Unfortunately, I have run out of time today — I’m rushing out the door to catch a train to catch a flight — so you don’t get a round-up of quotes this week. Just another link to the story, “The Slows” by Gail Hareven, and instructions to have at it! I’ll check in again this evening, hopefully.
UPDATE: OK, here we go.
This is a very dense story. There’s a lot going on in it anyway, and a lot more if one chooses to read it against Brave New World. It’s not a story to love, not because it’s a badly constructed story but because it is difficult and complex and unpleasant. It’s a rich story which can be read in a number of different ways, and that is something I do like.
The story fails as a science fictional one – the worldbuilding is paper thin and the story never engages with the consequences of accelerated growth and the ensuing population explosion and cultural shifts except in a most cursory manner. Nor does it lead the reader to engage with the question about how minority populations are treated because the narrator’s perspective is so obnoxious and closed-minded that it’s easy to dismiss him without thought.
Instead, it works best as a horror story in the vein of Lovecraft where the narrator has been confronted with something unknowable and viscerally repulsive to him and as a result he cracks and commits a horrific act that he can’t reconcile with his supposedly superior nature.
Big Dumb Object (with bonus comment on the previous two stories):
The revulsion of the post-humans to small children is a good idea and shown nicely to begin with, tediously by the end. There’s some emotion in there, but it stays on one note – don’t take my child away – and never moves beyond that, consequently leaving me feeling a bit flat by the end, rather than moved.
Overall The Slows felt like a great SF idea needing a story, instead of just a conversation investigating that idea.
A bit of allegory is it? The problem with allegory often is that you can make it mean whatever you want it to. So, I pick a political interpretation. Obviously, the Slows are the Conservatives/Republicans. They think they are preserving the old ways, but they are really just standing in the way of progress. And the Accelerateds are Progressives/Democrats, who are on the verge of eliminating the last of the Slows. Total domination. (There is that nagging bit bout an outbreak of Slow behavior in the colonies, but maybe that’s just the suggestion that backwardness, like polio, cannot truly be eradicated.) Or something. (Of course the author isn’t American, she’s Israeli, and so I’m almost certainly wrong. So then, what’s it about?)
He ends the story with an explicit lie, the final denial. After she “spat out” “Don’t touch me!” he says, “No one’s touching you” in a deluded and defensive tone, emphasizing the levels of denial that his society foists on him: denial of physical experiences and truth-telling. Not only has he just touched her but the guards are on their way. But her vision of him as a sexual creature immediately eradicates his sympathy for her. If his superior sense of self as a person without needs, emotionality, and desires is threatened, he shuts down, loses composure, and hastens the immolation of something he values.
Hareven characterizes a person in power with wavering, not depraved, morality. The quality of his disdain, empathy, and repulsion is fleshed out, explicitly contradictory, hard to pin. “Why do you hate us so?” she asks. He gives a brief explanation to the reader, a “key to understanding the Slows’ culture” that does not consider the culture on its own terms but, of course, compares it to the dominant culture. Although her physical territory is threatened at the level of her body and geography, the researcher is isolated. He replies to her, “Hate? Hate is a strong word.”
This is the sort of thing that typically happens when a mainstream author gets hold of a SFnal idea. The idea absorbs the narrative at the expense of the story. [Admittedly, this sad result is hardly uncommon in the case of genre authors, as well.] The premise is not without interest, though unoriginal, but it is not well thought through in this case. It seems that the acceleration process does more than speed up growth, it eliminates certain obsolete physical features such as mammary glands. Yet this process is apparently only initiated after birth, which, as far as the text suggests, is accomplished in the same primitive fashion it is now. This is hardly reasonable—who would continue a grotesque and cumbersome nine-month pregnancy when you could instead begin acceleration at conception? The author also suggests that their primitive biology is causing the Slows to die out because they rarely produce more than four offspring. The historical rate of human population growth suggests that this notion is mistaken. But if the accelerated population is still stuck with a 9-month pregnancy, they’re not going to be accelerating all that much, even if women are stuck in a continual lifelong process of gestation. I don’t call this progress, even if we are rid of diapers.
As for the story, such as it is, we have an unsubtle moral message: readers are meant to be revolted by the narrator’s revulsion at the normal state of childhood, at the bonds of love between mother and dependent child. I would not quite call it a political screed advocating breast-feeding, but it serves the purpose.
In my book, to the extent that a story is “thought-provoking” — and “The Slows” is certainly that — it cannot be good adult fiction. Only last week, The New Yorker published a story, “Vast Hell,” of incomparably deeper political significance, but the significance is rich because it cannot be reduced to a political decision. In “Vast Hell,” townsmen discover some graves of “the disappeared,” victims of a very bad spell in Argentinian history. The story is about the townsmen, however, and not about the desaparecidos. Guillermo Martínez’s fiction does not teach the reader anything; rather, it kindles a host of synesthetic responses in the mind that recreate, to the extent that the reader is attentive and imaginative, the complexity of making a ghastly discovery that one had been dead set on not making.
“The Slows” is an excellent story for younger readers who are beginning to learn not to read literally: it will kindle outrage. I mean that in earnest and without snark of any kind. There is nothing concealed in my conviction that science fiction has no place in The New Yorker — or in any magazine that I read regularly.
(“Vast Hell”, if you’re interested, can be found here.)