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?