Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Quick Sips - Terraform January 2019

It’s a full month of short SF to kick off 2019 at Motherboard’s Terraform. As always, the pieces on display look at visions of the future, taking trends and projecting them out, wondering what if and guessing at the shape of things to come. Or, perhaps more accurately, guessing at the shape of things that should not come, as each of these stories is a warning against a future full of heightened oppression, fear, insecurity, and corruption. They look at the pressures to conform and the way that mob mentality infects and can drive institutions that shouldn’t be handled by popular demand. The stories skew a little long for the publication, though still very manageable, and they pack rather a strong emotional wallop. So hold onto your feels and get ready for some timely science fiction. To the reviews!


“River Rising” by James Yu (1809 words)

No Spoilers: Paz in an Assessor, a kind of executioner in a world that requires one person a day to be killed by the will of the River, which is a kind of advanced social media network that allows the voices of the people to be heard. It’s a situation that maintains the peace, but also doesn’t leave a lot of room for Paz to doubt what he’s doing. He needs to believe in it, that it’s right, that he’s an instrument of this system that is objective and good. Except when the latest sacrifice comes up it turns out to be a formerly-influential interviewer called the Host, whose professional background as well and personal connection to Paz create something unexpected and incredibly dangerous. The piece isn’t exactly pretty, focusing on the horror and complicity of Paz and the River and looking at how fast opinions can change and how misleading it can be to assume that the mob is always right.
Keywords: Social Media, Execution, Rage, Voting, Judgment, Objectivity, Siblings
Review: I like what this piece does with the illusion of objectivity. How Paz needs to believe that he is objective, that his role of killer is one of emotional distance. That he’s just going about a job that he doesn’t really feel. Except that is a lie of sorts, a mask that he pulls down so that he can do the work and so he can try to be safe and have some power. And it’s something that he enjoys, something that some others, including the Host, suspect but have a hard time proving. Because it ties into the setting, with how the River feels about itself, not wanting to see itself as bloodthirsty on unjust. Wanting to feel that there’s no other way to be, that what they’re doing is inevitable and necessary if they want order. And it takes the Host to poke a hole in that. The Host, who is every bit as corrupt but who obviously doesn’t believe in the system. Who only used it to further his own goals and has found that the River turned on him. And now, on his way out, looks only to take as many as he can with him. And it’s a wrenching piece because of how the Host can shatter the illusions of Paz, of the River. But how for Paz that shattering is something that is fatal, while for the River it’s something that can be swept aside. That the River flows on, but the individual people are always in a state of being sucked under and lost. A complex and interesting read!

“Skinned” by Rich Larson (1098 words)

No Spoilers: Millicia is a celebrity attending an event, hoping to make a splash with her latest fashion choice. Only in this future fashion isn’t just about clothes. It’s about bodies, and inhabiting them, and for Millicia and the rest of the world it’s very much about who you’re wearing. The piece walks a line between ridiculous and dark-as-hell, leveraging that razor-thin space to make a statement about bodies and celebrity and, perhaps most of all, the way that wealth shapes harm and abuse and the commodification of flesh. It’s a rather fun piece even as it’s rather disturbing as well, showing how the difference between fashion fame and infamy is blurry indeed.
Keywords: Prison, Fashion, Bodies, Interviews, Celebrity
Review: On one level, this story could be a sort of expanded almost-joke built around the fashion phrase “who are you wearing?” And for that, it’s rather clever and fun. I like that it goes a little deeper than just introducing the idea of wearing a body, though. For me, at least, the horror goes much deeper than that, where this celebrity can literally pay to rent a body and modify it to fit her tastes and needs, and the prisoner has no power to refuse or do anything but eventually take back possession of their body and have to live with what’s been done to it. The story goes a little bit further still, making this prisoner actually innocent of the crime they were imprisoned for, and it’s there where I feel the most complexity of the piece comes in. Because in some ways it asks if this action is more horrific if done to someone who is “innocent.” In the story, that’s certainly what makes or breaks Millicia’s gamble. If the man were guilty, then what’s she’s doing is gritty and edgy and smart. If he’s innocent, then it’s this terrible thing. Then she must be the one punished because she’s hit people in the face not with this ugly thing (because after all people were just saying that it was beautiful) but rather with a truth that goes deeper than that. That the system is broken. That it’s corrupt. And that seems something that these kinds of celebrities are supposed to provide an escape from. They are supposed to be a distraction from the horrors of the world, and in doing this in a way that actually highlights atrocity instead of erases it, she’s sinned in a way that there’s really no recovering from. It’s a neat and intricate moment, and one that for its length lands fairly well for me, though it does come through perhaps a bit rushed. Still, it’s a fun piece and a fine read!

“Model Home” by Julianna Baggott (2877 words)

No Spoilers: This is story is framed as a sort of confession from the narrator to a man she’s with, a man who has just confessed to them that he is in love with them. And where as his confession is fairly straightforward, though perhaps not entirely simple, it provokes a much more circuitous and complex confession from them. One that ties back to their childhood growing up in a model home with parents who didn’t seem to love each other. In a home where nothing broke, because it was designed to be quake resistant. In a home that was designed to hide the cracks and fissures of the outside world, to make everything seem like it was completely normal. And it’s a tender, raw, revealing piece that dives into the narrator’s insecurities, their fears that they might not be real, and their need to test reality by stressing it, by trying to break everything.
Keywords: Houses, Earthquakes, Post-Disaster, Love, Parenting, Families, Reality
Review: This piece does a great job of really showing the narrator getting into themself. Into their head and their childhood and into the feeling of the world being false somehow. Artificial. Because so much of their life was, was built around this illusion. Not that the house wasn’t real or their family wasn’t real, but that it was all trying to present this narrative of the world that just wasn’t true. A narrative that things weren’t broken. That things couldn’t be broken. When the world itself has been broken by this point. Many times. It’s a world that is showing its fractures, and yet the narrator has grown up with this image of eggs being dropped and the floor catching them. Of glasses being hurdled across the house only to...land after impacting the wall and floor. When everything is supposed to be dramatic and violent, their life has this artificial cleanliness. A sort of air of fake nostalgia, like watching an old “wholesome” show and thinking that’s what life must have been life. That’s how life’s _supposed to be_. And it’s a moving and complex look at how they can’t feel like things are real unless they are trying to break them. Unless there is something flawed that gives lie to the illusion. And how that has been wrapped up in their ideas of love and partnering. How they’re trying to explain to this man who has such a simpler outlook what he’s asking when he’s asking if they love him. And I just really like where the story goes and how it gets there, building up the damage and general messed-up-ness that is this character, that is the world the character lives in. A wonderful read!

“The Convoy” by Brian Merchant (5056 words)

No Spoilers: Muhammed is an actor who has just lost his wife, who is deep in grieving, when a bombshell drops in the news, that there is an actual terrorist cell hideen among a refugee caravan headed for the Mexico/US border. The thing is, Muhammed recognizes the terrorist the news media has found threatening America—it’s him. And as the story moves, just what’s going on, and just what isn’t, becomes very hard to tell, the truth lost among the narrative, among the tech and the capabilities of someone who can fabricate truth, and who has no compunctions against doing exactly that. It’s a bleak and rather difficult read at times, because it gets at how truth is manipulated in order to hold people in fear, to make them malleable and more easily controlled. How it undermines the very idea of truth, of news, and how nightmarish it can be when principles and ethics are corrupted by greed and hate.
Keywords: Media, Lies, Manipulation, News, Terrorism, Grief
Review: This piece really gets at how terrifying it is to have media actively work against reporting events and instead trying to work toward financial and political ends (the two often work hand in hand). Here, Muhammed is someone who sees that he’s being used and who wants to do the right thing, to expose the lies that people are taking as truth. Against him, though, is arrayed the advancing tools of obfuscation. Technology that can make things seem real, even when it’s only electronically. It’s something that is becoming more and more possible, where telling the difference between what’s fake and what’s real isn’t something that the naked eye can always do. Where the tools of misinformation are so sophistacted that the actual truth is lost under the pressure to curate reality to serve a message. To serve a master. To make money even as it leads to death, to innocent people suffereing because of it. And as long as things fit enough with what people want to believe, it’s all allowed. Prefered, even, because it’s simple and uncomplicated. Because it makes story logic instead of carrying the messiness and complexity of real life. And yeah, it’s difficult in part because it seems real enough, accurate to how some people treat the truth as if it should yield to their own aims. And it’s a dark and gripping and gutting read that definitely worth checking out!


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