Some topics you need to write about with some restraint, like putting kids into danger to get the reader’s sympathy. Toward the end of “Safeguard,” by Nancy Kress, the story hangs a lantern on what a low device this is, and in general, shows restraint in depicting the children, and letting you feel as you might about kids trying to make their way through a strange world. What I don’t like is how it shies away from the issues suggested by the origin of the children.
Katherine Taney acts as a safeguard for four children being raised in near-total isolation inside an antiseptic biosphere. But just as you’re wondering why she has to put on a biohazard suit to visit them, another flashback hints that you might need a safeguard against these kids.
Despite the weirdness of the biosphere they live in, the children are appealing: sweet, curious, and loving. Once they escape, you know things are not going to turn out well for a lot of people. Sure enough, good-hearted folks help them and don’t live to regret it.
I like how their helpers try to interpret what the boy, Li, tells them. I like how Li listens for the kindness in the voices of the people he meets, how he knows they will need kindness, how he copes and learns along the way.
I don’t like that Li is the boy, and therefore the leader. I don’t like that two of the girls, Sudie and Jana, seem interchangeable. I don’t like that the only interesting girl is Kim, who seems damaged; she is speechless and licks the others when she gets upset. I really don’t like that she is not only the ugly one, but the darkest.
Meanwhile, Katherine finds the broken biosphere. She mourns them, but she gives them up for dead without looking for the bodies. How could she? It seems she was hoping the children were dead, because it would be easier that way. Other circumstances drive the children toward her and force her to face the facts about who will live and who will die: it’s the children she loves, or everyone with a drop of white blood (I’ll get to that part). Of course, she can’t bring herself to hurt anyone, but that’s okay, the story finds a way out after all. “The Cold Equations,” this ain’t.
Here’s where the third rail of racism gets ever so lightly tapped. If you meet the children you will die–but only if you have Caucasian ancestry. I suppose it’s possible that there’s some genetic marker that is overwhelmingly more common among whites. So who was the enemy that felt safe in doing this? Asians? Africans? At least South America is out of this equation. No wonder the story is so coy about who created these children.
I enjoyed the children’s trek in the middle, but on the whole, the more I think about this story, the more it irritates me. The fearmongering of a nameless, faceless enemy out to commit genocide against whites. The evasion of any mention that any whites could have done something to incite such enmity. The demonization of a (presumably non-white) enemy so vile as to turn babies into bioweapons. The cheap compassion of the most off-putting child being the one with the life-giving salve.
I hope this story starts some good arguments.
Tomorrow: I need a break.