Susan Palwick’s 2007 novel Shelter takes us to a future America where:
- “excessive” altruism has been pathologized;
- machine intelligences have joined humanity;
- criminals and the mental ill (then as now overlapping sets) can be mindwiped;
- immortality of a sort is available to those with the money to pay for it;
and where, as always, the people who pay for rich people’s mistakes are never the rich people themselves.
Pity poor Meredith Walford, who survived a bout of Caravan Virus (AKA CV) only to discover that her father Preston, like so many others, had succumbed to that futuristic disease. On the upside, Preston Walford lives on as the first software emulation of a biological human. He is still able to command MacroCorps and even more able to intrude into his daughter’s life than ever before. But not only are there downsides to a father who can appear anywhere there’s a connection to the communications infrastructure, Meredith isn’t at all convinced the program that calls itself Preston is in any sense alive.
It’s a long, twisty path from the bereaved girl in a hospital isolation ward to the broken woman who calls her ex-husband Kevin for help. Despite all the history between them, Kevin doesn’t hesitate to head out into the storm-wracked city to race to Meredith’s side. That’s just too bad for Kevin, because that places him out on the streets, where a tumbling stop sign bisects his head.
Kevin’s house, House, cannot do anything for Kevin. If it were the sub-intelligent set of programs Kevin has always assured House that it was, House wouldn’t have been able to do anything for homeless Henry, either. But House can and does offer its resources to Henry, saving the old man and his kittens from the storm.
How and why House can do that involves a secret Kevin guarded until his death, a secret history in which Kevin, Meredith, their son Nicholas, and the extremely unfortunate collection of people who crossed paths with Meredith — Raji, Roberta, Henry, and a doomed AI named Fred — all played their roles. And under the watchful eyes of Preston, still determined to protect Meredith, the survivors will continue to play their parts all the way to the successful conclusion.
Successful, that is, by the standards of an emulated doting father and plutocrat.
This was the book I was supposed to have read for a panel at the Farthing con. I used to regret not having read it in time, but now I think my lack of diligence just saved the panel a lot of acrimony because — as I recall — everyone else loved it. In general, I like Palwick’s fiction. In this case, while I can appreciate the craft that went into its writing, I didn’t love it. I didn’t even like it.
The novel started off on the wrong foot with me, thanks to a detail that comes up on page 14 of the trade paperback, a detail that very nearly made me fling the book across the room:
Africa was a ghost continent.
Of course it is.
There’s a tendency on the part of Western authors to see Africa only in terms of calamity; this appears to be an example. The depopulation of Africa due to HIV and CV doesn’t actually seem to be necessary to the plot of the book. Some form of pandemic was a required plot development, but emptying Africa was just an extra we got for free.
The other problem I had with this book is that for some reason I’ve pretty much lost all interest in stories about the calamities of the rich and famous, even ones that, as this novel does, makes clear much of their misfortune is their own fault. I think I was supposed to care about Meredith’s salvation, supposed to disagree with Meredith’s extremely negative self-evaluation. While granting that it’s a bit sad that her dad died (for the most part), what’s even sadder, given the amount of havoc she leaves in her wake, is that Meredith survived the CV. At least one person would have lived longer if he’d never met her, two more wouldn’t have criminal records, and two people wouldn’t have been brainwiped. Salvation is the wrong strategy where Meredith is concerned. What’s called for here is *containment*.
Meredith actually understands and feels quite guilty about the fact that she has badly hurt a lot of people, by inattention if not by intent, Obviously, given how the events in this novel are presented, the author isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic towards the Walfords as the Walfords themselves are. Yet when Meredith expresses some contrition, a frenemy tries to convince her that Meredith was wrong to play up her own culpability to the degree that Meredith has. The frenemy then encourages Meredith to make amends for the calamities for which Meredith is responsible. This seems …. misguided, as whirlwinds of calamity have followed Meredith’s previous forays into altruism and penitence.
I also couldn’t help but notice that while Preston has impressive resources at his command, he and his family don’t seem all that keen on using those resources to make material amends to the little people Meredith and her clan consigned to the medical-industrial prison complex. I mean, sure, the Walfords feel bad, but how about handing over some of the vast family fortune to the surviving victims whose lives the Walfords irrevocably shattered?
It’s a shame that I hated the detail about Africa, that that particular detail is so common in modern SF that’s now a hot button for me. It’s a pity that I was unable to see Meredith as anything other than an omega-level threat to be eliminated or contained. There’s a lot here to like. The idea of a US where excessive altruism is considered the sort of medical condition that justifies involuntary treatment was nicely developed. The replacement of the current prison-industrial system with a medically oriented alternative seems reasonable enough: not only would it play to the US’s incarceratory strengths but it would provide much needed employment for skilled workers. Win-win, really.
I also admired the skill with which Palwick gets from her book’s beginning in the storm to its denouement in House, carefully guiding her characters through a series of flashbacks in service to a fairly complex plot. I just wish some of her initial world-building choices had been sufficiently different that I could have enjoyed this novel.
Shelter is available from Tor.