-wings and sent darts of colour sparking across her fungal outer skin from the silver stripe that ran down her spine. Notes rose from her throat, bubbling indecisively, finding no tune.

Blackbird tried to match her sister's chameleon display. She made her skin phosphoresce in waves of pastel colours, her mind full of the spring flowers she had seen in the Old Town. She sang an old song, one that demonstrated the delicacy of her tones.

Some of the others were singing raucously, excitement tainting their judgement. One of the women near to Streak faltered and then tried to start again.

Then Blackbird saw the approaching man and she felt her own throat tighten and her notes almost faded from the air.

He was small, even for a man. He barely reached the bottom of Blackbird's rib-cage. His head was big, his body thin and malnourished; he would not provide a woman with much of a love-hump but there was little choice these days. Any man was better than none at all.

His movements seemed to flow disjointedly and his head lolled from side to side. His hand was between his legs, holding his penis out, waving it at the women. This is my gift, his mad grin seemed to be saying. He waved it at Blackbird and she felt herself go weak. Then he waved it at Streak and the battle was on.

Streak turned her back to the man and flashed violent colours across her wing-membranes. She bent over and displayed her genitals, waves of colour drawing even Blackbird's eyes down to what was on offer.

The man jumped up and down and grunted.

Streak's song was one she had sung many times, a tune learnt in the mother group. Her false-wings wrapped protectively around herself, Blackbird joined her sister's song. She made her voice grate mockingly, allowed the tune to waver. She drew no response from her sister but the man looked curiously between the two of them.

Breaking from her sister, Blackbird burst into the song she had found in the Old Town. "Leaves, disks, Lap-top twists," she sang, the words meaning nothing to her, merely sounds she had memorised. "Slowing on the highway, low." Many of the performers stopped just to listen. They could have heard nothing like it before. It might have been a song written specially for Blackbird's triumph.

Not content to let her song do all the work, Blackbird slowly allowed her self-embrace to relax. Delicate quivers passed through her body, in curious counterpoint to the music. "Slice, cut, Lap-top slut." She let one arm drop away from her phosphorescing torso. "Rising on the blackout, white." She let her body sway and hummed an orchestral interlude.

The man appeared hypnotised by her performance. She knew that victory was close, her sister would have to wait for another day.

Then he looked back at Streak. She was dancing to Blackbird's song, miming to her sister's music, humming out of key. She was mocking her, trying to echo the way Blackbird had stolen her limelight.

Streak's song began to wander from Blackbird's; perhaps she had realised that her voice could not compete with that of her sister.

Blackbird thought she recognised the song her sister was moving into, but then she caught the words, blurred by her sister's poor diction, and knew that this was something altogether different. Streak must have found a new music box too.

The man had been standing between the two of them but now he took a step towards Streak. Blackbird put even more into her song and drew him back to the centre. The other women were nothing to Blackbird; some just watched but most were driven to continue their displays by the presence of the man.

Looking from sister to sister, he waved his penis about and jumped up and down. He grunted eagerly as if trying to join the music, his noises unintelligible due to his excitement. Blackbird knew they could actually speak when they were calmer, or at least they could before puberty, when they were still part of their mother group.

Streak seemed to be winning. Desperately, Blackbird decided to try her sister's crude tactics. She had never been this close to winning a mate before. She lay on her back and spread her legs, writhing about as she sang, trying to tempt him with her body.

He stepped towards her. Then he took another step and another. They could almost touch.

Streak began to cry aloud, flapping her wings slowly as if she could fly. Colours seemed to flow off her body and there was a curious musical quality to her cries.

The man turned, distracted from Blackbird, drawn again to her sister.

Blackbird stood up and grabbed him. He was surprisingly light. She lifted him and tucked him under her arm, turned and shambled away as fast as she could.

There was an outraged scream from behind, but Blackbird didn't slow. The other women looked on in disbelief, nothing like this had ever happened before and they were not going to interfere. The man seemed content in Blackbird's arms and she moved as fast as she was able.

Streak was bigger and slower. Her wide underarm membranes — so useful on the display ground — slowed her and Blackbird began to widen the gap between the two of them.

When she had finally left her sister behind, Blackbird put the man down in front of her and looked him up and down.

A man.

He waved his penis at her and she smiled. She was falling in love with him already.


Their courtship lasted until the sun began to redden in the cloudless sky. Throughout, Blackbird could not understand why such a ritual should be insisted upon but she managed to cope. After all, she had a man. She had never known an adult man before and had only seen them as they were seduced by the older women at the display grounds. Now she could touch him, smell him, even talk with him in a stilted manner.

She had wanted to consummate their relationship straight away, but instead she had held back. The mothers had always insisted that courtship should not be hurried. You must know the man, they had said. You must be sure of him. You must love him.

They had been such strange, frightening words. Yet now she felt both strange and just a little bit frightened.

It was almost impossible for her to communicate with her prospective mate. "Mother group where?" she had asked him. "Me-mine in pink-stone."

Her question was clear but all he had done was grunted and rubbed his penis. "Cock sex," he had said, his first intelligible words. "Sex."

The boys from the mother group had been just as bright as the girls. They could talk, they could read their surroundings, there was nothing different about them. But men — if this could be regarded as a typical man — appeared stupid, unaware of the world around them.

Despite the communication barrier, Blackbird rapidly grew fond of him. Close up, she could see the ritual scarring on his face, she could see how strange his fungal skin looked, so unlike any she had seen before. He so obviously wanted her as his mate — he had chosen her instead of all the others — and there was the way his eyes kept darting nervously about, independent of his movements. Once, his passion became so great that all he could do was stand shivering, saying, "Cock sex cock sex cock sex," over and over. Blackbird had been tempted but, remembering her teachings, she had kept her distance until he calmed down. She felt that she knew him, now, but she had been taught that she must love him, too.

Later, he gave her flowers. He picked them with his own hands, rubbed them along his penis and then thrust them eagerly into her face. They had tasted good.

Finally, she felt that she loved the strange little man. She had been cautious, she had taken her time, but — as the mothers had also taught her — there comes a moment when you have to suck and see. In the end, you have to fall back on instinct. As they stood by a quiet little stream, she reached for him and turned him to face her. "Cock sex now," she said, hoping he would understand.

A look of fear flashed across his face. He clearly understood. "Sex eat die. No!"

Blackbird had a firm grip on his wrists. His reaction was unsettling but she felt that she could understand it. But this was the way of things. She leaned back in a bed of grey grass and pulled him down with her. As their bodies pressed together he gave in to the inevitable and began to co-operate.

They moved together for a time, then Blackbird knew it was drawing to a close. The man curled up against her and his head pressed into her rib-cage. Her arms had been spread out by her side but now she raised them and wrapped them around her lover. His body heaved and she held him in her wings, felt the strange writhing of her hyphae melding with those of the man, gripping, penetrating, binding. She lay back and let it happen.


Lying by the hurrying stream, Blackbird's world gradually settled back around her. She unfurled her arms and looked down at her new love-hump. Already its features were fading, the outline of the man was melting away. Already it was impossible to tell where he had finished and she began. The hyphae of her fungal skin were still writhing, growing accustomed to the new presence. Now she could think of finding a mother group, either her old one or a new one, she wasn't sure which, yet.

Just then, vague thoughts began to flow through her head. She had expected this: the man in his final act of penetration, shreds of his persona trying to lodge in her own. It would pass soon.

But this was more disturbing than she had been told. Suddenly Blackbird knew what it was to be eaten slowly alive, what it was to fade slowly from the world, what it was to be dead yet horribly aware.

Blackbird tried to shut her mind to the thoughts but it was impossible. The only image of her own she could draw upon was the rejected meal, the rabbit covered with mould that may or may not have been imbuto

Like the fungal skin of her lover.

Another image invaded her mind. She was lying dormant yet alive. She could feel poisonous spores bubbling up from her own mouldering body.

She looked down at herself, at her new love-hump. Relieved, she saw that she was not mouldering as the image had had it. But there, amongst the writhing hyphae, she could see the man's fungal flesh merging with her own, flowing into her. His crusty skin was gradually moving down and spreading over her body.

Suddenly, she realised why the man had been so reluctant at the last moment. Why he had struggled, trying to protect her, not himself. And she knew why the mothers had been so careful. You must know him, they had said. You must love him.

He might be imbuto, they should have said.

Frightened now, she felt alien hyphae digging into her flesh and then, finally, she felt the first pains.



As explained later in this volume, Genetopia  is a novel that spans the first seventeen years of my writing career. Published in 2006, the substantial part of its writing took place from early 2000 to late 2002, but its origins go back to my second professionally-published short story, "Passion Play".

"Passion Play" was an unusual story for me in terms of writing process. Normally a story starts as a spark of inspiration: an image, a scene, a snippet of dialogue, an unusual juxtaposition or extrapolation. There follows a process which can take anything from a day or two to several years where this fragment is fleshed out with a before, an after, a broader context, with insight into the characters involved and a story arc from start to finish. With "Passion Play" the story did not quite appear fully-formed, but this process of development and deepening was compressed into the space of about half an hour on the morning of 10 January 1989. Shortly after waking (often a productive time for me to think about story ideas) I started to speculate about humans evolved into a form that could easily be seen as devolved, but is in truth merely different to our current form: in tune with its environment, living in non-industrial societies in a world dramatically different to that of today.

Within half an hour I had story notes covering two sides of A4, the initial speculation fleshed out into a story of post-humans gathering on a courting ground similar to a grouse lek, with the females displaying to any passing male. The display ground was a roundabout to the south of Evesham, a few miles from where I was then living, but this was not made explicit in the final story. The story notes consisted of a plot outline broken down into three sections (Blackbird sizing up some food, introducing the idea of imbuto contamination; the display where Blackbird and Streak compete for the attentions of a rather substandard male; and the mating and subsequent realisation that the male himself is imbuto); and some notes on the background ("Large-scale biological changes have occurred. Humans and other life-forms have merged, to some extent, with their environment. They pass through a landscape of mutable, mutated life-forms." "'...a puppy snapped at her feet, its roots secured firmly in the rubble. She ignored it. They were only dangerous when they lost their roots as adults.' Puppies shelter in holes, their tough stalks exposed. At puberty the stalk becomes sweet and pungent, small animals gnaw through it and are eaten by the freed puppy.").

Shortly after typing these notes up from the rough handwritten originals, I started work on the story itself, and by the end of the afternoon I had a complete first draft.

After a few rewrites I submitted "Passion Play" to Other Edens 3. Editors Chris Evans and Rob Holdstock accepted the story and it proved to be a significant one for my career. It was a story that seemed to catch the imagination of writers and editors: at this time, with the sale of my first three novels taking place, I was starting to get attention in the field, but it was "Passion Play" that other writers and editors mentioned when I spoke to them at publishing events. When I started to say that I was planning to turn it into a novel the response was always enthusiastic. And so, for the next several years, I accumulated notes for the novel that would become Genetopia.

But before tackling the novel, I wrote a short story called "Genetopia"...

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