Shelter, by Susan Palwick, is another of the science fiction books I discovered by reading Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, and it is, of course, great.
The way it is told works well, in concentric circles that get bigger. The prologue got me interested in Roberta, who comes back later. I thought the first chapter was about a guy named Kevin, but hindsight shows (since the title wasn’t enough to tip me off) that it was actually about his smart house, an Artificial Intelligence. Then Henry, a “baggie” or homeless person who has had his mind “wiped” and Preston, who used to be an important person (CEO of MacroCorp) and had his memories uploaded to the Net after he died, are featured for a while. Finally I started seeing things from the point of view of Meredith–Preston’s daughter, Kevin’s ex-wife, and mother to one of Roberta’s former preschool students—and then the other story lines began to come into sharper focus. The story covers twenty years, with issues clearly developing from our present (for example, global warming produces storms so fierce people can’t go outside in them and live).
As children, Roberta and Meredith both had a very dangerous and contagious new disease called CV (“caravan virus”) and lived through it, although they spent months in isolation wards with robot or “bot” nursing care. By the time they are adults, scientists are using CV to wipe the memories of people the government considers to be mentally ill. Meredith has lived a life of privilege, urged to get a “rig” that will record her memories and upload them to the Net after her death, although she refuses. How the two women know each other is not clear for the first half of the book, until finally we see Meredith, rendered infertile by the CV, adopt a CV orphan who has been more badly damaged by the disease than any of them could have guessed. He has demons (he calls them “monsters”) who demand sacrifice, and so he begins as any good little psychopath must, killing pets. Meredith and Roberta conspire with Preston and the preschool AI, a Mr. Rogers-type personality they call “Fred,” to keep him from getting noticed and “wiped” and they succeed for a while. The climax of the story comes in the aftermath of their collaboration.
The book is about why we need bodies, and what we need “shelter” from. If we could upload our memories and make “corporations” out of our most idealistic impulses, what could go wrong? Kevin explains architecture as an ideal when he says “Shelter. How people take a dream of comfort and turn it into a building, someplace they can live, someplace they’ll be happy. Not that it ever works. You design your dream house, and then once you build it you realize that the roof leaks and there isn’t enough closet space, and anyhow the shape of your dreams has changed….”
One thing that can go wrong is that even if we work to provide others with shelter, we often don’t want to share our own. Meredith illustrates this when she calls the cops on Henry, who says “my mom kicked me out because she was crazy, and other people kept kicking me out because they thought I was crazy. What’s crazy about wanting to get out of the rain?….A cat could live there, but I couldn’t because I didn’t smell good enough. She doesn’t mind smelling cat pee, but another person…”
Other people don’t want to live in houses with bots, and some don’t want to live in a world with Artificial Intelligences.
Even though Fred the AI and Roberta try their hardest to help Nicholas, Meredith’s adopted son, they can’t help him tell a story about his demons that will allow him to live with them in a way the rest of his society can live with. In fact, Fred himself faces being “wiped” after what has happened with Nicholas comes out:
“The case had generated talk of banning AIs altogether; even non-Luddites had been using Fred to predict the dangers of AIs run amok, although the soulfreaks claimed that he was a misguided hero who’d acted out of compassion to try to save a child. It seemed to Roberta, who’d never understood the debate to begin with, that both sides must be well-nigh desperate to seize so fiercely on Fred. There were AIs in charge of missiles, even if MacroCorp hadn’t manufactured those; there were AIs virtually in charge of hospitals. But then, anything to do with children drew special scrutiny and special hysteria, and always had.”
And yet the heart of the book does not lie in paradox. Excessive altruism is considered, in this future, to be a mental illness. Even Roberta, who has been living in fear of mind-wiping because of what Meredith did, says to her, after hearing her story: “I don’t know what I would have done in your place. I hope I wouldn’t have sacrificed so many people to try to save Nicholas, but you were in a terrible position. I’m not sure how much I really appreciated that before.”
After telling her story to Roberta, Meredith realizes that “her need to punish herself had made her deaf and blind and dumb to the punishment she inflicted on others….Not until she was slapped in the face with it.” In the process of trying to make amends, she spurs Roberta’s recognition that “the most hideous crimes were the ones committed by people trying to make the world entirely safe.” Once the characters all realize that, they can go home. Two of them exist only on the Net. Fred gets a robot body that can fly, prompting the comment “you’re Peter Pan.”
Walton says this is “an important book,” and I agree, although I think that in comparison to the others she mentions—Anathem and Little Brother—it spells things out less, leaving the epiphany caused by one character to be experienced by another, playing devil’s advocate with its own ideas. Shelter is, above all, a thoughtful book. It can create meaning in its readers, but they won’t find its meaning made clear on any one page.