Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Quick Sips - Terraform SF June 2018

It’s a substantial month of science fictional visions at Motherboard’s Terraform this June, with four pieces (including a novelette told in two parts). The visions of the future focus on transportation and violence. In many, people seek to navigate a world made deadly through corruption, through public and private institutions being twisted to the goals of a very few, not to make the world better but to maximize profits and avoid culpability. The stories are by and large grim and difficult, but offer some hope as well. Mainly, in saying that it might not be too late, that by tackling the issues the stories identify head on, the future could turn out brighter than this. Better. Whether or not that will happen, though, is squarely up to us. To the reviews!


“Flesh Moves” by Brendan C. Byrne & Adam Rothstein (13700 words)

No Spoilers: Following four different ops (truckers, basically) as they struggle against the crushing weight of their jobs and the ruined landscape around them, the story looks at what people will do to try and escape a terrible situation. Told in a strange, grungy style laced with drugs and desperation, the prose is brutal and bleak as the characters chase after the dream of finally getting out from under the debt and the shit that has piled up to keep them in their place, in their respective boxes, always riding the roads. And there’s this beautiful love/hate relationship that the story explores between the ops and their trucks, their Bigurls. A familiarity and a hatred. That the Bigurls are a symbol of freedom without any of the actual freedom. That the whole mess has them trapped, young and yet already worn down. Waiting for something good to happen when good might as well be Mars because you can’t get there in a truck. It’s just a rending and ugly look at a future where people are even more just meat to make the rich richer, expendable and in many instances more valuable dead.
Keywords: Trucks, Shipping, Gambling, CW- Violence, Drugs
Review: As I said before, there’s an ugliness to this story that is compelling. Everything is dirty and everyone is stoned or drunk or otherwise out of their minds on drugs, struggling against the weight of being on their own on the road constantly, not being able to sleep, not being able to really keep a hold on reality because box time isn’t real time. But there’s a plan. A plan to make a lot of money. And I just love that the story explores how doomed this plan is, how it fails even before it begins because it assumes that there’s even a way for them to win. That there must be a mechanism to win. But the truth is that they don’t know the rules and certainly don’t have access to how things really work. It’s a story of things going from bad to worse all because these people wanted better and in this situation the greatest sin is reaching up for more. They are put down, but more than that they put themselves down, the group slowly cannibalizing each other, turning on each other, until there’s nothing left. There’s a haze of drugs to everything but it seems to me because humans aren’t meant to do what these people do. Be aware for that long. Be on the road for that long. It’s literally breaks their minds long before they’re old, and in an attempt to escape that they fall into the meat grinder of the system. Of capitalism. Of money. And it’s a bleak story but it’s well told and just devastating. So yeah, definitely make time for this story!

“The Worst Commute” by Aaron Gordon (1221 words)

No Spoilers: public transportation has been privatized in this story, which imagines what happens when the New York subway starts to look like wearing late-capitalism sensibilities. It finds the public divided into two different categories, Common Customers and Subscribers. In this system, to be a Subscriber is to be protected, to be valued, and to be a Common Customer is to be subject always to the prospect of the penalties for violating the terms of service. The piece does a great job looking at how public institutions and ideals can be eroded by the prospect of profit. With the shiny idea of slimmer budgets and lower taxes, people don’t realize that the actual costs will be much higher in these situations, and even if they do see it, they might not be able to push back against the corruption that makes it all possible.
Keywords: Transportation, Corruption, Labor, Subscribers, Terms of Service
Review: This story is short and really looks at what the realities of privatization could mean for public transportation. Where riders are subject to rules that make it almost impossible to not be found in violation of. And, when in violation, the punishment is to be forced to give free labor. To be stuck, an unpaid servant, until you can find someone else in violation to replace you. And part of the terrifying thing is that I can almost see something like that being made legal, despite how awful it is. Because the laws reigning in this kind of capitalist abuse are being attacked and repealed. Because in a world where money is king, those with it are protected, an entirely different class of people with rights where the people without it are open targets to be exploited and abused. What’s sick is that these systems get introduced as money saving measures, when really they just allow for greater and great exploitations, so that the real cost to average people is immensely more than their taxes would have been to support an open and public system. The distrust among some people of public institutions is incredibly dangerous, especially when one considers that distrust is fueled by corporations and private dollars who benefit most from there not being a public safety net. So yeah, a fine read!

“VRtual” by Rose Eveleth (3857 words)

No Spoilers: Sam works in motion capture, as a body model who works mostly as a canvas onto which other people are painted. She works in movement, going through the motions of making a lot of educational and safety videos about active shooters, about sexual harassment, about any number of things. It’s work that she sort of fell into, adjacent to her desire to be an actor, and it’s not easy having to be someone who could be anyone. The story builds this up, though, to really twist the knife in revealing how assault can work, and how some can react to it, and it’s just a squirmy story, one that makes the skin crawl with how visceral it is, how well it puts the reader into this situation and then doesn’t let them out, makes them guess how it will go, knowing how these scenarios do play out again and again. It’s terrifying and difficult but important for those who don’t live with this reality, because it confronts the reader with this intensely uncomfortable moment that they might not otherwise feel.
Keywords: CW- Rape, Motion Capture, Acting, Safety, Response
Review: This is one fucking difficult story to read, in part because the first part of it seems innocent enough, just running through the motions (quite literally). And slowly the nature of the work that Sam does gets complicated. Because there’s something so subtle about the repetition, about the narratives that she acts out. It’s like it’s becoming muscle memory, deeper than her consciousness, and that is so terrifying in part because it’s something that we do teach people. That in situations there is a specific dance, the steps all choreographed very specifically, which is why men find such confidence in them, because as long as this dance plays out like they think, the outcome seems equally foregone. And they have so much working for them. For Sam, who knows how this plays out, it’s like losing herself in the same way she’s lost in her work, her face blank so that she’s like anyone, a stand in for every woman who has been in this situation, and her unable to take the action she wants to because it’s immediate and freezing, so different from thinking about it. And no one is there to help, to stop this thing that they, too, must recognize. And the story just stops, let’s the reader fill in what happens next. Does the person leaving the bathroom see what’s going on and offer aid? Does something happen that gives Sam a moment so she can act on what her mind’s screaming at her? The story leaves the reader in that moment where our own muscle memory kicks in, filling in what happens, and the result is just fucking gutting. So yeah, it’s not a story I’d recommend for everyone, because of the possible triggers. But basically, yeah, go read this one!

“Preemptive Strike” by Jessica Maison (1906 words)

No Spoilers: This story follows Jane, a therapist, and William, a young man who has thrown up a number of red flags that have brought him to the attention of the government. The piece looks closely at laws, and how those laws are often twisted to protect not people, but businesses and guns. The piece imagines what might be instituted to try and curb gun violence, and one that takes its direction from mental health, not actually doing much about the guns. Of course, when certain kinds of behaviors are first pathologized and then criminalized, it takes Jane into some uncomfortable territory. And it looks at the limitations of laws that are essentially political more than they are practical.
Keywords: CW- Gun Violence, Therapy, Virtual Reality, Prediction, Laws
Review: What I like about this story is that Jane recognizes all the ways that things could be better, and yet also knows that working within these rather bullshit limitations is still necessary because the alternative is to do nothing. And it’s interesting that the future imagined here makes certain patterns of behavior essentially criminal because they are made first mentally ill. It’s a tactic that has been used before, mostly unjustly, in order to try and get certain kinds of people off the street. Personally I don’t find this approach all that much more likely to be implemented than actual gun control, but I do see in this the tendency to want to declare shooters to be mentally ill, and for the focus to be put in that. Here, though, one doesn’t need to actually kill anyone to be labeled a shooter. William hasn’t actually killed anyone, and yet is in a program where he can be altered surgically to make him less aggressive (not sure how, tbh). But he’s obviously already a threat, having bought guns and having a history of domestic abuse and online harassment. It’s interesting to me that those things still cannot be prosecuted in a way to make William unable to own a gun, and yet he can be put into virtual reality against his will to test if he’s going to get violent. The story shows this as a sort of failure, though perhaps a necessary one given the alternative. What I would have liked to see explored twofold. First, what a more just system would look like (if guns were illegal okay, but would we still have to accept that William wouldn’t be prosecuted for his crimes of harassment, threats, and violence)? Second, is there a way this wouldn’t just be turned against marginalized people, especially people of color? William reads as white, and yet I can’t imagine in the current climate that any law pathologizing gun use wouldn’t be more aimed at “gang” members and similar to further the pipeline into the prison system to disenfranchise marginalized voters. But it’s an interesting idea, and it does show how failure to pass gun reform can sometimes lead to more unjust attempts to end shootings. A fine read!


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