REVIEW: “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Afloat Above a Floor of Stars”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 106-117 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley. 

You’ve been selecting women with the traits you like, whether you know it or not… Independent legacy women join our branch. Legacy men keep joining the male branch. You belong to a dying species. 

A strange story that considers gender and long-distance space travel. Revali and Kemen are to be the sole human occupants on a voyage outside the galaxy. Along the way they will undertake their own research projects and participate in a long-term research project that seeks to answer one of humanity’s most pressing questions: is the splintering of the human race inevitable with the ability to create companions with genetics and personalities compatible to the other gender? Can men only cohabit successfully with women who have been designed to please them? And vice versa? Will ‘legacy’ humans die out because they are unable to coexist successfully long-term with other genders, or because they keep ‘defecting’ to cohabit with the kind of gender partners designed for them? Will the two legacy genders just give up trying to work out relationships with their legacy counterparts as just too hard?

The trip will take them thirty-six years and involve periods of hibernation and waking, as well as gender swaps for both of them across the journey. At the end Kemen and Revali have committed to undertake a ceremony in one last ditch attempt to show humanity that, from outside the galaxy their differences are minuscule and that unity between the two factions is possible. 

The approach to gender here is an interesting one – essentially considering the question of whether men and women can ever really understand each other or cohabit for long periods of time, or if there are fundamental personality differences and tendencies that both work together and don’t. But I found it a bit binary and limited. While there is gender changing here the gender roles being considered are between ‘legacy’ men who want compliant women and legacy women who are not suitable to work with legacy men long term and have instead also created partners they can work with. In short, I would have liked a more nuanced look at gender and cross-gender relations that the premise could have provided than was covered here. Despite this, the stated conflict has been fully thought through and Purdom explores it well, using the length of the trip and the discussions between Kemen and Revali as they move through their different physical bodies to cover the problem’s intricacies.  

REVIEW: “Bonding with Morry” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Bonding with Morry”, Clarkesworld 132: Read Online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Morry Largen is a retired professor with a very pragmatic attitude towards artificial intelligence. He wants robots to look like robots – metal, boxy and functional. As he lives alone and has health concerns, he purchases the ugliest robot possible to assist him around the house. He names it Clank.

This story was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a subtle, thought-provoking and satisfying read, and Morry’s grumpy reluctance to have Clank in his life is endearing. He is clear-eyed in his understanding of what Clank is and isn’t. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that other people lack his insight.

For me, a highlight was his wry discussion with his daughter regarding his reluctance to make Clank prettier.

It’s the emotional bonding I object to. Pretending a machine is a person.”

“I understand that. But do you have to go to extremes?”

“I’m a sentimental creature, daughter. Who knows what I’d do if I had a thing that looked like a cute pet? There were times when I even felt sorry for some of my students.”

“So you’re living with a metal monster just because you’re worried about your own feelings?”

I felt that was incisive. The same gentle humour pervades the story as a whole. Morry’s refusal to pretend a computer program is equivalent to a human mind serves as a kind of tragic affirmation of the worth of humanity – for genuine feelings, for our fragile animal lives.

A lot of the sadness of this story is unspoken, but remains compelling: Morry repeatedly insists that he has friends and has no need for a companion, he plays video games intended for his granddaughter’s entertainment. “Bonding with Morry” never comes across as morose, however. It maintains a kind of charming lightness throughout, and the prose is clean and pleasant.

I also think that the title is excellent.