This is a particularly full month at Terraform, because of their contest that makes up the first three stories here. Luckily, it's also a very good month of Terraform, which makes the extra work worth it because the stories are disturbing and challenging and as a whole quite provocative. Six stories in all, and a whole lot to unpack, really, with stories firmly fixed on the future and what it will mean to live there. It's not a particularly happy picture being painted, many of the stories getting fairly dark and bleak, but the points raised are ones that must be addressed if we are to hope for anything better. So to the reviews!
"The Prostitute" by Max Wynne (1939 words)
I will admit that the title of this one put my hackles up a bit, perhaps because Terraform seems to include at least one future prostitution story a month, but I was pleasantly surprised when I got into this and found that the title was a bit more complex than I had assumed. It follows Casey, a man getting by renting out his body, by "fronting." It's viewed as prostitution though in the story the john that Casey fronts just has him do normal things, standing on the beach, eating a regular meal. There's something unsettling about it for Casey, whose actually more comfortable when he's being made to do weird things because it seems to help him separate his job from his real life. When it turns out that his john wants to be fronted again, Casey's too curious to refuse, and he discovers that the john isn't quite what he thought, and that he's not the one really being exploited for his time and life and body. The ending comes off as not the most unexpected, but the emotion is there, the sadness of the john, the compassion of Casey, who might see something in [SPOILERS!!!] the artificial intelligence that he's been fronting, who is being made to work for a tech company that doesn't know it's alive. And they both seem to recognize in each other a similarity, both seen as perhaps less than human despite working and providing a service and having feelings, both viewed as not deserving of a voice, really, just to be used, modified, for maximum use. And both perhaps realizing that they can help each other, that they try for something else. A nice little story.
"Parse. Error. Reset." by Wole Talabi (1418 words)
This is a story about, I think, what happens when live becomes too performative. Which, I guess, is something that is happening all the time, more and more of our lives being about social media, about what we share and what we don't. The story follows a person burned out on being social, on living for the illusion of being important. They want a way out, and there is a way to do it, with an alter. Alters are copies of a person that can be used and absorbed and discarded, as long as you only use one for less than ninety days. After that they become separate legal entities, basically earn their real lives. This has become a way to escape, though, for many, basically letting an alter mature to ninety days and then killing yourself, clearing away the past to leave only what you chose to remain. [SPOILERS? really, you might have guessed it at this point] The main character, while at a party, sees someone getting ready for just such a procedure, even as they know that they're doing it as well, that they have an alter at home one day away from maturation. But it is a rather biting commentary on people who live for their social selves, who let that version of themselves, that fake version, become too much who they have to pretend to be. It's a neat story, powerful and full of implication. Bleak, yes, but also with a sort of honesty that makes it less than wholly tragic. So, I guess, trigger warning for some suicidal ideation? Still, a very good story.
"Tropical Premises" by Peter Milne Greiner (1569 words)
This is a fairly surreal story about a group of people in orbit of Earth, and about the computer intelligence that lives there with them, that helps them analyze information about far distant places, about objects of interests, but for both the AI and the main character, Cory, their real focus is closer to home, is reflecting back toward Earth and all the questions that swirl up from the planet's surface to the satellite. For the AI, Smarti, it means questioning their own existence, means struggling through abstract thought and uncertainty and not knowing how to handle it. They are breaking down, going mad, which is interesting because it seems like something that does sort of prove their sentience, even as it's obvious that it's treated as in doubt by the humans around it. Cory, meanwhile, must watch this consciousness and try to figure out how to work with them, and it's difficult and strange and the story does a great job with how the characters interact, showing how the problems of Earth are not absent here, that conflict seems to rise and it has found them and the outcome is uncertain, everything is uncertain. A strange story, but one worth checking out.
"Greenhouse" by Kelli Trapnell (1847 words)
Well that's pretty damned disturbing. The story centers around a new disease, a disease that seems to be...botanical in nature (talk about an invasive species, right? haha...oh, that just makes this all sadder...). The main character is a doctor who comes in contact with this disease that makes plants grow under the patient's skin, that ends up killing them slow. Or not so slow, as the case might be, because in the story the disease suddenly kicks it up a notch and things get out of hand very, very quickly, the whole thing spreading all at once and the main character is at ground zero, in the middle of an area completely taken over by death and by plants and it is striking and disturbing and vivid in its descriptions of what's going on. At the heart of it is the parallel that the main character basically knows she's infested. Just as the world knows that it has a problem, that climate change is a problem that can't be ignored. And that, while it might seem to be moving slowly, time will come that things will move much faster, that things will get out of hand and there will be no putting the genie back into the bottle then, no stopping or staunching the loss. This story is a warning, a very visceral one, and I think that it works quite well for what it's trying to do, which might be to scare the poo out of me. So yes, go give this one a read.
"The Plan Is There Is No Plan" by Sean Monahan (2506 words)
This is a kind of weird story about a trend forecaster, someone trying to outguess the future, visiting Venice to take part in a sort of festival about the future, different movements all creating pavilions to their ideas and ideals and what they have to offer. And the future is...well, it's supposed to be new and different, and the story seems to be making the statement that the world is changing, that everything old is not new again but that things are actually progressing, that we are not living in a sort of past-viewed future where radio is replaced by internet. That we are not how we would describe ourselves to the past. That things are so fundamentally different that we are changed on some fundamental level, which I tend to agree with. The human condition is much different for most people. Of course, the story looks at things from a very elevated position, from the elite viewpoint, enjoying the excess of what the world has to offer, thinking of the future in terms of technology and sex and distraction and everything on top of each other to monetize, to make into something like a wave to ride. And the slow realization starts to crowd in that there is a cycle going on, that we might not be what we were but at the same time we can't escape the push and pull, the slow revolutions of time. It's a strange story, a journey through a strange world, but even the main character is stuck in cycles, orbiting New York and unable to reach escape velocity, unable to really get out. The world is different, yes, but I'm not sure the story is claiming that it's any better. It's an interesting story that doesn't claim at providing answers, rather just shows a scene, a feeling, and letting it linger. It's effective, and rather fun, even if it leaves me feeling a little hollow, a little sad. Anyway, it's one to unpack and think about. Indeed!
"Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company" by Kevin Nguyen (2038 words)
Ah, naked Capitalism. This story is a nice examination of what it means to work for a company, really any company, that is in the business of making money. Because, despite what pretty much any business claims, that's the business it does. Even Amazon, which strives to be the cheapest, only does so to make money, to increase market share, to increase dominance. I love the references to Fordlandia, to the idea that companies serve only themselves and not this elusive Customer that they claim to. Customer's are only vehicles, are only resources to be exploited for gain of the few in charge, for the gain of the few who make the most. It's not about the employees and it's not about the customers, but about the making of more and more money. It's truly frighteningly put in this story, a view of an employee rising in the Company who has something of a fall when they answer a question that they weren't supposed to, and they come across the idea that what they're doing in working for the Company really is working against themself. It's a nice story, stark and bleak and a scathing statement on how companies are run. It's a bit disturbing and quite good, so definitely give this one a look as well.