Clarkesworld Issue 112 leads with a story by the prolific SFF writer Robert Reed, “The Algorithms of Value.” The story is set on Earth, probably less than one hundred years in the future. The planet is seriously overpopulated with humans, but thanks to “the algorithms” and helpful AIs, no human lacks safe shelter, clean water or nourishing food.
The AIs, working with the formulae of the algorithms, create “smart rooms” that whip up any food you desire, maintain your health, and display any environment you request.
Parchment, the main character, is an old woman, hugely wealthy, and famous because of her connections to the algorithms. When she leaves her own three spacious rooms to go for a walk in her neighborhood, she meets a defiant young beggar boy. Despite the “floor” of basic needs, people still crave things, or they still crave something. Parchment hands out diamond umbrellas on her walk – and she and the beggar boy both observe a “dumpster diver.” What the beggar boy wants isn’t stuff, and Parchment doesn’t want stuff either. An interesting conversation ensues.
It’s a good story, filled with lovely imagery and insights about human nature.
The story is about human needs that transcend the lower part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s also, in a way, a story about marriage, and this is where I started to get angry.
Parchment played a part – how big or important we’re never told – in the largest successful social engineering experiment in human history. Parchment is smart and apparently educated. She is probably a logician. It would seem, from the celebrity and the wealth, that Parchment was a successful woman in her own past, but she wasn’t.
Parchment didn’t earn wealth. She married it.
Clearly, Parchment’s contributions grew her husband’s fortune. The text makes that clear. It also tells us flat out that marrying money was Parchment’s choice and that she didn’t try to develop her own career. “The old man was never mild or sweet or decent. But he was useful.” And later in the same paragraph, “Nobody offered a faster route to success…”
This story would have worked just fine if Parchment had amassed a fortune, or a successful business on her own, then joined her endeavor to the established plutocrat’s in her late thirties (as, in fact, more women are doing now). Instead, the point of the story is clearly that smart women marry money and take control of the marriage, and through the marriage, control the work.
“The Algorithms of Value” goes on to spend some time on the nature of Parchment’s marriage. She and her husband suit each other intellectually but grow apart; while the husband sucks up AI resources to create an imaginary world to meet his needs, decades of Parchment’s life are defined by loneliness.
Parchment is only allowed to be strong in the role of wife, even though people listen more closely to her than they do to him, and “the AIs respect her.” She’s only in the room because she is The Boss’s Spouse. In case we missed it, the story hammers home that Parchment, a smart, strong woman, is an exception; this isn’t a world filled with smart, strong women. In discussing her husband, the story tells us that, “… maybe the road map wasn’t obvious to anyone, including himself, but at least he had confidence in the men and those few bright girls who were better at details than a visionary such as himself.” (Italics mine.)
There are always only “a few bright girls,” and if they want to make a difference in the world, or even just in their own worlds, they’d better tether themselves to a powerful older man. That’s how women succeed. This is the “value” in “The Algorithms of Value.”
This story was in Clarkesworld. Clarkesworld.
Within the story, Parchment is a strong woman with agency, whose actions drive the plot. She’s an old woman; that makes her interesting too. She functions only as another stereotype, however; the wealthy widow. All her power, however well she wields it, comes from a dead husband. Furthermore, in her world, which is the future of our world, there aren’t many smart, strong, creative, innovative women. There are only a few “bright girls,” only a few “pretty golden girls” like Parchment. How fortunate that she is one.
Robert Reed is my age. He is prolific and acclaimed SFF writer with a Hugo and a Nebula to his name. Because he is my age, I assumed we share some cultural history. I can see I need to review that assumption.
I grew up struggling to find a place where my skills, my smarts and my strengths would be recognized and used well, regardless of my gender. Reed had a different experience.
I understand that smart, young, pretty women marry wealthy older men all the time. I also understand that one of the joys of SFF is that it lets us play with conventional models, and imagine worlds where things are different and even better. My anger with this tale stems from the fact that the exact same story could be told without subordinating Parchment. The writer went for a default setting; the editor let him.
I push and struggle with my writing every day to make sure that I am writing consciously; if I use a narrative convention, am I doing it with intent? I fight to create SFF stories that usually show confident, strong women as a given, not an exception. I fall into the stereotypes of the wealthy widow myself; the difference is that I try to examine whether that is the only trope that will tell the story.
For me, Clarkesworld has been a model for stories that aren’t bound to the unconscious narratives. Maybe I need to revisit that assumption too.
I said I was angry; probably more accurate words would be disappointed, disillusioned, bummed out. This story would work, even with the meditation on the nature of marriage, without diminishing Parchment to trophy bride and wealthy widow. There are more than a few “bright girls” in the world; in any world. I wish this story had been willing to let them in.