This month at NitWitty is all about looking back at the past with fondness. But with that fondness comes a little sadness too — a sadness that can’t be replaced by anything. Or, in some cases, by anyone.
“Old Paint” by Megan Lindholm, printed in the January issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, successfully does two things as a piece of excellent fiction. On the speculative side, it lets us examine issues brought about by the everyday presence of automated technology. It also presents an ongoing and compelling drama of a close-knit family who, despite the fights they sometimes have, are ultimately stuck with each other. “Old Paint” weaves these elements together well into a story that is about hanging onto the past — and simultaneously letting it go.
ATTN: Do not attempt to read further into this article without sufficient spoiler resistance. It is highly recommended you read the story first before proceeding.
When their estranged great grandpa passes away, 9-year-old Sadie, her teenage brother Ben, and their mother find out they were in his will. They receive little that helps their tight financial situation. In fact, the only thing they do get that’s of any use or value is a car named Old Paint. Built years ago in the 2020s, the car looks like an old-fashioned station wagon but was kept in the kind of prime condition that makes it an oddity in the near-future age of programmable transit. But that’s not the only strange thing about it — its onboard computer sounds just like their late great grandpa.
From this premise, you might expect some smarmy Disney Channel sentiment, channeling the author’s love for old Herbie movies. Well, you’ll find little of that in “Old Paint.” The story shows plenty of slice of life moments, all centered on what Old Paint means to each character. Sadie is curious of Old Paint, Ben embarrassed by its quaintness, and Mom is wistful over it and for the man who raised her. Over the course of the story Mom shares intimate details about the car — that its wood paneling is simulated by nanomachines that can repair scratches or dents; how it’s smart enough to find a fueling station when it’s low on gas; how it’s from a time when cars couldn’t drive themselves completely on their own. These details all feed into the plot as the family adjusts to owning a rather unique car. And over time, they do come to think of Old Paint as less of an “it” and more of a “him.”
If said plot sounds rather mundane, that’s because it is. But that’s kind of the point — it lets us see the everyday stuff and sheds light on the conflicts that arise from them.
Things pick up when Ben, in a rebellious act of teenage angst, gets a spankin’ new paint job for the car, courtesy of a shady paint shop. Mom is upset at this defacement, but then Old Paint starts acting strangely. We learn that hackers have infected a large number of automated cars via their nanomachines, causing them to become unpredictable. Some act erratically and injure pedestrians; others, like Old Paint, become aggressive yet aloof and go missing for long periods of time. Sadie and her family wait for the government to provide a cure while keeping their eyes out for Old Paint, who remains elusive. Over this period in time, Mom tells her kids stories of her younger, wilder years.
The story begins to close when a rogue sedan goes crazy and almost kills Sadie as she walks home from school. But Old Paint appears, pounding the other vehicle into scrap and saving Sadie before dumping her off at the hospital and disappearing again. Sadie awakes in the hospital, wondering where her savior has gone.
The family tracks him via GPS to a remote part of the forest, where they patch him up. Mom discovers Old Paint had been harboring a priority override — “protect the child” — the same rule that had saved her countless numbers of times as an unruly teenager, a rule which would have surely been wiped with the government cure. With that revelation, Mom tells Old Paint to head to Arizona, where the sun will provide plenty of solar power for the car to live out the rest of its days. She tosses the antivirus away, declaring “there are some things that just don’t need curing.”
Each main character in “Old Paint” is fulfilling a crucial role in this archetypal family. Young Sadie is an ideal viewpoint character to see the world through. She meets the quota for childish innocence, an important element in a story with a heavily nostalgic theme. Ben is the angsty foil character who moves the plot along, and Mom provides background and emotional payoff, the payoff being the sense of closure knowing her grandfather had always been looking out for her. The story revolves around her history — with her children and with Old Paint.
Old Paint is especially significant as a character, and definitely the most interesting. He straddles that oh-so-important line of being familiar yet new — familiar because we’ve seen automated cars before, new because of the way he interacts with the world. When Old Paint becomes infected with the virus, the bonds he has developed with the family are tested. He becomes almost like a stray cat, drawing close to the family’s love and care while the nature of his virus-addled programming causing him to become skittish. He isn’t jokey or overly patronly either. By the story’s end we’re left wondering if his programming is that loose or if there really is something magical going on.
“Old Paint” doesn’t show us a far-out, mind-bending vision of the future. The technology (and its ramifications) could easily be a reality very soon. Automated transportation is a hot topic; just look up your city hall and see if they haven’t already had a meeting or two about it. But the story shows us some scarily feasible outcomes to this tech. Like any good sci-fi story, “Old Paint” shows us a vision of the possible world, one where sketchy paint shops prey in the whims of rebellious teens. It’s easy to imagine Ben having visited one of these shops when he gets the bad nanos on Old Paint because we see similar services spring up to meet the demands of the tech-obsessed consumer.
New technology has a habit of breeding new professions, both reputable and unsavory. (Just ask the Geek Squad.) The bounty hunters that terminate rogue cars afflicted by the nanovirus — that’s the kind of “gee-whiz” idea that starts other stories. And yet these flashy ideas — the ones that make this story a speculative piece — seem to take second place to the strong, reliable family drama setting.
If we’re looking at the MICE quotient, “Old Paint” is an Event story. The family’s lives are changed when Old Paint enters their lives, and they change again when he leaves. But the plot-important Events don’t feel like the ones that really matter. The characters’ memories are what’s really worth a look in this piece, the reliving of the past that Old Paint brings back to Mom’s memory. And with that, her kids gain a better understanding of the world. More importantly, they gain a better understanding of her and each other.
Would that all such nostalgic reminiscing would have such advantages. Then again, maybe looking back on your past doesn’t need to have the kind of emotional payoff as found in “Old Paint.” Remembering for old times’ sake — there’s nothing inherently dangerous in that, as long as it’s done with a clear head. When Mom decides to head off to find Old Paint, she could have just left her children alone, or worse, denied them from coming. But she knows her role in the present is too important to give up completely to her past, and so she lets her children join her. Maybe it’s that choice, to join both past and present and accept them as part of who you are, that makes taking the time to feel nostalgic a worthy indulgence.