It’s a common lament that childhood is increasingly fleeting, that all too soon children become aware of the sexualized world. Since science fiction is a handy tool for taking existing trends and extrapolating them to extremes, it’s well suited for examining this issue. And in this story it produces a profoundly uncomfortable read.
Part of the problem is that the author (and translator, as the original’s in Finnish) makes Annette sound convincingly like an almost-nine year old. It would be an all-too-easy pitfall to make the characters sound like teens, but they don’t. There’s an extra level of immaturity to Annette, even less of a comprehension of what sex is about beyond the visible trappings from the media.
Annette’s point of view also means that nothing she sees in the world is odd, or in any way different to how it’s always been. It’s normal for afternoon soaps to have full nudity, or for the current boy band to wear nothing onstage but open leather jackets and jockstraps with animal heads over their crotches. There’s nothing remarkable in Annette’s sister Lulu, two years older than her, appearing in her underwear on billboards throughout the city.
Describing these things, I find it hard to ignore the voices of hypothetical readers telling me, “But these exist now!” Perhaps they do – the scenes with Annette’s five-year-old brother Otso are quite reminiscent of certain beauty pageants – but reality only enhances the oppressive atmosphere of the story. Sex is everywhere, and Annette knows she needs to be a part of it even if she doesn’t necessarily understand it.
For example, when watching her favorite soap Bella pulls Jake off Melissa, screaming a barrage of abuse, leaving Melissa’s enormous boobs and Jake’s white butt in full view. At school today Annette heard Ninotska telling everyone to watch this afternoon’s episode because Jake’s got such a fantastic butt. Annette doesn’t see what’s so fantastic about it. It’s paler than the rest of his brown skin, and it isn’t as hairy as other men’s butts. Still, tomorrow she’ll find an opportunity to tell Ninotska she got a glimpse of Jake’s butt, and of course she’ll say she thought it was totally hypersmart, and give a low giggle the way you’re supposed to when you talk about these things.
But, crucially, Annette is still eight years old. There’s a point in the second half where she does a little thing with terrible consequences. Any adult would say it’s a huge lapse in judgment, but that’s the point; you follow her thought processes and she doesn’t even understand why it’s a bad thing. And since no one knows what she did, at no point does anyone ever explain exactly why what she did was wrong. It’s just something that happens and the adults deal with it, leaving Annette with feelings of guilt she has no way to articulate.
It’s a story, in short, that you will find hard to forget.
Baby Doll by Johanna Sinisalo (translated by David Hackston)
Availability: print, e-book
Word count: 8,400
Awards: Nebula Award nominee, Sturgeon Award nominee
First published in Finnish: Intohimosta rikokseen, 2002
First published in English: The SFWA European Hall of Fame, edited by James Morrow & Kathryn Morrow, 2007, Tor
Where else to find it: Year’s Best SF 13, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, 2008, Eos/HarperCollins