Young People Read Old SFF

Tongtong's Summer

Xia Jia

For the second entry in Old People Read New SFF, I chose Xia Jia's Tongtong's Summer. I selected it because of the authors in Ken Liu's exemplary anthology Invisible Planets, Xia Jia's skillful combination of fantasy and science fiction—what the author called porridge fiction—was the fiction I liked best. Of the three Xia Jia works on offer in Invisible Planets, Tongtong's Summer (available here) was by far my favourite. I grant "I liked it so surely my readers will too," generally blew up in my face over on the Young People of the project but if there's anything experiences teaches me, it is that I don't learn from experience! Surely the Old People will like this example of recent speculative fiction! After all, I did.

The second story in the Nicoll Old People Read New SF series was easy to read – but hard to review. The difficulty had nothing to do with the story, which was smooth and subtle, but everything to do with my parents who are in the zone with Tongtong’s Grandpa.

The excitement about technology giving people with age issues or injury access to the life that is being taken away from them is infectious, and even though I have read enough short stories in my life to know that the other shoe is going to drop any minute, the prospect is so desirable that one turns one’s face to the wind of the story and lets it blow the siren’s call directly to one’s deepest secret cynic.

The ending could not be anything other than it is. This is a perfect jewel of a story.

—April

I am the child of two world – a Japanese mother and a Scottish-Canadian father. This month’s story, Tongtong’s Summer, struck me as remarkably familiar.

The strong elder care culture of eastern Asia combined with the emerging technologies makes a perfectly understandable combination to me. Acknowledging that the AI robot was a person guiding the movements leading through to the opportunities to let those trapped in aging bodies was brilliant. A common fear with aging I’ve come across is “what if I can’t do the things I love to do anymore”. Narrating that fear from the other end of the spectrum, a child whose activities are curtailed by adults, gave a great balance. Both Grandpa and Tongtong are controlled by adults who seem almost Peanuts-like in their voice. The adults have all the control and autonomy, where they must scream or cry or submit to the will of the adults.

That Uncle Wang is the only adult to empower them to have capacity of their own also reminds me of old Japanese stories my mother would tell me, where instead of the fairy godmother, it would be the “Aunty” or “Uncle” who would provide the assistance.

I loved this one. Bring on August.

—Anita

This was a very readable story. I don't know how much credit goes to the author and how much to Ken Lui as the translator, but it was the first thing that struck me. This feels like comfort reading, even with the melancholy (if realistic) ending.

In fact, this doesn't feel like new SFF at all. I remember reading something along these lines in Analog in the 1970s or 1980s. This story also feels as if it could have been written by Jo Walton or Marissa Lingen.

I didn't get much of a sense of the world this story is happening in, except for the evocative descriptions of childhood playtime in summer. This is a story that focuses on the one new technology of telepresence, and everything is seen through that lens.

This was an enjoyable read, and I'd be happy to see what else the author has written.

—Beth

This is a lovely, sunny piece of short fiction that I very much enjoyed reading. Wearing my "old people" hat, I do hope Xia Jia is right about the creative possibilities of telepresence, and that this is very near future sf. It doesn't take much thought to come up with some much darker possibilities.

I think I can add this to my list of stories supporting my half-baked theory that some modern sf is recapitulating the Golden Age (of sf*) as huge new generations of newly-educated readers in a world undergoing rapid technological change find they need to make sense of the world to come.

* I quote from the Wikipedia article on Golden Age of Science Fiction: "Algis Budrys in 1965 wrote of the "recurrent strain in 'Golden Age' science fiction of the 1940's—the implication that sheer technological accomplishment would solve all the problems, hooray, and that all the problems were what they seemed to be on the surface". The citation is: Budrys, Algis (August 1965). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction pp. 186–194.

—Caroline

A surprisingly simple and moving tale, with quite the variety of “themes,” of which two stand out: the human possibilities of technology, and the power of older people to create and help others. Tongtong herself never quite gels for me as a character, but that may be due to several reasons, including my own lack of empathy, and her own role as a witness rather than an agent. Mom and Dad, too, are cyphers to me.

But Grandpa, Grandpa Zhao, and Ah Fu/Uncle Wang are lively characters indeed, and I found myself liking Grandpa more than I think I was supposed to – I like cantankerous old people.

Another “theme” might be what William Gibson told us back in the ‘80s: the street finds its own use for things. Grandpa and others find uses for the Ah Fu technology that its creators never dreamed of. One has to admire Xia Jia’s imagination in coming up with all of them, and embedding them in such a short piece!

—Dan'l

I wish I could have read this in the original language. It is lovely.

It is a psychological drama from the point of view of a young girl who is seeing her Grandpa move through his advanced age with the help of a remotely operated high-tech caregiver robot called “Ah Fu”. She learns the identity and befriends the operator of Ah Fu, who is a university student and doing an internship at the company which manufactures the new robot, and as the story moves on, the levels of technology that are used to assist her Grandpa become greater parts of his life and hers.

She is given a pair of goggles that give her housebound Grandpa a view of whatever she sees, but stops wearing them after her Grandpa tells on her for climbing to the top of a tall tree. Next, he tries to play chess with his robot, but the operator has little skill at the game, so he finds an old friend of Grandpa’s who also has a robot companion and fits Grandpa with Ah Fu’s control suit so that they can play chess. Grandpa takes over care of his friend via Ah Fu, and his friend learns to operate Grandpa’s robot so that they can take care of each other. As Grandpa had been a doctor, he takes up his practice again using Ah Fu, and the company hires him as a consultant to develop a fleet of medical robots to be stationed in neighborhoods for local care for everyone.

The Ah Fus gave elderly people the ability to be a real part of society again, and gave them back the life they were losing through old age.

Finally, at age 84, Grandpa makes a final trip to the hospital, where he is in a coma after an operation on a brain tumor. Ah Fu is packed up to go home, but before the robot leaves his operator, Grandpa’s friend arranges for a way for Tongtong to use the telepresence equipment to communicate with her Grandpa and know how he is doing.

That’s the bones of the story. It’s heart is the emotional landscape of Tongtongs’s summer as she learns about her Grandpa; who he is and what his life is and has been, and discovers her love for him. The story is also a myth of the Confucian dream of society made real by technology.

It is not a perfect story. I was discomfited a little by the proapaganda-ish tones of “technology as a savior of society”. Still, it is lovely.

—David M

This is a charming story.

It addresses how we interact with the world and with our community as we age – and a way we might change that for the better. Finding your younger self imprisoned in an aging body is a fear many of us share, and a reality we have observed in those we love.

I enjoyed the evolution of the technology from external support to personalempowerment, and the myriad applications once the technology was in the hands of those who knew best what they needed. I appreciated too the reminder that this technology is a support, and not a cure for aging. Finding that the technology can embrace other stages of aging was heartening.

This is not a carefully crafted image of how the world is likely to look in the future, nor does it need to be. It does not feel particularly realistic, but that isn’t important for the story – in fact, the short discussion of things that could go wrong felt out of place. This story captures the hope and experimentation of the what-if phase of invention, and introducing the downside now is out of place.

This is a gently, loving story told from the point of view of a grandchild, and we really only need her surface understanding of what is happening, to appreciate the possibilities of this future.

—Tina

Good story, just a little too close to home for me. The introduction of tech in the beginning had me thinking “not this again” but I liked the direction the author took. Something about the ending came across slightly creepy to me but I’m not going to say why because explaining would be a spoiler and ymmv. This is a story worth reading.

—Katharine

I was in a sad place when I read "Tongtong's Summer." There is much happy in Xia Jia's story, but it didn't speak to me.

In my mind I could not help but remember the news about shrinking birth rates in the most economically advanced countries. What must it feel like if you have a close relationship with your family in a society with many aging people and not enough younger people to care for them? The viewpoint character gets to stay with her grandpa even though his physical degradation, because the technology allows him to out live his failing body.

I'm not close with my family. Maybe the sad is what I needed the most.

—Lauren

It is possible that there was a lot more character development in this story than I saw because there were cultural referents that I missed. But since I missed them, for me this was basically a gimmick story, an exploration and meditation on telepresence and remote operation, and that kind of tech is cool. The problem is that it's been cool for 75 years. The Heinlein story “Waldo” is exactly the same age as my mother. I enjoyed the variations on uses of the technology, and appreciated the underlying theme of people helping people. However, there isn't really character growth. The people remain roughly who they are, and they are enabled but not changed by the technology. Which makes for less of a story than I prefer.

<spoiler warning>

Was anyone else freaked out by the ending? Because I kept on thinking that Tongtong might very well have been given the gift of being able to watch her grandfather die, in the safety of her own bed, and, um, that sounds pretty damn traumatic.

—Lydy

One wonders if Mr. Nicoll is trolling us oldsters by assigning a story which is predicated on the growing burden placed on the young by the increasing percentage of elderly needing care. In the story, robots and telepresence are deployed to help. Little Tongtong, initially skeptical of the technology and its childhood-mischief uncovering properties, soon appreciates what it can do for Grandpa. Grandpa himself makes a major advance the developers had not envisaged. Eventually, however, care for the increasingly weak old man is placed on Tongtong’s shoulders. She has grown through the story, and takes the task on.

The strength of this story, to me, is drawn from making the child, Tongtong, the viewpoint character. This simplifies what we see and understand of the changes in the family and technology, and certainly gives it an emotional boost we wouldn’t get if some pragmatic 30 year old was telling the story. Unfortunately, for me, that’s its problem, as I didn’t particularly want to read a story from a child’s eye view. Not a weakness in the story, just a personal preference.

—Lyle

“She thought the idea of Ah Fu splendid, almost like a science fiction story.”

“Tongtong’s Summer” is almost like a story -- but unfortunately, more like a prospectus for a telepresence technology startup aiming at the healthcare and eldercare markets. Most of us are aware that the declining birthrate and improved medicine in industrialized countries leads to a higher proportion of the elderly. The consequent challenges are especially stark in Japan and in China, accentuated in the latter by a generation of a one-child policy.

How to depict the ways in which telepresence could benefit the elderly, and even let them get virtually out and around? I know: we’ll watch it emerging from R&D through the eyes of young Tongtong as her beloved, wheelchair-bound grandfather participates in a trial with the remotely operated robot Ah Fu. As a child she’ll be curious about how it all works, so we can drop in childlike reflections such as “This saved the time and cost of having caretakers commute to homes, and increased the efficiency and quality of care.”

This is pure Gernsbackian won’t the future be amazing? Well-intended, competently executed, and lifeless.

—Monte

I liked this story. It's a pleasure to read about a technology which is plausible and works. Other than that, not much else to say except that it was interesting to see a nasty temper portrayed as a result of bad circumstances rather than as a character flaw.

—Susan L.

What a beautiful story! Little Tongtong's grandfather is old and frail, but new technology helps him stay relevant and productive, something that's of increasing concern to a lot of us Old People. This is a kind and loving story, in which the problems of new technology are mentioned in just the lightest detail. Tongtong's point of view is young and there is much she doesn't understand, but her ultimate experience is of people using their energies to care for one another. And what better example could we give the young?

—Patricia

Rather ironically for “Old People Read New SF”, this is a resolutely old-fashioned story. It’s so old-fashioned that it immediately brought to mind Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, originally aired as a Twilight Zone episode in 1962 (and published in the eponymously-titled collection in 1969), with the robot grandmother replaced by telepresence and the setting moved to China. Given the current state of robotics, the technology utilized by the story doesn’t seem very far down the road. The child protagonist allows infodumps to be handled pretty smoothly, and the story is charming, but there’s really nothing new here.

—PhilRM

This is definitely science fiction. The science is approaching. The fiction is pleasing but not compelling – a pleasant infomercial. The story takes place in China in the near future.

Tongtong is a young girl, observing what happens to her aging grandfather. He has recently lost his spouse and more recently had a fall that has severely restricted his mobility. He needs care and adamantly refuses to accept it. Tongtong’s father comes home with a boxed device which is apparently a robot capable of offering personal care to an invalid. This is apparently an acceptable solution.

That it is a solution likely a long way off is alleviated significantly when it is revealed that the device is remotely operated – a humanoid drone if you will. I suspect scheduling the device operators will present more problems than are shown here – but that is not the point of the story. The story develops to show how such a device evolves from helping care for an aged person to helping the person re-enter productive society. This simultaneously helps the society and helps the person feel more positive despite limitations that, long term, will only grow more numerous and severe.

The story does a reasonable job of examining how such technology might interact positively with society. It focuses on one person. There is not much else to the story.

—Richard

I enjoyed “Tongtong’s Summer” quite a bit. It actually reminds me very strongly of a lot of the stories I read when I was young — the ones that are meant to go along with history lessons, that make the dry facts of the past have more emotional context by showing you what someone in that situation went through, and how the events of that historical event affected them. The story, of course, is of a history that might happen, in which telepresence robots have gone some distance past what we can currently do, but it has the same matter-of-fact, immediate involvement in history *feel* that I associate with those kind of stories. Tongtong is also very much the kind of person I expect in that type of story — about the age of the student, dealing with the kinds of issues that a student might encounter in their own lives. As someone watching older members of my in-laws and friends’ families going through the aging process, the basic concept at the heart of the story certainly strikes hard; the potential for such technology is really quite awesome, although in the USA you’d need a lot of changes to make it work — no one’s sending a probably multimillion-dollar prototype to the home of an average guy when it could be sent to someone who can pay for the privilege. And certainly the commercial versions will be expensive as hell, even though the people that REALLY need the support are people who have little or nothing and thus can’t afford caretakers. I did like Tongtong, and seeing how she managed to become closer to her Grandpa without really quite UNDERSTANDING him was very convincingly realistic; watching my own kids has given me some perspective on this kind of thing. It was a pleasant and charming story. It didn’t have the “oomph” of “The City Born Great”, but it also leaves less conflict in the memory; it left me feeling relaxed.

—Ryk

A child’s tale, told with a child’s voice, jumping directly into — as all the best children’s stories do — Serious Discussions About Life and Death. The protagonist’s elderly grandfather is a competent physician, capable, well respected and worthy, in a body that slowly betrays him, as all bodies do. This is a traditional Chinese society, and we are reminded of the filial duty of youth’s service to the elderly, and their care and wisdom given to children in return. The author explores how technology might affect caregiving in such a society in a series of short vignettes told from the perspective of young Tongtong. She doesn’t quite understand the significance of the medical events that transpire, nor does she understand the details of the technology presented. She does, however, understand that her grandfather gets grumpy with his increasing physical limitations, and is happier when those limitations are in turn overcome or managed by various robotics, virtual reality, telepresence, and other near-futurist solutions. The easy words & short sentences lend a chapter book feel, and the subject matter is handled deftly, neither shying away from the reality of the situation, nor dwelling too much on its banal horrors. In fact, it’s such a gently wise approach that I would be not at all uncomfortable sharing the story as written with a child of 6 or 8, in a series of short readings. It would be an excellent launchpad to those essential discussions about the value of life, inevitability of death, the limits of healthcare, and one’s responsibility to one’s family that are too easily missed in today’s world of distractions. (About the translation: there were on or two grammatical quirks in the English that checked my reading, but there is nothing awkward or outright wrong.)

—Sean

I am pretty sure that «Tongtong’s Summer» by Xia Jia is the very first piece of Chinese SF/F that I have ever read.

I have been missing out. The juxtaposition of my mild culture-shock with respect to Chinese culture, as against my mild culture-shock with respect to a fully plausible near-future, made for an interesting, new perspective on both.

For one thing, because of the time-depth of Chinese culture, I now realize, I have always thought of it somewhat in a sort of "past tense". But here, we are shown that, like any living culture, Chinese culture is also always on the brink of its own future. And secondly, seeing aspects of our probable shared near-future through Chinese cultural eyes rather than the standard Anglospheric SF/F same-same (for _my_ lazy, whitebread parochial reader's @$$, anyway), made that future somehow seem closer to us all, than it "otherwise" seems to be. So, "the day after tomorrow" gets somehow turned into "tomorrow", perhaps because, at least to my Whitey-McCracker-who-lived-in-Singapore-for-four-months self, the "familiar alien-ness" of Chinese culture in some way screened or occluded the alien-ness of this story's postulated near-future, paradoxically reducing its comparative unfamiliarity.

In this near-future SF story, we witness a little girl coping with the deterioration of her elderly grandfather, and but for the ubiquity of highly advanced internet-telepresence (and many of its social implications, which are really rather extensively explored, for so short a work), it would "just" be a family drama. But, if so, then it would be a very well written one anyway: a series of brief anecdotes, told in chronological order, trace the old man's decline as seen through his grand-daughter Tongtong's Google-glass (more or less), and if you removed all of the waldo-ey telepresence from the story, then the tale-as-told would be just as poignant and moving.

The story went from being humble, or perhaps I should say 'modest', through a series of revelations and developments until it was amazing. And although this story is certainly "Science Fiction", you could say that there were really only one technological innovation involved and one social trend extrapolated: telepresence, and the incipient demographic tidal wave of the elderly. And yet both are here with us now, already, albeit in their earliest stages. No hyperdrives, vast Galactic Empires, or time-travelling clones with laser rifles running about, here.

So, was this a capital-S, capital-F "Science Fiction" story? Or just excellent fiction with some science and technology inextricably entwined into the tale? Frankly, who cares? The "science" in it was more here-and-now than "fictional", and the geriatric surge-tide is, "in real life", already lapping on our demographic shores. As well, although the "science" was essential to the story-telling, and the geriatric surge-tide was critical to it, «Tongtong’s Summer» was really a story about the realities of Life, Love, Death, and Grief, as all good stories are.

All in all an excellent story about the human condition. I really enjoyed it.

—Tim

This story's culture find it difficult to disrespect elders, so they really struggle with Atul Gawande's observation that what we want for our aging, impaired loved ones is safety, but what we would choose for ourselves in the same circumstances is to maximize our freedom, independence, and privacy. Assistive technology might make it possible for everyone to win. A remote-controlled "robot" can perform all the tasks of a practical nurse, while leaving the highly-skilled operator's attention available to other patients in other locations most of the time.

It isn't plausible that someone would don a virtual reality suit just to play a board game with a friend who is far away, but that is the device by which the elderly patient discovers that he can use the technology to give care as well as receiving it. It is delightful to watch the street find its own uses for things, especially when there are no young men with too much money and too few responsibilities involved.

—Susan

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