Maya C. James and Rich Horton Review Entanglements, Edited by Sheila Williams

Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Fami­lies, and Friends, Sheila Williams, ed. (MIT Press 978-0-26253-925-8, 240pp, $19.95, tp) September 2020.

Artificial intelligence, genome tampering (eugenics), sex bots, and other forms of technology descend upon the middle class in Entanglements, an anthology from Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s. Originally launched in 2011 by MIT Technology Review, Twelve Tomorrows is an annual anthology se­ries that explores the role of technology in near and far futures. This year each author has written an original story revolving around the central theme of relationships, or “entanglements” as made infamous by Jada Pinkett Smith and Twitter memes. In these carefully constructed worlds, entanglements are built, destroyed, and sustained with AI and tech that serve as neutral forces, even if utilized by villainous tropes (greedy scientists, fundamentalist groups, ambitious women, etc.). As Sheila Williams’s introduction promises, technology might fill in the weaknesses of a wilting relationship, like in James Patrick Kelly’s “Your Boyfriend Experi­ence” and Annalee Newitz’s “The Monogamy Hormone”, or help a grieving mother reconnect with her children in Cadwell Turnbull’s “Me­diation”. Or it might assist a museum worker with Parkinson’s in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “A Little Wisdom”.

While some stories go beyond the standard Western protagonist (relatively well-off, stable housing, income, and food, etc.) they are often found in the overlooked center of this collection, which is framed by Nancy Kress’s opening story and Xia Jia’s closing one. This anthology glows when it tackles difficult ethical questions sur­rounding relationships and human interaction, but tends to skim difficult social issues that vulnerable people may face in these near futures (with some notable exceptions, like “The Monk of Lingyin Temple” and “A Little Wisdom”).

This is most evident in Nancy Kress’s “Invis­ible People”, which poses one central question: if you were told your child might save several lives, but at the expense of their own, would you change their genes to prevent that fate? After a couple is informed that their adopted daughter’s genes have been tampered with, they desperately search for a solution to her seemingly irreversible risky behavior. Readers familiar with Kress’s work will appreciate her thoughtful return to the subject of genetic engineering, even if itskims the ethical and political issues of vulnerable immigrant women and gene tampering. The word “solution” is incredibly salient in the context of this story, and hints that conversations about eugenics were imminent. However, “Invisible People” rarely answers troubling questions that lurk in the back­ground – what counts as eugenics when it comes to gene tampering? Why are immigrant women still at risk for exploitation in this seemingly advanced American society? Should you change a child’s genes for their own health and well-being, or the potential survival of the planet? And to the author, I want to ask: with room to imagine new futures, why not imagine a world where a trans character is not misgendered or typecast as a manipulative, cross-dressing private investigator, or where immigrant women are not at risk for abuse and exploitation? Regardless of its intent, “Invisible People” raises important questions for other stories to answer.

“Echo the Echo” by Rich Larson provides a fresh take on complex, interwoven relationships – a young professional seeks a one-night stand while also balancing intense sorrow about their grand­mother’s failing memory. The solution seems easy – a simple device preserves their grandmother’s memory forever, but at what cost to her? Beyond the immediate protagonist – are we entitled to the memories and private moments of our near-dead and soon-to-be ancestors? The stories and the ques­tions they pose become increasingly murkier, par­ticularly in “Sparklybits” by Nick Wolven. In this tale, a co-op of mothers deliberate upon a painful choice for their son, and bully stay-at-home mother, Jo, into accepting their decision. The ending of this story was among my favorites because of its clear stance on troubling parenting choices. “The Nation of the Sick” by Sam J. Miller is a slight departure from typical hard SF, but a welcome one as it hu­manizes the sickness of addiction and ushers in the next set of stories.

Midway through Entanglements, it becomes clear that technology, especially AI, is an “other” in these stories, and that it will eventually invade the relatively sanitized life of a household. We don’t ever catch a full glimpse of the dystopias that technology has brought upon vulnerable people, except in Xia Jia’s stunning “The Monk of Lin­gyin Temple” (translated by Ken Liu). Based on the real Lingyin Temple in China, Xia Jia builds an incredible world out of the Lingyin Temple’s karma-centered technology. We see this world from the point of view of several protagonists, most notably a mysterious, white-haired man who has arrived in the middle of the temple’s week-long ritual. Xia Jia’s literary flair and criticism of consumption serve as a nice bookend to the stories that precede it, and offer an alternate view of worth – one where karma and kindness are the driving force in innovation, not money

Suzanne Palmer’s “Don’t Mind Me” was per­haps among my favorites for its honest characters and accurate portrayal of youth-led rebellion. In this near-future, some children are fitted with “minders” that erase any word or person deemed “inappropriate” by their parents. Utilizing a child’s point of view allows Palmer to ask unrestricted questions and assert clear “rights” and “wrongs.” Children are not just subjects of technology, but savvy technicians who are equipped with the agency to do something about these harmful minders. She also tags ideas of fundamentalism into the conversation without being heavy-handed or reductionist about these particular beliefs. The story, and the anthology’s greatest strength, is a hu­manizing approach to tech that can truly harm and help people. Ultimately, we are still vulnerable to the best and worst humanity has to offer, regardless of the technology we create to mute these feelings.

–Maya James

The latest in the MIT Press Twelve To­morrows series of original anthologies of near-future SF is edited by Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams, and it bears a different title, Entanglements, referring to the subtheme of the book: stories about lovers, families, and friends. These books are always something to look forward to, and this one especially so, given my trust in Williams’s taste. And it repaid my trust! (Full disclosure: I am working on an anthology for MIT Press.)

I particularly liked Nick Wolven‘s “Sparklybits“, which, like much of the best SF, mixes speculation in multiple areas…. Jo is part of a group marriage of sorts, acting as a co-mother to a young boy, Charlie, which reminded me of (mostly by some of the group dynamics of the “Moms”) Joanna Russ’s great story “Nobody’s Home”. The Moms are concerned about their child, who has become attached to the title “character,” who seems to be a sort of virus in their smart house’s system. They’ve gotten to the point of developing their own language. And this is bad for Charlie’s carefully monitored develop­ment – so it falls on Jo (the lowest-status of the Moms) to arrange that Sparklybits be cleansed from the system. The speculation about AI, and about the social system behind Charlie’s situa­tion, is fascinating, and the story is moving and ends up not quite where we expect.

The near-future tech at the center of “Echo the Echo” by Rich Larson is called the “web,” which creates an “echo” of a person’s brain for others to experience, and it turns on the narrator’s relationships with two people – his grandmother, who is refusing to wear the web; and a one-night stand he has with a woman who has a secret of her own. It’s thoughtful and strikingly moving. (If, as with other stories in this column, I’m going to mention a story it reminds me of, in this case it’s John Crowley’s magnificent “Snow”.)

Sam J. Miller‘s “The Nation of the Sick” is a particularly optimistic story wrapped by a sad frame, as the narrator tells about his late mentor, Cybil, who initiated a project to use modeling software to come up with engineering solutions to the world’s problems… with tremendous results. But Cybil is dead, and the idea, I think, is that it is the “sick” who will work hardest at heal­ing. A likewise optimistic story – and sweet all the way through – is Annalee Newitz‘s “The Monogamy Hormone“, in which Edwina, who has been dating two people, decides she needs to choose, and takes an experimental pill that sup­posedly will make you only want to be with one person. But what if you really love two people? (Or more?) Should you have to choose? And while the title hormone may or may not be effec­tive, the story is awash in near-future wonders, like treating schools with bacteria to help kids’ immune systems.

Finally, Suzanne Palmer‘s “Don’t Mind Me” is darker, about tech called “minders” that allows parents to automatically block content from their children, particularly at school. Jake’s parents don’t allow him to learn science or history that contradicts their religious views – until he makes some friends who have figured out a way to dis­able the minders. All is going well until they are discovered… and perhaps the only way to be free is to escape entirely. But – will that really solve things for everyone? I admit I think it would have been more interesting if the implications of the use of “minders” by people with different political views was more fully explored, but this story is exciting and moving, and I believed in the characters.

Recommended Stories

“Echo the Echo”, Rich Larson
“The Monogamy Hormone”, Annalee Newitz
“Don’t Mind Me”, Suzanne Palmer
“Sparklybits”, Nick Wolven

–Rich Horton

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.

These reviews and more like them in the December 2020 issue of Locus.

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