Well after sort of missing the majority of March's Terraform content because of a tagging issue, I've been super cautious to make sure I don't miss out on any April stories. And good thing, because they are an interesting bunch, a mix of dystopian visions, each with their own particular flavor. From social media obsessed to decidedly punky to sci fi slavery and beyond, there's a little something for everyone. Politics, extinction, and technology merge in these stories. To the reviews!
"Presence" by Cairo Aidan Smith (1930 words)
This is a quite interesting story about the future, about the direction that humanity might move in. As consumers. I love the depictions of work as life, life as work. That people basically give themselves and their time to going through advertising and creating content for corporations that just use it all to continue the cycle. And I think the idea of the Presence is an interesting on, basically an AI that can maintain the illusion of will, the illusion of self, to maintain connects that the overtaxed fleshy brain cannot handle. There's a few aspects of the story I was less sure of, though. I mean, it walks a fairly fine line between commentary on the present and taking a pessimistic view of kids these days. I think that it does ultimately place much of the blame on corruption and corporations, but it also plays the game of blaming the individual some for buying into the system. For chasing the idea of comfort and happiness in the rather shallow form of consumption. It shows it as unhealthy, and I don't wholly disagree. I was less than sure about the use of neutral pronouns for everyone, though, not because I dislike neutral pronouns but because I could not separate the rather scathing commentary on consumerism and the values of the internet age from the rejection of gender essentialism. And perhaps I'm just way off, because I did like that they seemed to be most people's pronoun, but as it was it felt a little like that was treated as another loss. Another way that the people in this story had "lost their way." It wasn't a huge thing, though, and most of the story evolves around the main character losing theyself to the relentless drive of capital. That everything they do has been monetized and yet doesn't really benefit them. It just keeps them down and profits others. It's a stark and rather bleak story, creepy and with a nice ending, and well worth spending some time with.
"Backup Man" by Paul Di Filippo (2987 words)
There is something nearly refreshing about finding a story here that's just rather unashamedly fast times with future guns and genetically modified soldiers. Lingo and flashy, punky descriptions give this story a movement, a speed that's nicely done and keeps things running from beginning to end, not letting up until the curtain downs on a stage littered with dead bodies. The main character is and definitely is not Drew Prosnitz, a thief who successfully foiled a contest to resettle a huge stretch of North America left vacant for many years because of ecological catastrophe. The setting is vividly drawn, a nice mix of humans, androids, modified people, and sentient "moldies." It's a strange mix and the action of the piece is hyperviolent and fast. Everything happens with a rush of implications and not-Prosnitz does a great job of keeping things mysterious enough to keep the strange band he joins guessing as to his true nature and not giving too much away to the reader as well. This does seem to fall into a larger story, a larger setting, but it stands on its own fairly well, an entertaining smash and grab with some sweeping looks at a future that has seen some messed up shit. And in any event it's rather light and fun and teases a lot that is probably explored elsewhere. Another fine read!
"Plantation | Springtime" by Lia Swope Mitchell (1265 words)
There is something so beautifully and hauntingly heartbreaking about this story-poem. It features a future where people can be made into machines. To "fix" them. To make them more compliant. To punish them. They can be made into drones, piloted by others, made to do jobs that no one else will do. They are not treated well, and for some it is the last stop. Those full integrated are gone, just bodies to be controlled. But some are still partly there, buried beneath the control but still there. Still aware in some ways and still able to resist, to want to pull free, to recognize this all as a pattern, as part of the same fucked up pattern that punishes those who are abused, that places value only on the work one is doing and, failing that, the potential profit one can make. The piece is elegantly organized in two columns. The left is a sort of user's manual. A sort of disclaimer about the product. While the right side is something completely different, actually diving into the heads of one of the semi-autonomous units as they start to realize what is happening to them. As they struggle. As they recognize what has happened to them, what everything has been guiding them toward. There is only a vague glimmer of hope in this, just the faint promise that maybe the narrator of the right section will be able to get away, will be able to remember, will be able to escape somehow. It's a bleak piece because it doesn't off up an assurances, but it's quite good, deep, and achingly sad. It shows what happens when people are valued only as machines, when healthcare is decided based solely on what is most cost-effective, It's a powerful premise with great execution. Definitely don't miss this one.
"Contested Convention" by Mike Pearl (2734 words)
Given the political situation in the US at the moment, this story gives a well researched and, well, rather mildly frightening look inside what might be the landscape of the Republican nomination process. It’s written with an eye for detail but also, as far as I can tell, and a voice that captures a lot about being a republican. And it shows just how corrupt and rather terrible the American political process is, especially at the presidential level. Things are completely out of the hands of voters at this point and things get messy, complicated by embarrassing gaffes and shifting allegiances and people generally working against each other for what they think is the heart and soul of their political party. It’s frightening, really, in that it keeps things very close to real. This is not the Terraform story where President Trump started splicing eagles with other animals. This is one that is speculative but very much plausible. The convention might go like this. And many people are probably desperately hoping it will. The idea of the white knight used unironically is actually rather amazing and I just loved the way the story at the same time refuses to turn republicans in general as evil or bad but doesn’t excuse the obvious problems within the party. It’s an entertaining piece and something of an educational one. I, for one, have very little idea about what the nuts and bolts nomination process is like, and the story does shed some light on what is a rather impenetrable system. The result for me is a story that captures some of what Terraform promises, which is topical speculative stories. There’s not a lot of SF elements to it, but it still manages to be compelling and quick, entertaining and just a bit dystopian, even as it’s 100% accurate to America right now. A fine read!
"The Sixth to Last Human Chat Ever Recorded" by Debbie Urbanski (773 words)
…okay then. In this very short but emotionally heavy story the world is nearing peak levels of no humans. It imagines a setting where humanity decided to die off, to sterilize itself so that the planet can heal after humanity is gone. And it's…it's dark and it's beautiful, really, a conversation between two people. The voices are just so perfectly captured, the first someone desperate for someone to talk to. Desperate to feel a part of something because they've delved so far into regret and fear and bitterness. They see the world around them and they want it the way it was before, want to have had a different outcome. The second voice…gives away a lot less. Is more inwardly focused and reacts but doesn't really seek to prolong the contact. I feel there's a delicate balance between the two, because really they seem like some of the last people alive. The title captures that aspect of the story well, that this is one of the last chats but not *the* last chat. And I loved that, the way it draws the implications deeper, the way that I want to believe that a proximity to the end changes things. Like the main speaker my inclination is to want things to mean more right before an ending. But the quieter speaker seems to have a different truth of it, a different lack. The story appears in part because of Earth Day, a reminder that we do not live in a limitless world, that we can look at the legacy of humanity in different ways. And there is a nice scope here, an exploration of the fear that the Earth can go on without us, might be better off without us, because we have been such shitty stewards. It's a very complex story for the length, formally interesting and emotionally resonant and very good. Go read it!
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