Ten years ago Burstein’s first published story, TeleAbsence, was inexplicably nominated for a Hugo. It told the story of a school age boy, Tony, who was able to hack into the virtual reality private school that he otherwise couldn’t afford because of his desire for learning. A decade later, it’s time for a sequel, a longer story where Tony is all grown up and is now the main proponent of the technology of “TelePresence”, the shared virtual reality that is being marketed now to the public school system of California, in order to make the advantages of the experience available to everyone. The new story follows the standard Analog formula, setting up a mystery where the system suddenly goes bad and kills a couple of students, and Tony takes up the hunt to find the source of the problem before he loses the big sale to the most populous and influential school system in the country. The resolution at least avoids the computer virus angle, but doesn’t really come up with something that much more interesting, but in the end it who or what was behind these deaths is a bit lame and seems not to really be the point. Instead you have a long diatribe about the shortcomings of the standard educational system and how TelePresence is far superior, complete with testamonials from former students, including one of Tony’s old classmates. There’s also an extended epilog where Tony goes to the cemetary to visit the grave of the teacher who had such an influence on him. Burstein has cornered the market on “education sf”, as opposed to educational sf, and really rhapsodizes over both the dichotomy between a teacher’s calling and their lot in life. While it’s certainly sincere and pushes all the right buttons in the right order, and is certainly short on the typical Analog clankiness, the story doesn’t really rise above your average, didactic Analog story.
This story is part homage to, part refutation of its namesake (the Asimov collection, not the original Eando Binder story, or the Will Smith movie). Doctorow perfectly captures the tone of an old-fashioned sf story, replete with the stilted dialog and noirish rapid-fire crime-fighting prose, but the similarities end there. The author says he wrote this in response to Ray Bradbury’s whining over Michael Moore’s coopting of the title “Fahrenheit 451” for his movie “Fahrenheit 9/11”. The idea is that many of the classic sf stories promote their premise against a backdrop of a well-meaning but totalitarian state, and Doctorow’s intent is to try to depict what that would really be like, what kind of a society would there need to be for all the robots in the country to be made by one company. There’s a healthy dose of current events to extrapolate from, where the US is the benevolent dictatorship, and the protagonist, Arturo, is a cop who has at his disposal any number of bugging, surveillance and tracking devices, including robot cops, to help him fight crime. When his daughter goes missing after skipping school, he puts the usual methods into play, but hits a snag when the robots he’s dispatched stop responding. What he ends up falling into is an elaborate plot spearheaded by his ex-wife, who represents the country that has been at war with them for years, using their own brand of robot that doesn’t subscribe to Asimov’s three laws. Arturo is too entrenched in the system to bring himself to change sides easily, but by the end of story he’s not too sure where his loyalties lie. Doctorow doesn’t dwell on either the politics or the technology as much as you might think, you can take this story at face value and still be justifiably entertained. The robots are present throughout the story but are really just part of the fabric of the world that he’s proposing, merely another tool in the government’s basket of things utilized to keep us all safe from one another.