by Christine Ro
As she gets older, my mother talks a lot about the homeland. She visits it only for funerals, spaced decades apart. The last such visit was many years ago. The toll this type of travel takes on her is getting to be too much.
Also–although I’ve had to piece this together from what she has and hasn’t said–it’s getting harder for her to communicate with those left behind. It’s not just the new terms, because UniLang is updated every half-second. It’s also the references, the way of thinking, and the shifts in perspective on events there used to be consensus on. When she left 80-odd years ago, people believed certain things. She goes back, she repeats these dogmas, and she receives an uncomfortable silence in return. The immigrants age differently than the natives.
And above all, of course, there’s the matter of the chip. More than ever before, there are limitations on where she can go and who she can see. Her pride is hurt by waiting for the white-chipped to come to her.
Still, my mother holds onto a romantic attachment to the place. The homeland is like the first boyfriend she also mentions increasingly as she ages. The first time I heard about him, he was a throwaway joke. The fifth time, there was some wistfulness in her voice. The last time, he was the one she shouldn’t have allowed to get away.
I get it. I’ve never accompanied her on these infrequent trips–too obstructed by the cost or the time. But I too like old things.
When my chip glows its rosy glow, I know that it’s time to go. I call up UniLove, which tells me exactly what my mother needs. I hope it’s not face time this time, as I’ve spent 7.4% of the last 10 work days on care leave. The looks on Tab’s face, as it appears on the corner of my work screen, are gradually changing from approving to reproving.
“Dosage check,” UniLove notes. This is a relief. I pass the message on to the appropriate station.
I turn back to my own. Highly aware of my diminishing work-logged hours, I’ve been careful lately. I keep my eyes trained on the screen as much as possible, even when scratching myself or taking a drink of water. I’ve considered implanting a catheter so that my sensor doesn’t turn off when I leave for bathroom breaks, but I’ve spent enough time in health stations lately.
In Pre-Colonial History, my favorite class at UniLearn, we’ve learned about the indignities suffered in “sweatshops”, where some impoverished workers learned to wear diapers to the workplace so that their productivity didn’t dip below the unsupportable standards made of them. I e-clucked in sympathy along with my millions of classmates, even as I felt an oddly nostalgic twinge when looking at these images of factory workers–this community. The instructor reminded us how lucky we were that workplaces, let alone sweatshops, were a thing of the past. This is just one of the many daily reminders of our progress. Instead of diapers worn to drag out dehumanizing work, there’s the possibility of catheters to optimize the work that only humans can do.
Apart from time logged on work, the only metric for measuring my performance is the number of complaints. That takes a bit more effort than training my eyes on my work screen and being sure not to click away to anything that might register as unrelated to work. So I read things twice. I rack my brain for the most appropriately inappropriate things to write. I act out the voices. I try not to repeat myself, or to repeat myself artfully.
And the hit I get when my work numbers are loaded onto my chip, with that ping that’s come to sound like the most glorious music in the world, is better than medpills. The possibilities of consumption, of travel–these are freedom, both freedom from want and the freedom to want. I keep working.
“You are late,” my mother complains when I reach her home station. Lately everything she says sounds like either a complaint or a prayer.
“It takes time, studying and working,” I remind her.
“But I am only 45 floors away.”
“45 floors is a lot.”
“You must be very lazy.”
“You must be really sad to have such a lazy kid.”
“What did I do to deserve this?”
And with that we’ve played out a familiar routine, so I take hold of her sleep station and begin the circuit around the floor. She points out the new construction in Unit 12. I tell her I preferred the old-style storefront. She titters at the idea that something from four years ago would be considered old, but of course it is. At the fountain we watch the young couples watching each other, looking love-drugged. We compare “menus” at the restaurants in Units 80-99. I tell her I’ll bring her to one of the 100-level places one day. She pretends to believe me.
When we return to her home station an hour and a half later, my mother is drowsy and kind. This, at her most pliable and childlike, is when she makes me the most uncomfortable. “You are good to me,” she says. “You are good.” This doesn’t sound like my mother, with her prickly edges and unpredictable temper.
So I brush it off. I say something intended to provoke. She bristles. This brings my mother, my real mother, back.
Pre-Colonial History is continuing with its series on depressing social conditions on Earth–or so it should be called. But maybe every cohort thinks this of previous ones. If the human story always bends toward progress, earlier periods must always seem deplorable in comparison. Well, I don’t entirely deplore them.
There’s a one-week module on the peculiarities of “racism”. This touches on honorary whites in South Africa, honorary Aryans in Germany, and the shifting views of who was considered non-white–from Jews to Italians to those with a single drop of black blood, as scientifically dubious as that was–in the United States.
We have to be taught about the markers of these differences, as they’re not immediately obvious. “Look at the eyes,” says the instructor. “The nose. The height.” She applies measurements and averages. We strain our eyes.
Our instructor shows a five-media reconstructed life snippet of David Song, a Chinese-South African businessman during the apartheid era. Following the South Africa Population Registration Act of 1950, Song applied for reclassification as “white”. His argument was that he associated with white people and identified as such. The court granted him this honorary white status. However, his wife and children remained non-white because Song had only applied for reclassification for himself. This then led to concerns about whether their marriage was legal as it now involved people of different races. The Song family eventually moved out of Durban, having faced difficulties in living as an ostensibly mixed-race couple there. Ultimately, it hadn’t benefited Song much to be considered white.
“What a weird name,” Rihanna 39 comments privately to me.
I don’t feel like speaking. “davidsong?” I type back.
“South Africa. Or, like, Middle East, for that matter.”
“You mean the Near East?”
“Yeah, exactly, how weird is that? The Near to Middle Easts, and the Far East, and the West. It’s all sort of relative, isn’t it? I mean, it just depends on which way you’re looking at the map.”
We call up UniLib and study an ancient map together. It looks horribly imprecise. And the way a tiny country could control a larger country in another quadrant is bizarre. It all seems so slipshod.
“There’s a kind of large-scale, analog version in the document park on Floor 122,” Rihanna 39 says. “I saw an ad for it while taking a sort of break from UniLearn.”
“I mean, we could go check it out later. If you’re not doing anything. Or something. We could do something.”
I’m always doing something. Working or looking after my mother or spending time staring at the ceiling of my home station–all that counts. I need all that.
After a pause, Rihanna 39 asks, “So do you want to? Do something, that is.”
“srry lstnng lctr”
“Heh, me too. Sort of.”
I do like a good document park. I write a thumb’s up, and set our calendars to sync.
“Excited!!” I can hear the exclamation marks in her voice.
“k ltr stmch rmblng”, I type. After checking my supply, I head off to the health station for a resupply of foodpills.
I like the floors in the 120s. They’re quieter and slower than the rest of the complex. I tell Rihanna this.
“I know,” she says. “You’re into document parks and you like kind of old things.” She must have used UniLook on me before our last UniLearn session. I’d forgotten to. Amateur.
“What else do you know about me?” I wonder.
She shrugs and reaches for her chip, now a muted beige. “Everything.”
“No, what can you remember?”
She’s initially flustered, then excited. “Ooh, I’m good at this. I was in a bunch of memory bees when I was a kid.”
She carries on in a recitation that lacks punctuation. “Let’s see you dock on Floor 909 you’ve never been below the 100s you’re studying mainly history you’re second-generation you have one relative you weigh between, like, 75 and 80 kilograms your work is inserting sort of random errors into customer service messages to make them seem more ‘human’ but not totally random because an automat could do that much better you listen to more than 400 songs a month a lot of it seems kind of mopey but that’s just guessing from the titles.” Rihanna runs out of breath, pleased with herself.
That all sounds about right. I sound perfectly predictable, the way everyone does when presented quantitatively. Data is useful to help eliminate illusions about ourselves.
“What do you know about me?” Rihanna wants to know.
“Well, er, you’re albino,” I offer weakly. “So you’re probably a full-time student. And you probably have a lot more family here than I do. Your whole family, in fact.”
She turns somber. “They all had to leave once Earth hit 3°. It was doing stuff to their skin and their eyes…”
“Where were they at the time?”
I roll the syllables around in my mouth. I love old country names. They sound so fanciful.
We stroll around and admire the documents. It takes a minute for our eyes to adjust, but eventually our pupils find their focus and the items swim into view. There’s the historical “world” map, of course, which seems adorably naïve now. The Magna Carta. A Van Gogh drawing, with a note on the controversy on the rescuing of precious artifacts from the British Museum. A portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The United States’ Declaration of Independence. The Hunminjeongeum manuscript. The Charter of the United Nations. A novel by an author I don’t recognize–probably someone hoping all along that people would scour her old manuscripts just to see the brilliant notes in the margins. Well, she was right.
“Look at how kind of weird their writing is,” Rihanna squeals.
She’s right; it all seems so irregular. “What chickenscratch is that?”
“Oh, I saw it in a movie. It was called ‘cursive’, they said.”
“What was the point of that? To make things harder to read, like a code?”
We bond over this shared sense of superiority over the past, the way people have probably been doing for eons. Even as I sneer at the backwardsness, though, I feel a tug. Like Rihanna said, I like old things. I like vintage clothes and scratchy music and grimy buildings and objects that tell stories and women with tragic pasts.
So I don’t know if I like Rihanna. I concentrate on the veins peeking through her translucent skin, the muscularity and the prominence of the chip that I know are supposed to turn me on. They don’t.
To squelch some of this guilt about leading her on, if that is indeed what I’m doing, I make the impulsive decision to cash in on some points and give her a present. It’s nothing fancy, just an e-jewel. She yips delightedly when her chip notifies her. This unlocks a stored reciprocal present for me, which flashes for a moment on my phone. It makes me blush deeply.
When my chip glows, indicating a notification about my mother, I’m not too worried. I know from UniLoc that she’s in a religion station, and she almost always sends a prayer my way from there. I always dismiss these prayers unread. I don’t think my mother would mind; she’s openly stated that what she enjoys about religion is the ritual, not the content. She mocks the automats, with their holographic rosaries.
I’m more concerned about Tab, whose enlarged, pale, conspicuous eyes are a fixture on my work screen. Like Rihanna, Tab’s fifth-generation–white-blooded, as they say. Her people suffered from xeroderma pigmentosum, and so hopped on the first transport they could arrange coming here. The intensifying of UV radiation affected them even more intensely than albino populations, which gave them an extra push to immigrate.
The white-blooded are disproportionately represented in management. I try to resist the consolations of prejudice, knowing what my mother went through. Like my mother’s religion, however, having a bit of bigotry to fall back on would provide some solace.
What has Tab on remotely-breathing-down-my-neck duty is my work on a query about foodpills. The customer was the procurement supervisor of a conglomerate based on Floor 144b. She had had an attack of the ethics, and I guessed was messaging every supplier to ensure that all practices were aboveboard.
The automat gave the usual excellent response about vetting of the supply chain, remote monitoring, etc. I skimmed through it, rewrote “rigorous” as “rigorus”, and added an extra line break between two paragraphs. Or at least, I thought that was all I’d done.
I respond to Tab now.
“srry frgt dnt nsrt xpltvs”
Her voice response comes right away. “Look, you know we’re more nuanced than that. It’s necessary to judge your audience better than that.”
“k thnks ltr”
“And you know you’re one of the few people who insists on typing rather than speaking. It seems so impersonal. I wish you’d diversify your messaging output.”
I think about my points balance, about the saving and saving. I compose my face and respond, “Right you are, Tab. Thanks for the feedback.”
When I log off, my face relaxes into its normal crumpled scowl. That feels much better.
“You know we can’t go with you there.”
Rihanna, for some reason, has been insisting on meeting my mother. The prospect made me squirmy, but I could see that it would make both women happy. So I went along, and now find myself in a sandwich of uncomfortable emotion and over-expectation. It would be much easier to be in my home station, listening to some lo-fi recording, doing absolutely nothing else.
“What do you mean?” She looks genuinely puzzled. “Oh, you think they’ll like not have room for the sleep station? I’m sure we can squeeze in.”
“It’s not that.” I’m irritated that I have to explain it. “That’s not a place for people like us.”
“What are you talking about? Have you been kind of hitting the pre-colonial books too hard? Do you think there’s some sort of chip discrimination policy?” Rihanna laughs, and the sound is ugly to my ears. “This isn’t EARTH.” She seems to think better of her disgust, and says to my mother, “No offense.”
My mother responds, less acerbically than usual, “It is not about that. We cannot afford it.”
“Oh, that.” Rihanna waves it away. “It’s on me. You can be like honorary rich people. Honorary ‘white-bloods’.” It’s still a joke to her.
I explain to my mother, “It’s a reference to something we learned about in class recently.”
“I see.” She’s unusually pliant, observing Rihanna, as well as the people around us. Neither of us has ever been on this floor before, and this restaurant looks even swankier than the 100-level units on Floor 864. This place is…it’s beyond our reference points.
I don’t like it, but the novelty is good for my mother. And Rihanna, with her eagerness to please and her painfully good intentions, is like a puppy it’s hard to say no to. We thank her and are escorted to a table.
I try to still my inner ingrate. But the silverware seems pretentious. The glasses of different sizes make me feel like I’m in an old movie. The entire process–the idea of eating for leisure, of chewing rather than swallowing, of courses rather than foodpills–seems like playacting. It feels like we and all these expensively garbed and surgeried people are kids playing. I can appreciate it all from a distance, like an armchair anthropologist would. Up close, though, I feel like a fraud.
I’ve seen images of the vertical farms on the lower levels of the buildings, of course. But my mother and I have never been there. The connection between those green plots, which seem mostly decorative, and the substances on my plate, which also seem too pretty to be functional, just feels abstract.
Under the table, still looking straight ahead, I type a quick message to my mother: “Yr stmch k?”
My chip vibrates, and I have it send the voice message to my ear. “Yes, of course. I once ate this type of food all of the time. You should be more worried.”
“Isn’t this fun?” Rihanna beams. My mother and I nod along.
Rihanna asks about the homeland, which makes my mother expansive. She’s most eloquent on this subject. She talks about horizontal rather than vertical cities, which makes Rihanna and me shake our heads at the inefficiency. We ask about sprawl, and my mother shares the feeling of a steering wheel under her hands. This leads her onto a tangent about driver’s licenses, and passports, and insurance cards.
I’ve heard this before, but Rihanna is wide-eyed. “So you had to have the chip put in as a, like, adult?”
“Jeez. That would be like getting circumcised as a grown-up. Kind of painful, I’d think.”
My mother shrugs. “Once you give birth, all pain is relative to that.”
“Sure, sure. But you must be glad you’re past all that. Not, uh, having kids,” Rihanna giggles, “but, you know, all that business about distributing the different sorts of chips. Dealing with borders. Migration. I mean, it was necessary and all, but we’re well past it.”
I wonder, “Was it? Necessary, that is?”
“Well, sure. I mean, you couldn’t have everyone moving around freely and stuff. There had to be–” she gropes for the right word “–levels. Order. You can’t just have…I mean, you couldn’t just have everyone running amok, taking things all at once.”
There’s a disquieting sensation in my abdomen. I don’t know if it’s in response to the conversation or to the strange experience of eating for pleasure. I excuse myself and my mother. I will my body to keep in these unfamiliar substances. As foreign as they are, it would be wasteful to emit them.
I’m using UniLore more and more these days. “Children’s entertainment”, Tab sneered once when she saw me procrastinating by sifting through age-old diary entries (all made available in a previous era following the Convention on the Right to Information for All, and its associated Protocol on the Abuses of Privacy).
I study history, I told her. It’s all valuable.
But she may be right. This kind of history does seem like a pursuit of kids and old folks, people like my mom. Leisure points can’t be spent, and work points can’t be gained, through it–not for me, anyway. I turn back to my work station.
Who was it who wondered why more people don’t write songs about their mothers, when there’s such a flood of trite songs about lovers? I have my old “albums”, with their strange and arbitrary commitment to being roughly the same length. But the versions of love they mention seem so uniform. They’re unsatisfying. They’re of no help at all.
My mother is declining. Among many other things, her illness is softening the edges of her personality. She doesn’t argue with me anymore. She complains barely at all. The things I associate most with her, like her tartness and her delight in arguments, are disappearing. It seems that her personality is being replaced by memories, and these are too wispy and unsatisfying for me.
Even the automats at the health station are tired of me. “Nothing we can do nothing we can do,” they repeat, being accustomed to my questions, and knowing that nothing else is likely to placate me. “Nothing to do.”
What are these points for, then? What good do they do?
The automats reiterate their platitudes. The doctors and nurses stay well away. UniLove is a joke.
So all I can do is listen to her memories, to absorb her nostalgia. My work station becomes dusty. My UniLearn console is something I avert my eyes from. When it comes to Rihanna, I set all notifications to hide–then to disappear.
And I bound down all 45 escalators, a quieting routine that keeps my body in a near-permanent state of exhaustion for the rest of the day. The physical tiredness is welcome. Plus, the prospect of the elevator is unsupportable; I can’t bear to be in tight groups of other people at the moment. Maybe I’ll never be able to again.
She needs something to look forward to, I think. This is an idea she prodded me with when I was younger, and whining about work or school. If I could just get past the next hump to a concert, or an unlocked reward, or whatever, I would make it. I didn’t need to have a long-term plan; I just needed something around the bend. “It is a classic strategy of the working class,” she said. “They may not even know it is a strategy.”
So I listen to her, and I develop our reward. It has to do with that place she’s from with its constructs called countries and its archaic notions of difference. Despite its primitivism, it calls to me.
“What do you mean you don’t want to go?”
“Just that. I do not want to go. I will not go.”
I’m flummoxed. “But you talk about it all the time. You talk about going back–maybe for good, this time.”
My mother isn’t looking at me. I could position her sleep station so that she’d find it difficult to look away, I suppose. But she’s had to deal with so many indignities already.
She’s stubborn. “People talk about many things.”
“But it’s your home; you’ve never felt entirely at ease here…”
“The idea of it is my home. Not the place itself. That is not satisfying.”
“What about the people? You talk about the people…”
“Either people who wish to leave or people who want to stay so they can lord it over those wish to leave.”
“But I’ve already arranged it,” I protest. “I’ve wiped out my points. I’ve stopped going to work.”
“You stupid child.”
This sounds like my mother of old, which floods me with some hopeless beliefs: maybe it’s over, maybe it’s better now.
I still want to go. Maybe I’ve been using her demise as justification for going myself. If that’s the case, there are no words for this kind of selfishness. UniLang would be stymied.
But it feels like time for confession. “I’m still going.”
“You will go as a slum tourist? To witness dysfunction?”
“Not as a tourist. I’m going and I’m not coming back.”
She doesn’t take this seriously. “You know there is no return migration. The only ones who end up back there are convicts.”
I don’t want her deadened murmurs. I want her anger, a spark. “I’m going and I’m not coming back. I’m returning to the homeland.”
And that does rouse her, a little. “Returning? It is not your land, you cannot return.”
“Don’t be so literal, mom.”
“You idiot. I came here, so you must stay here. For you to go back–it repudiates my choice. Do you see that? You stupid, stupid child.”
This is fine. I want this fight out of her. It’s the strongest connection to who she really is.
She was right. Everyone else aboard the transport is either pink-chipped or–rare to see so many–blue-chipped. In the play station we used to share tall tales about blue-chips, our stories equal parts bravado and fear. Here they’re undeniably real, and they seem more frightened than me. Also undeniable, though subtle, is the presence of UniLock, from the tension in people’s bodies to the gentle elevator music that becomes more insistent the closer people get to the doors. There must be many criminals among these numbers. No one looks eager for this journey.
“It will be an anticlimax when it comes,” I remember my mother saying. Before. Her tone was neutral, scientific almost. “Everything else will seem like it has been practice for dying. Preparation.”
Clearly I should have listened better, to her prescriptions for death as well as to her memories of the place to which I’m “returning”. I haven’t absorbed much of it, because I know how it will go for me in the end.
I don’t have dignity now, I won’t have dignity then. I won’t think I’ve lived long enough. I’ll go kicking and screaming, tarnishing the memories of those left behind. I’ll use up any meager savings I build back up; I won’t leave anything for anyone else. I won’t go with grace. I’ll make a spectacle. I won’t take tough decisions out of anyone’s hands. I’ll deplete the last of my energy resisting it–resisting, not fighting with nobility. To have my body colonized like that will make me indignant. I’ll be outraged. I won’t want to hear about nature and some supreme being and circles of life and the way of things. I’ll want to stop it. I won’t be like my mother. Wherever I am, I won’t be like her.
Well, I’ll be a little like her.
Christine Ro is a London-based writer, mainly of nonfiction.