Earth-Based Science Fiction: The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle

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It’s 1989. The Berlin Wall comes down, Game Boy makes it debut, and Marivic Stone has the first set of nightmares that signal she’s going ACEs and needs to go in for the Winnowing.

Okay, maybe that last one didn’t happen in our version of 1989. But The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle takes place in an alternate version of 1989, where a strange fertility crisis occurs after World War II. While the world soon finds a cure, it causes children to “go ACEs” when they reach puberty. They have nightmares, they develop certain abilities and, unless they undergo a procedure called “the Winnowing,” they’ll eventually go insane.

The premise of The Winnowing intrigued me, so I took it with me on a recent vacation as a casual read. A little bit like Stranger Things with a dash of The X-Files, the book is an addictive science fiction thriller from beginning to end. It has everything I love in the genre, like engaging characters, a government conspiracy, and some great twists. I ended up finishing the whole thing in one sitting, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

The Winnowing, Vikki VanSickle, Scholastic Books, 2017

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with VanSickle. We discussed her newest novel, the challenges of writing in a new genre, and some of the Easter eggs readers might find when they pick of a copy of The Winnowing themselves.

The Winnowing is set in New Mexico in 1989. Why did you choose this location and time period, instead of somewhere else in the present or the future?

I spent a lot of time working out the logistics of the timeline. The fertility crisis occurs just following WWII because that felt like the kind of catastrophe that could, and did, have devastating effects on human health, including fertility. Working forward from that catalyst I considered the length of drug trials, the speed at which the pandemic would spread around the world, and how long a crisis would need to stick in order to alter the world as we know it. For example, how long would it take for people to blindly trust a fertility cure without asking the government how it was developed or what side effects might occur? I also knew I was working with three generations [in the book]–Marivic, her mother, and her grandfather–so I needed at least a 30 year span. All of this helped me land in 1989, which is when the book occurs.

As for location, I chose the fictional Darby, New Mexico for many reasons. I wanted the scenario in the book to feel as plausible as possible, and there is a military base in NM, a very famous one at that! This is an Easter egg to readers who are familiar with the conspiracy theories surrounding the city of Roswell. I also liked the visual of a small town surrounded by desert. Marivic doesn’t know a lot about the world outside her town; she lives a very small life, and the idea of a tiny town in the middle of the desert really helped accomplish this.

This book moves into a science fiction/supernatural territory, which is quite different from your other middle grade novels. What was one of the big differences or challenges you found writing in this genre?

I read a lot of science fiction, and I always knew at some point I wanted to try my hand at it, but I wasn’t sure how to approach the genre. In the end I did what I always do–start from character. In many ways this is exactly the kind of character-driven, relationship-based book I always write, only set in an unfamiliar world with different stakes. It’s a small story on a big scale.

That being said, I did a lot of pre-work, way more than I have for any other book. I needed to understand the differences between our world and the world of the book, which share some similarities. For awhile I was calling it an alternative history, but that’s not exactly what it is. I created multiple timelines, family trees, lists of historical events that would remain the same, lists of events that would change, etc. I totally understand why fantasy and sci-fi writers do book series. I did so much work just for one book!

It’s been said that this book might appeal to fans of The X-Files, and I definitely noticed the influence. What do you think it is about The X-Files that makes it so appealing?

I could wax forever about The X-Files, but I think for me I liked that it was happening here and now in a world I knew. I’ve thrown around the term “earth-based science fiction” in opposition to “space opera” in the past, which is how I contextualize The Winnowing. The X-Files fits into this category, too. Everything was happening on earth, even if what was happening had an otherworldly connection. I liked how episodes weren’t always resolved or that Mulder & Scully didn’t always win. This felt realistic to me, and also allowed the mystery to survive. I love the idea that there are things that exist in the world that humans can’t explain or will never know. It’s humbling and allows for a sense of wonder.

Do you have a favorite episode?

So many good ones! I love “Ice,” which is really a one-act psychological thriller that sets Mulder and Scully against one another in an isolated northern outpost. I love “Duane Barry,” which has all the classic elements of an alien abduction narrative with an incredible twist ending. My YA-loving heart also really digs “Syzygy,” about a pair of teenage girls who are using an odd alignment of the stars to terrorize a small town.

The X-Files, Season 3, episode 13, Original Air Date: January 26, 1996

I noticed that there’s a bit of a nod to Star Trek as well with the character of Doctor Roddenberry. Are there any other Easter eggs that readers should keep an eye out for?

There are lots! Doctor Lowry is named for Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, one of my all-time favorite novels. Barton is a nod to William Barton, a prolific sci-fi writer. The Starlight Diner is a nod to The Starlight Motel, an important setting in one of my favorite childhood novels Into the Dream by William Sleator. The location, as I mentioned before, is a reference to Roswell, New Mexico. These are the most obvious ones, but there are a few very subtle nods in there, too.

Last but not least, are there more adventures for Marivic and the gang planned?

Not at the moment, but I left a number of doors open just in case!

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