Short Story Club: “My Father’s Singularity” by Brenda Cooper

This week’s Short Story Club entry is “My Father’s Singularity” by Brenda Cooper. Who I keep having to remind myself is not the Brenda-with-a-surname-starting-with-C that I remember posting to rec.arts.sf.written back in the day (that was Brenda Clough).

This is set in the not-too-distant future in the Pacific Northwest, and is the first-person tale of a boy who grew up on a farm with his father telling him he’d go through the Singularity someday:

In my first memory of my father, we are sitting on the porch, shaded from the burning sun’s assault on our struggling orchards. My father is leaning back in his favorite wooden rocker, sipping a cold beer with a half-naked lady on the label, and saying, “Paul, you’re going to see the most amazing things. You will live forever.” He licks his lips, the way our dogs react to treats, his breath coming faster. “You will do things I can’t even imagine.” He pauses, and we watch a flock of geese cross the sky. When he speaks gain, he sounds wistful. “You won’t ever have to die.”

The next four of five memories are variations on that conversation, punctuated with the heat and sweat of work, and the smell of seasons passing across the land.

I never emerged from this particular conversation with him feeling like I knew what he meant. It was clear he thought it would happen to me and not to him, and that he had mixed feelings about that, happy for me and sad for himself. But he was always certain.

The boy grows up, goes off to college and becomes a doctor and, well, you can pretty much see where this is headed. It’s basically Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” re-written by Vernor Vinge.

This story’s a little difficult for me to approach objectively, because it hits a little close to home, in that I grew up in a small town, and went off to college, and when I go back nothing is the same as it was. There are two basic attitudes you find in people who come from small-town backgrounds and move away: you either look back with a sense of relief that you got away, or a sense of regret that you can never really go back. I’m in the latter camp, so this is a particularly poignant story for me (though I hasten to add that my parents were never farmers, and are still in great shape, and come to visit SteelyKid regularly).

With that as a disclaimer of sorts, I thought this was an excellent story. It nails the emotional target it’s aiming for, that sense of a difference that has grown up and can’t quite be overcome. Unlike a lot of first-person narratives, I can actually imagine a real person telling this story in more or less this way. The outlines of the future world are there in the background, but as the narrator says at one point, that’s not this story, so we don’t get the changes spelled out for us in any great detail.

It’s subtle and restrained, but all the more powerful for it. And I think this is the best story of the lot so far, by a good margin. Both the SF elements and the human elements are handled deftly, and fit together really well. Whether I read any more award-eligible short fiction or not, this will almost certainly be going on my Hugo nominating ballot next year.