|Art by Reiko Murakami|
“The Independence Patch” by Bryan Camp (7480 words)
No Spoilers: Donny is Integrated, a cyborg whose mind is part robotic, can connect with the internet and apps and do it all with the speed of thought. The piece opens with Donny in high school, getting in trouble for using his connection when he’s not supposed to. But as it moves the story builds a fuller picture of his life and what his Integration means to him and how the Independence Patch, which will grant him emancipation from a lot of restrictions once he turns eighteen, might change his life. Quiet but full of small moments humanity, the piece looks at how different Donny might seem from non-Integrated people, but ultimately just how little certain technological advancements can seem in the face of regular human emotions. A touching and heartfelt read.
Keywords: Cyborgs, Growing Up, School, Parents, Control, Freedom
Review: It’s a fascinating situation the story builds, a young man dealing with parental and governmental oversight because of who he is, able to limit him from his full capability and track his every movement because of what people can learn from him. At the same time, I feel like the main focus of the story is how much Donny is put into a position where he imagines that this moment of becoming an adult, of getting the Independence Patch, will mean much more than it is. Not that it isn’t a large moment, and not that Donny’s life isn’t rather negatively impacted by being restricted. But that in some ways this is the dilemma that all people face, given that children are considered basically property until they reach eighteen. For Donny, though, with his brain and the freedom he’d have to finally alter how he perceives and interacts with the world, it’s a bit more complicated. Because he feels more acutely the impact that restrictions have on him, because the freedom to alter things about his brain at will is, well, a huge thing. In some ways, though, it’s too big to really grasp all at once, isn’t instantly transformative because the things that he can’t change are more immediate, are more pervasive. That the things he would want to change (feeling bad about a recent breakup, or feeling afraid or guilty about disappointing his parents, or any number of other things), he can’t. And I like how the story brings all of this to him, how it seems to capture the feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood and finding out that it might not always be the largest thing. For Donny, at least, who’s pretty secure and who has a loving family, it’s not quite The Thing he was expecting. And it’s a quiet examination of that, nicely told and well worth checking out!
“Cosmic Spring” by Ken Liu (2320 words)
No Spoilers: An unnamed being, born from the collected stories and memories of humanity, flies through the last remnants of a dying universe. Sparse and cold, the story brings a warmth from a trickle of memories, evoking a collection of people leaning over a dwindling fire telling stories in the face of a dawn that they will not live to see. Beautifully understated, the story for me refuses to be bleak, finding hope and brightness even at the end of all things.
Keywords: End of the Universe, Extinction, Stories, Memories, AI
Review: I really like the way that the story frames itself with the opening quote, which is about cycles and in particular a cyclic model of the universe, where there is no beginning nor end of time. Because the story I feel both embraces this idea and in some ways rejects part of it, specifically the idea that the initial conditions don’t matter, that the past in effect doesn’t matter. Because while the story reveals a universe that is on its last legs, about to perhaps be reborn into something new and wondrous, it still takes a moment to hope too that not everything is lost, that even in this cycle, maybe there is also a slight progression, things carrying forward and forward, building on what has come before, on the beauty and the wonder that exists here, now, in humanity and what could exist beyond in the wide reaches of the universe. And I love the way the story unfolds, a traveler using Earth itself as a ship that can sail through space, looking for the last vestiges of warmth and finding it, and finding it full of other travelers who have come to celebrate their own journeys at the end of the universe. And there’s something that’s just so joyous and hopeful about finding in the end a new beginning, one that still might carry a trace of the past, of what we as people have managed to create that was beautiful and inspiring and, well, human. It’s a lovely tale with a amazing scope and voice and you should definitely check this one out! Go read it!
“Al-Kahf” by Beesan Odeh (3010 words)
No Spoilers: Talub is a member of an underwater people whose music is rumored to have healing properties. As such, they are sought by humans, and disappearances among them isn’t incredibly rare. Perhaps it’s to be expected, then, that Talub’s life is touched by loss and people seeking to exploit him. At turns poetic and brutal, the story moves by with the weight of a fairy tale hauled into more modern times, in and around Gaza and the people trying to live there. Certainly not an easy read, and tipping a bit over into horror, it’s a haunting and deep exploration of grief, desperation, and revenge.
Keywords: Underwater, Music, Sickness, Desperation, Revenge
Review: I think part of what I love about this story is that so much of it is based on this idea that humans have that Talub’s people are magical, that their music has healing properties. It’s something that sounds like a myth, and yet Talub’s people themselves seem like myths, so perhaps it seems more likely that they must be magic, because they exist at all. Only the magic of their songs seems to me entirely about the way that they share it freely with each other. There doesn’t seem to be much supernatural about it, except that they need their music to live, just like the water they breathe. So when Talub’s friend is taken, and then Talub himself, I like that it’s all because of this human insistence that they must be magic, that they must have the ability to heal, which might not actually be the case. If it is, it shows how the first impulse of those living in situations of desperation is not to risk asking. Is not to risk being told no. So humans take, and for me the story becomes about cycles of pain. These are people who could presumably help each other. Who could at least come together as people in the spirit of exchange and respect. Instead they come together in violence, in coersion, and people suffer from it. And fuck is this a dark story, where Talub doesn’t just trick the humans into something bad, he tricks them into about the worse kind of loss someone can experience. And yet it doesn’t make them even. Talub does his worst, but he’s already suffered a worse fate, because his loss was compounded by imprisonment and a kind of torture. So yeah, it’s a complex and absolutely wrecking story, and one with a sharp bite to it. The ending is just wicked and brutal and yet for all that there’s still a wonderful poetry to it, which makes for a great read!
“You Do Nothing But Freefall” by Cassandra Khaw and A. Maus (3300 words)
No Spoilers: A fox finds a maneki-neko while on the run from a pack of dogs and hunters. Befriending her, the two steal away and start a series of adventures, drawing farther and farther first from their homeland, and then each other. The piece is vivid and moving, revealing friendship and magic, challenge and cleverness. It’s a story about closeness, but not necessarily about romance, about the platonic relationship between the fox and cat, united in their magical natures and in their thirst for adventure. Hopeful, bright, and charming.
Keywords: Foxes, Cats, Disguises, Transformations, Adventure, Friendship
Review: This is such a fun story that thrives for me on the strength of its two main characters. The fox (who becomes Sean) has a tendency to dominate a bit with his charisma and his bravado, with his fox-cleverness and eagerness to impress and beguile. For all that his personality centers most of the story, though, Neko is just as complex, just as captivating. Quieter, yes, but sharp and opinionated and perceptive. The two go well together, their friendship not really encumbered by a romantic tension. Instead, their relationship is one where they can both celebrate the other’s happiness, where they enjoy each other’s company without being overly possessive or jealous. Which is wonderfully refreshing to see. It also has an infectious spirit of adventure to it, this way of viewing the world, the universe, as a series of novelties and games. It fits so well with both the fox and cat, and it’s something which I am a total sucker for. Give me a good adventure story and I can rise and fly along with it, feeling that surge of excitement that’s not spiteful or arrogant, but rather expresses this great desire to experience what life can offer. For the fox and neko, the story extends this as far as it can and beyond, giving them a chance to continue their adventures into whatever future they can find together. Which is sweet and inspiring and just a damn fine read. So good!