Friday, 22 March 2013

Short Story Review | Immersion by Aliette de Bodard

However much we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, from time to time, I warrant we’ve all wished we were different—which is to say, we’ve every one of us wanted to be more like someone else, and less like ourselves, if only for an instant.

Fitting in is evidently a tempting premise. To be, for a time, a little prettier, or a little wittier; I wonder what we wouldn’t give for an opportunity to do so. Failing that, we can always fake it till we make it.

But it’s not so easy to change who we are—even briefly—nor indeed should we, because what does being one of a number win us, ultimately? Consider, in contrast, all that we would lose, were we to flick some transformative switch.

In her BSFA award-nominated short story, Aliette de Bodard, author of the Obsidian and Blood books, gives voice to that very idea via the immerser, a device which essentially corrects “abnormal” thought processes—but at what cost? And who’s to say what normal is, anyway?

Winningly, 'Immersion' begins with this telling address in the second person:

In the morning, you're no longer quite sure who you are.
You stand in front of the mirror—it shifts and trembles, reflecting only what you want to see—eyes that feel too wide, skin that feels too pale, an odd, distant smell wafting from the compartment's ambient system that is neither incense nor garlic, but something else, something elusive that you once knew.
You're dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-travelled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.
The author’s unusual choice of perspective renders ‘Immersion’ immediately engaging, and it proves doubly powerful throughout, not least because it works to obscure the identity of our central character; a clever technical reflection of the identity crisis Aliette de Bodard suggests in the story’s opening moments.

The setting of 'Immersion' is equally considered, I think. The entirety of the tale takes place on Longevity Station, an independent yet isolated spaceport where a commingling of distinct cultures clash. I admit to picturing Deep Space 9 in my mind’s eye; an appropriate point of reference given this story’s focus on trade and tourism. In any event, Longevity allows the author to realise the potential of her premise, particularly when our unknowable narrator crosses paths with Quy.

Quy, whose third person POV punctuates the aforementioned sections, is a wistful young woman who works under Second Uncle in her grandmother’s Rong restaurant. When she’s called in on her day of rest to facilitate an important meeting, Quy comes face to face—or perhaps only avatar to avatar—with a client in real danger of disappearing, so long has she had her immerser on.

That latter’s rationale for relying so heavily on said, whispered so innocently in her ear, illuminates one of this story’s darkest aspects:

People like you [...] have to work the hardest to adjust, because so much about you draws attention to itself—the stretched eyes that crinkle in the shape of moths, the darker skin, the smaller, squatter shape more reminiscent of jackfruits than swaying fronds. But no matter: you can be made perfect; you can put on the immerser and become someone else, someone pale-skinned and tall and beautiful.
In this way, Aliette de Bodard draws attention to the difficult, not to mention discomfiting question 'Immersion' asks: if, after all, we can so utterly alter ourselves at the touch of a button, where do we draw the line, and why? Surely it cannot be right to reorient our race, but what about class and gender and other such issues? When we can be anyone we want, who are we really?

Striking yet subtle, thoughtful but not ponderous, and ultimately uplifting, 'Immersion' is without question one of the strongest contenders on the BSFA’s shortlist. I wouldn’t be in the slightest surprised to see Aliette de Bodard take home the Best Short Story trophy for this entrancing effort.


“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard was published in Clarkesword Magazine #69 in June 2012. You can read it for free here.

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