All About Emily

by Connie Willis

Cover image

Publisher: Subterranean
Copyright: 2011
ISBN: 1-59606-488-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 96

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Claire Havilland is a Broadway star, three-time Tony winner, and the first-person narrator of this story. She is also, at least in her opinion, much too old to star in the revival of Chicago, given that the role would require wearing a leotard and fishnet stockings. But that long-standing argument with her manager was just the warm-up request this time. The actual request was to meet with a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and robotics engineer who will be the Grand Marshal of the Macy's Day Parade. Or, more importantly, to meet with the roboticist's niece, Emily, who has a charmingly encyclopedic knowledge of theater and of Claire Havilland's career in particular.

I'll warn that the upcoming discussion of the background of this story is a spoiler for the introductory twist, but you've probably guessed that spoiler anyway.

I feel bad when someone highly recommends something to me, but it doesn't click with me. That's the case with this novella. My mother loved the character dynamics, which, I'll grant, are charming and tug on the heartstrings, particularly if you enjoy watching two people geek at each other about theater. I got stuck on the world-building and then got frustrated with the near-total lack of engagement with the core problem presented by the story.

The social fear around robotics in All About Emily is the old industrialization fear given new form: new, better robots will be able to do jobs better than humans, and thus threaten human livelihoods. (As is depressingly common in stories like this, the assumptions of capitalism are taken for granted and left entirely unquestioned.) Willis's take on this idea is based on All About Eve, the 1950 film in which an ambitious young fan maneuvers her way into becoming the understudy of an aging Broadway star and then tries to replace her. What if even Broadway actresses could be replaced by robots?

As it turns out, the robot in question has a different Broadway role in mind. To give Willis full credit, it's one that plays adroitly with some stereotypes about robots.

Emily and Claire have good chemistry. Their effusive discussions and Emily's delighted commitment to research are fun to read. But the plot rests on two old SF ideas: the social impact of humans being replaced by machines, and the question of whether simulated emotions in robots should be treated as real (a slightly different question than whether they are real). Willis raises both issues and then does nothing with either of them. The result is an ending that hits the expected emotional notes of an equivalent story that raises no social questions, but which gives the SF reader nothing to work with.

Will robots replace humans? Based on this story, the answer seems to be yes. Should they be allowed to? To avoid spoilers, I'll just say that that decision seems to be made on the basis of factors that won't scale, and on experiences that a cynic like me thinks could be easily manipulated.

Should simulated emotions be treated as real? Willis doesn't seem to realize that's a question. Certainly, Claire never seems to give it a moment's thought.

I think All About Emily could have easily been published in the 1960s. It feels like it belongs to another era in which emotional manipulation by computers is either impossible or, at worst, a happy accident. In today's far more cynical time, when we're increasingly aware that large corporations are deeply invested in manipulating our emotions and quite good at building elaborate computer models for how to do so, it struck me as hollow and tone-deaf. The story is very sweet if you can enjoy it on the same level that the characters engage with it, but is not of much help in grappling with the consequences for abuse.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-02-21

Last modified and spun 2020-02-22