Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Quick Sips - Augur #3.2 [part 1]

Art by Lorna Antoniazzi
I have been eagerly dreading the end of December for a number of reasons. Both because of the change it will bring and because I was suspecting that the year that kept on giving wasn’t going to give up without one last go. And I’m pleased to say I was right, as there are a few big releases that I probably would have broken up over a few months that I’m not going to do my best to fit in immediately. First out of the gate is Augur, with an absolutely packed issue featuring seven stories, eight poems, and a graphic story. That’s a lot, and I’m covering the first half of the issue today. It’s...well, it something of a heavy bunch of works, focusing rather sharply on loss, on conflict, on climate change, on cultural destruction. It’s not an easy issue to read, but it is an easy issue to like, and there’s tons of great works that I will get right to reviewing!


“The Truth at the Bottom of the Ocean” by Maria Dong (short story)

No Spoilers: This story finds a narrator who has lost their home to rising ocean levels, to climate change. Whose people have built an enormous kind of boat or raft called the Monster and are inhabiting it but are still losing. To the oil companies and everyone else who are trying to still exploit the waters for profits. The narrator’s people, though, also have magic, something they’ve kept from the rest of the world, and while it hasn’t really helped them avoid the situation they’re in now, the narrator might be willing to try something desperate. To protect their child, they might be willing to try anything. The piece is quiet and wrenching, drawing this gulf between the narrator and their child, their ways of looking at the world and its problems, and the action they’re willing to risk to save what they feel must be saved.
Keywords: Seas, Magic, Family, Rising Ocean Waters, Climate Refugees
Review: I love the way this story captures the divide between the narrator and their child, the wound that the loss of a home has left. It’s a fracture, a chasm that they cannot fully cross because the path back toward each other is submerged, lost beneath the oceans. They are left with the scars of what has happened and no real way forward toward healing. Adrift in a literal and figurative sense, the narrator tries to help their child but everything about the situation hurts. Everything is a reminder of what they have already had taken from them. What they couldn’t protect. And they know in part that they still can’t protect what they want to, what they need to. At least, not without risking everything. Not without making something of a sacrifice. It’s something that shouldn’t be necessary, that wouldn’t be a thing at all except for the lines. The way the narrator has separated themself from their child, their child from the heritage and people they are both a part of but that is painful in different ways. For the narrator, it’s about loss and grief that can’t really be made right. For the child, it’s about the weight of that, about having this absence instead of their cultural, instead of their home. And having to decide that they want to do something about it. Which in turn pushes the narrator to act, where they hadn’t acting so aggressively before, because of what it would mean. because of what they’d have to do in order to carry it out. But seeing that it’s the only way forward. And I love the frame, the voice, the two truths and a lie style. It’s powerful and a bit heartbreaking, and makes for a great read!

“Are We Ourselves?” by Michelle Mellon (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a Black man who has had to undergo a series of consciousness transfers. Not of his own mind to new bodies but other minds into his own, sharing himself with powerful people whose survival has been deemed of national interest, over the mental freedom of the narrator. It’s a situation that has been a long time coming, and seems to be overseeing a rapid decline in population and potential as the planet narrows, opportunities close, and people are losing control over who is allowed in their brain. The story is wrenching and centers that loss, that decline, that encroaching despair at the voices lost, the lives lost, the stories lost, putting one more out there in the face of the destruction, in the hope that maybe something will survive.
Keywords: Memories, Consciousness Transfer, CW- Slavery, Dystopia
Review: The idea here is a nice weaponization of the idea of uploaded consciousnesses, rather sharply realizing that failing the ability to create mechanical humanoid bodies that can truly experience the range of sensations, people would just turn to a new kind of slavery. And that, given in this setting white people are the most vulnerable to a cancer that is quickly spreading thanks to climate change and increased radiation and perhaps exposure to certain pollutions/chemicals, old patterns would play out. People of color being forced to give up their body autonomy and “paired” with other people inside their minds. Promised a temporary thing that becomes more and more entrenched as time goes on and the situation doesn’t improve. And it doesn’t improve because it’s easier to steal Black bodies than it is to actually address the underlying issues. Sadly, that reads as true, and the progression, the descent, is wrenchingly captured here. The narrator starts out almost believing the lies, but knowing, because of what happened to his mom, because of what has always happened historically, how this will go, how this might end. And for me it’s hard to say if it’s a...hopeful story. It’s a tired story, for me, one that expresses this profound exhaustion at seeing the same injustice play out time and again. It’s something of a warning, something of an open acknowledgement. And it’s a fascinating and well built story that exposes the ways that technology often doesn’t set us free so much as it gives the same old injustices fresh power and new outlets. A powerful read!

“This Soil Still Gives” by Natasha Ramoutar (short story)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story, Fangs, works in reclamation and recycling, helping to turn areas destroyed by war into gardens, old war mechs into useful and more vital tools for the surviving communities. It’s work that she’s good at, but it’s not always work that she likes. She can’t like it when it brings her face to face with the mechs that destroyed her home, that took almost everything from her. And when her latest project brings her face to face with a mech that brings her back to that moment of loss, she turns to a strange and magical artifact she has from her dead father to literally go back in time and witness that tragedy from a new angle. It’s a difficult story that continues the themes of loss and generational struggle, grief and the bleak lines toward healing.
Keywords: Family, Loss, Robots, War, Reclamation, Memories, Sand
Review: This is another difficult story that really digs into a loss of place. Of home. Of family. The narrator is haunted by the death of her sister, who was only ten years old at the time, whose death was captured by a photographer, who became something of a symbol. But for Fangs the symbol was never as important as the raw grief of that moment, the devastation that the mech brought down on them. And now their life is about taking those mechs and fixing them up into something else. Something presumably good. So that new growth can help people live and recover. Only she doesn’t seem to be doing that so well, living trapped by her memories, escaping back to witness them again and again thanks to the magic of her amulet, the grains of sand that allow her to step back in time, though mostly just to that moment, that nightmare, that tragedy. That’s helpful, though, when she suspects that the mech she’s fixing up now is actually the same one that killed her sister. And it opens up these old wounds that had never fully healed in the first place. It brings it all crashing back. But it also gives Fangs this chance to maybe begin to feel the worth she’s doing. The healing she’s authoring on her home. That can never return her sister but that can find that hope that other people have taken from her. That there is still beauty, even amidst the death and loss. That there is still resilience. That there is still family, and memory, and surviving, and that there is value in all of it. It’s a bracing, rending read, quiet but no less devastating for it, and well worth checking out. Fantastic work!

“Junkhead” by David F. Shultz (short story)

No Spoilers: Neoma is marooned on a planet she was part of a mission to study and, ultimately, to colonize with humans. A mission that went rather wrong when they crashed. Now she’s just about the last of the crew still alive. The only other one is Junkhead, a robot who is also breaking down. The situation on the planet isn’t hopeless, but it’s a long way from good, and Neoma is doing it with a heaping helping of trauma and PTSD from what’s happened, coupled with the prospect of soon being the only person on the planet. But it’s Earth-like, and she can grow crops. There are animals. She’ll probably not starve. But does that mean she can survive? The piece is bleak with a glimmer of resilience, of a kind of hope in the midst of devastation.
Keywords: Colonization, Crashes, Robots, Plants, Isolation
Review: Being the halfway point of the fiction, this continues the thematic resonance of the rest of the issue so far, finding a character isolated due to trauma and violence. Where mostly before it has been conflict, though, and cultural erosion and attack, here it’s something different. Here the violence is more random but no less profound, the loss Neoma feels no less a loss of culture, a loss of everything. She’s now alone on this planet, having to deal with what’s happened, having to decide if she even wants to live if she won’t be around anyone for the foreseeable future. That isolation, that loneliness, is a tangible thing here, and it’s obvious in some ways that she’s just avoiding dealing with it, avoiding because facing it is such a big thing, the idea of it almost too big to contemplate, especially if it means having to poke at the wounds that are still nightmare fresh in her mind. And I like how the story uses the robot, Junkhead, how it sort of makes him into this silent commentator on her decisions. He doesn’t really have much in the way of AI, but in his attempts to be helpful he really does push Neoma into confronting what has happened. Into making the changes she needs to make so that she can truly think of the people she’s lost as gone. So she can bury them in a more profound way than just putting them in the ground. It’s a way of honoring them and letting them go. A way of setting her sights forward without being ignorant about the past. It’s a way of showing that she’s not going anywhere, that she still intends to live, because she doesn’t add herself to the lists of the dead. Instead, she sees the work ahead of her and finds meaning in that, in what she can do to try and make this planet her home. For the sake of her mission, her friends, and her future. A great read!


“Glass Womb” by Elizabeth Upshur

This piece speaks to me of magic, of futures, of the future of childbirth, which is also kind of the present. Of children who can be brought to term inside artificial wombs, which is a technology that’s available, if not always looked on kindly by the world. In part because of how it takes pain out of the equation, for how it seems to go against the way that pregnancy and childbirth has for so long been leveraged. The piece is quiet for me, almost ponderous, the narrator imagining using an artificial womb, thinking over the magic of it, tying it to a kind of witchcraft. I don’t think the piece is trying to cast the practice as something dark or...taking away from people, though, as some might and do. It doesn’t seem to me at least to make this into something less human, less real. There is a definite magic to it, and I don’t read the ending as something sinister, but rather as something transforming. I mean it’s possible that there could be an element of sarcasm that runs through part of this but for me it’s easier to treat the idea of a painless, unmessy birth as genuinely positive. That this would be something big, huge in fact, a way to break the link between pain and birth, to make it into something less traumatic, less terrifying. Finding a beauty in that and revolutionary in that, where these children born without pain might speak a language we don’t understand, because they’d be starting from somewhere different. We might not recognize it, but that doesn’t make it evil or dangerous. Indeed, it might be something we don’t recognize because it casts off original sin, the need for and morality of pain, and finds something else, more compassionate, more affirming in the mix instead. Whatever the case, it’s definitely a piece well worth spending some time with!

“Extinction No. 6” by Morgan L. Ventura

This piece speaks to the ongoing (sixth) extinction event happening on the planet, the human-authored one. Or at least that’s how I read it, how it feels to me, the narrator speaking to the almost quiet way this extinction works. Climate change in increments, weather patterns destroyed, shifted. Whole ecosystems reduced to deserts that don’t offer even the kind of biodiversity of most existing deserts. The piece unfolds in the Midwest, near to Lake Michigan, the landscape scoured, fractured, the feeling of the piece to me a kind of waiting, yearning, a comfort not from a hope in the situation but in a recognition that this isn’t the first time the world has hit something of a reset. That for all the damage is severe, there have been five other extinction events. And there’s a sort of comfort there, and hope, not that we’ll all survive but that the Earth at least will keep going. And though we will transform into sand and dust and mineral and oil, there is a sense of continuation in that, a connection to the deep forces in our past, in our planet. That we will at least at that point enter back into the natural cycle, for all that we have hurt and flaunted it. It’s not exactly a happy poem for me, but I do feel this connection, this power in it, the way it speaks of echoes and stillness. It’s beautiful and lonely, revealing this damaged, shattered earth, and the way it will take it all back in, and start something new. A wonderful read!

“No More Monuments” by Mikaela Lucido

Another piece that might have a lot to do with climate change, with decline. With monuments that have become submerged, overtaken by the sea, by time, by the destruction of the environment that people have wrought. At least for me the piece, which is short and neatly structured, speaks to a kind of absence of people. The first stanza seems to go against that, using an unknown “they” to set up a situation where maybe what’s happened wasn’t entirely that bad. I mean yeah, it probably wrecked civilization, put it back so that people have taken to living in these former monuments which might be some of the more resilient structures to survive, albeit in these altered contexts. They are no longer monuments because they have become homes, because the utility of them has shifted, because people can’t afford monuments any more. But as the piece progresses, even that seems to me to be complicated, to be shifted in a more grim direction. The last stanza takes that they and places it in a new light, so that the they might not be human at all, that this might be something even more profound than humans surviving in new ways. To me at least it speaks to how monuments lose their meaning entirely without the people there to give them importance. To read the words on the plaques. To remember even what they might have been. There are no monuments to owls or other animals. Just structures, just a world that has been reclaimed. It’s a stark piece, and I like how it stands, simple and rather compact, a structure itself detailing his change, this loss. It seems to ask what use monuments are if we fall short of the ideals they are meant to represent. That if we steer ourselves toward destruction, the construction, however hopeful, is ultimately futile. A fine read!

“Fearsome Figures” by Yara Farran

This is a strange work that to me speaks of estrangement and the need to slip through the world. Feeling disconnected from the flesh, from the human, feeling perhaps that what is online, electronic, mechanical, is more real, but also in many ways less safe to admit to. The narrator is speaking to a second person, to a you whom they feel an affinity towards. Who they seem to know in that electronic fashion, an internet of two, rather than in a physical space. For me, the narrator seems to know that they aren’t acceptable, that they are expected to make more of an effort to seem normal. But it’s only ever to seem, no one else really interested in seeing them. Except this you, who the narrator wants to reveal themself to, to be seen by in a way that is more meaningful than when they make animal noises at the grocery store, exchanging money for sustenance. And I just really like how the piece builds up that feeling of needing to conform, to seem to conform, to the way that people push the mask we where in public, the need to keep it on all the time, to in some ways become it, hiding the true self. And how for the narrator that doesn’t work. How they seem to need to be able to enjoy the time without the mask, but can’t do that in the flesh, only as something in some ways diverging from the human. And there’s a strength in that and a strength in embracing that. In seeing the truths that people can wear more openly. For the narrator and you, there is a power that makes them fearsome, that makes them formidable in seeing and being seen. Hiding and being open. A study in contradictions that for me really speaks to the way that people can split their online and irl lives. The ways that everyone is pushed to fit in, but also to stand out, and how it’s all a mess. A fine way to close out the first half of the issue!


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