Terraform, December 15, 2014

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Special Double Review


C. D. Lewis & Joshua Berlow


Terraform, December 15, 2014

Disconnect” by Cassandra Khaw

Reviewed by C. D. Lewis

In its second month, Terraform turns its sights on telepresence with a story that weighs in at 1524 words – well within the 2,000-word limit Terraform describes on its submissions page, but seemingly doesn’t strictly enforce. Cassandra Khaw’s “Disconnect” depicts a date conducted by telepresence using a lifelike android. Although it isn’t obvious what drives the narrator to keep her natural body at home (is the geminoid the only tool she has for moving from bed after her injury?), the story’s central conflict revolves around her lover’s preference to have her with him, in person. Even if her body is injured, he prefers the real one. Despite the exotic locale and high-end food, the narrator isn’t willing to appear in person (and to fully taste the food, or realistically feel the kiss). The stakes rise when she learns she has a rival for her lover’s heart: a woman willing to show up.

Khaw’s sparse story conveys a rich world of tastes and textures the narrator is willing to experience only at a remove, through equipment not up to the task of conveying full sensation. It’s a sacrifice that suggests the value the narrator places on her decision. Even her self-conscious glance at the image of her unnatural-looking hand – she’s not using telepresence to fake physical attractiveness – shows that she’s giving up something to adhere to her commitment how to live.

This isn’t a story about rivals in love, and the conflict is never between the women: the rival is patient, and willing to leave the man alone if things work out with the narrator. The man, for his part, doesn’t speak in terms of ultimatums or threats; he seems to take pains to accommodate. The real conflict is within the narrator herself: will she bend to keep his heart? Will she string him along with hope, to disappoint him at a later date or bend from her decision to live by remote? Since neither the man nor the rival in love are depicted as taking unreasonable positions, the potential for conflict within the narrator escalates: does she want to come off as a nut? Won’t she bend? The narrator doesn’t ask these questions, but the reader can hardly escape them – the story’s genius lies in making everyone else reasonable, the reader is forced to wonder if something’s really wrong with the narrator, and to assume she’s willing to do reasonable things to fit in with the people she knows and cares about. After all, isn’t that how we’re taught to live? By compromising? After all, he seems willing to give her all the time she needs to get fixed.

But that’s the problem’s essence. The narrator may have an injured body, but she doesn’t feel broken. How can she accept a life with someone who regards her so? Khaw’s story isn’t a tale of love won or lost, it’s a story about truth to one’s self, and refusal to be pitied or regarded as imperfect. Whatever we think about the narrator’s choice, it’s clear who’s in charge of her life. And it’s clear she won’t settle. She does things her way. And that’s a victory all by itself.

C. D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.

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Terraform, December 15, 2014

Disconnect” by Cassandra Khaw

Reviewed by Joshua Berlow

In “Disconnect” we have the familiar science fiction trope of an android being operated from a distance, updated with the addition of Google Glass. The setting is a dinner date at an upscale restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. The protagonist (who we learn is named Alette) is a woman operating her “geminoid” from afar. Where she’s operating the geminoid from is never stated, but she’s had a medical issue that precipitated this whole-body prosthetic device. She’s now had enough physical therapy to go out on a dinner date with Daniel, her significant other. We learn that they’ve been together seven years.

Besides being able to do the usual things like eat, talk, walk, and even have sex, Alette’s geminoid can monitor the details of Daniel’s physical condition in real time while they’re having dinner. She can monitor his heart rate, breathing, and “epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol levels.” Over dinner Daniel doesn’t seem impressed when Allete says her geminoid “is equipped to handle that,” meaning sex. Daniel wants to be intimate with an actual human rather than a machine. He’s stayed with Alette throughout her recuperation, but their relationship is frayed.

In stories like this, we’re disposed to be sympathetic with the protagonist. Here we’re presented with a woman who has recovered from a debilitating medical condition. This invokes our sympathy. However, as the story progresses her ability to monitor her boyfriend crosses the line from cute to creepy when Daniel gets a call on his cell phone. Daniel steps away from the table to answer, with the excuse that the call is work-related. Alette has “only the tiniest throb of guilt” as she scans communication frequencies for the conversation, eventually finding it. Daniel is on the phone with a young woman. Alette realizes that Daniel has been cheating on her during his many excursions while she has been recuperating.

Now we have the outlines of the tension which makes this story compelling. We have a woman who has finally recuperated enough from surgery to go out on a date with her long-time significant other, but she finds out that he’s been cheating on her. All this makes her sympathetic. But she has the ability to invade Daniel’s privacy in too many ways, which isn’t sympathetic. Yet can we really blame Alette? Even though Alette has “only the tiniest throb of guilt,” one gets the impression that such monitoring has become the future norm. Given the ability to monitor our partner’s pulse, breathing rate, endocrine levels, phone calls (and who knows what else), who wouldn’t use it? At least, that’s the question posed by the story. The story isn’t as much about the use of a tele-operated android as it is about creepy Google Glass monitoring.

I’ll admit to getting into the spirit of the story myself: I googled Cassandra Khaw. She’s an avid gamer, and has written gaming reviews for USGamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, and other venues. Khaw’s demonstrated fluency with gaming and related tech issues is explained by her experience writing for so many gaming and other online sites. Here her fiction is confident, assured, and contemporary. I enjoyed the exploration of the issues raised, and I’m pleased that Khaw doesn’t present us with pat answers.

Joshua Berlow is the founder of the International Psychogeography Institute.