|Art by Carlota Suárez|
The three stories and one poem in February's Fireside Magazine have a lot to do with family, and harm, and the possibility of escape. An escape that is complicated by a history of pain and abuse, exploitation and pressure. The stories range from contemporary fiction to fantasy to science fiction, all of them grounded on Earth. The action involves the complicated roles people have within their families, within the bounds of expectation and desire. It's a dense issue, and a careful one, and before I give too much away, let's get to the reviews!
“Even Robots Can Cry” by Sam Kyung Yoo (3903 words)
No Spoilers: Simon kinda wishes he was a robot. Robots don’t need to sleep, and have perfect recall, and can perform for as long as needed, and probably don’t have so many feelings, so much pain. But Simon is a human, a freshmen at university on a track set by his parents to become a doctor. A track that his sister rejected, just before she was kicked out of the house. Now it’s on Simon, and the pressure is intense. The piece explores the way that pressure weighs on him, grinds him down, overclocks him until there’s nothing left—until something has to give. It’s wrenching and its real, but even as it explores the brutal pressure he’s under, it finds its way toward a path that might allow him some measure of relief, freedom, and control.
Keywords: School, Family, Exams, Pressure, Robots, CW- Abuse, Roommates
Review: For some people, the future is rigidly mapped and demands utter perfection. For Simon, familial love is dependent on doing well in school, on walking the line toward being a doctor, despite his not wanting that. I love that the story looks at the effort that school can be. For a lot of people, I feel, there’s a sense that even college wasn’t that hard, didn’t require that much work. But there’s a certain amount of...privilege that goes along with that, with thinking that it’s okay to not be perfect. Because to be perfect is not easy. To have to always perform and get every single point is not easy. It takes constant work and constant worry. The emotional cost is intense, and sometimes there’s no stopping breaking down. I really like how the story layers things with Simon’s computer, with how the actual machine is breaking down, giving lie to Simon’s own hopes of being a robot. The truth is that we are all machines. Our bodies can perform and do amazing things, but they aren’t free from being worn down, aren’t free from needing care and maintenance. And it’s just so hard to watch Simon basically kill himself for school, for something that he’s been told is so important when it’s not his dream, not his life, might not even exist. The thing about familial expectations is that often they are reflections of an idealized world that the parents want to exist. One where they are happy and satisfied. And Simon has to run up against the fact that there is no winning, and that future they see probably can’t exist. It’s an illusion that they’re all spending his life on. And he needs to set boundaries, even if it means making them angry. Because love so qualified isn’t love. And I just love the way that a small thing brings it all down and gets him to re-evaluate his surroundings. His roommate. His sister. Himself. And maybe find a way forward that isn’t wholly defined by his parents. Maybe one where he’ll get to make his own decisions, even if he doesn’t know what that looks like yet. It’s a difficult story but a rewarding one to me, triumphant without erasing the pain. A fantastic read!
“A Bitter Orange Perfume” by H. Pueyo (993 words)
No Spoilers: The sisters Latorre have just lost their mother, who was a famous perfumer. She was, though, also a complicated figure to the three sisters—Maria Albert, Maria Clarinda, and Maria Gracinda. The piece is short and visits with each sister, exploring their roles, their hurts, and their hopes. It’s something of a ghost story with scent, the most powerful sense when it comes to memories, being the vector of haunting. And it shows what happens in the aftermath of loss, in the thin space between grief and hope, in the complicated mess of inheritance and survival. It’s strange, and poetic, and heavy with shadows.
Keywords: Family, Death, Perfumes, CW- Abuse, Inheritance
Review: This is a rather weird story for me, unfolding as it does around smells, around a perfumer’s home that has now passed to her daughters, each of them having a uniquer relationship to the smells, to their mother. For one, there are memories of hiding, of beatings. For another the abuse was something else, a constant weight, a constant need, a rigid roles that couldn’t be bent. For the last, the place was about being ignored, being perhaps taken for granted. Doing work and never really getting credit. Never being seen. And each of them experience the scents that bring them back to those feelings, those emotions, those memories. It’s a ghost story for me, the perfumes still holding parts of their mother, still holding something of her power, so that even after she’s gone, the sisters all still are touched by her. That’s something that lingers, that carries, that has seeped into the house, making it someplace that none of them really want to stay in. They want to sell it, get rid of it, because for them the memories are soaked into the floors, into the walls. It’s not something that they can get away from there, and I think the story does an amazing job of capturing it, showing how dangerous those memories are, how tied to scent, because that was their mother’s power. And for me there’s a sense with the ending that the sisters are leaving, and in that leaving they are taking away the power of those smells. For them the house is one they couldn’t be in, but for others it might be pleasant. Because the ghost is theirs alone, and without the past soaked in pain there is no echo clawing through the smells their mother left behind. A kinda creepy but great read!
“Charlie Tries to Interview Her Nanny” by Michael Robertson (1327 words)
No Spoilers: Charlie is a young girl with a school assignment to profile someone she admires. She chooses Nanny, the housekeeping and childcare robot/android who watches over her in a household that isn’t exactly safe (alcoholic father, mother caught in and excusing the abuse). As she tries to find out more about Nanny, though, she comes up against the difficulty of describing the complexity of the situation. One where robots are treated as slaves, unfeeling and often undeserving of respect or decency. The piece is tinged with shadows, with violence and prejudice and grim truths, but the core contains all of a child’s directness and honesty. And in that it reveals a hope, that there might come a time when all people can treat each other with kindness and compassion.
Keywords: Family, Interviews, Robots, AIs, CW- Abuse, CW- Slavery
Review: This story really gets at a very complicated situation, one where robots have been created and made to resemble humans in order for them to take over human labor, even emotional labor. The robots here are largely domestic servants, slaves by design who aren’t supposed to (I imagine) care that they are being mistreated. In fact, their only care seems supposed to be taking care of humans. Whether that’s true or not, though, is something the story handles with some subtlety. Because the robots seem quite aware that they aren’t treated well, that they deserve better, that the humans they are around aren’t nice to them. Nanny answers that the things ae enjoys are those things ae is supposed to do, implying to me at least that ae has been programmed to like those things. But if ae can also see and react to the injustice around aem, then it also means that ae might be savvy enough to lie in order to protect aemself. In order to seem like just a machine when the reality is much different. And I love that Charlie can basically pick up on that, even if only in a rather simplistic way where they don’t have to think about things like privilege and slavery in those terms. Because they know that something is wrong, are able to name injustice even as a child. Perhaps especially as a child, because I think what the story plays with is how many (perhaps most) children can tell when something isn’t fair. When something isn’t right. And normally those things produce a crisis where an adult then has to explain why there’s an exception to the rule. Why things are unfair when everyone says they’re fair. Why some people are less than equal when equality and prosperity are valued. It doesn’t make sense, in many ways, and here the child has only Nanny to giver further context, and ae isn’t going to ie. And it’s a wrenching, powerful read, quietly stated and executed but with a great voice and vision. A wonderful way to close out the month!
“How to Leave the Planet” by Hal Y. Zhang
This is a strange piece that does seem to be in part a guide for leaving the planet in different ways. But it’s also (for me at least) not exactly about offering real ways to leave in a positive way. More, it seems that the piece explores the more real, more tragic ways that species can leave the planet, be erased, be lost. Each stanza begins with a different animal or group of animals. As I don’t think the poem is meant to imply that the reader can or should transform into a different species, for me it implies that the ways for leaving are different. The birds can simply fly into space while the fire salamanders explode and the shrews dig into the ground. Each leaving is a loss, is something dying out, is something being forced into extinction. So the title takes on a bit more of a grim meaning with this reading, not exactly a guide for escape so much as a chronicle of descent. And I love how humanity last and how it’s framed. Everyone else first, but the ways humans leave the planet is not by sailing away on rockets, isn’t by leaving all the death they authored behind and getting to spread to some new planet. No, it’s the same destination, the same crash, the same fall. For me it acts as a sort of promise, a string of dominoes that, once begin, can’t really be stopped. And the poem leans on that power I think to try and get people to think about the ways we envision escaping the planet. Do we think of it as a get out of jail free card where we get to jet out into the stars? Do we think about what happens to the Earth? Because if were counting on rising, we might have to face a rude awakening. And it’s a sharp and powerful piece that you should definitely check out!