21 January 2010

Choose Your Own Apocalypse

Since I mentioned Alien Sex earlier this week, I thought I would continue exploring The Year's Best Science Fiction, Eighth Annual Collection with the story Gardner Dozois chose to reprint from Alien Sex: "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates" by Pat Murphy.

The writing and pacing are what distinguish "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates" rather than the central concept, which is for the most part a familiar one derived from the question, "What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?"  Science fiction writers have been working with that premise for a long time.  In this story, the narrator designs and builds robots, and because of her own interests she endows the robots with the capability and desire for sex, reproduction, and, perhaps, love.  They will, she believes, continue the evolution of the species homo.

The concept of robots reproducing themselves and replacing humankind isn't a remotely original concept, either, though Murphy uses it well as a reflection of her character's yearnings and sense of meaning.  All of the discussion of insect and bird sex in the story ties into the few glimpses of the narrator's own life that she offers, including a vision of her dead mother asking her now, at the end of her own life, "Katie, why didn't you ever fall in love?  Why didn't you ever have children?"  Katie herself has already told us,
I think perhaps I missed some narrow window of opportunity.  If, at some point along the way, I had had a friend or a lover who had made the effort to coax me from hiding, I could have been a different person.  But it never happened.  In high school, I sought the safety of my books.  In college, I studied alone on Friday nights.  By the time I reached graduate school, I was, like the pseudoscorpion, accustomed to a solitary life.
The rest of the story shows us Katie answering what seem to be her mother's desires -- though she cannot, herself, understand love, and has missed any opportunity for procreation, she has the godlike ability to create creatures that can care for each other and make babies.

The story is both elegiacal and optimistic in a rather typically science fictional way.  Indeed, I couldn't help thinking of some of what the narrator in "Invaders" says, because here we have a story of the lonely nerd as lone survivor and savior.  Not quite savior of humanity, because humanity seems pretty much dead, but the savior of what the narrator clearly thinks of as a kind of human evolution.

I wonder about the choice of focusing on this character amidst all that is going on in the background (the apparent death of all human civilization).  We learn nothing of the war or what has brought complete destruction -- all we know is that "Yesterday ... the bombs fell and the world ended," and then we get a story of a character coming to some self-realization through the creation of robots that will likely repopulate the world with themselves.  She creates these robots so quickly and well that I'm tempted to think it's all a delusion -- that "really" she's dying of radiation poisoning and has dreamed the robots and their progeny.  She's already admitted to seeing her dead mother, so why not a delusion about saving something of the world?  Unfortunately, the story doesn't give us much evidence that we should be skeptical of what Katie tells us, nor does it give us much to do with such an idea.

I suppose it speaks to my own prejudices as a reader that I would prefer the story if it were a more complex study of a fairly ordinary, flawed woman's last, dying delusions.  (But then it would be Wittgenstein's Mistress, one of the most interesting and affecting American novels I know.)

Molly Gloss's "Personal Silence" (also in Dozois's anthology), like "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates", takes place during a time of destructive war, but the characters here are not superheroes or exceptions.  Though the protagonist, Jay, at first seems exceptional -- he's wandering around the world, looking for a place without war -- he's not the only person on such a journey, and even though he may have been the first, he's not even the most famous.  When he meets the 12-year-old girl, Mare, and her father, they aren't especially impressed with him.  He's interesting because he relieves the monotony of their days, and he's pleasant enough to have around because he has taken a vow of silence, which makes both Mare and her father more willing to talk to him about personal things than they would be with someone who could respond with speech to what they say.  He's not particularly special, but he is useful.

Once Jay has learned of Mare's dreams and that she expects soon to die and to have her death written about in a way that will stop the war, he imagines himself as the vessel for this.  But it's clear from the story that this hope is, if not arrogant, at least not a whole lot different from previous hopes he's entertained for himself, none of which have entered reality with the force he imagined them to offer.  At the end of the story, Mare isn't dead, but Jay is in the position of wishing for her death so that he, through writing, can save the world.  He thinks he has given Mare's life great meaning and her death great power.  There is little reason to assume he is right.

"Personal Silence" is a fine companion for "Invaders" in that it offers ways for us to think about storytelling.  Though Gloss's tale is less explicit in the questions it asks about wish fulfillment, atrocity, and writing, I think those questions are equally important in the two texts.  It's not all of what either is doing, but there is a resonance between the two -- a resonance derived from questions of the silences we choose to break, and the form, thought, and hopes we attach to the noises we send out into the world.

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