“The Flirtbot Condition” by Marie Vibbert (715 words)
*sound of my heart softly breaking* This is a beautiful story that explores sentience and robotics and the human tendency to anthropomorphize everything around them, to seek out human contact and human interaction even in the absence of other humans. The piece focuses on Stacey, who finds themself in an airport bar where a flirtbot is stationed, a robot designed to imitate human flirting. Only because of the setting, because it’s an airport bar, the flirtbot, Thom, never has time enough to really flirt, and so Thom’s speech patterns are jumbled, picked up from overheard conversations instead of through interacting with other people. Thom’s learning is a bit off, and so when Stacey tries to engage him, it comes out...not quite right. But at the same time, like reading poetry written by algorithm, there are moments that seem profound, that speak to Stacey and make them feel for Thom and Thom’s situation. It reveals this tendency in people to give human emotion and agency to intelligences that aren’t human. Like artificial intelligences. Like pets to some extent. It shows the power of human empathy in many ways, that we put on these beings emotions like loneliness and longing that they might not understand and might not be capable of understanding. It reveals how Stacey sees in Thom this tragic figure and how they want to reach out to Thom, to try and teach Thom better human speech because they feel it will make Thom happier and less lonely. It’s a story that really looks at this aspect of humanity, and it woks on a meta level because it’s a constructed story, because we have a character in Thom who speaks thanks to an algorithm but not really, because Thom is written, so we have a human writing a robot pretending to be a human and it teeters on that uncanny valley where Thom is human enough, and so becomes a person that Stacey identifies with. And it’s a beautiful and short story that left me pondering the nature of poetry and the nature of humanity and it’s just a great read, so definitely check it out!
“Ernest” by Geoff Manaugh (4431 words)
This is a moving story about a ghost and about abuse and about kindness. It features a family, the Presleys, who discover that their new house in the suburbs of Chicago, is haunted. Instead of being terrified of the ghost, though, the father of the family, Frank, is immediately captivated by it, amused by it, and seeks to capitalize on this phenomenon, going to escalating lengths to profit off of the ghost’s presence. The ghost himself, Ernest, begins the experience trying to get the family’s attention, trying to be the frightening presence people associate with ghosts. However, next to the soulless nightmare of corporate culture, of modern capitalism, he just doesn’t manage to scare anyone, comes off as something of a novelty, and quickly into something of an obsession for Frank, who sees in Ernest both a captive and a way to get money and recognition. As Frank becomes more and more violent, more and more desperate for this discovery to mean something for him, the real connection and meaning is being formed by Ernest and Frank’s son, Kevin, who seems the only one willing to listen to Ernest, to try and find out what he wants. The story looks at the way that interest follows, especially driven by our current society and the focus on attention and money while ignoring the way that kindness and compassion are often weaponized to further hurt the vulnerable. And it’s at times an uncomfortable read because of how it portrays not just Frank’s abuse but the widespread complicity, how he’s encouraged to push further and further to maintain the high that comes from seeing Ernest hurt and humiliated. At the same time, I love how the relationship between Ernest and Kevin builds, their friendship and their desire to find some measure of freedom from their oppressive surroundings. And I like how the story follows through on everything, dovetailing the piece into a feel-good story, one that looks at being lost and needing kindness, needing someone to reach out in kindness, in order to find the way again. And that when there’s cruelty instead, the harm is horrific, and terrible, and spirals out of control. It’s deep and packs a great emotional punch while keeping things timely and magical. A great read!
"Abyssal" by Lorraine Schein (1292 words)
This is a captivating story about change and distance and the bottom of the sea. It follows Katexa, a woman who is leaving behind her clan, one of the last groups of humans living on dry land, to try and find traces of the humans who left to go under the sea, who chose to use genetic manipulation in order to fashion themselves into beings who could survive there. Faced with the loss of all livable land, Katexa descends through the different layers of the sea to try and figure out what happened, not just for research but to see if following would be an option. And along the way the story delves into the ideas of evolution and myth, of the way that we think of descent in general. The transformation from land creatures into sea creatures seems a reversal, after all, of our original evolution, and in many ways it is a reversal that we have engineered, that we need to go back in order to try again, in order to see if we can do it better this time without having to fall back, retreat into the oceans from where we came. The story is a bit dark, literally so, imagining this world without sun, without much of anything, but really the only place that is left for those who have used up everything else. I like the way that it uses the derivations of our words for the levels of the sea to frame it as something of a slide into hell, into a place of atonement, where we can try once more to climb out from under the legacy of our actions and the harm we've caused. The story explores what it means to go back, both the loss but the hope as well, the beauty that is embodied by a new chance, and a change that might be able to stop us from doing more harm, and give us a more blank slate. It's a captivating and sinking story, and one very much worth checking out!