Thursday, August 4, 2016

Quick Sips - Mothership Zeta #4

With this, its fourth issue, Mothership Zeta celebrates its first year of publication. And it's quite a celebration, though also in some ways more restrained than some of its other issues. These stories are fun, yes, and hopeful yes, but more than that I think they show a bit more emotion, a bit more reaching toward compassion and understand. Many of the tales are romantic, showing two people coming together through difficult circumstances. Showing people starting new chapters in their lives, ready for some change, ready for something new and beautiful. That even in the dark of space or the sunless night there is some trace of warmth to be had, some hope to share in. So without further delay, to the reviews! 

Art by Wendy Xu


"War Profiteering" by M. Darusha Wehm (850 words)

As usual, the issue opens with a bit of flash, this one a fun science fiction piece with peeks of horror. Framed as a bit of advertising for a device intended to clean food of contamination, the story reveals a world at conflict, the upbeat and infomercial-esque tone of the story at odds with the incredibly bleak landscape being shown. A world where sapient nanoparticles are on the offensive, infecting food and animals and making things…well, into something of an apocalyptic horror. [SPOILERS] But even in the face of the disturbing nature of the world, the real scare here comes from the idea that this advertising exists. Forget cockroaches, if corporate advertising still exists in the middle of a conflict for the fate of the world, then the story shows how it basically can't be killed. That even in the midst of this global battle there's still a company out there trying to make money off of human suffering. Off of human misery. Which, next to that the Imperial Swarm seems cheery by comparison. The tone is perfect for this, something that sounds so reasonable and in keeping with the conventions of advertising but, when you dig a little deeper, reads to me as a scathing critique of how people treat naked capitalism. The way that companies try to turn money out of conflict and war and death. It works back in the title of the story and makes for a fun but complex look at how one company is trying to spin the conflict and their product, which is not benign nor…humane? It's a nice way to draw into the issue and a great read!

"The Call of Chewing Gum" by Russell Reed (2900 words)

This is a rather charming story to keep things both light and bordering on the horrifying. Where the last story used the more comical tone to contrast a serious message of war and commercialism, this story keeps things firmly tongue-in-cheek as it lampoons Lovecraftian horror with the story of a young man inheriting his uncles estate and uncovering a sinister cult that's not so much Orthodox Religious as Easter Catholics. Here the framing is in journals, a common tool for exploring those more Lovecraftian ideas because it gives that air of the found-text (complete with mysterious and cryptic story of how the text was found) and, by that, like it might actually have happened. But it's also poking fun of that, turning the disturbing into something silly, something as absurd as it sounds when it's presented in the light of day. Secret cults and Elder Gods and the end of the world are all rather frightening, but the over-the-top language and the feeling like this is something lost in time gives the story more of a ridiculous air, and shows that Lovecraftian stories become something of caricatures of horror when brought into modern settings. Only with the distance of time, when we can think "that's just how people talked or wrote" does the text seem more authentic, and even then only because our understanding and idea of how people sounded and wrote back then is based on texts trying to handwave a stylistic choice not to seem authentic but to seem educated (and a bit pretentious) and therefore more reliable. It's a nicely done piece and fans of Lovecraft should find themselves smiling in time to the action. Indeed!

"For the Children" by Jamie Wahls (4438 words)

Okay so quickly skipped over the nonfiction before this piece because I didn't want to be spoiled. And glad I did because this one maintains the strong comedic arc of the issue but sobers things up a bit, offering a more genuine and serious picture of the future of humanity and what it might mean not just for human potential but for human responsibility. The story focuses primarily on Riva, a woman who was born before humanity migrated to almost entirely virtual environments. Not that they aren't real but that they live as quasi-immortals, able to live and live and go wherever they want, do whatever they want. To grow anywhere and to just keep on experiencing more. Riva's perspective, then, as someone who grew up before the digitization, is rather unique. And perilous. Because she values a physical body. A gender. Things that aren't really any better than what humanity becomes, but which she values because of how she was raised. And when an accident occurs aboard her ship it sort of drives home the differences between humanity as it was and as it is. I like that the story doesn't exactly devolve into a "darn kids" sort of story, that it ultimately embraces this new humanity's choices. Riva doesn't exactly condemn those who don't value physical existence (though to me she comes a bit close), but rather offers that there is something to be learned from taking a look at constraints and about patience. Of course, there also seems to be a lot that she has to learn from these new humans, perhaps starting with not taking unnecessary risks for some perceived moral superiority. I think the story does a good job with showing that humanity can change, though, and that the change doesn't mean that humanity is going to lose its sense of purpose, determination, or hope. That things can get better. It's a fascinating story and one to spend some time with!

"The Boy Who Made Flowers" by S.B. Divya (3957 words)

The movement from funny to genuine and heartfelt is completed in this story which features a young boy named Charlie (great name, fyi) who discovers he has a special power. Not like his heroes, whose gifts allow them to fight or to heal, but the power to produce flowers and flower petals based on his emotions. It's a gift that he reacts quite negatively to at first, and for good reason—having a power like flower-creation isn't exactly the best way to be popular in school as a young boy. Charlie faces violence and bullying and humiliation and a growing hatred of his powers. He wants them disabled. He wants them gone. And then…well, the story manages to turn things nicely, to [SPOILERS] show Charlie learning about his powers. Motivated to help another with his powers. And okay, it sorta might only be because he wants to kiss a girl, which is…not the best of reasons, but it's also a rather realistic reason for a child his age, and it's only the first reason. I like how the story shows Charlie maturing some, shows a growth for him both physically, because this is rather tightly tied to puberty and growing up, and emotionally, able to see his gift as that, as a gift, as something he can still use for good. And it sort of ties a bow on the idea that you don't need violence to make a difference. Though being able to shoot fire from your fingers is a powerful gift, making flowers has its own power, the power to move others, to bring something beautiful into the world. And that's definitely a gift worth exploring. It's a sweet and charming story and solidly adorable. Definitely go give it a read!

"Ratcatcher" by Amy Griswold (5420 words)

Things take another step toward the dark, though decidedly not toward the grim, in this story, which hits hard about war and redemption, violence and life. In it, Xavier is a man who has lost his soul. Sort of. A man who is alive only because the ghost of another is riding in his chest. It's not a permanent solution, but it does allow him to do his job, which is to hunt ghosts in the steamship-filled skies over WWI Europe. The setting leaps to the center of the stage, the mix of steampunk and war, ghosts and mad science. Xavier is a compelling main character, with full knowledge that he's not long for this world but holding on as tight as he can because he's not sure of what's beyond. He felt his soul shatter. And now he kind-of does the same thing to others, banishing the unquiet dead from the fields of battle, from airships where they can do damage. It's a situation further complicated by the fact that the soul within him is another man's and the two are lovers, though not exactly physically so. The story flit between tragic and hopeful but maintains a strong awesome all the way through, painting the picture of Xavier's situation and his aspirations. And it does a lot of nice things with how people are treated in war, how death itself isn't seen as a barrier to being used in the war effort. And how wrong that kind of thinking can go. It's a dark story but there's a strong vein of fun to it, an adventure that keeps getting deeper and more interesting even as it gets bloodier and more twisted. Even without a soul, though, Xavier never really loses his humanity. A great read!

"Looking for Morticia Addams in All the Wrong Places" by Barry Charman (4436 words)

Perhaps it's weird to say, but this vampire story brings the issue a step back away from the dark and toward the humor the issue opened with. Though there is still a nice shadow settled over much of the tale, the tone and voice are a bit more humorous, self-deprecating, and wry. The main character, a vampire named Alan, has just gone through a messy breakup with his vampire girlfriend and is doing a bit of soul searching. It's a cute premise and one that brings him into contact with Ruth, a fully-living human woman who seems to find him compelling. It's a rather romantic piece, one about the expectations of relationships, of love, and trying to make a person fit into some preconceived mold of what you want. About thinking that because you're drawn to a certain idea of a person that means you have to go looking for the closest match. That, in fact, the closest match might seem anything but, because what is on the outside of a person isn't exactly what's reflexive of what's on the inside. It's a fun piece, one that shows Alan and Ruth exploring new worlds, stepping outside their comfort zones, and finding that they have more in common than they think. That, despite their being day and night, they also balance each other. It's another cute piece, endearing and fun and with a hope to it, that despite missteps people can still begin to find their way. A fine story!

"Eating the Sun" by Beth Goder (662 words)

Again following tradition, the issue ends on another piece of flash fiction, this one wrapping things up on a more tender note. A more yearning note. The story features an alien creature able to devour suns and, well, a sun, the two finding themselves at cross purposes and having to navigate a way forward. It's a story that easily could have been much darker than it is, and while there's still a bit of tragedy to the story, what is more prominent to me is the rising swell of hope and possibility. For the sun, the main character represents a death. Utter destruction. And, more than that, and end of the sun's ambition to warm a planet teeming with life. For the main character, a sort of godling, the sun is needed power to get them to a ceremony on time. And, it turns out, [SPOILERS] company for the journey. I love how the story could have been bleak, about necessity and hunger, but instead was about something else. Because instead of being about loss the story is about new opportunity. About how change can seem like destruction when it might only be a clearing away of what is in the way of reaching your dreams. The sun loved its planets but without life on them it could not fulfill its dreams. And for all it hoped, it really didn't have a great chance of life just springing up. No, the direction the story takes is to show that the main character is giving the sun a chance to achieve its goal. Not consensually, which isn't cool, but the two do find a way forward, one that allows them both to reach for what they most want and do so together. A great way to close out the issue!

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