Sunday, February 3, 2013

Immersion - Aliette de Bodard

Anticipating the 2013 awards season Aliette de Bodard has made the short story Immersion available in a number of e-book formats at her website. It was originally published in de June 2012 edition of Clarke's world, where it can still be read or listened to. I've been a fan of de Bodard's writing ever since I read The Lost Xuyan Bride a few years back so obviously I picked it up. It turns out the story is linked to Scattered Along the Rivers of Heaven but set on another space station. I think it is also related to the recently published novella On a Red Station, Drifting, which I hope to read soon. You don't need to have read that story to enjoy Immersion however. I think this one of those stories I read as just the right time in my life. Of course that poses a problem for this review. One might argue that all reviews are more about the reviewer than the work discussed but for this one it is going to be a bit more true than usual. Not the first time this has happened when reading one of de Bodard's stories.

Dreadfully spoilerish, I recommend you read the story first.

Immersion is a story about cultural domination. Or perhaps I should say cultural imperialism, some of what she describes in the story goes a bit beyond being dominant. Culture and cultural differences are particularly relevant to me at the moment because my Norwegian girlfriend moved in with me three weeks ago. Now you might think that Norway and the Netherlands are not that dissimilar and in a way you would be correct. I share much more with your average Norwegian than with, say, a Kenyan or Chinese, or an American for that matter. If you look deeper though, and I have in recent months, there is still an awful lot of difference. I've found plenty of things that clash with the norms I've been raised with, stuff I still only understand very superficially, and some things I may never fully understand. In other words, life got a whole lot more interesting. And of course I'm only seeing things from the comfort of my familiar surroundings.

In Immersion, de Bodard takes a closer look at what it is to see your culture overwhelmed by another. Technology makes it possible to change your appearance and have an artificial intelligence mesh with your brain. It prompts you on the right responses, actions, stances and phrases to create the appearance of a well educated member of the dominant culture of the galaxy. In the story she shows a number of different responses to this technology and what it represents. One of the main characters, a woman named Quy, abhors them and uses it as little as she can get away with. Her sister Tam is fascinated by the technology but doesn't seem to have the same strong feelings about its uses as her sister. Her uncle, the man who appears to be in charge of the family business, is happy to use all the means at his disposal to attracts customers.

The real message of the story is driven home though the second point of view though. It written in the second person, which is both unusual and probably the only way this story would have worked. In a sense, the reader has his or her own immerser, showing us what having everything prompted for you must feel like. This character lives in a daze, her personally almost completely buried by the Immerser. Once her motives for this complete immersion become clear the story turns very tragic. The husband of our second person character has noticed a change in her personality  and, while ignorant of the underlying problem, attempts to bring back the wife he married. It is not so much the cultural gap between the two as a complete ignorance of the fact the gap is there, that is the root of the problem. The well meant but feeble attempt to please his wife is painful to read about.

I guess this story draws the attention by its unusual use of a second person point of view but ultimately that is a means of conveying a message. De Bodard's observations on cultural differences, the casual way in which dominant cultures suppress smaller ones and the complete ignorance displayed by people whose culture happens to be the dominant one are more than worth exploring. Especially in a country that isn't particularly receptive to such sentiments at the moment. Pity this story doesn't stand much chance of ever appearing in Dutch translation. Immersion is a story that deserves all the attention it can get. I think an award nomination would be more than fitting for this piece.

Book Details
Title: Immersion
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Pages: 11
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2012

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