Friday, December 20, 2019

Quick Sips - Diabolical Plots #58

Art by Joey Jordan
Two stories round out the SFF offerings from Diabolical Plots this month, and they cover some interesting speculative ground. Both pieces establish themselves in a rather clear literary tradition. The first looks at the idea of utopia through a statistical lens, tracing the ways “good intentions” might curve into some decidedly unjust shapes. The second takes a more noir approach, using a speculative flourish to flesh out a situation involving a domestic dispute, aliens, and rapid aging. And both offer interesting takes on these more classic elements, building two solid worlds readers can sink their teeth into. To the reviews!


“Consequences of a Statistical Approach Towards a Utilitarian Utopia: A Selection of Potential Outcomes” by Matt Dovey (1204 words)

No Spoilers: This story contains a number of scenes, each of which approaches the idea of a statistical Utopia from a slightly different angle. Together, though, they build up a view of what such a thing might look like and, mostly, they detail why structuring a utopia to measurable, statistical models, is probably a very bad idea. The piece seems to build on older, more statistical utopia/dystopia ideas, with a specific reference to the story “Harrison Bergeron.” Like that work, the mood is much more melancholic and darkly satirical than humorous, even as the idea that people would actually aim for a statistical utopia has never seemed like a completely serious one to me.
Keywords: Happiness, Utopias, Queer Characters, Statistics, Law Enforcement
Review: I quite enjoy that the story is structured so that each small scene represents a different model for imagining a statistical utopia. Highest mean, highest mode, etc. etc. etc. And each is revealed to have its own flaws at an individual level, each shown as a sort of “utopia gone wrong” and veered directly into dystopia. Again, the evocation of “Harrison Bergeron” seems apt here, because the work is examining some similar ideas, though not, interestingly, the idea of equality (save maybe in the Smallest Possible Standard Deviation scene. Further, where that story focused on ability, this one in more concerned with happiness, and sort of gets at how impossible it is to model happiness and universalize it. After all, quantifying happiness is problematic enough. Introducing statistics into is just...well, it doesn’t go well. And I like how the story shows that, given numerical, “objective” data to shoot for, what the government and enforcement agencies here do is immediately try to game the system. To inflate the numbers for the numbers’ sake and not really to make people more happy. After all, most of the scenes find that the way to boost the stats actually means making people less happy. Or, I suppose in the ultimate cheat of the system, to kill them to eliminate any negative impact they might have on the stats. And for me the story is interesting not because this sort of happiness-based math or gaming is actually possible or likely (tbh I never liked “Harrison Bergeron” because I feel it completely misunderstands what equality is and yet seems to be giving an earnest warning against trying to make things equal through legislation which, ugh, don’t get me started on that story), but because the critique here is on government tendencies to focus on numbers rather than people. And the corrupt ways that, where the numbers are leaning the right way, politicians and governments seek to undermine the good of the people to shore up their own power by perverting the ideals they are supposed to protect (see gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, ID laws, etc etc etc). So yeah, definitely a story to spend some time with, and a fine read!

“The Problem From Jamaica Plain” by Marie L. Vibbert (3479 words)

No Spoilers: Jasmine Alexa is a civil lawyer who gets a very...unique call one morning concerning possible murder, possible child abandonment, and way more questions than answers. And being the curious sort, they sort of step into the middle of not only a domestic dispute, but a complicated mess of a situation that’s going to take all of their lawyer skills, and all of their patience, to resolve. The piece is fun and funny, Alexa the presumably serious person in a ridiculous situation, but one that still has a bit of an edge to it. Still, despite the tension and speculative flare, it’s a joyous piece mostly it seems about a lawyer’s power not in navigating labyrinthine paperwork, but in summarizing a complex situation is relatively simple terms.
Keywords: Replicants, Relationships, Queer Characters, Rapid Aging, Lawyers
Review: I do love that the narrator’s ability to just sort of roll with the flow of what turns out to be a very strange and complicated situation that all the same has a very simple solution. And for me it really gets at skills, and at what lawyers really excel at—listening and translating. Yes, they are also masters of matters of the law, but what Alexa does best in the story, and what serves them most effectively as they deal with the law and not-so-law angles of the case is that they can listen, process, and then put into simpler terms what exactly is going on. They don’t get lost in the details, and they don’t let other people do that either. So when there’s a situation that really is out of this world, they are able to look past what would probably trip other people up (that pod people exist, that they can age regress and then re-age super fast) which also has the benefit of just accepting without question or hesitation the very non-speculative elements that would likely trip up a lot of other people (that this is an interracial lesbian/queer couple with rather thick New England accents). And for me that plays to the way that the narrator just sort of accepts things as they come, able to more dispassionately parse the situation and its many vexing elements and cut to the heart of things, that these are two people who love each other but haven’t been completely trusting each other and they need to get over their shit and embrace what they have. It’s delightful and takes what could have otherwise been completely ridiculous and spoof-y and makes it emotionally resonating and satisfying. I love the mix of elements, the sci fi flourish, and the completely satisfying and triumphant ending. It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s queer, and you probably need this in your life about now. A great read!


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