I have to be honest: I've got some problems with the title story. But not problems in the usual way, the way we say we've "got problems" with elements of a story when discussing it in a writing workshop or something. Mine aren't the sorts of problems that affect whether I'd say I like the story or not (in general, I'd say I do like the story), but they are the sort that keep me from fully embracing it in the way I do some of the other stories in Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead.
For instance, I have a problem with the story's dates. It is set a few hundred years in the future -- one footnote gives a book's date as 2276, another footnote lists the abandonment of Oil City as 2136. Most experienced science fiction readers don't take dates very seriously, because most science fiction stories use their dates simply to suggest the amount of distance the setting is supposed to have from our own present. Thus, the dates in "Skinny Dipping" aren't suggestions of what life might Really Be Like a few hundred years from now, but rather signposts saying: We are far from Now.
Except we aren't. And that's the problem. (To some extent or another, it's the problem of all science fiction that attempts to be comprehensible to a contemporary audience. A rigorous speculation of the far-future would be mostly nonsense to us, because culture, language, and technology all change rapidly. The distance between the latest date in the story, 2276, and us is the distance between us and 1738. What would, say, Samuel Johnson be able to comprehend of an essay written today?) Certain technologies in "Skinny Dipping" have changed significantly from our own, but plenty of things remain the same, including Federal Express and Billboard magazine, high school, email mailboxes, and college application essays. People's assumptions about the world seem basically the same, if a bit more corporatized. The language is that of contemporary American English, plus some neologisms.
Clearly, then, the story is not meant as a rigorous speculation about the possible future. It would be silly to read it as such. And that's fine. But those dates -- they bother me. Why a somewhat distant future when a nearer future would be more plausible, more acceptible? Is the story itself a comment on the tendency of many SF stories to throw distant dates around without thinking much about them? Does it matter? I really don't know.
(The other science fictional elements of the story mostly annoy me, frankly. I know people who use the word "gimmicky" as a pejorative against SF, and what they often seem to mean are certain clevernesses and, especially, neologisms. We all have different tolerance levels for neologisms. I often think a lot of SF stories actually are pretty gimmicky, and my own tolerance levels for neologisms are pretty low. What bothers me more in "Skinny Dipping" [which doesn't have a lot of neologisms, per se] are the little futuristic flourishes that are also common [and gimmicky] in SF -- something like the "Disney Ruins" feels too easy to me, a cheap little ha-ha. The things I like in the story are more tied to imagery than to neologisms -- I love the image of a parking garage people live in at the bottom of a lake, for instance.)
I have a problem, too, with the audience the narrator is addressing. The story is supposed to be a college application essay, and yet it spends a lot of time describing the world to us. The explanations of Oil City and such in the story suggest we don't know anything about these places. This isn't necessarily the same problem as the problem of the dates -- it could be that Oil City is not generally known, or that in this world information about cities is something that is provided as a way of showing college admissions offices that you are capable of doing research, or something like that. It could be the footnotes were added by an editor at an even more future date. Plenty of possibilities. But my problem is that I didn't find any hints to help me figure all this out. So I'm left with the possibilities, but not in a particularly good way, the way I like, for instance, some ambiguity in fantasy stories.
And perhaps that's my biggest problem -- I keep trying to read this as a science fiction story, a story that is basically rational. If I were to read it as pure surrealism, say, would I have these problems? And what is it that keeps me from doing that? Sometimes, we read stories like "Skinny Dipping" as amusing satires. And there are satirical elements here, certainly. I guess I just don't like them very much. I'm more interested in the other elements, and those elements are the ones that keep pushing me toward trying to make sense of things. After all, the reason characters can breathe in the Lake of the Dead is because of gene therapy and nanotechnology. In "If I Leap", the characters can fly because they can fly. That's a different sort of story. My problem is I'm more comfortable with stories that aren't so rational. My problem with rational stories is I want them to be entirely rational. I'm not sure I should take my problems out on stories like "Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead", but, well, sometimes I do.
Perhaps, given the footnotes, I should pretend "Skinny Dipping" is Pale Fire. That could lead to some interesting new problems...