Wednesday, May 13, 2015

SNARL: Totaled

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the first of several actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of“Totaled” by Kary English

I liked this story. I am not using “liked” as a euphemism for “reading this did not make me sick”. This story is a worthy Hugo nominee; the first story that has earned that description from amongst what I have so far read of this year nominees.

Before I get into what is right with this story I should point out the a couple issues. This story is told through the juxtaposition of communications, but is recalled in near real time to the reader who does not exist in the story. The reader must carefully examine the types of communication; where it originates, how it is read, how the information is stored, even what type of images are implied by the mechanism of communication. However, when it comes to the story itself the reader is expected to unquestioningly act as an omnipotent recording device.

The tone of the story make it appear as if the reader is definitely not simply the protagonist’s (The disembodied brain of Maggie Hauri neurobiologist) internal voice. The author tries to bring the reader up to speed with little history lessons that sound out of place in an internal dialog:

“The personal total wasn’t a new concept. It started back in the Teens when the Treaders put their first candidate in office. Healthcare costs were insane. Insurance was almost impossible to get. The Treaders said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for medical care someone else couldn’t afford, so they instituted a review board for totals.”

Here I think “Treaders” refers to the “Don’t Tread On Me” from the TEA party’s beloved Gadsden flag. I’m not sure, and it does not really matter. The titular “Totaled” concept is not very well developed or really necessary for the story. If all mention of totaled was removed from the story it would be essentially the same story. The totaled concept also sounds complex enough that I am glad the author did spend any more valuable wordcount adequately describing it.

Here is the part of the review where I begin talking about what I most liked about this story. Most non-professional reviewers really do reviews just to get to this part. Getting here means I enjoyed reading this; I had an enjoyable experience. That is why I read science fiction; to seek out and explore new enjoyable moments where I have not gone before.

This is a clever story; a clever story on many levels. Maggie’s brain is limited in its ability to communicate. It can only flash pleasure and disgust. This is BF Skinner’s operant conditioning turned inside out. Instead of providing stimulus that stimulates the brains simple response centers Maggie must engage the simple response centers in order to elicit a simulated stimulus response. Maggie’s brain’s former lab assistant responds to the seeing the stimulation response on an MRI, and interprets it as communication.

By requiring Maggie’s brain to dredge up memories with emotional content the author creates a wonderful tool to introduce who Maggie is. Maggie’s Brain’s simple yes/no answers becomes a slideshow of detailed experiences. A YES becomes:

“Hot, fresh coffee with farmhouse bacon sizzling in an iron skillet.”

A NO becomes:

“Cockroaches swarming over kitchen tiles, invading the cupboards and …”

I do think the author could have used this wonderful tool better, but it is a wonderful tool for character development that would only be at home in a science fiction story.

The story exist in a complex world that Maggie’s Brain can interpret, but not fully participate in. She is just a collection of memories and limited perceptions, but she is the most real feeling person in the story. We are literally inside her head, and it is the head of a researcher/ soccer mom; it is a human head. Are we all just a collection of oxygen-fueled memories?

The tech is delicious. The reader is asked to skip over the obvious tech needed for simple communication with a bundle of nerves in order to accept the incorporation of complex “bionet” nerve pairings, but the reader is rewarded. By seeing her kids at a simple school assemble, by wanting desperately to hug them, we feel the maternal humanity of Maggie’s brain. We would not get the same feel if they had plugged e-mail into her cerebellum; even if an e-mail connection might sound more technically feasible.

Of course, if Maggie’s brain had an Internet connection maybe it could read this review and realize that I gave her story eight stars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying reading your reviews. So far, I agree with all of your short story reviews. (Posted on this one, because it's also the one I think is best.) I haven't read the novellas yet, and fear I may agree with your opinions on those, too.