Edited by Ann VanderMeer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The central conceit that runs through all of the stories in Ann VanderMeer's anthology Avatars Inc is that humanity has created robots which people can use to experience the world. An avatar's user can essentially download see the world through the avatar's eyes and they control the robots from a distance, with some versions of the avatars also capable of sending virtual physical sensations back to the user. In addition to the stories published in the book or on the book's website, a contest is being held for readers to submit a story in the world set in the year 2076, with a submission deadline of May 8.
In some ways, SL Huang's "Add Oil" is the most important story in the book. Huang's tale of a man who sends an avatar to his grandmother in Hong Kong, a city his is banned from visiting, so he can spend time with her, introduces the book's concept of avatars to the reader. Although Huang never fully spells out any specifics of the avatars, those aren't important and the story, which is really more about the grandmother and the life she leads when her grandson isn't around, is Huang's focal point, which downplays the importance of the story to the anthology as a whole and allows Huang's story to succeed as a strong opening.
It always strikes me as odd that television station send reporters to stand outside in hurricanes even as they urge people to flee or take shelter. Sarah Pinsker resolves the issue by sending an avatar to cover a hurricane in “La Mer Donne.” Although the distance between the avatar provides safety for the operator, it also allows her to look around the town and provide an unexpected connection for the viewers at home.
In "Elsewhere," James S.A. Corey uses the ideas of the avatars to allow a visit between a dying man and his daughter, who is unable to see him in person, but can download into a local avatar. Given the current state of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the story takes on an added poignancy as Corey explores ways people who can not safely be in proximity to each other can still find intimacy and closeness.
While the earlier stories in the anthology discuss people's reactions to avatars or how they are used, Kelly Robson is the first to actually describe the interfacing process in her story “Two Watersheds.” The focus of the story is on Kayla, who is using the avatar to move through a distant landscape to gather samples and check on ecological reclamation efforts while streaming the experience. At the same time, it is clear that Kayla's own situation would preclude her from making the trip without the avatar help. Although the story in engaging, the situation does make the reader wonder about the timing and sense of the main character.
In "At the End of a Most Perfect Day," Nino Cipri uses avatars to performs distasteful tasks which could cause emotional or physical distress to individuals performing them, but the distance achieved by using the avatars allows people the space they need. His protagonist is an ex-prostitute who used avatars to interact with her clients. She has decided to leace that life an move into the field of forensic cleaning. Cipri's story details her training session with two other potential cleaners in a milieu specifically designed to focus on each of their fears and memories.
Adrian Tchaikovsky offers treasure hunters in "Oannes, From the Flood," in which a group of Iraqi archaeologists use avatars to retrieve ancient Sumerian artifacts from a collector's home in a flooded New Orleans. The setting is a dangerous one and the avatars provide abilities far beyond those of humans for the retrieval, as well as keeping the archaeologists safe. Tchaikovsky's reversal of the West looting the treasures of other cultures does help spotlight the morality of the collection of those artifacts in the first place.
While Robson used avatars to get to a difficult to reach wilderness, Johanna Sinisalo uses them to keep the wilderness pristine in "A Bird Does No Sing Because It Has an Answer." For anyone using an avatar to enter the Observation Area, there are strict rules of engagement so as not to disturb the natural habitat of the creatures who live there, in this case a family of flycatchers. Although Sinisalo's protagonist isn't entirely successful at keeping to those rules, she does make a surprising and important breakthrough regarding the birds' habits and abilities through the avatar interface.
Indrapanit Das writes of Maheera, a dissident poet who has been living in exile in the story “Incarnate.” This is a tale in which the use of avatars allow her to surreptitiously visit her family in her native Kolkata. The story reflects on how much of her life and relationships she has missed out on due to her stance and exile, even with modern methods of communication. Even with the ability to download into an avatar and interact directly with her brother and surviving mother, Maheera finds that a virtual visit isn't entirely the same as being there.
“Waiting for Amelia” offers a look at how avatars can revolutionize sports by Robert Reed. Endurance sports take on a new meaning when the athletes are using mechanical bodies that don't tire, even if the brains controlling the avatars' activities do. Even as Reed's athlete competes in the swimming and running race, immune to the impact of the environment and the hurricane, she is aware of their presence and can't help but consider the others who brave the winds lashing the island on which she is racing, even if their party is also conducted through the use of avatars while the people maintain a safe distance.
Paul McAuley explores the use of avatars for people who are unable to travel in “Robot and Girl with Flowers.” The hometown of Rory Greenslade is throwing a celebration for his centenary. Unable to attend in person, he does so in an avatar. Although the planners of the celebration have plans for Rory at the event, he uses the relative anonymity provided by the avatar to visit his old haunts in the company of a young local girl he meets, and discovers that although he can revisit his birthplace, his memory isn't enough to fully recreate the experience he had hoped for.
In “Banding,” Juliette Baggott tells the story of a woman whose life has fallen apart since she discovered her husband was having an affair. Leaving him to participate in environmental work off the destroyed Florida coast, she tries to put as much distance between herself and everyone else, even while working with a team of other environmentalists. Baggott tries to do a little too much in the story, with the result that it seems unfocused and a bit scattered, perhaps reflective of her protagonist's mindset.
Some situations are too dangerous for humans and in "Uma," Ken Liu explores what happens when an avatar controller uses her avatar to rescue people from a fire. Unfortunately, working, as she does, for a utilities company, rescuing people is not in her purvue and she finds herself taken to task and punishe dby management, which is more concerned about a nuisance lawsuit filed by the rescued family over minor injuries sustained in the rescue. Unfortunately, Liu's view of the reaction to someone using the avatars for an altruistic purpose may be all too realistic. At the same time, he is cognizant of the impact that public relations can have on decisions which are made, perhaps, in haste.
While James S.A. Corey touched on the use of avatars for the sick, Tom Sweterlisch focuses on their use by the infirm in "Neuro-Dancer," which explores how a mixed use of avatars and virtual backgrounds can help aged patients whose mental faculties are still mostly inteact, but whose bodies have failed them to maintain a semblance of mobility and livelihood, even if they are confined to their beds.
Pat Cadigan's version of avatars in "The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie" seems at odds with the version used by the other authors in the book. Her avatars seem to come with a fully loaded personality which are activated by their user rather than a vessel through which the user can experience a larger world. In this story, the Ralphie avatar seems intent on intruding into situations whether welcome or not, performing slight of hand tricks to satisfy its own need to perform or the desires of the minority.
Tade Thompson returns to the concept of using the avatars to travel to dangerous or inaccessible places in "Thirty-Three." Told partially in flashback and in a disjointed manner, Thompson gives us a glimpse into the life of a scientist whose life is in turmoil as the wife he is separated from teases a reconciliation even when he's on the verge of visiting his new girlfriend. The crux of the story, however, is the use by the military of an old paper of his and an attempted rescue using avatars to broach a literal hot spot on the earth and rescue anyone who is still there. Despite the seeming disjointed nature of the story, Thompson's ending ties things together well.
JY Yang offers the first of back-to-back stories of using avatars in oceanic exploration. In "The Search for [Flight X]," Yang's protagonist is using an avatar to search the depths of the ocean for the wreckage of an airplane lost fifty years earlier. Although the character doesn't have a direct tie to the lost plane, there is a personal need to conduct the search. The avatar being used also sends back anonymized information, which is cleverly represented in the text by replacing any proper names with general descriptors in brackets, as is done in the title.
Merc Fenn Wolf-moor follows up with a more traditional story of oceanic exploration with "Behold the Deep Never Seen" which takes the avatar concept a step further by having the exploratory avatar managed by an artificial intelligence, one of the few stories to introduce an additional technological advancement. The AI is exploring the ocean's depths for a team of scientists, continuing the idea of using avatars to go to hostile environments. In the depths, the AI/avatar discovers unexpected creatures which make it reconsider the mission humans had laid forth for it.
Jeffrey Ford introduces the reader to Shen Peral, an FBI investigator who has rented an avatar to vacation in the American west. When she has some free time, she jacks in for her vacation, although her time becomes more limited when she is assigned to "The Ulgrieb Case," in which a woman was killed by a faulty robot. Peral comes to conclusions about the case relatively quickly, but she is still called to task by her boss. The story feels unfinished and rushed, with Ford providing the beginning and the end, but seemingly failing to offer all of the pieces that are required to get form one to the other.
It is a little surprising that it took until K Chess's “Overburden” for someone to write a story which not only looked at the use of avatars in dangerous and distant locations, in this case a uranium mine, but also explored, however briefly, the reaction of non-avatar users to the technology. Aviva Galchen is not the protagonist in the story, but she her attitude toward Maya Khan's use of the avatar is one of the more interesting parts, and the story could have had more impact had it been told from her point of view. The fact that Glachen dislikes avatars and her reasons set “Overburden” apart from the stories that come earlier in the book.
Robson introduced the idea that people who weren't running the avatar could experience its activities in “Two Watersheds,” and Dr. Harry Kloor picks it up again in “Harmony,” but he also adds the innovation that two people can be jacked into the avatar at the same time. Elle Hawk created the artistic form of light-sound aerial symphonies, but is preparing for her first public performance since an accident caused a spinal injury. The story explores the psychological impact of Elle's accident, even when she's in a position where she knows she is physically safe.
Charles Yu's “Bounty” feels like a thematic sequel to Pritzer's “La Mer Donne.” In the former story, a reporter covering a hurricane works to rescue a cat. In Yu's story, a bounty hunter works to find and rescue humans from an earth which is being flooded in order to expand the gene pool. Working from home, where her husband and infant are constant interrupters and reminders why she is doing what she is doing, Jenn tries to rescue a woman from the flooded ruins of Denver.
Aliette de Bodard posits a post-catastrophe Vietnam for her avatar to brave in "In the Lands of the Spill." In this story, an avatar is being guided to find the user's grandmother who has disappeared into a Vietnam that has undergone a cultural collapse due to an event known as the Spill, which helped to poison the land. As the avatar moves deeper into Vietnam, de Bodard has it deal with damage in a way no other author has sought to explore, considering what it means for the user to experience dismemberment while tied into the avatar's systems.
While Kloor had two people jacked into a single avatat, Julie Novakova has one operator controlling four avatars in "A Mountain to Climb," which also shows the use of avatars for terrorism. Told from the operator's point for view, as all the stories are, it is a little difficult to feel sympathy for the protagonist who doesn't provide any rationale for their reign of terror and so the reader is left seeing them only as a villain rather than a freedom fighter.
In the final story of the collection, Madeline Ashby uses avatars to explore the Martian landscape, or, more specifically, find the body of the first woman on Mars, who committed suicide in "Porcelain Claws in Cinnamon Earth." Although the avatar plays a role in the story, much more of it focuses on Cody's estranged relationship with his father, his own ex, and his current girlfriend, who is on the mission to Mars with him.
While the stories are well-written, there tends to be a redundancy in the manner in which the authors make use of the avatars, mostly to explore dangerous or hard to reach places or to ease the suffering of the sick. The avatars all seem to have the same capabilities of humans with only minor technological improvements to make their use in various environments easier. Being published during a time of social distancing caused by the COVID-19 virus, certainly a coincidence, gives many of the stories an added poignancy as the avatars provide a way to virtually interact with other people while maintaining distance from their physical location.
|SL Huang||Add Oil|
|Sarah Pinsker||La Mer Donne|
|James S.A. Corey||Elsewhere|
|Kelly Robson||Two Watersheds|
|Nino Cipri||At the End of a Most Perfect Day|
|Adrian Tchaikovsky||Oannes, From the Flood|
|Johanna Sinisalo||A Bird Does No Sing Because It Has an Answer|
|Robert Reed||Waiting for Amelia|
|Paul McAuley||Robot and Girl with Flowers|
|Pat Cadigan||The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie|
|JY Yang||The Search for [Flight X]|
|Merc Fenn Wolf-moor||Behold the Deep Never Seen|
|Jeffrey Ford||The Ulgrieb Case|
|Aliette de Bodard||In the Lands of the Spill|
|Julie Novakova||A Mountain to Climb|
|Madeline Ashby||Porcelain Claws in Cinnamon Earth|