A man, estranged from his parents for years, comes home to meet his disapproving father and dying mother and catch up with the family. That’s not science fiction, is it? The man is now a giant insect, of course it is! Welcome to The Homecoming, perhaps the most overly saccharine story of the Hugo lot this year.
The premise of Mike Resnick’s The Homecoming is pretty simple, and probably fulfills the fantasy of every person with family issues. Leave home for a dream job that the parents disapprove of and come back in their old age, perfectly happy with the trajectory your life has taken you on. And then, to top it off, you prove that you were right about what you were doing all along. Of course, The Homecoming isn’t so smug about it, but the above could easily pass as a synopsis for the story.
Told from the point of view of the father, The Homecoming is the story of a man, Philip, who comes home to visit his fading, Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother before she passes on. After completing college, Philip left to work on an alien planet, receiving the body of one of the sentient species on the planet to do so. The father, Jordan, is ashamed and disgusted with what his son has become, although Julia, the mother, doesn’t really remember Philip that much anymore, and is fascinated by the giant silver insect that has showed up in her home. After Jordan finally gets over Philip’s appearance and listens to the kind of work he does, he begins to think that maybe his son knew what he was doing after all.
The Homecoming, though, is as much science fiction as Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In fact, the two stories are fairly similar in that fact: the transformation isn’t so much a set-up for fantastic adventures in far-off lands, but a set-up to examine family dynamics. But where Metamorphosis uses the transformation in many subtle, different ways (such as an allegory for the shame of mental illness and the loss of self-sufficiency), The Homecoming uses a sledgehammer to make the opposite point.
In The Homecoming, Philip has taken on a form that is disgusting to his parents, but is still happy and proud of what he is doing. The only thing that keeps Philip’s form from being merely symbolic is what could generously be called a description of the planet that Philip is working on. It’s an imaginative planet, but does little to add to the story than to give a little more background to Philip. Much like The Movement, it’s contemporary fiction wrapped in science fiction clothing.
So what does the story do right? Well, the writing for Julia is a good place to start. Speaking from a couple grandmothers’ worth of experience, the depiction of Alzheimer’s is spot-on. The repeated phrases, the occasional moments of lucidity, and the child-like fascination with surroundings and stories; these are all things that I’ve seen in my grandmothers. Reading Julia’s parts made me think of my maternal grandmother in particular. It’s eerily accurate. I wonder if Resnick has experienced someone like this himself.
Philip’s story about the planet he works on, and the breathless manner in which he speaks about it also works pretty well. It’s pretty much a sales job to his parents about his work, but Philip also engaged me with his story. Who wouldn’t want the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit a planet with kaleidoscopic animals, intelligent “plants”, and giant crystal mountains?
However, Resnick totally drops the ball with Philip’s “fairy tale” told to Julia at the end of the story. Why is it supposed to be believable when, after trying to explain to a father his feelings on the subject all evening, a sweetly-worded story for his mother is able to bring Jordan around? This part seems overly forced and saccharine to me. Yes, it makes for a happy ending in which the father sees the error of his ways, but it seems a stretch that long-estranged relationships can be rekindled with a few well-chosen words.
In the gee-whiz era of optimistic science fiction, this wouldn’t be as big an issue. I can think of a couple Clarke stories that ended on notes like this, and the story wasn’t much the less for them. However, when the story’s main focus is on character relationships, characterization and realistic character developments are more important. In the end, the overreach for sentimentality really killed what little the story had going for it.
As for The Homecoming’s Hugo eligibility, I have essentially the same complaint as Movement – not enough science fiction to really be considered for a science fiction award.