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Science fiction is often the genre of literalized metaphors; its fantastic tropes can be used to make concrete what in reality is only an abstract. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974) takes the frequent observation of soldiers returning from a war abroad that the peaceful, untouched society to which they've come home seems alien and unfamiliar, and realizes this effect through time dilation, which returns the book's narrator to a humanity altered by hundreds of years that have passed him by in his faster-than-light deployment. Rian Johnson's recent film Looper expresses the limited options that lie before children raised in poverty and unstable environments through time travel, which assures that the film's protagonist, a mob assassin recruited as a child, will one day kill his older self, and one day some time after that, be killed in the same fashion. It's a device that can be used in indelicate ways, as evidenced by any number of works in which aliens, mutants, and supernatural creatures are used as stand-ins for a variety of marginalized groups, from Native Americans to AIDS sufferers. When done well, however, science fiction's literalized metaphors can offer the best of both worlds, exploring both a universal human truth and an SFnal concept.

In her Hugo-winning story, "Six Months, Three Days" (Tor.com, June 8th, 2011), Charlie Jane Anders demonstrated that she had a facility with literalized metaphors. In the story, a man who can see the future meets and becomes involved with a woman who can see all possible futures. Both know that their relationship will last only six months, three days, but nevertheless embark upon it—he because he sees no alternative; she because she believes that the premature breakup is only one possible ending. Inevitably, the relationship breaks down, but along the way Anders touches both on quantum mechanics—as the story and relationship draw on, the woman begins to fear that knowing the concrete future that her lover sees will collapse the possibilities that she perceives into one—and psychology—it's never clear whether the reason the man so passively accepts the coming breakup is his faith in his precognitive abilities, or his inability to feel optimism after a lifetime of (predicted) disappointment. In the end, the reader is left wondering whether the relationship's failure was a self-fulfilling prophecy, or whether the belief in infinite possibility is only the privileged delusion of someone who has never experienced real disappointment. It's a novel take on the question of free will vs. predestination, and a sad, affecting romance to boot.

In her recent story "Intestate" (also published by Tor.com), Anders once again demonstrates that facility at making the SFnal at once a concretization of something fundamentally human, and something all its own. The story describes a weekend getaway taken by the Pinch clan—six children, fourteen grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren—in honor of its patriarch, Mervyn's, 80th birthday. Our narrator is Emmy, the next-to-youngest Pinch daughter, and the only one of Mervyn's children who is childless herself. This is only one of the ways in which Emmy stands apart from the rest of her family, and the story is driven by her partial, and only partially voluntary, detachment from the clan.

As Emmy describes it, there is a presentiment of chaos and collapse that underpins the entire weekend. On their way to Mervyn's house, Emmy's brother Eric's car is nearly run off the road by a jeep coming around a bend. The house itself is in a "failed gated community," and the family spread out across its grounds, building a tent city, digging fire pits which they feed with furniture, not caring because, as Emmy notes, "one of the banks will take the house soon enough." It's no surprise, then, that Mervyn ends the weekend with the announcement that he has terminal cancer, but even without that revelation, his looming death hangs over Emmy and her siblings, who have arrived for the weekend expecting to learn what they'll each receive in Mervyn's will. Not money or property—these, as noted, are being lost to debt—but body parts.

With the loose clothes my father is wearing, you can't even tell what he's replaced. Most of the legs, for sure. The hip joints. The spine. The skin on his neck, of course. Rumor has it that his whole rib cage is some kind of hydrogen-based generator now. My dad can drink whiskey and eat spicy food without being in horrible pain afterwards, because he's upgraded his stomach and turned his appendix into some kind of backup filtration unit. He can breathe smoky air better than I can. Nobody will know for sure what he's done, until someone cuts him up.

Emmy's older sister Joanna has decided that, upon his death, Mervyn's augmented, bioengineered body parts are going to be distributed among his children, and throughout the story the various Pinch siblings wish for their favorite parts, envy each other their likely inheritance, and use it as a pretext for put-downs ("It's undeniably creepy the way Joanna covets her father's pelvis"). All of which both highlights and obscures the way Anders has blurred the line between genetic inheritance and the regular kind. By experimenting on himself, Mervyn has not only made himself something other than human, he has cut himself off from a fundamental sort of human continuity. Ordinary people bequeath traits and attributes to their children without being diminished themselves—when I say, "I have my mother's eyes," I don't mean that my mother is eyeless. By turning his body parts into commodities, Mervyn has made them into the equivalent of the good silver or the big candelabra—something that he must parcel out between his children, and only after his own death.

As the story draws on, however, one begins to sense that this is exactly how Mervyn intended it. He could, of course, have patented his inventions, released them into the world as an intellectual legacy to be used by anyone who wanted or needed them, including his children. Though, as Emmy explains it, the reason Mervyn has worked only on himself is that "his body was the one thing his creditors couldn't ever take away," there is also clearly an element of wanting control over his inventions and who they go to (despite his children's expectations, at the end of the weekend Mervyn does not announce how his body parts will be distributed after his death, or whether they even will be). Mervyn doesn't believe in intellectual property—"You can write ideas down but then they get trapped in a shape they can't grow out of." But he's also been burned by giving his ideas too much freedom.

Several years ago, Mervyn and Emmy experienced a rift from which they've never entirely recovered, rooted in Mervyn's discovery that the company Emmy worked for was not only doing work for the manufacturers of UAVs used to attack civilians, but that these UAVs infringed on Mervyn's own patents. The profound passive-aggressiveness with which Mervyn slowly makes his disapproval clear to Emmy—first he stops talking to her, then, after she's begged him for an explanation, he sends her some press clippings without a word of comment—would seem to suggest that it was not the fact that Emmy had done something that he disapproved of that troubled Mervyn, so much as the fact that she was capable of that choice. In both cases—his inventions and his children—Mervyn seems genuinely thrown by the realization that he has sent these creations out into the world, unencumbered by his control so that they wouldn't be trapped in the same shape forever, only for them to truly behave as if they were separate from him. It seems only natural to respond to this shock by seeking to assert the maximum amount of control, over inventions and children alike.

As we all know, however, there are things that parents bequeath to their children whether they mean to or not, and Emmy seems to have inherited Mervyn's ambivalence about the entire project of childbearing. It's an ambivalence that Anders spells out in the story's opening sentences: "The minivan is already full of children when it pulls up to my front steps. I climb into the deepest pit facing out the back door, and plunk my rucksack in my lap." Emmy's first act in the story, then, is to make sure that no child tries to claim a place in that lap, and throughout the weekend, despite having "promised to help out with childcare," she mostly avoids her nieces and nephews, stepping up to deal with a child-related situation only when it doesn't require her emotional involvement—when one of the troupe of children turns out to be an interloper, a child-actor turned corporate spy. We later learn that for a time Emmy tried, unsuccessfully, to get pregnant, but that "I never wanted to get the tests because if they found something, then it would be a medical problem all of a sudden, and I'd be trapped on the conveyor belt. My dad taught me early on that sometimes the secret to happiness is figuring out which questions you're better off not answering."

As I've said, not being a parent sets Emmy apart from the rest of her family, which suits her role in the story as observer and cataloger. She spends the story delivering wry, contextless non-sequiturs that hint at the complex, tangled history of the Pinch clan: "My oldest brother Robert thinks my father experimented on me in the womb and that's why I can't have children. But Robert would be ready to believe almost any horror story about dad"; "Dudley grew up thinking he would always be the youngest sibling, until eventually Eric and I were born and he was just another middle kid"; "Joanna is the only one of us kids who inherited dad's genius. . . . She wound up being a super-actuary at one of the top insurance companies, and she can rattle off the chances of anything bad happening to anyone." It's left for us to imagine why Robert thinks so little of his father, what it means to Dudley to be thrust into middle child status, what led Joanna to use her genius in such prosaic ways. There is, as in any family, a tangled knot of resentment, shared history, and emotional connection at the center of the Pinch clan that can neither be severed nor escaped, no matter how much of his humanity Mervyn cuts away, or how determined Emmy is never to have children.

What distinguishes families from "any random assortment of people," Mervyn tells Emmy when she tries, one last time, to get over the rift that has grown between them, is that "We never forgive each other." It's a grim conclusion to a story that is deceptively lightly written and even, at points, humorous. And yet, at the same time, it's also a hopeful statement. It indicates that, for all his best efforts to retreat into a kind of mad scientist isolation—at one point, Emmy's brothers and their wives joke that Mervyn's house should have a shark-infested moat surrounding it—Mervyn still views himself as part of the family, bound to it, and to his frustratingly self-willed, unforgiven daughter, until his fast-approaching death. "Intestate" is a story about being the child of a mad scientist, and about being the child of a parent you don't understand. "When I was little, my father was a pair of hands," Emmy tells us, then describes how Mervyn returned from a research trip with a beard, and she ran and hid from the stranger. As a cyborg, meanwhile, Mervyn is literally unknown to his children—as Emmy tells us, none of them will know what he truly is until he dies and they can take him apart—and after announcing his looming death, he retreats to his lab, where they can't follow because "the air . . . is not breathable to normal humans." It is, at one and the same time, a metaphor about the distance between parents and children, and an exploration of an SFnal trope that deepens that distance. And either way, it's a story about family.

Abigail Nussbaum (anusbaum@netvision.net.il) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.



Abigail Nussbaum is the Strange Horizons reviews editor.
14 comments on “Short Fiction Snapshot #1: "Intestate" by Charlie Jane Anders”

I struggled with the conclusion that families "never forgive each other" because not only is it a fairly glib line, it also doesn't really match with the text. Is it true that father and daughter haven't forgiven each other? I would say that father has been able to recreate himself in his daughter; both are aloof and remarkably self-contained but recognise that in each other and share an equanimity. I think that is reflected in the closing passage with its description of the maened. It is utterly free of bitterness and suggests forgiveness and peace to me.
This does mean I find it hard to believe her earlier pleading and his passive aggressive notes though. Perhaps this schism fundamentally altered both their personalities but that is a bit much for me. The father is described explicitly and tacitly as a mad scientist but he isn't - where is his passion? - he is simply a very selfish scientist. It is hard to believe he is pissed off by drone deaths or patent infringement. Em is cut from the same cloth: "You're his favourite" says Joanna, even though she is notionally the closest intellectually. Although Em is constantly passing judgement on those around her, that is one of only two comments she reports about herself. The other is from her father: “Looking good, Em. You’ve cut your hair in a bob, and gotten yourself a pair of glasses with baroque frames.” It is noticeable that it is compliment. Are we also meant to take a suggestion of autism from the words ("he says, by way of saying, “I see you.”").
Despite the trappings of family, I'd hesitate to describe it as a story about family rather than the specific father-daughter relationship. Em's possible infertility was badly handled (that line about the secret of happiness is another falsely glib one) and her interaction with her siblings and their children mannered and remote. None of them are any more real than Nicky the child actor, an insertion that seemed badly out of place. I think the family is just window dressing for Anders.

For me, the key paragraph seemed to be Eric's musings on the multiple and time-inflected meanings of the word "will". Eric says, "'will and testament' is like the future and the past in one document, except that it's just a pointless list of material objects"; a family reunion is a similar collision of past and future, because I think family relationships are still for most people the longest and least-severable in their lives. That also means I found myself thinking about the body-parts inheritance from the opposite angle to Abigail, not as Mervyn's way of cutting himself off from one kind of inheritance, but as a way of incorporating another kind of inheritance into himself. So for me Joanna coveting her father's pelvis didn't automatically link to having my father's nose (or whatever), it linked to seeing possessions as an extended reflection of who we are; and thus emphasising how creepy and intrusive any coveting of inheritance is. Which speaks to the flexibility of the metaphor, I think, and inclines me to agree that it is genuinely a story about family.
(I also end up in the same place as Abigail, in the sense that Mervyn's transformation of himself speaks to his desire for control as much as anything. I think it's also interesting that although his family may call him the mad scientists, he's just as much the monster, the way he has turned himself into a patchwork technologically-animated being...)
The drone-related feud did ring a little false to me, though. For the most part this is a very small-scale, personal story; bringing in drones felt a little sensationalist, and perhaps also slightly lacking in confidence. Almost as though the story doesn't quite trust the reader to feel Mervyn's disappointment/frustration strongly enough if it's only driven by the intellectual issue of patent infringment; Em's employment has to be clearly unpalatable to the readers on its own terms as well.

I also agree that the rest of the family isn't drawn as well as Mervyn and Emmy, but I'm not sure I would say that this makes them window dressing, Martin.
Perhaps that was the wrong phrase but I'm still not sure they are essential in their own right. For example, you do need a mechanism for the rapprochement between father and daughter - his 80th birthday isn't enough - but although the siblings the occasion enough weight that she feels obliged to attend, they don't do much more. I strongly disagree that she is in competition with her siblings, rather she is defined against the competition of the others. I found the inheritance issue far less important than you or Niall, another opportunity for a binary contrast; they squabble over the physical inheritance, she takes his spiritual inheritance. She is too obvious the favourite of both her father and the story.
There's something just on the tip of my brain about cloning (tying in with that line about experimenting on Em in the womb) but I can't quite articulate it. Likewise I've got a half-thought about Niall's point that the father is also monster that lone scientist's in contemporary SF commonly direct their hubris inwards.

I almost gave up on the story after the first two paragraphs--so many false notes. Fortunately it got better after that; the false notes early in the story were narrative problems, while later on I could accept the glibness you folks have noted because of the characters it was coming from.
It's not a story that's easy to form coherent statements about, because it's not a story that entirely coheres--and I don't mean that as a criticism.
As far as the body parts I'm closer to Niall's reading, I think; I understand what you're getting at Abigail, but it would not occur to me to think that, say, someone who agrees to donate their organs after death is diminishing themselves except in the most literal way. Indeed I'm more inclined to be sympathetic to Mervyn than you folks seem to be, mostly because I don't trust Emmy's willful lack of self-awareness as narrator. I think one entirely plausible reading of events is that the company that Emmy's employer did work for was directly responsible for putting her father out of business--which among other things eliminated the possibility of a traditional financial/material inheritance for all his children. So he then experiments on himself. But why? I don't buy that he does this entirely because he enjoys being in control--we don't really see that. Nor is there any real sense in the story that his work benefits him. So one sustainable reason would be that this is the only way he had available to leave anything for his children. In his phone conversation with Joanna he's reported to have said that he would distribute his body parts so that she and the other kids "would all be provided for." That sounds less like a self-centered mad scientist, and more like someone not good with people trying to find some way to fulfill what he sees as his fatherly responsibility. How sad it must be as a parent when you grow old enough to see your children begin to break down physically as they too get older.
I do also note that the whole idea of him leaving parts of himself to his kids is all second-hand from Joanna's phone conversation. (Although Abigail, I did not have the sense that this was something that Joanna had decided would be done.) It's spiraled outward solely in the kid's own discussions...it doesn't seem to be something he's otherwise talked about, or is using to exert control over them. Is he even aware of all their expectations? Is there any reason at all that the kids would think that he was going to be telling them what they'd each inherit at this birthday party, or was that merely an idea built up from their own shared mental construction of the situation?
Of course he may have originally dropped that hint to Joanna knowing what the result would be--that it would be a lever of control--but does he seem sufficiently manipulative on any other occassion to give credence to that interpretation?
This is not to say that Mervyn's a great guy, or a great father--clearly there's an inheritance of lack of empathy his kids have received from him, a single-minded focus on results. On that note, Martin, I didn't think Mervyn's "Looking good, Em. You’ve cut your hair in a bob, and gotten yourself a pair of glasses with baroque frames." was precisely meant as a compliment. Remember that when Emmy was a young child and Mervyn returned with different hair and new glasses--the same two details Mervyn now notes in Emmy--she didn't recognize him. So maybe Mervyn is trying to make a joke, or maybe recall a shared moment between them; but either way it's somewhat at Emmy's expense. I took it mainly for a clever way of drawing a parallel between the two of them--they really are the most similar of the family--while also illustrating how he has trouble seeing her as an adult.
I sort of think I can make sense of the deer boat--it fits into my reading above--but I'm not sure what to make of the last paragraph of the story.

I'm more inclined to be sympathetic to Mervyn than you folks seem to be
Oh, I wouldn't say that. For me, Mervyn and Em are the only two sympathetic characters - and that is quite suspicious. And I describe "Looking good, Em" as a comment, not a compliment. I certainly don't see it as a compliment but I do see it as meaningful that this is one of only two comments direct at Em (that she reports).
I sort of think I can make sense of the deer boat--it fits into my reading above--but I'm not sure what to make of the last paragraph of the story.
For me, the two descriptions are essentially the same. They are two transcendent moments fo grace for the two main characters to share. I might even go so far as to say Mervyn shares the deer boat with his family because he knows Em will appreciate it. This then allows her to appreciate the mynead which in turn allows her to be at peace with her father. To repeat myself, I can't read it any other way than being all about them.

Ziv W

Some scattered thoughts, as my reaction to this story is nothing if not scattered.
1. I actually felt the story was *less* about Mervyn, and more about the family. Particularly, the most pervasive element in the story is the family's ghoulish anticipation of their inheritance; their desire to divvy their patriarch up into component pieces; and their utter disregard for him personally - he is ignored, disliked, mocked, and generally "put up with" with the single goal of eventually gaining the inheritance. Mervyn is certaintly difficult to get along with, but the family members are the ones we see as constantly callous, self-centered, ghoulish - and I can see how this kind of treatment would lead Mervyn to withdraw, to become taciturn and guard what few cards he has, which only goes to justify their treatment of him, setting off a vicious cycle. The other way around, seeing the children as the result of Mervyn's unique personality, I have more difficulty seeing - Mervyn is a complex character with as many wonders as he has flaws. I agree with [above comment] that Mervyn as "controlling" is informed, but hardly demonstrated - in fact, Emily describes how she and her father managed to overcome some major differences, and even their critical rift has healed somewhat. It's the callous children who see him as controlling, simply because they resent any influence he has over them. They're controlled by their greed, not by their father.
2. All that being said, I found the SFnal premise hard to swallow. The themeatics are excellent, but common sense picks it to pieces. If Mervyn is penniless and ruined, then how on earth can he fund a huge variety of cutting-edge biotech projects? Isn't a child-actor trying to infiltrate a family gathering a rather ridiculous form of espionage, compared to tracking what materials and supplies Mervyn needs, planting surveillance devices, etc.? And though the family's eagerness for Mervyn's limbs and organs is masterfully portrayed, I'm not really seeing where real desire would be coming from - Mervyn's modifications seem useful, but mundane, more keeping him going comfortably in old age than providing much real benefit to a younger person. I'm not seeing why a researcher would find a graceful pelvis so desirable. Of course, gaining a revolutionary intellectual property is a huge windfall, but then the attention to *which* family member gets *which* revolutionary patent seems false - to most of them, it shouldn't make any difference, particularly when they have no way to tell which invention is more valuable than any other. (It could be argued that the mere dangling of future opportunity is enough to fuel obsession over it. But the bickering and divvying is so central, it seems to me like it's meant to be read straight.)
3. Why a deer boat? Why a maenad?
4. What's the meaning of the title? It doesn't raise any associations or clear meaning to me.
5. Regarding Mervyn's dramatic exit, I found this line significant: "Most of you will probably never see me alive after today." Most of them won't - Dudley kicks the scene off expressing how eager he is not to see Mervyn again. But he's also saying that he *can* be seen, even after today. The finality of going where "air is not breathable by normal humans" is only temporary, immediate - a shield against the immediate lashback of the family. He's locking himself away from Dudley, away from "I guess we’ll have to wait to find out who gets which part of Dad" Eric - but *not* away from humanity, despite the sign. People who still want to reach out to him can. Emily can - she just happens to be the only one who might want to. (Perhaps similarly, I read the glibness of the "family never forgives" as being self-aware and deliberately false. You don't give a line like that, mocking your own grudge, to somebody you really can't stand.)

Patrick

Ziv W - to die intestate is to die without leaving a will. Inheritance is the heart of the story. (And I agree, 'Why a deer boat? Why a maenad?')

I'd say it is a triple pun:
Intestate: dying without a will
Interstate: the road trip to visit Mervyn
Inter-state: the modifications Mervyn has made to his body
It summons up nto just inheritence but transition.

Erin Horakova

I'm really not very critical of the drone element, nor was I bothered by the false notes Matt Denault experienced. I can see where the criticism about scale re: the drones is coming from, but I think it's a valid choice that doesn't impinge on the piece's ability to realize itself/be the story it wants to be. Though I'd agree with Denault's problematization of an assessment of the father as necessarily and simply someone who craves control. In fact I think a degree of moral unease with the drone attacks could further that complication. Informing that indignation and his family relationships--there's also the possibility that he really likes children. Why would a brilliant post-biologist have so many if he didn't care for them in his own way? He could surgically graft a condom onto his robomanhood, if nothing else. He might be particularly creeped out by his children killing other children, especially given the medical nature of his work.
It's a minor point probably, but given the apparently complex nature of the narrator's work, the degree of empathy between her and her father, the competitive resentments between the siblings (between any siblings, really, but these particularly) and the siblings' only-possibly-true shared narratives, do we necessarily trust the narrator's assessment that Joanna is the only brilliant sibling, far cleverer than she? That could demonstrate a lack of self-awareness, or be a feeling born of that sibling tension, or a disavowal of personal responsibility, which might make sense given her work's moral issues. Or she could be saying it to downplay a connection to her father, about which she feels anxiety. I'm not saying that cleverness is the only dimension on which she and her father could relate, and that they couldn't have strong relationship if she wasn't also 'brilliant', and 'brilliant' in similar ways to him. Only that I'm not sure I trust Emmy here. She has a lot of possible motivations in play.
I thought it was a very strong piece, but there are points (as is evident in the discussion) with a great deal of emotional ambiguity. This might be a productive indeterminacy, but I'm suspicious of this mode in short stories in general. It too often deals in artistic vagueness, suggesting meaning but refusing to handle it. I'm happy with this story as is, but if I simultaneously think I might have preferred it as a novel that really plumbed its suggested depths, how happy am I with its constitution as a short story, really? When is ambiguity productive, and when is it just frustrating, or a cop-out?

Having recently worked my way through this year's Locus recommended reading list, I must amplify Erin's question:
"When is ambiguity productive, and when is it just frustrating, or a cop-out?"
Evasive ambiguity is becoming the lingua franca of much science fiction. Many prominent and award-strewn writers have built their reputations on an ability to allude to Big Serious Questions only to then use ambiguity and fantastical elements as an excuse for not having to actually express any concrete opinions about the Big Serious Questions they have alluded to.
The reason this works is simple: By alluding to Big Serious Questions, the writers are placing these questions in the reader's mind and so the reader assumes that the work is about that particular Big Serious Question and by that point it really doesn't matter that the idea isn't unpacked... people walk away from the story happy.

Ziv W

A.F.E Smith wrote:
Or maybe — just thinking aloud now — the serenity of the maenad image represents Mervyn coming to terms with the fact that as a father, he is necessarily going to be divided among his children.
Wow. This is a beautiful interpretation. I think you've hit on something major here.

Erin Horakova

Almost too small a thought to merit a comment, but I like/agree with Abigail's thought here: "Personally, I tend to assume that if a parent-child relationship has reached this level of dysfunction, the parent most likely bears the greater share of responsibility, because they're the ones who set the tone and nature of the relationship when the children were too young to even understand what was happening."

Ziv W

Personally, I tend to assume that if a parent-child relationship has reached this level of dysfunction, the parent most likely bears the greater share of responsibility, because they're the ones who set the tone and nature of the relationship when the children were too young to even understand what was happening.
I actually disagree strongly with Abigail's interpretation here. Emily herself puts the lie to laying the brunt of the blame on Mervyn - she doesn't share her family's callousness towards Mervyn, but we don't see much difference between her upbringing and that of her siblings. I think it's difficult to point out a specific flaw in Mervyn's parenting based on the text, particularly such an overwhelmingly destructive one as to reduce a whole clan to a pack of jackals. The other direction is far easier to argue - as Abigail says, family feuds and infighting over inheritance are firmly entrenched in human nature. Obsessing over these in adulthood can hardly be blamed directly over a specific childhood influence.
I also disagree with Abigail's reading of Emily's memories in this regard.

  • especially given Emmy's reminiscences of Mervyn as a father when she was young - It's interesting that her example of "estrangement" from her father is in response to so eminently superficial a cause. Surely, a beard and glasses aren't an indication of poor parenting. And, as I remarked above, as augmented and modified as Mervyn becomes, it hardly appears to change his day-to-day behavior. It's made his declining years more comfortable, and he's hardly lived to an exceptional age. A superficial change, for his children to see him as "Doctor Doom."
  • the hint that Emmy's mother was the one who kept the family functional and connected (which she stops doing when she gets sick because she's too tired) - Emily's memory of alienation when her father's appearance changed is a superficial reaction to an emminantly superficial change. And if the mother had truly been the lynchpin of the family, then why is Emily the only child to come support her in her illness? The family doesn't seem to care for their matriarch any more than for Mervyn.

In fact, we have a fair amount of evidence of Mervyn as a caring father. He's constantly attentive to children, in past and in present. For heaven's sake, he's there for Emily when she gets her training bra. Most telling, to my mind, is this line: I thought it was just another one of those queasy Dad moments, like when I converted to Christianity, or when I came out as a lesbian. How many people can go to two extremes like that, and have their parents care enough to be queasy, but accepting enough to leave it at that? Even their seemingly-insurmountable rift is, if not healed, accepted - to the point that Emily can truly say she's sorry, and "as far as I’m concerned, he and I are good."
IMHO, this story rewards paying close attention to which details are demonstrated, and which are merely informed. The ghoulishness of the clan is clearly demonstrated, in their constant musings about their upcoming inheritance, coupled with their total disregard towards Mervyn. Mervyn, in turn, seems to have justified their disregard - he's described as being distant, manipulative, alien, otherworldly, and impossible to get along with. But upon closer reading, I think every one of these charges is merely informed, almost always by the jealous clan. And almost every one of them has evidence to the contrary in Mervyn's actual behavior.
Now, I might just be reading the story too literally - the author may have been intending me to take Mervyn's implied inapproachability at face value. And yet, I keep feeling that every implication is enticing, but firmly countered. He's chock-full of genius implants - but they don't measurably change his behavior, to the point that nobody can figure out what the implants do or even what's been altered. He's a master manipulator - except he only referred to his "inheritance" once, to one person, allegedly, and they're the ones who keep fanning the flames. Heck, even when he locks himself away where humans can't breathe, it's right after he's basically said "...but if you actually want to see me again, you can." This may be a stretch, but I'm seeing a lot of the interest in this story being about how the family's greed paints Mervyn into a corner, no matter what he does. And that ties in well, in my eyes, to A.F.E.'s interpretation of the maenad element - Mervyn accepts the family frenzy as inevitable, inescapable. He's not to blame for it; it's the way people work, and that's what he needs to live with.

On the topic of the UAVs, I think Abigail's introduction actually offers a more compelling explanation than any attempt to collapse it within the narrative; "Science fiction is often the genre of literalized metaphors," and what are drones if not the inversion of this dynamic? One of the reasons they are so newsworthy is that we have the tools of science fiction to both color and communicate our understandings of them; it is a case of the literalized metaphor becoming the metaphorized literal, and the way the feedback loop here doesn't lend itself to any clean attribution of guilt.
In my reading at least, this spins off from the central concerns, which seem to me to be about displacement of subjectivity or agentivity. I think the image of the dilapidated house acting as nothing more than a totem, around which a tent city is erected, is crucial here - the private property which we (Americans, at least) treat as sacrosanct, as the ultimate symbol of our interiority, is a displaced center. The maenads, as A.F.E. Smith points out, foreground "frenzy," a state-of-being in which the subject is divorced from itself. And "By turning his body parts into commodities, Mervyn has made them into the equivalent of the good silver or the big candelabra;" the transcendent Self is reduced not just to a mechanical/chemical system, but to a set of speculative values.
I've also started to think that the elliptical quality of the story is both it's greatest strength and greatest weakness. I mean, that's coming from a very specific reading of course, but as far as that reading goes, the elliptical comments that do so much to create character and suggest depth of meaning also ends up railroading the reader into a fill-in-the-blanks sort of relationship with the text, with the debate over whether it's the father or the children's "fault" that the relationship "is" the way it is. If my reading has anything going for it, then this is actually actively obscuring the point; no one is to blame, because the very category of blame is meaningless from within these feedback loops.
To be fair, I've not really any idea how the child actor or the deer boat fit here. I also think that I agree with Niall in that the paragraph about "will" is, to me at least, the center of the text, although I think Eric's line "And we reserve the verb ’will’ for things that are going to happen, whether you will them to or not" gets closer to my interpretation. As a story about family, I think it's more about that space between "your will" and "what will," the things any individual may desire against what comes to pass, and the erasure of the former necessary to the latter. Family is about reproduction, both biological and social, and at least the latter is never a one-way street; families don't forgive because there is no one in the privileged subject position to do so, everyone being implicated in the feedback.
Hopefully this isn't too rambling...

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