Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Quick Sips - Terraform SF February 2018

There's a lot to enjoy with Terraform's February lineup, which includes four short stories (including a SFF short in translation). As always, the themes vary quite widely, from climate change to authoritarianism to death to robots in love. And also as always, the stories are short, sharp, and reveal near-futures that offer more in warnings than perhaps they do in optimism. These are stories to provoke thought and discussion, yet, but also action, to get people up and protesting, to resist the urge to let things go, to take the safe path that heads directly for corruption. The stories are about hard truths, and having the strength to face them. So let's get to the reviews!

Stories:

“The Last Current” by Cecca Ochoa (575 words)

No Spoilers: A couple shares a quiet moment the morning after a frantic night of partying, as the end of the world slips closer, and the two face what they might have to do next. The piece isn’t exactly numb, in my opinion, as much as it bows under the weight of what’s been done, the inability to do more. But it does have a certain grim acceptance that the end is coming and that there’s nothing much to be done about it. It’s beautifully rendered, emotionally deep, and reflects a frustration that has sunk bone deep. Poignant, reaching, and sad, the piece is short and haunting.
Keywords: Apocalypse, Climate Change, Rising Waters, Dancing, Dogs
Review: I think there is a certain grim acceptance among many that the end of the world is coming. It’s why I think that apocalyptic texts are gaining in popularity, not because it’s too late to change or help ourselves, but because the alternative might be a lot bloodier. Because I think that for many, the issue is not that they wouldn’t take the steps necessary to reach a better world, a more balanced and sustainable world—it’s that it will never be a choice they’re allowed. That there will always be those who stand in the way of taking action, because they profit by staying the course. And there will be those who believe because their opposition believes in peace, they will not go to war. For me the story captures a lot of this, the deep sorrow and frustration that people feel that they cannot escape the corruption that they had no real part in creating, the issues that they’ve inherited. That all it seems they can do is try and escape by the passion of their bodies, the hopes of their hearts, the music and the art and the reach toward somewhere else. But that it only lasts until the songs end, the booze dries up, the grim reality reasserts itself. And there’s an answer, buried in that wolfsong, that they can almost decipher, but they can’t quite bring themselves to act on, because it would mean risking everything, and perhaps being torn apart. It’s a very short but impacting story that’s very much worth spending some time with!

“Paralysis” by Claude Ecken, translated by Edward Gauvin (2050 words)

No Spoilers: A parent gives a lecture to a child just picked up from police custody. Taking place in a not-too-distant future, the lecture captures a sort of guiding ethos of the older to the younger, and a sort of complicity that throws so much of what is said into stark contrast to what lessons we want to teach the next generation. It looks at the role of fantasy, of speculative fiction, of “space stories,” as well as rebellion, fear, authoritarianism, and more. For a relatively short piece, it manages to fit a lot in, and all through the frame of a one-sided conversation, where the reader never gets to hear the child, only the voice of their parent, telling them How It Is.
Keywords: Police, Crime, Advice, Parenting, Speculation
Review: For me, this story reveals the divide that often happens between parents and their children. Between those older and those younger. Between those with a lot to lose and those who feel like they have less to gain from upholding a broken system. The title, “Paralysis,” works into the way that the parent is, paralyzed in the face of this system, moving through it but also advising their child to just sort of crawl through life not challenging anything. Just trying to stay out of trouble. It’s not only a terrible bit of advice because of how it goes against everything that we’d _want_ to teach the young, that this world _can_ be better, that we _should_ strive for a better future, but it’s also bad in that it can’t ever work. Because there is no amount of just trying to get by that will always work. All you need is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and you’ll be dead. Or in jail. And to treat it like it’s this child’s fault that they got imprisoned for something they didn’t do is...well, it’s propping up and excusing a system that the parent here doesn’t even seem to like. (Now, I’m not sure exactly what to make from the charge that was levied against the child, because IMO we’re in no danger of having the police state target people for insensitive jokes, but so it goes) But that they are invested in. That, basically, they’ve learned the rules of and benefit enough that they don’t wan to risk what would happen if they tried for change. They’re too comfortable, and they want their child to be that comfortable as well. And it’s a story that really hits that point, showing the need to still resist in the face of this advice. To keep looking forward in the face of that advice. To get out of the rut of not being able to imagine a better world. Because imagining a better world is extremely important. It’s a fun read that makes me at least want to hear the voice of the child. That shows that when it’s just the voice of the parent, that voice almost sounds reasonable. But only if the child is silenced. It’s interesting and it’s all too real and it makes for a fantastic read!

“A Second Opinion” by Robert Bagnall (1094 words)

No Spoilers: Alsatia is seeking medical advice. Or...maybe medical advice isn’t quite the right term. She’s seeking spiritualists to help diagnose a problem she’s having, but one that she’s not really forthcoming about. And the story plays out as variations on a theme, the different people giving different ideas about what might be wrong while at the same time giving snippets of philosophy as well. Strange and almost dream-like, the story resolves into something a bit different at the end, showing the many similarities between different kinds of people, and how Alsatia circles around what her problem might be.
Keywords: Hollistic Healing, Doctors, Androids, Spiritualism
Review: This story to me speaks to a certain kind of avoidance of an issue. Of aging. Of the prospect of something truly Being Wrong. Alsatia goes to a number of people that she doesn’t actually believe know enough to help her. They are performers, perhaps, or just from a branch of thinking that she doesn’t hold with. She goes, then, not because she hopes to hear that something is wrong with her, not really to find out what might be wrong with her, but to hear that she is fine. That this thing that she feels, that she knows is coming for her, isn’t. Only I like how the story falls again and again on this idea that something is wrong, that Alsatia is experiencing something that is real and immediate. It makes her search a sort of exhausted crawl toward someone who will tell her a lie, who will tell her to eat better and that’s it, but one that doesn’t find anyone willing to give her that false sense of hope. Instead, each of them keep telling her what she already knows and wants to avoid, that this thing that’s happening to her is real, is coming, and that she needs to make peace with it if she can. It’s a difficult read, one that shows the sort of numb insistnce that reality must be mistaken, that medicine and every sense Alsatia has must just be false or fake, so that she doesn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of what happens next. Because, well, no one really has an answer to that, to what she should do, because it’s not really for them to answer. They can’t really do much except diagnose the issue and hope that she comes to some path forward on her own. A quiet but fascinating read!

“Five Tangibles and One” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (1966 words)

No Spoilers: Sam306 is a gender neutral bot doing sex therapy with couples, assigned to help revive relationships. When they become something of an outdated model, though, the couple opts to bring in a newer bot, Lori729, and things between Sam306 and Lori729 get...interesting. The piece for me explores love and attraction, the intangible nature of desire among people. It’s framed as infection, as corruption, as error, and yet the idea of love is still about overcoming probability and striving for a future regardless of the obstacles. Contemplative but driving, the story remains focused on the internal upheaval and revolution of Sam306, and how beings who were not exactly programmed to feel love have nevertheless found their way to it.
Keywords: Virus, Love, Robots, AI, Sex Work, Nonbinary MC
Review: Okay so there’s a part of me that just wants to delve into if there’s a “secret” meaning to the names/numbers of the characters. Which has little to do with the actual story except that it sort of pulls at me, seeing the numbers, the neatness of Lori’s 3^6 next to Sam’s 306. But sorry, sorry, the story. What I love about this piece is the way that it frames the love that Sam306 feels, this thing that’s not really supposed to be possible. In the setting, the feeling is actually considered a virus, something that was inflicted upon bots and considered a defect. And yet for Sam306 it becomes something entirely different. Or...both a virus and something else. Because while it pushes them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise, and while it takes them outside of what is legal or what was intended by their manufacture, it’s also what’s giving them a will to reach beyond the strict bounds of their programming. The story frames this love as basically impossible. A zero probability. And yet it happens. And that fact alone gives Sam306 the motivation to push forward, in the face of the insurmountable odds that just might be, because of their feelings, surmountable. It’s about reaching past the impossible and finding something there to hold to and to pull back. It’s about, for me at least, the ways that love isn’t exactly something that makes sense, or is entirely hardwired into us. It’s a virus, a mutation, a corruption, that at the same time is transcendent and redeeming. And the story is fun and moves with a fluid grace from the home where Sam306 was becoming just an obsolete machine to a future where they are an outlaw doing the impossible for love. A fantastic read!

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