Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: “Totaled” by Kary English

Review: “Totaled” by Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, July 2014) SPRP

Short story. Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy nominee. Spoilers. Available in Hugo voter's packet.

Maggie's body is "totaled" (becomes an insurance write off) when she is in a car accident. Unluckily for her, a rider in her insurance states that her body tissues can be used in research by the insurance underwriter, which is (as it often is in real life) her employer. So her brain is removed and is shipped off to her former research partner, who researches the heck out of it. She's conscious, and can be plugged into hearing and seeing technology, and she reacts to the stimuli by lighting up various parts of her brain on an fMRI through thinking really hard about good things (like kittens) or bad things (like cockroaches). Eventually "perfusion decay" sets in and her brain starts to go bad. And that's all she wrote.


This laboratory really sounded like a laboratory. There's a remarkable amount of vivid description because Maggie has to recall all types of sensory data in order to trigger the fMRI responses.

Totaling is a great idea that is not explored. At first I assumed that there would be some discussion of a society that would write-off human beings when they became too expensive to maintain. But no, it's just a way to explain how she ended up in her own laboratory. (There is an excellent story from 1970 on this subject, The True Worth of Ruth Villiers by Michael G Coney.  Maybe the world didn't need another one.)

But does the world need another brain-in-a-jar story, which is so old that there's a Steve Martin movie (The Man With Two Brains) from 1983 that parodies the genre? For me, the definitive jugged-brain story is Roald Dahl's masterful William and Mary in the Kiss Kiss collection of 1960, because of the beautifully described sharp, unhinged emotions of the newly-disembodied brain's wife. (You can read an uncorrected OCR of it here.) Does this new one live up to that one, and rise to Hugo-worthiness?

I reckon not. While it's by no means a bad story, it's written as a first person narrative from the brain's perspective, so by default everything is a thought rather than an action. This is the epitome of a story where the narrator is not the driver of the plot. She's literally in a bucket, unable to feel, talk or move. There's a bit of tension, given that her partner is falling for the woman who brings him sandwiches when he tells her to (I can't even) but her reaction is quite mild. She becomes conscious, gains sight and hearing, then slowly fails, like a disembodied Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon (1958).

I also couldn't really get over her brain being given to someone who worked with her in life. Wouldn't a normal person be a bit weirded out looking for consciousness in his dead-and-buried friend's brain? And even an amoral company is supposed to have a Research Ethics Committee, who would (I hope) be a little cautious about doing that. Maybe a story from the POV of the research dude in a plot where his friend's brain has been given to his rival, mean Doc Whatsit? And once he realizes she is conscious and has feelings, he fights to stop the experimentation? Nah, that's been done too.

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