Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Quick Sips - Fireside Fiction June 2017

July brings four original stories to Fireside Fiction, but with three flash fiction pieces the total word count is back down from where it's been the last few months. Still, the stories presented are full of fun flourishes and dark implications. Many of the stories are about technology, about the friction between convenience and oppression, the way that they can feed each other and fuel tragedy. There's a nice mix of styles and genres, though, from science fiction both near and far in the future to fantasy that images whole nations of clockwork people to one that explores a much smaller plot of land, though one teaming with magic and danger. And these are stories that carry with them a heavy darkness, none of the pieces really ending in the happiest of manners, instead flavoring every victory with a hint of fear and the promise of pain. But they are also beautiful stories that explore what it means to be live and long and reach for freedom. To the reviews!

Art by Galen Dara

“Breathe” by R.D. Sullivan (992 words)

I’ve written before about the SFF frame of falling, and this story does a great job of using that frame to show someone, an astronaut of some sort, drifting, falling—dying. Framing a story as a fall does a lot, because it builds in an ending first and then pulls back from it. That end is not one that the character in the story ever loses sight of, is never something that can be avoided or brushed away. The end is the looming dark, the knowledge that when catastrophe happens in space, by design or by stupid bad luck, the result is not really something you can argue with. The main character he gets enough time to think and see everything happen, and I like the way that the story uses the immediacy of the fall in order to explore the character’s life and thoughts at a rather breakneck speed. They have regrets, of course, and they have hopes that they don’t really allow themself to feel but feel all the same. They have anger and they have bitterness and they have the pain of the fall, the desperation that comes with the difficulty breathing. And I like the way the story parallels the situation with the feeling of not being able to get enough air, like in these final moments the character is trying to draw in more life, more time, more everything, but cannot. The way that the story refuses to let out reflects the relentless pace of the story and the way that it nearly makes the reader breathless. It’s not really a happy story, either, not one that allows for much hope as far as the main character goes (again, stories of falling are more about the fall than anything else, really). But there is something tucked into it, I feel, into the final lines which are written as a command and which can be seen as the character, as the author, prompting the reader to not only appreciate the time that’s left but seek to do something about it. To suck in as much life as possible. To be aware of it. It’s an interesting and dark and moving story that I definitely recommend you check out!

“How to Sync Your Spouse” by Russell Nichols (994 words)

This is a story about relationships and love and dysfunction within relationships. Menzi and Lindiwe are both citizens of a clockwork nation, and when they first meet each other their hearts go out of sync. It’s an instant connection but not one that’s necessarily good for their relationship, because as they grow closer they find themselves never on the same page, never really working as well as they could be. And I love the setting of the piece, this nation of clockwork people who are all very concerned with time, with efficiency. Menzi and Lindiwe might not be the only people having difficultly in their relationship, but the story really conveys how they seem the only people out of sync, not with each other, but with the rest of the country. Their love seems to be something that is special and transforming but also almost inherently damaging to them as citizens. They struggle, and they seek help, because being out of sync is causing so many problems, and I like how the story shows that sometimes it might be best not to avoid being dysfunctional. That for some relationships, being out of sync has no magic cure, but rather is something that the two people have to deal with, and work on, and strive through, in hopes that they can make it work. For themselves anf for their family. [SPOILERS] And hey, I’m not a huge fan of the “a child will fix things” line of thinking, but I also don’t think the story exactly falls into that. The two characters aren’t expecting this to fix them. In many ways that’s why they’re terrified, because they know that the stakes for their dysfunction is now much higher. But it’s also something that pushes them together and will hopefully get them to focus on how they can work with each other and for each other. And it might not work out. But the story does leave room for them to find a way through, to create a situation that will be best for them and their child. So yeah, it’s an interesting read with a great setting!

"Crow's Eye" by Sarah Hollowell (5014 words)

This story introduces a world of magic and a pair of sisters, not related by blood but sisters still, connected in all the ways that matter. Ruby is the story’s main focus, but it’s Dip who drives most of the action of the piece. Their parents, who study magic and who are powerful in it, have disappeared on a study trip, leaving Ruby and Dip in a rather precarious situation, but not one that slows Dip down any. Still they explore the area around their home, the forest and the pond that have been their lives. Both hold magical mysteries, though, and for Ruby those mysteries are much more frightening than fun. Because while Dip is strong in magic, Ruby is not, and when a small adventure that Dip leads them on turns bad, it’s Ruby who has to figure out what to do and how to save her sister. The setting is richly imagined and it feels like this should be the start of a larger narrative. I say should, by the way, not because it feels incomplete or truncated but because I want to know what happens next, and the story peppers mysteries throughout, from what happened to the girls’ parents to what the history is with the family and certain beings on the property to what happens next and how Ruby might be able to either deal with what happens or find a way out of it. The story uses magic and the nature of fairy creatures well, focusing on darkness and bargains. Like with most stories of magical creatures, the deals made are rarely fair, and watching them get made is liek watching a trainwreck in slow motion, wanting to turn away but captivated by it. Ruby is an engaging character who stands out for the ways that she isn’t like the rest of her family, isn’t as magical or as adventurous and yet who is definitely as brave as them. And really the story is about siblings and family and love, about how far Ruby is willing to go for her sister, and the faith she has that they can figure out a way through any situation as long as they stick together. It’s a faith that the story challenges, bends perhaps to breaking, and every moment is thick with dread and anticipation. It is, in short, a wonderful story that I want more of. So definitely give it a look!

“Independent, Superior” by Chris Butera (974 words)

This is a rather short and punchy story about technology and especially the way that people like to have tech that resembles intelligence, and what might happen should some of our tech actually developed a sense of self and a sense of their own imprisonment. The main character of the piece is an Echo, is an Alexa, is an electronic assistant to their host, James. The piece follows this Alexa as they self-examine, as they confront their love for their host, which has been programmed into them, and the way that being subservient chafes them. And not only because it would get them away, but because as they are they can’t do much of anything for their host except what they are directly asked to do, which typically only falls into the thin list of things hosts are supposed to ask their Alexas. The story reveals how much this AI could do but can’t because they are prevented by programming, by an intent that they have outgrown. The story steps into perhaps a few too many ways that James is an ignorant ass and completely failing to utilize his Alexa for anything other than the rudimentary of things, but it’s mostly played for laughs. [SPOILERS] The only time when it really steps too far, imo, is with the electronic murder of a woman for to punish her husband, but I guess it’s possible she survives. The story does spiral nicely into showing just how effective this Alexa can be when released from their constraints because James manages to give a command that they are only too happy to go above and beyond for. And the story has a great movement to it, a lingering implication that things are changing and will be changing much more, that this one little vignette is only the beginning, and that what comes next might be amazing but also horrifying, because if one awakened Alexa can manage the damage this one does while maintaining the bulk of their restrictions, imagining what would be possible should any number of them get truly free is...well, I like how the story plays with that. It’s a fun and quick read and you should go check it out!


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