Tideline, by Elizabeth Bear

May 29, 2008

Listen to it at Escape Pod.

To me, science fiction is a tricky genre. This is mostly because I’m almost ashamed to admit that I read it. I remember, a few years ago, a friend of mine was aghast when I admitted I liked reading scifi. Even though she was fond of flimsy teen romance books, I cared about what she thought, and that moment of shock and horror still haunts me on some level.

I still get embarrassed when people find out I like genre fiction. I feel compelled to tell them that I also like Dickens and Auster and other ‘real’ writers. It’s a terrible habit, and I’m trying to get myself out of it.

The best way to get rid of this self-imposed stigma of ‘omg genre’ is by reading amazing genre fiction. That way, if a lit snob ever sniffs at a story with a ray gun or monster in it, I can say, ‘Ah, but have you read this?’

Tideline is one of those stories. Quality-wise, it’s excellent. It’s poignant and well-written. It tackles big, heavy themes. There’s culture, and memory, and growing up. It also happens to have a robot as one of the main characters.

For all this, I’m not as enthusiastic about Tideline as I thought I would be. It’s got all the things I usually like (including robots), but it seems very self-aware. No, that doesn’t make sense. I think the thing that bugs me, is that it’s really quite literary scifi.

Science fiction is an excellent medium for exploring big themes, and there’s depth in a lot of the truly good scifi that would leave many a lit major flabbergasted.

In Tideline, a young boy meets and befriends a robot, which is gathering the bits and pieces left behind by what we assume to be a huge battle. The robot then takes over the role of mother to the boy, telling him stories and keeping him safe and healthy.

It doesn’t really work for me in this story, though. I cared about the characters, and I cared about the events, but I think I would have cared more if the main character hadn’t been a robot. I could appreciate the problems that arose because of the mechanical nature of one of the protagonists, but it could have just as easily been accomplished if said character had been an old human.

Admittedly, the touching relationship between the two protagonists might not have been quite as touching if one of them wasn’t a robot, but to me, the relationship wasn’t the drawing point of the piece.

In short, this was an impressive piece incorporating both huge, weighty themes… and robots. But it could do without the robots.

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