Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Quick Sips - Terraform September 2016
This month marks another one of experiments for Terraform's short SFF. Not only is there a story told as a series of documents making up a packet of information that still manages to tell a compelling story, but there's also a continuation of the running graphic story and two rather formally daring pieces of fiction. There's a lot weird in this month's offerings, but also a lot of good. Most of the risks taken pay off, are exceptional for their innovation as well as their hitting content. And it mixes a jaded look at the future with a spot of hope as well, that even in the worst of futures there's something worth fighting for. To the reviews!
"The Exemption Packet" by Rose Eveleth ( words)
To me this story is about how looking at the world in terms of benefits and gains when it comes to education, when it comes to actual people, can often overlook a great many pitfalls and problems that only show up for a few people out of a very large group. When looking at standardizing teaching one finds a lot of interesting and good philosophies. Trying to work toward education, and in a way that benefits the most people the most. And yet when education becomes about viewing students as test scores, where test scores are then linked to funding, the system breaks in ways that are most obvious when you look at those students who don't work well with the standardized system. Whose brains work differently, and so pushing them to try and learn like everyone else just ends up with them being shut out and discouraged. I love the way that this piece works with that, showing a student who wants no part of augmentation because she's already dealing with so much, that she has problems that are invisible to her educators because they can only think in test scores and grades and not what makes a good student. It's a beautiful piece and with a unique and interesting frame, a packet of information requested by a potential employer. And it's a powerful statement on how education can fail, not because it wants to provide the best education for all, but because it wants to provide the same education for all. A terrific story!
"Mall School" by Porpentine Charity Heartscape (2164 words)
Well this is a rather trippy and punky and touching story of two friends living in a rather hellish nightmare-vision of a world filtered through the late 90s mall culture of designer clothing boutiques, terrible food courts, and kitschy crap stores but writ across an entire world. The characters don't seem quite human but it's like an entire alien civilization was based around the way of the mall. It's…disturbing, but also gives this very unique space to explore class and consumerism, friendship and family and oppression. The main character is obviously not well off, with a mother who seems always in pain, always sacrificing, always struggling while the main character does without, eats mold, and hangs out with their friend Jennifer, who is similarly outcast, vulnerable. It's like the characters are stuck playing out the roles assigned to them, like they're chasing that 90s ideal of work until you drop except without the benefit, without the reward. Like many people are falling in today's world where the opportunities and wealthy of the past, of the "boom years" of the 90s has fallen and given way to increased hours and increased productivity and decreased wages and increased expectation that everyone still work work work. The world of the mall is one of totalitarian excess and also an obsession with control, from tampagatchis to NeoHumanPets that are tortured and altered without a care. And yet something achingly human remains in all of this, the urge to reach out, that final image [SPOILERS] of the hands holding each other, giving and receiving comfort, the friends able to live because they have each other. Not the tech or the mall but that small bit of contact and comfort and affirmation is what makes their lives livable, and I find something powerful there and very worth checking out!
"The Return" by Debbie Urbanski (2515 words)
This is a story that takes a hard look at narratives. At how governments and those with power can control so much by keeping people scared and ignorant. How any lie can seem reasonable with the right amount of force behind it, that if people want something they'll give up a lot to get it. The story also looks at relationships, between a mother and her child and between that same woman and an agent of the government assigned to her. The woman has…well, she's lost her daughter in many ways, who was sent off to a war that's pretty much a secret, against aliens that might or might not exist, and what her daughter is doing isn't really clear. Being a soldier? Only…the use of vagueness in the story is great and rather timely. The government agent uses misinformation and hints to get across a narrative that the daughter is at a sort of rehabilitation clinic to recover from her experience. The agent brings photos of the accommodations, but never of the daughter. Always hinting at what she was doing. Always acting on the edge of a threat, unspoken, that if the mother is too ungrateful she might lose anything, that it's the mother who has something to hide, something to be afraid of, but that the agent and the government she represents fear nothing. That because they have the power they don't have to fear, that they can push even the horrors they commit onto others, who act as sin-eaters. It's a wonderfully complex and the main character's fear and hope and despair are all palpable, moving. That she does not know and is afraid to know and is afraid to show she is afraid because it will all be used against her to protect the government that's supposed to protect her. It's a vivid and wrenching read and I very much recommend it!
"Disruption" by Koren Shadmi
Well then. Here marks the third installment of this graphic story and it's not exactly getting clearer, though there's finally a little bit in the way of answers and the conflict of the piece seems to be rearing. So far the Highwayman has been just that, a guy wandering the highway, but with the last chapter he finds himself taken prisoner and taken to one of the last great parties, where the super-rich revel in the excess and everyone else waits around the perimeter, protesting. The main character gets a bit closer to one of his abductors as he drops hints about his past. The truth is a bit nebulous, though, and perhaps misremembered. The main character seems to have a hard time figuring it out but what's known is that he's likely quite old (which makes sense given the whole "can't die" business). He's also stuck in a rather down state, believing that there's nothing he can do in the face of what's happened to him. Except that he decides, thanks to the help of one of the people who kidnapped him, that he wants to try again. [SPOILERS] It doesn't exactly work out, and I'm not the hugest of fans of how the story accomplishes what it does, sacrificing characters to further this guy's emotional journey, but at the same time I feel like it tries to complicate the tropes. A lot of what's going on here with the emotionally detached loner and his mission come off as a bit familiar, and I'm hoping that the story is going to play with that some, provide some twists so that it's not just following this trail of death along the highway. There haven't been many glimpses of…hope in this story yet, but it continues to build an interesting world with an almost sentient sense of violence. And it's an interesting read to be sure, and I still want to know what happens next. So check it out!