For a long time I’ve been promising to write a piece on the three stories that made me stop reading Asimov’s. I will, once I dig them out of the box they’re in. But along the way there had been a growing dissatisfaction with the magazine that unconsciously led to my “to read” stack of them exceeding eighteen issues. After a while I began to put my finger on why. The stories were all about setting the situation up, and then instead of having an ending, they just… ended. I called this “All count-down, no blast off.”
I recently ran across a story that exemplified this quite well, this whole business of trying to set up a good, meaty Science Fictional idea, then mincing around it without actually taking it on. This was Cat Rambo’s Clarkesworld story “Tortoiseshell Cats Are Not Refundable” (archive link here) the story itself isn’t that recent, about four years old, but it really typifies the problem I’m getting at. Let’s do a read-along:
Okay, our protagonist Antony is depressed. Really really fucking depressed. We can see how depressed he is in exquisite detail. It goes on and on about how meaningless his life is since Mindy died, whoever she is (His wife. It takes quite a while to get to that detail). We do find out he lives in Seattle (over 90% of Science Fiction stories seem to take place in Seattle these days. Don’t ask me why). He deals with the pain by aimlessly wandering around Fry’s (A west coast electronics chain), getting stoned (because Yay Recreational Pot in Washington, instead of drinking because Boo Alcohol). He’s SO depressed he can’t even talk to his Mom, who calls him every day. And he feels guilty about this because he moved her across the country to be near him and away from his horrible sisters.
I am not loving this story at this point.
But he’s a good boy, and loves his mother, and apparently his mother had a cat he’d gotten her that she really loved which had died a year earlier. (I ended up doing a little math. Mom is Elderly, Cats average lifespan 8-15 years. He’s got to be in his late middle age.) So, since mom might be as depressed as he is, and old folks are better off with something to care for (since, well, her SON isn’t that available with his three months of moping) he decides to get her another cat. Oh, and not just another shelter kitty (PSA: Please adopt shelter kitties. -M), but ripped from the headlines two decades ago, a clone of her last cat, because you can get them by mail order now. And finally we start hitting some SFnal tropes — he apparently has some kind of cash account/brain computer implant called, get this, a “Shunt”, and Drones take deliveries.
I’ve gotten a bit more sensitive over the years about picking up on the unsubtle digs stuck in stories. When he mentions getting his shunt when he’s in college, he pays for it with his aunt’s old gold coins, and mentions that a) she’d died in the SEVENTH Gulf War, and b) that he never regretted it. Let’s take a moment to unpack the SJW Reusable Cloth Grocery Bag in this short paragraph. Who invests in gold? Conservatives. So Aunt Mick (“Mick”??) was a Conservative. Now libs like to imagine Ironic Deaths for Conservatives, so Gulf War 7. Because they believe Conservatives love war, and war never solves anything, so there have been 7 of them. Now the lack of regret appears to be about selling the coins, but it’s hard to tell because the sentence is one comma-spliced mess. That could be saying that Aunt Mick was dumb about investing in Gold because spending them decades ago in college was no loss. Or it means he had no attachment to Aunt Mick anyway, thus no sentimentality about his inheritance.
Anyway, back to the story, such as it is so far. Actually, I’ll jump ahead about, since the story is chopped up into non-linearly arranged segments. He gets the cat, but it doesn’t look like the original, because tortoiseshell fur patterns are a random expression of the genes, and they have a list of critters that this might be a problem with, and therefore Tortoiseshell Cats are Not Refundable. Boom, Title. Mom is lukewarm about the cat, but eventually warms up to it in spite of the differences.
As an idea, it’s a great one. Everyone assumes DNA is like destiny, that you grow a clone and you will get exact copies. Inverting that trope could lead to a brilliant story. Let’s see what she does with it….
Well, apparently because Antony is such a good customer, buying one Cat and getting marginal results, they send him an offer. “Hey, got any loved ones you might want us to make a clone of?” I guess they knew he was really depressed, because he goes on about it for a while after he gets the info packet and decides to blow his retirement money on doing it, and then some, even though they got the cat wrong.
Okay, this is where the story really gets fucked up.
Apparently the process will produce an adult clone. How they get there isn’t touched on at all, but kind of a good thing, since he probably doesn’t even have 20 years left to wait for his girlfriend to grow up before he kills himself over his depression. (If someone doesn’t kill him first getting sick of his moping.) So, how do you make an adult clone with an adult mind. Well, apparently, secretly, those shunt thingies have enough memory capacity to download your entire brain.
But here, that huge idea is merely used as a shortcut to get to the goal of a perfect replacement clone. And our Hero’s reaction to this news? Go for it.
And even though this procedure is an experiment, only in its third iteration, he has to pay for it. Good lord that looks like scamming the bereaved. But none of that is reflected upon.
Now apparently they don’t think the Shunt is enough, and they mention pulling in social media and such, and they send someone to research her shopping habits and interview him about details of their life together. So apparently there is active editing of the memories to be implanted, but this is totally glossed over. Really, it doesn’t occur to him to “Improve” her? I mean, that’s a huge story idea right there. Nothing is done with that.
Finally, we get to see her clone, sort of. Her appearance is kept very brief, and spoken of indirectly. She is subtly different, but that isn’t really explored too much, maybe a paragraph, a very indistinct one.
Antony decided that against the doctors orders, he’s going to tell her the truth. Because, you know, she’s not an EXACT copy, but now he can finally mourn his old Mindy (What the hell has he been doing for the last three months?) and start over with the new one if she wants to. And Wow! That right there is a Big story, telling a person they are actually the reconstructed clone of your dead wife. That would be one hell of a tale to tell. It would be worth putting up with all this dithering about and moaning to see how that turns out. And what does Cat Rambo do with this story next?
Yeah, that’s it, that’s where it stops. The whole angle with the cats being different is to make a point about a human clone being different, only those differences are not explored at all. The existential questions that Science Fiction alone is equipped to explore, glossed over for expediency, and then finally ignored just when they should come to a head. All of this story, 3500 words of it, leading up to what happens if you tell a clone she’s a clone, and it stops right before you tell her. It stops without telling you what happens with the story it’s actually leading up to.
All count down, no blast off.
And that is typical of what passes for short SF these days.