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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The short answer: No.

Obviously no.

For the start of the long answer, look at the study I published two years ago with my colleague Dan Johnson in Scientific Study of Literature:

Or the write-up about the study featured in The Guardian:

Or at the two blog posts I published here with the unfortunately playful titles “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid” and “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid, Part 2.”

But to really get the answer, you need to read our new study due out in the next issue of SSL. Or the new write-up in The Guardian:

Looking back at the first study, “The Genre Effect,” we can now say that it wasn’t simply science fiction that triggered bad reading. It was non-literary science fiction. The new study, “The Literary Genre Effect,” instead shows that literary science fiction and literary realism trigger the same high-level responses from readers.

In other words, genre doesn’t matter. It’s the quality, stupid.

We also provide scientific evidence for something genre readers have known for decades: literary fiction and genre fiction are overlapping categories. Proving that required writing two short stories, one SF, the other narrative realism, that are also somehow identical so that their levels of literary merit are identical too.

So I wrote “ADA,” two 1,730-word stories that differ by exactly one word. The SF version has “robot” in the first sentence. The narrative realism version has “daughter.” Though the two groups of readers should imagine very different storyworlds as they continue, the texts and so the literary quality of the texts, will be the same.

I’m not claiming the story is great, just good, or at least good enough to be better than the stories we used for the first study. But judge for yourself. Though, unlike any of the readers in our study groups, you’ll likely experience the two storyworlds simultaneously. (I’ll also add that I don’t like the narrator at all. He somehow manages to be a total creep in both universes.)

Here’s “ADA”:

My _____________ (daughter/robot) is standing behind the bar, polishing a wine glass against a white cloth. She raises her chin and blinks at me as I slide onto the furthest stool. My throat feels raw, and I have to swallow once before forcing a smile and meeting her black eyes. They remind me of my ex-partner’s.

“What would you like?” Her voice is stiff, like an instrument plucking notes from a page of sheet music, the last one dutifully rising. It’s not like I had expected her to recognize me. She blinks again. “Do you want something, sir?”

I mumble, “White Russian.”

She slots the wine glass into the row of polished ones above her head and turns to mix the drink. Her movement is slow, precise.

“Light on the Kahlua,” I add, too loudly, as if delivering the punchline to a hilarious joke. She exhales what could be mistaken for a laugh, but keeps her back turned. I can’t help but study the way her neck moves, her shoulders, the joints of her arms, the whole slender skeleton. I helped make all that. Not that I deserve credit. If my legal assistant hadn’t traced a paper trail to her last month, I still wouldn’t know she exists.

Her hip leans in sync with the tilt of the bottle she’s pouring. They put her in one of those ridiculous little bartender outfits, white shirt, black tie, black vest, black slacks—except leggings really, every inch pinching a curve into place. The shirt is tight too. My partner and I parted ways before our creation entered the world, still sexless, a blank slate awaiting programming. Now she looks like a twenty-year-old woman of ambiguous nationality, Middle Eastern maybe. Turkish. She turns with my drink and centers it soundlessly on a napkin square.

“Light on the Kahlua,” she says.

“Thank you.” I’m mumbling again, but she must detect the tone, can’t help smiling. Her teeth are an impossible white against her brown lips. Her fingers retract before I can reach the glass. They’re brown too, but not as brown as my ex-partner’s. She laces them in front of her, poised for the next instruction. Manual labor. That must be all they think she’s good for here. She can’t know she is capable of anything more, either.

The nametag on her front pocket reads “ADA.” I lean forward as if I can’t quite make out the letters. I could be staring at her breast for all she cares. The shirt is so tight dark flesh presses through the gaps between buttons. She doesn’t flinch, unaffected by the gawking squint of a gray-haired white man. I’m even pointing now, at her right breast, playing up the fake squint. “Ada?”

The nametag on her front pocket reads “ADA.” I lean forward as if I can’t quite make out the letters. I’m even pointing now, playing up the fake squint. “Ada?”

She nods, repeats the syllables as if scanning them phonetically from a screen. I doubt that’s her name. My eyes have drifted back up to her face and so she has to speak. “How is your drink?”

I forgot it was in my hand, both of my hands. I’m strangling it. The ice cubes clack my teeth as I slurp the top. “Perfect,” I say.

She flashes the same meaningless smile she flashed when she slid me the glass. Exactly the same. She hasn’t budged from her stance either, not so far from the bar edge as to suggest aloofness, not so close to imply intimacy. The drink recipes she must have memorized too, thousands probably—though she really did go light on the Kahlua. By which I meant heavy on the vodka, but maybe that is too subtle an inference. We didn’t set out to make the world’s greatest bartender.

At least it’s a decent enough place, plenty of marble downstairs in the lobby, dizzying view up here. I think my room might be ocean-facing too. I haven’t checked in yet. I almost didn’t get out of the cab. If there had been a night flight back out, I might never have left the airport. The pub inside the terminal glowed with neon logos as the bartender tilted foam from a pair of frosted mugs. I kept walking.

Ada’s bar is more upscale but, at the moment, barren. It makes no difference to her. Her arms are draped in front of her, wrist resting in her other hand. She could hold the pose forever, a fixture as permanent as the row of stools bolted to the floor.

“So,” I say. Her eyebrows rise as if she thinks I’m gearing up to something. I’m not. My fingers keep rotating the glass on the fake wood. What is there to say that she could understand? I suck another sip and ask, “You been working here long?”

“As long as I can remember.”

No smile that time, so the line must not be designed to be funny. I chuckle anyway. And so now she is flashing her white teeth again, the crinkles around her eyes deepening with my volume. It’s just stimulus response. Except her pupils aren’t centered on mine. They’re a few inches off, focused somewhere beyond my shoulder. They have been this whole time.

I twist to look at the wall-length window behind me. The black of the sky and the black of ocean must meet somewhere out there, but it’s all the same from here, and the swirl of stars puncturing it. I wonder whether she is looking at one in particular, whether she can imagine a world almost like this one orbiting it out there, whether it’s even a star to her—or just a needle prick of light. Each is probably no different to her than the flicker of candle light centering each table. I’m not sure if the candles are even real. It doesn’t matter, but I’m sliding from my seat to lean over the closest and see the tiny electric filament blinking randomly inside its wax shell. No, the wax isn’t real either, just translucent plastic molded in a drizzle pattern, the same one table top after table top, a constellation of them. They’re pretty though. Everything in the bar is perfectly pretty. I shouldn’t have come.

“One hundred and forty-one,” Ada’s voice declares.

I turn back round. “Sorry?”

She has moved forward, her stomach pressing the bar edge. But she’s still not looking at me. “One hundred and forty-one,” she repeats. She’s looking at my drink, which is in her hand now. She’s swirling it. “The stars,” she says,

When she looks up, I nod, reflexively. “The stars.”

My voice is an echo of hers, so no question mark, nothing to suggest confusion, but she must detect it anyway. “That’s how many you can see right now,” she explains. The finger of her other hand is pointing at the window behind me.

I’m nodding again, sincerely now. The stars. She must count them. Some hard-wired impulse, I guess, but still. I begin to rotate back to the window, as if to check her math, make sure she didn’t miss one along the curtain edges, but stop when she lifts my glass to her face. She squints at the milky gray murk, as if searching for something, a specific ice cube or a thread of undissolved color. I want to believe that the swirl is no swirl to her, but precise points of black and white, stars so tiny only she could ever see them.

“You don’t like it.”

“No, no,” I say, “it’s, it’s—” But I don’t know if she means the drink or the view. “It’s fine.”

The lip of the glass is only inches from her own lips, but I’m still startled when she tilts a sip and weighs it in her mouth for a long, unblinking moment. The ball of her throat bobs as she swallows and frowns. “Why did you make me change it?”

My mouth opens, but I don’t speak. She must mean the mix, the proportions, Kahlua, vodka, cream. The glass is still hovering next to her cheek.

“I prefer it that way,” I say.

“No, you don’t.”

Without turning her body, even her neck, she extends her arm and dumps the drink into the tiny sink at her side. The ice cubes crackle and skid against the wet metal. She gives the glass one, precise shake and lowers it soundlessly to rest upside. I hadn’t noticed the sink was there.

I slide back onto my bar stool, expecting her to mix another Russian, but she reaches for one of the glasses above her head instead. It’s true. I should have ordered wine before, and I wonder if she can compute my exact preference too, a dry red, one older than her. But then I notice the white cloth is in her other hand again. She settles the dome of the glass into her palm and begins rotating it again. I watch. It’s all I can do.

“What do you want?” she asks. I start to quiz her about the vintage years of her cabernets, but she is speaking over me. “The way you paused when you entered, how you kept me in your periphery as you pretended to look around, even the stool you picked, no one sits that far away. You didn’t come for a drink.”

I feel my face warming, my smile widening as I stammer an apology. I’m shrugging too, blurting the next inanity that flashes to mind: “I guess I just like the view.” Then I don’t say anything. She is still working the glass around and around. It’s pristine.

“One hundred and forty-two,” she says.

I feel my eyebrows rise high into my forehead, but she doesn’t look up, doesn’t explain.

Then I spin my stool and blink at the swath of stars outside. They look identical to me, but of course they are changing, increment by increment, all night. Her window, the building, this pointless resort, it’s all moving, the whole planet, everything is. She must know every shifting constellation, the machinery of their endlessly possible worlds.

I stare, blinking, waiting for the next pinprick to vanish or burst over the window edge. I can’t see Ada slot the wine glass back into its row behind me. I just hear the click, like a delicate gear.


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