Short Fiction Snapshot #1: "Intestate" by Charlie Jane Anders
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
25 February 2013
Science fiction is often the genre of literalized metaphors; its fantastic tropes can be used to make concrete what in reality is only an abstract. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974) takes the frequent observation of soldiers returning from a war abroad that the peaceful, untouched society to which they've come home seems alien and unfamiliar, and realizes this effect through time dilation, which returns the book's narrator to a humanity altered by hundreds of years that have passed him by in his faster-than-light deployment. Rian Johnson's recent film Looper expresses the limited options that lie before children raised in poverty and unstable environments through time travel, which assures that the film's protagonist, a mob assassin recruited as a child, will one day kill his older self, and one day some time after that, be killed in the same fashion. It's a device that can be used in indelicate ways, as evidenced by any number of works in which aliens, mutants, and supernatural creatures are used as stand-ins for a variety of marginalized groups, from Native Americans to AIDS sufferers. When done well, however, science fiction's literalized metaphors can offer the best of both worlds, exploring both a universal human truth and an SFnal concept.
In her Hugo-winning story, "Six Months, Three Days" (Tor.com, June 8th, 2011), Charlie Jane Anders demonstrated that she had a facility with literalized metaphors. In the story, a man who can see the future meets and becomes involved with a woman who can see all possible futures. Both know that their relationship will last only six months, three days, but nevertheless embark upon it—he because he sees no alternative; she because she believes that the premature breakup is only one possible ending. Inevitably, the relationship breaks down, but along the way Anders touches both on quantum mechanics—as the story and relationship draw on, the woman begins to fear that knowing the concrete future that her lover sees will collapse the possibilities that she perceives into one—and psychology—it's never clear whether the reason the man so passively accepts the coming breakup is his faith in his precognitive abilities, or his inability to feel optimism after a lifetime of (predicted) disappointment. In the end, the reader is left wondering whether the relationship's failure was a self-fulfilling prophecy, or whether the belief in infinite possibility is only the privileged delusion of someone who has never experienced real disappointment. It's a novel take on the question of free will vs. predestination, and a sad, affecting romance to boot.
In her recent story "Intestate" (also published by Tor.com), Anders once again demonstrates that facility at making the SFnal at once a concretization of something fundamentally human, and something all its own. The story describes a weekend getaway taken by the Pinch clan—six children, fourteen grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren—in honor of its patriarch, Mervyn's, 80th birthday. Our narrator is Emmy, the next-to-youngest Pinch daughter, and the only one of Mervyn's children who is childless herself. This is only one of the ways in which Emmy stands apart from the rest of her family, and the story is driven by her partial, and only partially voluntary, detachment from the clan.
As Emmy describes it, there is a presentiment of chaos and collapse that underpins the entire weekend. On their way to Mervyn's house, Emmy's brother Eric's car is nearly run off the road by a jeep coming around a bend. The house itself is in a "failed gated community," and the family spread out across its grounds, building a tent city, digging fire pits which they feed with furniture, not caring because, as Emmy notes, "one of the banks will take the house soon enough." It's no surprise, then, that Mervyn ends the weekend with the announcement that he has terminal cancer, but even without that revelation, his looming death hangs over Emmy and her siblings, who have arrived for the weekend expecting to learn what they'll each receive in Mervyn's will. Not money or property—these, as noted, are being lost to debt—but body parts.
With the loose clothes my father is wearing, you can't even tell what he's replaced. Most of the legs, for sure. The hip joints. The spine. The skin on his neck, of course. Rumor has it that his whole rib cage is some kind of hydrogen-based generator now. My dad can drink whiskey and eat spicy food without being in horrible pain afterwards, because he's upgraded his stomach and turned his appendix into some kind of backup filtration unit. He can breathe smoky air better than I can. Nobody will know for sure what he's done, until someone cuts him up.
Emmy's older sister Joanna has decided that, upon his death, Mervyn's augmented, bioengineered body parts are going to be distributed among his children, and throughout the story the various Pinch siblings wish for their favorite parts, envy each other their likely inheritance, and use it as a pretext for put-downs ("It's undeniably creepy the way Joanna covets her father's pelvis"). All of which both highlights and obscures the way Anders has blurred the line between genetic inheritance and the regular kind. By experimenting on himself, Mervyn has not only made himself something other than human, he has cut himself off from a fundamental sort of human continuity. Ordinary people bequeath traits and attributes to their children without being diminished themselves—when I say, "I have my mother's eyes," I don't mean that my mother is eyeless. By turning his body parts into commodities, Mervyn has made them into the equivalent of the good silver or the big candelabra—something that he must parcel out between his children, and only after his own death.
As the story draws on, however, one begins to sense that this is exactly how Mervyn intended it. He could, of course, have patented his inventions, released them into the world as an intellectual legacy to be used by anyone who wanted or needed them, including his children. Though, as Emmy explains it, the reason Mervyn has worked only on himself is that "his body was the one thing his creditors couldn't ever take away," there is also clearly an element of wanting control over his inventions and who they go to (despite his children's expectations, at the end of the weekend Mervyn does not announce how his body parts will be distributed after his death, or whether they even will be). Mervyn doesn't believe in intellectual property—"You can write ideas down but then they get trapped in a shape they can't grow out of." But he's also been burned by giving his ideas too much freedom.
Several years ago, Mervyn and Emmy experienced a rift from which they've never entirely recovered, rooted in Mervyn's discovery that the company Emmy worked for was not only doing work for the manufacturers of UAVs used to attack civilians, but that these UAVs infringed on Mervyn's own patents. The profound passive-aggressiveness with which Mervyn slowly makes his disapproval clear to Emmy—first he stops talking to her, then, after she's begged him for an explanation, he sends her some press clippings without a word of comment—would seem to suggest that it was not the fact that Emmy had done something that he disapproved of that troubled Mervyn, so much as the fact that she was capable of that choice. In both cases—his inventions and his children—Mervyn seems genuinely thrown by the realization that he has sent these creations out into the world, unencumbered by his control so that they wouldn't be trapped in the same shape forever, only for them to truly behave as if they were separate from him. It seems only natural to respond to this shock by seeking to assert the maximum amount of control, over inventions and children alike.
As we all know, however, there are things that parents bequeath to their children whether they mean to or not, and Emmy seems to have inherited Mervyn's ambivalence about the entire project of childbearing. It's an ambivalence that Anders spells out in the story's opening sentences: "The minivan is already full of children when it pulls up to my front steps. I climb into the deepest pit facing out the back door, and plunk my rucksack in my lap." Emmy's first act in the story, then, is to make sure that no child tries to claim a place in that lap, and throughout the weekend, despite having "promised to help out with childcare," she mostly avoids her nieces and nephews, stepping up to deal with a child-related situation only when it doesn't require her emotional involvement—when one of the troupe of children turns out to be an interloper, a child-actor turned corporate spy. We later learn that for a time Emmy tried, unsuccessfully, to get pregnant, but that "I never wanted to get the tests because if they found something, then it would be a medical problem all of a sudden, and I'd be trapped on the conveyor belt. My dad taught me early on that sometimes the secret to happiness is figuring out which questions you're better off not answering."
As I've said, not being a parent sets Emmy apart from the rest of her family, which suits her role in the story as observer and cataloger. She spends the story delivering wry, contextless non-sequiturs that hint at the complex, tangled history of the Pinch clan: "My oldest brother Robert thinks my father experimented on me in the womb and that's why I can't have children. But Robert would be ready to believe almost any horror story about dad"; "Dudley grew up thinking he would always be the youngest sibling, until eventually Eric and I were born and he was just another middle kid"; "Joanna is the only one of us kids who inherited dad's genius. . . . She wound up being a super-actuary at one of the top insurance companies, and she can rattle off the chances of anything bad happening to anyone." It's left for us to imagine why Robert thinks so little of his father, what it means to Dudley to be thrust into middle child status, what led Joanna to use her genius in such prosaic ways. There is, as in any family, a tangled knot of resentment, shared history, and emotional connection at the center of the Pinch clan that can neither be severed nor escaped, no matter how much of his humanity Mervyn cuts away, or how determined Emmy is never to have children.
What distinguishes families from "any random assortment of people," Mervyn tells Emmy when she tries, one last time, to get over the rift that has grown between them, is that "We never forgive each other." It's a grim conclusion to a story that is deceptively lightly written and even, at points, humorous. And yet, at the same time, it's also a hopeful statement. It indicates that, for all his best efforts to retreat into a kind of mad scientist isolation—at one point, Emmy's brothers and their wives joke that Mervyn's house should have a shark-infested moat surrounding it—Mervyn still views himself as part of the family, bound to it, and to his frustratingly self-willed, unforgiven daughter, until his fast-approaching death. "Intestate" is a story about being the child of a mad scientist, and about being the child of a parent you don't understand. "When I was little, my father was a pair of hands," Emmy tells us, then describes how Mervyn returned from a research trip with a beard, and she ran and hid from the stranger. As a cyborg, meanwhile, Mervyn is literally unknown to his children—as Emmy tells us, none of them will know what he truly is until he dies and they can take him apart—and after announcing his looming death, he retreats to his lab, where they can't follow because "the air . . . is not breathable to normal humans." It is, at one and the same time, a metaphor about the distance between parents and children, and an exploration of an SFnal trope that deepens that distance. And either way, it's a story about family.