February can be a month of love and Flash Fiction Online has certainly taken that broad idea and twisted it mercilessly, presenting three stories that each challenge the clean and saccharine nature of love that is often peddled this time of year like a box of unwanted cordials. The stories move from the doomed love of sentient appliances to how love marks us to how…well, just gonna skip that last one. These are stories which offer a lot of very different takes on love. Some of them touching, some of them humorous, and some of them something else entirely. So yeah, "love" is in the air and I'm ready to get to these reviews!
|Art by Dario Bijelac|
"Product Recall" by Robert Bagnall (995 words)
This story reads to me like a one sided romance between a "smart" refrigerator and any equally "smart" floor cleaning robot. And the story is framed from the refrigerator's point of view, the details of their love sprinkled between their alerts about the state of the food in the fridge. It's an interesting story, and one that does manage a bit of humor, on the one hand with the cutesy-ish love between appliances and with the status updates on the state of the tztziki. And I rather did enjoy how the state of the tzatziki could be drawn back to the relationship, to the feelings that the main character has for the elusive floor cleaner. That they hold this love far past its expiration date and are left to deal with what remains. In that way the story becomes a rather dark and bleak picture of how a machine has become like the humans that it criticizes, unable to see the putrid colors of its affection. For me some of the story, and some of the humor, fell a bit short, as I wasn't entirely won over by the ending, but it was nice to see such emotional depth given to the refrigeration and it was also interesting to think of how much of humanity our smart technology will become. The love story is slightly bizarre but also feels real and familiar, the characters perhaps a little exaggerated but I think that's because they are machines, because they have learned human behavior in theory and in some ways are trying it out to see if it fits. It's a story that certainly has a lot to offer, though your mileage may vary. Indeed!
"Marking the Witch" by Lina Rather (998 words)
This is a rather gentle but also very sharp story about loves and about trades. About the way that people who love mark each other with that love. That every love is in some ways a trade, a loss as well as a gain. For Alina, who falls in love with a witch, it's just a bit more complicated, because magic is a strange thing, a dangerous thing, just like love. I love the way that the story builds the relationship between ALina and the witch, the ways that the story establishes early on the danger of witches in part because of how people have been effected by them in Alina's life. The way her father almost married a witch and the way that her grandmother can only speak in metaphors because of one. And yet she is drawn to this witch all the same, is marked by her in more ways than one. And at the heart of the story is the question of how love changes a person, how the loss of love is like a scar and even the presence of love requires a kind of trade. Because for all that people in love gain so much, there is also a part of them that they lose and a part of them that becomes so much more vulnerable. A person can be hurt by their loved one much more than by a stranger on the street. Because while marks we get from strangers can be physical, those we love mark us in ways deeper still, and the story does a fantastic job of showing that, of exploring that, and of taking Alina through this growing understanding to show her resistance and distrust, the way that she pushes back against the overwhelming nature of love. It's a bit tragic, I will admit, but it's also a story of first love and young love, and so the tragedy of it is cut a bit by the understanding that Alina understands more of herself and the world afterward, that it has changed her entire world and in some ways marked her transition into this world of love, so that she can never unknow what she has learned. It's a tender and thoughtful examination of love and its myriad costs and is a great read!
"I Don't Want to Hurt You Either" by Ryan Row (996 words)
This story looks at pain and telepathy and a sort of revenge. It features a main character who can read the minds of others, and for whom one mind leaps out from a city of minds to draw their attention to a series of wrongs being done. I'm slightly hesitant about some aspects of this work, in part because I have complex feelings about revenge stories but especially because I have complex feelings about revenge stories where it's not the victim seeking revenge but some other party acting on the behalf of victims who could neither protect themselves nor seek vengeance on their own. It's not that the story is bad. The writing is flowing and interesting and the premise is appropriately horrific. It's…more that this story leans on certain ideas and tropes that…I don't feel very comfortable with. And probably that's all it is, and I would ask people who don't want anything spoiled to make up their own mind with a few trigger warnings for abuse, and especially for implied sexual abuse of minors. For those looking for spoilers, well…[SPOILERS] So as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the telepath has been drawn to a flower shop owner because said owner has been abducting, abusing, and murdering children. The telepath is there to break this cycle by killing the shop owner. Which I'm already a little shaky about but there's more that I'm very uncomfortable about. First, it's implied that the telepath also has a "neurological disorder" that feels to me a little close to the magical disabled person tropes. Second, the shop owner's memories trace his abusive tendencies to abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his grandmother, and I always hesitate when stories imply that victims are set on a trajectory of abuse because of their victimization. Further, I feel like stories that features revenge in this way lose some of their appeal for me when the revenge is not something society at large discourages or prevents. A phone call to the police could probably have resulted in the shop owner being arrested (he's neither too rich to prosecute nor are his victims too marginal to be cared about by the system), and from there he probably would have died in prison (which is perhaps problematic enough but it does mean that even if you wanted him to be murdered it's fairly likely even in trusting the criminal justice system). I do have some issue with stories where someone has to avenge people through murder what our (admittedly broken but in this specific case rather effective) laws would punish anyway. It seems too easy to me, too much a crafting of both perfect victims (the beautiful children the man abused and killed) and perfect criminal, so that while I was uncomfortable about the crimes portrayed, I didn't feel like that discomfort was pushing me to challenge my ways of looking at the world. Again, it's a well written story and perhaps if the piece was longer I would have felt that it managed to avoid many of the tropes that I feel it got stuck on, but as this is a flash piece there's not a whole lot more than the broad strokes of abuse, victimization, and vengeance. But I do encourage people to give it a look for yourselves (if you're okay with the subject matter) and make up your own minds.