I'm closing out my September reviews with a look at Motherboard's Terraform, which brings four new looks at rather terrifying possible futures. As usual, the stories range from predictive to outlandish, but all of them lean toward warnings. Signs for people to read and pay attention to. Turn back now. Avoid this possible time when humanity has lost respect for our world and our selves. These are pieces look at the way things could be with an unblinking gaze and invite readers to look into that abyss. It's a nice range of works, too, from far future space extinctions to much more grounded political sci fi, where corruption and injustice are only a step or two beyond what we have now. It makes for a strong month of stories, which I'll get right to reviewing!
“Extinction Studies” by Brian Trent (1334 words)
No Spoilers: A hunter transmits a message out to an unknown listener about the planet Janus and it’s two main predators, the terrifying gloomfangs and sprintarrows. Native to the two very different sides of Janus’ day/night divide, they are not only incredibly dangerous, but have produced one of the great debates on the planet among the hunters come from far away to pit themselves against these beasts—which one is deadliest? After a drunken bet, the hunters prepare to test just that, but the results are not at all what they were expecting. The piece is nicely built and paced, leading the reader through what is supposed to be a classic setup, the “who would win?” and then answering it in an inventively dark fashion.
Keywords: Hunting, Space, Hybrids, Predators, Betting, Extinction
Review: I love how this story looks at hunting, and especially sport hunting, as a reflection of some of the baser impulses of humanity, and as perhaps the source of our downfall. After all, the question of which animal is the more worthy kill really plays into human bloodlust, into the idea of humans as predators. And that’s where I think the story shines, because it takes these people who believe, essentially, that humans are the greatest hunters, the greatest animals. Which, I mean, there’s something of an argument for humans as animals, humans as hunters, as predators. But the piece really looks at the danger of framing the universe in those terms. In putting humans at the top because of our ability to kill, because of our ability to dominate and exploit, there is the possibility that humans will at some point...not be the best. And if the universe is organized so that the species on the top can do whatever they want, so that basically only humans are people and everyone else is prey, is fodder...then how are we to condemn another species that thinks the same of humans. Who can hunt and kill and eat and revel in the extinction of humans. And this story imagines such an outcome as burbling out of humanity’s fascination with killing, our desire for death. And we get it. Just not how we ever predicted. And I do love the twist that humanity wanted to see who would win, and instead loses everything. It’s powerful and fun and nicely accomplished. A great read!
“Con Con” by Russell Nichols (1970 words)
No Spoilers: Nate Campbell is a convict out of corporate prison temporarily to attend the titular Con Con, where prisoners vie for a limited number of sponsorships that will allow them a limited kind of freedom—which at least is a step up from the hell of the private prisons. Nate is an arsonist and finds that interview after interview ends in refusal, rejection. With the prospect of being sent back looming, he gets a lead on one last choice, and gets set to make his pitch. The piece is both funny and terrifying, full of some sharp puns and easy flow while tracing around the raw injustice that fills the prison system and allows makes being a corporate drone a promising prospect.
Keywords: Prisons, Conventions, Sponsorship, Pitching, Convicts
Review: Okay, so I feel like this story manages a very strong one-two punch when it comes to its layering. Because on the one hand I feel that it’s making a point about prisons and about race, about how people become trapped in these cycles and systems where they are made into just free labor, into slaves in everything but legal name. The story looks at how that works, and how by giving more power to corporations over prison labor, it creates a toxic field where convicts are considered less than people, can be used in basically any way for the benefit of corporate dollars. On the other hand, though, I also feel the story takes aim at capitalism in general, and especially the injustice that is present in basically every kind of business, including publishing. Because, well, the piece does a great job of capturing convention culture, the sort of desperation that people have to land a sponsor or contract or deal or job. How it’s so many people being pitted against each other to compete for a limited amount of spots. For a limited amount of jobs. And everyone else has to go back to the hell that is poverty, or prison, or despair. And they have to fight, and fight rather brutally, to participate in a system that they know is wrong, is unjust. That they know is racist, or otherwise bigoted. But they have to put that aside because they want to be secure, because they want to succeed, and the only way to do that seems to be to go through a corporate structure. Which is a very sharp, and very powerful critique, all wrapped in some rather fun prose that makes for a wonderful read!
“Pig Guts” by Troy Farah (1973 words)
No Spoilers: Bob is living in a future where very little is outlawed. Where, indeed, it’s work that he’s not allowed to do, and just instead consume and consume, keeping himself alive despite a bevy of cancers and organ failures through the use of transwine, pigs that grow new organs to replace those that Bob wrecks through his consumption. It’s a life mainly spent battling boredom with drugs and with other distractions that take their toll and feed into the cycle of consumption and renewal, every new pig bringing Bob closer and closer to the swine whose organs he’s made up of. It’s a strangely desolate piece, yearning yet with a hyper-saturation of indulgence. It’s strange, and haunting, and almost beautiful for all its ugliness.
Keywords: Pigs, Surgery, Unemployment, Drugs, CW- Cancer
Review: What I like about this story is that it’s essentially a ship of Theseus, where Bob is the ship being replaced part by part with these pig-grown organs and bones. People don’t really die, but there is a question buried there about how they are living, and what they might be becoming in the process. Bob begins to hear the pig that contains his new organs. Because this one pig is extra smart? Or possesses a human voice box and enough of a human brain? Or is it perhaps going the other direction? Is Bob becoming more swine, and in that movement is he becoming better able to communicate with this pig. It’s an interesting and rather haunting idea, the main drawback being that the story does engage in some fatphobic language, where comparing humans to pigs tends to involve weight and some sort of gross-ness. But I do appreciate what it’s trying to do, and that it shows Bob and this pig having a moment of solidarity that cuts through the haze, where Bob can sort of see that without really pushing himself to do more than just consume and play and wallow, he’s very closely connected to this pig. It’s not a happy story by any means, and not really an optimistic story when looking at how people would react to not having to participate in capitalism, but I think it’s certainly worth spending some time with. Indeed!
"Wake" by Anna Cabe (2210 words)
No Spoilers: Diana is a young woman with a skin condition, who undergoes an experimental procedure in the hopes of taking away the pain she feels moving through the world. Taking away the rashes that cause her pain and embarrassment and prevent her from swimming outside or revealing herself to anyone. The treatment itself involves gluing scales to the rashes on her body and allowing them to work their particular science until they are removed and, presumably, the skin is "fixed." Only for Diana the scales bring with them dreams of the ocean and a hunger for salt, and lead her away from the neat and narrow avenues that the scientists and her parents want and expect of her. It's a story about bodies and change, about loneliness and freedom. Diana is caught between desires, everyone telling her what she should want but no one really listening to what she has to say about it all.
Keywords: Transformation, Skins, Scales, Water, Salt, Treatment
Review: For me, the story explores the particular moment of being a teenager and being caught between worlds. Especially for someone who is different, who has a condition that sets them apart, there is a pressure to conform not just in action but in appearance. Like with the suburbs with their unified lawn, difference is treated as not just different but as a threat to the collective, to the shared illusion of affluence and prosperity. Diana's rashes become not just something that causes her pain, but something unsightly that needs to be fixed. And I love how the story gets at that, showing the doctors and scientists becoming silent in the face of Diana's reluctance, her lack of enthusiasm about the cosmetic side of her treatment. They all treat it like that's the only thing she could want, when really it's the pain she wants to be free of. The limitations. She rightly sees that it's not actually her fault or problem that people would be uncomfortable with her rashes. And yet by their focus on that, it's obvious that the doctors don't even believe her about the pain—for them this is about defeating a deforming, an aberration. And it sets up so nicely the pull in Diana to escape it, to take herself outside the boundaries of the powers that be, who obviously want her to just fit in. Instead, she is pulled to the sea, to the promise of the different rules that would apply there, to the different values she could have. She chooses to embrace her own beauty while declaring that it has nothing to do with her pain. That she can be at peace with herself, but not in a world where everyone is so obsessed about her appearance. It's a moving and dark and powerful look at growing up and changing, and it's very much worth checking out!