Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Quick Sips - Terraform December 2018

Well, Terraform got one of its stories in just under the wire, meaning I'm a little late in posting this today because of the holiday and everything. But the month certainly brought a rather...apocalyptic bunch of stories forward, focusing on dramas both personal and global and keeping the tone dark and foreboding. From the ways that devices can be used to gather data on consumers (for both good and ill) to ways that the planet has to be completely re-imagined if it's to survive humanity, the pieces are perhaps a little doom-and-gloom, though not without some heart and some hope for the future. Fitting, for the final works of the year. To the reviews!


“Mammoth Steps” by Andrew Dana Hudson (1547 words)

No Spoilers: Kaskil is a boy growing up among mammoths, who have gone through a de-extinction in order to try and protect the tundra and permafrost of the far north. Roomba is the oldest of these mammoths, and forms a close bond with Kaskil. The story builds up these beings and the way that they are able to communicate with humans, allowing for these deep friendships to be formed as in the case of Kaskil and Roomba, where they are both sentient and intelligent and able to make decision. So when Roomba decides that he wants to go south, wants to meet an elephant, Kaskil can’t resist the chance to go with. What they find, though, is a world still very much hurting, not only from climate change but from the way that the elephants are being treated. Still, it’s a story about a journey and a friendship, and the sort of easy acceptance and bond that is possible between humans other inhuman global citizens.
Keywords: Mammoths, Climate Change, Travel, Friendship, Elephants
Review: I like the friendship aspect of the story, and how the relationship between Kaskil and Roomba comes to sort of stand in contrast to what’s going on elsewhere, especially with the elephants. Before for me, the story sort of examines what it means that the mammoths are back, not because they were missed nostalgically or for the betterment of biodiversity, but rather because humanity had so damaged the Earth that these creatures were needed to try and stop the damage and maybe heal it. But with that comes the idea that in some way these creatures owe their existence to humans, and this bond is formed because the two can come together as equals. Witih the elephants, though, that’s not the case. They haven’t gone extinct (yet) and so there’s a very different feel to their relationship with humans. Not that there is some sort of clean slate but that they’ve spent so long being treated like zoo attractions, like slaves, and they are pissed about it, demanding something like equality because without it they can’t really feel protected against the interests of humans. And the story complicates what Kaskil and Roomba have by bringing them down to a place where the elephants are being treated poorly but where they’ve managed to carve out a small space where they can work together with humans—but humans they can trust on their terms. And it does show what’s possible between humans and these other beings when the sort of species arrogance is put away and there can be a meeting of equals. A fine read!

“Warning Signs” by Emily J. Smith (3590 words)

No Spoilers: Roy is an employee at a tech company that works with devices for the home. This Alexa, only here it’s “Lucy,” and it’s a large part of how Roy gets women to let their guard down. By inviting them over and impressing them with his wealth and his job and all the things that are supposed to mark him as A Catch. Except that under the thin vaneer of politeness is a very water well that is roiling with rage and misogyny. The piece is deeply uncomfortable because of how unflinchingly it reveals this man who thinks of himself as the hero of his own story, put upon and passed over and deserving of whatever he wants. He is allowed to live in a delusional place where he shouldn’t need to ask permission for anything because of how special he is. When in reality he is a rapist preying on women who do not see all of his warning signs. And the piece explores what happens when, even if his victims cannot always see the signs, someone (or something) is watching and can tell what he’s doing.
Keywords: CW- Rape, Technology, Dating, Misogyny, AI
Review: This story carries one of the few content warnings I’ve seen at Terraform, which is a solid clue that it is uncomfortable and dark. Making Roy the main character brings the reader into his head, into his world of casual misogyny and violence against women. He verbally abuses his Lucy for really no reason other than he can, because he hates women and how they make him feel. It’s frightening in how familiar it feels, the sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing that he represents. What’s more, the story seems to look at the ways that programs like Alexa can be tools for these men because the simple AIs speak with the voice of a woman, which might help to make him seem safe because of the artificial way that he interacts with his Lucy when women are around. It’s a way to signal that they can let their guard down, at which point he attacks. And it’s something that happens in part because of the way that men dominate the development of such programs, which can only be battled when that changed, as in the story when a woman heads a team developing a way to use this technology for good, as a way to prevent Roy from using Lucy to hurt people. In order to keep track of the warning signs that most women can’t see until it’s too late. Because his method is down, and designed to trap people. It’s creepy and it’s skin-crawling but it’s a powerful use of difficult content to show what tech could be if people cared not to develop tools to victimize women and instead tried to prevent violence. A great and deeply unsettling read!

“The Bonus” by Liz Maier (1979 words)

No Spoilers: Jeremiah and Max are executives at a company whose business is never exactly revealed in the story. Except of course that it’s in the business of making money, and squeezing every bit of productivity from its employees. When one of their promising rising stars turns down a bonus that would allow her to live on only a single hour of sleep (in exchange for using some of those extra hours on work), it sends them into something of a panic. Their whole world is built around their work, interrupted only by moments they steal to escape, but it’s an existence defined by isolation, loneliness, and an attempt to force their employees to give more and more of their lives, leaving nothing behind except their work. It’s a bit of a subtle read, focusing on these two men and their approach to running a business and the level of involvement they want in their employees lives, that ends up being disquieting and frightening.
Keywords: Sleep, Productivity, Bonuses, Brainwashing, Employment
Review: I love the way this story examines how work can sort of take over people’s lives. For these executives, they have this feeling where they’re stealing time, where they live for these small moments when they can escape to a park and just be together. And yet their whole work lives are spent trying to take away that kind of freedom from their workers. And they do it by trying to take away choice, by trying to essentially poison their employees ability to be content with anything. The worker they set their sights on is an “anomoly” who is able to turn down the prospect of extra time, of giving up sleep. Because she likes sleep. Just like these men like the time they get in the park. But they never seem to have enough. And because of their own dissatisfaction with time and with their lives, they want to pass that on, to become almost like vampires, alone because they refuse to reach out to others, refuse to actuall break the cycle and enjoy themselves. And it’s rather horrific, really, because of how the story shows the impact on the woman who turned them down, how they target her and basically force her to do what they want. How they insist that what they’re doing is a “bonus” despite the fact that it’s unwanted and really only benefits the company by squeezing out more from the workers. It’s a dark but fascinating read, and in the age of corporate rights weighing more than worker rights, it’s definitely a piece to spend some time with!

“Be Good for Goodness’ Sake” by Tim Maughan (4067 words)

No Spoilers: Steve is your fairly standard guy in a fairly standard quasi-unhappy marriage with a child, Luke, who is...something of a handful. Luke throws tantrums, and has a lot of discipline problems, and is generally difficult to deal with, which is extra hard for his mom, Erin, who works freelance and so does most of the childcare. It’s a situation that gives Steve some guilt because he’s not home more, but instead of doing something about that, his solution is to get a special Elf on the Shelf—one that comes with a sort of AI and interactivity that’s supposed to help keep Luke on better behavior until Christmas. At first it seems to work wonderfully, but as time goes Steve’s opinion of the Elf changes, becoming more and more frayed as he has to deal with what’s he’s introduced into his son’s life. It’s a dark piece with a cutting look not exactly on surveillance capitalism but more on the social realities that make it so effective.
Keywords: Surveillance, Parenting, Tantrums, Capitalism, Christmas, Elves
Review: I like how the story zeroes in on the problems at the heart of the family it reveals. How, really, for all that the story is about a somewhat intrusive vehicle for consumerism and data mining, it’s really not about the horror of that. As creepy as the Elf on the Shelf is (and yes I find all Elf on the Shelf things creepy, and am generally rather freaked out that there aren’t more laws protecting privacy and consumer rights), it’s much more the ways that Steve can’t’ handle his own brand of toxic masculinity that’s the rot inside the family. Because the truth is that the Elf works. No tantrums. And Erin, for all that Steve thinks she’s ignoring the problems of Elf on the Shelf, does the math and decides that the ads are worth the improvement to her quality of life. Luke is happy, and acting better, and if that means she has to listen to him spout random ads, she doesn’t mind. And she’s the one who has to spend more time with him. It’s Steve who can’t cope with the fact that the Elf is much better at communicating with his son than he is. It’s Steve who probably has a lot of insecurity because he’s away from home a lot, and as much as he feels guilt about it, it also reinforces his time being more valuable, and his place in the family as not being the primary caregiver. He’s excused, and he likes that. So it’s Steve who reacts when he feels threatened, not because of the surveillance or whatever his justifications are, but because the Elf makes him look bad, and he can’t handle it. And it’s a sharp and effective piece, very appropriate for the holidays and very worth checking out!

"Games to Play at the End of the Anthropocene" by Debbie Urbanski (2060 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, you are a game character being controlled by different people in a family, namely Sen and Dana, daughter and mother. The two have come to a rather remote cabin to play this game, though perhaps the remoteness of the place doesn't matter much. After a disease, S., has laid the humanity to ruin, leaving these two perhaps the last humans alive, the game is all that they have aside from each other, and after Dana leaves, it's only Sen and you remaining. It's a strange game, about being able to go back and relive certain events over and over again, perhaps seeking to change them or otherwise just experiencing them. For these two (and then one), it's a way to revisiting painful things and seeing if they can be undone. But the purpose of the game doesn't really seem to be time travel, and the world that's revealed here doesn't seem to be one where humans have a future on. Haunting and emotionally devastating, the piece plays with grief and loss and time in a setting defined by isolation and despair.
Keywords: CW- Suicide, Games, Post-Disaster, Time, Queer Characters, Family, Loss
Review: I like how the story sets up the mystery of what's going on, of what S. is and what it has done. For me, it seems to have finally ended humanity by making everyone sterile, making these children the final generation, and leaving everyone else with the knowledge of the end of humanity rolling down toward them. Many seem to find it best to take their own lives, but that leaves scars as well, and the game seems a way to keep those scars fresh, to allow the players to go back through their memories and face the fact that they can't change anything. That they are stuck recreating the same tragedies over and over again. Because some things cannot be edited away. Because some hurts cannot just be erased. And I like that the story shows that the characters cannot go back and edit away the things that have doomed humanity. That it would make it too easy. That the only thing for them to do is face what has happened and what it means. And there is just such a draining sorrow to the piece, to the act of going back in time and reliving these things, of seeing them in reverse as if they are being undone and getting some level of addictive comfort from that. It's a difficult piece in part because it's dealing with very charged things, loss and grief and despair, but there's a quiet beauty to it as well, and a small amount of distance the story offers by placing the perspective into a game. By making it a game and therefore, maybe, not real. Only the danger and the tragedy are very real and always drawing nearer. It's a dark and shattering read, but certainly a story to spend some time with (and perhaps a fitting close for 2018).


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