Short story: “Second Person, Present Tense”

by look i have opinions

“Second Person, Present Tense,” by Daryl Gregory

Apparently from the September 2005 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, anthologized in Year’s Best SF 11 or Year’s Best SF 23rd Annual Collection; read online here

8,249 words, plus epigraphs

A puzzling find from actual science, made vividly real.

The story could have gone for cheap horror, given that Terry’s “parents” can legally do what they like with her life until she’s eighteen. It doesn’t even come close. Instead we get an imperfect, utterly believable reconciliation. The final scene is so heartbreaking it’s hard to reread. You could take this story as a metaphor for adolescence, or for child-parent relationships in general, though it’s more than that.

Misc. notes:

  • On a reread, the structure is surprisingly choppy, full of section breaks. The story never feels disjointed. There’s just a lot of switching between Terry’s post-hospital life, her time at the hospital, and her explanations of Zen.
  • The “second person” of the title is mostly a pun, but there is a brief stretch of second-person narration, when the narrator addresses “Therese.” I guess that sidesteps the usual awkwardness of second person—figuring out who’s speaking and who “you” is. Anyway, it’s very effective. I don’t think it would have worked if it had lasted much longer.
  • I don’t like giving “extra credit” for stories that go outside their authors’ immediate experiences, but I’ll admit I was impressed when I realized the writer is apparently a man.* The teenage girl voice rings true in every way.
  • I’d try this drug. Actually, as suggested in the story, plenty of real-life drugs aren’t that different from Zen. Beneath the trappings of pleasure or excitement or calm, they promise escape from certain aspects of consciousness.

*Edit, much later, to add that I’m a little ashamed of myself for bringing this up. Would the story be less excellent if Gregory happened to be a woman? What if I found out he’s transgender (or she, or they)? I can’t help letting my (inexact and unreliable) knowledge of the author influence my reading of the text, and that seems unfair to both author and text, at least in a case like this.