|Art by Elizabeth Leggett|
"Charlotte Incorporated" by Rachael K. Jones (3500 words)
This story seems to me to be about body autonomy and the cost of living. The way in which the system we live with, a sort of rampant capitalism, places so high a price on just being alive. The story focuses on Charlotte, a woman without a body because in the setting people are born as just brains in jars and have to pay off their birth-debt in order to gain corporeal bodies. It's a striking idea and one that is strangely cute to me (because brains zipping around in little carriers seems as adorable as the setting is disturbing and frightening). The hope that Charlotte has of being able to afford her own body, one that suits her, one that is her, is strong and the primary push of the story. The tragedy and the commentary on life seems to spring from how desperate Charlotte becomes and how nearly-impossible it is to attain her dream. How far away it is and how circumstance constantly robs her. Events outside her control take her money, and it's impossible to avoid the critique of healthcare and profit-driven everything. Charlotte runs up against the growing affirmation that in order to get what you want you have to make sacrifices. And those sacrifices can either come from your own morality, by becoming one who would put others down to further yourself, or by sacrificing parts of your dream. What price are you willing to pay? It's the question that Charlotte is essentially asked and her answer is heartbreaking but very well done. There is still that hope and still a nicely imagined and fleshed out world, a twisted mirror of our own. I quite liked the way it treated body, too, and gender in a world where people are essentially brains first, though I'm not sure I was completely comfortable with idea of vocal folds having gender. Still, it was a fascinating and complex read and ultimately a very satisfying one. Definitely one to check out!
"Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea" by Sarah Pinsker (7596 words)
This is another interesting speculative future, one where the rich took to boat to avoid the collapse of things in the cities and countries and live a strange, isolated life there, full of their own private dramas. And one woman named Gabby, a musician who had thought to do something with her art, finds herself running away, not really sure how and definitely not prepared for it. She is found, rescued by a recluse of a different sort, a woman named Bay who lives a quiet life by the shore salvaging what she can, living with her old pain. Only something about Gabby's arrival sparks something in Bay. It's a very focused story, featuring really only the two characters, and they play off each other nicely, Gabby talkative and vulnerable and hopeful and rather naïve and Bay more bitter, more jaded and practical, but with a bit of that hope in her all the same, just buried, hidden. Both of them have spent a long time isolated, isolated from the world that one left in favor of a dream at sea and the other left in an attempt to find the woman she loved. The vision of the future is shades of bleak and resilient. To the people on the boats the shore represents a sort of lawless waste where they aren't appreciated, whereas the reality seems to be that in crisis humanity tends to pull together. And it's no less true with Gabby and Bay. Only in isolation from other people does inequality and exploitation grow. The rich with their distance from everyone else, and Bay with her physical distance. But the story steers a more hopeful path, for which I am quite grateful, because it's a fun tale with some great character work and a strong, warm heart. Indeed!
"Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass" by Jeremiah Tolbert (5300 words)
This story occupies an interesting space to me, and is of some particular interest to me personally in how it fits into what I call "Millennial fiction." Probably I need to figure out a different word for it, but here is a story about the desire to opt out and about imagination and about escape and about wonder in the weird and wonder in the mundane. In the story Louisa is a woman looking for a way out. Rabbit holes have begun opening, ushering people out of the "real world" and into fantasies where they are what they always wanted to be. As more and more people flee into these tailor-made worlds, Louisa deals with the growing desperation and depression that she hasn't been chosen, that her fantasy world doesn't seem to exist, and to make matters worse, fantasy creatures are coming through from there world into the "real" one, suddenly taking over through trade and making it impossible for Louisa to keep her apartment. There's a lot going on here but I quite like the take on the idea of opting out, and I like the reasons why Louisa is unable to leave. At its core it's still about being important, though, and wanting life to "matter" in some way that it doesn't or doesn't seem to. [SPOILERS MAYBE] And I like that the story says yes, that the "real" world is full of opportunities to be important and have adventures and do great things. But in some ways I feel that it moralizes slightly by casting people wanting to opt out as not creative enough. When, really, most people have every reason to opt out and never return. For some people, there is no help from a law office to settle housing disputes and there is much worse to deal with than being able to easily find work and just being bored. So yes, I like the story and the tone and the imagery of it, but I think that the use of the portal fantasy to make a statement on the "real world" is a very difficult thing and I'm not wholly satisfied with my interpretation of the story. But I might just need to spend more time with it. Certainly it is well written and begging for some close examination. A fine story.
"Starfish" by Karin Tidbeck (2100 words)
This is a great story about the cold and the ice and about longing and a world that's different. In some ways it echoes the portal fantasy magic of the previous story, but only in that there is a place that seems to act as gateway between here and there. And Kim, on a trip to try and recover after a long illness, finds the idea of there impossible to resist. There is a great sense of wonder in the story, the magic subtle and bracing. The starfish that glow, the idea of an ancient, sunken road, and a few stories that seem too weird to be real. And there is a pain and a need in Kim that translates quite well on the page, on the screen, her actions all searching for something, trying to find some reason to keep going. Not wanting to die, as she says, but not anchored enough to the world. Without something to hold her. And the idea that there is someplace through the coffin is something she can latch onto. Otherwise it's a long push through the ice only to be eaten by gulls. I love the feeling of cold in the story, the chill that seems so present and oppressive as it at the same times allows for such stark beauty. And I like how Kim and Skipper interact and relate, and I like the uncertainty of it, the way that the story doesn't answer many questions about them, hints at depths that are only glimpsed briefly in passing. But there is a sense of kinship between them, of a darkness that links them and their ultimate choice, and the ending is left open to the unknown, to the dark, to the possibilities that spread out before them. It's a very neat and rather short story, and I quite enjoyed it! A fine way to close out the issue!