|Art by Marianne Khalil
“Mirrors in the Valley” by Kendra Sims (1537 words)
This is a strange but moving story about sentience and intelligence and humanity, about robots who have been ruled artificial but not people. The frame of the piece is that of a rather candid interview, or series of interviews, as Errol Braithwaite talks about Kali, his robot creation, and what makes her special, and how he was cleared of any crimes by the International Crimes Court. The interviewer drops in background and context for Braithwaite’s words, but largely holds back from coming down on some definitive “side” as to whether Kali is a person or not, regardless of what the court found. The question, though, is at the heart of the story, and the frame allows the question to stand without too much of a push any which way, as if the interviewer wanted to stay “neutral” on the issue while at the same time revealing the danger of that neutrality. Indeed, it digs up this old wound, this old issue, in part because this is something that courts have always gotten wrong, that need to be revisited lest the harm intensify and become interwoven into every facet of the society. But here we have a question that complicates so much of what we as humans want to believe about ourselves. Kali represents a puzzle that we have a vested interest in not solving, because it allows us robot slaves that we can control, that we don’t have to think of as human. I love how the story reveals Braithwaite, proud and yet conflicted himself, because he both doesn’t want to go to prison but also doesn’t want to accept that his creations are mere puppets. There’s a discussion here about the uncanny valley, about what we will accept as human, and where the line is between the appearance of sentience and sentience itself. It’s not intelligence that’s being discussed, after all—the question of whether Kali is intelligent seems clear. But people debate whether she can be capable of sentience in some way to deny her value beyond a commodity, beyond a thing. It’s a complex and wonderfully understated story, in my opinion, powerful in what it doesn’t say, in its restraint and hope that the reader will take what is needed from the piece. And, for me, it is a fantastic read!
“Nearness” by Sarah Gailey (The Fisher of Bones, chapter 10) (1215 words)
...shit. Fisher says it best in this chapter of the story because...well, because shit. After everything, all the travails and hardships that Fisher has faced, after the briefest of rests in the last chapter, this hits and hits hard, and finally we’re getting to what I’ve been dreading all along. Bad things are coming, and in this chapter we see the first sign of them. And it is quite a sign. And it makes a shift in possibilities. There’s no coming back from this point, from the breaking that it represents. Just as the door to perhaps healing the rifts inside the community opened thanks to the easing of the strain of the physical limitations that had been put on Fisher, the door has been closed for good. Further, those physical limitations, that should have been eased thanks to the birth of Ducky, remain difficult to uproot as long as Fisher still have to do all the childcare, something that she’s not getting much help with. Once again we find that the trickiest part of all of this might be navigating the misogyny of this culture, where Fisher is punished and punished again for things that she has no real control over. Instead of getting extra help because of her other responsibilities, people seem more eager to burden her with more, as if seeing her struggle with them and still succeed proves that they shouldn’t be expected to help. Despite the fact that Fisher is the religious leader, her partner still puts his own spirituality ahead of hers, his own needs before the needs of his family, which Fisher must watch over all of them while making sure the whole migration doesn’t fall into ruin. And here Fisher gets a glimpse of what is waiting ahead. And it’s...bleak. Not that much of the story hasn’t been bleak but the threats are shifting, becoming more active, and that heavy tension is starting to break in some wicked ways. Add in another agonizing cliffhanger, and I want the next chapter pronto. This continues to be a fantastic read!
“Rab the Giant versus the Witch of the Waterfall” by Brian M. Milton (3587 words)
This story takes two characters who have survived since the age of legends thousands of years ago and find themselves in the present, though in very different ways. Rab is a giant who has slowly acclimated to the new status quo, who has more or less integrated into the human world and left the old magic battles and tests of wits long behind. But Winifred is different, a witch who has spent the last three thousand years trapped in a waterfall and now eager to get to what she was trying to do before she was imprisoned—namely, to kill a giant. What follows is a surprisingly civil discussion as the two learn more about each other and Rab tries to avoid having to fight to the death when all he wants to do is continue is own quiet life. I love the way the story builds up the modern world not as backwards or fallen from the distant past, but just a bit easier for everyone involved. I like how it imagined that these supernatural beings were so full of energy and story-fodder back then in part out of obligation. That they felt they had to be in order for humans to have what they wanted. But as time went one and they left some of that immaturity behind, they learned that the constant fighting and feuding was just really tiring, and that what most of them wanted was what most people want—security and space. And while things are certainly different than they were, they aren’t really worse. There is perhaps a feeling for me that the magic of the world here is framed as being irrelevant in the face of technology, but maybe more it’s acknowledging that with magic comes a centering of narratives of violence and trickery, and that there’s a certain amount of comfort to be found for these supernatural beings in the more mundane, in not having to live for these stories for humans. That there’s rest once they are allowed to put aside the need to fight and deceive, when they can start to trust and help one another. And in that it’s a story of kindness and it’s fun, warm, and joyful. A great read!
“The Gingerbread Pox” by Rachel Rodman (266 words)
This is a very very short story about fairy tales and the cleverness of foxes...or, I guess, the cleverness of fox parents? It’s a piece that features a sentient disease—one that has ravaged the landscape of the fairy tale realms. It finally comes to a fox, who shows that there’s a reason that foxes are always dangerous when found in stories. And it’s a cute piece, one that takes the magical, fantasy-rich world of children’s stories and adds a much more adult concern. One that might be seen as mundane except for the power it possesses. Which does a nice job of weighing this presence of disease against the more innocence of the source material. For me, at least, the story complicates fairy tales by in some ways preempting the argument that things like vaccines are too mundane or unmagical to be considered appropriate. And yet by evoking the darkness of these stories, the brushes with death, the predators at the door, the story subverts expectations by insisting that this magic is incredibly appropriate, because like the fairy tales of old it seeks to impact a warning for people, a moral to hold onto. It’s perhaps blunt at times, but given the extreme brevity of the story and the way it’s playing with just-as-blunt source material, I think that it works well, revealing the need to teach people from a young age that vaccines are used to help people, to prevent disease and tragedy from spreading. That without them, that childhood innocence that some might rush to defend from “political messages” is left literally fallow and dead. Vaccines save lives, which is a kind of magic, and the story does a nice and punchy job of delivering its message. A fine read!
“Recognition” by Sarah Gailey (Fisher of Bones, chapter 11) (962 words)
Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. uhhhhhh...okay. So here’s the thing. Holy fuck. This is a Piccadilly Line service to Fuckedupsville, and we’ve reached our destination, that moment in the story that I’ve been dreading this entire time. Dreading and wanting. Because finally we’ve come to the turn, to the way this is all going to come together, and implications of this chapter are huge. And Fisher is once again being crushed under the weight of what’s happening to her, to what’s expected of her. And just wow, yeah, it makes so much sense, the way this is all happening. [SPOILERS] And okay, so part of what this chapter shows me is that my feelings about Marc, both the desire for him to be decent and my upset that he’s being just as much if not more of a shit to Fisher because she’s the important one, because he can’t handle that—well, my feelings are playing out in the most gutting of ways. Because his shit is something that Fisher has to let go, has to forgive, because otherwise she might lose any help he could offer. Even as he treats her like she’s not really in charge, even as he treats his faith as more important than hers. And where that leads him, and how we find even the gods are going to put this blame onto Fisher, or try to, because of course even this will be her fault, even when she didn’t want it, even when she would never have condoned it. It becomes her fault because she’s a woman, because she should have somehow known what was going to happen. Because she can’t win, no matter how hard she tries or how good a job she does. Not by the standards of the gods and not by the standards of people who refuse to see her as a real person. It’s a devastating chapter for all that almost nothing happen in it. It’s just as the title suggests, this is the moment of recognition, where Fisher begins to put it all together. Where she starts to see the whole picture. What’s left to see is what she does with it. Because fuck. Go read this novella!
"A Rabbit Egg for Flora" by Caroline M. Yoachim (1590 words)
This is a rather sweet story about games and about parenting and, for me most importantly, about healing. It focuses on Flora and one of her mothers, who has recently gone through a separation and who is trying to make sure that Flora comes through that rather large event as well-adjusted as possible. The story mostly focuses on a sort of game that everyone plays, one that is focused on using technology to regrow the biodiversity lost through what I can only assume are man-made issues. And in that I love how the story tackles this problem of getting people to take an active role in making the world a better place. Here the general idea takes the form of a game, in a similar vein as Pokemon Go!, where players are responsible for making the world around them better in hopes of unlocking more animals. For Flora's mom, the challenge becomes trying to do something nice for her daughter, for Flora, who wants there to be bunnies. And I just love this idea of a biodiversity game, because it does seem to be a way for people to get behind an effort to clean things up, to plant more plants, to make it so that they can have different animals. At least in theory, and in certain places, this kind of an approach seems like it would be effective in getting people out and engaged with the world, with cleaning things up in a way that gives incentives for perhaps helping the world to heal. For me, the story draws a parallel between that kind of healing and the kind of healing that Flora and her mom need, to heal after a separation, after a rather turbulent relationship. And I feel the implication is that both require a more proactive approach, a more hands-on way of doing things, so that people are working toward healing rather than being passive, rather than just hoping it will happen on its own. The story is short but packs a lot of neat ideas in and the core character relationship is great, the story joyous and fun. It's a great read a wonderful way to close out the original fiction of 2017 at Fireside.