“Calved,” by Sam J. Miller
From, Asimov’s (Sept. 2015)
This is a futuristic tale that features climate disaster, violence, and an interesting dissection of generational poverty. At its core, however, “Calved,” is about a father’s love for his son. The father is taken away from his son for many months at a time because as an unskilled immigrant from America in a post-climate disaster arctic city the only work he can get is calving glaciers to make drinking water for the new deserts that have blossomed and withered the land across the world. Each time the father is apart from his son he feels the boy transforming into a new person, and he fears that eventually that new person will disassociate himself with his father–the source of his shame and low position in society. This makes the father wildly desperate to show his son how he is a good man, starting with giving him his only prized possession a t-shirt all the way from the sunken United States that reads “New York F cking City.” While their relationship might have been on the rocks all along, when the son seemingly loses the shirt that father’s actions have potential to truly unravel their relationship.
This is also a story about America and immigration, but the shoe is on the other foot. Miller imagines the way American citizens will be received by the world when we are displaced from the place we thought of as our forever home. In Qaanaaq, the stereotypes citizens seem to have about immigrants mirror the rhetoric of our own society, but the vitriol is inverted. Upon first read it made the part of me that learned history through the lens of American exceptionalism outraged, and it also made my heart ache because I know that this story does not portray the possible experience of humans in the future after a climate disaster but the way things are right now in America!
As the layers of this story are pulled back, it reveals a social commentary that is multiplicitous and that goes beyond the exploration of the immigrant experience and delves into perceptions around American ideals about poverty and masculinity. The father assumes that because he can only get a job on the ice ships, because he is largely absent in his son’s life, because his skin is dark, and because he is an American immigrant, that his son’s only natural path forward is to hate him. When his son turns into a moody teenager, the father can only think that the apocalypse of their relationship is upon them. He becomes desperate to disprove the stereotypes about Americans–that they are uneducated, small-minded, brutes–he wants to prove to his son that he is a good man despite the circumstances of his social standing. The father, however, does not know how to articulate this because he cannot speak plainly about his emotions to his son. Instead, he can only connect to him by attempting to objectify women and watching violence for entertainment. This enforces his son’s insecurity about his father. He fears that his father might really be all of those things, that he is the personification of the American ideal of masculinity. This causes the son to think that he must hide who is from his father because he cannot fully perceive his father’s unrelenting affection for him.
One of the things that I most enjoy reading about is the cost of authenticity. Typically, though not always, these stories feature a feel good moment where the protagonist has a moment of triumph with their chin held high. “Calved,” is the negative of that experience. Both the father and the son mold themselves into what they think the other expects of them because they assume that it is the best way to make their relationship work. This pretense eats a hole in their bond that very likely could be fatal and that highlights the necessity of authenticity, especially in the relationships with those we hold dearest.
If you’re looking for a well done literary climate fiction story, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story about a complex father son relationship, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story to appeal to your sense of empathy, this story is for you.
Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “Remind Me to Remember,” by Emily Wells with this post.