“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard slaps you in the face with the effects of cultural imperialism.
In one strand, Quy is required to wear an “immerser” – a device that allows her to mimic (and appear as) the dominant Galactic culture – when she waits tables or conducts business in the family’s restaurant. She hates it:
She didn’t mind Tam borrowing her stuff, and actually would have been glad to never put on an immerser again—she hated the feeling they gave her, the vague sensation of the system rooting around in her brain to find the best body cues to give her.
In the other strand Agnes has allowed her immerser to take over her life and her own culture and thoughts have become an impenetrable fog. We first encounter Agnes in the second person sections of the narrative. Second person was an effective way for de Bodard to show how distant Agnes was from herself and how deadened her emotions are.
You’re dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-traveled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.
When we first see Agnes from the outside it is through Quy’s viewpoint and she’s horrified:
Agnes. Quy turned, and looked at the woman for the first time—and flinched. There was no one here: just a thick layer of avatar, so dense and so complex that she couldn’t even guess at the body hidden within.
I find this an affecting story because it’s so easy to empathize with Agnes, the awkwardness she felt in another culture, and the choice she made to allow herself to be subsumed by the immerser, and the struggle she’s having at finding even the scraps of herself. De Bodard wisely doesn’t pin a “villain” tag on Agnes’s husband Galen (who is a Galactic), though Quy initially assumes that he is.
This isn’t a technophobic story – both Agnes and Quy’s sister Tam are adept at electronics, and that’s why Tam is able to articulate the poison pill in the immersers:
“It’s their weapon, too.” Tam pushed at the entertainment unit. “Just like their books and their holos and their live games. It’s fine for them—they put the immersers on tourist settings, they get just what they need to navigate a foreign environment from whatever idiot’s written the Rong script for that thing. But we—we worship them. We wear the immersers on Galactic all the time. We make ourselves like them, because they push, and because we’re naive enough to give in.”
She’s desperately striving for a way to bypass this tech:
Tam’s eyes glinted, as savage as those of the rebels in the history holos. “If I can take them apart, I can rebuild them and disconnect the logical circuits. I can give us the language and the tools to deal with them without being swallowed by them.”
No, the point made is not subtle, but sometimes we need to be slapped in the head. (I recommend reading Aliette’s notes on writing “Immersion”.)
While I find the ending emotionally satisfying, I do find it a little bit too easy. (I would have preferred Quy to have given her the word for older sister.) Still, that is a minor complaint in a story I enjoy quite a bit.
This is my favorite of the three nominees and I hope it wins.
Disclosure: I am friends with Aliette.