Strange Horizons, September 8, 2014
Reviewed by Stevie Barry
Polenth Blake‘s “Never the Same” is an absolutely fascinating story. The unnamed narrator is a psychopath living in a small colony on a world in the initial stages of terraforming. They (no gender is given, and the narrator uses the pronoun ‘they’) have a sister who aspires to leadership of the colony, and a brother who works in wildlife rescue: both siblings are well-respected members of the community. The brother, however, is not what he seems.
What really sets the story apart is the narrator “themself.” This is not a character who was unjustly labeled a psychopath — they know what they are. While they know in an academic sense what they must do to appear trustworthy and non-threatening, on an emotional level, they don’t grasp it. Certain rules must be followed, but why do people hold some in higher regard than others? And why are they the only one who sees the brother as what he is? Lacking the emotional investment the ‘normal’ people have, they can see the colony’s hypocrisy for what it is.
The lack of gender clarity is very deliberate. The narrator is never once referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ even by other characters: the doctor who diagnosed them called them ‘it’ in an attempt to dehumanize them, prompting an insistence on ‘they’. In their narration, they mention that they think “the idea of self is a delusion to keep fear at bay”, and so refuse to be deluded. They are not just an outcast from society, but from traditional humanity, unable to comprehend the emotional motivation of men or women. It drives home the fact that they are a creature slightly apart from a people they do not (and cannot) understand, whose emotions they do not share. While they will refer to others by gender, there are some — always strangers — that they also think of as ‘this person’. With few exceptions, they seem to assign gender only to the people they know.
There is evidence that the narrator’s psychopathy has external origins, and that the source has possibly contaminated the brother as well. It’s implied that it’s only a matter of time before the whole colony is exposed, but the question of whether that will be a benefit or a detriment is left open-ended.