This month is Sam J. Miller’s Kenneth: A User’s Manual. This went up in Strange Horizons last year. I liked it so much when I read it to do the prep work I was a little cranky with the fiction editors for publishing it in December instead of waiting for January (when it’d have a whole year to get award buzz behind it.)
This is one of those stories that is aggressively structured like a not-story. Nothing happens – the plot is entirely back story, the arcs are built entirely of the reader’s understanding. We’ve looked at stories in unconventional formats before, but this one is actually comprised of multiple discrete documents that are
in conversation with each other. This creates a neat layering effect in the reader’s grasp of the situation.
The first document is the initial recall notice which very plainly lays out that a virtual personality template is being recalled because it drives people to self-harm and suicide. Which is weird. Not only do we not have virtual person templates that could remotely take all the forms described in the recall, but we don’t really have a concept of Siri talking us into jumping off a roof. The document is pretty hook-y on its own. But what I think is the most effective part of this element of the story is what it doesn’t say. You have no idea what Kenneth’s appeal might be, why people would use him, or how we could possibly trigger self-harm. This isn’t even particularly alarming to the reader at this point because these aren’t things a recall notice would include.
If you click back to the main document, you get a few paragraphs that start to fill in the gaps. We know what Kenneth looks like and what you’d buy him for is very clear. I really can’t speak to what readers from a different background would have caught in their first read through, but my first time I only paid enough attention to 1981 to wonder how far in the future this piece is set, that they were getting recollections older than I am. Older readers, or readers for whom the pertinent history is more salient probably had foreboding warning bells going off rather dramatically at this point. This discrepancy, or at least the way the story forced me to be aware of it, was a huge part of why this story had such an impact on me.
Right after the warning that your sex toy is not, in fact, a toy, you get linked to an abstract about virtual causes of middle-aged homosexual suicide. This abstract tells you virtually nothing about Kenneth or the story’s premise you don’t already know, but it does a fantastic job of making up for the ignorance of readers like me. While ostensibly outlining a research study that supports the implications of the recall notice, it highlights the emotional vulnerability of the targeted demographic and the lack of support for them. Readers who are out of touch for any number of reasons might start twigging on the final thrust of the story here, but even if they aren’t, the information they need for that thrust to strike home is plainly handed to them.
So if you’re a reader who follows the links as you encounter them, you have the situation surrounding an underserved and vulnerable population that can’t even be properly examined due to corporate meddling salient right as you dive back into a paragraph telling you that the schematics etc., for this dangerous, horrifying Frankenstein’s monster of simulated personhood is being illegally distributed. Why? Is the “We” some vicious collective of sadistic hackers who want to leave a bear trap lying around for the vulnerable? Is it some sort of ill-conceived anti-corporate protest? Something is bizarre here.
It matters that the first point is “Your Kenneth will be cruel.” Cruelty is, in fact, the underpinning of everything that you’ve read so far. It just wasn’t obvious, and it may still be obscure even at this point. That cruelty is what makes Kenneth human, what makes him more genuine, more real than the other products. That realness matters, and the fact that cruelty the element that enables it matters, too.
So of course the next point is a reminder that Kenneth is, in fact, not real at all. The story isn’t masking its cruelty anymore. Item 1 explains why Kenneth is attractive. Item 2 is a reminder that he’s a fantasy. 3 is both a call back to the recall notice and the abstract and a very interesting reveal about the “We.” They knew Kenneth was dangerous, wanted to curb that, but still chose to distribute the schematics post-recall. This both asserts a sense of ethical responsibility for the “We” and reinforces the oppressive and dangerous meddling of the corporate interests.
Then everything breaks open with Item 4. Now that “We” have started giving us information about themselves, more spills out. What’s interesting is that we don’t just collapse “We” into a single man, but we also collapse the corporation into a single person. And now there’s more back story. There was a falling out between these two. There are hurt feelings. “We” is in pain.
Item 6 is where even the very sheltered, out-of-touch reader gets clued in to what’s happening here. If this item came at the beginning, it wouldn’t work. It amounts to saying, “Hot boys, totally worth it, amirite?!” which is so absurdly shallow and idiotic most people would, reasonably, bounce off. The depth is in the context. Loneliness, misery, fantasy you need to feel alive made flesh before you and, critically, ephemeral. If Kenneth were going to linger there’d be no impetus to take the risk right now. All the work that’s come before has put the reader where “We” was and so the comment isn’t, “Hot boys,” but “Life.”
It’s downhill from there. Item 7 is all reality, no fantasy, no escape, which drives you right into 8, the confession of an obsession. Obsession seems reasonable now, doesn’t it? And it’s all obsession from there, with the “We” admitting the reality of the situation as the reader realizes it. That’s a downer.
But let’s go back to that abstract linked earlier, in case we didn’t click when we got to it originally. Now what does it tell us? That “We” aren’t alone. They might be the only one who managed to create Kenneth, but they aren’t the only one who would. There’s a whole population of people who are, functionally, “We” and they can’t get the help they need because researchers can’t even study them to find out what they need. They’re trapped in a net woven by the “Corporation” is who is, we now know, one person who betrayed “We.” And, if we go back to that very first link, they’re winning. They’ve erased the suffering, the culture defined by what it has lost, the survivor’s guilt, turned Kenneth into just another glitzy virtual person, and they’re yanking him from the shelves, rendering invisible the one clue about what happened that crept out.
Which, for somebody who isn’t exactly out of touch with queer culture yet doesn’t have AIDS as a a pertinent cultural touchstone beyond that’s why I have to tell the blood donation people whether I’ve slept with a man who’s slept with a man and will get turned away if I say “yes,” is an extra whammy on the downer. It is invisible, and that invisibility is dangerous to the people it hides.
This story could have just been a rant about the corporate co-opting of gay culture, or the negligent disinterst paid to AIDS’ lingering legacy, but even though a significant portion of the text is in fact a screed, the story itself doesn’t rant. It just gives you pieces and, by making you put them together, makes it impossible for you to stay ignorant.
Next Month: We continue our weird-format phase with A Story About You by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. (Yes, you’ll need to listen to it. It’s worth it)