Reviewed by Meg Stivison
I was interested in reading Amor Towles’s short story You Have Arrived At Your Destination after reading his engrossing novels Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. Of course, this speculative fiction short story You Have Arrived At Your Destination is quite different in tone, genre, almost everything, but you can still see Towles’s wonderful eye for detail in creating the story and the world.
This short story presents a very near, very realistic future in which prospective parents can choose not just the gender or hair color of their future child, but a lot of their personality attributes, too. A married couple, Sam and Annie, decide to consult with a genetic engineering firm as they plan to start a family. In some ways, Sam feels that giving their future son this genetic boost feels no different than getting him into a competitive school.
Vitek, the genetic company, offers three choices for how their son’s life could unfold. In the process of deciding what kind of life Sam wants for his unborn son, Sam bumps into wider questions about his life and goals. We see Towles’s wonderful eye for detail in establishing the place, too, as Sam enters an office that’s half hipster startup and half futuristic sci-fi, making Vitek, the genetic company, feel both familiar and futuristic. The writing doesn’t get bogged down in technobabble explanations but extrapolates clearly from current knowledge of genetic engineering to describe a future with bold new choices and darker ethical decisions in parenting and procreating.
The story raises questions of morality as Sam is shown the possible lives for three versions of his future son. These three different possibilities ask the reader to contemplate each one, and consider wider questions about happiness and what makes a life worthwhile. Sam is led to question where he is in his own life and how much of that path was conscious. There’s something disturbing about this intimate knowledge and information about how this potential baby could grow up, and it’s matched by the information Vitek seems to have about Sam himself. HT, Vitek’s representative, makes references to Sam and Annie’s marriage and their lives, information that Sam is pretty sure he hasn’t shared with HT or anyone at the company. This picture of their marriage and of Sam’s life arc is another opportunity to enjoy Towles’s wonderful use of details to imply the whole, but it also hints at a disturbing future where an algorithm of aggregated data can reveal way too much. It’s the unsettling feeling of a too-accurate Facebook targeted ad, on a grand scale.
Although You Have Arrived At Your Destination is a short story, it’s very focused on characters. Towles’s observations and shorthand descriptions work so well here, introducing all the characters in quick references and letting readers envision full lives, before and after this short story. There’s the same attention to class and social detail that made Rules of Civility such a great read, and it works well here in a story about parents creating the ideal conditions for their future child’s success. You Have Arrived At Your Destination packs a lot into a few pages for readers and a few hours for Sam. This short story ultimately asks us to consider what makes a good life and what happiness means.
I found the ending slightly unsatisfying, without a clear resolution to the intriguing questions it asked. I felt that I hadn’t quite arrived at my destination, and the story was more about the choices presented to Sam and the questions raised to readers than about any resolution to them. Readers who enjoy thought-provoking questions will love You Have Arrived At Your Destination.
For similar thoughtful sci-fi about possibilities, readers may enjoy Blake Crouch’s novels such as Dark Matter and Recursion. Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times trilogy is much more story-driven than You Have Arrived At Your Destination but plays with branching choices and paths in a similar way.
Have you read this one? I’d love to hear what you thought about this story in the comments.