“Homecoming” by Mike Resnick

May 22, 2012 at 2:21 am | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment
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Circumstances have prevented me from posting for a while so I’ve got a bunch of catching up to do.  First up is a look at the Hugo-nominated short stories.  This is the first year I’ll actually be voting, so this time I hope to read every piece of nominated fiction.  That’s a feat I’ve never come close to managing, so we’ll see how it goes.

During the voting period “Homecoming” is available for free online here (PDF).

In role-playing video games like those made by Bioware, the player frequently encounters someone dead set on some extreme proposition (a determination to fight to the death for their lost cause, for example), only to talk them into a reversal of this position with an argument that amounts to a single sentence.  In a video game, this is an understandable shorthand since the conversation is firmly in a supportive role in the wider set of gameplay mechanics.  In a short story, especially one that consists of what is more or less a single conversation, this is less forgivable.

The plot of “Homecoming” involves an elderly narrator whose small-minded superficiality estranges him from his son for many years and proves impervious to the pages of tedious argument that constitute most of the story only to be healed by a few sentences from his wife.  One might attempt to defend the story on the grounds that these few words are lent gravitas by being spoken during an unexpected and completely transient remission of the effects of Alzheimer’s, but the more one thinks about these circumstances the less believable they are.  That an Alzheimer’s sufferer would experience a brief moment of lucidity is credible, but that it would come at the exact moment it does smacks of authorial contrivance, and that it would involve the sufferer suddenly holding an opinion she evidently did not hold before the onset of the disease seems absurd.

All of this is in service to the daring moral message “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  The SFnal element, the idea that the narrator’s son has undergone an irreversible process that makes him appear to be a member of an alien species, is not developed enough to go any place new and, in any case, seems more dubious the longer one thinks about it.  It seems like a crude metaphor for racism, but viewed through this lens, the story is asking the important question: does making yourself look like a different race in order to study that race make you some sort of race traitor?  Spoiler alert: no.  The story does not attempt to deal with the somewhat more interesting question of whether or not there is even such a thing as, in the narrator’s words, “deserting your species”, nor the still more intriguing question of just what this business of dressing up as aliens to interact with them suggests about how humans view the aliens.  What would we think about white anthropologists donning blackface before going to visit an African village?

I don’t mean to imply that if the story can’t be related back to Important Themes, like modern struggles over racism, it can’t be good.  It’s worth mentioning that of the short stories nominated for a Hugo this year, this one is the most firmly situated within the genre.  Maybe that gives it a shot at winning?  There isn’t much discussion of this story online, but what I’ve seen suggests that other people (presumably to include the author, editor, and nominating voters) don’t find it so psychologically absurd as I do.

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