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Everyone thinks my brother is nice. He set up a rescue centre for birds, after the terraforming accident poisoned the lake. That's always the image of him, holding a bird covered in sludge. The birds are never the same after they're cleaned, but the gossips never talk about that.


Polenth Blake's "Never the Same" is a strange, dark story that shows the importance of shaking up well used SFF narratives and introducing radically new fictional voices. It's also a story that left me wondering if I could trust anything that I'd read, and yet still weirdly satisfied by what I'd read.

A little like "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" it's difficult to analyse "Never the Same" without giving away all the story's secrets, so consider this your spoiler warning.

Narrated by the world's only psychopath, the plot of "Never the Same" revolves around the narrator's investigation into their brother as they try to expose his weirdness and manipulation to the wider world. As a known psychopath and arsonist, the narrator is always under suspicion and it is easy for their brother to hold that over their head. So, the narrator embarks on a fact finding mission, designed to expose their brother and along the way also concocts a plan to avoid being blamed for any crime he might commit if they find out too much. The narrator doesn't know exactly what they're going to find, but they know that 'the birds are never the same'.

The narrator discovers that the sludge their brother cleans from the birds contains a symbiont that could help humans adapt to the planet. The world that Blake's narrator lives in is fairly new; still in the process of being 'terraformed' to make it habitable for humans and animals. Humans struggle to go outside because the air makes them wheeze but the narrator, who jumped into the sludge when they were young, finds it easier to move about outside buildings. The development of the world's eco system is not moving on as fast as it should be and to the narrator, it only seems logical to release more sludge and expose people and animals to its beneficial properties. Others, like their brother and the woman who committed the only murder on their planet, feel differently.

The main bulk of "Never the Same" consists of a dialogue about the nature of humanity. As I said, the narrator is the world's only psychopath, a person with '...no conscience. No remorse.' and no understanding of empathy. Science fiction is full of stories based around battles of sociopathic reason vs. empathy, but the idea that empathy is paramount to a moral human existence was publically challenged in 2013 by a book called Confessions of a Sociopath. A sociopath may not have the capacity for empathy, but they can remain moral by following a strict, societally acceptable code of conduct. Blake's narrator agrees with this and explains how their own life is guided by a set of rules which help them not to cross ethical boundaries.
He walks over the grass towards a cart selling toffee apples. People act like I don't understand the idea of rules, but I understand better than they do. There's a sign saying to keep off the grass, yet everyone walks over it. The same people wouldn't steal a toffee apple from the cart. Why is the grass less important than the apple? It isn't, but they've made themselves believe that. They have to believe that, so they can break the rules and not feel guilty.
I take the long route around the grass. It's my own form of defiance. They all expect me to break the rules, but I keep them better than anyone else.

Later they explain further:
"The psychopath has no conscience. No remorse. No concept of right and wrong."
Getting two out of three right wasn't bad, but did he really think I couldn't memorise a list of rules? Or I had no incentive to keep them? It wasn't in my best interest to end up in a box or to upset my family to the point they wanted nothing more to do with me. Perhaps he didn't realise that.

And the narrator spends a lot of time using logic to push back against accepted ideas about what makes humanity valuable. This push back can often be uncomfortably enlightening as it challenges the primacy of empathy, the idea that goodness is a natural quality and the readers feelings about the importance of human purity:

The founding principle of the world, keeping humans human. Hidden away from those nasty sub-humans who mixed with aliens. Who integrated into other worlds. Everyone a pure human, blah blah blah. I didn't care about ideology. Only about survival.


That last point is where the dialogue about humanity particularly engages with the history of science fiction. In Mira Grant's Parasite, symbionts start out at beneficial medical aid but end up being dangerous invaders and in The Host revolves around an epic struggle to save humans from the aliens who have taken over their bodies. These stories quickly established that the parasites aren't benign and the idea of a human being controlled by a parasite is treated as deplorable; a compromised form of existence and a threat to humanity. I contrast, the narrator of "Never the Same" prioritises saving people and animals rather than preserving a 'pure' human species. They see symbionts as an ideal and practical solution.

Interestingly, the narrator mostly manages to carry the reader with them. Many stories about the future of humanity and our world express horror at any suggestion that humans must be 'added to' in order to survive. It's hard to get away from that idea - many humans are committed to genetic survival and it's difficult, heartbreaking even, for people to imagine a world where their species may not exist. The deep seated nature of our will to survive, while maintaining basic humanity, may limit the SFF stories authors create or make it difficult for readers to identify with characters who reject the idea that human survival must look a certain way. But Blake's narrator pulls it off. The opposite side, the one we might be encouraged to support as 'defenders of humanity' in other science fiction stories, are set up as rather grubby villains: the narrator's brother a shadowy figure who illogically insists that it is "Better to be sick and clean, than healthy and dirty."; the woman who murdered her colleague because he wanted to release the sludge. In the face of that sinister opposition, the clear eyed psychopathic narrator who wants to save the planet looks like the easy choice.

"Never the Same" is a story which questions what 'survival at all costs' really means. Is it important to insist on the purity of humanity if it compromises the survival of the human race? Or, are symbionts a step too far - changing our species beyond recognition and removing the point of survival? This is the big question readers will find themselves confronted with and where readers stand may depend on whether they believe the narrator about the sludge:

The gossips think it made me worse, like the birds. That isn't true. I was the same person before and after. All it did was make me bolder about speaking my mind.


Is the narrator compromised by the symbiont in the sludge? Should the reader take the word of a psychopath who, at the end of the story, reveals they may have been lying about a childhood crime all along? And what about those final lines 'I jump and we fall towards the sludge. The birds are never the same.'? Is this just the story referring the reader back to its opening paragraph, or is it a final chilling truth about what happens after the birds hit the sludge? Is the narrator telling us they weren't the same person after they hit the sludge? And did they set that final fire?

There's a lot to like about "Never the Same" beyond the different way it approaches such a big science fiction question. Renay said she liked 'the central dynamic' of the story and I assume she meant the same relationship I enjoyed - the one between the narrator and their sister. The plot of "Never the Same" contains a huge dollop of family drama as the narrator's brother (probably) wants to harm their sister (who is running for political office) and his incredibly creepy presence is a huge force in the narrator's life. But the background detail of the sister's life with the narrator - her desire to trust the narrator and the narrator's desire to be a good sibling - is probably what I came away most emotionally focused on. The part where the narrator asks if the sister's girlfriend likes shadow animals, referencing back to a fond childhood memory, was really cute.

And the structural style of "Never the Same" was just to my taste - layered and full of new situations and time periods to get my teeth into. It's a huge accomplishment that this story constantly chops back between past and present, and swaps situations without losing the reader or confusing the story. I like short stories that find a way to stuff in a lot of different times, places and events - short stories that feel expansive even though they're made of so few words - and that style has had a big influence on my own writing. Which probably means I should vary up what I read...

"Never the Same" provides a convincing, different view of the science fiction idea that humanity needs to remain pure and free from alien or technological 'contamination' in the race to survive. This is one of the most interesting and intricately built, multi-level short stories I've read so far and a serious contender for my Hugo ballot. Thanks for recommending it, Renay. Now you can come and talk to me about it!

"Never the Same" is available for free at Strange Horizons.

Supplementary Materials
"Never the Same Again" - podcast
Roundup: 2014 stories with non-binary gendered characters
Nominating for the BFSA short fiction focus

Date: 2015-02-20 03:45 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Thanks for this excellent review.

Date: 2015-03-27 03:43 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
One thing that struck me about reading this story was that the dynamic between the siblings was very similar to that of Ender's Game--the cruel and manipulative brother, the compassionate sister, and the weirdling third sibling. There's been a lot of discussion about the morality of the character Ender and I can't help but wonder if the parallel was deliberate. Anyway, thanks for pointing that story out, I enjoyed it.

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