All About Emily, by Connie Willis
eagle at eyrie.org
Fri Feb 21 20:40:20 PST 2020
All About Emily
by Connie Willis
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
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
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
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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