Monday, April 21, 2008

"How It Feels" by Ian Creasey

To all four of my readers out there, let me know if you think this review has too many spoilers. In a short story, it's really hard to avoid. Without giving away the ending I couldn't think of any way to talk about the morality/genre subversion aspects of the story. However, if I hear that people would really prefer to find these things out on their own, I'll limit my reviews to accomodate. Thanks!

This is a classic "what if" story: one big idea and an examination of the implications. Now, this idea isn't particularly plausible, and it's certainly not on the horizon. So this is a bit of an abstract exercise. Given that it doesn't have any immediate political implications, this particular story instead goes for the personal moral. It's not a bad moral, but it ends up feeling heavy-handed.

We meet a man grieving for his daughter, trying to get through his day. However, it becomes clear that he never had a daughter. Upon being arrested for speeding, he has been sentenced to carry around a module that installs in him the grief and memories of a man whose daughter was killed by a speeding driver. The man is completely unable to drive faster than 30 mph, even on the highway, and it's ruining his ability to work. He tries to think his way around the problem, to remind himself that it's not real, but the grief is too overwhelming - it never fades with time. In the end the guy decides to embrace the lesson of the module: it's OK to slow down. It's not worth anyone's life to go faster. It's better to live in the moment and value the time you have, instead of relentlessly pursuing career advancement.

Creasey's evocation of the emotions the guy is wrestling with is powerful without being melodramatic or weepy, and the contrast between what the module is thinking and what the guy is thinking is well done. However the moral ending feels incongruous. I was trying to get at the root of my mild dislike of this well-told story, and I think it comes from an intentional or unintentional subversion of a genre convention.

Usually in stories like this, we see a government-imposed, heavy-handed "solution" to crime, and we learn why it is a Bad Thing (especially in Analog stories). And my thought on a technology like this, if such a thing were possible, is that it would indeed be a Bad Thing — you shouldn't force people to respond emotionally to other people's traumas. As the protagonist discovers, if we all had true empathy, we'd all be frozen and unable to act. So that's where I expected this story to go.

However, the author chooses to side-step this message and instead have the protagonist learn a valuable lesson about life, one straight from pop-psychology land. Although it isn't a bad message, even the best wisdom can feel facile when it's been repeated by large numbers of shallow and commercial self-help gurus. Perhaps the author felt no need to emphasize a political message because it's so obvious, or perhaps because there's no real-world risk of such technology coming into being anytime soon. I'm honestly not sure if this subversion of my expectations is a good thing or not, or even if it is intentional or not. Nonetheless, I think it's at the root of the fact that when I finished this story, I felt like I didn't like it very much.

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