Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Quick Sips - Terraform August 2018

Motherboard's Terraform seems to be going through a new transformation of sorts. Not in its schedule or really even in the themes and genres it publishes, but rather in the length of works it focuses on. For a little while now, the bulk of the work it's been publishing has been ranging less into the flash fiction length and more solidly into short stories. Which means a bit of extra space to explore the futures these authors imagine—which can be both a good and a not-so-good thing, given how dark and gritty a lot of those future are. This month five short stories reveal futures full of slavery and corruption, drugs and borders. They star characters trying to heal the fissures they've opened up in their lives, or falling headlong into them. So yeah, let's get to the reviews!


“2157” by Grant Maierhofer (2560 words)

No Spoilers: This is a rather surreal tale of a woman in a world much different than the one we know, but with echoes cast forward from now ringing in the then that the story reveals. It’s a world of cities and the desolation beyond where peopel go but which seems full of disease and strangeness. And I’m not going to lie I had a bit of a time trying to really get what this story might be staying. It’s high on style and speaks to a sort of churning inner conflict within the narrator. The drive to leave behind the corporeal, to flee the pain and corruption of community and flesh, but also to belong, to be cared for, to have meaningful connections.
Keywords: CW- Cannibalism, Crime, Hunger, Dystopia, Violence
Review: There is something raw about this story, bleeding and alive. Wounded. The narrator, for me at least, wants to be a part of something larger than they feel they are. They want to have a purpose, to feel that they should exist. The world around them is ugly, and so to separate themself from that ugliness they seek to opt out, to find something better. Only in the search they refuse to see the ugliness inside of themself, the way that they have accepted and participated in it. And so their quest to find something better is poisoned. By themself and by the others that they find, so that no matter how far they go they bring everything with them. They cannot escape, because they haven’t really confronted what’s at the heart of the problem. The desire for power, the desire to hurt others. An impatience and general disgust at other people. The story for me looks at the way those things manifest, how they twist intent into weapons that kill. That cause pain. That violate. It’s a difficult story and one that carries a very poetic kind of weird. It’s dense, gritty, and with an edge of desperation covered over by an almost drugged numbness. And it’s certainly a story to spend some time with.

“Redlining at the End of the World” by Blake Montgomery (1949 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as an online article detailing the racial discrimination in a series of domes that are supposed to protect Houston from rising sea levels, the story focuses on the ways that housing, as always, is one of the biggest tools for systemic oppression and disenfranchisement, now and certainly moving forward into the nightmare of climate change that’s coming down the pipe. Because for all that there are laws about what is and isn’t allowed with regards to housing, somehow black communities end up being the targets of cuts and are passed over for protection while wealthier and whiter towns and suburbs are granted inclusion in the larger sea ceiling project. The story unfolds as a detailed report of how the damage is being done, and wow does it sound familiar, leaning on the ways that housing discrimination works and has always worked to protect white assets explicitly at the expense of black people and communities.
Keywords: Housing, Water, Climate Change, Discrimination, Governments
Review: So much of this story works for me because of the ways in which the story shows just how pervasive systemic racism is in the USA. It’s not just a quirk or fluke of our government, and it’s not even some fossilized dinosaur left over from an era that time forgot. Rather, it is and has always been a feature of our government, one designed to maintain the power and privilege of white people at the expense of everyone else. One that is protected, not by the rule of law but by forces stronger still, which can bend the laws to reward the corrupt and punish the innocent. The story seeks to drag some of that corruption out into the light of day, to question how much evidence is required before people will admit that there is discrimination going on. How obvious does it need to be? Because if those in power have learned anything from civil rights and anti-discrimination policies it’s not how to be better people, but rather how to dress their racism and prejudice in terms that make them seem neutral. They could on the fact that they will be judged not for their true intent and certainly not for the actual results of their policies, but only on their public reasoning. That these white neighborhoods are “historic” and “beautiful.” And they are allowed to continue, because they can delay indefinitely. Because even as the story shows that there will be reviews, they might come too late, or still find that there was no prejudice at play because it wasn’t explicit. And as long as you never say racial hatred is at the core of a piece of policy, you can continue to pursue a white supremacist agenda. It’s a powerful and complex read that you should definitely check out!

“The Treatment” by Koren Shadmi (5302 words)

No Spoilers: Sammi is pregnant and addicted to PuriLite, a drug that’s supposed to help people with myriad different mental and physical ailments. Only the real draw of the drug is the intense high and sense of non-existence that it creates. Something almost beyond euphoria, especially in a place and time where opportunity is shrinking and Sammi doesn’t want to face the prospect of bringing up a child in. So following the almost complete collapse of the town she lives in, Sammi falls in with some fellow addicts and criminals who have a plan to get their hands on some more of the good stuff. A plan, of course, that doesn’t quite go as they expect. The piece is brutal and difficult, focusing on addiction and on the reasons why Sammi is drawn to the feeling that the drug gives her. More than that, it’s about the way that Big Pharma isn’t really in the business of helping people, but rather in the business of making money, and that comes at the expense of basically everyone.
Keywords: CW- Drug Use, CW- Pregnancy, Addiction, Big Pharma, Crime
Review: This is not an easy story to read, thanks in large part to the way that it centers a woman who is caught in a rather impossible situation, addicted to a drug designed to be addictive. Designed to allow people to numb themselves to reality enough to still be exploited by it. But this is also experimental, and the drugs have some pretty harsh side effects, and for a pregnant woman especially it’s just wrenching to see her trapped in this situation. I feel that it points to the reality of all people but especially pregnant women, though, on the verge of bringing a new person into a world that...well, views that new person as a potential slave. As a resource to exploit. And the weight of that, the weight of all of it on parents and on children is just crushing, to the point that Sammi just wants to escape existence. Not necessarily by dying, but through this door Big Pharma has opened, that Big Pharm has designed in order to snare people. It’s terrible and terrifying and yet I can see no lie here, just a sad, visceral truth that in the not-too-distant-future, if trends continue, this could well be a situation people deal with. With corporations whose ability to exploit people is protected more than people’s protection from being exploited. And it’s depressing as fuck but definitely a piece worth spending some time with.

“Robot Story II” by Sheaquan M. Datts (1445 words)

No Spoilers: A man calls in sick to work so that he can take a day at the beach. In this future, sun screen is serious business but things still promise to be pleasant and relaxed. Until a group of unexpected beach-goers arrive and cause something of a scandal. But the narrator, being the amiable sort, figures he might be able to smooth things over, only to step directly into a mess of awkward. The story is fun and humorous, taking aim at prejudice and the ways that attitudes shirt, oppressions cycling around, different only in target. It’s a fun read that seems almost shallow in its humor, but which I feel makes a fairly powerful point about racism and prejudice.
Keywords: Robots, Beaches, Music, Prejudice, Awkward
Review: There are a number of things that strike me about this story, not least of which is that it places a black man in a situation where he is essentially being racist to robots. The attitudes that he parrots and endorses are those that have forever been present in America, his thoughts laced with the language of dehumanization. Which echoes with the second thing that strikes me, which is the title. It’s possible that there is a Robot Story I out there somewhere, but I feel that what’s being referenced there isn’t some prequel narrative featuring these characters, but rather that the Robot Story I is the story we’ve already passed, the institutions of slavery and oppression that gave rise to this sort of rhetoric, turning people into less-than-people. And I like that the way the narrator approaches this is from the well meaning liberal perspective, assuming himself something of an expert on robots and appointing himself, ignorant as he is, a fitting ambassador. And all of this I think holds up a mirror to the kinds of racism and prejudice still very much present today, where people might not think slavery is “okay,” but even well meaning liberals have a tendency to show just how much racist bullshit they believe when it comes time to actual interact with and coexist with all people. And it manages to create this biting satire in a way that doesn’t pull its punches but is still fun and funny and alive. It’s a wonderful read!

“Across the Border” by Sahil Lavingia (2134 words)

No Spoilers: Matthew is a busy man. And, when he’s being fairly honest with himself, a bit of a selfish man. He’s someone who seems to believe very much in the Bigger Picture and Long Term Goals without really concentrating on inhabiting the moment, and to illustrate that we get to see his stormy relationship with his daughter, one defined by his absence and her growing frustration. On his way back from a trip that took him out of the country and so out of communication range, though, he meets a young boy who needs help. And the story for me is very much about dialogue without dialogue, about slowing down communication to get at an experience that goes a little deeper than texts, that is both more intimate and more rewarding.
Keywords: Borders, Letters, Family, Separation, Strife, Communication
Review: Okay, so I love that the story is in some ways a love letter to...well, to love letters. Matthew has to deliver a letter across the border to help out a couple who have been separated by ICE. And for me, the title works both on that level, on the literal crossing of borders, and also in the way that certain kinds of communication can cross other less tangible borders. The border that has been built between Matthew and his daughter, for instance. That there are ways to reach out, to connect, that in some ways require a change in order to happen. Not that letters are inherently better or more meaningful, but that taking the time and effort to do it, and to create that physical form, is something that causes people to communicate differently. Suddenly all the ways that they’ve learned how to avoid and how to lie and how to evade all break down. The medium is important, and it’s another sort of border to cross to pick up a pen and put words to paper. It takes getting over the reluctance and all the excuses about how it’s not important, it won’t change things, etc etc etc. And I do like writing letters myself so I do feel the story gets at something about it, that it is so much different than even writing an email, that it feels different and there is something to this piece of paper meant for only one other person. It’s a lovely story, with a hopeful and moving ending that might just convince you to pick up a pen and paper and send something to someone you’ve fallen out of touch with. A great read!


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