I suppose this story came about from sitting with friends on that porch (the porch in the story is our porch in Michigan), all of us watching our children get older in that unreal, jerky, all too sudden way they do, and recognizing that their lives, and their own children’s lives, which differ from ours in ways that we wouldn’t be able to really get our heads around. And I wanted to get my head around it. Given current circumstances, the world this story depicts looks like a pretty benign one, all things considered, a world in which people still sit on porches and have friends and fun moments in which to consider who and why they are.
Michael Byers, Contributor Note
I had a long, complicated post all ready to go explaining why this story isn’t science fiction but literary fiction with science fiction elements, complete with a definition of science fiction from Ted Chiang and an explanation by Isaac Asimov of how science fiction stories clue readers into the differences between their world and the strange new world in the story. I showed this story didn’t meet Chiang’s definition and how at its core it didn’t need Asimov’s techniques because the important questions raised were questions we all face every day, and the two science-fictiony elements, AI and cookies (a sort of telepathic Facebook/Twitter), were substantially familiar to us all, though taken a few steps farther in the story.
And then I read Jim Harris’ post on the story (link below) and was introduced to the term slipstream: a blending of literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and whatever else you’ve got. If I were more secure about the definition of the term – or if there were a strict definition, for that matter – I’d argue that the story is too rooted in realism to even be slipstream, but I’ll go with Jim’s far greater experience with science fiction.
It might seem strange to claim realism in a story that starts with this kind of paragraph:
In the Burkharts’ neighborhood the Hughes brand had become the most popular and that’s what the Burkharts had, the Hughes Fully Human: superhigh-mobility musculature, self-growing chassis, real AI, and it was just sort of amazing to watch them change as they grew, from the day you brought them home from the Birthing Unit (along with the two blue nylon suitcases full of accessories and equipment), amazed at how real she looked, but what else would she be but real? And then a few years later this daughter of yours was clinging to your pantleg outside the worn blue doors of the kindergarten wing on the first day of school, afraid to go in, her hair shining in the September sun, her older brother standing in line expressing an airy unconcern, backpacks everywhere, everyone knowing (mostly via conversation, it was very hard to tell just by looking) who was and who wasn’t but you didn’t make such distinctions out loud, it wasn’t polite, and in fact in some sense it really didn’t matter. Your emotional centers were fooled by the physical limitation, and the AI was the real thing, and the growth was to human scales – So what was the difference, anyway? Well, what? It became a philosophical question more than anything, or at least a question to gossip about, which people were always happy to do.
But people had always gossiped about their kids.
Even though Byers’ story features an AI being – the growth and development of which, by the way, brought to mind Chiang’s novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – the issues raised are not only present in contemporary life, they have been part of society for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years. How do you integrate people who are perceived as very different into society? How much freedom and privacy do you give a child? Can excessive reliance on one ethical criteria be detrimental, and if so, how can various criteria be balanced, and who gets to decide which balance is ethical and which is horrific?
The story follows the Burkharts as they negotiate daily life with their AI daughter Melissa and biological son. With a few exceptions, they could be parents from 2020. But the issue of synth-vs-bio is always present. When, at a casual gathering with neighbors on their porch (ah, the porch, it’s a great scene, alternating between gossip and serious discussion of how AI is working in society, a topic pertinent to all the participants since they all have synth kids), the discussion turns to “would you want your bio kid to marry one?”, they generally agree it’s something that will become more accepted in time. “It wasn’t normal, though. They all knew it. It wasn’t normal yet.” At the Burkharts’ parent-teacher conference, the teacher says Melissa reminds them of her daughter, and they wonder if her daughter is synth or bio. “And all three of them sensed the question hovering there, and none of them spoke it , and then it slowly, very slowly drifted off. Because it didn’t matter. Officially, it didn’t.”
Yes, the AI character throws a science fiction element into the mix, but questions about “mixed marriages” date from the beginning of time, forming over differences in class, religion, race or ethnicity. The unspoken questions about whether someone is or isn’t a member of an outsider group tends to happen around the same classifications, with the addition of sexual identity. The hesitation to bring it up is well-meant, but still signals a level of discomfort. This isn’t science fiction; it’s life.
We see Dad’s contemplation of Melissa’s nature in a single paragraph:
He watched her turn her arm, rotated the owner, the radius, observing her own workings. It either was or was not the case that his daughter was a fully conscious , living creature, in just the way he was, self aware and aware of her own self awareness, unpredictable but bound by physics and probability in the same way he was, capable of originality, prone to certain behaviors, feeling, thinking, erratic, unknowable.
Either was or was not.
And if you couldn’t tell, if nobody could tell – what was the point of wondering?
If you flashed on the “Does Data have a soul?” episode of ST:TNG, welcome to the club. To anyone with a philosophical nature, the point of wondering is everything; better to wonder now, when it isn’t a crucial moment, than to put it off until you have to decide if destroying a synth is murder. And I think the more important question is: what is the point of not wondering? If you acknowledge a difference, does that mean something about your relationship with your daughter? If you can’t find a difference, what does that mean?
In any case, this parallels discussions from earlier centuries about whether people who look different, who live differently, are people, complete with – yes – souls, or can be brushed out of the way and/or enslaved. From Aristotle’s natural slaves to The Valladolid debate to eighteenth-century American justifications for slavery, this attempt to define and restrict personhood is not new.
AI itself isn’t something that requires a lot of explanation, either. Granted, we don’t have AI people who grow and interact and can’t be easily distinguished from biological people, but we have self-driving cars and chatbots that handle your customer service issues and refrigerators that order food for you. Not to mention programs that tell you what advertisers and politicians want you to hear. One of my twitter friends has a robotic dog which isn’t exactly AI but it’s trainable. AI is real life, not science fiction.
The other major issue is how closely a parent should watch over a child, known in our era as helicopter vs free range parenting. Obviously that’s a real-life issue, but it’s tied in with a science fiction element, the cookie. It’s never clearly defined, but the way the characters refer to it, it seems to be some kind of telepathic Facebook or Twitter that can, at maximum setting, record and make available to all followers every thought you have. Or it can be toned down and used more casually, for news and such, and only alert parents when a child is upset or frightened. That’s how the Burkharts keep tabs on their kids.
But what if they turned it off, so they’re no longer in constant touch with everything?
For him, once the cookie was off – completely off – he just felt it as a weird silence. As though he had discovered some new space in the air, a new room, empty, featureless, that had been carved out of his brain. He would turn to it and find nothing. A great quiet.
He missed it most when he was doing dumb stuff around the house – laundry, tidying up the playroom. How natural it had been to flit from music to news to the feed. The whole world carved out of his head, gone.
And when he turned to see the children, they were gone too.
This is a much milder reaction than I have when my internet connection goes out, and I’ve seen people go bonkers when their smart phones are temporarily unavailable. This isn’t a strange other world, either. It is kind of funny when, constantly wondering if the kids are ok without the connection, he thinks, “How had his grandparents done this, exactly?”
The story ends with a much less interesting concept, the Frankensteinian monster destroying its creator. This is made interesting, and connected with the story, in three ways. First, Dad has been insisting throughout that Melissa was created from he and his wife, using as input their brainwaves, social media feeds, personality tests, and genetic data. At times he sees his wife, or himself, in her. The chilling final scene, in which Melissa senses a “firm swipe of rectitude” as she develops a plan, hearkens back to Dad’s confidence when he turns off the cookie: “But he was resolute. This new place. This new sense of himself.” We have met the enemy, they are us indeed. The second way is the more philosophical irony of who gets to determine what is fair, and fair to whom, another issue top on the contemporary charts these days. Just ask someone who won’t wear a mask. The third way is by implying this resolution answers the two previously unresolved issues: how do you integrate the synths, and how much privacy/freedom do you give a child.
I made a craft note as I was reading, a note regarding an example of clunky exposition. Back in the days of TwoP, the board for The West Wing often referred to the exposition fairy, a minute or so of script that would have one of the men explaining some detailed function of government to a woman (hey, it was a great show, but it was as sexist a show as there ever was, whether that was to reflect government or because someone in the writing room had his head up his ass is open for debate). The term Supers comes up a few times, and we’re kind of left in the dark for a while. Dad ends up explaining them to Melissa, noting, “She knew this history, but one thing about kids, you had to repeat things – kids learned something, forgot they had learned it.” Ok, but this kid has an AI brain, you’d think she’d be able to remember. I’d give this one a C-minus. But it’s one brief moment; everything else is handled much more smoothly.
I’d say most of the science-fictiony stories in BASS are actually literary fiction with science fiction elements, including some of my favorites: Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure” from 2018, Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” from 2012, and “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang, even though Chiang is a science fiction author. The exception would be Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “The Era”: it was a science fiction story that used literary fiction themes, and quite successfully.
The image that stays with me after reading this story isn’t AI, isn’t Supers or cookies; it’s that group of neighbors sharing drinks on the porch. Maybe it’s the age of COVID-19, the rarity of such moments right now. Or maybe it’s the universality, like so much of this story.
* * *
Other takes on this story can be found at:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The nine stages of reading ‘Sibling Rivalry’ by Michael Byers.”
Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Basically, Byers opens up Pandora’s box and we get to watch several fires start burning.”