|Art by Anna Dittmann|
October brings four short stories to Fireside Magazine, and the works deal a lot with bodies, with control, with violation. As such, there are some rather important content warnings to heed, but also a very driving sense of exploration of what it means to be embodied, to have skin, to be perceived. Characters struggle with and against the cultural forces that keep them at odds with the meat they carry themselves in, or the code, or both. Sometimes able to pull free, sometimes not. But always still left with the concept of self as observed versus self-observing. Always still left in this messy space of trauma, desire, and anxiety. To the reviews!
“Disassembly” by Makena Onjerika (2983 words)
No Spoilers: Ntinyari can take herself apart. Detach her limbs, disassemble her organs. It’s something of a secret, and one she doesn’t want to keep all to herself, because she’s lonely, isolated, and abused by those around her. Her mother. Her romantic partners. Her bosses. All the while she internalizes the hardship she faces, the ways that she’s put down and made to feel lesser. Convinced she deserves what she gets, that she’s...well, the piece does a very good job of capturing her struggles, and places her in a place where, maybe, she can begin to come out of that. Consciously. Intentionally. But never easily. The piece is complex and challenging, but does a great job showing the work behind feeling okay sometimes, the hope involved in seeing it as still worth it to fight for your mental health.
Keywords: Bodies, Body Parts, Secrets, Employment, CW- Abuse, Mental Health
Review: I like how the story shows Ntinyari struggle from the earliest age with depression, with abuse. The ways that her mother put her down, blame her for things that she can’t control. The way that she’s viewed as bad and horrific because of what her body is like, or otherwise the ways that it seems to attract those who want to hurt her. Who want the control that her body could give them. And still walk away from her. It makes for this perfect storm of depression, where she takes everything as further proof that everyone else is right about her, that she’s bad, she’s wrong, there’s something inherently wrong with her. When really it’s the rest of the world that has the problem. When it’s that she doesn’t have a place that is safe. That is accepting. Where she can feel loved. And without that her needs are not being met, her life is a constant threat, a constant stress where she can never relax, never really show herself to anyone because she might be rejected. And I like that...in some ways she never gets that. Because for some people that’s never really their reality. They don’t get that built-in love, that security. Everything they get, they have to sort of build themselves. And it’s so hard, something that the story captures really well. That the road is a long and hard one, and it takes sort of this revolutionary act that Ntinyari is only ever half convinced of. Believing that she deserves better, and believing that it can be better. And fuck, that is real. And really hard to read. But also very very good, and I definitely recommend spending some time and care on this excellent story!
“Narrative Control” by Kyle Kirrin (2139 words)
No Spoilers: The story, told in the first person but also quasi-narrated by an “anxiety bot,” revolves around a narrator that hasn’t been having a good time of it lately. Who has been dumped by their significant other. Who is struggling with depression and now, double whammy time, gets a bot who they can’t turn off, that won’t leave them alone, that has decided to narrate their life in the most unflattering way possible. All in a tone that is almost funny, almost charming, like this is a buddy story about how this anxiety bot eventually helps the narrator get over their--what, that’s not what this is? This is a visceral descent into anxiety and a layered, clawing depression that sort of just follows the progress, the gutting gravity of that voice of the anxiety bot, without softening the blow at all? Oh. Well, shit.
Keywords: Bots, AI, Anxiety, CW- Harassment, Mental Health
Review: This is a difficult but sharp story about how anxiety and depression work. The relentless, dragging nature of them, the progressing sink, the descent, the energy-sapping suck of it all. At first I was expecting there to be a lighter element to it. It’s framed and toned like something of a joke, a piece of humor, and it seems like that’s what you’re walking into when the anxiety bot is introduced. Which I mean I was expecting but isn’t always the best way to approach anxiety through fiction, at least in my opinion, because it can open this idea that mental health is a joke and, worse, that beating anxiety would be as easy as somehow outsmarting this bot (which, if it was regular humor, would be the expected outcome). Instead, the story very viscerally details how this is no joke. It’s a horror story, essentially, disguised at first as humor, and in that it’s incredibly effective. It hurts, especially as the story nears the end and at least for me as a reader I was waiting for the turn, for the way that this was going to resolve in a positive manner. And it didn’t. It doesn’t. It’s gutting and upsetting and just makes the reader sit with that. Which is very effective even as I feel like that blow could well be lightened. Yes, it carries that brutally devastating way anxiety works. But it is so grim. So bleak. So I’m definitely going to advise people to approach this one with caution. It’s not got much in the way of hope. It’s powerful all the same, though.
“synthia.py” by Hal Y. Zhang (1273 words)
No Spoilers: Frances is a programmer. A coder. So is, or so was, Synthia. The only two women doing the work at their job, it takes a lot of time for them to get involved as anything other than employees. But eventually Frances works up her courage, and asks Synthia for assistance, and it’s the start of something. Something that ultimately falls apart, because of the distance between the two women, because of how they approach the world and coding in general. And now Frances is left with the pieces of their life, and they turn to coding to try and set things right. And to be honest I might be rather off with that synopsis, because the story is both formally daring and rather poetic, and it makes finding literal sense and a straightforward narration/plot impossible. But it makes for a memorable read, and the form underlines the story of these women and what they mean to each other.
Keywords: Coding, Relationships, Algorithms, Loss, Queer MC
Review: This is a somewhat challenging story to read, in part because it doesn’t read at all like a traditional narrative. Formally it’s complex, set out more like a poem (with specific line breaks rather than paragraphs, and nested in that is that it’s framed as code. Now, I’m not that familiar with coding, so it’s likely that I’d get more out of this if I better know how the code works. Embedded into the code, though, are the notes (those that follow the #s). And the notes paint a picture of the narrator who met and worked with a person, with Synthia being someone who they pined for and finally approached. But for all the two were close, for all the two of them could work together and thrive in certain ways, they are separated by their philosophies about coding. The narrator, more worried, anxious, full of excuses on why not to act, why not to do something drastic. Synthia, willing and able to try and Do Something. To start a revolution. To burn everything down and start again. Ultimately willing to leave the narrator and go on her own way. Leaving Frances with the absence, with trying to make sense of it, trying to survive it. And I love the way the story has that broken feel to it, the way that this program seems to be Frances trying to build something out of the wreckage of this relationship, trying both to make sense of it and maybe to undo it, to find some way that it might have gone differently. And it’s a strange wrenching story for that, for the way that it finds Frances pouring herself into this, despite it being too late. Despite that ship having sailed. Both listening to what Synthia has said and ignoring them, those final words both sinking in and bouncing off, because Frances is still there, trapped, thinking there is a key to this that she has to find, not knowing that she has the key--that she always had, but has avoided facing it, recognizes it. And it’s a fascinating, complex, and rewarding read!
“Try This One Weird Trick for A More Youthful Look in Minutes” by Maria Romasco Moore (1078 words)
No Spoilers: The story is written in the second person as a kind of guide. A self-help post you might find on the internet, complete with click-bait title. This isn’t a new fad diet, though, or any sort of quick detox with crystals. No, this is a bit more...extreme. Visceral. Personal. And ultimately a lot about the ways that beauty standards and rituals serve to silence people, to help repress all the negative feelings about living in a world that seems hostile. So, instead of taking measures to hold people accountable for their bullshit or make conditions better for everyone, the goal is to put up the best front. The brightest smile. To fake it, not just until you make it, but always, forever. It’s a story that hits a nice flow and voice, conversational, almost confessional, but in that way of letting you in on a secret. Telling you a secret technique that will help you...or at least appear to.
Keywords: Skin, Beauty, Rituals, CW- Eating Dead Skin, Peeling
Review: This is a sharp story, told in the second person by a believer. By someone who truly does think of this as a way not just to look younger, but to protect against the negativity of the world. To shrug off the daily violations and microaggressions. The small wounds that pile up. The stress and the worry and the guilt and the dread. All of it, peeled away like you’d peel a piece of fruit. Only it’s your skin. And, okay, ouch. But the piece does such a great job sort of capturing how this is an exorcism of sorts for the narrator, how it could be for you, too. That it’s taking all the negative things and peeling them away, leaving you renewed. Raw. Except...and the part that really gets me with it is that it doesn’t do anything to protect you against the same negativity, the same pain, that made it seem necessary in the first place. In fact, it gives you a thinner skin, makes you more vulnerable to the same old bullshit. Feeling what it’s like to be out from under that weight...it’s not something you can step back from. It becomes compulsive because it’s so transforming, because being free from the dirty looks and strains and hates is so liberating, but in our world can only be temporary. or at least they are only temporary. That’s where the story twists for me, where this thing that could be positive is cast in this grim light. Because you can’t stop. You can’t stop or it will be too much, will crush you entirely. You have to peel yourself, to eat the skin, to swallow it down deep so that no one else will see your pain, will see how their pressure and strain of living in a hostile place is killing you. They’ll think you’re happy. That’ll think you’re fine. And of course that will allow everything to continue, to maintain the status quo that is kinda killing everyone. That makes it necessary for you to skin yourself each day, feeling the pain of that, just to get out from under feeling the bad shit. And losing along the way the good things, the feeling of the sun, the ability to do anything for fear of breaking that new skin. It’s a story that caries so much in such a short amount of space. It’s chilling, unsettling, and oh so good. Definitely go give it a read!