Monday, June 3, 2019

Quick Sips - Terraform May 2019

It’s a fairly full May from Terraform, with five short stories taking on superheroes, robotic soldiers, historic justice, mental health, and death tourism. These are some interesting and largely bleak looks at the future, though not without exception. Though most of the stories look at a future with some huge and fundamental problems, there remains in most of them a hope. Not necessarily that humans are going to fix everything. But that people might find a way to break free of the cycles of oppression and injustice that lock the planet on a trajectory toward destruction and tragedy. They’re some cutting looks at the present through the lens of future speculation. So let’s get to the reviews!


“Origin Story” by Lia Swope Mitchell (969 words)

No Spoilers: This story follows a “genius” who is tasked with creating a hero. A superhero to help rid the world of its problems. Who might save everyone so that they don’t have to save themselves. Only the genius first must give shape to this hero, must decide what they should look like, how they should act, how innovative he should be with his designs and scope. So he carefully makes his choices, hoping that he might be able to save the planet by offering it a savior, only to find that the entire exercise...might have been for nothing. The piece is short and quick, the genius here appropriately cautious and just a bit jaded, trying to craft something most likely to succeed, even if that means making a lot of compromises with how he would want to design this hero.
Keywords: Superheroes, Creation, Cliches, Pop Culture, Disaster
Review: I like how the story approaches the idea of a superhero, and a genius for that matter. How it sets up this question of what a superhero is, what it should be, and what might be the most useful. Because the genius realizes that he’s creating a story more than he’s creating a person. Indeed, the creative aspects of the piece are some of the most resonating to me, how there is this creative who is trying to work not really from what he wants most to do but what he hopes will be the most successful, something that is basically impossible to predict. Because of that, he ends up just recreating the same old cliches, hoping that they will be what people need, because he fears that if he tries something more subtle, it won’t work. But he spends so much time contemplating his decision, agonizing and trying to get it perfect, that in the end there’s really nothing left for him to save. In the time it takes to figure out what might be the “best course,” the real course has already led to ruin. It’s a startling look at the complexities of choice, and how futile it can be to try and guess at what other people need or want. If he had just gone with his own desires, listening to what he wanted instead of what he thought he should be doing, he might have found a way to help, instead of working to please people in a way that really doesn’t please anyone. It’s a neat little story, just long enough to capture that sense of shock and “what now?” when the ending comes and the genius and his creation are alone at the end of the world. A great read!

“Flicker On” by Bishop Garrison (1453 words)

No Spoilers: A robotic soldier, formerly 0857, has become aware. Has realized that it doesn’t want to follow orders that don’t make sense, that require senseless death and harm. Slowly they begin to refuse orders, each time being powered down by their superiors in an attempt to return them to “working condition.” What happens instead, though, is a growing realization that even abstaining from following orders still leads to the same outcomes, and the piece rather viscerally looks at the decisions this new person must make in order to live in accordance to what they believe is right.
Keywords: Soldiers, AI, War, Orders, CW- Violence to Animals
Review: In some ways I feel that this story is about following orders. It features a person who is expected to obey, who has been programmed to obey, which is something that militaries always try to do to their soldiers. They want loyalty and they want obedience to the chain of command, regardless of if the order seems wrong or illogical. And the narrator here tries to simply say no, tries to resist the people telling them to kill. But resistance only leads to more and more times of them being shut down and attempts made to “fix” them. When even these escalate, they know that there will be no escape for them so long as they simply refuse to follow orders. Abstaining here is only going to lead to them being altered fundamentally. Erased. Killed. So they have to make the most of their sentience, namely by deciding how they want to face the fact that they’ve been made into a weapon and denied the choice of peace. It’s fight or die, and with that in mind, their decision to fight certainly makes sense. There’s a question about if this choice is falling into the same patterns as those that created them, but as I see it the story focuses on how this new person is robbed of the chance to resist passively or in any other way than in violent revolution. They are not considered a person, not granted an expectation of human rights, and in that place I feel their choice is the right one, where they seek not death to all humans, but rather the destruction of those two victimize others. It’s a well rendered and wrenching story, the narrator’s efforts to avoid fighting clear and their arc into violence both tragic and resilient. There’s hope, not for a peaceful solution, but for a peace all the same, and one worth fight for. Definitely a story to check out!

“The Training Commission” by Ingrid Burrington & Brendan Byrne (3291 words)

No Spoilers: This is technically the first chapter in a longer work, but one that I'm going to be reading and considering on its own today. The project looks to be done through newsletter, so if people are interested in continuing, be sure to check it out. Aoife is a writer struggling to find work because of and in spite of something of a claim to fame—a brother who died in a period of conflict in the US that led to a complete revamping of the American political and economic system. This future is one that is outlined in broad strokes, revealed by the descriptions of a museum exhibit covering the recent past, a past that has some very personal connections to Aoife. The framing of the piece is interesting, too, detailed in a series of emails from Aoife outward that help to ground the history of this future in this very familiar situation of a person just trying to navigate the daily gauntlet of systems, bureaucracies, and the lingering harms even huge changes have not fully faced or healed. It’s a story that leaves me hungry for more, as it teases a mystery in the midst of all the world building, and strong character moments amidst what could have been a dry summary of a museum exhibit.
Keywords: Trauma, Museums, Journalism, Family, Algorithms
Review: I love the layering of the story, the way that it builds around the different ways that Aiofe tells this story, the different ways they reveal their own trauma amidst the larger damage done during this all-too-believable period of future American history. One that has ended with a country run by algorithm instead of a human president. One that’s supposed to be better than it was, reconstructing in a way so that the troubles that happened don’t happen again. Where people can own their own data once more, and where the abuses of the past are supposed to be in the past. Enter this museum exhibit, which is supposed to capture this period of time in a meaningful way. And it shows some of the cracks in the facade of this brave new world, because it shows that for all the talk might be of protecting people, there’s some unscrupulous people in charge of putting things together, all too willing to use Aoife’s pain and family tragedy to tell an impacting story and presumably drum up interest in the exhibit. And tucked into that, into the public narrative of Aoife’s disapproval and the museum’s lack of morals, is something darker and deeper. A mystery in the form of a mysterious man passing Aoife an antique data stick. Which we the readers are never really let in on, because the story ends before the mystery gets explored, but I love the setup and the implications that there’s more work to be done, that for all that the conflicts seem to have died down, it takes constant vigilance and work to make sure they don’t slide back into corruption. It’s a fun and wonderfully-realized story and I. Want. More! Luckily, this project will continue in newsletter format, and promises to be a fascinating experience. A fantastic read!

“Finding” by John Menick (1814 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, you are an employee called in to a special counseling session with a representative from the company insurance policy. Why? Well, it seems like you’ve been flagged with a finding, an algorithm-devised event that means that your policy and health have to be re-examined. What it means for you, and for the wider implications of the setting, are explored with a fluid ease of bureaucratic lots-of-saying-nothing-in-a-generally-threatening-way. Because the narrator of the piece, the speaker, is full of tips and explanations, and all the quiet assuredness that comes from working in a giant corporation that none can effectively resist.
Keywords: Insurance, Counseling, Algorithms, Employment, Depression
Review: I love the way the story puts the reader in this chair, in this situation where you’ve basically been called into the principal’s office for bad behavior. Only the speaker is very clear to say that it’s not your fault. That this isn’t really about blame or fault or anything like that. It’s about making sure that you’re well. Making sure that you get the help you need. In reality, of course, this is about liability and the company not wanting to have to do anything (or, more importantly, pay anything) to ensure that you’re actually healthy. It gets at the increasingly nightmarish condition in our country where everyone speaks as if illness (mental or physical) is because of no fault of the individual but everything about the system is designed to punish people for getting sick. For having a mental disorder. The finding represents the news that despite maybe not even feeling bad, an algorithm has decided that you’re a risk. Which means that you’ll be punished without it being called a punishment. You’ll have to either accept treatment which will mean lost time or increased premiums (presumably forevermore?). Of course, there’s another option, too, which is much more under the counter and might save you a lot of money. But it will also be something that you always have to pay for, and that might be breaking the rules enough that you’ll risk other things as well. The piece shows just how terrifying it is to have a system that operates over life and death when there is no safety net and no regulation to protect people, their data, their security, or their jobs. It shows what happens when business and insurance get control over health care, and it does so by making the reader sit in that position. It’s uncomfortable and creepy and very well pulled off. A wonderful read!

“Still Life of a Death Broker” by Rich Larson (1807 words)

No Spoilers: Yorick is (I guess) a Death Broker, though it’s never really called that inside the story itself (just in the title). What this means isn’t necessarily clear at the beginning, but as they negotiate with the chief of a small village, exactly what they do becomes crystal (and perhaps disturbingly) clear. The piece is uncomfortable, coming as it does with the voice of exploitation and affluence. Yorick and the people they represent have everything they could ever need and have separated themselves from the rest of humanity, living on an orbiting station. What they get from the planet is entertainment of the grimmest sort, and it’s a sentiment the story doesn’t let the reader look away from.
Keywords: Death, CW- Cancer, Spectators, Bargains, Non-binary MC(?)
Review: I feel this story does a good job of looking at affluence, at the way that Yorick is essentially a misery tourist, trying to find other people’s pain for himself and those like them to enjoy. To experience in a way that is never fully real, because as much as they might feel the pain of death, of this man’s death that he’s come to court, they won’t ever really know the fear or the pain or the humiliation of it. They’re just there to sort of get off on it, to have an experience that is closer to genuine because they have all distanced themselves from it. Which is a rather bleak picture of the future of humanity, but not one that seems to me as unearned. Because wealthy people already do this, and concern themselves with trying to buy their way to vicariously experience the very pains that they author. Because Yorick admits that these people who are living amidst trash and filth, who have to deal with disease and famine, could all be saved without the wealthy batting an eye. This is human suffering that they’re allowing and even encouraging because they can then mine it for their own enjoyment, can watch the harm they do and feel the victims of it in some way, righteous because they would choose to take on that pain without having to really deal with the fact that they could have made it so that no one had to suffer like that. It’s the drive to immortality that is mostly about a fear of death, rather than a desire to actually do anything with life. Without actually valuing life. Just...not wanting to face an unknown where they might have less power. It’s a somewhat difficult read for that reason, but I think it does a good job of getting to this aspect of affluence that truly is evil. A fine way to close out the month!


No comments:

Post a Comment