The Big Questions

by Em Liu

I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction, so I was a little surprised when I wrote one.

Science fiction grapples with a lot of Big Questions, including questions of justice, environmentalism, political systems, and racism. The genre takes the realities of our time and asks, Where are we going? Dystopian fiction turns that question on its head. It takes the same set of inputs and asks, How did we get here?

A lot of the question surrounding birth and abortion are actually very Big Questions: When does life begin? Whose life do we prioritize, the parent’s or the child’s? And how does the progress of science and medicine change this calculus, if at all?

“The Practitioner” [on sale now!] takes place, in part, at a time when abortion care was illegal in most U.S. states, as it was for large parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And although I’ve used some creative license, secret abortion clinics were a real phenomenon, as was the particular scenario I describe, in which young women were forced to rely on medical care from disgraced or untrained individuals who were professionals only in the most mercenary sense of the word.

I gave birth to my first kid in early April. I was a pandemic parent, and I spent so much time in my last few weeks of pregnancy absolutely terrified of losing control. This was the early weeks of the pandemic, and hospitals were changing regulations about which—and whether—birth partners would be allowed into the birthing room almost daily. An RN friend told me that her small hospital was contemplating forgoing epidurals altogether in order to reduce contact between doctors and patients. There were rumors on birth forums that hospitals in New York City were separating all babies from mothers immediately following birth and denying the parents contact until the mother’s mandatory Covid test had been returned negative. Some U.S. state governors deemed abortions “medically unnecessary” during the pandemic. The dystopia, it seemed, had descended.

I had been afraid to write this story, afraid to publish this story, afraid to have people read this story. But once my son was here, fear took a backseat.

In the end, my husband was allowed in the delivery room, I had a wonderful epidural, and my healthy baby was plopped right on my chest the moment he was born. I woke up the next morning (well, and several times in the night) with my adorable baby burrito in his isolette and an email in my inbox that said “The Practitioner” had been accepted by Analog.

I had been afraid to write this story, afraid to publish this story, afraid to have people read this story. But once my son was here, fear took a backseat. For a short nine months, he was mine in a way that no one else can be—a person who was quite literally a part of my own body. But now he is his own person, in a world that (I hope) he will work to make a better place.

To be clear, my experience had a happy ending, but the threat is still very real. As I write this in mid-November, the pandemic is still raging, Black maternal mortality in the U.S. is still shamefully high, and the right to bodily autonomy is still under serious threat. I still worry that the sins of our past and present have set us on a crash course toward a dark future, and that my child will be forced to navigate a new world order so chaotic that no one knows how to fix it.

But if we can go back and understand where we went wrong, maybe we can course correct. Maybe it’s not too late.

Nothing has changed—yet.

Em Liu grew up in Palm Beach, Florida and has lived in the American Southwest, the Midwest, New England, and Japan. She now resides with her husband and son in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area, where she researches financial systems by day and devises magic systems by night. In addition to Analog, her work has appeared in Fireside Magazine, Mysterion, and others. Follow her online at or on Twitter as @EmLiuWriting.

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