So, it’s the future. There’s laser-targeted mosquito zapping and brain growth alteration capable of curing autism. What do these have to do with the story? Not much, at least directly.
Movement, a story by Nancy Fulda, is a story about a girl named Hanna. Hanna has “temporal autism”, a mental disorder that distorts her perception of time. Her parents, rich from the invention of a laser-targeted mosquito zapper, search for a way to cure their daughter. The answer may lie in a new treatment which shapes the growth of specific parts of the brain. When presented with the option of undergoing the treatment by her overbearing parents, Hanna escapes to her personal retreat and muses about her condition. That’s where the science fiction stops and the contemporary fiction begins.
As a character sketch, the story works pretty well. Hanna is a girl who finds freedom from her overbearing parents through her condition, an ability to lose herself in the passage of time. Her hobbies are watching and doing things just as adrift in the flow of time as she is. Capable of feeling the vastness of time, Hanna finds modern society’s rush to save time when there is plenty to go around to be pointless. Offered a treatment that blinds her to what she sees as one of humanity’s worse aspects, Hanna’s reaction seems more than reasonable. Throughout the story, I was sympathetic to her plight, and her unease at the possibility of losing her anchor to her own self became my unease.
My disappointment with Movement stems from the fact that there’s a lot here that makes fertile ground for interesting science fiction: a treatment capable of curing mental and developmental disorders, largely untested, and a character that seems an ideal target for treatment. There’s even a certain ethos of horror in the story – the specter of Hanna’s parents forcing the treatment on her regardless of her thoughts on the idea always seems to lurk in the background. But inexplicably, Fulda capitalizes on none of these things.
What makes this story simply contemporary fiction instead of science fiction is that the therapy is mentioned, but is not actually used. Never mind that an explanation is given as to how it works. If the therapy were replaced with another plot device, say a dedicated psychologist guaranteed to be able to work through her problem, the story would largely work the same way. The therapy is Chekhov’s Gun, minus a trigger.
Think of Flowers for Algernon, which I think is a much better example of science fiction in this type of writing. Movement uses a lot of the same elements, but where Flowers for Algernon is both a story about a man and a parable about the impact of imperfect technologies on people, Movement simply contents itself with being a character sketch. Granted, Flowers for Algernon was a novel, but there was room for Movement to be more than a character sketch, even considering the constraints of the format.
It’s disappointing that this is nominated for one of the best science fiction stories of the year, seeing as there’s very little in the way of actual science fiction content in this story. Rather than using the field of science fiction to its advantage, perhaps using the treatment to discuss the nature and sanctity of consciousness, Fulda is content to let it serve as window dressing for a contemporary story.
I haven’t read a whole lot (read: none) of the science fiction short stories published in the last couple years. But, if this is considered one of the strongest “science fiction” stories of the year, I don’t think I’ve missed much.