Short Story Club: “My Father’s Singularity”

The discussion for this week’s story might be interesting. Chad thinks it’s the best of the club so far:

This story’s a little difficult for me to approach objectively, because it hits a little close to home, in that I grew up in a small town, and went off to college, and when I go back nothing is the same as it was. […]

With that as a disclaimer of sorts, I thought this was an excellent story. It nails the emotional target it’s aiming for, that sense of a difference that has grown up and can’t quite be overcome. Unlike a lot of first-person narratives, I can actually imagine a real person telling this story in more or less this way. The outlines of the future world are there in the background, but as the narrator says at one point, that’s not this story, so we don’t get the changes spelled out for us in any great detail.

It’s subtle and restrained, but all the more powerful for it. And I think this is the best story of the lot so far, by a good margin. Both the SF elements and the human elements are handled deftly, and fit together really well. Whether I read any more award-eligible short fiction or not, this will almost certainly be going on my Hugo nominating ballot next year.

Evan had some problems:

The embedded assumptions are maybe going to be less apparent or obnoxious to the non-American people; it might even be West Coast specific. Capitalist/libertarian-oriented, dully US-centric, assuming that each tech boom will be followed by another, the country is better than the city, manual work better than intellectual work, government is evil when not incompetent, etc., etc., so on and so forth. It circumscribes the world declaring that while it might be different, it can never really be better. I am against the golden age, as a human concept. The fact that we all feel it says something about us, rather than something about the world. If the story had been a dissection of this feeling through its blinkered and backwards-looking main character, it might have been something interesting, but it doesn’t even remain unexamined; it seems to be the explicit position of the story. […]

Even putting aside the ideological underpinnings of the story, the failures of character would be enough to damn it, all on their own. Prose-wise, it feels under-baked, larded with a few too many stock phrasings.

Lois is in the positive camp:

This is a tale of loss, inevitable but unbearably sad. Here is another story in which the well-wrought characters are its heart. The emotion is genuine, the situation universal, the future too familiar in its disappointment.

And Pam Philips liked it:

The payoff moment comes when his father crosses a singularity of his own. All the technology at Paul’s command can’t undo the effects of age. While the situation is poignant, the tone of the story is restrained, as if it were asking permission to tug on my heartstrings.

It’s all right. You can tug.

But it didn’t work for Matt H:

Two major elements of the story, namely its narrator Paul and the future he’s moving into, are left mostly to the reader’s imagination. Paul comes off as a fairly cold fish with apparently no emotional attachments except a weak sense of filial duty. We are encouraged to think that Paul, after initial difficulties, has completely left his rural past behind and become wholly modern, but the world around him is given such scanty detail that the reader is left to guess what, if anything, that might imply. His father, theoretically the subject of the story, is given even less time. We learn he likes science fiction books, dogs, farming, and that’s about it. You’d think a man who read science fiction would have some sort of opinion about gene therapy or whatever the magic medicine of Paul’s future is, but the reader isn’t told anything that would clue us in to what he thought. Paul and Mona probably knew, but it doesn’t occur to either of them to mention his preferences when discussing his treatment.

Given how unimpressed I was with Paul, it’s not surprising that I didn’t find the conclusion of the story very moving. Paul, who only a moment ago was saying nothing bad ever happened to him, spends about three sentences coping with the fact his father (a man he was so close to he couldn’t bear to spend more than a day with him) can’t recognize him now. Then the story ends on a vaguely distasteful note by suggesting that getting Alzheimer’s is a singularity in the opposite direction from the SF kind. Perhaps it’s one last bit of characterization: Paul is so self-centered that he feels someone who no longer recognizes him has become something less than human.

So: which side are you on?

16 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “My Father’s Singularity”

  1. The question of ‘best so far’, makes me think that perhaps adding on a week of summary discussion at the end might be useful or interesting.

  2. There’s something mournful about this from start to finish that I found rather emotionally cloying. On the other hand, it has a single tone which meant I found it physically easy to read but also easy to skim. I had to force myself to go back and reread paragraphs that I’d bypassed. Getting to the end of the story, I realise I wouldn’t have missed much if I had skimmed bits.

    This is one of those ‘loner’ SF pieces that I feel I see so often, at least I did in the stories that I used to catch in the main SF magazines before Borders went bust. That’s ‘loner’ in the sense of being focussed on someone who is without roots, or is alienated from their roots. It makes me think of James Alan Gardner’s The Ray-Gun: A Love Story, which has a similar theme to this, with a protagonist who dedicates himself to a worthy pursuit that prevents him forming strong attachments. However, Gardner’s piece doesn’t once use the mournful cliched tone of voice that unfortunately this piece does, and it has quite a hopeful ending with the protagonist reintegrating himself with society. I’d recommend his piece much more than this one. It’s several of orders of magnitude better.

    This story also reminds me in a way of No Time Like The Present, the story discussed here a couple of weeks ago, as there’s a sense of nostalgia to both pieces, except whereas in No Time the nostalgia came through the story’s setting in a nebulous past, the nostalgia here comes from a character in the near future who is nostalgic about the relationship he had with his father. They are both about recapturing the mood of childhood, which to be honest isn’t really something I read science fiction for.

    Furthermore, My Father’s Singularity has a strong sense of guilt throughout. It’s as if the main character is guilty about leaving home. Perhaps it’s a particularly American thing – the death of the community and leaving one’s family behind, the migrant’s story – or perhaps the story would mean more to someone who has put a parent in a nursing home. However, it didn’t really do anything for me. I’m not a big one for stories about middle class guilt, even though I probably qualify as being middle class myself. It seems rather a waste of science fiction and its capabilities to write about something which can be done just as well or better using other tools in another genre (mainstream literary fiction).

    I’ll go further. You could easily cut out the singularity bits and paste in pretty much any modern gerontological references instead. Just think of the differences over a single long lifespan in the 20th century. I don’t think there’s any requirement for this to be a science fiction story in the slightest. It’s as if the author has sprinkled some magic pixie dust over the page (nano-meds! people in mobile bubbles because they are allergic to modern society! feds grabbing the flying controls! etc) and hey presto that makes it a science fiction story. Sorry, no it doesn’t; well, hardly one that I find interesting, anyway.

  3. As I said in my post, I have a little trouble being objective about this story, so take my comments with appropriate seasoning. I would say, though, that I don’t see the mundanity of the setting as somehow disqualifying the story as SF. Rather, I think that’s part of the point of the story, and an important commentary on the whole notion of the Singularity. The narrator has gone through exactly the sort of transformation his father told him about as a child, but doesn’t fully recognize it because it doesn’t look singular from the inside. Change on that kind of scale never does, and that’s the whole point.

  4. The narrator has gone through exactly the sort of transformation his father told him about as a child, but doesn’t fully recognize it because it doesn’t look singular from the inside.

    This is what I expected the story to be about based on how it started, but I didn’t think it ever made this case. What’s so different about the narrator? The whole point of the singularity is that it’s incomprehensible to those who came before. Anti-aging treatments, personal planes, and medical nanomachines are neat, but for the most part they are the future people hope for and expect, not a point we can’t see past.

    That said I agree this is an SF story.

  5. The whole point of the singularity is that it’s incomprehensible to those who came before.

    And every generation is. It’s easy to reduce that sentiment to cliche, but it’s still true. I barely remember the eighties, which were formative for many of my friends; my partner is teaching students who don’t remember the nineties. On some level, those are differences in experiential knowledge that can’t be completely bridged. And Stephen Baxter, for instance, has done sfnal riffs on this several times, particularly in Flood and Ark — this story struck me as being in similar, though less dramatic, vein.

    I’m mulling over Chad’s response to the story and Rose’s response to last week’s story. When is a strong personal response trouble being objective, and when is it recognising specific details that not everyone is going to get? (And to what extent should fiction aspire to that sort of specificity, as opposed to exploring it in such a way that people who do not have the relevant background can come to understand it?)

  6. You have to call the story SF because of the nanowhatsits and other skiffy accessories, but I think a case could also be made that it’s nominal SF, a mainstream story using SF tropes as metaphor.

  7. I’d argue with you there, Niall. There may be difficulties ‘passing’, I guess you could say, but I think with effort on both sides a bridge can be made, and understanding be had. We’re all, at base, human, which makes our mental landscapes comprehensible to each other, no matter what our experiences. My parents and my partner and I share little in the way of cultural touchstones and personal background, yet I don’t consider any of the three of them incomprehensible.

    Almost every time I see someone making the strong form of this argument in print (I can’t speak to the Baxter as I haven’t read anything of his since raft), the characters they use to illustrate it are either stubborn, unempathetic to the point of being autistic, or some combination of both. The largest problem with inter-generational understanding in my experience are that one side simply doesn’t care to expend the effort.

    As to your other point, I think that my strong personal reaction to this story certainly did color my response to it, and my criticism may have been of a higher quality if I’d set that reaction aside. My issue there was that I didn’t have a lot to say that couldn’t be captured in a string of number grades. Prose Quality: 2, Characterization: 1, World-building: 2, etc. It struck me that the only thing that could bear the weight of much examination or discussion was my irritated reaction to the rosy glasses framing and American upper middle class, soft-libertarian assumptions laced throughout.

    This is not really a comment so much as a data point. I guess if I had a point, it would be that fiction, in order to be good, must aspire to that sort of specificity, but that it must also be aware of the line between the universal and the specific, and inclue enough information about those touchstones so as not to alienate the friendly outside reader (save when alienation is the desired effect).

  8. I find Evan’s reaction very interesting, because I disagree on almost every point. I thought the prose and character were handled very well, in that the story was something I could imagine a real person saying, which is a little unusual for a first-person narrative. It’s not flashy, but it really shouldn’t be, given who and what the narrator is.

    I also didn’t find it excessively rosy– there are technical advances, true, but at the same time, there are enough references to Bad Things (climate change-induced drought and storms, mass dislocations leading to refugees being resettled in the Pacific Northwest, the roads to Seattle being impassable for large stretches of time) to indicate that it’s not a Gernsback Continuum future. It’s not apocalyptically awful, but it’s not all wine and roses, either. It’s a world that could reasonably follow from the present world, which again is rarer than I’d like in near-future SF.

  9. Does anyone else think that making the story science fiction actually weakened its impact? The power of the writing when the son takes his father out of his familiar surroundings because he can no longer look after himself does not really need the sf device of a singularity to make it effective. Many of us have had to make the decision to have a parent put in a care home because we are unable to look after them or because of medical conditions which are deteriorating, and I feel that taking the situation a few years into the future adds an alienating distance to the story.

    Maybe it’s a commercial thing, and sf is easier to sell than a straight story about what to do with ageing relatives,but what does the future context add to the emotional impact of the piece?

    I thought it well written, with strong characters, but was not convinced by the dogs.

  10. I’m with the unimpressed crowd. Sean’s description of the story as cloying seems about right, and I agree with Matt that there’s too much missing from the story’s portrait of Paul. The narrative jumps from his college years to late middle age and only tells us that he’s been successful but formed no strong ties in those years. His feelings of longing for the rural life, and guilt for leaving his father behind, seems generic, unrelated to any specific event in Paul’s life or to an aspect of his personality, which of course doesn’t exist. I’m also not sure why the later passages seem to suggest that Paul is right to feel guilty. He hasn’t anything wrong, or even disobeyed his father’s wishes, and despite his own feelings on the matter I don’t see that he owed Mona more than he gave her. I can understand him feeling guilt, but not the story supporting that feeling as it does.

    I also agree that the generation gap is not comparable or a lesser example of the singularity, as I understand the term. My great-aunt, who is in her mid-90s, could not have conceived of cell phones or email when she was my age, but she uses both quite happily. There will always be people, of all ages, who can’t adapt to the future, but that’s a function of their personality, upbringing, and education, not something that is inherent to the change itself.

  11. I thought this was the worst story of the club so far. I read it last week and couldn’t think of anything positive to say about it. I’ve just re-read it following the discussion and yes, it is still bloody awful.

    I agree with those who say it was pointless to clothe this as an SF story since it is really just an all too familiar story about the relation between a man and his father (which, as Evan notes, plays into all sorts of familiar cliches.) The father’s interest in the singularity is only there to set up the (offensive) metaphor of dementia as singularity, I never beleived in it in its own right, and the worldbuilding is simultaneously under-developed and unconvincing. Consider the environment:

    After the fifth year in seven that climate-freak storms wrecked the apples — this time with bone-crushing ice that set the border collies crazed with worry — I knew I’d have to leave if I was ever going to support my father… The farm could go on without me.

    It could? How can any farm survive only two harvests in seven years? But this is the only time such dramatic climate change seems to have any effect on the future of the story. what about all the other farms? There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion of food shortages and social unrest. Indeed the narrator seems to live a life of 20th Century upper middle class privilege with a few extra gadgets thrown in:

    I had a new implant, I had a bigger cloud, researchers under me, so much money that what I sent my father — what he needed for the whole orchard — was the same as a night out at a concert and dinner at Canlis.

    So that’s what, £150, tops? Ridiculous.

    Even accepting that telling an SF story clearly isn’t Cooper primary interest, it still think it is a failure. It is such a tediously deliberate attempt to tug the heart-strings, emotionally cloying indeed, and Cooper simply isn’t a good enough writer. Like the world-building the narrator is far too under-written to make any connection with the reader whilst also failing to convinve as a real person. Here he is as a ten year old:

    His desire for me to be different than him was the deepest rejection possible, and I bled for the wounds.

    Tug, tug, tug. “I bled for the wounds” should presumably be “I bled from the wounds” but either way it is hopelessly overwrought. It is also an extremely unlikely sentiment for a ten year old. But despite the intensity of his love for his father we are then told:

    She was so beautiful I decided right then that I would miss her almost as much as I would miss my father and the bending apple trees and the working dogs and the sheep. Maybe I would miss Mona even more.

    There is no evidence he has even spoken to before. Yes, boys are easily led by their dicks but he would miss his crush more than his father? How on Earth are we supposed to believe this? If Cooper wanted to establish a connection, she had to actually write. As with so many parts of the story it seems she just couldn’t be bothered so now we have three under-written characters instead of two. And he never grows up:

    God, how could I have been so selfish? I could have given her some of what I had. But I liked her better touched by pain and age and staying part of my past.

    This is forty years later but he hasn’t emotionally matured at all and this is just flat out creepy. We are told that “I had nice dates sometimes” but there is no evidence he has ever had a relationship. In fact, he seems borderline autistic (so maybe it is an SF story after all!) Perhaps this is what Cooper intended but I doubt it.

  12. I think I’m the opposite of Chad, in that for me, the very noticeable typos–including two in the first two paragraphs–predispose me to think less of the story. I mean, if nobody has thought it worth the effort of correcting them, then what does that say about the story’s worth?

    That said, as I got into the story, there are some nice moments. I especially liked how the opening paragraphs felt very contemporary, and then we have a paragraph that begins “The whole idea came to him out of books so old they were bound paper with no moving parts.” It’s a nice jolt, a reminder that technological progress, among other things, isn’t uniformly distributed. And I thought there was an interesting spread of ideas behind the story, struggling to break out. Some of that is the limits of our minds–kind of what Niall writes about–the parallel between Paul as an adult being unable to stand the slow place of the farm, and his father being unable to recognize him. Some of that is, relatedly, the way SF fans tend to pat themselves on the back for being open to ideas, even as those ideas are often just another set that will calcify in their minds just like in everyone else’s. Some of it is the way parents always want better lives for their children, and exploring the costs of that, what it really means. Some of that is that there’s an up-slope to technological progress but a down slope to health, and at a certain point the two lines meet. Can we say for certain that Paul’s father doesn’t recognize Paul because he has Alzheimer’s; or, as Chad suggests, has Paul in fact gone through a singularity and become unrecognizable to someone of his father’s generation? Or is it some combination?

    The problem, as Evan, Matt H, Sean, Abigail, and Martin all point out without using the word, is that it is an incredibly, and very obviously, manipulative story. The blatant pattern of what is shown and what is not sands away nearly all the possible nuances of idea and character. The story gets some mileage out of being vague, to be sure, but it’s a vagueness that feels completely artifical, constructed. Paul’s father used to go to Seattle twice a year, for example. Does he stop doing that once Paul leaves; why do we never see or even hear about Paul and his father in Paul’s world, before the end of the story? And then there’s the gag-inducing line at the end, that Paul’s treatments on his father, nearly always successful, doesn’t work in this case because “some minds can’t accept the changes we can make.” Gah!

  13. I thought this story falls squarely into the camp of sentimental science fiction about the small tragedies that technological change can work on human lives. The tragedy is that Paul’s father thinks he will live to see the Singularity happen through his son. Oddly enough, I felt that the story’s failure to present Paul as a fully emotional being makes it less cloying than it could have been, but it also makes Paul really annoying. He’s so clue-impaired that he can’t call what happens to his father Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, the central tragedy requires that his dementia be incurable, which is doubly unfortunate because the reader can sense that the plot requires that the story end this way, no matter what might be possible in its world.

    I’m not sure I would go so far as to say I liked this story. I thought it was okay, but I sensed it was too timid about emotion and too afraid of sentiment to become what it set out to be. Maybe I would have thought the story was manipulative if it had tugged harder, but I wish it had tried.

  14. Hi all,

    Coming to this a little late after a busy week…

    I’ve read this one before, a few months back, and all the stuff I liked about it then still stand out. It says a few things about relationships between parents and children that I think are interesting and true. I recognised the business around the pets immediately, the way parents turn to pets as children grow: pets don’t grow up, they always need you in the way that children do, whereas children eventually become themselves and leave.

    Paul’s father very obviously understands this, although Paul perhaps does not. I see in his aspirations for Paul the aspirations of many parents for the children, that they’ll become something more and better than they themselves were, and that this growth and ambition will separate parent and child forever.

    I also recognised Paul’s relationship with his home after leaving, the way you never quite leave it but you can never go back. “I can’t explain that – how the best place in the world spit me out after a day or so.” I feel that every time I go “home”.

    The story doesn’t quite rise to the level it needs to, though, and I think this is down to problems with Paul. He is very detached, almost to the point of not having a recognisable inner life. I wondered if some of this was deliberate: the opening lines about his memories almost suggest he’s viewing these at a distance, as if they’ve been stored somewhere for him to review, but this doesn’t seem to be convincingly carried forward in the rest of the story. More troublingly, no one new enters his life after he leaves the farm, and this strains credibility – he just doesn’t seem to exist at all outside of this focus of the story.

    The final paragraphs call for a real emotional engagement that Paul can’t muster. I was waiting for the emotions to crescendo here, for some poetry and wisdom. Those last couple of sentences, in particular, lack euphony – they don’t ring out for me, but just kind of sit there, explaining but never revealing.

    On a more nuts’n’bolts sci fi level, I’d also suggest that the futurismical elements of this story also never convince. Nano this, nano that, camera hats – it would have been better to not add these clumsy “you are in the future” signposts, I think.

    There is, however, still quite a bit of strong and resonant emotional content here, and I enjoyed that a lot. Sentimental? Perhaps so, but I like some sentiment in my fiction like other people lap up hydrogenated fats. It may not be good for me, but boy does it taste great!

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