Year’s Best Science Fiction 5, HarperPrism 2000, David G. Hartwell, Ed.
This story, which I sold today, October 26, 1998, completes my Asimov’s hat-trick: three stories to Asimov’s in just over a year.
I wrote this while at Gipsicon ’98, a writers’ retreat founded by my Clarion classmate, Janis O’Connor. We meet in a different city every summer, in a rented University dorm or schoolhouse, and write and critique our heads off. I heartily recommend this experience: I write my best stuff during that week (I wrote Craphound at Gipsicon ’97).
This story was written in a blind panic, terror inspired by a heinous writer’s block that had me chewing my toes at the prospect of not finishing a story while at the workshop. So I did what I always do when I feel blocked: I went and saw a bunch of bad movies, which bored me to the point where I could write again — about boredom.
A note for my folks: although this has parallels to my family — my grandfather just went into a home — this is by no means an indictment of my family, who are wonderful people.
You can read the whole story online at Strange Horizons.
Grampa was switched off when Sean found him on the ward, which throbbed with a coleslaw of laser-light and videogames and fuck-pix and explosions and car-wrecks and fractals and atrocities.
Sean remembered visits before the old man was committed, he and his dutiful father visiting the impeccable apartment in the slate house in Kingston, Ontario. Grampa made tea and conversation, both perfectly executed and without soul. It drove Sean’s father bugfuck, and he’d inevitably have a displaced tantrum at Sean in the car on the way home. The first time Grampa had switched on in Sean’s presence — it was when Sean was trying out a prototype of Enemies of Art against his father’s own As All Right-Thinking People Know — it had scared Sean stupid.
Grampa had been in maintenance mode, running through a series of isometric stretching exercises in one corner while Sean and his father had it out. Then, suddenly, Grampa was between them, arguing both sides with machinegun passion and lucidity, running an intellect so furious it appeared to be steam-driven. Sean’s tongue died in his mouth. He was made wordless by this vibrant, violent intellect that hid inside Grampa. Grampa and his father had traded extemporaneous barbs until Grampa abruptly switched back off during one of Sean’s father’s rebuttals, conceding the point in an unconvincing, mechanical tone. Sean’s father stalked out of the house and roared out of the driveway then, moving with such speed that if Sean hadn’t been right on his heels, he wouldn’t have been able to get in the car before his father took off.
And now, here was Grampa in maintenance mode. He was sitting at a table, flexing his muscles one-at-a-time from top to bottom. It was an anti-pressure-sore routine. Sean guessed that it was after-market, something the Home made available for low-functioning patients like Grampa.
Sean sat down opposite him. Grampa smiled and nodded politely. Sean swallowed his gorge. The ones who had the surgery had been scattered, unable to focus. Then they had the operation, and suddenly it wasn’t a problem anymore. Whenever their attention dropped below a certain threshold, they just switched off, until the world regained some excitement. It had been a miracle, until the kids stopped making the effort to keep their attention above the threshold, and started to slip away into oblivion.
“Hello, Grampa,” Sean said.
Grampa stared at him from dark eyes set in deep, wrinkled nests. Behind them, Sean could almost see the subroutines churning. “Sean,” Grampa said. Woodenly, he stood and came around the table, and gave Sean a precise hug and cheek-kiss. Sean didn’t bother returning either.
He put the recorder on the table between them and switched it on.