“Winter Wheat”

“Winter Wheat” is a story that’s special to me. Like my story “Prodigal” (and several other of my best-received stories) I first drafted it in the summer of 2006, while I was in Seattle for Clarion West. My father had unexpectedly passed away earlier that year—a few days after my last conversation with him, on the phone—and writing the story was part of my working through my feelings about our relationship, as you might imagine if you’ve read it. Not that there’s a one-to-one relationship in any respect: I feel like I’m a lot more like Jim’s dad, and Jim’s a lot more like my dad was, but it’s a father-and-son relationship all the same. It’s also a story about growing up on the prairie, and the first one I’ve written about that despite having grown up mostly in Saskatchewan (albeit not on a farm); about the major theme that preoccupies me in my writing—how individuals can respond to the movements of great, distant powers who affect their lives so profoundly—and about family. 

The story was inestimably aided by the feedback and advice I received from my classmates at Clarion West, and particularly by our instructor during the week in which I submitted it, Ian R. MacLeod, who first suggested tractors on fire. It took me 13 years to sell it for no good reason: in 2007, after much revision, I submitted it to an anthology calling for novellas, but sold something else to that anthology (“Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang”), and somehow got it in my head that novellas were unsaleable, that there was something wrong with “Winter Wheat,” and that I needed to put it in a drawer and come back to it later. A few years later, while I was at a Con in Australia, I heard Charles Stross say something about how “you can write good SF about agriculture” and thought, “Yes, you can,” and decided I should eventually sell this story… but novellas were a hard sell, and I was very busy by then, and also had become convinced that this was really just the first part of a novel exploring the themes “Winter Wheat” touches on. (I still suspect it is, by the way.) Then, in 2017, stumbled onto the file, opened it up, and to my surprised found I liked it and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t tried to sell it ages ago. After one near-miss, it sold. Can you imagine?   

The story was not radically revised over the years: I’ll confess that the main change I made to it (beyond ramping up action, and tidying up some of the predictive stuff to catch up to the changes between 2006 and now) was to rename the antagonist: originally it was a version of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool that had undergone legislative and corporate capture, but by the time I decided to try send out the story again, there was no longer a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool… a testament to how stuff changes, I guess. 

I still suspect there’s a novel in it. I imagine it as an ensemble cast, leapfrogging eastward around the world: the “Spring” section was to be about a pair of siblings: one, trying to keep the family’s centuries-old brewery running in the countryside just outside Brussels while the other is struggling as a foreign aid worker in Congo; “Summer” was to be mainly in Vandanatown (sort of a biohacker intersection of William Gibson’s “Sprawl” and the settlement Bruce Sterling wrote about in Distraction), during a time of unrest and debate over tactics of resistance and activism and and allied, similar community with a different outcome in the same struggle, located in a post-reunification Korea. “Autumn” was originally to be centered in Northeast Asia, but then I thought it might work better if it sort of toured all the locales previously explored in a sort of free-form fashion, as things ticked down to the final big project as things began to come to a head and humanity really reached a reckoning point. I think this book might happen… but I’m not sure when, and I have other things on the go right now.

Reviews:

“Sellar peers intently into the essence of human progress, comparing our modern struggles to previous generations’ attempts to tame nature—always for the sake of our children as well as for ourselves.”
        —Michelle Ristuccia reviewing the issue at Tangent Online

“Good character development in this well-told tale.”
        —Sam Tomaino reviewing the issue at SFRevu

“As epic stories go, it’s pretty good. It never gets dull, and it’s fairly realistic, at least in terms of the technologies involved. I was afraid for a bit it was going to be an irrational anti-GMO hit piece, but it focused just on the economic impacts and didn’t imply any far-fetched biological ones.”
        — Rocket Stack Rank review  

I’ll add whatever reviews I come across here as I find them!

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