|Art by Frank Wu|
"The Customer Is Always Right" by Anna Salonen (890 words)
This is a fun little story and a great way to kick things off, with a smile and a wink and a pair of customer service calls to an android manufacturer. When an order gets crossed somewhere and a domestic model is accidentally deployed to a combat situation while a combat model is deployed to take care of a woman's pets, things go a bit pear-shaped. The story thrives on its humor, on the way the customer service rep handles the rather extreme mistake on the part of the company and manages to redeem the situation despite the ways that it could have gone very, very wrong. The humor is light and slapstick, the first call a bit more fleshed out than the second, though the second is necessary to follow through on the punch line, that if a domestic android was sent to battle, the battle droid must have been sent elsewhere. Framing the two parts of the story as an evaluation of the customer service rep is also a nice touch, giving a layer of bureaucracy that makes it all the more relatable, that here is a faceless corporation expecting its employees to deal with some serious problems, and finding that sometimes that works out. It's an entertaining story, very short and smile-inducing and, as I said, a nice way to set the tone of the issue as a whole in one bite-sized morsel. Indeed!
"Q&A: An AI Love Story" by Fade Manley (2700 words)
This one is a bit more cute than funny, but it definitely has its humorous moments and the story really succeeds on the strength of its voice. It centers on a pair of AI, girlfriends, in love and trying through somewhat desperate means to be together. Of course, for one bound to a waste processing facility that meant trying to steal a spaceship, and for that she was imprisoned. The story has a great structure, a single voice answering questions, though the questions are not actually provided. Instead there are only the responses, and the responses reveal an AI fully realized, not human exactly but definitely sentient and aware and committed to getting her girlfriend back. Like I said, it's a sweet story with a subtle humor throughout that arises from the wry voice of the main character, from the way she answers her questions, bored and also three moves ahead of everyone else. It's a cleverly constructed story and also another fun one, exploring the ways that AI might be like humans and also a bit different, how scale and body can effect their drives and how humans, in creating AI as servants, are culpable for their happiness. The story is a bit deeper than it seems at first, and is quite charming. Onward!
"Panic Twice, Spin" by Malon Edwards (2390 words)
This story has some action to it, to go along with an almost surreal science fiction storyline and something of a twist ending. The story itself focuses on a boy and his sister. His sister who died and who was brought back as an android. An android who loves playing a video game where she can fight zombies with dance moves. I will admit, the game sounds rather awesome, a mix of Dance Dance Revolution and The Walking Dead that turns into basically the music video for Thriller. And through it all the brother enjoys time with his sister and wonders if they get along better because his parents altered her personality. It's a lingering question that isn't wholly answered, but I liked that she retained a stubborn resolve and a knowledge of how the world works. She fights on, aware that for all that she is an android that she is a fortunate one, with rich parents who can pay to have her renewed every year. The actual plot of the story is a bit harder to explain, with the game crossing over with reality, [SPOILERS] creating mini black holes and resulting in a kind-of Blue Fairy to appear to offer her a "real" life. And I liked the reaction to that, to the idea of validation from an outside source. The android-sister wants no part of it, sort of proves her own "real-ness" in the way she stands up for herself, for her right to say no. And in the end this is a strange story, one with a strong vein of fun in the form of the game it depicts, a sort of arcade-throwback that is mirrored in the parents having to re-up their daughter, effectively putting more quarters into the machine. And while the story offers no real answers to what is going on, it does manage to capture a moment between a brother and sister that affirms them both without needing a Blue Fairy to swoop in and make it all "real." Quite a nice piece.
"Sleeping with Spirits" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (4831 words)
While all the stories so far have been rather strongly "FUN!" oriented, this story slows things down some, brings a tone that, while at times quite fun, is more about two people and their relationship and the ghosts hanging between them. In it the couple is haunted by all the men that Wedni has slept with, though not their dead spirits. More like the spirits of who they were the last time they had sex with her. And for both her and Nolan, her current boyfriend, it's rather stressful. They have sex and then these ghosts appear, ghosts of the other times she's had sex, and they hang between them, threaten to push them apart. They linger for only a night, but all in all it's an interesting exploration of their relationship, how their fears spring from Wendi's past, from Nolan's feelings of inadequacy, and how this experience slowly begins to heal them, to bring them closer together. The characters are all fun and lively, all complex and interesting. The voice continues with the trend of the issue in being a bit light, a bit irreverent, but the story is a darker one, one that really gets down into the issues these characters have. With all relationships, there is a fear that sits at the heart of the people in it, especially for those who trust slow, who struggle with their own self worth. It's a very good story, without blame or judgment, without trying to shame Wendi for her past while forcing Nolan to face his own reaction to it. These are mature characters in a mature relationship, and it's rather beautiful to watch them, to be a different kind of spirit, invisible and voyeuristic. Definitely read this one!
"Bargain" by Sarah Gailey (2600 words)
Aww, and the fun is back in full swing with this story, which aims squarely for a humorous deal-with-the-devil tale and hits its mark quite well. The demon Malachai takes center stage here, and it is something of a stage, a song and dance that he enjoys, scaring mortals as they attempt some con or trick for power, as they seek to sacrifice someone they don't care about to buy themselves their hearts' desires. Only for the first time in his career Malachai finds himself up against someone more than his match, an old woman ready to trade herself for her wife, who is dying from cancer. It's a very sweet story, one again that thrives in the voice of its narrator, in the demon's basic…well, almost decency. It's strange to say about a demon, but the story works because the demon isn't exactly uncaring. The joke is basically that he is a demon in charge of making deals with humans but that what he enjoys is making those trying to advance themselves at the expense of others wet themselves in fear. What he likes is the theater, the drama. What he likes is seeing those people eventually pay. It's a nice set up and well executed, a cute story with an awesome dog that I couldn't help but smile at. It's a bit refreshingly simple with a single solemn note that is resolved into joy by the end. Another fine tale.
"Places" by Suyi Davies (3350 words)
I'm struck by the pacing and tone not just of this story, which is about control and suppression and anger and power, but of the entire issue. After a rather jubilant beginning, things are starting to vary a bit, and this is the darkest story yet. Not that it's a bad thing. Indeed, this story is bracing and shows the ways in which people treat boys and girls different, the ways people treat different in general. Emotion. The way girls are seen as dangerous for their emotions but boys just in need of training. Like training girls is too much a risk so instead they are manacled. And that idea is one used to great effect in this story, the story of a mother watching her two adopted children stand off against each other. The story does an excellent job of showing how the use of manacles, of restraints, on women is primarily to further the narrative of difference. If girls "just are" a certain way and boys "just are" a different way, then oppressing one group and favoring the other is very easy. It shows how gender roles are less about the innate qualities of a gender (because as shown, the same qualities that make a boy a boy, if found in a girl, are anomalous and need to be fixed) and more about control. The action of the story is strong, focusing on this showdown and leading to a number of powerful revelations. That the story is witnessed and narrated by the mother, by someone who has suffered because of the restrictions, because of the manacles, is a nice touch, layering the inequality across generations. Making it tradition. A very interesting and complex story.
"Tales of a Fourth Grade Shoggoth" by Kevin Wetmore (2806 words)
Well this story is definitely…Lovecraftian. The humor is back fully in this tale of eldritch magic and mayhem, which uses Lovecraftian tropes and creatures to just sort of have fun. On the one hand, this is a rather standard middlegrade story, a kid with an annoying little brother who is sort of the black sheep finding a way that he is special and actually fits into the story. On the other hand, this is a story that both uses and mocks Lovecraft to twist the narrative into something rather dark and repulsive and yet undeniably fun. Lovecraft is a rather controversial figure, and here the story tries to walk the line between honoring the elements that make up the Mythos while showing how ridiculous many of them can be. This is a story that mixes and matches generously, and a fan of HP's will find an awful lot of nods and jokes and puns. Like I said, the story succeeds rather because it mixes the sensibilities of middlegrade fiction with Lovecraftian horror, managing a rather accurate middlegrade voice unfazed by the insanity of the situation. It's rather cute and well done. Of course, the story does lean a bit toward adoration of the source material rather than complicating it, which leaves me a bit conflicted, as the Mythos can be…well, playing incest for laughs is really pushing things toward a breaking point for me as a reader. In the end there were portions of the story that I felt could have been handled differently, but overall the tone and craziness of the story made it a fun read, which is sorta messed up but that's how it goes. Indeed!
"The Insect Forest" by Paul DesCombaz (728 words)
The final story of the issue is another very short one, this one having fun with the idea of an insect forest. And not exactly a forest that homes a lot of insects, but actual insect plants. Which is rather great. The story has a nice frame, as well, as one merchant trying to dissuade another from going out to make their fortune in the forest. The humor arises here from the more and more desperate attempts on the part of the established merchant to convince the newcomer that it's a bad idea, with the undertone that the established merchant feels threatened by the younger person. It's a nice tension that breathes, that made me chuckle with each "Oh, did I forget to mention [insert terrifying bug-plant]?" It really is a nice way of presenting the full horror of the premise, because even if the threats are exaggerated they are frightening indeed, especially for those who don't really like bugs (or plants, I guess). The ending pulls things together well, though I don't know I quite bought that the person being addressed throughout would so readily agree to it. But it's a cute and clever way of wrapping things up, and it does make for a fun and entertaining story. There is a nice bit of world-building, or at least sight-seeing as the narrator takes the addressee on a virtual trip through the titular forest. It might not be the deepest of stories, but it is definitely fun, and a nice way to close things out for the first issue of the publication.