BSFA nominee: “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment”

Or to give it its full title, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account”, also now nominated for a Stoker Award. You know the drill by now — read (or listen), survey the opinions collected below, then give your own. First up, Nader Elhefnawy in The Fix:

M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” is written from the point of view of a girl whose mother has “disappeared” in a theocratic future America reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is, however, not a simple redo of that earlier story, and if anything, this piece struck me as being creepier than Atwood’s book, partly because of the use of the perspective of a child who has never known any other world; and partly because of Rickert’s subtler worldbuilding (though admittedly, it also has the advantage of being more recent, enabling it to exploit more immediate sources of anxiety). While there certainly are politics here, Rickert succeeds in crafting a very personal (and devastating) tale.

Lois Tilton:

A dystopian vision of how it would be to live in such a country, with Taliban-style public executions in football stadiums. The narrator is a young girl whose mother has fled to avoid execution for an earlier abortion, and she wrestles with her conflicted feelings, missing her mother and hating her for the stigma her actions have inflicted on her family.

With the example of the Taliban before us, no one can really say anymore: This couldn’t happen. Yet it is up to the author to convince us that it could have actually happened, or at least to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into the mutual pact between author and reader in which we accept the scenario for the sake of the message the story is meant to deliver. The problem with such fiction, however, is that the Message can outweigh the story, and I think that in this case it has done so, going too close to the line between chilling and absurd.

Abigail Nussbaum:

More disappointing is M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account,” but then I expect a great deal from Rickert, who has a knack for combining present day events with SFnal speculation and a possibly unhealthy dollop of cynicism about human nature. She does all that here, imagining a world in which abortion has been made retroactively punishable by death, and in which women are rounded up by the hundreds and thousands to pay for abortions performed years or even decades ago. As the title indicates, the story is narrated by the daughter of one of these condemned women, who has fled rather than face her punishment, to her family’s everlasting shame. It’s an effective piece, as, indeed, how could it help being? Mass executions! Gross miscarriages of justice! Institutionalized misogyny! Young women brainwashed into a Handmaid’s Tale-esque attitude of seeing themselves as nothing but walking wombs! It is also, however, shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think.

James Bloomer:

This story is a harrowing extrapolation what might happen if fundamentalist anti-abortion laws are pursued. It reminded me of The Handmaiden’s Tale or The Carhullan Army. It’s undoubtedly designed as a warning to US citizens and the right wing religious tendencies. The extrapolation is taken to a horrible future conclusion. It’s emotional and well written, but it’s hard to love a story that makes me feel like that. You should read it, but it isn’t fun.

Michael J DeLuca:

Mary Rickert, as far as I’m aware, is incapable of writing a less than phenomenal story. “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” freaked me the hell out. A totalitarian future USA in which abortion is not only illegal, but punishable by death. Profoundly unsettling. Somebody should give this lady a Tiptree.

Russ Allberry:

This is one of the creepiest stories that I’ve ever read. It’s set in a nasty 1984-style dystopia built by fundamentalists around the punishment of anyone who has gotten an abortion. Both the effectiveness and the terrifying creepiness are hightened by a thoroughly brainwashed first-person narrator who believes every word of it. Rickert pulls no punches in portraying the anti-abortion horror show, complete with execution of women as mass spectacle. Like all dystopias, it’s an extrapolation of a position to extremes that probably would never occur, but I found it chillingly effective. I’m not sure I really wanted to read it, though. (6)

Martin Lewis:

Like ‘Exhalation’ it is a well executed take on an extremely unlikely and not very interesting idea. The only thing that bumps it up over Chiang and Egan is that contains characters who are recognisably human. Niall Harrison has a typically lengthy, articulate and wrong review. God knows how he managed to write for so long about a story that, as others have pointed out, is like a modern version ‘The Lottery’ by Shelley Jackson. That isn’t a good thing, by the way.

As Martin points out, I actually already wrote about this one at some length. Can I possibly have anything left to say?

25 thoughts on “BSFA nominee: “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment”

  1. I have to say that I didn’t like this story so much, but that is partly due to reading it in the context of Rickert’s other work. I think she’s at her strongest when she’s at her most “slipstream” (for a really good analysis of what Rickert and other “slipstream” authors do, see Gary Wolfe and Amelia Beamer’s article in this month’s foundation). Basically, I think Rickert gains the most power in stories like “Holiday” or “Map of Dreams” where there is constant shifting between conventions–where there is no resolution to what kind of story you’re reading, even if there is a resolution to the plot.

    This story can’t be read as anything other than near-future sf, with a warning/dystopian flavor. For Rickert, it’s incredibly heavy-handed, so I mostly agree with Abigail’s sentiment above.

    Also, has anyone else noticed that, now that Obama’s been elected, stories that assume that the worst of right-wing Bush-era politics will move forward aren’t always aging so well? I’m also thinking here of “Little Brother,” which assumes a Bush/Cheney-type presidency several years from now.

  2. In this and Exhalation, it seems to me the authors aren’t saying ‘What if this unlikely circumstance was the case, what then?’ but ‘You are like this already and you haven’t even noticed’.

  3. This story can’t be read as anything other than near-future sf, with a warning/dystopian flavor.

    Hmm, I read it more as dystopian satire — which is somewhat different than near-future SF, in that no bridge of the distance between here and then is called for. I think it’s precisely our perception of that distance that the story plays with.

    On one hand, what I see the story is pondering is, what is there in humanity that makes belief and the desire for a sense of place so attractive to us — how absurd and how horrific can things be made, how far and how quickly can people be pushed, while still being believably human? It isn’t the fact that the situation is absurd that’s important in itself, it’s that recognizably human characters can exist in it so easily. On the other hand, to Alison’s point, Randall Terry garnered 30% of the vote when he ran for state Senate in Florida just 3 years ago, and so it also becomes a question of how desensitized have we become to our own (absurd and horrific) society?

    (I can’t read the Chiang story the way Alison suggests, though, mainly because I can’t see humanity having any certainty that we’ll still be around for the heat death of our universe.)

    Karen, to your other point, even before the Obama election I tended to have issues with stories like this one that portrayed the US or its states and regions as singular, monolithic entities (as in Black Man/Thirteen). That’s more annoying to me than the right-wing continuance. This is where I think Niall was spot-on in his discussion of the Egan story about the length of this story. The fact that Rickert doesn’t bother with any of the “how did this happen” information allows me as a reader to shrug those questions off; it’s also one of the elements that, along with some of Lisle’s language, signals me to treat the story as satire.

  4. I should amend the above to note that Terry’s 30% was in the Republican primary, not the general election — and there were other factors that may have inflated this percentage. But it’s still — absurdly, horrifically — high.

  5. Satire is a delicate balance. Coming from anger or scorn, it can be sharp-pointed, even savage, but to succeed it has to convince a reader that its target is deserving, that it has found real corruption or hypocrisy. If it can’t do that, if it seems sham or pietistic or in some way self-serving, then it fails. For all this story’s sophistication in narrative, it does not reach my sympathies at all; it simply strikes me as someone on one side of the abortion argument who does not want to engage with the issue of when human life begins (not surprisingly, since it’s apparent that there will never be agreement) and wants to find another angle that’s not so perplexing.

    Regarding the point of the story’s plausibility, Niall said he can believe “with depressing ease” in the possibility of an American government that criminalizes abortion even to the point of the death penalty — for him, perhaps, the story succeeds. I don’t share that ease of belief. I see no sign that the American “pro-life” stance is merely a smokescreen for a diabolical attempt to subjugate women.

    I don’t think, however, that plausibility should be an issue. Being outrageous is one means of satirizing, and that’s presumably what the author is going for here. The real question is: does the story nail its villain? Or is the villain perhaps so flimsy that he can’t be nailed? My problem with it is that the story strikes me as a shell game that puts a moral issue under one shell and then shuffles all three shells around quickly. It says: Don’t look here — look here.

  6. Though the suggestion ‘you are like this already’ is not directed only at misogynists, or those who will experience the death of the universe, however. It is directed at everyone.

    Making the mapping too literal (‘I am not anti-abortion so I am off the hook’, ‘I will not experience the death of my universe, so my predicament is not so poignant’) decreases the impact of each story I think.

  7. I agree with Abigail – the story is shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle. When you have an uncritical narrator, you have to read a story uncritically – and in a situation such as the one portrayed in the story, it’s impossible not to be critical. That breaks it for me.

  8. Can I possibly have anything left to say?

    Turns out, no, not really. I’m still much more interested in the character the story creates than the world it suggests, and how Lisle’s voice, rather than the raw facts of her life, creates a sense of dislocation in us. Or as Matt puts it, “It isn’t the fact that the situation is absurd that’s important in itself, it’s that recognizably human characters can exist in it so easily.” But I can respond to a couple of the comments here.

    Karen: on Rickert in general, sort of. I think her great strength is the ability to create voices, and to match the story to the voice. The uncertainty in “Holiday” is an uncertainty created by the narrator; that the uncertainties in Lisle’s voice are juxtaposed with a defined external reality doesn’t make “Evidence of Love” a lesser story to me. Nor do I really agree that it’s suddenly dated, as the result of one election; on this To agree with Matt again, that the story plays with our perception of how distant it is from us.

    (Though I do disagree with Matt about Black Man, or at least think it’s hardly the most egregious offender on that front.)


    it simply strikes me as someone on one side of the abortion argument who does not want to engage with the issue of when human life begins (not surprisingly, since it’s apparent that there will never be agreement) and wants to find another angle that’s not so perplexing.

    Without wishing to get diverted entirely onto an abortion debate, to engage with the issue of when human life begins seems to be going to the anti-choice camp on their terms, not on terms that actually make sense. The issue is the relative weight you give to a woman’s right to choose what happens to their body vs to a developing foetus. And yes, I do still find it depressingly easy to believe in a regime that values the latter over the former, on grounds of “life” being sacred, that they criminalize abortion. (Though as I also said, I don’t believe in the version of that regime in Rickert’s story.)


    When you have an uncritical narrator, you have to read a story uncritically

    I really, strongly disagree with this sentiment, for reasons I went into in my original post; it seems to me we are quite clearly invited to engage with Lisle’s narration in a critical fashion.

  9. Niall, so you feel a protagonist can be anti-sympathetic (rather than merely unsympathetic) and yet still carry a story? If Lisle had shown any qualms about the state of her world, then perhaps the reader would be able to identify with her. But as it is… Well, it feels like a variation on idiot-plotting. You’re invited to laugh and point at Lisle. Which makes you complicit with the writer rather than the story.

  10. Ian,

    so you feel a protagonist can be anti-sympathetic (rather than merely unsympathetic) and yet still carry a story?

    Yes, of course. I don’t need to be able to identify with a character; I just need to understand them. And I think I understand Lisle. I can’t see how we’re invited to laugh at her, just because she can’t articulate a position outside the assumptions she grew up with, that were the air she grew up into. And although we can’t sympathize with her — except to the extent that we are all conditioned products of our upbringing [insert Dollhouse reference here] — I’d say we can certainly feel sympathy for her.

  11. Ah. I need to identify with a character; I don’t expect to understand them.

    Others have said the story is pretty much preaching to the converted, which is why it feels like a point & laugh scenario to me: see the silly little brainwashed girl, she doesn’t realise that executing women for having abortions is WRONG! So we’re there alongside the author, when we should be with the protagonist. Which is, I suppose, an argument about immersion — inasmuch as it feels to me that the story only really works because the author expects me to read it through a particular filter, to maintain a distance from the story.

  12. Alison: In this and Exhalation, it seems to me the authors aren’t saying ‘What if this unlikely circumstance was the case, what then?’ but ‘You are like this already and you haven’t even noticed’.

    That’s a lovely sentiment, and to me it captures something about ‘Exhalation’ perfectly. However, I don’t quite see it in Rickert’s story.

  13. You know, I have to agree, Karen. It fits “Exhalation” and it doesn’t fit “Evidence of Love,” but what this idea states very neatly is the experience of *recognition* that I think is necessary for a satire to succeed.

    The best praise I can give “Evidence” is that it is a tour de force portrayal of a child psychopath.

  14. It’s interesting that most people seem to read this story in a quite different way to me. I don’t think the extrapolation of modern anti-abortion activism is the point of the story, although it’s the context of it.

    In Rickert’s story is the girl is not a psychopath. She cares about good and evil. But her notion of what is evil is derived from the culture that she was born into. I think that is the point of the story. The father thinks that she shares his basic values, and that she’s just doing what she has to, like he is. But actually his values have been lost.

  15. Hmm… I think this story is pretty effective, but I am having difficulty truly liking it. To respond to some of the ideas in the post and comments:

    I don’t see that the story invites us to look down on Lisle and the other characters, For example, it’s quite amusing at first when she says, “it’s important to stay active in your community” and she’s talking about going to watch executions — but, ultimately, I find it chilling.

    Nor do I find ‘Evidence of Love’ especially manipulative. I’d agree that it assumes agreement with its political stance, but it doesn’t read to me as a warning or lecture. Instead, I think it aims to say, “You and I both know this is wrong.”

    As for how good I think it is — I appreciate Rickert’s skill in evoking Lisle’s wordview; but, again, that’s more an intellectual response (which seeems to be a common theme with me and the shortlisted stories).

  16. I use the term to mean someone without empathy or any feeling for another’s suffering. Perhaps I have the wrong term? A person can ruminate intellectually over good and evil, right and wrong, and still be completely coldblooded. Regardless of how she came to be that way (her society’s influence, education, whatever) she does appear to be without empathy — unlike her father.

  17. I don’t think that’s true at all. People used to attend public executions for entertainment – they can’t have all been sociopaths. I think there’s nothing as human and common as our capacity to distance ourselves from the suffering of others, to tell ourselves that they deserve it, or aren’t fully human. Recent history is riddled with examples of just this.

    I believe that watching this sort of act creates a wound in the soul, and maybe Lisle is so wounded already that she can’t feel any empathy (or maybe she’s just an angry teenager) but it doesn’t mean she was soulless to begin with.

  18. Have just read the story. It’s a mess. Not because the “let’s kill all women who have abortions” is implausible (although it is, because the folk of the right are awfully good at exempting their own if they repent), or even the really daft idea that abortion will have been wiped out (nope, not so long as contraception isn’t free and power imbalances mean women can’t control the use of their bodies), but because of all the really stupid stuff about how the girl won’t be able to marry because her mother is a pariah.

    Yeah, because there *isn’t* suddenly a desperate shortage of women.

  19. Eh, China’s marriage rate went down as the one-child-per-family generation reached maturity, despite that population being skewed male. Other factors can outweigh a sex imbalance.

    As to your other two points, they just seem to me more reasons to emphasize the subjectivity of the story, the fact that it’s narrated by a child. I mean, you’re surely right that in any real equivalent to the situation in the story there would be exceptions made by the ruling class, pardonings and abortions that are against their own laws. But they’re not something Lisle could be expected to know about, so they’re irrelevant. The regime doesn’t have to enforce perfect control; it just has to propagandize effectively enough to convince the next generation of its values. Lisle is evidence of success on that front, not evidence that they’ve created a stable regime that will be able to repress women for generations to come; because they probably haven’t.

  20. I agree with Karen – I first read this story a few weeks ago, and my immediate thought was that it relates to an America which no longer really exists. Farah has a point that it’s not a plausible situation – but then it’s a response to the delusional rantings of Randall Terry, and need have no more bearing on reality than what he says. And I agree with Ian that this is very much preaching to the converted.

  21. A bit late, I know, but…

    I was talking with John DeNardo about “Baby Doll,” the current Nebula nominee by Johanna Sinisalo. It occurred to me that her story did “first person POV of a young girl totally acculturated into a culture that we’re meant to find abhorrent” rather more effectively than “Evidence of Love.” I’d have to go back and read them both side-by-side to pinpoint just why “Baby Doll” does it better, though.

  22. For the record, what I found compelling about this story was the character more than the situation. Tackling a subject this “touchy” and screwed-up makes it very hard to keep the reader engaged with the character. I thought “Evidence of Love” did that strongly enough to make me believe in and be emotionally affected by a dystopia that bore (blissfully) little resemblance to reality. I found that to be a feat I hadn’t seen done as well in a long time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s