Monday, November 5, 2018

Quick Sips - Fireside Magazine #60

Five Tuesdays in October means five new stories from Fireside Magazine, featuring interesting twists in form and expectations. From battles entirely fought inside the minds of special warriors to a man deeply effected by loss, from a paper on self-driving cars to a split narrative on charms, the pieces often look at symbol and metaphor becoming literal. That there is a power that comes from approaching a difficult and incorporeal idea by putting it into physical reality. And it's a strange and moving collection of stories this month, leaning dark perhaps to go with the season's spookier connotations. Whatever the case, it's a solid issue that I should get to reviewing!

Art by Saleha Chowdhury

“Inner Space” by Takim Williams (1085 words)

No Spoilers: Dr. Williams has lost his wife of twenty years, and in her place there has grown a sort of numbness. A malaise. And it’s effecting how he sees the world, how he sees his children, how he sees himself. His grief seems almost like a barrier pulled down around him, keeping him from accessing the fullness of his senses or emotions. It’s a somewhat chilling piece that explores what grief does to some people, and how bonds work and what can happen when someone lost their deepest bond, the one that seemed to tether them to reality. Touching, wrenching, and shattering work.
Keywords: Loss, Parenting, Love, Bonds, Extrasensory, Injury
Review: This story for me looks very closely at the bonds people form. Dr. Williams is interested in psychology, and yet all of his studies have dried in the face of his loss. It’s like his connection to his wife was something that was a part of his mind. Like they were one being sharing two bodies. And losing her has cut him off from some of his senses. From some of his being. And it’s that which seems to be keeping him from really engaging with his life or his family. Around him, his daughter is able to tell that something is wrong, but at the same time cannot reach him. His son is too young to really understand, it seems, but still needs him to be there, to be present. Instead, well... I love that the story only refers to Dr. Williams by that title. Not by first name. Not even as his daughter refers to him as Daddy. Because it gives the feel for me that he’s retreated into this space, his inner space, where he’s only Dr. Williams. That whatever his first name was, he’s lost access to it with the death of his wife. Instead, he’s numb, detached, and its gotten into his perception. Basically, there’s a part of him that’s stopped seeing people as fully human. They’re subjects to him, but their nature is in doubt. He’s not connecting to them as people, but rather as one might regard robots. And it’s unsettling and wrenching because of how well and coolly it portrays that view. How truly isolated it’s made him, and how much risk he puts his family at because he can’t really see them as people, as being as important as what he’s lost. A great read!

“Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station” by Keyan Bowes (2888 words)

No Spoilers: Savitri and Ritika are daughters of a telepath, one with the Strength, who is part of a war between a distant foe, both sides fighting through the minds of their Strong. Savitri, eighteen years old, isn’t Strong, but that doesn’t mean the trait doesn’t run in the family. And in a setting where war rages and the god of death is showing himself to mortals, tragedy seems sure to follow. The piece blends futuristic warfare with ancient myths, weaving together a story of two sisters and the things that make them different and the bond that holds them together. It’s about love and war and loss and bravery. And it’s also a lot of fun, taking some dark elements and still finding its way to a light and joyous end.
Keywords: Sisters, Telepathy, Gods, War, Bargains
Review: The setting of this piece is fascinating, populating a space station with a bunch of military telepaths who fight a war from the deceptive serenity of a conference table. It’s something that Savitri has just learned to fear after being introduced to the reality of it and being present while one of the telepaths was permanently knocked out of commission. So while there is a magic to the power her mother has that allows them all to celebrate their holidays in a unique fashion, it comes with this cost and fear that it could take her away forever. And when it turns out that Ritika has the Strength, it puts this sort of friction between the sisters. For now Sivitri can do nothing when Ritika volunteers to fight in the war that is threatening everything. She wants to fight because of the romance of it in her head, because of what she sees in her mother. She doesn’t quite know to be afraid at fifteen, and so she fights. And so she falls. And I love the way the story really builds up around bravery. Ritika’s bravery in fighting that is complicated by her ignorance, by her desire to seek danger and glory. Whereas Sivitri’s bravery is enhanced by the knowledge and fear she has, the resolve to do whatever it takes to get her sister back. She recognizes the power of her own name, and the power of her connection to her sister, and so goes to confront the god of death himself in order to make sure that her sister is not sacrificed for a war that they both barely understand. It’s a magical and tense piece that hinges on Sivitri finding her own strength. Not the same Strength as her mother or sister, but one that is able to stare down a god and not blink, which is its own kind of kickass. A wonderful read!

“STET” by Sarah Gailey (1287 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a brief for an academic paper ripe with footnotes and then commented on by both an editorial review and the author to that editorial review, this piece maintains a number of different tones and levels of emotion that reveal a tragedy wrapped in the injustice of how society values life. Through the layered narratives, a picture becomes clear of what the author of this paper has discovered following their own personal nightmare, and how they are expected to present their findings in a way that the powers that be and gatekeepers will allow to be published. And her findings are stark and damning, revealing a system by which what is valued in determining who will die in a given situation is based on unconscious bias and consensus rather than explicit rules or valuations. It’s a strange piece but also sharp and efficient, building around the absence of not only the larger paper, but of a little girl.
Keywords: Papers, Research, Editors, AI, Cars, CW- Death of a Child
Review: This is a fascinating deconstruction of an academic brief on a study into the ethics of self-driving car AI, though its implications probably range a bit beyond that as well. Because what’s it’s looking at really is machine ethics, and how those ethics are written and executed in the real world. For the author it’s a deeply personal subject since the death of their child, killed because (it seems) a self driving car avoided hitting an endangered woodpecker and instead hit the child. It’s a piece that looks a bit at the trolley problem, and what that means for AI and especially for something so close to that original idea, where we’re dealing with self driving cars that have to decide how to react when there is no avoiding an accident. Or maybe that’s wrong. Because I do feel that part of the point that the author makes, that the story makes, is that this is a failure at a fundamental level to understand ethics. Because here what’s being valued is not life. Is not the child and not even the woodpecker. It’s the speed. It’s the convenience of travel over the safety of people. Because if people were a priority and not speed above all else, then this wouldn’t happen. But because the real thing that the people behind the AI are trying to get is to minimize liability instead of minimizing death, they make their decisions (and by extension the AI’s decisions) be based on prejudice. Are based on what’s likely to upset people. About what people value. Which is often guided by greed, by selfishness, by all sorts of biases that mean that certain groups of people, certain classes of people, are deemed less important, less valuable. Which exposes just what a tangled web machine ethics can be, and how terrifying it is that those ethics would be guided by capitalism. And the story just tears that apart through its layers, by showing the dispassionate brief, the fiery footnotes, the attempt at tone policing, and the resilience of the main character to be heard. It’s a powerful read!

“Odontogenesis” by Nino Cipri (696 words)

No Spoilers: Two women, Abby and Vivienne, converse in what feels like a suburban neighborhood about having the talk with their kids. You know, about where babies come from. Except this talk doesn’t really go the way that you might expect. Because, I mean, where _do you_ think babies come from? In this story, at least, I’m pretty sure however you answered, you’re wrong. And as the story explores this difference between its world and our own, it opens a sort of chasm dark and deep that yawns at the reader. That goads them to look into the void, and see what’s there looking back.
Keywords: Teeth, Children, CW- Pregnancy/Child Birth(?), Parenting, Animals
Review: I love the way this story defies and twists expectations. Setting up these two women, these two mothers, talking about the ways that a man failed to have the babies talk is something that’s not altogether unfamiliar. And yet here the story gets the reader in and then pulls the rug out from under them, sending them tumbling into a rabbit hole dark and increasingly unsettling. Because what we think we know about where babies come from is shown to not be the case at all, and this new reality the story puts in place is one touched by magic, teeth, and darkness (cue the people in the waiting room all chanting teeth teeth TEETH!!!!). And what I like about this is that it’s still, at its heart, it’s a story that really embraces this strange vision of where babies could come from. Where they grow from animal teeth pressed into human skin. Carried and then cared for but not without a cost. Because as the childrens’ teeth fall out, the one that bore them needs to gather them up and make the night-time trek into the woods where the trees are that grant this magic and, well, and it’s just really creepy as fuck. Teeth are just things that people have a lot of feelings about, because they are something that people lose with age. They are supposed to shed their baby teeth and grow their adult teeth and it’s like anything with growing up. It’s a loss, and it tends to coincide with a loss of that “innocence” that we normally give children. The ignorance of the world that makes childhood seem magical at times. Here the story reveals that the magic of childhood is pretty much never the idyllic rainbows and unicorns we tend to project down. The magic of childhood is dark and full of trying to make sense of why there is pain in the world. There is hope and joy and wonder, but there is also something much more fragile and leaning toward horror. And yeah, the story is just a short and weird and kinda terrifying story that you should definitely check out!

“Pendants of Precariousness” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (1014 words)

No Spoilers: Split between two very different settings and characters, this story follows Laki, who lives in a hut with their brother, and Vanessa, who is in some sort of relationship with an alien (I think). In both of the parallel stories, the narrators are questioned about their charms, about why they would pick the talismans they do, and what it might mean for them. And in both situations the story shows how their talismans empower them, giving them the ability to face whatever threats come their way. It’s a short and nicely resonating piece, that shows two very different ways that people chose to face their fears and their demons in order to push forward into the unknown.
Keywords: Sharks, Parents, Family, Protections, Charms, CW- Abuse
Review: I love how the story takes on the idea of charms, of talismans. In both situations we have characters who are taking something dangerous, something that either has hurt them or could hurt them, and wearing it. They’ve basically identified their greatest fear and evoke it in order to make them brave, in order to push them to act when they might have hesitated. To get them to fight when they might have frozen. And I like the two very different ways that the story takes to convey that. The Laki story line is perhaps the more...traditional one? It follows a character taking a shark tooth and making a charm of it. Which in itself probably wouldn’t be as interesting, but it works in tandem with the Vanessa story line, where the threat is so much different, as is the setting. Here the point is not to have a charm against a natural beast, but rather a different kind of predator. One no less brutal or efficient, but one very much grounded in the human world. That here the shark is a parent with a toxic tongue, with an array of razor sharp comments like rows of teeth. And where Laki needs bravery in order to go out into the waters where the sharks operate, Vanessa uses her talisman to get her to get outside of her comfort zone. To try new things. To trust herself where her mother would have wanted her to be afraid. And it gives her strength in the face of more physical dangers as well, just as Laki is able to use the tooth as a weapon when in need, so too can Vanessa, and it’s just wonderful to see it all come together in such a tight and focused story. A great read and a fine way to close out the month’s stories!


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