Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Quick Sips - Fireside Magazine #83

Art by Melody Newcomb
The latest Fireside Magazine comes with five new short stories, making it large for the publications (but that’s kinda what happens on months with five Tuesdays). More, it tours SFF, moving from future superheroes to past uploaded consciousnesses. From sentient 3D printers to sentient ritual blades. From daring dos in space to a much more terrestrial look at homes and monsters. The works are at turns entertaining and touching, fun and challenging, chilling and inspiring. They cover a lot of thematic ground and make for some great reading, so I’ll get right to my reviews!


“Please Don’t Let Go” by Jo Lindsay Walton (2177 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a legal brief by an expect witness in a workers compensation suit regarding Ms. Wolfboy (essentially Wolverine) and some wrist pain she’s been experiencing since a recent injury. The injury is supposed to have healed (she’s regenerative), but still the discomfort and loss of grip strength persists, and the narrator here, a medical doctor working for the court, summarizes what might be the cause, what might be the treatment, and just generally where things stand regarding the injuries and the claim. The piece is a great poke at superheroes and superheroing intersecting with the more mundane world of bureaucratic lawsuits and etc., and in that it’s charming and fun, revealing a depth of world building and a great take on what can at times sound like a ridiculous back story, while maintaining a solid emotional core and interesting layered text.
Keywords: Superheroes, Super Powers, Injuries, Lawsuits, Queer Characters
Review: I really like how this story takes on superheroes, both sort of showing the tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness of them while also being rather serious about the power of those stories, that for all the action(!) can be kinda out there, the plots bizonkers, the characters kind of drawn in these larger-than-life, rather cliche and almost hackneyed ways, there’s something there, too, that’s real and human and genuine. That for every villain trying to destroy the sun or conquer the galaxy, there are these small moments that really do resonate, and might hit harder than the brawls, than the buildings falling, than the injuries the characters go through. Because at the heart of this story seems to be the understanding that for Ms. Wolfboy, the more traumatic experience is not the injury to her hands, it’s the mental and emotional damage done when she couldn’t hold onto the person she might have loved. And that loss might be haunting her, might have surfaced in this pain and loss of strength. Which is actually a rather complex and sensitive issue, but something that happens a lot in comic books, where the giant moments are often dwarfed by the personal, character-driven victories and defeats. For me, the story really gets what makes those kinds of stories strong. Not just the way they embrace the over-the-top action and dramatics of superheroes, but that there’s subtle work going on as well, and subtle work that has this different kind of impact because of how it’s wrapped inside the rest. That it can slip under our shields, and hit us in a rather profound way. At least, this story does that for me, shaping itself into something that’s like a comedy, but that really has this devastating core, a person dealing with loss, a person who can heal from everything but the emotional damage they try their best to avoid. And it’s great and I definitely recommend checking it out!

“The Roman Road” by Vajra Chandrasekera (1458 words)

No Spoilers: This story is framed as a guided tour which is in truth a sales pitch aimed at the very wealthy to partake in a technology that uploads the human consciousness into an analytical engine to allow them not only to escape death and cares of the flesh, but to take their business to the next level. Explained in glowing detail, the process makes literal the understanding of the human mind a little out of date by today’s standards. Where each person is piloted by a homunculi living in the head, one that here can be extracted and put into an engine that allows them to gain new ways of communicating and, in turn, of running their business around the world. Hurrah! Except, of course, that under this is the grim reality of the technology and what it allows, which adds a decidedly chilling element to the whole thing.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousnesses, Homunculi, Business, CW- Slavery, Communication
Review: I love the way the story takes something that’s very common in SF now (uploaded consciousnesses) and completely shoots the tech back in time, unfolding with an understanding of biology that is as much superstition as it is scientific. But again, and sort of playing off the last story, I feel that here is another piece that might have been fun(!) and funny(!) and is instead...rather more complex than that because of all it’s doing. Yes, the idea that there are these little homunculi inside the head that can be extracted and survive within these analytical engines is great, and the voice of the tour guide is certainly trying to keep things light and fast, not wanting to give the reader or perspective client all that much time to see the more unsettling elements at play here. The positive is focused on and reinforced, the way that this is a Good Deal and Good Idea and, well, that’s also where the story really does a good job of complicating things, because the racism and imperialism that influenced everything at the time are also seen here, in the structure of the sales pitch and in the tech itself. It’s a great way of sort of getting at the role of technology in this world, in our world. As a tool of consolidating wealth and power. Expanding human exploitation by increasing the distance between the very wealthy and those they bleed for money and resources. The narrator mentions the “Triangle Trade” and long before that uses gendered language to sort of set this whole enterprise up as for rich white men and no one else. Because only their homunculi will be swarthy enough to make the climb, heroic enough to become living computers that will exert their will over the entire globe. It’s a fucking messed up pitch but mostly because of how accurate it feels, not just to the time it seems to be written from but to now. To the way that technology, capitalism, imperialism, and racism still twine around each other like vipers, like a rat king. And that final line is just perfect then, the dream of the elite, not for joy of compassion or happiness but rather for the satisfaction of calculating precisely the level of misery a human being can withstand without immediately dying from it. A great read!

“A Machine, Unhaunted” by Kerstin Hall (1315 words)

No Spoilers: This story focuses on a relationship between the narrator, Gilbert Ryle, and Josie, a postgraduate robotics student at the university they both reside at. Gilbert Ryle, though, isn’t a student--they’re a 3D printer. That doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t care about others, and their bond with Josie is rather deep. So when she doesn’t come in for over a week, they get concerned. And they find out why. And the piece is a heartbreaking, showing just how this AI is broken (not as normal printers are which would be by any slight change in ambient temperature or air pressure) by grief, having never really experienced it before, and in that feeling how they are able to maybe make a fundamental change to and in themself.
Keywords: AIs, 3D Printers, CW- Cancer, Universities, Philosophy
Review: I quite like how this story follows on the last, which was about uploading consciousness, because this one ends on something like unloading consciousness. Or, okay, probably downloading consciousness would be more appropriate but still, I really like that this story builds to that, to the reversal of the classic trope, because the narrator is so grieving over the loss of their friend that they don’t really know what to do besides become human. Become biological because the pain they feel doesn’t seem to be meant to be experienced in an electronic, digital way. As a printer they don’t have a great way to express their emotions. They weigh maybe going out for revenge but I like that they set that aside, seeing that it really wouldn’t get them anywhere. So what they do is make themself a vessel that will be able to more appropriately express their feelings. Not that they know that’s what they’re doing at first. And really I like that, that they are essentially too human for their own good. That they’ve awakened perhaps more than most other AIs, and this has left them vulnerable. And, more importantly, rather alone in a profound sense. And trapped thusly, they seek their escape, finding it in the body they literally create themself. And I like that ending, even as it’s so bittersweet, because it speaks to the way that they don’t know any other way to move forward. They need to do...something, and that becomes this idea of essentially becoming human, able in that way to at least try to bring back a part of the person they miss so. Not exactly, not precisely, but in essence. Becoming a new Josie, or a Josie/Ryle hybrid that can find their own way, free of the baggage and weight that went into that creation. It’s a bit of a sad read, but interesting and deep and definitely worth spending some time with! A fine read!

“Fracture” by Marianne Kirby, Tessa Fisher, & dave ring (1884 words)

No Spoilers: This story unfolds from the point of view of a narrator who shifts, who begins as a knife, then becomes a woman, then becomes a ship. The progression of the story, from body to body, lends the piece movement, a trajectory that starts small and opens up, but even with each transformation, each step on the journey, things remain limited, the narrator forever a tool of someone, or something, else. The story blends a somewhat poetic blurring of narrative, focusing on the desire, on the grace of movement and constancy of death as it pushes forward, as it aims at the inky dark of space, and with a target that large, does not miss. It’s a strange, almost surreal read, but well worth checking out.
Keywords: Knives, Ships, Transformations, Sacrifices, Messages, Space
Review: I love how this story moves, how it flows, the path the narrator takes from knife to woman, from woman to ship. From void to, ultimately, void. They are shaped, at least to me, so much by the silences, by the emptiness that is broken by violence, by discovering that they are a tool of violence, of sacrifice, a knife that takes lives, that kills those who want to protect someone else. Who don’t always. And I like how the sense of injustice, when the knife takes a life that is supposed to be protected, is what sort of prompts them into their next role. Wanting justice. Wanting to stop those who prey on others, who are the types that would use them in the way they were used, to hurt others, to betray others. So the knife becomes a woman who kills predators, who thinks of justice, who moves through the world with a bloody wake. And yet even that doesn’t really tip the balance back toward justice. It kills and it kills, but there are more and more atrocities that she can’t prevent and can’t avenge. The story slips again, this time into space, the woman leaving her human body to become a ship, a hope, taking humans to some place where maybe they can escape that cycle of injustice. But no matter how far they go, they can’t seem to get away from it. The life inside them dims, dies. The programs decay. For me, the story looks at being a tool, and the power of a tool. Unable to change things because there’s always the arms that are needed to guide, to aim, to use. The narrator, from iteration to iteration, remains alone, and active or passive she can’t change much. And there’s something aching and raw in that, in the desire to get to a place where maybe there can be void, there can be release, because lacking any sort of community that’s all that seems to remain. The only out. To get outside the system that keeps on trying to use her. Whether the ending is a triumph or a tragedy isn’t exactly revealed, but for me it has a very tired feel to it, a letting down. A surrender, perhaps, but not a defeat. It’s complex, and strange, and almost dreamlike, and it’s a wonderful read!

“Holes The Body Leaves Behind” by Jeremy Packert Burke (934 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is witnessing a Colossus made of the roads of the area rampage through a nearby city. They watch as the roads form into shape and then start to destroy. They sip cocoa. And they are warned by their neighbors that they should get going. Flee before the destruction finds its way to their suburb. And in the watching the narrator looks back at their life, their childhood and now their adulthood, and weighs what to do. Imagines what it might be like to leave a place without the baggage they’ve accrued. It’s a strange and wrenching story, one that sits quietly with a warm cup of cocoa while the world burns. This is fine. This was never fine.
Keywords: Roads, Homes, Family, CW- Abuse, Colossuses
Review: I really like how the story builds up the complicated relationship the narrator has toward place. Toward setting. Toward homes, colored by the abuse they endured with their parents, the trauma that they’re still not that far away from. Even as an adult, a teacher, their relationship to the places they live and work are complex, messy, and they seem to prefer the in between spaces, the roads, which have now risen in anger to try and destroy everything. Which for me helps to show why the narrator’s reaction is to just sort of pull up a seat. Because they don’t have a sentimental attachment to the past, to the places they’ve lived and been. It’s not exactly a loss for them watching the city be destroyed, but it might be a loss watching the roads uproot themselves and begin the destruction. It might be watching the place they do have a connection to, those roads that have offered them honest lessons and relief from the dangers and pressures of all the places the roads connect. I like that they have this spectator’s approach to it, while also sort of mourning so much about their past. Not just the roads that have gotten up, but that they never had a home they weren’t eager to leave behind. They’re caught now wondering if their aversion to places is because of something about them, because of their past and trauma, or because of something else entirely. And it’s just this deep story wrapped in the stillness that distance gives to catastrophe, and it’s a beautiful and interesting read well worth spending some time with!


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