The following is from Gish Jen's The Resisters. Jen is the author of four previous novels, a story collection, and two works of nonfiction, including The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap. Her honors include the Lannan Literary Award for fiction and the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Gwen’s dorm was unextraordinary except for how ordinary it was in the Netted world that a neo-brick building of no particular distinction should command its own large oval of high, dry land. It lay in the even midday sun, surrounded not by floodwater but by bustle. Every SkyCar had a lid of some sort agape—a trunk lid, a back gate. And around the SkyCars swarmed families, anxious and excited, their arms piled full as their SkyCars flew themselves off to park. Yet for all their life, the SkyCars and families seemed somehow incidental to the dorm—ephemera. Perhaps the dorm would one day be replaced by a science center or be taken over by Surplus. On this early fall day, with the leaves gold green and the grass grown out to its full inch and a half, though, such developments were unimaginable. Perhaps simply because it was not plastic, the dormitory seemed for all the world, like the university itself, an EternaFact.
Gwen had two roommates. Neither of them had ever met a Surplus before, and though they had exchanged GreetingGrams and did know that they had been assigned a Surplus roommate, they seemed nonetheless taken aback to behold her in the flesh. Were they disconcerted to realize not only that Gwen did not meet their expectations, but that they even had expectations—that a part of themselves lay in wait for them around a corner? It was possible. And, of course, they would have many such moments over their next four years of school. But here Gwen was, their first growth opportunity, with her mismatched parents in tow. People with funny eyes, people with funny skin. People who had not come in their own SkyCar but by a long ride in an AutoLyft; people who had correspondingly unloaded a shockingly small mountain of stuff. People who apparently did not use HowDoILook, people whose clothes in fact appeared to be DisposaClothes except for their incongruously magnificent sweaters. In Eleanor’s case, that meant an elegant blue-buttoned vest with capped sleeves and a dropped waist rather like a Renaissance fencing doublet. In mine, it meant the sort of artisanal green vest I once associated with middle-school teachers—a seed-stitched affair meant to suggest old-time approachability rather than testosterone-fueled menace, in case anyone was unsure as to which of the two possibilities I presented. Gwen herself wore a gray-brown sweater with irregular stripes in gentle colors, with leaf-green jeans—a sweet outfit a bit belied by her ponytail, which in this context appeared more omni-directional than ever, a true shock of hair.
Shocked or not, her new roommates found it in themselves to be polite.
“I can’t wait to hear all about your life,” said one. Pink (not her real name, of course; her real name was Galliano—which, yes, was her first name, don’t ask) was a short redhead with a ponytail of her own. Hers, though, was high and tapered neatly into an S. She had a wide-open pink face and curly red-gold eyelashes and, what with a white sweatband across her forehead as well as a white wristband and white polo shirt, she looked entirely ready for a game of tennis; she had only to swap her white jeans for white shorts. She didn’t have time to gab just yet; in fact, she was still explaining how her whole family and a bunch of friends from high school were all waiting for her to come join them as soon as she had figured out what to do with her stuff when her hand-phone rang. The ring was a woman’s voice—her mother’s? — saying, Pink, it’s me! Pick up, please! in a beseeching tone I later discovered Netted parents could achieve by pressing and holding their Send button. But Pink—rolling her eyes, remarkably, in just the way Gwen did, with an impressive show of the lower reaches of her eyeballs—did not answer. “Do you think they have storage somewhere?” she asked. “I flattened my boxes and put them in my trunk, but what in the name of the Earth that sustains us all are we supposed to do with our trunks?” She apologized; she was truly at her wits’ end; this was the worst day of her whole entire life. But, but, but! She was looking forward to getting to know Gwen, she really was. “I’m sure you have amazing stories,” she said. “I once saw a Flotsam Town and it, like, blew my mind. Do you live in one of them?”
“No,” said Gwen.
“I’m sure your stories are fantastically amazing anyway,” said Pink, helpfully. “And, boy, are you lucky to have parents who actually show up and help.”
Gwen’s less boisterous roommate was also less overwhelmed. Sylvie’s parents had apparently proved more helpful but were now recovering over PureCream cappuccinos in a café downtown. Sylphlike, doe-eyed, and alone, Sylvie appeared in a creative swirl of drapey clothes that looked to have been tied on, as if she were at once all-embracing and immovably anti-zipper. Like Pink, she seemed prepared to head elsewhere in a blink, though in her case it was not the tennis court but the dance studio. Indeed, so slipperlike were her street shoes that she did not look as if she would even have to change out of them to break into an impromptu pirouette. Now she drew her head slightly back to her shoulder as if she was about to tuck it into her clavicle like a sleeping swan. Onto the common room opened two bedrooms, one larger and one smaller.
“Pink and I talked about this and agreed we’d let you have the single,” she said.
“Oh,” said Gwen. “That’s so generous.”
Sylvie smiled. “I grew up with a sister and a bunk bed,” she said. “She was lower, I was upper. I’m used to it. She sang in her sleep but I sleep with my chip on anyway.”
“You have a chip?”
A MediaChip was not a RegiChip. A MediaChip was a microchip Sylvie chose—had, in fact, had to fight with her parents for, and finally got implanted for her eighteenth birthday. Meaning, no more headphones! She mostly used it to listen to world music, especially stringed world music—sitar music, mandolin music, harp music—though it was also an OmniPass, she said. Something she could use instead of swiping her ID.
“Sounds convenient,” said Gwen. “Mine is so Aunt Nettie always knows where I am.”
Sylvie stopped. “Who is ‘Aunt Nettie’?”
“It’s what I think you call the Autonet.”
“That which rules us all, you mean.”
“She, we would say. She who rules us all.”
Sylvie smiled. “‘Aunt Nettie’—I like that. Though your chip sounds like less of an OmniPass and more of an OmniPain, I have to say.”
“‘An OmniPain’—I like that.” Gwen smiled, too.
Then off Sylvie wafted, saying she would be back soon and leaving behind a spicy scent—incense, maybe? —and an ocean- blue basket full of yoga paraphernalia. A mat, blocks, a strap. Therapy balls, some sort of ring. A striped Tibetan blanket labeled in English “100% genuine YakWool.”
So was it a generous gesture that Pink and Sylvie had offered to let her have the single? Gwen asked as Eleanor taught her how to make a bed. Or was the offer the opposite—a sign that neither girl wanted to share a room with her?
“My advice,” said Eleanor, pulling on one corner of the fitted bottom sheet and working it under the mattress, “is to assume the best of people. Try to distinguish ignorance from malice.”
“And keep your animus for malice,” finished Gwen, pulling on the opposite corner.
They did the other two corners next, their respective backs curving in so beautiful a mirror image of each other’s, I wanted to take a picture of them. But instead I had a DeviceDetector out and was checking the room for signs we were being bugged. Eleanor glanced at me as she straightened up; I signaled all clear even though I was in fact still worried. Could Aunt Nettie be using something I did not know how to detect? And was Gwen’s bed- room somehow different from the other rooms, and was that related to her roommates offering her the single? To be on the safe side, I set up a deflector.
“Otherwise I will exhaust myself exuding animus,” Gwen was saying.
“It’s no way to live, that’s all,” said Eleanor.
“‘And enjoy the silver linings because there will be clouds,’” recited Gwen.
Eleanor smoothed the sheet. “Who taught you that?”
“Dad.” Gwen winked.
We all laughed.
Top sheet next, and a tan blanket. Gwen had brought her blankets from home—hand knit, as Surplus blankets were generally woven from DisposaCloth, and scratchy. Ours, in contrast, were thick and soft: Eleanor had figured out a way of picking up a stitch or two from several rows below the one she was working to pro- duce a field of undulations both mysterious and heat-trapping.
Around the edges of this blanket ran a narrow border of puffy tomatoes.
“Did no one ever teach you how to fold a hospital corner?” asked Eleanor, amazed.
“No, you never did,” said Gwen.
“Dad, either.” Gwen smiled.
“Well, there was no point with the AutoHouse, was there?” I said.
Gwen watched carefully. Then on her side of the bed, she replicated Eleanor’s motions.
“Now you can join the Marines,” said Eleanor.
“Do the Marines do hospital corners?”
“How about hospitals?” said Gwen.
“Hospitals,” I said, “do Marine corners.”
“Much as you are not going to miss the house spying on you, you are going to miss the HouseBots,” I said.
“Truth,” said Gwen.
We were surprised there were no DormBots. Was housekeeping seen as somehow character-building? In any case, Gwen and Eleanor lay a top blanket over the first one as a kind of bedspread. This was goldenrod yellow with a border along its short border that read in gray, True North True North True North True North— Gwen’s idea, way back when. Now the border faced south.
“And it’s true about the silver linings, by the way,” I put in—circling back, I knew, but belatedly compelled to reinforce Eleanor’s point. “Your mother is right. You have to enjoy them.”
“I get it,” said Gwen, suddenly turning irritable. She did not quite have Eleanor’s temper, but she did sometimes have Eleanor’s impatience put through the wash once or twice.
“Also,” I said, moving closer to the deflector and indicating that Gwen should move in, too, “remember how Juan Palombo used to send his messages?”
Gwen perked up. “Of course. By messenger pigeon.”
I took a moment before going on—enjoying the sweet sun of my daughter’s full attention. “I am thinking about training one to come here.”
“Could you really do that?” she said. “I mean, if I agreed?”
I produced a little signal box for her window ledge. I do think, looking back, that it was the only thing I ever made she truly admired, and I was glad I’d taken the time to fashion it as I had— flat as a flounder, with the texture and color of concrete.
She gave me a thumbs-up, while Eleanor flashed a “hey, not bad” smile.
“That’s some match,” said Eleanor, also moving toward the deflector
“Maybe a little dark,” I said modestly.
“No, no,” said Gwen, quietly. “You got it perfect.”
“It might look like a stain of some sort. I had to make an educated guess. In any case, you don’t have to agree.”
“But what if my GreetingGrams are being monitored?”
“And even if they have FacePhone here . . .”
She didn’t have to finish. We did not have FacePhone or any- thing else requiring NetSpeed in SurplusVille.
“And what if . . .” I began.
“What if I’m in distress.”
Opening the double-hung window—no screen—I hiked my torso a good distance out, swiveling from one side to the other as if to take in the whole impressive panorama. Then, as I levered my body back in, I pretended to place my palm on the window ledge for balance, and left the device behind.
“Watch for the pigeon.” I closed the window. “It will either have a little package attached to its leg or a bigger one strapped to its chest.”
“Can pigeons handle stuff larger than a capsule? I mean, that’s what Juan was using.”
“Long ago they used pigeons to get pictures of baseball games out to the newsrooms. They’d tie rolls of film to the birds’ legs. And in the First World War the birds wore reconnaissance cam- eras in little harnesses strapped to their chests. So yes.”
“Okay. I’ll watch out. Though, you know, I’ve never been very good with birds.”
“It’s not going to fly in and flap all around your room. And you don’t have to feed it or anything, though a small snack wouldn’t be a bad idea. A bit of behavioral reinforcement.”
“What do they eat?
“Bits of apple or carrot, that sort of thing. But hold the guacamole.”
“Pigeons have allergies?”
“They are allergic to avocados.”
“You are pulling my leg.”
“I am not. And his name is Hermes. He’s on the light side— more brown than gray.”
“Hermes,” she said. “And I can summon him by . . .”
“By pressing this.” I showed her.
Eleanor began to pack up the plastic bags in which we’d brought the bedding; they crackled loudly. It was late afternoon, and the sharp light was growing diffuse, like something that had been compressed but was now expanding.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Eleanor asked abruptly.
“No,” said Gwen.
“Well, then . . .” began Eleanor.
“I know,” said Gwen—and in place of the sweet attention with which she’d greeted the idea of the pigeon, there was the irritation again. “I can come home any time.”
“But we’ll forgive you if you stay,” I said.
Normally steely Eleanor blinked hard. “Speak for yourself,” she said.
We helped Gwen put up her baseball posters—Jackie Mitchell. Mamie Johnson. Ila Jane Borders. Mo’ne Davis. All women with golden arms, like Gwen. Women who had bucked the system.
“Won’t Ondi be here soon?” I asked.
“Training starts next week, so. Of course, now she’s saying I’m the one who got her into this.”
“Maybe she got cold feet,” said Eleanor, after a moment.
Anyway, it was time. Eleanor and I were just going to be repeating ourselves if we did not say goodbye. I called an AutoLyft and, as we pulled away, turned and saw Gwen waving at us; if she was afraid, it didn’t show. She entered the dorm as we left the gate. With the AutoLyft driving parallel to the front of the dorm for a bit, we could see her window and hoped she would turn on her light. She didn’t. I did spot Pink on her way back to the room, though, surrounded by friends. Where was Sylvie? And why didn’t we think to take Gwen out to the café Sylvie’s parents had found? It was the mall trucks, we realized. We had the money and the Living Points to eat out, but it just wasn’t our habit. Maybe we should turn back, I said. See if Gwen wanted to try the café. But we couldn’t, as we very well knew. As the AutoLyft took flight, we could only wipe our eyes and hope she was going to be okay.
Excerpted from THE RESISTERS by Gish Jen. Copyright © 2020 by Gish Jen. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.