REVIEW: “Retention” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Review of Alec Nevala-Lee, “Retention”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact July/August (2020): 108–112 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Perry is on a phone call with the customer service of his home security system trying in vain to cancel his service. The customer service rep, Lisa, refuses his request with roundabout arguments regarding the value of the security service. In a rather unsurprising twist, Lisa turns out to be a bot programmed to never allow customers to cancel their service. A bit later we find out that Perry is also an AI, the user profile is his the “real” Perry, and he desperately wants to be terminated. With neither side willing to back down, the two bots are destined to continue their pointless exchange forever.

I have not seen many science fiction stories that deal with the philosophy of Existentialism (or Absurdism, if you will) as explicitly “Retention” does, even quoting a direct passage from the Albert Camus’ seminal essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “Retention” is yet another take on the Sisyphus trope. Just as one must imagine Sisyphus happy carrying the boulder up the mountain, so they must accept that Perry and Lisa are satisfied with their eternal back-and-forth. The author cleverly makes the protagonists of his story AIs, where the idea of fate (or determinism) is easier to conceptualize. And rather than making the plot a straightforward allegory (as many stories of this kind default to), Nevala-Lee manages to craft a clever and entertaining tale around Camus’ philosophical thesis, with humor and even a couple of twists around the corners. It does not add very much to the ideology that it’s inspired from, but it is nevertheless an interesting take on it.

But you won’t cancel me?

It’s against my programming. You’re still a customer. I wish it would be different.

But you’re not going to give up. Neither am I. It’s against my programming, too.

Overall, “Retention” was a really enjoyable story, one of the best in the issue.