Short Story Club: “The Slows”

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.

Maureen:

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.

Chance:

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.

Perpetual Folly:

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?)

Slouching Towards Bushwick:

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.”

Lois Tilton at IROSF:

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.

Some discussion on LJ here; the story scores null points in this New Yorker fiction scoring system; and two members of NESFA commend it to your consideration for Hugo nominations.

Also, wow:

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.)

29 Responses to “Short Story Club: “The Slows””

  1. Chance Says:

    My comments on the story are here

  2. Rich Horton Says:

    One minor comment — you refer to the narrator as “him”. I had assumed the narrator was a woman (probably because I make a sort of default assumption that a first-person narrator is the same gender as the author — obviously an assumption that I often have to change when other evidence crops up!) At any rate, reading the story again (though very quickly, so I may have missed something) I can’t determine for sure if the narrator is a man or a woman.

  3. Maureen Kincaid Speller Says:

    Rich, I started out uncertain whether the narrator was male or female, but as the story wore on I became more convinced that the narrator was male. There is no one clear moment when it is obvious, but an accumulation of detail, in part from the way the narrator talked about the woman’s appearance, and the depth of revulsion for traditional parenting, but the clinchers for me were the comment, when the film on ancient nutrition customs was mentioned, and the narrator talks about how hard it was to watch and how three women students complained (an odd distinction to make, I think, if the narrator was a woman too), and simply in the Slow woman’s response at the end.

    But given that out of six stories we have read so far, five have been first-person narrations, and of the four where it was entirely clear what the narrator’s sex was, only one narrator was the same sex as the author, I am proceeding with great caution.

  4. Matt Hilliard Says:

    An okay story, but really, really thin. The whole thing could be more than adequately described with a single sentence. I guess if I had never seen anyone explore the limits of cultural relativism, it might have been more interesting. But then, while that’s been a common SF theme for at least forty years now, it’ll probably be pretty new to the typical New Yorker reader.

    As sparse as the details about the world were, there still managed to be some that didn’t make sense to me. If society is so thoroughly conditioned to find Slow children repulsive, how on earth can there be “outbreaks” of Slowness? Maybe it’s the genetic programming to love children re-asserting itself, but see, I’ve already gone and started adding stuff to the story that the author didn’t think needed to be there.

  5. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Maureen, you make an interesting link to Brave New World, but I’m not sure the author had it in mind. Brave New World is about taking the idea of that people serve the society and not vice versa to its furthest extreme. The brainwashing, the drugs, and the cultural attitudes are all in service to that ideal. But that idea is completely missing from this story. Fast aging is just presented as “progress”. It was banned by the government, but people thought it was a good idea so they started using it anyway. I think we have to assume the differences in values came over time from the use of technology, not top-down direction from the state.

    Also, the Slows are not going to be exterminated. When removed from the Preserve, their children are going to be rapid-aged, something the Slow adults find highly objectionable. Why they find it so horrible wasn’t made clear. Because the narrator doesn’t regard babies as human, the narrator interprets the hostility toward “taking the children away” as being selfish, but I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that. There are hints that if you are rapid-aged you have a much shorter lifespan…the narrator seemed to try to defend this by saying you don’t waste a lot of time being a kid. But ultimately I couldn’t make it square with the amount of time the narrator had spent at the Preserve and the number of generations parents could expect to see.

  6. Del Cotter Says:

    I thought “woman” from start to end, and was surprised when I read that Chance and Maureen hadn’t.

  7. Chance Says:

    Rich – I assumed the narrator was male because he talks about having a towel wrapped around his waist at the start of the story which for me is a guy thing. (Sure, if women no longer have breasts, women might start wearing towels like that as well, but between specifically calling out how three women protested (as maureen mentions above) and the fear of the Slow woman at the end which seemed to indicate fear of sexual assault confirmed the sex for me.)

  8. Denni Says:

    (The comment feature is behaving funny. My first comment was swallowed in mid-edit. I hope that it doesn’t turn up later…)

    For me, the narrator came across as male. Like Chance I found the tone of the story odd but not so odd as the nature of the narrator when it became apparent that both he and the ‘slows’ are supposedly human (perhaps it would have worked better if he’d been a robot). I can’t for the life of me picture him, but apparently he looks enough like a normal male for the woman to fear harassment, even though secondary sexual characteristics seem to have been eliminated.

    The worldbuilding and depiction of a future society are paper-thin. As a science fiction story, this is a fail and as a social commentary it is simply not engaging or relevant enough.

  9. Alison Says:

    Why they find it so horrible wasn’t made clear.

    Any parent would. It’s like in District 9 where he threatens to take the child away.

    The narrator interprets the hostility toward “taking the children away” as being selfish, but I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that.

    Of course not.

  10. Martin Says:

    If you didn’t know where this story had been published you could probably guess. I liked the body horror stuff but it is still quite a lot like your typical New Yorker story. Which isn’t really a compliment.

  11. Matt Hilliard Says:

    Alison — Well, yes, but my impression was the children would simply be rapid-aged up to adulthood. After that, the now-adult child could spend as much time as they wanted with their parents. It’s not a permanent separation but essentially a forced medical procedure.

    Of course, that’s just the impression I had while reading the story. Looking back on it, there are a lot of physical differences between “normal” humans and Slows. Why rapid-aging to adulthood would have anything to do with secondary sex characteristics I don’t know. Then there’s the whole “Slow lifestyle” thing…for some reason aging normally means you can’t participate in modern life. That would mean the rapid-aged kids would be brainwashed into people like the narrator (and would make Maureen’s Brave New World link pretty compelling). But I don’t see why that follows from the facts presented.

    So basically I just don’t understand how the world works, and I don’t think the author does either.

  12. Rich Horton Says:

    These questions Matt raises are issues with the story: the background details (why the apparent elimination of secondary sexual characteristics? what does rapid aging really imply?) are important. And I think the question of what sex the narrator is ties in — the implication that it’s more likely that a man would wrap a towel around his waste on leaving the shower may not (as noted) follow if women don’t have noticeable breasts, for example (or if people don’t care); likewise the implication of sexual threat the Slow woman fears may have different connotations …

    I think the reasons suggested that the narrator is more likely male are probably sufficient, but I would argue that the failure to communicate that definitively is, in context, another “thinness” of the story.

    I found it entertaining, but ultimately, as others have said, too thin to fully satisfy.

  13. Ian Sales Says:

    The narrator claims to have produced a lineage of at least 40 generations. Given that there’s no mention of pregnancy being shortened and that Accelerated Offspring Growth doesn’t mean “instantaneous”… so assume 12 – 18 months minimum from birth before the offspring can produce offspring of their own… That would put the narrator somewhere between 41 and 61 (if they were the result of AOG themselves), and most likely even older. Yet they have apparently only been doing this job for 15 years.

    Something doesn’t add. The author has not thought it through very well.

  14. marco Says:

    Rich, I started out uncertain whether the narrator was male or female, but as the story wore on I became more convinced that the narrator was male. There is no one clear moment when it is obvious, but an accumulation of detail, in part from the way the narrator talked about the woman’s appearance, and the depth of revulsion for traditional parenting, but the clinchers for me were the comment, when the film on ancient nutrition customs was mentioned, and the narrator talks about how hard it was to watch and how three women students complained (an odd distinction to make, I think, if the narrator was a woman too), , and simply in the Slow woman’s response at the end

    Like Rich and Del, I thought woman from start to finish, though probably Hareven intentionally avoided committing to either gender.
    The slow woman wouldn’t have seen the narrator as another woman, but as a sexually ambiguous (breastless) androgynous freak, so her reaction at the end would have probably been justified in either case.
    But mostly what I think is that the details Maureen mentions- the depth of revulsion for traditional parenting, for instance – acquire even greater significance if the narrator is a woman.

    If society is so thoroughly conditioned to find Slow children repulsive, how on earth can there be “outbreaks” of Slowness?

    “Politicians like to refer to the Slows as being deviant.”

    While slowness’ closest analogues would be fringe movements like primitivism, its social construction resembles that of homosexuality in conservative societies – widespread social revulsion and moral panic at any sign of possible outbreak of the “gay plague”.

    I don’t think that the lack of background details damaged the story – but the long “as you know, Bob” moments in which the narrator explains what she feels at the sight of the slows and their human larvae felt very forced, as did the fact that an anthropologist could not in 9 years gain a better understanding of the slows or overcome her revulsion. The idea was interesting but it would have been better served by a subtler and less manipulative story imho.

  15. Abigail Says:

    As I mentioned to Niall when I suggested this story for the book club, I read it years ago in the original Hebrew as part of Hareven’s short story collection The Way to Heaven, but couldn’t remember a thing about it. Now that I’ve reread it, I can recall having the same reaction I’m having now, of thinking the story terribly old-fashioned. I’m tickled by Martin’s observation that this is a typical New Yorker story because, to my mind its focus on dehumanizing technology is so classically SFnal, in the sense that if I hadn’t known better I’d have assumed that it was several decades old.

    Matt, obviously the Slows’ objection to having their children removed is that they want to rear them themselves (just as, I suspect, most parents would object if you told them you were going to take their children away, raise them in perfect surroundings, and give them back on their eighteenth birthday). There’s also an indication that they find accelerated humans defective in some way, but I agree that this isn’t very well explored, as the story is more concerned with the narrator’s state of mind – perhaps taking it for granted that we’d share the Slow woman’s distaste for him.

    I thought this was the most interesting passage in the story:

    “Human beings as we know them are excited by every development in their offspring, because what purpose is there for the hard labor of parenthood if not to send forth an independent, productive adult who can satisfy his own needs? But the Slows appeared to enjoy the helplessness of their larvae—the lack of humanity, the deplorable fervor of the little creatures, their muteness, their mindless appetites, their selfishness, their ignorance, their inability to act. It seemed that the most disgusting of traits were what inspired the most love in savage parents.”

    Because it’s the only moment where we really get a coherent argument against traditional childrearing, and one that makes a twisted sort of sense. The notion that, in a world in which an alternative exists, it’s selfish to keep a person in a semi-developed, helpless state for years of their life is intriguing, and taps into the self-gratifying component of parenthood. As I said, “The Slows” is mostly a horrors-of-technology story, but this is the one moment that it actually questions the benefit of technology instead of assuming that it is an unmitigated evil.

  16. Niall Says:

    Without having read any of the above: I liked this one. The translation felt a little rough-edged — the constant repetition of “human larva”, for instance, rather than just “larva” — and in a sense it doesn’t really follow through, given the opening you’d expect it to deal a bit more directly with the implementation of the closure. But I liked the attempt to construct a different model of parent-child relations (reminded of David Marusek’s “We Were Out of Her Minds With Joy”, here; I’m ambivalent about whether the fact that you can’t confidently assert the narrator is male or female adds to or detracts from this aspect of the story); and the fact that the voice wasn’t pitched at a contemporary reader, but at someone even further down the line who’s only ever heard about Slows, not seen any (though the AOG infodump is still only barely excusable). And I thought the climax managed to be both potent and complex: is the narrator wholly wrong, or only partially wrong, about the reason for the Slow woman’s reaction to being touched?

    Now to update the main post and read through all the discussion…

  17. Niall Says:

    Lots to respond to! Multiple comments required, I think.

    With respect to the generations, Ian says, “something doesn’t add”. I think it works fine. We know that three months is long enough for a child to become “a productive adult”, if not longer than is necessary. Even assuming that pregnancy is still involved — an assumption I don’t actually think is valid; the lack of mention, combined with the other changes in sexual characteristics, suggest to me that some form of artificial womb is in use, rather suggests to me that pregnancy is gone — that gives you twelve months to the production of the next generation, so forty generations is by no means impossible before senescence. Moreover I don’t think that “a professional investment of more than fifteen years” implies that the narrator’s entire working life has been fifteen years, more that they were doing something else before this.

  18. Niall Says:

    On the narrator’s sex: if it weren’t for the mention of “three women students”, I’d be tempted to suggest that the division had gone away along with (it seems) most sexual dimorphism. But I can’t take that line as conclusive evidence of the narrator’s sex, either, precisely because of the slightly stilted quality elsewhere; the overspecific “three women students” seems entirely of a piece with the overspecific “human larva”; both could be redundant.

    I’m interested that everybody seems to have read the climax of the story as the Slow woman fearing sexual assault — that is, as the narrator’s assumptions about what the Slow woman is thinking being correct. I am not at all sure that’s a safe reading; I’m actually more inclined to think that the woman’s reaction is simple pride, as much as anything, and that the narrator’s assumption that she fears assault is further projection of a primitive, instinct-led mindset onto what is in fact a full, thinking human.

    Relatedly, I didn’t feel prodded to condemn the narrator for their difference in the way that some readers of the story apparently did; I read it as an honest attempt to imagine difference, a la, as I said, Marusek.

    (Nor do I think the ending confirms that the narrator is male, for two reasons: it’s not clear that the Slow woman can actually tell whether the narrator is male or female, and given the changes in sexual dimorphism she may well identify the narrator as male and be wrong; moreover I don’t think the narrator’s horror at the idea of the sort of sexual assault he thinks the woman fears [phew!] is necessarily gendered — I think an accelerated woman could be just as horrified by the simple physicality of the act.)

  19. marco Says:

    Forgot to say that since my language, like Hebrew, has grammatical genders, I took “three women students” as the standard attempt by a translator at conveying the added shade of meaning of a feminine plural.

  20. Abigail Says:

    Niall:

    I didn’t feel prodded to condemn the narrator for their difference in the way that some readers of the story apparently did

    I’m not sure I feel prodded to condemn the narrator for being different, but I do feel prodded to condemn him for his intolerance of those who are different from him, and for the actions that that intolerance has led him and his society to.

    Also, I no longer have my copy of Hareven’s collection so I don’t have the Hebrew original, but as Marco notes Hebrew is more strongly gendered than English, for example in the second person singular there are different forms of ‘you’ for male and female. So there may have been indications of the narrator’s gender in the Slow woman’s addresses. Looking at the story, however, it occurs to me that most of them are generic – the Slow woman addresses the narrator as a representative of his society, and uses the plural ‘you’ instead of the singular, in which case there would be no gendered indication. Which may indicate that Hareven intended the narrator to be genderless.

  21. Martin Says:

    I’m interested that everybody seems to have read the climax of the story as the Slow woman fearing sexual assault — that is, as the narrator’s assumptions about what the Slow woman is thinking being correct.

    I didn’t think this but I didn’t think this in a different way to you. I read the narrator as male through out and this seemed to me to be his own suppressed sexual attraction towards the “primative” woman. He is repulsed but also dwells on the possibility in detail. This links to what Marco was saying about how Slowness in some ways resembles
    homosexuality. The woman response is just the standard response to unthinking platitudes from those in positions of power.

  22. Matt Denault Says:

    Yes, re: the end of the story, I thought the story’s first two paragraphs established the narrator as someone who is always rationalizing and projecting their own faults. So I read the end of the story as the narrator projecting their own, barely understood desires (one rather fundamental missing element to the narrator’s rather vague character is precisely why they are doing this study) and the conditioned repulsion of those desires onto the Slow woman, who I imagined simply didn’t want any gestures of comfort from the enemy.

    Beyond that I find it very difficult to speak to the story with any confidence, because the matters of translation, especially with regards to gender, impact how I read the story so greatly. I did just have lunch with some more linguistically aware friends, and they said — Abigail and marco, correct me if this is wrong — that Hebrew is such a strongly gendered language that it should be obvious from the verb forms used whether even a first-person narrator was male or female. So I wonder whether the confusion we’re having regarding the narrator’s gender is really meant as part of the story, or if its just an artifact of the translation?

    What I want the story to be about is the maze of connections between maturation, puberty, and the social and biological dimensions of gender identity; their benefits and drawbacks; the necessity and desirability of it all. It is not just cultural relativism taken to an extreme, as Matt Hilliard writes, but also nature vs. nurture taken to an extreme. In this sense I appreciated the central metaphor-image of human infancy as a larval stage, in a sense unformed and unimprinted by these dimensions. What if, some part of the story seemed to be asking, an “adult” stage could be reached without going through some of those intermediary stages…what would that mean for how we understand something like gender, how would it feel? In this reading the gender questions are vital to the point of the story, and the AOG process is just an ansible, a hand-wave to allow these more vital questions to be posed.

    But then, yes, we have the original Hebrew, and even here in the translation we have lines like the “three woman students,” and a bit later the line “the larva would become a man” — which seems to indicate that these future humans are still gendered in a fairly straightforward way, which puts the story’s focus back on the AOG. That makes the story less satisfying, because there are so many ways in which such a process would impact society that are not touched on. We’re not even really sure what the AOG is: does it convey only physical maturity, or is there some emotional and mental component to it? And yes, re: Niall’s question, is pregnancy still the norm? I would have thought not, if the goal was to expand humanity as fast as possible; and the narrator does mention the oddness of “the general swelling of [Slow women's] bodies” which might have been an allusion to either a body adapted to childbirth and/or pregnancy itself. But the narrator also still speaks of “the hard labor of parenthood,” which I read as pregnancy, since otherwise I’m not sure what the hard labor would be.

    Grrr. Such an interesting story germ, but the story provides no handles by which to grasp it.

  23. marco Says:

    What I want the story to be about is the maze of connections between maturation, puberty, and the social and biological dimensions of gender identity; their benefits and drawbacks; the necessity and desirability of it all.

    What if, some part of the story seemed to be asking, an “adult” stage could be reached without going through some of those intermediary stages…what would that mean for how we understand something like gender, how would it feel?

    If we think about it, it’s not very clear whether it’s preferable to live all our life as fully formed individuals or pass through the intermediary stages of childhood and adolescence. But Hareven took sides very heavily and wasn’t interested in exploring the possibilities her premise offered.

    does it convey only physical maturity, or is there some emotional and mental component to it?

    I think so, otherwise it would be very unpractical indeed.

    “the hard labor of parenthood,” which I read as pregnancy, since otherwise I’m not sure what the hard labor would be.

    Yes, that passage puzzled me because I had assumed IVF and artificial wombs were the norm. If women still carry out normal pregnancies, the disgust at the sight of the “human larvae” seems overplayed.

    that Hebrew is such a strongly gendered language that it should be obvious from the verb forms used whether even a first-person narrator was male or female.

    I hadn’t thought about that because in my language verb conjugation is gender neutral.
    According to Wikipedia in Hebrew the first person past tense (unlike the present) has a single form independent from the gender of the subject – another strong clue that the ambiguity was intended.

  24. Abigail Says:

    According to Wikipedia in Hebrew the first person past tense (unlike the present) has a single form independent from the gender of the subject

    That’s true. Also, the present tense, though gendered, is usually indicated by vowel changes. I would say ANI ROTZAH, meaning “I want,” but a man would say ANI ROTZEH. Hebrew vowels are mostly indicated by punctuation symbols which are absent in most printed matter for adults. Once you learn to read, it’s easy to pick up cues from context which tell you how to read, but if that context is deliberately or inadvertently absent, you might end up uncertain of the narrator’s gender even though the tense they are using is gendered.

    In conclusion, I really wish I still had my copy of the collection.

  25. Karen Burnham Says:

    I read this as a fairly straightforward allegory of US relations with the American Indian populations–at least until I got to the bottom and learned that it was translated from Hebrew. Maybe I jumped to that conclusion based on having recently read “Zadayi Red,” but here were the main cues that jumped out at me:

    -Repeatedly referring to the Slows as “savage” and “primitive”
    -”Preserves” are very close to our Indian “Reservations”
    -The line: “There are treaties, and you signed them.” and: ‘You’ve violated almost every clause. Every few years you renege on something. When you forced us into the Preserves, you promised us autonomy, and since then you’ve gradually stolen everything from us. From hard experience we’ve learned not to trust you. Like sheep, we kept quiet and let you push us farther and farther into a corner.’
    Evokes the numerous and infamous treaties made with all Indian tribes over the centuries–pretty much all broken.
    -Also the idea of a people that are closer to the ‘original’ more primitive state of humanity and are subsequently marginalized and legislated against.
    -All the references to missionaries

    So I pretty much just thought of this as a heavy-handed story about the injustices done to the American Indian population in North America. I didn’t give much thought to the protagonist; I was one who assumed he was male all throughout. In retrospect I’m willing to be convinced by Niall’s lack-of-sexual-dimorphism argument–that would make a lot of sense for the story–but there’s evidence against that, and I’m fascinated by the translation issues.

    By the by, did anyone else find the sentence near the opening: “Information got through, but to evaluate its importance, to register the emerging trends, without hearing what people were actually saying in the corridors of power was impossible.” to be awkwardly constructed? I got stuck on that one for a couple beats, trying to rearrange the punctuation.

  26. Ziv W Says:

    Well, that’s quite a discussion that’s built up here… And it’s branched in different directions than I expected on my first read Saturday night.

    In general, I enjoyed “The Slows,” and I think it was an excellent choice for the group. As people have noted, the central premise is far from original, and I certainly agree with Abigail’s assessment of this as a classic “dehumanizing technology” story. More to the point, though, as Abigail wrote:

    I’m not sure I feel prodded to condemn the narrator for being different, but I do feel prodded to condemn him for his intolerance of those who are different from him, and for the actions that that intolerance has led him and his society to.

    I enjoyed this. I enjoyed the portrayal of the other side – the utter lack of comprehension, cocooned inside an entirely different set of values and definitions. This was the bit that got me:

    It’s clear that they don’t love their offspring the way we love ours. They make do with so few, and, at the rate they rear them, at best they get to know only their children’s children.

    Different worlds. I can imagine a society that does view family and relationships and love in such a different way – and what I got from this story was the sense of how the simple possession of a definition locks you out of understanding how anybody else could think differently.

    I agree wholeheartedly with all the comments about the premise being simple, contrived, and underdeveloped. Even so, this immersion in a different mindset worked for me, and simultaneously fueled the immediate tension and conflict in the story.

    Miscellaneous notes and responses:

    * I don’t have much to add on the narrator-gender discussion here, besides to say it doesn’t interest me much – at most, it may be a nice gimmick supporting the theme, but it hardly affected my reading.

    * Matt Denault, your “What I want the story to be about” sounds wonderful. That’d be a great story to read. Alas, this doesn’t seem to be that story at all – there’s really no mention of what the product of either society is like, and the conflict seems firmly centered around “let me keep my babies, you bastards / I do not understand why you would want that”.

    * Another thing I very much enjoyed in the story is something Maureen described very well: the flawed scholar. I felt this was well done – I could feel the narrator honestly trying to be reasonable and understanding, and having no idea how extreme his bias against the Slows is, while flaunting it left and right. This worked for me.

  27. Short Story Club « Torque Control Says:

    [...] “The Slows” by Gail Hareven [discussion] [...]

  28. Nic Says:

    Interesting discussion. I enjoyed this, although there were several things I would like to have seen developed further. I thought the narrative voice was well done: all that oily faux-objective defensiveness, all that conviction that he is properly scientific and rational when in fact he’s as culturally-constricted as anyone, all that neurosis breaking through at the end.

    Like several people above, I also read the narrator as a man – initially from the cue about the towel, and even though that turns out to be a red herring, the preoccupation with the attractiveness or otherwise of Slow women stood out to me as the marker of a straight man. (Even if this post-AOG humanity has a very different idea of gender, they pretty clearly still have binary biological sex.) And he was certainly tempted to assault her at the end, whatever his denials.

    Matt H, re. Slow parents not wanting their children taken away from them:

    Why they find it so horrible wasn’t made clear.

    I agree the suggestions by Alison and Abigail, above; I’m actually surprised you think this needs an explanation. In addition, I don’t think there’s any need to go speculating about reduced lifespans: the idea of your kid being returned to you as an emotionally-stunted near-automaton who thinks the primary purpose of life is to become a ‘productive adult’ as quickly as possible would surely disturb pretty much anyone. Clearly the process – and the cultural conditioning of living in a society in which AOG dominates – more or less guarantees that a Slow parent’s child will become a stranger to them if taken away.

    Matt D:

    “the hard labor of parenthood,” which I read as pregnancy, since otherwise I’m not sure what the hard labor would be

    I thought raising children was more or less proverbially hard work! He surely means the 18-or-so years that each Slow parent gives over to caring for their offspring, in sickness and in tantrum. :-)


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