‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘Immersion’ was originally published in Clarkesworld #69
‘Immersion’ is a neat, symmetrical story that sets out its moral clearly at the end:
It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.
Quy lives on Longevity Station, a minority culture economically reliant on tourism from the majority culture of the Galactics. She speaks Rong which suggests Himalayan ethnicity origins but the specifics are less important than the fundamental power relationship of minority-majority. Agnes is from the same culture as Quy but has left it behind, along with her original name, to become a Galactic. The technology of the immerser allows her to discard her past far more comprehensively than is possible for us though.
Immersers were invented by the Galactics to act as holographic translators, changing not just words but appearance and gesture. Agnes used hers to more rapidly assimilate into the culture of the Galactics. However, she became addicted to it, without it she would die but with it she is unable to function and exists in a state approaching catatonia. This is mirrored in Que’s half of the narrative where there is a suggestion that she escaped a similar fate but still suffers from depression as a result (which explains but doesn’t improve the flat prose).
So distrust of technology is firmly embedded in the story. Virtual reality as drug is a well-established metaphor and the clichés of one transfer easily to the other. Similarly, well-established is the idea that digital cannot compete with analogue in terms of veracity. So, for example, we have Quy watching spaceships form the docks of the station:
She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router—and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse—a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple.
Beyond this, there is a sense that the technology is impure. Quy “actually would have been glad to never put on an immerser again—she hated the feeling they gave her, the vague sensation of the system rooting around in her brain to find the best body cues to give her.” The body horror she feels is echoed in the way she describes her culture being invaded: “a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches”.
It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.
This glibness is matched by the closing moral that I quoted at the beginning which is a shame because it detracts from the more interesting depiction of the unequal relationships between the two cultures. The reason Agnes has returned to Longevity is because her husband is trying to dredge up he
Quy thought of the banquet; of the food on the tables, of Galen thinking it would remind Agnes of home. Of how, in the end, it was doomed to fail, because everything would be filtered through the immerser, leaving Agnes with nothing but an exotic feast of unfamiliar flavours.
It is an excellently pointed use of the word “exotic”. Despite what Quy says, Agnes does magically achieve this conceptual breakthrough. I might not like this fact but it is beautifully expressed:
Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinammon—no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life.