“Tender Loving Plastics,” by Amman Sabet, comes from the May/June 2018 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Harry Harlow is remembered for his “wire mother” experiments, raising baby rhesus macaque monkeys in isolation save for a vaguely mother-shaped dummy. There were two kinds of “mother”: one was wire and wood and had a bottle of formula, while the other was covered in cloth and had no formula. The baby monkeys vastly preferred the cloth covered monkey and visited the wire one only for feeding. Regardless of the type of substitute mother, however, all rhesus monkeys in Harlow’s experiments grew up with mental issues. As cruel as his experiments were, they vastly changed the treatment of human infants for the better. With all the talk of “attachment parenting” it’s easy to forget that relatively recently parents were advised not to pick up or interact with their babies/children too much lest they “be spoiled” by attention.
Primates are hard-wired for loving interaction. We need mothers and fathers, or at least guardians, who provide emotional and physical care including holding and cuddling. Neglect is a pernicious form of child abuse, and can be difficult to prove to child protective services. Absent a parent’s love, a baby primate will turn to some other comfort object, some substitute care giving object. What happens if that care giver is created with the best intentions, but is still a non-human object?
It can be hard to find foster homes for kids who need them, and harder still to find adoptive parents. Kids are hard work, especially ones who’ve been in foster care for a while, but they still need patient, loving parents or guardians. What happens if you cut out the human element and outsourced the care giving to robots? Make them look and act as human as possible, with a thumpy heart beat and a (flat screen) face with different expressions? What if you craft mechanical mothers that never get frustrated, never lose patience, never forget things, never get distracted?
Issa grows up in a foster home called a “Dewey Home.” Dewey Homes are essentially Tiny Homes tucked into unwanted spaces: alleys, behind buildings, on roofs. They’re compact homes, run down, extremely institutional. They’re also labelled on the buildings as Foster Homes, further setting apart the kids who live in them, isolating them socially from their peers who crave normalcy and not weirdo kids with no parents.
Issa survives in her Dewey Home, with her mechanical mother, but does she thrive? Does any child raised in this environment thrive? Is this better than a group home, or neglect? Is this a good answer to a difficult problem, or a multi year experiment?
“Tender Loving Plastics” raises interesting questions about what care giving is and what humans need to thrive physically and emotional. It’s beautifully written, rolling along smoothly and simply until a gut punch ending. I found myself increasingly invested in Issa as the story went on, and I’d love it if Sabet expanded on this little world and little idea and we could follow Issa or other kids through their later lives. It’s definitely a story that will stick with me.