William Preston. Vox Ex Machina. (Asimovs December 2013)

asimovs201312After two stories with teen protagonists, and a lighthearted lingerie story which were easy reads, Preston takes us into the kind of territory which Gene
Wolfe used to do, with a story that needs some thinking about (huzzah!).

The plot is simple – airline stewardess finds android head left behind in bag on an airplane, takes it home, talks to it, then a friend disposes of it. It’s what it all means that’s interesting (working on the basis that the author in this case does indeed intend to their being more to the story than the story itself).

Stewardess Karen is very much adrift and virtually rootless. He husband has left her – for a woman he met whilst online gaming. Their house is little more than a base for her, as she stays there between flights, spending as much time in anonymous hotel rooms in far flung cities. She is sleeping in the spare bedroom, the android head in the master bedroom for a little while.

She speaks on the phone to her sister, and that is part of one of the themes of the story – alienation, distance, loneliness, contact at the other end of a telephone, a computer, a television.

There is a strong physicality to Karen – whilst we follow her mentally, we also have relayed the physical sensations she feels, which is rarely the case in stories. One of the conversations with the android is about coffee, and even her making and drinking/rewarming her own coffee is important. She’s holding onto the physical side of things close to her whilst she becomes distanced from human contact. Even a male friend dropping by shows her almost at one remove – thinking clinically about her relationship with him.

And the android head is that of a now-dead SF writer. Is the head an Oracle? In his ‘real’ life the writer pondered far horizons, but Karen finds the android version of him frustratingly obtuse. The crux of the story is when she realises that she has imbued more into the android than she should have – it is, after all, just a mechanical device producing words (as a ‘real’ SF writer is purely a biological device producing words).

So, an interesting story, at least that’s how I read it. Are we just passive recipients of input, or are we human? Of course the author might simply say ‘it’s just a story about a woman who finds an android head’….

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