|Art by Joey Jordan
September brings a slightly larger release from Diabolical Plots, with three original stories covering magical schools, strange competitions, and vending machines of questionable morality. They walk the line between fun and poignant, between charming and wrenching. The pieces look at familial relationships and personal ambition against the desire to be a part of a community. In each, a character must handle being confronted with disappointment, with an unexpected complication. A family crisis, a educational reality, an immigration nightmare. Not all of the complications have simple fixes. But they all push the characters to reexamine their situations and try to find ways forward in a world that doesn't work quite the way they thought it did.
“Empathy Bee” by Forrest Brazeal (2093 words)
No Spoilers: Alex is a contestant in an Empathy Bee, which pits mostly children against each other for a large prize as they must answer hypothetical questions designed to be unanswerable by AI and difficult to answer for humans. He’s something of a pro, having competed for a long time, but a recent change at home means that he’s not in his usual state. And that really influences his answers, and his experience at this national empathy bee, this grand stage that was supposed to be his chance to shine, and has become instead a stage for his insecurities, doubts, guilts, and fears. It’s a piece that builds from round to round, steadily increasing the tension and delivering a philosophical, but intimately personal, reading experience.
Keywords: Empathy, Competitions, Family, Cheating, Implants
Review: The layering of empathy here is rather great. I love the idea of the competition, but the way that it takes that and then introduces this wrinkle of the family kind of falling apart is great because it confronts Alex with a situation where he really doesn’t want to empathize with his father. His father, who has cheated on his mother, who has done a lot of emotional damage to those closest to him. And Alex doesn’t want to understand it even as he’s compelled to because it’s what he does. He figures these things out. He empathizes. And what he comes to through that is a rather sharp point. That shows that he’s completely capable of figuring out why his father did what he did (at a surface level at least) and not accepting it as a good way of handling the situation. Because it’s a dodge, because it’s a lie, because it hides so much of the ways that no one was exactly demanding that Alex’s father not do what was right for him. But that there was the expectation he be an adult about it and not cheat, not sneak around, not maintain this facade. Now, I do think there is a deeper answer to the question that Alex answers, but I understand that’s not really the point of him giving the answer that he does. He’s making a statement there, allowing the judges to basically say what he can’t quite articulate. Which is a very powerful moment, and one that I think lands well in a story that is full of some pretty heavy emotional landmines. The experience as a whole for me is a little numb, a child wavering between his anger and his hurt and his stubborn and guilty love of his father. It’s quiet and it’s poignant and it’s very much worth spending some time with. A fantastic read!
“Dear Parents, Your Child Is Not the Chosen One” by P.G. Galalis (2243 words)
No Spoilers: This story is framed as one side of a series of letters exchanged between a teacher at Avalon Preparatory Academy for Adventurers and the parents of one of her students. Things...aren’t great, but it seems mostly to be that the parents are unwilling to accept that their son, Rodney, isn’t the next Chosen One, though he does show some promise. The piece sends up a lot of fantasy tropes surrounding Chosen Ones, and especially those that happen upon that status as a child. More than that, though, it looks at the ways that parents can sometimes set their children up on some bad paths through an obsession with performance and a preoccupation with results rather than learning.
Keywords: School, Helicopter Parents, Heroes, Chosen Ones, Tests, Grades
Review: Okay this story is rather charming and hilarious. I love that all we get here is the voice of the teacher, Madeleine Whimbley, because the toxic mess that are these parents never get to have a direct voice. Which regardless of how accurate it would be, would not exactly be pleasant. That this is a series of professional correspondences and that Madeleine has to maintain her composure throughout, despite how unreasonable and rude these parents are, and how awful Rodney turns out, makes for a rather lovely drama and comedy. And it works for me in part because I’ve heard stories like this from friends who are teachers, of parents who refuse to accept anything less than the top grades in school. It’s something that has turned teachers into enemies for ambitious youths, where really the enemy are the parents trying to guarantee and dictate their children’s futures without actually letting them learn and grow into people. The focus is solely on success, and they’ve defined that based on what they want, what their ambition tells them they should have if they work “hard enough.” So they pressure and seek to control their children and end up doing harm to them and their education. Instead of trying to find out the people they might turn into if they apply themselves at the things they like and are passionate about, the emphasis is solely becoming a Chosen One. And if one person won’t confirm that, then there should be someone else to do just that. It’s a kind of entitlement that is especially rich coming from people who love to call young people entitled, but perhaps I won’t get into that. I do really like the way the story builds this situation into one where things escalate more and more and Rodney falls further and further from the future his parents want from him because they were unwilling to entertain that he could have been happy, and that should have been their priority, instead of making him miserable and cruel. And it makes for another great read!
“Fresh Dates” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (3090 words)
No Spoilers: Vishaljeet Mazandaran has been detained re-entering the United States. A green card carrying immigrant, he’s spent the last twenty years in America, has assimilated by inches so that little of his religion or homeland remain in his outward appearance or bearing. But that hardly matters in this new America where immigrants are the enemy, and so he waits to hear what is to happen to him. And he stands at a vending machine, chasing after a taste from a home from his distant past. The piece looks at the pressure to conform against the tidal forces of American politics and the yearning for a home that cannot be returned to because the place, and the person, are different.
Keywords: Vending Machines, Food, Memories, Immigration, Airports
Review: The idea of a quasi magical vending machine is great, in some ways because it captures something that is so...I want to say American, despite that vending machines are by no means only an American thing. More like, the way that America does vending machines is unique, offering up crap food for inflated prices in places where people typically will pay because they have no other choices. For Vishaljeet, stranded at the airport, waiting for whatever has happened to clear, it’s something like the American experience for him, because he can see something from his pre-American home. Something unlike anything he’s come across here, and he wants it. He keeps on hitting the button for it and yet keeps on getting crap he doesn’t want. Crap that reminds him of the abuse he’s suffered as an immigrant. For wearing a turban until he didn’t. For looking different. For eating a chocolate bar differently. It’s a game where there really is no winning, because regardless of how many times he hits the button for the dates, no matter how long he resists assimilating, he only gets back shit. It’s not that there’s a special trick for getting the dates. It’s that the dates were always impossible, always a lie, and only why deciding that he’s okay with Starburst and Doritos will he be able to be okay with the situation. And if he’s not okay with it, then maybe he can fake it. And if he can’t...well, then he’s fucked, because there’s really no other option open to him. Which is a rather powerful way to frame this situation and this moment, this impossible and terrible place for people to be in, not exactly “belonging” in the sense that they are being prejudiced against but also having a home now, a place that they’ve given up so much for, that is still being taken away. It’s wrenching and fuck. Just fuck. Definitely spend some time with this one, because it’s a great read!