Monday, February 4, 2019

Life Sentence, by Matthew Baker

★★★★☆ A Cool Exploration of a Man Rebuilding His Life

(Near-Future SF Thriller) After a full memory wipe, Wash moves in with his family and tries to get to know them again with the shadow of his unremembered crime hovering over him. (9,219 words; Time: 30m)

"Life Sentence," by (edited by John Joseph Adams), appeared in issue 105, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2019.090 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: For the most part, this is an optimistic story. Wash becomes a much better person than what he used to be. We’re a little uneasy when he starts handling weapons—particularly the rifle—but his wife definitely has him pegged correctly. By the end, when he learns what his crime was, he’s got a family he loves, which is something the old-him never had. The old Wash had nothing to lose. Nothing we know of, anyway, but the new one does.

The ending isn’t really ambiguous. It tells us he knows who he is, and we know who he is too. He’s a good man, and he’ll continue to be one.

Philosophically, I’d say the memory wipe isn’t really that different from capital punishment; the old Wash is dead. From a social point, though, it looks like a big win, if Wash’s case is typical.

Con: Wash’s journey of self-discovery is the entire plot, and although there are false alarms, there are no real obstacles along the way.

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5 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. On the ending not being ambiguous, I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be but or not but felt it was. Maybe we were supposed to assume he shot and killed one or more people. If so, I didn't think she reasonably had him pegged at all (especially since she should have been traumatized by previous abuse) but that she was either crazy. So maybe he hadn't actually killed anyone with a gun. Similarly, he seemed to be a stuck, vengeful, brooding, stewing kind of guy in his previous life so his fixation on his crime, while understandable, seemed unhealthy and indicative of a fixed element in his "soul" and that he would revisit his past and become reconnected with it (though perhaps he was supposed to be who he "is" now). And, either way, I was expecting a definitive ending where he'd brutally killed a zillion people and it would make some comment on that in relation to mindwiping and human's fixed or flexible nature or that it might even show he'd broken a ordinance against consuming sugar or something (though the tax evader made that unlikely) and it would make some sort of comment on the society. The ending seemed like a cop-out to me and the blithe acceptance of mindwiping just bugged me. (Also, this society still has holding jails of some kind which seems wasteful and such a society would run into a lot of opposition from the increasingly privatized prison industry, etc. And, completely unrelated but, in the "I can't buy part of your depiction" department, I couldn't believe the dog wasn't bothered. Dogs are pretty intuitive and the protagonist might smell right but just wouldn't be "home" - wouldn't know the best place to scratch, etc. The dog would pick up on something being amiss.) Still, the subjective experience of the protagonist was well-done and I agree with you that it was probably the best story in the issue, just on a lower level for me.

    1. That should lose the "either" and read "she was crazy."

    2. Well, I think dogs are fine with their masters turning up stone drunk, so they may not be as attentive as you think.

      As for the ending, I was sure about half-way in that we'd never learn what his crime was. The story's about the new him; the old one is dead.

    3. Arguably, while being drunk can be erased later, it makes you more who you are at the time, where a significant memory wipe would definitely make you less. But that was a trivial quibble (one of several) anyway. ;)

      On the ending, I don't know that the old one is dead, though. Maybe he's only sleeping. :) It can't be *all* about the new one because a major plot component (practically the only one in the light plot) is his desire to learn about the old one and everyone else's reaction to this new one, not of itself, but compared to the old one. Still, this is probably more wondering about the story on my part than it merits.

    4. I should add that the story reminded me of a Robert Silverberg novel, "The Second Trip," which involved a brilliant but violent artist who was sentenced to a memory wipe. His new personality has an ordinary job, but seems to be doing okay until traces of the old personality start coming back to haunt him.