Note: This reaction spoils the story, so if you haven’t read Oversite here (or from Asimov’s 14 years ago), go read it first before continuing on.
This article is me trying to unpack my reactions when I finished this story.
I think I now know understand why lit-fic bothers me so: a feature of the genre is to leave plot threads open. Maureen F. McHugh’s 2004 story is science fiction in that it addressed a consequence of a technology that was (in 2004) plausible but not yet in common practice and (according to a quick scan of Wikipedia) still in experimental phases. Implanted chips with GPS and tracking through a web site are inevitable. So what remains in McHugh’s story is not a question of whether the technology is realistic or plausible, but if it is used in a realistic or plausible way, and this in indeed the case. No quibbles from me on the science part of this science fiction.
This is the story of Clara, mother of Renata (a runaway), daughter of Mom (Alzheimer’s patient with a history of wandering dangerously), worrier about both. The story begins in a flashback and then recounts two dreams of dogs in trouble. It is easy to put on a lit-fic symbolism recognizer and say “the dogs are metaphors for her daughter and mother” and Clara pretty much admits this is the case.
Renata is gone for two days. Tuesday comes and Clara goes to visit her mother (which she does three times a week) and Mom implores Clara to take her home.
Then Clara recounts an argument with Renata that to me doesn’t sound a lot different than normal teenage rebellion, only Renata now has the threat of turning off the implant in her arm.
Then there is a description of Keith, Renata’s boyfriend and it is not a friendly or hostile relationship between Clara and Keith in my estimation.
Clara and her husband Matt look at the paintings Renata does: series of girls being hit by cars. This is potentially disturbing but they don’t interpret this way. I know somewhere there is a definition of drama that boils down to “people not reacting the way they should” and that seems to be Clara and Matt in a nutshell. They don’t see the paintings as anything other than something Renata will not abandon, so she’ll have to come home.
Wednesday during an off-schedule delivery of comfort items for Mom, Clara gets the call that Renata is coming home.
She gets home and sees Renata has tape around her upper arm, as if she’s removed the chip all by herself (or possibly just blocked it) and they see Keith has been beat up a bit. Again, Clara and Matt are either the coolest parents in the world or they are afraid to engage with the children. Matt tries to help Keith and Clara tries to get something out of Renata. The story is not all that dramatic, just a bad decision and an encounter with an asshole.
This gets settled quickly.
The end of the story is Clara waking up from an undescribed dream, checking on the web and seeing the two triangles indicating Renata and Mom are where they are supposed to be.
And … ?
And … ?
This is what frustrates me about lit-fic. This story has me interested despite the lack of drama or the strange non-reactions of the narrator and it feels like it just stops.
By everything I know about writing (which, as a minimally published person I cannot claim mastery) the ending of this story should answer the problem in the opening of the story. Clara is worried about her Mom and her daughter and in the end she isn’t? Okay. But there didn’t seem to be a dramatic arc to push this forward. Clara and Matt’s reactions to everything is muted, like they are not only afraid of reacting in the wrong way but they’re even afraid of admitting it.
The dreams about the dogs? If the last dream was actually pleasant I would have closed that loop. Instead I read it as a violation of Checkov’s Gun. (In full fairness, I don’t think Checkov’s Gun is a rule that must be kept at all times, but when the “rule” is broken in a way I find egregious, it stands out.)
The first dream disturbs Clara because she does not pick up a stray dog. She links the dog to Renata. She’s not doing her motherly duty: She’s not looking after her daughter. This isn’t a story about a helicopter parent trying to learn that their kid isn’t walking-on-water special and can take a few lumps, this is a story about a woman who can’t come to grip with her laissez-faire parenting relationship. It’s not that Clara is the Cool Mom, but the disinterested Mom and I don’t think she wants to admit it so she dreams about it instead.
In the end, though, she doesn’t check on Renata sleeping in a room in the same house. She outsources her certainty to the web site. Did she really change? Did she really learn a lesson? No, because she uses the chip in Renata’s arm to confirm her safety, even after she promised Renata to remove the chip. (Renata did not agree or thank Clara for this promise, so I don’t know how she could have felt).
So the second dream is about Sonia the ancient Golden Retriever and she has to put the dog down in the dream before “something worse happened” and in dream-speak that’s fine. My lit-fic symbolism detector tells me this is her relationship with Mom. There’s deep drama in this fear: Should she make an effort to kill her mother or push for death with dignity instead of letting Mom fizzle out to Alzheimer’s? It a potentially painful problem to work out.
And nothing comes of it. She drops off the regular products to make Mom comfortable and then outsources her concern to the website.
Okay, maybe the theme of this is web-based relationships are in no way compatible with real-life relationships but I’ve had to dig really hard to find it. I will concede that I’m out of practice and normally I don’t read to fall in love or form a relationship, but to solve a mystery or watch a pending disaster unfold.
Finally, the painting are chock-full of subconscious drama to explore. A theme repeated over and over in an artists work that is not linked to the artist’s history (there is no mention of a childhood friend killed by a car) or to the artist’s fear (there is no hint that Renata is suicidal) is an unplumbed depth and frustratingly wasted. There’s something to explore, and it isn’t. It is tied, possibly, to Clara’s fear about her mother when she asks Renata not to paint her Mom as a victim of the car.
Why cars? Why girls killed by cars?
Thus my frustrations with the story.