Strange Horizons, August 20, 2012
Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones
What does it mean to be human?
That question is not one that is explicitly asked in “The Bear with the Quantum Heart” by Renee Carter Hall, but it is a question that hovers above the story, flashes in the background and pervades every sentence. And, goes another unasked question, if you do love someone/something because of their humanity, does it really matter in what shape they live?
Hall plays with the first question, about what makes us human, right from the very beginning of this twisted Pinocchio story by having it be narrated by Bear-Bear, a programmed friend/tutor in the shape of a bear cub when he is presented to little Kayla, who is just more than three years old.
At first, the story is reminiscent of “Super-Toys Last All Summer” by the British science-fiction author Brian Aldiss, in which an artificial-intelligence representation of a small boy continues his life long after the family for whom he was purchased have gone.
However, the relationship between Bear-Bear and Kayla does take a decidedly different twist near the middle of the story, during the years in which Kayla has grown up and begun to abandon Bear-Bear to the back of the closet. She cries herself to sleep while talking to Bear-Bear about her romantic relationship problems.
The problem, for Kayla, is Bear-Bear literally has no idea about what she’s talking. He understands sixth-grade math, and how you can blow a ball across a table, but doesn’t know how that can be an occupation, a job, if you will. When Kayla finds some hacked software designed to let Bear-Bear understand what she’s talking about and, maybe, move the relationship between human girl and artificial companion to a whole different sphere, complications, as might be assumed, ensue.
Like any good story, this one raises a number of different questions in a way that forces the reader to think about them and their implications for the characters. Over the course of several years of story-time, Bear-Bear changes, which leads up to the night he attacks one of Kayla’s boyfriends for aggressively trying to get Kayla to have sex with him.
The ending of the story seems more than a little facile, as the decision to which Kayla comes, a decision echoed by another character, seems to come from so far out into left field that it’s right field in another ball park.
If I say I was reminded of a recent comic called Our Love Is Real by Sam Humphries and Steven Sanders, I might be spilling a bit too much of the lentil soup, but the comparison has to be made.
For someone reading the story, who, of course, grew up in our culture, the decision to which Kayla comes is more than a little off-putting. She answers the questions to which I referred earlier to her own satisfaction, but as momentous a decision as it is to us, she seems to reach it with equanimity. Unless things are much different in her world, that strikes me as an example of Hall just wanting the story to end without exploring the ramifications of her character’s choices.
The story is well written, no question. The voice of Bear-Bear does come through nicely, although the explanation of to whom he’s speaking rings a little hollow, as it seems to mess with the timeline of the story a bit much. That part, though, is easily overlooked. It’s the other questions and the suggestions raised just by asking them, that might cause some readers more than a little discomfort.
So, yeah. I recommend you read this, but understand that you likely will have a strong reaction to Kayla’s choice. Which, now that I think on it, might be the best thing I could have said to recommend reading it.
Find ideas that discomfort you and cause you to think. I only wish Hall had decided to write a little of that thinking process, rather than focusing only on the set up that partially justifies Kayla’s decision.