One step, two, and my wife of seventeen years comes into view. She is curled on the floor, her ReMem nodes still attached, like tentacles. Unbreathing, unseeing, nothing but a square of light, a green cursor blinking on a blank screen. I drop to my knees beside her, the timeless posture of grief. Elleni’s auburn hair is rich in the winter light, as if it has absorbed all the lost color of the world. My cries echo through the empty house. I hold my dead wife, rent by love, fear, longing, guilt, regret. My wife, her systems deleted by her own hand. A husk in my frail arms. Asway, adrift.
… I’m shaken by the dream in which I found Elleni’s body, though I have it often enough. I have found her over and over, re-living the same moment but failing, each time, to change its outcome. As if such keystrokes as hers could be Control Z’d, Clear All’d. A sadistic game, this: dreaming one’s worst moment again and again, with no command to make the remembering stop.
As long as there is something new, there will be the obsolescence of something old; as long as there are people who love, there will be broken hearts, since loss, of one kind or another, is virtually inevitable. As long as there are parents, there will be children who are impatient with and feel superior to the older generation; and as long as there are children, there will be parents whose greatest wish is to protect them as far as they are able.
The story is set in an almost Matrix-like foreseeable future, when plugging in allows access to everyone’s memories and mind functions: “Shared consciousness. The MainLine: hivemind manifest.” Alfred was a researcher in the field 40 years ago, but his contribution, significant at the time, has been overshadowed many times over, and his daughter regards his loyalty to older devices with disdain. I know a lot of people who retain a great fondness for their old TRS-80s and Commodore-64s with their floppy disks – floppy disks that were actually floppy! – black and white screens, and command codes; I know no one who is still using such a dinosaur. It seems Alfred is, however, and daughter Lauria is trying to get him to upgrade.
He has reasons for his reluctance, however; there are some memories he wishes to keep private.
As far as Lauria is concerned, Elleni died of cancer. And that is all. A one-word answer, the sound of a door closing. When one says, “Cancer,” no one asks, “Why?” or “How?” or “Who would do such a thing?”
Brill discusses the story with Hannah Tinti in her One Story Q&A. The narrative follows the path of Alfred’s troublesome headache to the realization of what that headache means, what the technology means, what spending so much time in memories means. Along the way come many considerations about interactions between people and technology.
It’s a world where people no longer touch (Alfred’s doctor, a former student, is amused when Alfred reaches out to shake hands) or talk (Lauria surprises Alfred by saying several sentences in a row, as she communicates with everyone else by plugging in). Alfred and Lauria have reached a state that can be best described as a truce. Then the headache starts.
Much of the prose is lyric and lovely, as Alfred considers the value of “life-as-lived versus life-as-remembered.” There are several nice vocabularic touches: as Lauria condescendingly explains to Alfred the benefits of TreeMem, he thinks: “I did not tell her that when I consider a tree I still think, maple, oak beech, fir. The word “thrumming” is used to describe the sound of both a machine in the doctor’s office, and Lauria’s laugh, something I didn’t notice that until I read the story out loud.
Alfred recognizes that he and Lauria are separated by more than years:
“Some of these people, they go up and that’s it – they don’t even have bodies.” It’s the most I’ve heard her say months, and there is a gleam of awe in her eye, as if to add, They are amazing.
The resolution comes as no real surprise, but it was well-realized, and surprise isn’t everything. Some of the jargon is a bit confusing – multiple memory technologies, different hardware interfaces – but understanding those details isn’t important. The heart of the story comes through loud and clear. A cautionary tale? Maybe. Or just a love story.