07 Oct

“The Next Scene” by Robert Reed

The story delivers an interesting premise, where the only profession left after the rise of the machines and the enslavement of humanity is basically being more human than human, being the best actor you can be. There’s something that works for me in the public/private dichotomy for the actress (highlighted in the last line, an act which nobody watches), and to be fair this is entirely her POV, but for all the subtlety that the story implies is the pinnacle of success for its protagonists, it shows remarkably little finesse when it comes to exploring the ideas of just who or what did the conquering and why humanity fell in line. I’m left with a lot of questions the story doesn’t really address, such as what happens when people simply carry on being genuine people without consciously playing the game. Seems like they would be the winners.

07 Oct

“Damnatio Ad Beastias” by Kristi DeMeester

Horrific and heartbreaking in equal measure, and for the same reasons. Every one of the characters has seen so much and been through so much, and there is more than one kind of monster, sometimes in the same person. The werewolf—or really, the transformed monster—mythos is played very differently here, both in its cultural place and in its management, but the monstrous drive, and the flipside of human horror and remorse, is very familiar. Ultimately, the psychology of loss and guilt and defensiveness and addiction can drive us to act more monstrously than nature ever could.

07 Oct

“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home” by Genevieve Valentine

I usually don’t warn about spoilers, because if you’re reading a review of something then it rather goes without saying, but this time really—experience the story for yourself first, then come back. Don’t worry, this’ll keep.

So! This is really kind of brilliant. You think it’s one story, then another, then it turns out it’s about something else entirely, something richer and deeper and much closer to home. It might’ve been a well-conceived story about interstellar travel, or a well-conceived story about virtual reality, but it’s way more than that, tying its story–and it does have one, with a powerful emotional heart–into themes of prisoners’ rights and medical experimentation and—and I know this might seem frivolous compared to the other two but hear me out—gaming culture, expectations and doxxing. Coming a couple of months after the release of No Man’s Sky to similar expectations, if not similar technology, it actually has something to say about that, and about what drives consumers, and at whose expense our expectations–or entitlement–are, or are not, met.

I’m keeping this one in mind for when awards season rolls around again.

01 Oct

“Unauthorized Access” by An Owomoyela

There was a time when a story about data hacking and the surveillance state was the stuff of cyberpunk and pure speculation. Right now, most elements of this story are so near-future it could exist tomorrow. This is a journey through an emerging culture, rather than something that doesn’t yet exist (if sometimes only in proto-form), and that journey is riveting.

The speculative elements are highlighted primarily in the generational disconnect, the idea that people all have the same tools and live in the same world but very few really understand it (this doesn’t just apply to hacking, but also to understanding just who the power-players are in a data-driven world, like the energy companies). This plays out on different levels in several relationships—Aedo’s original incarceration and Aedo and Cadares, which both position Aedo both implicitly and explicitly as part of a younger, culturally data-savvy generation; and also Aedo and LogicalOR which positions Aedo as more naïve, in opposition to her relationship with Cadares. It feels particularly important because it resists creating a dichotomy of “good guys” and “bad guys” or “smart people” and “clueless people”; there are a lot of layers and levels and we might identify as any one of them, or of different ones at different times in our lives.

The fact that Aedo has just been released from prison (to middling fanfare), highlights another of-the-moment issue: people criminalising what they are afraid of, rather than what is actively harmful to them (in many cases their own actions). This seems to me to be a very timely statement right now, in this context and many others. I’m left with questions—particularly just what information Cadares was seeking—but like any MacGuffin it’s not really relevant. The story is in the seeking, and what that seeking shows us about ourselves and our world.

30 Sep

“Under One Roof” by Sarah Pinsker

I thought I knew where this story was going, based on a fairly extensive knowledge of genre tropes, but I didn’t, and that delighted me. It wasn’t so far afield that I could characterise it as shocking or revolutionary, but the horror—as it were—didn’t come from any kind of malevolence on the part of the mystery, but from within an otherwise gentle and sympathetic protagonist. The horror is knowing what is inside of us and what we are capable of, and in knowing that others know it. I confess to being a little bit unsatisfied by the ending, but then that lingering sense of unfinishedness and friction is part of what makes the rest of the story effective.

23 Sep

“The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I was intrigued by this piece right from the title, which hints at a story that questions gender roles and privilege. What I got was more an upending of pronouns than roles or identities, which made me question a bit what it was all meant to amount to. The vivid yet fable-like narrative did keep a good pace and drew me through the story, and the worldbuilding felt quite well realised, but it chopped in places and didn’t quite draw me in the way I hoped.

23 Sep

“Toward the Luminous Towers” by Bogi Takács

Reminiscent of Johnny Got His Gun, an unwilling soldier is pushed beyond the reasonable limits of endurance into a state where free will and communication are taken from them, and they struggle to retain what personal power they can. It’s dark and cautionary, exploring the lengths to which a person can be exploited in the name of protecting their “people”.

What struck me most was the juxtaposition of a neuroatypical protagonist and the depersonalisation of the soldier. It is a reality for some neuroatypical people that neurotypical people assume they don’t “feel” things; that idea is taken to escalating extremes here. At one point early on the protagonist refers to themself as “a smoothly functioning component in the machine”, a prescient statement in horrific ways. Read as a metaphorical exploration of what it feels like to be depersonalised, it becomes even more powerful to me than as an anti-war statement.