Friday, June 29, 2018

Quick Sips - Tor dot com June 2018

June brings three original stories to Tor dot com (two longer short stories and one short-ish novelette) that find some interesting ways of taking the unexpected and even a bit goofy and making it resonant, powerful, and subtle. Which I didn’t think I’d say about a detective chimp story, but here we are. The stories look at characters who feel on the outside looking in or on the inside trying to get out. For the first two pieces, the main characters aren’t human, and yet find themselves partnering with humans, navigating a human world, and trying to do their best to build community and connections. In the last story, a bit of the opposite happens, where a woman is trying to leave the traditional kind of humanity and leave the corporeal world behind. And whatever the case, these make for complex and rewarding pieces that I should just review already!

Art by Scott Bakal

“Meat And Salt And Sparks” by Rich Larson (7373 words)

No Spoilers: Cu is an uplifted chimpanzee who, after winning a personhood trial and being awards a hefty sum in damages, moonlights as a police detective. From what could have been a rather silly premise, though, the story delves into a story of murder and exploitation, difference and isolation. Cu’s story is not a happy one, being the only one of her kind and capable of knowing it. She’s partnered with Huxley, a much more standard police stereotype, but even his gruffness hides a good deal of subtle characterization. There’s humor, too, don’t get me wrong, but more than that the story seems to delve into the distance between Cu and those around her, even those who are supposed to be her friends. There’s an interesting exploration of what outsiders do in order to try and understand humanity, and overall there’s just a great sense of distance and sadness and hurt. That there are so many people who have been so harmed by humanity, and yet still have to make the choice between existing with and within humanity or not existing at all. It’s complex, wrenching, and just hopeful enough that it feels, well, uplifting rather than depressing.
Keywords: Murder, CW- Suicide, Chimpanzees, AI, Police, Detectives
Review: I’m a sucker for a good mystery, and detective chimps are basically my aesthetic. So it’s rather easy to like this story, especially when it hits its emotional cues so well. The character work is swift but powerful, setting up Cu as the tortured detective, Huxley as the gruff sidekick, and Baby as the inhuman villain. But then, I like how the story approaches humanity and inhumanity. Or perhaps non-humanity. Cu remarks early on that most humans are murderers, and I love that there is this outside perspective on humanity that’s willing to call out it’s shared heritage and collective culpability. It’s not like chimps as a whole are responsible for that much destruction, and Cu, as a victim of human experimentation, is in a great place to judge human hypocrisy. So, it turns out, is Baby, though where Cu strives to actually be better than humans, to not fall into the cycle of abuse and death, Baby has decided to cross that line. Perhaps as a way to get themself out, but still. The interactions between Cu and those around her reveal her complicated relationship with humans and with herself, who is result of pretty fucking evil experiments. The mystery itself is mostly satisfying, bringing up the idea of people seeing through other people’s eyes. Not quite pretending to be someone else, but almost. For Cu, it’s been a way to imagine what it might be like to be human. To _feel_ human. And yet being human isn’t really what Cu seems to want. It’s acceptance, and community, and fuck if that doesn’t ring true. Not as a human characteristic, but as something that we share with a great deal other beings. The desire to belong and be safe. It’s a poignant and powerful story that still manages to have a lot of fun, so definitely go check it out!

“Recoveries” by Susan Palwick (7955 words)

No Spoilers: Kat is a woman who grew up moving between foster families until she ended up in the same town as Vanessa, another girl with parents who believed they were abducted by aliens, and that they would be returning to the aliens at some point. That some point turned out to be on Vanessa’s eighteenth birthday, and it served to worsen Vanessa’s alcohol abuse, which even by that point had been interfering with her life. Kat, though, for all that she seems like the more put-together friend, is hiding something, and as the story moves it shows how difficult their respective destructive cravings can be, and how they come to rely on each other to get through the pain of what’s happened to them. The story is strange and full of the quiet slide into addiction and the first steps back from the edge. Both women are tired, and hurt, and lonely, and yet they find something in each other that allows them to keep going onward.
Keywords: Aliens, Friendship, CW- Alcohol Abuse, Support Groups, Cravings
Review: This story unfolds slow in my opinion, and I like how it takes its time peeling away layers of this situation, this relationship between Vanessa and Kat. They are both wounded people, hurt by a feeling of abandonment, of loneliness and isolation. And they medicate in different ways. For Vanessa, it’s alcohol that she turns to, that she craves to take her pain away. For Kat, in some ways it’s Vanessa and it’s stories. Or, perhaps, it’s empathy, where she can feel the pain of others and relate to it and in doing so can feel a little less bad about herself. The two friends depend on each other for a lot. Vanessa leans on Kat in order to keep her from doing something too bad. Kat is supposed to make up for the parents that are gone now and were never really around to begin with. And Kat leans on Vanessa in order to feel needed, in order to stay grounded and human. Because, well, Kat’s secret is that she’s an alien, stuck on earth after having been abandoned, and it seems to me that she wants to be around other people who have painful lives. Who aren’t popular and who struggle and who might give her more of a feeling of normalcy, because she can see her own hunger reflected in them, and by empathizing with them can suppress her urge to devour human flesh. Which is weird, but I love that darkness, that messiness. Neither of these characters really have it put together, and though Kat says a lot in order to try and convince Vanessa to truly give up drinking, I feel like she’s focused on denial in part because of guilt about what she did when she was an infant. If there’s one thing I would have wanted to see more explored, it was how Kat acknowledges that her relationship with Vanessa isn’t really good for either of them, and yet seeks here to protect it at all costs, putting it on Vanessa if Kat will literally eat people. But really it feels real, the sort of unfairness that develops with people over time. And in the end it’s a fascinating and fine read!

“The Need for Air” by Lettie Prell (6074 words)

No Spoilers: This is a complex and rather difficult story that centers parenting and consent, as viewed through the mother-son relationship between Lake and Jared. Lake is a mother who has lost her husband to a younger man and who is drawn to Sequester, a virtual world where people can be uploaded and leave the physical world behind, essentially becoming immortal. It’s what she wants to her disabled son, too, who has prosthetic limbs thanks to a disease when he was young. Jared, though, is drawn back to the physical world, creating a wedge between him and Lake, one that widens as their position within Sequester is threatened by their actions. Ultimately for me it’s a story that’s difficult to categorize in terms of mood. It’s heavy, with a certain amount of sadness, though I haven’t quite made up my mind about if the ending is a tragedy or a triumph. The truth, most likely, is a mix of both.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Uploaded Consciousness, Parenting, Prosthetics, Emancipation, CW- Abuse
Review: This is a rather difficult read for me, in part because it portrays its characters in very real ways, which is to say with all of their flaws on full display. Lake is a woman very concerned about her son, about keeping tabs on him, about making sure that he’s getting ready to fit into this new life, but at the same time this really isn’t about what’s best for him. As a parent, Lake comes off as wounded by the departure of Jared’s father and protective of her son, but not viewing him as completely a person. He’s a child to her, and a disabled one, which means to her that he needs her to take more control. When, really, what he needs is to be listened to and respected, like all children. He has boundaries and desires and acts on them as he is able, which Lake interprets as misbehavior because she thinks she knows what’s best of him. And it’s a very complex situation because Lake seems to have clearly identified what she wants. She wants Sequester because she enjoys the work and the security and the control. And I at least find it hard to fault her for that. I can definitely fault her for violating the consent of her child, though, and abusing him to try and make him do something as large and permanent as upload into a virtual world where he would never die. And that’s what makes the story difficult, because I can see that Lake is pulled between her responsibility as a parent and her desires as a person. Which leads to the ending where she chooses to embrace the virtaul while Jared becomes emancipated and rejoins the physical world. For me, it’s an ending where everyone gets what they want, and while there is perhaps a sadness that it didn’t work out differently, in a way where she and Jared would have a better relationship, I actually see this ending as healthier for everyone. I’m just not sure if that reading holds up against the text, because of how that decision is often seen as a failure of a woman to mother. As a tragedy because the family is not preserved above all. But really I try to read this less as condemning Lake and more as acknowledging that parenting is difficult, and people should not have the authority to abuse their kids. And more than blame individuals when they should no longer be legal guardians, we should make sure that children are protected and treated well and listened to. But yeah, it’s not an easy read, though it is definitely worth spending some time with!


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