|Art by Kieu Vo|
January brings four short stories and one poem to Fireside Magazine, many of them dealing with some rather grim takes on the future. Tucked into these visions of climate change run amok and robot rights being exploited by greedy corporations, though, are some rather quiet narratives about resistance, resilience, and the hope for rejuvenation. Not that it always works out like that. Not that these characters really get to just wipe away the scars and stains of long-term damage. But that they might now, despite everything, be done growing. Learning. Changing for (we all hope) the better. But that's the risk and the reward. So yeah, let's get to the reviews!
“Green Tunnels” by Taimur Ahmad (1666 words)
No Spoilers: Alice is a child in a special research lab where people are trying to figure out a way to cleanse and de-pollute the planet. She becomes fixated on an old picture her father gives her, one where everything is green and alive, and starts to plan how she might be able to bring a bit of that home to her father, because he misses their old home so much. The piece is hopeful but balanced by a sense of grief and uncertainty. Mostly, it seems a dire warning, and a reminder that though they make life on the planet possible for humans, plants never really get a voice when it comes to large global decisions, and their silence is damning.
Keywords: Plants, Pollution, Family, Science
Review: I really like the way that the story sort of slowly roles out the full scope of the setting. At first it just sort of seemed to me that Alice and her family had moved to a new place for the mother’s job. It makes her actions cute, trying to reach out and comfort her father who is dealing with a kind of loss and maybe even a bit of nostalgia. As she comes to complete her project, though, and her father reacts, it becomes chillingly clear that this isn’t just a cute, innocent thing. Or, well, I mean, it is. But it takes on such a different weight when we the reader and Alice both discover that the situation is different. That the planet is actually maybe mortally wounded. That the home that the father misses doesn’t exactly exist anymore. And it’s no place to live. That the mother’s job wasn’t just lucky because it pays well but because it got them into this special facility where they hope they can still fix things. Only as we also discover, that recovery might not be as likely or as profound as hoped for. And the implications hit so hard after experiencing the almost-expected story of the child doing something nice for a parent. The reversal hits, and yet it’s not completely a reversal. There’s still something that Alice holds to, maybe because unlike her father she doesn’t have the same ties back. Maybe given that, she can have a different kind of relationship with plants. Maybe she can listen to them, despite the way they don’t physically speak. I love that final image, by the way, of the silent plant leaning as if to whisper something. Because it shows how plants are never going to tell us what point is too far. Not in our language, at least. But that, if we know how to listen, we might be able to hear the extent to which they are screaming that there’s a problem, and something needs to be done now, because playing catch-up and trying to clean what’s already been polluted is a much more difficult prospect than just not polluting in the first place. A great read!
“Custom Options Available” by Amy Griswold (3490 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story, 2234880, is a retired mining robot who, upon retirement, has settled into a city and is left trying to figure out what to do with their life now that they’re free. One of the first things seems to be to get modifications so that they can experience sex. After some pushback from the hardware installer, they get what they want, only to be faced with having to make more choices. They’re dealing with a lot, from their anger at their prior employment and its sole focus on humans, to their budding desire and yearning for a deeper and more personalized identity. It’s a careful and radical and strange, but also familiar and empowering.
Keywords: Robots, Sex, Modifications, Earthquakes, Employment, Retirement
Review: I really like the way that the narrator in this story is so angry at having been exploited. And it’s at the same time this subtle thing, because the narrator might speak directly to it at times, but their anger about it simmers throughout, pushes them to speak, to try and take control of their life, and to lash out a bit at the institutions and constructs that have hurt them. And this kind of employment trauma is such a real thing, for them because of how they were built, weren’t allowed privacy or entertainment, weren’t really viewed as full people. As much as this is about the narrator and robots, though, it’s also to me about the ways that employment and capitalism don’t really view employees as full people. And the story really explores how employment robs people of freedom and through that identity itself, here very literally. The narrator has no sexuality, no gender, no name. But they have freedom, now, and money enough to be able to choose what to do. And it becomes about them figuring out...how not to be so angry. Not to be less hurt about it, but to be less stuck in that pain. And they do so by exploring and finding the ways that they are already unique, that they are already an individual with desires and preferences. And then sort of excavating those, partly through conscious thought, by being asked questions and asking themself questions, and through experience, and being guided in some ways by what feels good, and what they want to feel good. It’s a brilliant move, because it really shows how they’ve been alienated from themself. Not how their identity never existed, but that as part of making them a cog in a business, they weren’t allowed to discover what was inside them. Which of course has left them kinda fucked up. But still alive. Still able now to steer their life. And it’s just a wonderful read!
“Watching Rome Burn” by Veronica Brush (1442 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story begins as a paramedic with a woman who is watching her home, with her two children inside, burning. And the piece takes that image, the face of the woman in that situation, and shows what it does to the narrator, how it changes the trajectory of their life. Takes them farther than they ever thought possible. But also in many ways takes them in a large circle, returning again to that moment again and again, and finding it in new and devastating ways. The piece is at the same time about taking charge of your life, of trying so very hard...and watching it all come crashing down. It’s well named, and a powerful read.
Keywords: Mars, Employment, Loss, Shock, CW- Mass Death
Review: This story really shows the micro and macro side of the title, which itself represents somewhere in between. In the beginning we find the micro, the single person’s world just completely going up in smoke. And the way they realize that, that all of their work has come to nothing and that, if they survive, they’ll have to start over...is a really gutting thing. Something that is echoed in a less vital/life-and-death way as the narrator has to decide what to do with their life following this trauma. And I feel that’s probably a little more approachable and relatable for readers, these small kinds of burnings. A life goal that crumbles. A road to a better future that runs into a bridge out. But the narrator is able to find a way forward, a way to hope in the future again. By joining a team to help to maybe colonize Mars. And it takes this new momentum, this new hope and energy. And I probably shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. The whole point of the story is to interrogate when everything goes wrong, right? And yet I wasn’t ready for the “twist.” For the shocking moment when the colonists are faced with an overwhelming loss. And they have to decide what to do. And I like how the story handles that. With a...with an acknowledgment that sometimes it’s not about the far off goal. Sometimes it’s just making it through the day, which at times requires a pointed avoidance of thinking about the far future. Because in the story, humanity is done. Twenty people ain’t enough. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do something. And so they do. It’s about survival, and facing down loss, and it’s a powerful and moving read! Go check it out!
“The Imperishable Birds” by Vajra Chandrasekera (1364 words)
No Spoilers: This story features a movie being made, featuring a two women, three men, and seven birds. The piece describes what the action is of the film as well as some of the context surrounding it. It builds a picture of this strange metaphor that the Director seems keen to make and, through that, who the metaphor is for. For me, the piece layers creative mediums, voices, and meanings. The text of the story seem to complicate the text of the movie, both of them for me examining the...artification of pain for especially perhaps the pain of non-Western people for the entertainment of Western audiences, playing into dominant and comfortable narratives that...aren’t entirely false, but that aren’t about veracity at all.
Keywords: Movies, Birds, Fire, Performances, Directors
Review: By it’s framing this story is a rather meta experience, a look at art and the kinds of stories that people want, the kind of pain that is encouraged to be shown, and the ways that this is received. The actual text of the story follows this film, the actors and the characters. The film is fairly simple, consisting of only five people, and yet there is a sense that even so the Director expects this to win awards. To avoid the censors. But why, when at its heart the film isn’t really positive. It’s about an execution and the resulting hardship that falls on the wife of the man who was killed for being anti-government. This woman suffers, and in her suffering she passes along suffering to her children. She is an object of pity, at the same time silenced and sexualized by the film, made into a symbol of women’s suffering. And on its surface that might seem to be transgressive, subversive. Except that really it’s not. Because it’s not really challenging the ways that women are hurt, the ways they are assaulted by the world. It’s taking that as a sort of given and making it a sort of tragedy, a cycle that can’t be stopped, that maybe even shouldn’t be stopped, because look at the art it inspires. Look at the beauty, the humanity, the wonderful suffering. Look how comfortable it is to be the informant, how safe, how anonymous. Look at it all and give it praise even as you seem to be denouncing it, because in the end you find you like it. Or that’s what the piece speaks to me, showing the sort of voyeuristic quality of the project, the way that the Director isn’t there to stop this kind of pain, but to profit off it, selling it to a likely affluent audience who doesn’t know that kind of pain and finds the emotions it evokes entertaining while making them feel better because they have seen it, experienced it, like it’s a kind of sacrifice after which they are absolved. It’s a strange, fascinating story, and I very much recommend spending some time with it. A great read!
“Skyscraper” by Annika Barranti Klein
This piece builds around an image not of the titular building but a car, and about recycling, and a fantasy, a kind of dream. The narrator muses about a world without traffic lights, where things are automated and efficient, where air is circulated by plants, where cars run on solar and without the need to drive. Where there are buildings, cities in the sky and everything is a park. Which is, well, as lofty as a skyscraper, certainly. And the piece is structured a bit like that, one stanza that reaches up from the bottom of the page/screen. Part of the question for me is how earnest the poem wants to be read. The idea of a utopia brought on by technology is a seductive one, one that really does play to our desire not only to get out of our current climate change trajectory, but where everything is easy. We don’t have to give up our luxuries, and indeed they become more elaborate, even more luxurious. Buildings can stretch into the sky and house everyone on the planet. Everything else will be parks! For me at least it just has this sense that it’s not really entirely serious, not really saying that this is the future that we should want. It’s aspirational, yes, but in an almost anachronistic way. This vision of enormous buildings and parks is...well, it speaks to a kind of aesthetic, a kind of isolation and preference for isolation. The imagery is all about walls, about structure, about cleanliness and efficiency, and in doing so the piece is showing that vision of the narrator doesn’t really think about all the other things, and about the sheer amount of people involved. The thought of a single building that could house the planet is not just ridiculous, but it might speak to a kind of distance desired from those the narrator doesn’t want to be near. The future is clean and only has a few tens of thousands of people. The natural world would be parks, maintained still for human enjoyment. It’s a subtle piece, and it’s completely possible I’m missing something, but for me the piece represents something of a view from the top, someone looking down at the world and wanting the power to reshape it. Not someone down at the bottom wanting to tear down the corrupt systems and fix what needs fixing. It’s a fascinating read, though, and very much worth spending time with!