Guest of Honour by Robert Reed


You can read this story for free courtesy of Clarke’s World Magazine.

This is the one of the types of literary science fiction that I’m not fond of. It deals with Big Questions in a serious way in a carefully, although not entirely rigorously, envisioned future populated with well articulated characters. The prose is considered and a little ponderous, treading carefully as though afraid of upsetting the furniture.

It tells the story of Pico who has returned to Earth after an arduous tour of a different planets beyond the solar system and attends a party in her honour. Pico is a ‘compilation’, a person who has been created from the genetic make-up and personalities of several different immortal post-humans in the far future.

The near-immortals devised ways of making highly gifted, highly trained crews from themselves. With computers and genetic engineering, groups of people could pool their qualities and create compilation humans. Sixty-three individuals had each donated moneys and their own own natures, and Pico was the result. She was a grand and sophisticated average of the group. Her face was a blending of every face; her body was a feminine approximation of their own varied bodies. In a few instances the engineers had planted synthetic genes – for speed and strength, for example – and her brain had subtly different architecture. Yet, basically Pico was their offspring, a stewlike clone.

When she returns this syndicate of investors wants to collect on its investment: they want to cut up Pico’s brain and take a slice each to gain access to the memories of her experiences during the trip. Naturally, the process will kill her.

This story asks us to consider the nature of personhood. Is Pico no less a person because she’s been manufactured? Is it right that her creators can just kill and , essentially, eat her brain?

Well, of course it isn’t! Because Pico is the viewpoint character we the reader are left in no doubt that she’s a fully realised individual. She feels and thinks, she falls in love, she is brave and honest and most importantly she fears death. It feels axiomatically wrong and maybe this is why Reed, like Willis and her Cyclists, packs the deck so heavily against the homebodies who are basically portrayed as shallow swingers.

Dessert was finished; people stood about drinking, keeping the three-month old party in motion. A few of them stripped naked and swam in the green pond. I was a raucous scene, tireless and full of happy moments that never seemed convincingly joyous. Happy sounds by practice, rather. Centuries of practice, and the result was to make Pico feel sad and quite lonely.

This kind of dystopian set up mirrors Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go or the the clone Sunmi~145 in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Another sortt of story might have seen a thrillerish plot with Pico on the run and a storyline punctuated by gun fights and desperate measures. But like it’s literary antecedents it takes a more downbeat view.

There’s a particularly annoying twist – read the story first if these things are important to you, here be spoilers!

Pico is befriended by a younger version of one of the immortals, Opera, who offers her a chance of escape. She takes the offer and he escorts her from the party, suggesting that he’s going to take her to another starship to escape and another adventure. However, it’s a all ruse!

Why?” she sputtered. “Why”

Because,” he allowed, “it helps the process. It helps your integration into us. I gave you a chance for doubts and helped you think you were fleeing, convinced you that you’d be free … and now you’re angry and scared and intensely alive. It’s that intensity that we want. It makes the neurological grafts take hold. It’s a trick that we learned since the Kyber left Earth.

So, the internal, philosophical drama is entirely one-sided, and the Reed clearly has no interest in a thrillery plot, so why even bother with this addition? It serves nothing so much as to add a little bit of false tension to proceedings and make the immortal humans look like a worse bunch of bastards than they already do.

I think this story’s serious tone hides, to a large extent, the vacuum at its centre. This drama feels earned very cheaply, and genuinely interesting ideas are ignored. The story treats death as a binary state, when this ability to pass on – or around – memories implies a more fluid state. One could even consider the idea of possession that inhabits the other side of the transaction a sort of death – each of the members of the syndicate become a little less themselves and a little more the same. Over long generations of this, could the nature of individuality change completely? Guest of Honour doesn’t attempt any of that and the result, however nicely written, is pretty banal.

Themes: people as chattels, the nature of personhood, clone dystopis, trans-humanism.


Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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