“The Slows” (short story) by Gail Harven
English Publication History: The New Yorker (May 4, 2009), The Apex World of Science SF 2 (Apex, 2012), Zion’s Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press, 2018)
Original: Hebrew (הדרך לגן עדן ,1999)
Translated by Yaacov Jeffrey Green, 2009
Synopsis: For the last fifteen years of the narrator’s professional experience, they have been objectively studying the life of the Slows, a sect of humanity that still practices natural child-birth and child-rearing. Forlorn not because of the endangerment to the people they’ve studied for so long, but because of the end of the that study. Walking into their office on what will promise to be one of the last, the narrator discovers a Slow woman at his desk whom he still considers to be savage. Startled yet keeping the objective facade of a professional, they attempt to learn from, practice sympathy with, and understand her motives. Relative to the Slows, the generations-old study seems to be based a treaty that has since erred into broken promises. hence her intrusion to his office and plea: Don’t steal our babies. With her, she has brought her own cloth-swaddled baby, which the narrator refers to as a “larva”; whereas in the narrator’s culture, babies go through Accelerated Offspring Growth to bypass childhood in order to reach the more efficient level of adulthood. Fascinated yet revolted by the backwardness of her culture even after fifteen years, it seems firm that the narrator has never invested their emotion, empathy, or care into the project or people while remaining completely objective, withdrawn, reticent. Her pleas are met with cold denial and the only superficial gesture of hospitality is that of offering coffee and water. When the narrator attempts to bridge the humanistic gap between them, the careless gesture, perhaps a lapse in judgement, ends the meeting abruptly with the fate of the woman and her child sealed.
Analysis: The story’s not explicit about the narrator’s gender but I find inferences that lean toward male: whiskey, towel-wrapped waist, and the reaction to the gesture at the story’s conclusion. The location, too, isn’t explicit, but can be inferred to be Earth as it’s called the Preserves as in maintaining the traditions of yore. Lastly, the time isn’t explicit; rather, the reader can infer through the mentioned science that it’s in the future. This nebulous quality delivers a dreamlike sequence lacking face, place, and time…
…which is all the more interesting because it forces the reader to grasp at straws; rather than having something relatable in the story for reader to identify with, the story opens and proceeds with little relevant traction, thereby making the reader an objective witness to the flow of events, an objective stance which the narrator, too, has taken for their entire career with the Slows.
In the narrator’s culture, accelerated growth (AG) from infancy to adulthood is the norm, thereby bypassing childhood. In this culture, if the purpose of human life is to become a functional adult, to be productive for society, then the AG would have a rightful place. The story, though, again infers a lot, such as the ramifications of such a society that prizes functionality (the use of humans) over form (being human). By circumventing the formative years of childhood, could our core humanity be lost? The narrator doesn’t seem at all perturbed by the treatment of the Slows, as if they lacked any emotion other than selfishness, as exhibited by their forlorn state at learning of the project’s end. In contrast, the Slow mother exhibits emotion for her self, for her baby, and for her people. She can be seen as acting altruistically, a superlative human trait that it lost on the narrator.
Objectiveness has its place in academic study, in the scientific method. Yes, it’s useful as a learning tool to learn truth. But it mustn’t be taken to the extreme where it infringes on our own nature, which can, as a result, be lost like the innocence of childhood. First and foremost, we’re human.
Review: An excellent thought-provoking story that is deceptive in its simplicity and nine-page length. The story’s vague context conjures the reader’s analytic ability, making the reader as objective as the heartless narrator–a mirror of observation that begins to peel and crack while witnessing the emotional distress of the Slow mother. “The Slows” is open to analysis, worthy of discussion not only about its message, but about its implications on the direction of our shared future humanity.