Not for the first time the boy was struck by the great human mysteries of this world. He was almost fifteen, almost a man, and the great human mysteries of this world were striking him with satisfying regularity, as was correct for his stage of development. (From the Pathways Global Institute prospectus: “As our students reach tenth grade they begin to gain insight into the great human mysteries of this world, and a special sympathy for locals, the poor, ideologues, and all those who have chosen to limit their own human capital in ways that it can be difficult at times for us to comprehend.”) From the age of six months, when he was first enrolled in the school, he had hit every mark that Pathways expected of its pupils — walking, talking, divesting, monetizing, programming, augmenting — and so it was all the more shocking to find himself face-to-face with an almost nine-year-old so absolutely blind, so lost, so developmentally debased.
This story made me terribly sad. Not because Melly abandons the bereaved nine-year-old Aggs with a stranger instead of taking her to her sister’s funeral; not because a fifteen-year-old is working hard on learning how to kill people in hopes of achieving governmental approval and paternal pride; but because when a writer this good publishes mediocre science fiction in a high-profile literary context, it reinforces the prejudice against science fiction, and makes it harder for good science fiction to be taken seriously.
All the elements are here (and it’s available online): the slightly surreal style, the juxtaposition of “old” and “new” using Bill Peek, teenage dronemaster-in-training as the lens thru which we see this near-future world and, specifically, nine-year-old Agatha, one of those left behind by the high-tech future in a Scotland becoming more flooded as years go on: “The only people left in England were the ones who couldn’t leave.” Reminds me a bit of post-Katrina New Orleans.
I’m particularly interested in the juxtapositon of Bill virtually storming the White House while he’s talking to Aggs. Even without the high-tech gear, we never really know what’s going on in someone’s head when we’re talking to them; for all we know, the sweet old lady with whom we exchange small-talk in a dentist’s waiting room has cannibal dreams, and the guy on the elevator who mumbles, “Nice day” might be planning his mother’s axe murder. Throw virtual reality into the mix, and you’ve got a teenager slashing throats while a little girl prattles on about her dead sister. That’s powerful. But Smith loses me when she underestimates her readers and adds too much information to be sure we “get” it:
He listened in wonderment. Of course he’d always known there were people who thought in this way—there was a module you did on them in sixth grade—but he had never met anyone who really harbored what his anthro-soc teacher, Mr. Lin, called “animist beliefs.”
The story’s heart is in the right place. Bill is the spokesperson for the “new,” and he horrifies us with his simplistic dismissal of anything not incorporated into his training. He acts as apologist for whatever New Order there is, embodied by the Incipio Security Group, a sort of global CIA to which one seems to be born into; he’s out to please his father, as is every 15-year-old boy. And he’s just playing a game; but it seems virtual reality first-person-shooters are used to train future drone-wielding assassins; this gives it a particularly timely feel. His inability to react to Aggs, to her fear and her unexpressed sadness at the death of her sister, bodes well for future missions, if not for humanity; there is at the end an indication he may be seeing more than he can integrate into his training.
So, if the pieces and the heart are there, why did it not work for me? Personal taste as much as anything, I suppose; I’m fussy about my science fiction. There’s a bit too much “gee-whiz” on Bill’s part, as he encounters Aggs. It’s a bit too on-the-nose perhaps: drones bad, global warming bad, training children as warriors bad. No kidding. Compare this with Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” where defamiliarization is, I think, handled much more smoothly, and the issues are a bit more muddled and complex.
“If you’ve done nothing wrong,” Bill Peek said, solemnly parroting his father, “you’ve nothing to worry about. It’s a precise business.” He had been raised to despair of the type of people who spread misinformation about the Program. Yet along with his new maturity had come fresh insight into the complexities of his father’s world. For didn’t those with bad intent on occasion happen to stand beside the good, the innocent, or the underaged? And in those circumstances could precision be entirely guaranteed?
There’s no Page-Turner interview, so I have no idea if this is an excerpt or even a sketch; in that context, it might work, since the internal structure of alternating physical and virtual reality creates an interesting style. There are hints, as in the quote above, that Bill might be on the brink of evolving into a Winston Smith antihero; I think we’re meant to see his experience at the funeral as the tipping point. That’s a great start for a novel, to have him remember Aggs as he grows into a revolutionary-from-within role. A graphic novel might be another approach: two characters inhabiting two different landscapes on the same page. But as a short story, there’s just nothing to care about beyond the talking points.