What would you give to talk to a deceased loved one, even if it was only a computer simulation? Laurie Frankel’s new book, “Goodbye for Now,” takes a humorous and ultimately moving look at this question. Although the premise is not quite original — it’s a variation on a common theme in science fiction — Frankel’s goal is less about the potential of technology to improve or mess up our lives and more about the various ways people deal with death and grief, regardless of the technology available.
The story takes us smoothly through several improbable plot twists. Sam, a genius computer programmer working for a dating service, invents an algorithm for finding the perfect mate. He eschews the standard questionnaire on which “[e]veryone lied,” and instead uses “your spending reports and bank statements and emails … your chat histories and text messages, your posts and status updates.” Inputting such information allowed the dating program to do something new: “It ignored who you said you were and who you said you wanted in favor of who you really were and who you really wanted.”
The algorithm works too well; the dating service loses all its return customers. The company didn’t profit from finding people their perfect mates. Sam gets fired, but not before he tries the program himself and meets his soul mate, Meredith.
The two of them, both quirky and fun, naturally fall in love.
That might be the end of the story (and novel), but Meredith’s beloved grandmother dies before they’ve even moved in together. To assuage Meredith’s grief, Sam takes the grandmother’s emails and video chats, creates an algorithm that models her responses to different situations, and uses computer animation to develop an on-screen simulated grandmother — so accurately that Meredith can’t tell the difference. As Sam puts it, 99 percent of what people say is predictable, and it’s the predictability that we look for when we’re talking with somebody we love.
Since Sam is unemployed, it’s not too much of a leap for the two of them, along with Meredith’s Hollywood-connected cousin, to set up a business, “RePose,” where bereaved people pay substantial amounts of money to come in and chat with simulations of their beloved dead. This turns out to be more complicated than Sam and Meredith expect. For one thing, the first thing people want to tell deceased loved ones is that they’re dead, which is an experience the dead person has never had before and produces unpredictable and unpleasant reactions, from anger to denial, or it just crashes the program. For another thing, people have all sorts of reasons for wanting to talk to the dead: telling them off, confessing secret affairs and asking them where they kept the key to the shed in the backyard. And the dead also have secrets, squirreled away in their electronic files, that their loved ones may not want to hear.
As word gets out to the media, Sam and Meredith are accused of exploiting death (“as opposed … to pharmaceutical companies, big tobacco, the military, hospital administrators, funeral homes”), of encouraging people to sin (since they won’t fear death and hell), and of putting words in dead people’s mouths. Parents at a hospital for dying children try to force their kids to use video chat to make electronic records, hoping to create simulations of their kids once they’re gone.
The simulations are not real people, but people treat them as real. As Sam’s dad, an artificial intelligence expert, puts it, if you can’t tell the difference between a simulation and a live person, is there a difference?
Frankel’s book is about love, aging and loss. These archetypal themes are complemented by her breezy writing style, which makes the improbable plot believable. One picky comment is that the characters live in a bubble in which money is never an issue: Sam loves unemployment, for example, as it gives him time to do the things he really wants to do.
In a final improbable plot twist, one member of the couple is killed in a random accident, and the other is left with nothing but a simulation. Up to this point Frankel has kept the tone light, walking a tightrope between confronting feelings about death and being dragged down by them. But with one major character dead and the other in major depression, the humor falls flat. What’s left is the poignancy of a perfect relationship that has ended. Frankel hints that the simulation is developing a personality of its own and throws out some ideas about the immortality of love in the computer age, but the energy has faded into sadness.
Still, even if Frankel didn’t quite carry this challenging plot to a smooth landing, she’s definitely an author to watch. Her next book may be the equivalent of the perfect match.