Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, a mystery-fantasy hybrid set in an Aztec world in which the gods and magic are quite real. This story continues her trend of setting F&SF in non-Western societies.
Quy stared at the things spread on the table, and asked the inevitable question. “How’s progress?”
Tam’s work was network connections and network maintenance within the restaurant; her hobby was tech. Galactic tech. She took things apart to see what made them tick; and rebuilt them. Her foray into entertainment units had helped the restaurant set up ambient sounds—old-fashioned Rong music for Galactic customers, recitation of the newest poems for locals.
But immersers had her stumped: the things had nasty safeguards to them. You could open them in half, to replace the battery; but you went no further. Tam’s previous attempt had almost lost her the use of her hands.
By Tam’s face, she didn’t feel ready to try again. “It’s got to be the same logic.”
“As what?” Quy couldn’t help asking. She picked up her own immerser from the table, briefly checking that it did indeed bear her serial number.
Tam gestured to the splayed components on the table. “Artificial Literature Writer. Little gadget that composes light entertainment novels.”
“That’s not the same—” Quy checked herself, and waited for Tam to explain.
“Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative. Like people forging their own path and fighting aliens for possession of a planet, that sort of stuff that barely speaks to us on Longevity. I mean, we’ve never even seen a planet.” Tam exhaled, sharply—her eyes half on the dismembered Artificial Literature Writer, half on some overlay of her vision. “Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package. They’ve got to have the same architecture.”
“I’m still not sure what you want to do with it.” Quy put on her immerser, adjusting the thin metal mesh around her head until it fitted. She winced as the interface synched with her brain. She moved her hands, adjusting some settings lower than the factory ones—darn thing always reset itself to factory, which she suspected was no accident. A shimmering lattice surrounded her: her avatar, slowly taking shape around her. She could still see the room—the lattice was only faintly opaque—but ancestors, how she hated the feeling of not quite being there. “How do I look?”
“Horrible. Your avatar looks like it’s died or something.”
“Ha ha ha,” Quy said. Her avatar was paler than her, and taller: it made her look beautiful, most customers agreed. In those moments, Quy was glad she had an avatar, so they wouldn’t see the anger on her face. “You haven’t answered my question.”
Tam’s eyes glinted. “Just think of the things we couldn’t do. This is the best piece of tech Galactics have ever brought us.”
Which wasn’t much, but Quy didn’t need to say it aloud. Tam knew exactly how Quy felt about Galactics and their hollow promises.
“It’s their weapon, too.” Tam pushed at the entertainment unit. “Just like their books and their holos and their live games.”