Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"Exit Strategy" by K. D. Wentworth

This story revolves around an intriguing concept: people who no longer wish to live can donate their body to those with terminal illnesses. The original consciousness is wiped out, and replaced with a new one. (Let's leave any discussion of technological plausibility out of this, shall we?) Charlsie is a teenage girl going through usual teenage girl angst. She walks into one of "Second Life's" temples/clinics, hoping to off herself. They make her fill out a bunch of paperwork and send her home. She keeps coming around, and they suggest that she do volunteer work around the place. She meets several individuals who have undergone the procedure, and others who are waiting to do donate.

Her father finds out where she's been spending her after-school time and completely flips out. He'd prefer it if she were doing something normal, like sex and drugs. Charlsie is dragged into therapy, and the therapist's misinterpretations of everything are very pointedly funny. By this time of course, Charlsie is over her mild suicidal phase and enjoys doing her volunteer work, but the therapist keeps harping on it. Eventually we find out why her father over-reacted the way he did.

Although presented with the trappings of a cult, with church-like offices, monastic-seeming volunteers and people calling each other Brother and Sister, the author represents the Second Lifers as thoroughly reasonable people. They're perfectly aware that for many teenagers suicidal thoughts are merely a passing phase. They take their screening responsibility completely seriously, and by encouraging Charlsie to volunteer, they help her get a little perspective. Sometimes one of the most important step in maturation is simply getting over yourself.

There are two big flaws that I saw in this story, neither one a deal-killer, but each noticeable. The more minor one is that the Second Lifers assign people needing bodies to donors completely randomly. This leads to lots of insti-sex-changes. I strongly suspect that anyone setting up a system like this would aim to match bodies and brains a little more closely, especially with regards to the extremely sensitive aspect of gender.

My other concern plays off John Clute's idea of the "Real Year" of a story. The most common example used is that the "Real Year" of most Ray Bradbury stories is roughly 1927. Heinlein's Real Year tends to be around 1940, and Charles Stross has gotten up to at least 1999. The Real Year of this story can't be any later than 1985. For instance, Charlsie had titled a school paper "The Division of Labor: How Women Always Like Get the Shaft." Her character seems to be based on a valley girl from an 80's movie more than any contemporary teenager. She introduces herself at the Second Life Temple thusly:

"I'm, like, tired of living," she said, unwrapping a piece of Tart Tangerine gum, "so, as you brochure says, I thought I'd give someone more optimistic a chance."

It's grating at first, although she gradually drops the valley girl act, and that becomes a noticeable narrative technique to show her growing up. All in all this is a good story, one that makes you think.

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