About Crossed Paws

Tammy at rest alongside her favorite tree

In my author bio for Crossed Paws, published in Shoreline of Infinity 22 (you can listen to it here for free), I dedicated the story to my dog Tammy. Tammy was let off the leash for the last time on March 3, 2020, and just a few days ago was the one year anniversary of when we laid her to rest alongside her favorite tree on Cedar Gap Mountain in north Alabama.

We live on the slopes of the mountain (or small hill, for all you with actual mountains in your backyard :-), and every Sunday morning Tammy and I hiked up the hill, sometimes on the trails, sometimes bushwhacking through the brush. There came a time, in mid-2019, when she was no longer able to safely hike the rough terrain, even when we stuck to the trails–her hind legs were weakening, and I was very much afraid that a slip or tumble could break a hip or leg, leaving her in serious pain until we could get her to a vet.

Tammy had already dodged one bullet, I wasn’t going to risk another.

The first draft of Crossed Paws was written a few years ago, when Tammy still ecstatically danced around as I pulled down her harness and leash to get ready for our Sunday morning hike. I wrote the story not long after the vet discovered a small black blister in her mouth during her annual checkup. The vet had it biopsied and it turned out to be canine oral melanoma, which is an often aggressive form of dog cancer; even after surgery it can recur and be fatal within a few months. (The one “fortunate” thing was that this instance of the melanoma belonged to one of its less aggressive forms.) The blister was lanced, and Tammy seemed none the worse for it. At her next check up however the melanoma had returned. This time the blister and a semicircle of surrounding tissue was removed from the upper lip on the right side of her snout. Again she responded as if nothing had happened. And the cancer never returned. She was one of the lucky ones who went on to live out the rest of her years cancer free–though the removed tissue did leave her with what my wife and I eventually came to refer to as the blowhole.

Tammy was already in her teens by the time this happened, and I knew that even under the best of circumstances there would only be a few more years with her.

Crossed Paws sorta I guess came out of the anticipation of those final days that I knew would someday come. To put it in an SF context I threw in high end robotic pets–I was remembering the discontinued Sony Aibo. Then added in artificial intelligence–or at least high-level simulacra; nanites and neural mirroring; bio-printing; and freelance programmers doing the best they could for themselves and their four-legged family members in a gig economy.

It’s won’t surprise the reader that a lot of Tammy made its way into Maisie. Whenever I visualized Maisie she, unsurprisingly, looked a lot like Tammy. I deemed Maisie a “Georgia Peach Pitbull”, akin to how we pedigreed Tammy as a “Belgian Wafflehound”.

The tone of most of the stories I write is what I describe as “melancholy optimism.” Which to me means that they end…well, but often at a terrible cost to the characters. For Crossed Paws I deviated a bit from that. In reality I knew that someday Tammy’s time would come to an end. But maybe, in a story, I could delay that for a little while longer, for someone at least, even if that someone is fictional.

Thank you Tammy for fifteen years of unconditional love, joy, and inspiration.

See you later girl…

About Memento Amicum

My story, “Memento Amicum”, about the passing of family and friends and the fading of memories in a time of AIs and climate change was published in the September 2020 issue of Cossmass Infinities and subsequently appeared in Rich Horton’s Short Fiction Recommended Reading list in the April 2021 issue of Locus.

I want to talk for a moment a little about the story’s background, starting with some of what led up to choosing the setting (while avoiding spoilers) and then move in closer to the story, at which time SPOILER notices will be provided.

Photo credit: Merry Ann

My mother-in-law passed away in early 2018 (with her husband preceding her by a few years). Though the funerals were held for both at the time of their passing, for various reasons my wife and I were unable to lay their ashes to rest until the summer of 2018. We then traveled to upstate New York to perform this final task.

The town they’d lived in for around fifty years (before having to move in with my wife and myself due to their declining health) is an old, upstate New York “factory town” with a long working class history. While we were there for their memorial service we had cause to visit a couple cemeteries, and the reason for our presence obviously weighed heavy on us. All these monuments and names carved in stone, the quiet green lawns, flower arrangements, names and dates stretching well back into the 1800s.

There was a “graveshack”, a tiny wooden office out of which the middle-aged and senior caretakers kept track of plots, headstones, and cemetery upkeep. These individuals had likely been there for decades, watching over their silent charges and ensuring those few who came to visit and pay their respects to their loved ones were able to do so in a neat and well-maintained setting. We asked about a particular individual, and the caretaker went and retrieved an old ledger recording the burials for the year in which that person passed. By this time that paper ledger was at minimum sixty years old–and we don’t know when the first entry in it was recorded. The point is that the cemetery workers knew and cared about where they worked, kept things organized, and carried the responsibility to aid those who come to pay their respects, or just to…visit with those who passed before them.

This made quite the impression on us, and with the subsequent passing of my own father less than a year later became the setting for a story on loss, the fading of memories, and how technology waxes and wanes in this niche of our society.

Closing scene of the Firefly movie Serenity

One more thing, though, before I get to the spoilers.

Okay, this is just a little spoiler, but it’s just part of the background setting.

Jade Jumping Spider vs Ant (©www.NatureLoveYou.sg)

Over the years in which Memento Amicum takes place the world gets steadily warmer. Climate change is warming up the planet, and with it comes more extreme weather, more virulent pests; accompanied by mitigating technologies that attempt to keep a handle on the worst of it. Biological controls, genetically engineering plants and animals to withstand and/or combat an increasingly unbalanced ecosystem, moving away from fossil fuels. While these don’t play a central role in Memento Amicum, they are in the world in which it unfolds, and that reality at least needs to be acknowledged.

Okay, now…  SPOILERS AHEAD!!

So that picture with the grave markers up above? From the closing scene of the Serenity Firefly movie? Yeah, that’s basically the image I had in my head when I came up with mementas. Start there, add conversational abilities–via an AI–and there you go.

I know, an AI simulacrum of a passed loved (or not so loved) one has been done before, but the tack I wanted to take on this story is that they–the AIs–may end up suffering the same fate as the loved ones they’re filling in for. And then telling this story from the perspective of that old-time dying breed of cemetery groundskeepers. Ordinary people transposed into an AI, ordinary people working to maintain them for those who have begun to forget; or are themselves moving on one way or another.

Then as technology continues to evolve, the technological means by which those who’ve passed away are remembered changes as well. Customized mementas become persona templates powered by social currency algorithms that are stashed on Mementa Familiam servers. (How long before Facebook decides to start mining its memorialized accounts and reconstructing passable personalities of loved ones? Just to test the concept of course!) Protocols and technologies become obsolete, and then…uh…end-of-lifed.

People, events, practices, and cultural touchstones pass away and slip into the past, kept alive only within the memories of those still around, and only for as long as they care to and can remember. In the future, we may not be the ones doing the remembering, our creations may end up taking on that responsibility–intentionally or not, until they too power down.