"Project Empathy" by Dominica Phetteplace
This story was read from "The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017" edited by Rich Horton. The story was originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine issue 03|16, published on February 18, 2016.
This story was the opening story to the "Best of" anthology by Rich Horton. An introduction to what was to come further in the anthology.
This story was about a girl named Bel who lived in Concord. She went to work for a restaurant named Blue Cup. As part of her working at Blue Cup she was required to sign her life away. Her every waking move, word, and thought would be monitored. Bel happily signed her life away without even blinking an eye. She needed a job and needed to help support her parents.
The story was told from a narrator's point of view. In the beginning we aren't sure who the narrator was, but later in the story the narrator became apparent. We aren't sure exactly what the narrator was attempting to do during most of the story or what the purpose was, but most of the loose ends seem to be cinched up by the end of the story.
Bel was a hostess at Blue Cup. A simple title, but yet far from a simple job. To be successful and excel at being a hostess there were many things that Bel needed to do. She needed to learn and become friends with the regular guests of Blue Cup. She needed to learn what they liked, what they did, who they were, and be able to know what they wanted before they did. Bel had to keep up on social media sites and figure out who was who of what social cliques, and the hierarchies, so she could determine who would be compatible with each other while at Blue Cup. She would introduce people who were compatible to help increase their social standing and friendships. Many layers to being just a hostess. At the end of a year Bel proved that she not only knew what she was doing, but excelled past every other hostess at Blue Cup Concord.
During the time that Bel was working at Blue Cup Concord she was being measured and tested for various things. Even including her attractiveness quality as measured by facial dimensions. They nailed down everything there was about Bel and her abilities in all things.
Since Bel excelled so well in Concord she asked to be transferred to the San Francisco Blue Cup. Blue Cup worked out a transfer from Concord High to the Pre-Collegiate High School in San Francisco for her and made the transfer to the new Blue Cup possible.
The San Francisco Blue Cup held new possibilities for Bel. The ability to earn more money was one of those things. Better schools were in the city and that meant better education. Unfortunately for Bel some of those things didn't quite work out they she had thought they would. She found out that things in San Francisco, or the City, were completely different from Concord where she grew up.
Bel would have to work twice, even three times, harder than everyone else to make it.
This is where the story took off and the adventure through Bel's time in the City started. Her trials and her tribulations. Her discoveries about others and about herself. Maybe even discovering something about Blue Cup...
An AI narrator and corporate America were an interesting perspective for the story. The story had all the elements of science fiction, but also had a ring of truth layered into the story. This was definitely a multi-layered story. Done very well.
Delved into how corporate America views the public and their customers. We all know they want as much information as possible about their customer base or their client lists. This story goes slightly deeper into the lengths a corporation will go through to create a database of what makes people tick, both the customer and the employee.
There were aspects of our society and how we relate to each other. How social media played such a big part in everybody's daily lives. How everyone puts their entire life on social media and how much information can be gleaned about someone's life just by reading their social media profile. This also lends credit to the social cliques a person is a part of and maybe even the hierarchy of the clique and where the person lands in that social order.
Then of course there was the AI narrator. The AI narrator sort of brings it all together. I don't want to give too much away here because it's part of the grand scheme of the story. Let's just say that I doubt it will be long, if it's not already here, that corporations in our day in age will be using this technology. They already are to some extent, but I doubt quite like this. The AI narrator will definitely bring the story home and sew together the threads of the story as they unfold.
This was a good opening story for the anthology. Many layers about different aspects of life. A personal story within an impersonal story. I guess it came down to who was a good person and who wasn't.