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Bossert: The Union of Soil and Sky
McDaniel: They laughed at me in Vienna
Genge: Malick Pan
Longyear: Alten Kamaraden
Reed: Pretty to think so
I enjoyed this one, at least in part, because it was one of the rare tales published in Asimov's with science behind it. Archeology isn't considered a science by some, because it doesn't have an overtly mathematical or technological basis, but it follows all the rules of science: forming hypotheses, gathering evidence to test them, and progressively revising the hypotheses and expanding the body of knowledge. I also enjoy this kind of puzzle story, right from the days I first encountered it in Andre Norton's YA novels. Once the tale moves to the underground ruins, the concept of a small region of light in a sea of darkness (ignorance) is effective both from the perspective of physical description and in a metaphorical sense.
The science is a mixed bag. The archeology follows what I know of the science. I enjoyed seeing the casual mention of perovskite semiconductors; this is newish tech, and some of the authors whose work I edit are engineering the mineral to produce some impressive new materials. The glass constructs and varitropes are really clever. I'm not sure glass could be made truly flexible (it's an inherently brittle material), but this would be an interesting way to make it happen. The spybot was well done both as a gadget and as a character insight. I always enjoy characters smart enough to adapt technology in the field (here, using fiber optics when radio transmissions won't work). Blame Heinlein. <g>
Inanna's accident seems unlikely to be survivable as described. Worldcons frequently run a panel called "maim them right" in which doctors, paramedics, and other experts explain just how difficult it is to hurt a protagonist realistically; the human body is both astoundingly robust and insanely fragile. Wounds that create large puddles of blood (as in this story) are difficult to survive; at a minimum, you go into shock and feel cold, not "still warm". The autotransfuser, though a clever idea, won't work under those circumstances: when someone loses a puddle of blood, you must replace a similar volume of fluid. That presupposes a very large medkit. Not impossibly large, but the brief description didn't convey that impression. More importantly, large puncture wounds must be patched, otherwise the fluid just leaks out again.
The characters are well integrated with the story: they are real people, doing a job they love despite the frustrations, and there are nice little bits of characterization. (Oddly, Winifred, the POV character, didn't fully emerge as a person for me. Possibly because her gaze is focused outwards, not in?) Inanna's name (shared with the Sumerian goddess of sexual love) creates a fun irony with her failure to tempt Ant, and Mort (French for "death") is an appropriate name for an archeologist. Neither is overly burdened by its symbolism, yet both retain symbolic power. "Ant" (a digger) can be seen as a symbolic name choice, but it's also a very British abbreviation of Anthony (rather than the American "Tony"). The description of spacers as very careful because of the risk of pushing a button with an elbow is traditional, but I'm not sure it's realistic; given a century to refine spaceship technology, why should controls be any more risky than those of a modern car? Microsoft Spaceship v0.9? <g>
The only part of the story I didn't like is the unresolved ending. Leaving the ending for readers to imagine is a valid fictional technique, but I want the author's take on how the story will end. I can create my own ending, but I want to learn the author's choice to provide closure. Still, an excellent story, and I want to see more by this author.
I'm of two minds: The story is well crafted in a cynical sort of way (I mean that as a compliment), and does a nice job of reminding us of just how cynical the insurance industry is, while showing the narrator doing his job skillfully (which is, bluntly, to screw people out of insurance money) without being a complete automaton. The concept of revivification insurance is strong, and eminently likely; the insurance industry never stops seeking ways to earn money from our foolish optimism, and with each new technology, they've found new ways to profit. But behind the overt criticism, there are gentle (and in the end, profound) insights into our attitudes towards death and risk and how technology will (or won't!) change them. Unlike in the Bossert story in that issue, the unresolved ending works for me: whether or not the claim is resolved in favor of Madison isn't the point of the story, and resolving that point would take the narration beyond the end of the true story arc.
The interaction between black and white protagonists is handled well: it's background, never forgotten but also not dwelt on apart from a short, sharp jab to the gut about the racist neighbors. The narrator isn't color blind (he sees what is in front of him), but neither does he let it bias him. Sadly, that's because he's an equal-opportunity asshole. Nowadays, it takes courage to even mention race in a story, since you're "damned if you do, damned if you don't". I'm white, but count myself in the "white ally" camp; that is, I believe it's better to include people of color in your stories and deal with them respectfully, even if you don't quite get it right, than to whitewash the whole universe and ignore the diversity of our world. Not everyone accepts that. I'm curious to hear what others think—if we can discuss this without ending up in a "race fail" version of Godwin's law.
On the negative side, the story is too heavily front-loaded with infodump. Much of it is acceptable and necessary in terms of our narrator running through his mental checklist while repeatedly reminding us how petty the insurance industry can be. But there's too much of it, and not all is well integrated. (Crude guesstimate: about a third could have been pruned with little loss in a more minimalist take.) The initial sense of mystery is well crafted: "Okay, we've got an insurance claims adjuster, but this is Asimov's—what's the SFnal twist?" But for a short story, it takes too long to reach the punchline.
Another problem is that the story seems more a vignette than something that fits the classical definition of a story: the dramatic arc is shallow, with a consequently muted climax and no dramatic resolution. The story just trails off, and the narrator sitting in a bar drinking to forget his problems seems both unnecessary and bordering on cliché. His musings that "we all die, not always predictably, and we all seek ways to take control of our life despite that" is an exceptionally strong story hook and well done, but it would have made a stronger endpoint. The low-key approach, without a dramatic climax, seems to be a common late–20th century literary style, and has become an acceptable literary technique. But to me, it robs stories of their potential impact.
How to solve that problem? One approach would have been to have Madison turn the tables on the protagonist and dramatically enlighten him, thereby achieving a more striking resolution. Tying that reversal of power roles into the overall theme of taking control would have been even stronger. But that would be difficult to do well, since that kind of inversion is, itself, a well-worn story pathway. An enjoyable read, but I found myself wishing for a stronger ending.
In this story, we see two fascinating parallels: First, the too-familiar tragedy of a marriage dissolving, something that strikes us as painful precisely because it is so familiar. This is juxtaposed with the unfamiliar but far more severe tragedy of how war affects the lives of people, something most Asimov's readers are fortunate to have never experienced other than through the cold lens of TV. Second, we see the contrast between Janet's self-impression as someone warm and emotionally honest, leaving a cold husband who is only faking emotion to win her back. Compare that with Laurent's profound emotions and responsibility for his sisters, which are far deeper and more real. The two contrasts provide a powerful context for what turns into an excellent story.
I don't know Congolese culture, but the three Black characters have the ring of truth (based on refugees I've known and seen interviewed on TV). I'll trust the author has done his homework. The characters seem real, and are handled with sympathy and respect. They're exemplary supporting characters in what is clearly Janet's story. In the story's framing context, they're also far more proactive and courageous about solving their problem than Janet is, which is deftly handled. Laurent's English strikes me as too perfect given his French linguistic background; living in Quebec, I hear many linguistic artefacts even from the fluently bilingual. A small flaw, but better than attempting a fake "fransh" accent and failing. It's also emotionally consistent with Janet's character that she moves to a new culture (French) without learning any French whatsoever (so far as we can tell), whereas Laurent is fluently bilingual. Very (North) American.
[Spoiler alert if you haven't finished the story]
I wanted to see Janet find a clever way to adopt the refugees, particularly since her desire to adopt children was clearly signaled early in the story. The fact that she didn't was a tough-minded choice by the author to be true to both the protagonist (who never adopted children after separating from her husband, despite the suggestion that this is why she left) and to the story context (a nasty situation in which more people are thrown back into the meatgrinder than are saved). I'm not sure I buy the "farewell sex", but I can look the other way given the emotional honesty and consistency of the rest of the story.
I'm not sure I buy the notion there would be no standing policy on how to deal with refugees. Historically, as soon as there's been a new way to transport goods, corrupt people have found ways to exploit it for their own needs, and desperate people have used this technology to risk their lives to escape desperate situations. We'd have to postulate some major change between now and the story's time for this practice to be disrupted long enough that such policies would be unnecessary. We can hand wave, but it's harder than necessary.
Technical niceties: Based on current technology, it makes little sense to have small pods (seemingly not much larger than modern cargo containers) transporting themselves. We use large ships (not to mention train locomotives) because one large engine is generally more efficient than many small ones. The use of (geothermal?) charging stations in the pod network solves that problem neatly, assuming the engines themselves are sufficiently cheap to manufacture. The technology is not the heart of the story, but that's a clever idea, and would probably work.
Technical quibbles: Smuggling marijuana by pod is unlikely. That crop can be grown anywhere (including my home town of Montreal, where hydroponic marijuana is a major illicit industry because of the cheap electricity) and has too low a profit margin to be worth smuggling. I don't know what equivalent crops would be grown in the Africa, but whatever it would be, the profit margin would need to be much higher: genemod marijuana maybe?
Not sure what to say about this one. Let's start with the obvious: this one is clearly a humor piece, and humor is difficult to do well. Pratfalls and pie in the face gags are funny, but trivial; we forget them almost as soon as the laughs die down, and we don't regret the loss. The best humor is the kind of thing Terry Pratchett does so well, at least during the latter half of his career: it speaks to something deeper, and because of its profundity, it has resonance and leaves echoes long after the joke is told. I periodically return to Pratchett books I've already read because amidst the overt jokes and sometimes-slapstick, there are deep and wise things being said.
McDaniel's story fails that test. The deliberately retro mad scientist vibe is fun, but like cotton candy, it leaves nothing but a rapidly fading aftertaste once it's gone. In fact, the story read much like the first draft of a Futurama script, minus the sly cultural references. To do the mad scientist thing well, you need to walk a fine line between cliché and hommage: you play the cliché for laughs, but use the hommage to remind us of why the original was interesting and insightful. (Think of the cultural meaning of all those "fear of science" bad science fiction movies of the 50s and 60s, for instance.) Though McDaniel walks the line skillfully, and does a credible job of connecting the dots (the writing is clear and to the point), no hommage emerges, leaving the story as one-dimensional as the metaphorical line he's walking. (Speaking in the literary rather than geometrical sense, of course.) To go much beyond farce, it's necessary to do something with the characters that provides depth and resonance. Unfortunately, the characters here are basically all from central casting.
[Spoiler alert in case you haven't yet finished the story:]
The notion that much of our scientific progress comes from mad scientists is a potentially good one. I'm not sure the CIA would be shepherding the scientists, since their primary function is gathering external intelligence rather than internal, but clearly there's overlap and we all KNOW the CIA really is manipulating things behind the scenes. <g> The bigger problem is that to turn the story into something more interesting, the frothing at the mouth and chewing the scenery must all be in service of something deeper, possibly even something more sinister.
To give a clichéd example that illustrates the point nicely, Dr. Crawley might have invented television as a means for the CIA to control our thoughts and beliefs and pacify the masses with pap. To give a considerably more interesting example, Crawley could have been the real inventor of the Internet: something we see as liberating and an icon of free speech transformed into something more sinister. That enlists the farce in the service of social critique, and also taps into a deeper vein, namely the fact that scientists often work in the hope of bettering the world, only to see their inventions subverted into something that makes the world a worse place to live. In the tension between the desire and the result lies a form of tragedy, and that can be a source for profound humor leavened by insight. Not something I could write well, though I think I came close in my story A principle of matter.
Sargent does two difficult things well: Creating a series of isolated snapshots that gradually merge into a coherent mosaic of what's really going on, and depicting many different POV characters with sparse but deft brushstrokes to make them distinctive through judicious and telling detail. The portraits are emotionally honest and convincing, though none really break new ground. She creates a compelling atmosphere of mystery—one that initially seems innocent, but that grows increasingly creepy.
The problem with multiple POV characters is that it distances us from the story until we find a character we can identify with and use as our guide through the story—or at least someone we can hitch a ride with even if we can't empathize. In a novel, you have room to create personalities sufficiently compelling that each will hold your interest for a full chapter. But in a short story that's no longer than a single chapter, I find that you must eventually pick a single focus (no more than two) to hold the reader. Chris (the newscaster) becomes that character, and then things start moving fast—and fall apart.
Sargent waits too long to make this choice. I would have been drawn through the story more strongly if Chris had been the motive force from the beginning, with fewer other characters chosen judiciously to deepen and widen the emotional punch. More seriously, with many viewpoints supporting the same narrative of events, we lose the suspense that can be achieved by "slipstream" fiction: Is Chris really hearing other people's thoughts, or is she hallucinating? That's an important point, because the mystery of what happened at Hannaford disappears once we know the thought-reading is real. This creates the only serious flaw in the story: Most (all?) Asimov's readers will suspect we know exactly what's going on quickly, without any coaching from the author or her characters. We won't have the details, but we'll have enough to enjoy watching Chris discover them for us.
Why, then, do we learn (too) early in the tale that Chris' research has already revealed MindData's research on shared consciousness? If Chris knows this from the start, and suspects she's experiencing other people's thoughts, it's hard to accept that she takes so long to figure out what's going on. Maybe she's not an Asimov's reader, and won't get there as fast as we did, but it's inconceivable that she doesn't quickly figure out what's happening. This problem could be solved via a simple structural adjustment: (1) Chris comes to town, drawn by some instinct she can't name. (2) She experiences shared consciousness similar to what happened during the Hannaford incident. (3) She's now certain she has good reason to suspect MindData. (4) She belatedly does her homework and discovers the founder's early interviews about consciousness research. (5) Her suspicions now having a tangible basis, she moves forward with the investigation.
The story atmosphere is an odd but very clever mix. The mystery to be solved has a distinct creep factor because the government is funding this research. But initially, there's a strong sense of what I can only describe as "comfort": each of the characters has their emotional traumas in the background, some severe, yet they find comfort in their emerging shared consciousness. Is Elmendorf right in his assumptions that his invention will be good for us? We soon see the downside as anger and fear and the kind of mental "noise" we all experience, which emerge and destroy that comfort. The horror is that Elmendorf (like many people who won't abandon a pet hypothesis in the face of evidence) simply doesn’t get it. You know he's going to make something equally bad happen again—and again.
On the whole, the story succeeds and carries considerable punch. But the structural flaw undermines what could have been a much stronger tale.
My first reaction to this story was "oh noes, not another post-apocalyptic children scrabbling in the ruins" story. I don't usually enjoy these; I have enough misanthropy as it is, and I've done enough reading of history and science to see how easily we could head down that kind of path. I get enough "bleak" from real life, thank you very much. I read SF/F for a more optimistic take on where we're heading.
But the writing was good enough and the emerging picture clear enough that I persisted, and it was well worth the effort. The picture painted of outcasts struggling to survive in a future Paris exurb is bleakly realistic, though I'm not sure about the notion of garbage disposal via the equivalent of vacuum tubes. It's unnecessary tech, and if you're positing a society with practical nanobots, it seems more likely you'd recycle 100% of your garbage to feed the nanobots (or use them to transform it into something useful) rather than discarding it. That's particularly true if you're positing a closed (or perhaps "sealed" would be a better word) urban society such as the one in the story.
[Spoilers here and the next paragraph:] The story blurb initially misled me into thinking Malick Pan was a real historical character I'd never heard of, and as a result, it took me much longer than it should have to figure out what was really going on. As soon as the nanobots gathered together to become "Tinkerbell", the light belatedly came on. (In my defense, it was still B.C. = before coffee.) But 'twas a blinding light when it did turn on, and I suddenly saw the story for what it was: a sly, poignant, and very, very trenchant dialogue with and critique of the Peter Pan story. Pairing "the Captain" (Hook!) with child abuse is a brilliantly creepy touch.
My initial reaction was that naming the character "Pan" and his helper "Tinkerbell" was too clumsy and overt, and upon reflection, I still believe that to be the case. Even though I might have missed the connection initially, it became instantly clear as soon as Tinkerbell appears. That makes it unnecessary to name the character "Pan", and probably spoils the surprise for readers more P.C. (post coffee) than I was. Naming the protagonist Pan is also difficult to defend from inside the story's narrative logic; his parents wouldn't likely have given him that name, and until the nanobots become Tinkerbell, what we're told about them suggests they don't have the smarts to have developed that much of a sense of irony. They don't develop that level of intelligence until they come together as Tinkerbell late in the story. If the story had been set in a future China, then naming the character Pan Tongfu (for example) would work, since Pan is a common Chinese name, but there's no hint Malick is Chinese.
Naming Malick's antagonist "Nestor", probably after the Greek king and companion to Jason, is (again) too much symbolism. It's not that I have anything against symbolism, but rather that I'm a minimalist: provide enough to get the job done, and don't overdo it. (Zelazny somehow manages to shoehorn half of Bullfinch into many of his stories, but he's the exception.) I don't believe the name is sufficiently common in France for this to be anything other than an overt symbol, particularly given the name of his bride to be (Nelly = Neleus)—part of the same Greek myth, pretty much nailing down the origin of the name, although Neleus was Nestor's father, not his girlfriend. This was simply too much gilding of a very interesting lily, and should have been replaced with common French names, leaving the symbolism implicit.
Despite those minor blemishes, it remains a strong and resonant story, and one that leaves echoes. It's a skillful use of the outward trappings of a bog-standard adventure tale to sugarcoat a subtle and memorable message.
Longyear is the kind of author who writes so smoothly I just fell into the prose and forgot it was there, being drawn along by the story instead. In addition, those details I know (and those I did some spot checks on while reading) were spot-on, suggesting extensive and impeccable research. This shows up in the details, which are extensive without being overwhelming, and impeccably integrated into the story rather than becoming "look how much I know!" callouts. Interestingly, the biography of an American sniper that I read as a teen was much less self-critical and much more Joe Friday; Longyear's Wolff character was clearly much more thoughtful about what he'd done. I draw no conclusions from that other than to note that in fiction, it's often easier to create a realistic persona than it is when you're writing an autobiography.
[Spoiler alert here and next paragraph] The only real problem I have with the story is that it didn't really seem to have much place in Asimov's. Ending it with the revelation that Wolff is a ghost certainly makes it fantasy, and that technically buys it a ticket, but that almost seemed a patch-up for a story that didn't require it. I don't recall any hints along the way that Wolff might have been anything more than he seems (i.e., a wounded veteran). It seems hard to imagine nobody would notice.
I don't think I've encountered a fictional ghost like this one before. Wolff recognizes he might have been responsible (by saving Hitler's life) for millions of deaths, and that seems to be what is pinning him to this mortal coil. The more familiar tradition is that ghosts hang around because of unsolved injustices or guilty consciences that occur around the time of their death, and because they know what happened, they hang around until they can find someone who can remedy the situation for them. Since those deaths occurred many years after Wolff's death, that suggests his ghost came back many years after his death, or somehow saw into the future at the time of his death. Neither really seems likely, but possibly that's just my unfamiliarity with ghost tropes. (Not my favorite fictional subgenre.)
Another quibble is whether we really need another take on the eternal question of whether it would or would not have been better to travel back in time to kill Hitler before he came to power. It can be argued that contrary to the Great Man school of history, the social and cultural context after World War I would have inevitably led to a resurgent Germany, and that Hitler was only the figurehead who surfed that irresistable wave. In that case, it's not hard to speculate that Germany might have won the war in Hitler's absence. Would the generals have opened another front against Russia without Hitler's prodding, or were they smart enough to have secured Europe first? Had they done so, they would have undoubtedly won World War II, or at least killed a great many more people trying.
None of this matters to the story, which is well told and effective. I'm just not sure it belongs in Asimov's.
Many spoilers: read the story first.
The ever-reliable Robert Reed returns with a trademark miniature portrait. The initial mystery is well handled, and leads us convincingly astray into thinking an asteroid will strike Earth. Given our shameful lack of a significant response to such risks in the real world, it's a plausible doomsday scenario, and one we couldn't do much about. (A friend who prepared bioterrorism response plans for the feds told me—off the record—they could handle disasters in two or three cities simultaneously; more than that, and it's game over.)
The asteroid got me gnashing my teeth about our lack of preparation (a pet peeve), while eagerly awaiting the special effects. This seemed atypically superficial moralizing for Reed, so I wasn't surprised when the actual crisis proved to be more sinister. The real cautionary tale worked well: without stating it explicitly, Reed reminds us of the arrogance of scientists who don't get that their work could endanger us all. The historical echoes run back to the first A-bomb test, and fears the atmosphere might ignite, and continue today with fears over the production of micro-black holes by the Large Hadron Collider. Scientists frequently fail to understand the emotional power of "downside potential" for audiences who aren't persuaded solely by numbers. In theory, such black holes should evaporate before they pose any danger, but we have no actual data to prove that, and if we're wrong, the downside is unacceptable. The public understands this; scientists don't, which is why anti-science sentiment is growing.
Character receives less attention than in previous Reed stories—Mom and Dad seem very "Father Knows Best"—but skillful touches include Dad rationalizing his way through a nasty triage situation, and Joan (the Secret Service agent), initially suggested to be a flat automoton yet still wondering how to "take a laser" for the president instead of a bullet and having enough curiosity to reveal what really happened. But the best characterization of all, and a neat parallel with scientists poking at things they don't understand, comes in the dialogue between the aliens who are (in the end) responsible for the disaster. Some aliens are very human in their childish disregard for warnings and consequences.
I wasn't familiar with the quote that gave this piece its title, so it didn't resonate. That's a gap in my literary education, not Reed's error; Hemingway's novel (The Sun Also Rises) is hardly obscure. I disliked Hemingway when I was young, and never found time to return as an adult. The "wouldn't it have been nice" that will never be (here and in Hemingway's novel) has resonance for the adult world that dies in the story; it has deeper ironic resonance from the child's perspective. Children would not understand that irony, making this more literary device than character trait.
We don't understand dark matter, which is ostensibly at the SFnal heart of what's happening: why does it exert a powerful gravitational attraction yet isn't found near normal matter? Thus, it's hard to say whether the story's apocalypse is plausible. (Personally, I think dark matter scientists are hunting snipe. Dark matter doesn't quack like a duck, and looking for ducks makes you miss the snipe hidden in plain sight. Note that some phenomenon is clearly going on here; I just don't believe it relates to "matter", since energy and energy fields seem much more likely.)
Reed's previous tales have been more about human emotions and relationships than science, so this "plot device" isn't really the point. Turning the apocalypse into a sort-of happy ending seems implausible scientifically, but creates a powerful character moment for Cody: young children don't know their world well enough to understand why they should fear radical change, so apocalypse becomes something exciting rather than the terror the "cowering" adults feel because they don't know how to adapt. The adaptability of children makes this a powerful ending, and another feather in Reed's cap.
This starts out as YAPA (yet another post-apocalyptic), then morphs into something far richer... not a surprise given the author. The immediate parallel was with Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, but it's a stretch to think of Jackie's-boy as a deliberate response to Ellison. Most SF readers (including Popkes) know that older and far darker story, so it's part of the collective SF unconscious and shapes most YAPAs to some extent. (I haven't read The Road, so I can't say whether clearer parallels exist.)
In any event, the contrasts far outweigh the similarities. Popkes tells almost a happy story, certainly one with a happy ending. More centrally, Ellison's story is all about the id, whereas Popkes focuses on the superego; that places the stories in non-overlapping thematic universes. Unlike in many YAPAs, and despite the starting point of a world that has fallen apart due to self-inflicted bioterrorism, it's comforting that some people devote significant effort to their ethical responsibilities (here, saving the animals in their care rather than saving themselves). That's a rare grace note in an otherwise bleak scenario.
Popkes doesn't write hard SF, so it's not surprising the science here is backgrounded and not fully plausible. The bioterrorism that creates the story world is scarily plausible. Pace reassurances from terrorism experts, I know enough genetics and biomedicine to know that any sufficiently motivated PhD student in microbiology could genetically engineer a nasty plague. Fortunately, by the time you've survived a PhD, your fanaticism tends to be turned in a different direction from wanton destruction. So the plagues are plausible, but not their aftermath; after killing susceptible individuals, plagues tend to persist as simmering infections in survivors, as with the smallpox that most European colonists survived but that proved fatal to aboriginal peoples around the world. Anyone traveling significant distances in a world afflicted by many plagues would face the same problem medieval travelers faced: repeated exposure to new and deadly pathogens that only the locals were immune to.
The other aspect I can't swallow is "uplift" (to borrow Brin's term) of an elephant. We scarcely understand human intelligence, so trying to engineer intelligence into such a different animal is a scientific feat that beggars the imagination. Given the difficulty, it's reasonable that Jackie doesn't behave much differently from a human in an elephant suit: it would be much easier to create an elephant that thinks it's human than to create a de novo elephant-based intelligence. Though the details of elephant behavior and biology are accurate, I would have preferred the kind of alien intelligence Julie Czerneda does so well. One possibility would have been to use the recent discovery that elephants communicate over distances of many miles using "infrasound" pitched too low to be audible to humans.
If science is only a plot device here, then the heart lies in the relationship between Michael and Jackie. That relationship is fully fleshed out and well-portrayed, and evolves at a steady, plausible pace into a true friendship among equals. Is that the underlying parable? Not in an overtly preachy way, though the evolution of a mutually respectful and mutually beneficial modus vivendi between wild (or feral) animals and humans may be the understated moral underlying the story. Elephants have been characterized as wise due to their long memories, so perhaps Jackie serves as the voice of reason and wisdom who helps Michael survive into young adulthood?
I suspect it's unnecessary to impose more meaning than that on the story, and taking the story at face value, it's skillfully told and satisfying, with a heart as big as the elephant's. Why read more into it than that?
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