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Tyler and Ilse are online buddies—fellow game-players in an online game “Still Burning”, former (online only!) lovers, and now BFFs. They’re living in a world steeped in pervasive computing. Tyler goes everywhere with his augs (augmented-reality tools that overlay his virtual world atop the real world), when he goes anywhere at all. Mostly, he works at home, in a small apartment integrated with a shopping mall so that he rarely needs to leave the complex. (That’s a shame, because he lives in Oregon, which is one of God’s many countries.) When Ilse’s grandmother dies, Tyler decides on a noble gesture: to actually fly down to Phoenix to meet her in person and help her through her grief, though he’s not at all clear on how he’ll help; most of her other friends are content with adding “sympathy” to her blog. It’s all very modern.

[Spoilers] Let’s get a key point out of the way right from the start: the mysterious fish cakes of the title, Ilse’s Gram’s secret recipe that she’s handing down to her granddaughter, postmortem, are largely a red herring*, though Vukcevich builds a surprising amount of interest while we wait to learn the secret ingredient: fish flakes, but the kind you feed to tropical fish rather than people, and they turn out to be fairly appalling stuff unless heavily masked by other flavors. (I’ll take Vukcevich’s word on this one. Blech!) The larger point is twofold: first, that Ilse is willing to share both the secret and the last supplies of fish flakes with Tyler, and second, that there’s a viral video making the rounds of a guy eating sushi, and it’s almost a pornographic experience, since tuna and salmon are either extinct or available only to the very wealthy.

* No, I’m not at all repentant.

The tech is very well handled, in terms of both the thought given to the technology and its impacts on people. Tyler’s small apartment, for instance, has display screens on all four walls so he can alter the look of his physical environment at will whenever augs aren’t what he needs, he must “turn off the [virtual] cats” before he leaves to meet Ilse, and he has an exercise bike with a generator that is tied to the grid so he can earn electrical credits to power his virtual world. (Vukcevich remembers this detail well enough that later, when Tyler arrives in Phoenix, he’s unable to take a rent-a-bike from the bus stop to Ilse’s house: he rarely leaves his apartment complex, so the only bike he’s ever ridden was in VR or safely attached to the floor.) The current buzz over “the cloud” is well-integrated with the story; Tyler’s data and software are all stored online, so his travel augs are completely disposable; they can be easily and cheaply replaced whenever necessary. And necessary they are, because Tyler and his generation rarely want to deal with unaugmented, non-multitasking reality. When Tyler takes off his augs, a “single sharp and chilly aspect of the Multiverse seized him as if he’d been tossed into a cell and someone had slammed the door behind him.”

The larger point of the story is how all this tech affects the humans. Vukcevich carefully considers the impacts of our increasingly networked and virtual world on humans and their relationships. As Tyler preps himself for the flight to Phoenix, he makes a telling remark about the stress this will cause him: “Inside that room, Tyler was like a brain in a skull—his little you, the classic homunculus”, and leaving the apartment is about as attractive as a brain transplant. Indeed, most of his friends refer to getting together in the flesh as a “meating”, and find it impressive (if vaguely creepy) that Tyler’s willing to do this at all. As one notes, referring to the Quixotic physical visit, “he’s killing windmills for her”. On another deeply human note, Phoenix has shrunk to 20% of its former size because the desert has become almost unliveable, with temperatures well over 100°F even in the winter—as Vukcevich notes, this desert city never made much sense, and makes even less sense now—yet many people (including Ilse) still cling to their city simply because it’s home. When Tyler meats [sic] Ilse for the first time, there’s a wistful sense that she might accompany him back to his home in Oregon, but the closing line of the story soon disabuses us of that notion and remind us of the kinds of people we’re dealing with in a single, neatly turned phrase:
“You’re not coming back to Oregon with me, are you?”
“No,” she said, “but thanks for almost asking.”

There’s a subtle amusement at and affection for his characters that runs throughout Vukcevich’s story, but the only overt humor comes when Tyler passes through airport security: he’s stripped of his clothing, cavity searched, stripped of his augs, sedated, shackled to a gurney, and loaded aboard the plane like cargo, clad only in paper disposables that make hospital gowns seem like carefully considered examples of superior ergonomics. (Tyler, of course, knew nothing of this before arriving at the airport, since his only experience of air travel would be what are presumably highly retro online simulations.) The humor works so well because it’s played entirely straightfaced, both for the author and for Tyler, who simply accepts this dehumanization like all the rest of us sheep currently do. I can easily imagine air travel becoming this bad; it’s already more than halfway there. Were I the cynical sort, I’d be tempted to speculate that Homeland Security is a secret ploy by the Democrats to eliminate any incentive to travel by air, thereby helping to meet the U.S. commitments to reduce carbon emissions without the Republicans catching wise. But that would be silly, right?

“Fish Cakes” is a fascinating blend of Asimov’s “Naked Sun”/”Caves of Steel” sequence and Niven and Pournelle’s “Oath of Fealty”, though considerably more skillfully written than either and with better attention to the human implications of the story context. It’s not so much about the greenhouse world of the anthology’s theme (eliminating any greenhouse reference would require only minor changes to the story), but to be clear, that’s not a criticism; though climate change is mostly backgrounded, it’s nonetheless well integrated with the story. “Fish Cakes” shows Vukcevich at the top of his form: it’s wry, insightful, and thought-provoking in a low-key way.

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