So I've been reviewing Terraform for a year now, and I must say that I think it does a nice job of collecting science fiction stories that provide a mix of social commentary and tech idolatry. Not that these stories are especially different or necessarily more innovative than anything else being published in short SFF, but as a publication Terraform has a vision and does a good job of delivering on it. Not so much on sticking to its published guidelines (namely the under 2k bit), and I might personally not care for the practices of any place that doesn't actually respond to all submissions with at least a form rejection, but I'm here to look at the stories and I continue to find myself digging the directions these visions of the future take. So yeah, here's to another year of looking forward!
"An American Infestation" by Lincoln Michel (2117 words)
This is an interesting and rather humorous take on what it might be like should…someone perhaps be elected president. Obviously on one level the story is pure spoof, a way of mocking how it seems politics would slip if the country chooses to vote a certain way. More than that, though, the story is a rather biting look at just how politics has become about seeing certain people as well than human. About wanting people to be less than human. Because the story takes aim at the fact that most politicians now view the "opposition" and in some ways even their own constituents, with open scorn, spite, and entitlement. Because there are few as entitled as politicians, few who hate the common person more than those who take it on themselves to rule. The story takes a completely ridiculous view of what might happen, with frogs crossed with eagles, with voting shifted into something that resembles a nightmare, with war and oppression and the privatization of government and the idea of winners and losers taken to the extreme. Which is my favorite takeaway from the story, that view of politics and life in general as one of winners and losers, that those who have are winners and those who have not are losers. That it (in a very capitalist and modern Christian way) moralizes affluence so that those who are "winners," who are job creators or successful or whatever, are viewed as inherently moral and like they don't take assistance from the government when in reality those who make the most get the most help, get out of paying so much more money than anyone at the bottom. It's a piece told as humor and it's a bit obvious in its bend, but the story makes some nice points about politics in general. It's funny and it's not exactly subtle, but it's worth reading I think.
"Next of Kin" by Meg Elison (1804 words)
This is a bit of a strange alternate historical science fiction set in a 1975 where NASA can send ships, piloted by the minds of astronauts if not their bodies, far into space. Back on Earth the body of one such astronaut is cared for by his wife and she's visited by men from the government to inform her that…something has happened. The story does a good job of hiding its twist, of building carefully and making the story about Diana, the woman who has been technically widowed. And it's a fascinating story not solely because it pictures a futuristic past where consciousness can be disconnected from body but because it takes a subtle approach to gender and body in general and does what I thought was a nice job setting up the mystery of what happened up among the stars and complicated how it made the situation back on Earth. It looks not just at the way body shapes how people are perceived and treated but how autonomy in general can work, how misogyny shapes the way people interact, and how it can be corrupted, how people react to the idea of fakeness. The story is short for taking on so many things at once, and it's a complex look at how a woman reacts to being left alone, given a freedom to pass in ways she couldn't otherwise, how she subverts and how, ultimately, she's perceived as a threat and a perversion. It might not get to explore fully the implications it raises, but I enjoyed what is here and it's definitely one to check out.
"The Killing Jar" by Laurie Penny (5412 words)
Ah, a story about serial murder as art. Shocking, yes, and properly blunt, but also surprisingly subtle in just what kind of a point it's making about art and, perhaps, both the commercialization of art and the official endorsement of art. But yeah, the story follows a nameless intern to a serial killer, a young woman in a field that's dominated by men. It's not difficult to see the parallels between serial killing and art in general in the story, the foundation of misogyny and the soft endorsement from an arts council, the way that internships work and the way that the work needs to be supplemented by social media and media in general. Also in the way that it's being exploited. In some ways the story seems to lament the current state of things, but I don't see it as a "kids these days" sort of story. First, it's about serial killing and going back the "good old days" would just mean going back to killing that's just as male and standard, just less popular. Especially given the ending I don't think the point of the story is to wallow in how art has fallen but to show how art is evolving, to embrace many of the changes, especially those that challenge the status quo. There is a feeling that what needs to be done is to go further than is comfortable, not retreat and not to tear down everything. To keep pushing with reforms that are in some ways on the cusp of working but still hampered by the same boys club mentality that infects so much. The character work is strong and softly romantic and the internship is rather fun and definitely (in the end) satisfying. As I said before, by making the story about serial killing as art it risks being a bit blunt, but in the end the work is sharp and decisive and disturbingly fun. Indeed.
"Headcold" by Warren Ellis (1467 words)
This story is about sleep but more than that is about dreaming. The promise of dreams and the power of dreams and the addiction of dreams. In a nice bit of not-exactly-subtlety, I think the story echoes modern thoughts on the American Dream (though I suppose there's nothing to say the story takes place in America). Still, the story seems to take aim at Millennial issues (living with parents, having a nostalgia for a time when things were secure/cared for, being exploited and overworked, being technological while being self-destructive and searching for ways of opting out of the world/system) and ass such fits nicely into that idea of "Millennial" fiction that I've written about. Here the story captures the desperation for a time of safety and security, a time in childhood when the world was still magical and full of potential. Grown now and still dependent, the generation of lucid dreamers chase after that feeling without being able to capture it and while opting out of working in ways that they are expected to. I like the disdain for the lucid dreamers, the coldness directed at them but also the way that they fill a very specific capitalist place, consumers who are spending but who are blamed for not spending more, for not doing more to help a system that seems sick, diseased, designed to oppress. The story has a nice flow to it and a neat core concept that it sells well, and I think it works for a short peek into a possible future where a contemporary problem has only grown worse. A nice vignette!