All just programming

Old Paint
by Megan Lindholm

This is a novelette from Asimov’s Science Fiction that Tim encouraged me to read. It’s a touching, simple story set in a near-ish future and playing on American tropes.

I hadn’t realised until looking her up for this review that Megan Lindholm also writes as Robin Hobb, which is a name that is much more familiar to me but also one I wouldn’t pick up because she writes that traditional swords and magic fantasy that I’m not a fan of. Well, turns out she can write SF pretty well so maybe I’ll look up more of her work written under her real name.

This is the story of a poor-ish family in an American city in the late 21st century. Suzanne and her two school-age kids share a small flat with one computer between them and have no car, much to the children’s shame. But when they inherit their grandfather’s huge muscle car they are even more embarrassed. Especially when their mother insists on actually driving it rather than letting it drive itself like everyone else does.

To say much more about the storyline would be to give too much away, but it’s an interesting take on the American love affair with cars. From an environmental perspective it’s hopeful, because all cars run on electricity, with back-up solar cells for when they can’t get to a charge point. Despite the advances in technology, this is a story about people. Suzanne reminisces about her teenage relationship with this same car. And yes, I know how that sounds and yes, to a certain extent the story does anthropomorphise the car (“Old Paint” is the name they give it), though it does acknowledge this directly:

“We all know that Old Paint is just following the directives of his programming. He’s not really…alive. He just seems that way because we think of him that way. But it’s all just programming.”

But that’s not what it’s about. Suzanne’s long-since given-up-on relationship with her father is rescued after the fact by this gift and her children learn to appreciate her through it as well. Which sounds odd, but trust me, it works.

There are more SF elements than my synopsis perhaps suggests but they are subtly done so that, aside from one thing that’s central to the story, it’s all background. It’s a very believable near future, with only one significant change from now.

First published in the July 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.