Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Quick Sips - Terraform March 2019

There's a lot going on at Motherboard's Terraform this month, with not only the three short stories I'm covering, but a reprint and an excerpt that you could check out as well. The original fiction covers a number of rather bleak futures ruled by corporate greed and government overreach. Not, mind you, over-regulation, but rather looks at how governments can be tools of oppression, punishing those already suffering from intense pressure and a general hopelessness about the future. It shows how people can be funneled down paths that are supposed to keep them "safe" and "happy" without ever really getting there and without ever being satisfied or content with the actual work they do. The stories show how these harsh futures push people into isolation, and how people seek to reach back out in any way they can. It's not a light bunch of stories, but they're definitely worth grappling with. To the reviews!


“Nuclear Event Detector” by Sam Biddle (1913 words)

No Spoilers: The main character of this story is an office worked stuck inside after a nuclear event killed almost everyone else in the area and turned the landscape into a cesium-tainted hell. With nothing else to do and his boss’s final instructions to start trying to get a refund on the company’s NED (per the title of the story), that’s what he does. The piece explores the weight of routine and the shattering impact of having that taken away. It follows this unnamed main character as he does something so...mundane in a setting that has been so hurt by the disaster. It’s stark but it’s also a moving picture of desperation, isolation, and despair in a corporate world where all the strings have been cut and everything’s on fire.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Customer Service, Isolation, Nuclear Radiation, Refunds
Review: I love how this story takes office culture and shows just how well it holds up after a disaster. And by that I mean that I love that it shows just how terribly that kind of structure really deals with emergencies and trauma. The main character here is nameless, a move I typically see made to make them more universal, to make them something of the average. The average employee at the average corporate gig just sort of doing their thing in cubicle land amidst an increasingly dire situation. One where buying an NED seems a good investment. But of course the story is about the way that this doesn’t protect anyone. When the emphasis is on minimizing liability rather than trying to help people, all you end up with are these little pockets of humanity in a sea of terrible shit. You get this character reaching out to customer service that never helps and might not even be a real person, trying to cut through his isolation and loneliness and intense loss and finding that he can’t. That there is no comfort for him in this setting, in this environment. That despite his being alive, there is no connection to be made here are there never was. All his job and his work have been has been trappings on a string of exploitation and corruption that doesn’t really have a body or a human feeling. What’s left after the disaster are people trying desperately to pretend that this is all normal, that it even matters anymore, and having to face the sinking realization that it doesn’t, and that they’re alone without hope. It’s a bleak but well crafted story, one that gets at the emotions of this huge situation in a very intimate way. A great read!

“Death and Other Gentrifying Neighborhoods” by Sam J. Miller (2117 words)

No Spoilers: Connor works for a company that oversees the care and maintenance of the vast servers required to house human consciousnesses. A sort of afterlife, a promise of immortality, that he hates even as he aspires to it. The work brings him to the country’s submerged cities, victims of climate change and rising sea levels, which are largely populated by communities of reboots, people who represent the previous attempts at immortality but which...didn’t quite work out. The story examines the border between how Connor wants to see himself and the way his actions paint him. And it sets him up to have to make a choice between his desires and his fears, pushing him to confront the realities of his life that he has been avoiding confronting. It’s a quiet and intimate look at honesty and trust and action.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousness, Gentrification, Climate Change, Corporations, Queer MC, Sex
Review: I love the way this story handles sex and consent, damage and intent. It’s a web of abuses and hurts, the two primary character locked into this push and pull, repulsion and attraction. Connor is drawn to reboots even as he hasn’t really delt with his prejudice, his fear, and the harm he does to them individually and at the community level. For him, he lives by compartmentalizing his life, trying to separate himself from his job like it’s something he just has to do, when there’s always a choice involved. And this goes both ways, with Ejj, the man Connor meets up with for sex, having an ulterior motive as well, using Connor and not precisely apologizing for it. The story gets complicated fast, mapping the twisted good intentions, deceptions, and ways the characters violate boundaries. There’s a danger to it, and for Connor it seems to me like it’s a danger he flirts with almost hoping this exact thing will happen. Or, maybe I mean that he’s doing this, taking these risks, because he knows and sees the harm he’s doing and is hoping to be punished for it, to be stopped. For the choice of what to do to be taken out of his hands. And I love that Ejj sees that, sees the good in Connor without excusing the bad, and instead of punishing him or forcing him to do anything, instead opts to give him a real choice. To take a stand and try to stand by his convictions, seeing through the lies he’s been fed to make him complacent, or to keep on doing what he’s been doing, hating himself for what he does and pushing him to take risks until he ends up dead. It’s a short but powerful story that refuses to let people off the hook for participating in corrupt systems, how unavoidable they might seem. And it’s definitely a piece to spend some time with. Go read it!

“The Department of Suicide” by Blake Montgomery (short story)

No Spoilers: Framed as an exchange between Catherine Gabriel and an interrogator from the Department of Suicide, a part of the CDC, the story imagines a future where mental health for minors isn’t about empowering them to make good decisions but forcing them to stay alive and “happy” at all costs. The nanny state has run amok, basically forcing children to have “healthy” habits, at the expense of their personal liberties and in a way that doesn’t really care if they’re satisfied or not. The piece is intensely dark, building around an incident that happened with Catherine’s friend. The piece explores the ways that people frame depression and especially suicide among children and minors, criminalizing what is already a fraught and complicated mire of growing up, leading to a chilling place where death might not always be the worst possible outcome.
Keywords: CW- Suicide, Mental Health, Governments, Friends, Resistance, Control, Evaluation
Review: It’s tricky to take on something as loaded as suicide in SFF without reducing a lot of things, both the feelings of those who might do it and those for whom it seems an attack against them for someone they know to die in such a way. But the story does a great job of centering the people who are dealing with depression and dealing with oppression and finding space to push back against the idea that if a government could make everyone “happy” and keep children from dying from suicide, they should. Which is a sentiment that is repeated again and again, that children must be “protected” from themselves, and that no one “needs to die by suicide” because “there’s always another way.” And, well, the way here is that the government will come in and forcibly treat kids who show signs that they might become suicidal, or might want to do something else violent. And it puts all of these kids in the same category, and essentially makes them criminal. So that they can’t really seek non-judgmental help from anyone. So they can’t really have a safe space to find out what it is they’re feeling or what they might want. What’s left in the story is a nightmare of government going inside people’s heads and violating them in terrible ways, layering new trauma on old but saying that it’s okay because the subjects won’t remember. But it’s such a violation to simply know that’s happened that it must take a toll. With Catherine, she’s not exactly at risk now, but it’s obvious that she doesn’t see hope for the future. And she’s not wrong. Which is part of what I like about the story, that it asks if living entirely dissatisfied is really worth living. The interrogator has no trouble in pointing out that happiness in way easier to see to than satisfaction, and will lead to people not wanting to die, but he never wins that argument, rather relies on his power to silence the opposition. It’s a story that opens up an interesting and complex discussion around suicide without casting those who die as the villains. Because some things are ultimately choices, and one shouldn’t shame or seek to punish choices that you don’t understand, that you can’t fix. That probably can’t be fixed without power that the people suffering rarely have. So yeah, definitely one to spend some time with!


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