To See Ourselves

October 10, 2015

When I was in elementary school, the Salem-Keizer school district used the Holt Basic Reading System textbooks.  In the earlier years, the curriculum seemed to include one or two science fiction stories per year.  In third grade, I read Asimov’s “The Fun They Had,” which I hated.  My father had been reading me science fiction novels written for adults since I was five or six, and I was not generally impressed with the unsophisticated stuff in the textbook.

In fifth and sixth grades, there were more science fiction stories, and each of the accompanying workbooks had a one-page exercise that was supposed to teach us about science fiction as a genre.  I remember completing it in fifth grade; I had to identify which elements typical of the genre were found in each of the three SF stories we had read that year in Riders on the Earth* (“A Visit to Mars,” the complete novel “The Forgotten Door,” and another story whose name I forgot long ago).  I was surprised to realize that all three stories involved metal telepathy; in fact, in the first and third stories, telepathy was main topic of each narrative.  I was rather disgusted that they wouldn’t give us harder science fiction than that to read.

The next year, there were three more science fiction stories in the text, and as the school year was almost over, I looked at the workbook page devoted specifically to the science fiction genre that we had that year.  (Our teacher rarely actually assigned pages out of the published workbook, but I did this one on my own initiative.)  As I had been struck by the fact that all the stories we had read the previous year had been dumbed down and written specifically for child audiences, I realized that in sixth grade we had read “The Feeling of Power,” “To Serve Man,” and “All Summer in a Day.”  Those are all darkly ironic stories, penned by three of the leading figures of twentieth century science fiction:  Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, and Ray Bradbury, respectively.  (“The Feeling of Power” also taught me how, at a really fundamental level, the standard algorithm for multiplication actually worked.)  Finally, in a book aimed at middle school students, SF was being taken seriously.

This all came to mind again the other week, when my daughter asked me if I had read “All Summer in a Day.”  I told her I had, and I suggested that she ought to read the two other stories I remembered alongside it.  I think she appreciated the seriousness of the subject matter, although I don’t know if she was as affected by the last lines of Asimov’s story*** as I was:

Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don’t need a computer to tell me so. The computer is in my own head.

And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.

*The title of the textbook, as well as the one for the next year, To See Ourselves, came from “Riders on the Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold,” Archibald Macleish’s short essay on how the space program had changed our perceptions of humanity’s role in the cosmos.

** Apparently, these stories produced an outcry from a sizable number of conservative Christian loons.  It led to lawsuits and boycotts, and the textbook series was dropped by the publisher after only a few years in print.

*** “The Fun They Had” has a similar title drop at the end, but I thought its attempt at dramatic irony was basically unsuccessful.

 

“Damn, I have to go!” Mrissa said suddenly.

“How come?” Yarec asked, surprised.  “Aren’t you off the clock?”

“Yeah, but there’s an important meeting that I really shouldn’t miss,” she said as she looked hurriedly about for some notes she had taken earlier.  “It’s about—Never mind, I shouldn’t tell you.”  She found the scrawled sheets and headed for the door.  “It might be a while, unfortunately—maybe a few hours.”

Yarec nodded.  “Have you got anything to read?” he asked as she headed for the door.

Mrissa let the question hold her there a little longer.  She stopped by the door and thought, then said, “I’ve got some stuff on my hand device.”  She gestured toward a palm-sized unit tucked under the foot end of the bed.  Yarec bent down to pull it out and wiped the flexible screen clean of mattress dust with his bare arm.  As the screen lit up, Mrissa added,”There’s a bunch of random genre fiction on there.  There should be an adventure story or something you’d like.”

“Thanks,” Yarec said.  He started flicking through the device’s controls with his middle finger.  Then, remembering Mrissa was about to go, he hopped up and walked over to give her a kiss.  He pressed his lips softly against hers.  Then she ducked under his attempted embrace.

“Got to go,” Mrissa reminded him.  Then she was out the door and gone.

Yarec closed his eyes and checked the time—as it seemed it had become his habit to do whenever he was left alone.  Once again, just like at Station Westerly, he had almost a whole day to spend cooped up in a small windowless bedroom, while Mrissa was out and around, working.  At least I know who she is this time, Yarec told himself.  Back at Westerly, he had not even had the comfort of knowing his wife was there.

He sat back down on the bed and punched up the lamina’s library of reading material.  He opened the first story he found in one of the sub-menus and started reading.  It turned out to be an old-fashioned historical romance, set in a classical resort on the Mediterranean Sea.  The plot was populated with standard character archetypes—a noble poet, a lazy gamester who made his living gambling off his friends, and a sinister Egyptian foreigner.  Yarec read for a while and found he was getting bored.  The story seemed to be missing something—as if it were supposed to have illustrations, but there were not there.

Yarec yawned.  He had been stretched out on Mrissa’s bed, head propped up on one elbow as he read.  Now he tucked the device under the pillow and let his head dip down on top of it.  He yawned again, then sneezed.  Something around here—South American pollen, or mining fumes, or maybe even just the dust in Mrissa’s quarters—was irritating his sinuses.  He pushed the heel of his palm against the tip of his nose and wiggled it around, trying to dislodge the mucus collecting in his nostrils.  Then he closed his eyes, and before he even had a chance to read the time, he was asleep again.

Mrissa found him asleep and settled down beside him.  She did not sleep herself but merely watched him breathe, the far traveller returned to her side.  When Yarec finally woke up, the light was getting dim.  There were no windows in Mrissa’s little room, of course, but the overhead fixtures were programmed to bring the light levels down slowly as dusk approached.

Yarec rubbed his achy eyes, and Mrissa got him a drink of water.  She took one gulp from the cup herself, then handed it off to him and sat down again on the end of the bed.  Yarec drank what was left, but neither of them really felt hungry.  Mrissa patted her thighs, and Yarec, like an obedient housecat, rested his head in her lap.

The convoy had taken her down to a small armed compound.  A steel rail fence draped with razor wire surrounded a few low-slung prefabricated structures.  The largest building was in the shape of a plus, with two spartan corridors crossing in the center.  The uniformed women who opened the truck door as soon as it rolled to a halt in the yard hustled Mrissa out and into the building.  There, over the next hours and days, Mrissa was subjected to a much more careful interrogation.

The room they used for questioning was simple.  There was a new plastic table, but it had been pushed out of the way, up against the wall, which was thin and flimsy but had been laminated to look like stone.  Left behind in the center of the room, underneath a cluster of cameras and sensor antennas, were four simple chairs.  The edges of the plastic seats were roughly cut; an occupant wearing shorts could have cut themselves if they were careless and wiggled the wrong way.

Most of the time, there were two interrogators.  They seated themselves across from Mrissa, while she sipped a drink or a cup of instant soup they had offered her.  Occasionally, the leader from the truck came by to join the questioning, although he did not have much to say and most of the time just seemed to be taking notes.

The first time he joined into the interrogation, Mrissa learned his name:  Bernard Buspost.  The two guards who had brought Mrissa inside and begun asking the first general questions rose as he entered.  Mrissa remained seated, while one of the guards introduced him.

“Hello again,” she said with a nod.  He returned the gesture and took the remaining seat.

They found out soon enough who Mrissa actually was, and they pulled up a partial dossier of her recent activities.  Fortunately, there was no evidence of her involvement in the factory attack and nothing else in their records that connected her directly to Yarec.  Yarec’s cousin, Marshall Kubiak, had not yet logged their marriage in any publicly readable database.  It seemed unlikely that that was a simple oversight; Kubiak was a resourceful and intelligent man, and if he had thought it a good idea to have knowledge of the couple’s wedding in the public record, the marriage would have recorded without delay.

But by the time they had connected Mrissa to her proper identity though, her interrogators must have forgotten to wonder whether her story could have included any more substantial lies.  She had gone back to using an older name—for personal reasons—Mrissa told them; and Buspost excoriated her but did not press the matter much further.  Had they sent anyone back to the house for another look, it would have been too late anyway.  Yarec’s old body had already been bundled away.

Mrissa was, herself, obviously not free to go anywhere.  Months later, she came across some official paperwork, which stated that she had incurred an exorbitant debt for being rescued from the dangerous situation around Yarec’s ranch; and to pay off the debt, she was to be indentured to her rescuer.  So she—or rather her skills—were considered Buspost’s property.  For a while after he had captured her (and decided that she was a fairly useful property), he used Mrissa for small duties—things that required some decision-making intelligence, but which Buspost did not want to deal with himself.  She shuttled around from one small station to another, double-checking security arrangements or debriefing employees returning from routine travel.  Even those dull duties, however, were not really enough to fill her time.  There were many days when the only work was dreary labor cleaning and maintaining the vehicles, air fans, and kitchens.  And it gave her too much time to think and too much time to drink.

Eventually, Buspost decided Mrissa was not worth keeping for himself.  There was too little going on in the sector he controlled, and her increasingly surly and insubordinate disposition began to wear on Buspost’s own morale.  So he sold her on.  Mrissa never knew what Bospost had gotten in exchange.  She was just loaded onto a small convoy along with the rest of the outgoing cargo—although of all the packages, she definitely got the best seat.  They dropped her off the next day at a cozy little company town, with its tan rows of small ranch houses surrounded by a triple layer of barbed wire fencing.  She had a few more days to wait there, idling through  the hot afternoons on her rough dormitory bunk, until another passing truck picked her up again and delivered her to her actual destination.

“Do you want a shower?” Mrissa asked Yarec.

Yarec wavered, unsure what exactly she was suggesting, and Mrissa noticed the hesitation.  “You must need to get cleaned up,” she said.  “The heat down here is terrible, and I know your skin never sweats right.”  She cocked her head to the side and surveyed him.  “Frankly, you look awful.”

Yarec was about to protest, but then he remembered the trio of teenaged girls he had passed on his way out of the lowland town’s market.  They had all pointed at him and tittered.  He must have looked ridiculous.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Yarec said.  He got up with a groan and followed as Mrissa led the way.

“Knowing you, you’ll need some lotion too,” she said as they headed out the door.  “I swear, you could get a sunburn from a full moon.”

The panel swung closed behind them, and Mrissa led Yarec down the hall to the communal shower facilities.  Yarec could her a deep, steady rumbling, punctuated with occasionally louder clangs, coming from somewhere far beneath them.  The thin walls quivered a bit with each crash, and Yarec wondered if the drilling would lighten up during the night, when most people were trying to sleep.

On the way to the showers, they passed a woman, wearing an oversized white hardhat and a brilliant orange shirt.  Here indoors, her green-tinted safety glasses were pushed way down, resting just on the tip of her nose and offering little to no actual protection for her eyes.  As she glided past them in the corridor, she pursed her lips and made a slight disapproving click with her tongue.  The sound was just loud enough to be recognizably audible; but conversely, it was soft enough for the woman to maintain some plausible deniability if she were called on it.

As they passed, Mrissa looked over momentarily at the other woman’s face and gave her the barest nod of acknowledgement.  “Bitch,” Mrissa whispered once they were a few paces out of earshot.

“What is it?” Yarec asked, but Mrissa shook her head and did not elaborate.

They turned a corner, and the shower cubicle was on their left.  The opaque metal door was marked “sanitary shower, occupancy 1” in several languages, and a thin trail of black mildew seemed to be leaking out from under the middle of the door.  Mrissa pointed to the door.  “Here we are,” she said.

She knocked on the portal twice, very rapidly, and did not wait long for anyone who was inside to respond; after about a second and a half, she pushed the door open.  The bathroom was indeed unoccupied.  It was dark inside initially, but as they stepped inside. the round LED bulb screwed into the ceiling gradually faded on.

The room had a black plastic toilet and a matching sink stand.  On the other side of the room was a shower.  The tiled alcove was covered with a transparent yellow curtain.  Mrissa leaned back against the door, reaching behind her to throw the deadbolt.  Then she motioned her husband toward the shower; but again, Yarec felt hesitant.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.  “I’ve seen your bare ass before.”

Yarec shrugged and began to undress.  He pulled off the cream-colored shirt he had bought at the hostel in Mancora.  As he bent forward to unzip his trousers, Mrissa stepped up behind him and played her index finger down across his right shoulder.

“This looks a lot healthier than the last time I saw it,” she muttered playfully.  First Yarec nodded; then he allowed himself to wince as she prodded a spot that was still tender from a recent bruise.

“Sorry,” Ris said, withdrawing her hand.

“It’s okay,” Yarec said.  He stretched both arms out over his head, and one of his shoulder joints popped audibly.  Then he turned his neck slowly from side to side, trying to work out some of the ache in his muscles.  Mrissa leaned back again against the heavy steel door and watched as he finished removing his pants, then pushed the yellow curtain aside and stepped through into the shower stall.

He pressed the palm-sized plastic touch screen underneath the shower head, and it lit up.  However, before it actually activated the shower controls, the plate showed a twenty-second commercial for the shower’s manufacturer.  An androgynous voice emanated from a hidden speaker.  “Welcome to your Voda Industries shower,” it said, as the small panel displayed a corporate logo superimposed in front of streaming jets of crystal clean water.  “Your shower will begin shortly.”  The display cycled through a brief selection of units from the Voda catalog, from simple tubs to a full-body spray massage system which cost as much as a small automobile.  “Thank you for choosing a Voda Industries shower for your home or business,” the voice finished, and the touch screen finally showed him the controls for selecting water temperature and flow rate.

Yarec had been glaring, first up at the circular blue shower head, then back down at the slowly rolling advertisement.  When the commercial was over, he turned the water on as hard as it would go.  It was cold at first, and he shivered as it warmed up to the temperature he had selected.  Mrissa  reached around the curtain and handed him her bar of gray-green soap.  He rubbed it directly against his skin, feeling the little chips of pumice in the lather scouring away his dead skin cells.

Mrissa watched him.  His back was toward her, and she smiled as she saw Yarec’s gluteal muscles tense and then relax.  The curtain gave him an ugly jaundiced complexion, but she was glad to see him healthy and whole.  His body was intact, although the face was a bit different from the one he had had when they met in Sankirk.

Somewhere deep down, Mrissa could not shake the feeling that this was not the same man she had agreed to marry.  Her Yarec had died  Whatever had come after was a copy, a fake—not the same.

But she did not want to share her doubts with this Yarec, whoever he was.  He was finishing his shower, wiping the last bits of soap and grit out of his hair.  With squinting eyes, he fumbled for the shutoff button, and the flow of water dribbled to a stop.  He stepped out of the stall, dripping large, heavy drops on the bare tile floor.  Mrissa tossed him her towel.  It was old and rough, and the white terrycloth was heavily frayed at the corner where Mrissa had written her name.

Yarec wiped the water out of his eyes, then began towelling off his limbs.  His earlier self-consciousness seemed to have vanished.  “I’m kind of getting hungry,” he began.  “Do you think—”

“Why can’t they keep an extra copy of your memories when they copy you—in case you lose some of them later on?” Mrissa interrupted.

Yarec’s expression showed that his wife’s question had taken him by surprise.  He finished wiping his legs, considering.  “That’s not how it works,” Yarec said, as he moved on to his back.  “I don’t think they really understand what the neural data they’re copying means.  They do their best to duplicate the pathways of the old brain in the new one, but I don’t think they know what kinds of memories are where, except very roughly.”

“Oh,” Mrissa said.

“So I don’t think they could just save my memories in a data cluster somewhere,” Yarec continued.  “That’s too bad, really.”

“But the data from all your earlier transfers is still stored somewhere, right?” Mrissa asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Yarec said.

“So they could make another copy of you, from older data?”

“Yes,”—Yarec’s voice wavered—“but they’re not supposed to.”  He handed her back the towel, and picked up the new trousers he had bought that morning.  As he pulled them up, Mrissa could see that they were chafing a bit, since he was wearing them without underwear.  She suppressed the inclination to giggle.

“Come on,” she said.  “You wanted something to eat?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I did.”

“Come on then.  We’ll head over the dining room and see what we can scrounge up.”  Mrissa pointed out the way they would be heading.  “I can’t remember,” she said.  “Do you like seco de proteina?”

“I can’t remember either,” Yarec admitted.  “It sounds fine though.”  He finished pulling on his socks and shoes and nodded toward the door.  “Let’s go.”

Mrissa drew the bolt and led the way again, down a somewhat wider corridor.  In the cafeteria, the pair ate largely in silence.  The food was a little better than what Mrissa had dashed down in front of Yarec at Station Westerly—with crumbles of vat-grown synthetical animal protein instead of merely gruel.  However, it had very little taste, until Mrissa told Yarec to add a little bit of an earthy condiment labeled “liquid smog.”  After that, the meal was quite palatable, although Yarec’s stomach, unused to the strong flavor, was rather upset a few hours later.

Yarec wanted to hear more about how his wife had come to be working for Colonel Maldanko, but it was not something they could discuss in the cafeteria, with people constantly coming and going, even if it was not a normal mealtime.  So he ate up quickly, and they returned to her quarters.  A few people had been watching the pair as they ate—eyeing them with suspicion, Yarec thought.  As they walked back, he thought about reaching across and holding Mrissa’s hand—to keep things looking relaxed and natural.  However, she had opted instead to show off a stiff, none-of-your-business demeanor, and he was obligated to follow her lead.

Back in her room, they sat down again on her bed.  She leaned her head lightly against his shoulder, letting her red curls run carelessly down his neck.  For a while, Yarec just enjoyed smelling her skin.  Then he asked, “So… what happened after they took you away?”

When the hostile scouts had arrived at their house, Mrissa met them at the door.  She had seen them approaching through the night vision cameras Yarec had set up.  Some of them were in uniform, like the guards from the factory, but several were wearing full-body isolation suits, to protect them from whatever infection Yarec was harboring.  Mrissa stood in the doorway, watching their hesitant approach, then invited them curtly inside.

She led them around the house and fed them her story.  It was convincing enough to distract them, which was really the most important thing.  Then, since Yarec was not present in any of the obvious living areas, the searchers headed back outside, bringing Mrissa with them.

Out in the yard, they bound her hands.  The flexible metal straps bit into her wrists, leaving red weals on her freckled skin.  She shuffled along complaisantly, towards the convoy of vehicles the intruders had left hidden around a bend in the drive, idling behind a stand of wiry thorn trees.  Someone coughed an order at her from behind a hazardous materials mask, and the butt of a rifle prodded her shoulder.  She walked a little more quickly, even as the armed figures around her tightened their ring.

As she approached the three low-riding trucks, the door of the middle one swung open, and a wan blue light stole out into the night.  Mrissa shielded her eyes and instinctively slowed her pace; but another jab from the back end of a weapon reminded her to keep moving.

They advanced a few more steps.  “Hold on,” came a clear male voice, apparently from inside the vehicle, and then everyone did stop.  The voice had a rich, businesslike warmth—which, out here amidst all the dark and dust, made it all the more frightening.  “Who the hell is she?”

“Don’t know,” said one of the men standing behind her.  “She says she’s a bounty hunter.”

“Bounty hunter?”  The voice from the truck sounded dubious.

“Yes, sir—” Mrissa started, but the unseen man cut her off.

“Shut up,” he said, loudly and slowly.  “We’ll hear what you have to say in a minute.”  Then his voice slipped back into its genteel calm.  “Now, was there any sign of our guy?”

“The sniffer is all lit up,” someone said, “but we didn’t find anyone in the house.”

“Well, search outside.  If he’s that infected, he can’t have gotten far.”  The orders were clear, but no one moved.   The only sounds were the whistling breezes among the thorn branches and the electrical hum of the idling trucks.  “Are you afraid of dark?” the voice asked, its sarcastic edge having returned.  “If he’s here, he won’t be in any condition to ambush you.”  The man directly in front of Mrissa was fidgeting anxiously.  “And if he’s not in that bad shape, he’s probably long gone from here.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he left,” Mrissa said suddenly.

No one responded to what Mrissa had said, but the armed men dispersed into the darkness.  Just three were left behind, standing guard over her.  One of them was rubbing the wrists of his itchy uniform and scratching unhappily at the backs of his hands.

“Un-cuff her,” said the voice inside the personnel carrier.  “I’ll speak to her now.”  Someone complied; there was the snick of a tiny metal key, and Mrissa jerked her hands free as soon as she felt the pressure on her wrists lightening.

“Thank you,” she mumbled.  “I know you have to take precautions, but—” her voice trailed away, as if she was unsure what else to say.

A hand emerged from the open door.  Mrissa saw pale skin and carefully shaped nails.  For a moment, there was a striking gleam of faceted ruby brilliance, as the long fingers beckoned her inside.

She stepped up into the truck, not waiting to be pushed.  The interior was bathed in a pale light that flickered occasionally, indicating an intermittent problem with the circuit.  Seated on a rich mahogany-colored seat was the man.  He was bald and clean shaven, and in the unnatural light his smooth skin gave him the appearance of agelessness.  Mrissa could see, though, that he was old.  Vanity and money had kept his face mostly free of wrinkles, but she was not fooled.  The way he smiled—so deliberately; young men did not smile that way.  He squinted at her, and few of the crinkles he had fought so hard to keep away from his eyes reappeared for just a moment, but then smoothed themselves away again as his face relaxed.  Mrissa realized, appreciatively, that Yarec had never looked old like that, regardless of his actual age.  Then she set that moment of romantic indulgence behind her and sat down where the bald man indicated, on the seat across from his own.

“Who are you, really?” he asked.  His face was featureless, and his voice as genial as ever.

“Paula O’lette,” Mrissa said, doing her best to make it sound like she was trying not to sound sheepish.  O’lette was a real alias she had used, early in her career, when her eyes and hair and nose had been different.  They should be able to track the name back to an inexperienced female bounty hunter, but they would not—Mrissa hoped—be able to connect it to her more recent activities.

There was a flexible new computing lamina sitting on the seat beside him, but the man did not reach for it.  He was not interested in checking her story yet—although for all Mrissa knew, somebody else was punching up her records out of sight in the front seat.  The bald man said nothing, leaving Mrissa to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“I’m a bounty hunter,” she said.

“Yes, so you claimed,” the man said, not quite interrupting.  “But there’s no bounty on the owner of this house, is there?”

Mrissa doubted that this was actually true—unless Yarec had somehow bought off everyone who had ever wanted to kill him.  However, true or not, it made no difference.  An old price on her husband’s hide would not do to explain what she was doing there at the house exactly then.

“I heard that people with deep pockets were angry at the guy who lives here—ban Silfien,” Mrissa said.

“Where’d you hear that?”  The man let an edge of anger trickle back into his voice.

“It was just yesterday—or the day before, I guess,” Mrissa said, looking back out through the open door at the late-night blackness.  “I heard people were likely to be looking for him.  I was pretty close by, so I thought I’d try to get to him first.”

Where did you hear we were looking for him?” the man repeated.

Mrissa coughed twice and pulled her disarrayed hair back from her brow.  “People were talking about it on JobLinkz.  I go on there occasionally to hear the rumors.  A couple users were talking about ban Silfien—that he’d made some powerful enemies.”  She waved loosely at her surroundings.  The truck was a custom refit, with expensive seats and a light coat of armor.  And in the shadows behind the man’s bare, wax-like head, Mrissa could see an expensive-looking copper-plated pistol, holstered to the neck rest.  “Looks like they were right,” she added.

“JobLinkz, huh?”  The man’s smooth voice gave no indication whether he might believe her or not.  JobLinkz was a digital site where people found questionable employment.  It was almost entirely anonymous, and for people who cared to use the site correctly, their connections were supposed to be untraceable.  All postings were purged from the system within eighteen hours, so there was probably no way to confirm Mrissa’s story.

As Mrissa recounted this part of her story, Yarec was trying not to laugh.  She glared over at him, but that only made it harder to suppress his cackling.  “Oh?” she said testily.  “You finding this funny?”

“No, uh.”  Yarec was trying to hedge, before he was finally overcome with laughter.  “No, really,” he said, after swallowing hard, “I just can’t imagine somebody who hangs out on JobLinkz catching me.  Can you?  I mean, they’re not the most elite bunch on there, are they?”

“No, probably not,” Mrissa said.  She did not think much of JobLinkz either, but she had poked around there more than once, when she was having real trouble finding work.  “They believed it though,” she reminded him.  “They wouldn’t have been convinced that you were gone if I hadn’t been there to sell it.”

And the searchers really were convinced.  There was no sign of Yarec in the backcountry, and they missed the secret infirmary in his house.  Mrissa kept up a patter of misdirection—about how she had been through the house and only found the signs of a hasty exit; how she had been hoping to tail Yarec through the backcountry; and which direction she guessed he might have gone.

“I think there’s a path downhill across the rocks over there—to the, uh, west.”

To Mrissa herself, her efforts felt incredibly feeble.  Yet they worked well enough.  The searchers were sloppy enough to overlook the vault where Yarec’s wasting body was hidden away.  Outside, they tried to find a trail, but there was nothing—no stumbling footsteps, no bacterial spoor.  Eventually, after an hour or so, they gave up.  Mrissa was still sitting in the compartment with the crew’s leader, and she listened as he dealt with the increasingly disappointing status reports.  Eventually, he gave a laconic order to abandon the search.  The searchers, their uniforms now dusted with pale dull sand, returned to the trucks.  They loaded up their exquisitely sensitive equipment, then piled onto the bench seats.

Two more fellows squeezed in beside Mrissa.  One of the them eyed her free hands suspiciously, but there was no move to cuff her again.  The door finally slammed shut, and after a few more jolts and clangs, Mrissa felt the engine starting up.  The three trucks made a looping U-turn and started back down the long, bumpy driveway.

Chapter 10:  Up to the Present

Yarec’s eyes had been closed for a long time.  He was barely moving; there was just the slow rising and falling of his chest, and Mrissa thought that he might have fallen asleep.  He looked younger now than when she had known him before, and that made him seem strangely childlike—his boyish face peacefully serene.

But at this point in her his eyes opened, and he turned his head to look over at her.  “What happened after we got married?” he said, very softly.  “I don’t remember much of anything, and for once, I don’t think that’s the fault of a bad consciousness transfer.”

Mrissa looked away, then back at Yarec.  “People came looking for you, but I told them you were gone.”

“I think I remember,” Yarec said.  “I saw you talking to them.”

“Yeah, I convinced them that I had been hunting for you too,” Mrissa explained.  “They hadn’t gotten any usable pictures of me during the attack, so they didn’t recognize me.  They would have recognized you though, if they’d found you.”

“Thanks,” Yarec said softly.  She must have given a lot to protect him.

“Oh, yeah,” Mrissa said, “and I took your watch.  Sorry.”

“Took my watch?”

“I guess you didn’t notice,” she said with a little laugh.  “I had to go with them, and I think I just wanted a keepsake, something to help me remember.”  She paused, then said rather excitedly, “Actually, I’ve still got it.”  Mrissa got up off the bed and pushed open the sliding door of her wardrobe.  “Let me see,” she said, half whispering, as she started fumbling through her tidily folded stacks of clothes.  It did not take her long to find what she was looking for, resting pillowed upon a set of her chocolatey brown undergarments.

She pulled the watch out and showed it to Yarec.  It was beautiful.  The frame and wristband were elegantly crafted in glittering purple metal.  Yarec recognized the alloy instantly—a mixture of aluminum and gold—but he had no memory of ever having owned the watch.  Mrissa laid it gently in his hand, and he turned it over and over between his fingers, marveling at the rich color and the minute decoration.  The face was octagonal, surrounded by a fluted metal frame.  The band was constructed from small interlocking plates.  Yarec definitely had to admire the way it looked, but it did not seem like the type of item he would ever have owned.  It’s only functions were lighting up, telling time, and functioning as a magnetic compass.  With so many general-purpose information devices available, the only real reason to have such a simplistic piece of technology was as an eye-catching fashion accessory.

“Before I left, I called for help for you.”  Mrissa sat back down beside Yarec.  He snapped the watch around his left wrist and turned his full attention back to her.  “You’d showed me how to send out an emergency call from your home set,” she said.  “I turned it on to broadcast on two different channels the day before those guys got to our house.  A message must have reached somebody, and I guess they came and put you back together.  I didn’t find out for over a year though.  I figured you for dead, until your name popped up in connection with another job I was working on.  You’d helped break up a cell of infiltrators somewhere.”

The Sound and The Fury

July 24, 2015

I recently read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  The book had, frankly, been something I had planned to read for quite some time.  The usual delay between when I decide that I ought to read something and when I actually tackle it is running about fifteen years these days.  (I’m not sure why; it’s not because I’m too busy to read.)

Faulkner is obviously not a fantasy or science fiction author.  He wrote largely in the genre of “literary fiction.”  I have been heartened to see, in recent years, a lot more people admitting that this is just another genre, with its particular tropes and unrealistic conventions.  It is not most favorite genre certainly, but I do enjoy literary fiction sometimes.

Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the giants of twentieth-century English-language literature, so I figured I ought to try him out.  The Sound and the Fury is similarly considered to be perhaps his best work, so I checked it out of the library.

The book was interesting in many ways, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  The story has four sections, and the first two are not structured as conventional linear narratives.  The first day is narrated by Benjamin Compson, an autistic thirty-three-year-old man, still living at the Compson family home in 1928.  His thoughts skip all around his past, which makes the beginning of the story a bit slow going—although it did not take me very long to figure out what was happening.  I did feel, however, that Benji’s whole character did not make sense.  He is nonverbal, yet his memories are portrayed as crystal clear, in a way that just did not ring true to me at all.  He apparently remembers names perfectly, which makes no sense at all.  Ultimately, he seems more like a literary storytelling device than a human character.

Of course, I do not really know what it feels like to be autistic.  I do not understand the qualia of Benji’s existence.  So I am willing to give Faulkner some leeway with Benjamin.  However, I did not feel the same way about the second narration, that of Benji’s elder brother Quentin, who tells the story of the day he killed himself back in 1910.

My complaint is not that Quentin’s narrative is hard to understand.  Having made my way through Benji’s chapter, I had no trouble following what Quentin was saying.  I knew how to recognize the changes of setting and the other odd textual tropes the authors was using.  In fact, it almost felt like I was having too easy a time understanding Quentin’s difficult history with his beloved sister Caddy; apparently, this section of the story is considered extremely hard to follow.  The inserted memories, with their gradually failing sentence structure and punctuation, are apparently supposed to represent Quentin’s failing psyche; but this simply did not work for me.  The storytelling would probably be labeled as “stream of consciousness,” but I kept finding myself thinking, My consciousness definitely does not operate this way.  I do not believe this is how anyone’s actual thought processes go, even if they are on the verge of completely losing it.  I could accept the style as a purely impressionistic representation of a person losing their faculties, but once again, that robs the narrator of an authentic human voice and reduces him to a literary device.

By the time the third chapter arrived, finally narrated in a completely straightforward fashion by the third Compson brother, Jason—who is the most obvious villain of the story, although his mother really seems to be the most despicable character in the tale—I was pretty sick of Faulkner’s self-indulgent attempts to be confusing merely for the sake of being confusing.  As I said, I got the hang of Benji’s and Quentin’s idiosyncratic voices pretty swiftly.  However, there were some things that just seemed over the top.  In particular, many members of the Compsons’ family share names, even when that makes very little sense.  There are two Jason Compson’s, father and son—which is not actually unreasonable, although it seems odd that they did not name the eldest son Quentin after his father.  However, Benji’s name was changed in childhood; before it was Benjamin, he was named after his uncle Maury.  Who changes a kid’s name because he turns out to be disabled?  (One of Benji’s minders—who, over the years, all come from the family of the Compson’s black servants—says the Compsons did it because they were superstitious, which was perhaps supposed to seem ironic, but for me it just served to emphasize the bathos of the whole name changing story.)  Most egregiously, however, is the fact that there are two Quentins.  Caddy names her illegitimate daughter after the brother who killed himself over his sister’s promiscuity.  This naturally leads to a lot of confusion, because the text is so deliberately unclear about which Quentin might be involved in a particular incident that is being remembered.  And this seems like a cheat.  The nonlingual Benji, after all, never gets confused about who is who, so why should the linguistic choices of his narrating voice end up confusing the reader?  The confusion is dragged out until, in Jason’s chapter, the situation is finally made clear, and the plot follows a fairly clean arc, with quite a bit more obvious conflict that in the first two sections.

However, the last chapter again seemed to me to be a failure.  The three Compson sons had narrated the first three chapters.  (Caddy does not get to narrate, although her presence is hugely felt in all three of her brother’s stories.  Faulkner apparently claimed that she was the true protagonist of the novel, although that seems to be pushing her importance much too far.)  In the fourth chapter, the viewpoint character is (mostly) Dilsey, the Compson’s aging cook and maid—the matriarch of the black family that have been the family’s servants for at least three generations.  Dilsey is a great character—far more moral and grounded than any of the Compsons—and I felt cheated that the chapter was not told in her voice.  Instead, the narrative proceeds entirely in the third person.  While this omniscient narration allows the story to make sideways excursions—to finish off the story of Jason’s comeuppance, for example—I think it is a real loss.  I wonder whether Faulkner felt he could not do justice to Dilsey’s own voice, that he could not speak to the reader as an aging African-American woman.  Perhaps he was right.  Quentin—who, in his most lucid moments, seems, of all the characters, the most like a mouthpiece for Faulkner’s own beliefs—is annoyed that the Northerners expect him to be a virulent racist.  He is somewhat racist, not surprisingly, but he obviously ambivalent about his racism—as I imagine Faulkner was as well.  Still, I think the novel could have been quite a bit stronger if it had been finished in Dilsey’s own voice.

Of course, The Sound and the Fury did manage to keep me reading.  There were many wonderful literary flourishes.  I really liked Quentin Compson, and I definitely empathized with him.  (I still am vaguely considering reading Absolom, Absolom! in which Quentin also features.  Yet his self indulgent suicide seemed pathetically incomprehensible.)  Just at the end of narration, he is fiddling with the electric devices in his Harvard dorm room, then pouring gasoline on his bloodstained waistcoat to get it clean.  His lack of care for his own safety was quite evocative, which is natural enough for a man getting ready to drown himself in the Charles River.

The corrupt judicial system in the western Massachusetts town Quentin visits on his last day also struck me as very authentic.  You don’t (so far as I know) need to pay the police a bribe after your wrongful arrest gets dismissed these days, but the feel of the place Faulkner described still lined up with the attitudes I remember encountering in the hinterlands of Boston.

I do not particularly recommend this novel, although it is certainly considered a classic of American literature.  It captures a certain time and place in America, but unlike, say, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it does not sport a protagonist that is both likable and realistically authentic.  And it ends abruptly.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 270 other followers