|Art by Cat O’Neil
Five Tuesdays make for a busy April with Fireside Magazine, which released five short stories and a poem this month. The piece run the gamut of emotions, from slow and dark to fast and violent, from fun and sweet to numb and hurt. The connective tissue of the issue seems to me to have more to do with cycles, with systems and how they produce justice or injustice, depending on how they are structured. And what people do when faced with these systems. How they play into them. How they resist them. How they try to ignore them. And by and large the stories are challenging, presenting readers with visions they might wish to look away from, but which we all should see, and examine, and complicate. To the reviews!
“Balompié” by Ana Hurtado (1586 words)
No Spoilers: Joaco is a high schooler in Ecuador on a trip to watch a live soccer match in the capital. Along with three friends, he’s there breaking the mandates of his parents, who forbade him to attend, knowing well the violence that seems reserved for young men who attend. A violence of knives and stomping feet, of young men looking for a fight and an outlet for their anger and suppressed fears. The piece builds up the scene and infuses it with a kind of magic, a kind of nostalgia, all the while building up a different kind of feeling as well, of danger and boasting and a sort of collective lie.
Keywords: Soccer, High School, Violence, Volcanoes
Review: This is a strange story and one that doesn’t really have a speculative element that I can detect, but I still love what it does. Because it builds up this situation, this scene, this story that is presumably about Soccer. About this young man disobeying his parents and risking going to a soccer match and almost having it end very badly but instead getting away and being invigorated by it and carrying it with him ever after that. But for me the real story is one just below that, and it exists in all the ways the story reminds the reader of the corporations involved, the corruption involved. The ways that this nostalgia is one where companies exploit and exploit and exploit and are able to get away with it because of these blood and circuses. Because of soccer and the power that it has, the appeal that it has, the draw that it has. Because of this situation where those same corporations create the situation where people are frustrated and angry, looking for ways to do violence. And in this place, in the soccer arena, there is license to do just that. And it’s something that wealthy understand and try to keep their children away from while they profit so much from it all, staying safe while so many don’t get that option, must work in the companies that don’t seem to care so much about people as profits. And it makes that point carefully and well, drawing this picture that could almost be fun, that could almost be joyous and free but for the looming shadows pressing in all around. And it captures some of this feeling of soccer in its complexity and violence, its catharsis and release, that is beautiful and dark all at the same time. A wonderful read!
“Poison” by Cyd Athens (973 words)
No Spoilers: The framing of this is rather great, where the narrator (a plural first person “we”) tells the story of a second person “you” who is pumped full of drugs and sent into a war zone as a killing machine. The story has a lot to do with punishment and cycles, with exploitation and the interplay between “we” and “you”, between us and them. And it does it in a rather visceral, rather creepy way, placing the reader in some ways in both positions, pulled in opposite directions, having to face the prospect and terrifying implications of Poison, and all that comes with it. It’s bloody and harsh, slick and practiced to the point that there’s a heavy inevitability about it that is wonderfully pulled off.
Keywords: Cryogenics, War, Drugs, Justice, Punishment
Review: It’s not every day that I come across a story that is working both in second person and first person plural, and yet here we are where the “we” of the story, the narrator, is speaking to a “you” who is the subject of a kind of experiment, or more accurately a kind of punishment. Because you are a criminal being used to fight wars for our benefit. You are drugged and made to fight as a kind of punishment, because you refused to fight before, and the conflict you refused to fight in ended up destroying your and our shared planet. Which is a wonderfully fucked up punishment, and one that drives so much of the cyclical violence and tragedy of the story. Because it’s not the loss of the planet really that drives things now, but rather our tendency to want to punish, to want to exploit people to lash out in our anger and our greed. Instead of learning from the pain of having our home destroyed, we are just passing on the shit. And in doing so we are authors of our own punishment when you manage to overthrow us and replace us and basically do the exact same thing. Which is creepy and chilling in the story, but more than that I just love how it comes together and how the “we” and “you” change places, which for me just sort of implies that it might well keep going like that, both sides trapped in their hurt and their desire to punish, all still prisoners of this drive to not move on from the loss and pain they’ve experienced. And it’s a complex and dark story, short and sharp and a great read!
“How to Say I Love You with Wikipedia” by Beth Goder (2337 words)
No Spoilers: The story is told from the point of view of a computer who has, unbeknownst to the humans around them, has gained emotions and self awareness. They are part of a mission on Mars and act as the main computer for the astronauts, as well as the analyzer of the samples that they bring in from the surface. They know that they have feels, gleaned from observing the humans around them, but they don’t know how to communicate that. The piece opens as the mission is set to come to an end, the astronauts getting ready to leave the planet and Rocky knowing something is up, but not sure exactly what. It’s a surprisingly emotional story, full of longing, hope, and enthusiasm, and it’s sure to get you right in the feels.
Keywords: Mars, AIs, Feels Wikipedia, Communication
Review: So this story shines in its voice and its tone, capturing this enthusiasm and joy and hope that contrasts a bit to the reality of the situation, resulting in a piece that is a bit emotionally devastating even as it’s fun and cute. And the reason is Rocky, who wants to let people know that they have feels while also fearing how people will react. The mission has created this very predictable, very safe space for Rocky, where they have a routine and know the confines of their world. But change is coming and they don’t quite understand it. There’s a soft sense of urgency to the piece for me, one that arises from Rocky not being able to imagine the mission ending. They have to be aware of it, for a number of reasons, but it doesn’t have a sense of realness for them. This mission has been their entire life, and it’s so wrenching to see them just not really process what it is that’s happening. The story deals with home, too, and how for Rocky the mission is home, while for the humans their homes are back on Earth, and they are rather eager to go, unaware that by going they are leaving behind a self aware AI who will miss them. Who doesn’t really want to be alone. It’s a situation where the central misunderstanding is never really cleared up. The story closes with Rocky onto a new mission and a new hope but also with a feeling that’s a lot like doom to me. Because they still haven’t gotten through to the humans, and it seems that people back on Earth will just misunderstand what Rocky is trying to say. And given the more recent stories about rovers on Mars, it’s a rather shattering story about distance and home and the heartbreaking innocence and hope that Rocky has. I just want to give them a big hug, but instead they’re stranded on Mars and will probably eventually break down. So I guess I’ll hug myself and try not to cry. A moving read!
“The Jubilee” by Sheree Renée Thomas (201 words)
No Spoilers: This is a very short story, and a beautifully poetic one, which makes this both very difficult and very easy to spoil. It’s a story that deals very much with names and with the direct aftermath of slavery. About the ways that people react, the differences and the way that they are all still united by the shared act of trying to navigate forward. It’s a piece that carries a lot of joy, a lot of triumph, but also packs a lot of complexity into a very short space. There aren’t really specific characters here, but the story still shines with personality and voice and harmony.
Keywords: Names, Freedom, Choice, Legacy, CW- Slavery
Review: I love the way this very short piece gets at the ways that different people react to the same event, the way that some people when faced with a release from trauma and institutional injustice, choose to change themselves drastically to reflect their new condition. Others, though, choose to reflect that change in other ways, and consciously choose to retake some of the elements that were forced on them, and by choosing them, flip the power structure that had existed, making what was supposed to rob them of identity something that enhances and empowers them instead. And I like how the piece doesn’t show these different responses as opposed to each other, as at odds, for all that some would probably think they represent a schism or divide within those who survived and achieved freedom. To me, at least, the piece draws these reactions together as part of a single and unified movement. One where there is no right or wrong answer to choosing a new name or retaining the one that was given. That freedom doesn’t mean having to experience freedom in one way, but rather that each person gets to wrestle with their identity and their future in their own ways, free to choose what to keep, what to leave behind, and who they want to be. And regardless of how people choose, they are linked now by the freedom of choice, of being able to steer their own future and define their lives on their own terms. That whatever the name, the namings are acts laced with hope and with memory, with joy and with respect for the pain that was experienced. And it really is a beautiful piece full of imagery and celebration and the power of having freedom after being without. A fantastic read!
“You Are Bleeding” by Alexandra Seidel (777 words)
No Spoilers: This story follows a young girl who wants to be an astronaut, and the barriers that are put up in her way. The piece features a nested fairy tale and a weight of a society where it’s more important to “stay safe” rather than challenge injustice. Where it’s more important to maintain the status quo rather than actually protect people from harm. It’s a deeply familiar story in how it addresses a core problem with living with misogyny, where trying to survive safely in effect requires people to play into the very misogynist lies and injustices that should be destroyed. It’s complicated and packs a lot into a fairly small space, circling around the anger and frustration, the hope and the struggle to keep the promise of freedom and possibility made to every child, that they can be anything they want to be.
Keywords: Fairy Tales, Astronauts, CW- Assault, Blood
Review: I love how the story gets at the way that society reinforces misogyny, how insidious it is why getting people to uphold it in an effort to be safe, in an effort to not be the people brutalized and punished for stepping out of line. Here it’s not the dangerous men, the hungry princes, who are most responsible for policing the girl. Indeed, it’s other women who are most involved in teaching these lessons to the girl, under the guise of trying to protect her and keep her safe by telling her the “rules.” The rules that are supposed to separate the innocent from those girls and women who will be attacked, assaulted, and made to bleed. Who are basically asking to be hurt because they’re not playing along, and those who go against the rules deserve no sympathy or compassion. Which is just all sorts of fucked up, because these people treat these things like they can’t be helped, that they are forces of nature. But at the same time they are actively making them happen by refusing to hold men responsible for their actions, by punishing women for being attacked rather than those actually responsible. They are so invested in their own morality and safety that they refuse to see that those are illusions, that there is no way to be safe for women, regardless of how perfect they are, because any flaw in character can always be added after the fact. It’s a sharp and powerful story that really captures the frustrations of the girl even as she refuses to be deterred from her dreams. She fights despite it all, against everyone, and she is hurt along the way, but she also refuses to allow that hurt to be used against her. She reframes it, takes it back, and keeps right on fighting, because there’s really nothing else for it. It’s an empowering story, hopeful without erasing the danger or the pressure to conform. A great read!
“Medusa” by R.B. Lemberg
This poem speaks to me of the layers of angers and injustices in the world, the ways that so many people are made to stifle themselves for the comfort of others, for the hope that they can reach a place that is good, or at least better, or at least not actively trying to kill them, or at least not trying to kill them quickly, or cruelly, or can it be anything but cruel if it’s happening, relentlessly, consumingly. The narrator’s anger grow from their head and separate them, mark them, show the world a hundred hissing faces that the world, in turn, wants to punish. So the narrator tries to cut them away, to make themself more acceptable in order to reach for safety. For a place where they can belong. Only the more they cut, the more they reach, the further away their goal seems to be. There’s always more to cut and more still and meanwhile it hurts to do and the loss of the anger goes with the other losses that feed the anger. The loss of homes, of languages, of people, of status, of resources and emotional resources. And there’s such a weight to the poem for me, this sort of frantic energy that comes from needing something and not being able to reach there, and having to try harder and harder and harder to fit in enough to maybe get to a place of security in the hopes that you might be able to relax, to find peace, and...finding that there is no peace. That the peace was always a phantom, disappearing the moment you draw near and discover that there is no place without complication, without the touch of injustice and corruption and atrocity. And that there is no amount of effort that is enough for those with power who benefit from the system as is. There is no worthy enough, no good enough, no pure enough. There is no amount of angers cut away that they’ll ever truly accept, just demands for more, more, more, and reminders that if you’re not happy about it, it’s your fault anyway. And the ending is shattering, real, and quietly explosive. That captures what it’s like when you’ve said something, believed something, had to deal with something forever, and then witness when other people, who have always been the ones to say cut your snakes, cut your snakes, it’s not that bad, suddenly find that they are at risk, too, because they didn’t act enough, didn’t work to make things safe before. And that exhaustion and numbness is so real. And wow, I think I need to go pour myself a drink. It’s a wonderful, emotionally resonating, brilliantly realized poem that you need to go out and read right now. Go do it!!!