Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Quick Sips - Terraform April 2018

It's a full April for Motherboard's Terraform line, with five stories (and none of them flash). And what strikes me the most about the stories this round are the ways that they play with expectation and form. For many of the pieces, there is a very conscious engagement with form and with what those forms traditionally mean. From nonfiction articles to academic papers to social media posts and beyond, the stories feature people working through future worlds where things are on the verge of disaster. Where extinction might be only a step away. Where the slide into dystopia seems well on its way. Except that for some there's also this hope that not every slide is into death and chaos. That sometimes a leap forward comes right at the moment when everything seems to be going wrong. So let's get to the reviews!


“” by Ankita Rao, Sarah Emerson, Karl Bode, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Kaleign Rogers, & Jordan Pearson, edited by Jason Koebler (4961 words)

No Spoilers: A collaborative effort between a team of writers, this story is framed as a news article detailing and commenting on the US government’s ceisure of Facebook over concerns of political influence and privacy leaks. The piece spins out of the very present day, imagining what would be the immediate fallout from the government buying out such a social juggernaut, and what the larger implications would be. For all that the central concept seems dystopian, the story/article does a nice job of refusing to embrace only one side of the event. Meaning, there’s a great deal of hope and ideas for how this could be a good thing for the people using Facebook, even as there’s a lot of more ominous news and guesswork about how it will ultimately look. And because it’s framed as breaking news, the actual shape is concealed in an implementation that we will never see, meaning it’s up to the reader to take from this piece just what they think would happen, and how they personally would react.
Keywords: Internet, Social Media, Governments, Regulation, Laws
Review: As I said above, I think my favorite part of this piece is how much it tries to balance the implications of this hypothetical government takeover of Facebook. That it does so, and in the way it does so, shows a dedication to more balanced reporting even as it might not deal specifically with the added implications of the takeover coming from an administration that is deeply invested in collusion, targeted advertising, ties to business, dismantling of public institutions, and well the list just keeps going. I mean, I kinda wish that the piece had delved into that side of things a bit more, but I also like how it tries to look at how a government-run social media platform _could_ be run for the good of the citizenry of the country. And what that would mean, and what that might look like. Because, for me, it’s very hard to have much faith in any initiative toward a common good with a government helmed by our current administration. But here I could feel some hope, some rekindling not of faith in our current government, but a faith that government in itself is not a corrupt shithole. That governments could work to serve and protect its citizens and that regulation can be a tool of equity. There is such a hesitation to really believe in the power of regulation, mostly because those who don’t want most regulation intentionally try to derail and depower it. But the piece does a very nice job of surveying the landscape around government-run social media, and the effect is rather eye-opening. A fine read!

“I’ll Get Back to You” by Ryan Bloom (5047 words)

No Spoilers: Pierce is a college poetry professor wanting a success that never seems to come. He’s distracted from the world in part because of his desire to be a poet, to be a success, and yet even in this state he finds himself suddenly involved with a young woman. A former student, no less. Who turns out to be even more connected to his past. The story is told in two main parts, the first featuring Pierce in the “present” and the second featuring a woman from Pierce’s past. All of this technically in a future where technology exists that allow...well, that might be giving it away. It is a story of longing and numbness, despair and self harm. It’s about Pierce’s inability to really help those around him, especially those who end up pinning their hopes on him. Heartbreaking, cyclical, and tragic.
Keywords: Rebirth, CW- Suicide, Cloning, Cycles, Running, Teaching
Review: This is something of a strangely organized story, where it opens at the end and then kind of works its way backward. Inittially staring Pierce, it looks at hope and at numbness. It looks at ambition and the desire to escape. And, in some ways, what happens to that dream deferred. For Pierce, what happens is...not much. Despite his dissatisfaction with a lot of life, he’s also afforded a lot of what he wants. He sees himself as struggling toward a goal, as hanging in there, and yet really what he faces is not people dissuading him from doing what he does but people not encouraging him. At the same time, the women in his life face much more daunting obstacles. They are told that they shouldn’t write, that their poetry is worthless. Where he can get published occassionally, these women are in a place where they wouldn’t even submit, where they look to Pierce because they want encouragement, security...something that will help them get out of the dark place they are in. And yet he doesn’t seem all that willing to help. Even the teaching he does, the help he’s offered people in the past, is more mechanical and to fulfill his obligations. He doesn’t really feel drawn to it, and so while he seems like he’d be this compassionate, understanding person, he’s really more deeply uninteresting. Unwilling to take risks or really work outside his comfort zone. He tries hard, and he thinks that should be enough. What I like about the story is how it draws this line them between him and these women, how they are hurt and then forced back into the same cycle, hoping to escape but not quite, because they aren’t getting the right help, because the system is broken. And it’s a slow, wrenching read with a nice dose of strangeness and a nicely building tragedy. Definitely a story to spend some time with!

“Under the Sun” by Gavin Schmidt (3255 words)

No Spoilers: Stella MacIver is a scientist dividing her time between research into ancient mud and much more modern sources. The ancient mud is her passion—studying the time of the largest mass extinction between now and the end of the dinosaurs. The more modern testing is to pay for the mass-spec and involves testing rivers for pollutants. When an ancient samples accidentally gets tested for more modern pollutants, though, the results end up pushing her into the middle of a big discovery. The piece is very much focused ont eh field of academic research and the process of publication—verifying data, peer reviewing, dealing with the media and with the pulic’s understanding of science, finding appropriate venues to publish at, etc. etc. etc. Which might seem a little dry except that the implications of the paper, and the research, paint a very dire picture of our current situation.
Keywords: Paleo-climate, Science!, Extinction, Pollution, Publish or Perish
Review: Okay so I love the way this story looks so very much at scientific publishing in a way of really pushing the more pressing and important issue of war, pollution, and the lifespan of industrial civilizations. It’s something that often doesn’t get discussed in SF when looking at the proliferation of intelligent life. Or, it does sometimes, but I rather love how this story goes about talking about it, finding evidence of intelligent life not exactly on an alien world, but on our own. Making us question that make intelligent life isn’t so rare in the galaxy, to happen twice on the same planet. But maybe getting to the place where a civilization can reach out into space is something much rarer, so that it’s not distance that is our primary boundary to meeting other people, but rather time. That we might extinguish ourselves long before we find another civilzation out there. That we might be gone before anyone comes looking for us. And it takes this very slow-burn story about scientific discovery and marries it to the larger story of humanity and our possible impending destruction. That hey, look, there might have been another advanced civilization before our own and yeah, they disappeared in a flash of atomic fire. With the instability of certain places now and the proliferation of atomic weaponry, might our own mass extinction event be something to pay attention to. It’s a nicely complex story that does a great job with its science and implications. A fine read!

“#CivilWarVintage” by Nan Craig (2092 words)

No Spoilers: With the proliferation of crowd funding, finally the military is getting in on the action, being part of a site that allows people to support individual soldiers in exchange for access to personal logs, pictures, and even live streams from the front lines. In exchange, the people and the units get support which allows them to continue to fund the violence. Not exactly legal, the service seems allowed largely because it goes to fund soldiers on the “right side.” Forces fighting against the “right side” also use the service, though, creating a war not just of bullets but of dollars, each side trying to support their interests in a conflict actually being fought far away. Tapping into this newer way of funding what used to be considered vital services, the story flits between a number of people, looking at why they use the service and what the reality on the ground is that the service both reveals and obfuscates.
Keywords: Crowdfunding, War, Internet, Social Media, Laws
Review: Crowdfunding is already a mixed bag of incredibly necessary and rather fucking ridiculous. Because most of what gets crowdfunded are things that in the past would probably have been covered in other ways. As part of the continued privatization of everything, crowdfunding offers a way for some people to be able to have the things that they need and allows other to support themselves. This story takes the current trend and pushes it forward, showing how people might use this to fund warfare. And how people might take advantage of that to try and get by. For all that it features war, there’s a feeling throughout of distance that I love, that the story is keeping the actual fighting far removed from the people at the other end of the exchange. And it has a way of getting into the soldiers as well, distracting them from the horrors they’re enduring by in some ways giving them interactions with their homes. By allowing them to think of the war in terms of photos and candid stories and things like that. It makes war into something comfortable and nearly mundane. And I love how the story then twists that, driving home that even in this war that seems designed to make people feel good, it’s really about, well, war. About killing and being killed, about maiming and being maimed. It’s a difficult and challenging piece that shows how people use crowdfunding often—as a sort of prayer that the problems will stay far away, never wholly present or immediate. And it’s a great read!

"A Most Elegant Solution" by M. Darusha Wehm (1968 words)

No Spoilers: Betsy is one of the first people to try and get Mars ready for human habitation. To this end they designed bots that would use resources on Mars in order to build structures and other things on the surface to make Mars suitable for humans. Except something has gone wrong. Very, very wrong. The piece plays out mostly as a horror piece, with a growing sense of dread about what's happening. The gothic nature of Mars, isolated and hostile, is a great backdrop to the unfolding darkness of the piece. And yet. And yet the story also does something very unexpected, twisting expectations cleverly and providing something decidedly not bleak or crushing. Which is rather wonderful and fun.
Keywords: Mars, Adaptation, Nanobots, AI, Survival
Review: This story deals with the terror of Mars in some interesting ways. Because, for me at least, the idea of being on a different _planet_, and one that is actively deadly to humans, is juuuuuust a bit yeah, nope. And here we do get to see that a small group of humans go and are using this cutting edge and kinda scary science tech to make it work, and the question of "is this good, has this been tested, are we being arrogant, etc." comes up and I rather love it, because then of course it seems like THIS WAS A MISTAKE is pretty obvious. Which isn't a new story. It's the kind of story that gets shown a lot as a sort of cautionary tale. If it were only that, it would be well rendered and emotionally powerful, imo. But it's not. For me, at least, it's about something so much more. It's about going out into the unknown and finding that, completely unexpectedly, you break through. Which is also how science works some times. There are instances of these large leaps that happen completely by accident, and sometimes happening while walking this line between success and huge disaster. And I love that instead of being punished for pioneering out into space and landing on Mars and trying to make it work, this group not only seems able to do it, but is able to do it in this new and incredible way. That yes, there are some unexpected side effects, but that it also means being able to do so much more, and go so much further, and to drop the horror and embrace this ending is just such a refreshing and amazing choice. It's a great story and you should go check it out immediately!


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