It’s a little unfair that Aliette de Bodard keeps popping up so frequently in my “cool stories” feature, but as she keeps knocking ’em out of the park, I don’t feel too bad.
“Immersion,” among other things, is a poignant meditation on the social and personal implications of that faithful SF standby, the Universal Translator. Set on a space station in the far future, this story mingles the fallout from advanced information technologies, colonialism, and inter-cultural relationships. Might relying on technology to erase cultural barriers cost us our souls?
The young women are looking at you: they both wear standard-issue avatars, the bottom-of-the-line kind—their clothes are a garish mix of red and yellow, with the odd, uneasy cut of cheap designers; and their faces waver, letting you glimpse a hint of darker skin beneath the red flush of their cheeks. Cheap and tawdry, and altogether inappropriate; and you’re glad you’re not one of them.
“Can I help you, older sister?” one of them asks.
Older sister. A pronoun you were looking for, earlier; one of the things that seem to have vanished from your mind. You struggle for words; but all the immerser seems to suggest to you is a neutral and impersonal pronoun, one that you instinctively know is wrong—it’s one only foreigners and outsiders would use in those circumstances. “Older sister,” you repeat, finally, because you can’t think of anything else.
Galen’s voice, calling from far away—for a brief moment the immerser seems to fail you again, because you know that you have many names, that Agnes is the one they gave you in Galactic school, the one neither Galen nor his friends can mangle when they pronounce it. You remember the Rong names your mother gave you on Longevity, the childhood endearments and your adult style name.
Be-Nho, Be-Yeu. Thu—Autumn, like a memory of red maple leaves on a planet you never knew.
You pull away from the table, disguising the tremor in your hands.
Aliette de Bodard is a Franco-Vietnamese writer, nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell awards. Her speculative fiction focuses on ancient and future Asian and MesoAmerican cultures. Visit her blog to learn more about her many other cool stories and her explorations into Vietnamese culture and cooking.
UPDATE: Can I call ’em, or what? This story has been nominated for both the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Short Story award and the Science Fiction Writers’ Association Nebula Award in the Short Story division.
UPDATE: Yes, I can call ’em. “Immersion” won the Nebula.