BASS 2020: “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers

by James Wallace Harris,

Near the end of 1968, Connell and I were over George’s house and the three of us were having a passionate discussion about “And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell. Connell and I were in the 12th grade, and George was in the 11th. We considered science fiction important because it was about the future. We were just back from seeing the launch of Apollo 8, and what could validate the importance of the future more than that?

Evidently, George’s mom was listening in on us. Mrs. Kurschner came in and said, “You know when you grow up you’ll realize that science fiction is childish crap, not even real literature. You won’t take it seriously at all.” We were stunned and insulted. I knew Mrs. Kurschner was well educated, world traveled, a sophisticated women, besides being a mom. We all argued with her at once, pleading she was wrong. Over the years, John Updike, and other famous literary authors would write essays that reiterated her opinion about how science fiction was crap written for adolescent boys. The genre got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.

Well, I’ve outlived Mrs. Kurschner, John Updike, and many other literary snobs who put down science fiction. The fourth story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 is science fiction, “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers. Oh sure, over the decades genre fiction has slowly snuck into BASS and literary writers began using science fictional themes in their hibrow works. There’s even The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories that are part of the growing BASS series of annuals.

The inclusion of science fiction in BASS has always been rather tentative, on the gentle side of science fiction, and that’s true of “Sibling Rivalry.” Back in the 1960s I knew damn few people that read or watched science fiction, especially before Star Trek. Now our pop culture is supersaturated with science fictional themes and ideas. I suppose few readers will be surprised to read about androids in the annual BASS volume, or even resent the fact. Does that mean that science is finally mainstream?

Nah, it turns out Mrs. Kurschner was right all along, and so was John Updike. Science fiction is not mature literature, and yes it’s targeted at our adolescent nature, which our culture glorifies. I’m much older now than Mrs. Kurschner was back then, and I’ve read a lot more science fiction and literature since then. But, don’t take me for a turncoat. I just see science fiction and serious literature as two separate art forms with uniquely different ambitions. Sure they both borrow techniques from the other, but for each to hit their defining targets they must fire their canons in entirely different directions.

“Sibling Rivalry” is a story that shoots at both targets, and misses twice. That’s not to say I wasn’t thoroughly engaged and entertained by this story, but if you’ve been reading my reviews of BASS 2020 so far you know I consider high quality writing and exceptionally entertaining stories to be the minimum qualifications for this anthology. My naggings and quibblings only deal with how these stories meet my jaded hunger for fiction. It’s an addiction, so I always need purer, more potent stories. In other words, any marketing data obtained here only applies to one buyer – me.

“Sibling Rivalry” on the surface feels like ordinary literary fiction, Peter and Julie Burkhart have two children, Matt, 11, and Melissa, 7, and the story is about their love and concern for raising their kids and loving each other. There are two differences in their suburban world. First, Melissa is a synth, an AI artificial person who looks exactly like a human seven-year-old, and second, instead of everyone having smartphones, they have cookies, which network their thoughts, allowing parents to spy on their children, and for grownups to gossip more easily.

In the science fiction genre both of those divergents from normal life are called What If ideas. What if we could buy children to order? What if we had technological telepathy?

One of the biggest challenges to writing science fiction is integrating a neat idea into a plot with appealing characters. Most science fiction fails because the characters feel like chess pieces acting out a neat science fiction idea. This isn’t true with “Sibling Rivalry.” Byers makes the story about the Burkharts, and you really feel for them, or at least I did. Thumbs up for the literary side of this story.

Science fiction often fails too because writers use retreaded plots about space warfare, overthrowing dystopias, repelling alien invasions, battling robotic overlords, and the romance and intrigued inside galactic empires. It’s a real challenge to write an original science fiction story. Byers is far less original here, because countless SF stories have dealt with robots that look just like people. Byers follow two well worn paths regarding androids, but I’ll up his grade for his exploration of cookies.

“Sibling Rivalry” is a kind of Sci-Fi Literary Lite, sometimes called Slipstream. Basically, it tries to merge regular literary characters and settings with a gentle intrusions of science fictional tropes. In this story Byers presents a near future where he introduces two disruptive technologies, like the iPhone did in 2007.

Back in the old days of science fiction, the common writing advice was to only introduce one science fictional change in a story and play it out to its logical conclusion. I guess they don’t give that advice out anymore because Byers bites off two at once, and he veers into two very tired SF trends – sex with androids and robot overlords. I thought this kitchen sink approach diluted the story, and wished it had only been about cookies. But I still liked the story very much.

With both technologies, Byers attempts to let his readers get a feeling for a future that’s very much like now, but slightly altered by the two technologies. Because Byers jumps around exploring different ideas the story is essentially plotless, and several interesting revelations go unexplored. That’s actually perfectly fine for literary writing, but it might disappoint genre fans. Nothing is resolved or tied up. Basically, Byers opens up Pandora’s box and we get to watch several fires start burning. However, all of them are intellectually amusing to contemplate. And that’s the value of science fiction, contemplating possibilities.

There are two types of science fiction fans: those that don’t care about the science and those that do. When I was growing up, some fans were like Connell, George, and I. We loved reading science fiction because so we could argue over whether the ideas in a story were realistic – were scientifically possible. The vast hordes of SF fans only care about stories, even if the science is at the level of comic books. Which is why most literary critics cringe at science fiction. Comic book science is idiotic to mature minds.

There is a faith in science fiction that’s no more logical than fundamentalists who believe the world is just six thousand years old and mankind once coexisted with dinosaurs. I’ve often been on online and said faster-than-light travel won’t happen and people reacted like I said God doesn’t exist at a Southern Baptist revival. Try being Mr. Skeptical Inquirer at any science fiction convention and you might get run through with a Bat’leth by a adolescent femfan.

I feel most readers, either literary fans or SF fans just want a good story. There are some literary readers who want characters to act realistically human, and some science fiction fans who want SF stories to be scientific. Most readers aren’t critical in either regard if the story is fun.

Michael Byers presents an idea that is almost universally embraced in modern science fiction – that technology will produce robots/androids/replicants that are indistinguishable from real humans. We see such AI creatures in books and movies everywhere. I say we’ll see them as soon as we see FTL or time travel. In other words, never. My opinion is atypical, a downer, to those who believe anything is possible.

In “Sibling Rivalry” laws prevent couples from having more than one child, so those wanting a big family buy extra synth children. They are identical to human children in all ways, including the ability to grow. This is an absurd What If to contemplate on so many levels. The basic premise of society outlawing children to save the Earth is believable, but allowing unlimited synths instead is not. They would also put a burden on the environment too, maybe even more than human children. Byers does say synth children are carefully crafted from analyzing the parents behavior, so I would have found it more believable if synth children were just a vanity fad, rather than a byproduct of trying to control overpopulation.

Even though I disbelieve in artificial humans, I will accept the idea for the story. I do believe we will create AI minds that are sentient and self-aware. I will assume Byers’ synth children are literary symbolisms, although I do believe Byers was not intending to be symbolic. But would parents love AI children if they looked like mechanical spiders, even if they mentally mirrored the parents? I don’t think so.

I believe Byers is the kind of SF writer that wants us to believe everything in his story is realistic just for the purpose of the story. When I ask SF fans if they object to unscientific things in SF they say they only judge stories for the storytelling. However, if I tell the same people those concepts don’t exist outside the context of fiction, they get bent out of shape. But analyzing the psychology of people who passionately believe in angels or hot girl robots is for another essay.

Insights into understanding humans is my yardstick for measuring literary fiction. “Sibling Rivalry” lightly touches on some issues I think are worthy of considering, especially about how much do we really want to know about what goes on in other people’s minds.

Imagining possibilities that time or science has yet to discover is my yardstick for measuring science fiction. Byers didn’t do anything with synthetic humans that hasn’t been done before, but some of his ideas about cookies intrigued me. I don’t know if they are scientifically possible. I tend to doubt it, but I’m less skeptical of them than the idea of creating artificial people we can’t tell from real people.

Menu: The Best American Short Stories 2020 Project

Be sure and read Jacob Weber’s review of this story because he chronicles the stages he goes through as he reacts to each new bit of information in the story. A neat technique.


12 thoughts on “BASS 2020: “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers”

  1. The people you mention knew virtually nothing about the written genre. We know that science fiction can be equal to general literarture and that not all general literature is that good and can be inferior to science fiction. Literary science fiction is much broader in it’s themes than general literature, which is why it’s different as you say.

  2. This is your best reading in BASS 2020 yet. I felt the same way you did about some of the aspects of this story.

    My favorite writer who was still alive in my lifetime is Kurt Vonnegut, who I guess you might call slipstream.

  3. Yes, I’ve encountered many literary snobs who dismiss genre fiction like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Westerns, and Mysteries. In “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?,” legendary literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote: “I got bored with the Thinking Machine and dropped him.” Wilson also dismisses two Nero Wolfe books as “sketchy and skimpy” and writes of The League of Frightened Men “the solution of the mystery was not usually either fanciful or unexpected,” failing to consider the mind games good mysteries may play with the reader.. He declares Agatha Christie’s writing “of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read.”

    Then Wilson compounded his arrogance with “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” written in response to many letters that had poured in from readers hoping to set Wilson straight. Wilson dismisses Dorothy Sanders’s The Nine Tailors, openly confessing:
    “I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English villa characters.”

    Today, Wilson is scarcely read while Agatha Christie’s publisher still sells plenty of her mysteries. Time is the real Judge of quality.

    1. Good point about Wilson and Christie. Most people love fun reading, which is mainly genre fiction. However, that doesn’t invalidate serious literature. It’s just has a difficult goal.

  4. Great essay.

    I listened to Sibling Rivalry on Audible and didn’t like it much. After reading this essay, I read it and I like the story much more.

    The ideas of AI taking on human form and developing over time and seemingly learning as they grow is intriguing. Also the idea of using “cookies” to communicate with people’s thoughts in real time is intriguing as well. We kind of have these things now, don’t we?

    The idea that Peter and Julie have to put their cookies on hold to give their kids their space is outstanding. The electronic leash as been cut. Reminds me of “media fasts” and eliminating social media from one’s everyday life going on now.

    Great essay, Jim.

    1. Thanks, David. I think Byers was just extrapolating on current trends, repeating what we’re already repeating. If you think of books, journals, telegraph, radio, TV, computers, smartphones as each a separate step of bringing us closer together, we can probably find counter steps with each technology to step back some.

  5. Slipstream! Ok, that’s the word I’ve been looking for – I’ve been struggling to define the kind of science fiction that BASS (and Pushcart) have included in recent years, and the best I could come up with was “literary fiction with science fiction elements.” Funny, I remember the term slipstream from when I was taking a stab at writing, but I never really knew what it meant.
    So glad you’re doing this reading and blogging – thank you!

  6. Are you implying that hot girl robots don’t exist??

    Thanks for this essay, James. I really enjoyed it. Your insights remind me of Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell, particularly his thoughts on Jules Verne.

    I had the same conversations with my friends about SF in 1968. We were binge-reading the Foundation trilogy. I still can’t believe Asimov decided to keep going. If I tried to read any of those books today, I’d probably croak.

    BTW, the BASS books in the 1970s were particularly awful; timid, uninteresting, microscopically focused on decay and despair. Unless I was a particularly immature reader. Either one is possible.

    1. That’s interesting. I’ll try and get an old copy of Best American Short Stories from back then to see what they were like.

      I see things in the news all the time about companies working on hot girl robots. Even stories about guys wanting to marry their dolls. But their artificial girlfriends still look no better than my sister’s dolls, just bigger.

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