The 2013 SFReader.com Story Contest Winners
First Place: Flame, by Desmond Warzel | Second place: Eros, by Taylor R. Genovese | Third Place: Reality Sucks, by Tori and Giulio Lisi
Ebb Tides is a collection of twenty short stories by Mary Soon Lee who explores the sociological side of science fiction (as opposed to the hard gadget/techy/wow side) with tales whose most particular thread is the social observance and social disapproval of the nonconformists, and whose general thread is precisely that, nonconformism. Here the squeaky wheels suffer in a kind of lightheartedly nihilistic fashion as a result of their anti-tidal movements, most of the time reaching a deep and meaningful insight for it though so doing often ruins them in some way.
Sometimes, that, too.
But also comic, and also pretty good most of the time. Here there are hints of Philip K. Dick trickery and Harlan Ellison like fun that are both moving and entertaining.
Things start bad, then get worse in this well-done SF-Gloomer in which yet another Mysterious Disease Without a Cure -- and yes, probably brought about by man's woggling with the environment -- one that sounds a lot like precocious Alzheimer's, afflicts the world population. Here it affects Clarissa, little daughter of the female lead, assuring the most poignant of weepys when the ultimate fate befalls the unfortunate big-eyed tyke. Of more interest than the plot device malady is the opposite social responses to it taken by the U.S. and the U.K., where in the modern former the afflicted are turned into human robots (hu-bots) per law, and in the modern, more humanistic latter (a decaying place) no such requirement is made. Genuinely evocative, thickly pathetic, even maudlin, this one gets a 9 of 10 because it's touched with unintentional comedy.
Disjointed storytelling interwoven to produce separate world-building narratives, this one mostly succeeds with the cumulative effect of its fragments in which earthbound Pete longs for moonbound Mira in a series of brief notes, rambunctious kids fiddle with the house AI, anonymous friends offer Pete support, and a variety of other adverts/messages help construct a sense of just what kind of future we're dealing with, which is a pretty ordinary one. But a clever vision of the future is not what's for sale here: what works is the emotional involvement with Pete and a plight in which, "Mira, I looked up at the moon last night, the spots of light where the cities are. Are you up there somewhere? ... Do you ever go upside and look down at me?" effectively conveys the emotional linchpins of isolation and longing.
SILENT IN THE CITIES
"The city always cried when I left." Great opening line for a pretty good story about the SF staple generation ship that has, oops, malfunctioned. The trick here is that successive generations of reproducing people are not transported, but their DNA samples are, everything tended by autonomous robots. Ah, but the big 'bot in charge gets lonely. With a title like "Silent in the Cities," guess what happens? The only real flaw here is a slight mismatch of tones, either unintentional or the product of my own interpretation of social claustrophobia. There's also the curious matter of the living data loop and what that could mean, but then that's another story entirely.
THE DAY BEFORE THEY CAME
Try this trick. Pick a newspaper article. Any article. Preferably a short one. Before each paragraph, insert, "Before the aliens came..." then you'll get an idea of what's going on here, and what's going on is a snapshot of unremarkable future domesticity made potentially remarkable by that opening line. Problem is, the alien arrival is merely a device that creates a sense of something impending which should hold our interest but doesn't because we don't know if the soon-to-arrive-but-as-yet-unseen aliens are good or bad or indifferent. Sure, that not knowing is a device that keeps us reading, but once we've finished the story we're let down because we find that trick didn't have any functional purpose other than to lure us on in the most ignis fatuus fashion.
In this tale of primary and secondary alien contact, Janna Suzorsky is an exo-linguist of the structuralist school (facility for language is hardwired into the human brain) who informs us that we have no chance of understanding alien language as thoroughly as we can Earth ones, then sets about understanding the language of Johny-come-lately aliens called the Tsiliit. The Tsiliit are the leading edge of the secondary type of alien contact, which means they don't already know Earth languages like the ones before did, and they are eager to share their games and food and interact freely with the Earth people, completely unlike the former. A good deal of the story revolves around deciphering the new arrivals, then getting to know them in buddy-buddy fashion, which makes this a tale of exploration and curiosity and eventual parting. Still, it works well and makes effective, if sparing, use of linguistics as the science behind the fiction.
EX TERRA, EX ASTRIS
Exo-linguist Janna from the preceding story makes a return appearance. This time aliens approach Earth with a rather Star Trekkian sounding proposal to join their Confederacy, but some xenophobic Earthers want no part of this and, since Janna is an important figure in the human-alien relations, threaten her life.
Ultimately, what we have here is a tale of political intrigue and personal danger wound about the central question: will the Earthers join the Confederacy or not? If they do, they're guaranteed wonderful alien stuff; if not, there's going be a big NO VISITORS ALLOWED sign posted in Earth's parking lot.
How the threat to Janna's life and the effect it has up events after the big question is resolved help move the story along, but it still doesn't quite match "Universal Grammar" for its sense of discovery.
THE LANGUAGE TRADE
Voice of Kang and Kodos, greenly betentacled aliens of The Simpson's fame: "People of Earth, let us implant alien technology into your brains so that you may understand our language. By the way, you will also hereby be forbidden to communicate with your earlier and much more well-met alien friends. Oh, and a few of you will die before we get the implanting correct. Did we mention the procedure is irreversible? By the way, we're not tricking you."
Such is the dramatic situation presented here in the most stock fashion: the scientists are eager; the military are skeptical; the Csin aliens who offer this plan are mysterious; and exo-Linguist Janna Suzorsky, reappearing here, seems all-too eager to say yes to the plan though it means having no further contact with her Tsiliit friends from the earlier story. This seems so out of character that it strikes as less a surprise and more as an unjustified plot function, kind of like the Earth politicians agreeing to this plan all too easily. Juvenile fare.
TO THE MAXI-BLENDER 3000, SERIAL NUMBER 1-498-86
Cool in a witty Harlan Ellison way, this one looks an awful like that STAPLES (I think) commercial in which the store robot is in love with a fax machine, except here it's a robot in love with, well, a blender. A good and engaging voice speaks well in a Code of the Lifemaker way.
ONE SMALL STEP
Literature, especially so-called "literary" literature, and most especially that written by women, is bloated with stories in which women find themselves in bad relationships and suffer for it.
Here's another one. A science fiction one. And in it our heroine, I-want-to-win-a-contest-to-go-to-the-moon astronomer Anne, is married to politician Peter who informs her that the lunar project which so holds her interest is a political boondoggle not at all about science, but to "deflect attention from the drop in living standards."
See, in the far future (67 years as of this writing) efficient automation has put most people out of work, so to take their minds off their plight, this moon thing...
But that's all secondary, Anne's moon-plot ambition. What is of most interesting literary merit here is the collection of SF future social data, ranging from the automation = loss of work (instead of automation = increasing work load as we presently experience, or automation = utopian time luxury as we occasionally used to read about in older era SF), to the notion that anyone in the public eye is contractually subject to cosmetic enhancement so the TV opiate of the masses can keep up the eye candy quotient for all who suckle at the glass teat, to science reduced to a kind of game-show spectacle.
The upshot is that Lee's social commentary once again is the strongest element of a story which otherwise feels all-too routine. The troubled relationship strikes as an odd piece of dramatic literary baggage in which two people who don't really seem to like each other have sex a lot and continue to stay together in a formula that usually pays off in more directly reparative or separative fashion.
Poe invented the mystery story with his "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and Isaac Asimov brought it to entertaining SF life with his own much later work, though he was accused by some critics of doing so without style, which is something he took as a compliment, desiring that his so-called "voice" disappear behind the all-important words.
Much the same occurs here, a swell SF idea is posited -- murder is accepted as high art so long as it's a clone (or in story terminology, a "backup") that's murdered, not the final, absolute, real there's-only-one-copy-of-me-and-I'm-it person, the murderers bored rich kids who become esteemed Artistes -- but it's done without style to such a degree it comes off feeling like a structurally ace draft, but not a fully flavored one.
Here, a coffee-drinking detective Howard (yes, detectives are still hooked on coffee in the future) investigates the murder of a young girl named Beatrix Donnell, then he investigates her murder again. Big no no, that. You can kill one clone, but not multiples. A prime suspect is quickly fingered, the Artiste Henri Antoine, then a red herring, who happens to be the dead girl's mother, who happens to work in the local backup/clone factory, who also happens to have a not very good relationship with her daughter.
The final resolution makes reasonable use of the old Greek philos aphilos (love in hate) theme, but you'll probably be left wondering what penalty, in a future society that merely fines Artiste murder, pertains if you have to ask the question: is it murder, or is it suicide?
This one reminds me of one of those "The End of the World is Near" stories by Neil Gaiman or Harlan Ellison, only here we don't get to see the end of the world. Instead, we get "crazy dude in a box" who merely threatens the end of the world if his request is not met. Pretty routine, but pretty entertaining, too.
It's told in bulleted fashion in which a fellow claiming to be God's messenger calls the automated AI menu-driven Clone Line in an attempt to get himself cloned, thus making getting his/His message out all the more efficient. For everyone frustrated by button-driven phone message menus, this one's a short kick.
In the far future people who raise their own children instead of turning the task over to AIs are considered selfish.
Holly is Gillian Abbethorpe's four-year-old daughter, and she's not at all keen on mommy taking her away from those instructive AIs and taking her home. She's emotionally distant and cold and hooked on her AIs. What's more, she lacks basic human social skills and, more important, imagination.
This tale of a mother bucking the social norm to raise her daughter on her own pivots on imagination, and it is the young daughter's initial inability to make sense of a painting during a museum trip that finally springs the dormant imaginative mechanism in her rusty metal head, figuratively speaking, of course. See, mommy used to paint herself, and the connective, even redemptive, agency of art is what seems to turn a little android-like child (to use a PKD descriptive) into a real one.
"Seems to" is the necessarily appropriate phrase because stories such as this almost always show the problem then end with a hint of its solution rather than showing that solution coming to pass, the greater work being the social/emotional exposť. Although that's done here, you can't help but get the feeling at the end that the first step to change is all that the kid will take, as if her inquiry is merely a mathematically planned tack to elicit a desired response, and that points to a functional question regarding the society at large that, although compelling, remains unexplored. Although the emotional core of the story is obviously the mother/daughter relationship, the question that shadows all of it is this: how can what seems to be such an emotionally and socially detached society continue to function?
Once again, perhaps I'm expecting too much from a short story.
Marianne goes to work in a Riotech factory employing lots of assembly-line robots and soon productivity at her plant increases while all the other company plant productivity decreases. Naturally, the big bosses think she's a spy because the increased productivity occurs during her shift.
Did I say "obviously?" Well, yes, and that's related to a problem with the plot, albeit a small problem: the bosses think the "glitch" woggling factory production can be solved by erasing the robot memory and starting over from scratch, never mind that it seems like a darned better idea to instead take whatever programming the hyperproductive plant robots have and dump it into those slacker ones.
Be that as it may, Marianne is horrified by the proposal because she realizes something else is afoot in those glittering robot heads, and it all has to do with leaves, and the productive robots that paint pictures of them.
Some stories exist to say something important and meaningful, perhaps even something philosophical, about life and the human condition. Others only want to entertain. This one is of the latter variety, and in it plants of the future are augmented so they can speak, becoming more like pets than plants. One of them is Chloe, a spider plant, another is a cactus named Maude, then there's the aspidistra Marshall, and they're all owned by Jeremy. But there's trouble among the talking plants, and trouble arrives in the form of a caterpillar. What happens next, and how the plants attempt to save themselves, is short and quick as a needle stick in this tale of horticultural back (or stem) stabbing.
Creepy-eepy. Here the theme of bucking a social trend in which children and their treatment figure, continues, and once again there is present an episode of social observance and disapproval. Is Mary Soon Lee grinding an ax?
The trick science in this fiction is this: kids can be "paused" when they become inconvenient or burdensome, and pausing renders them a featureless shadow in which every sound, sensation, thought, becomes suspended, no harm to the kid.
Pauline, the adult product of an oft-paused childhood, has vowed never to pause her own child, Connor, but she's a single parent and working hard to make a living, and aside from her financial pressures, there are social ones as well. The opening scene shows her on a transatlantic flight with a whiney kid, which results in the aforementioned social observance and disapproval:
Indignant heads swiveled to glare at her.
"Unbelievable," said a woman with a Bronx accent, pretending to talk to her husband, but making sure Pauline heard. "Traveling with an unpaused infant should be illegal."
Straight off we know what we're dealing with and what the hard question of concern is going to be: to pause or not to pause?
We're rapidly treated to a number of instances in which Pauline must take her choices and attempt to justify them to herself, but we just as quickly realize the justifications are an attempt to assuage guilt.
What makes this piece fly like a dashing kite is that it has something important and significant to say about modern society and where it may go in its treatment (relegation?) of children: we give political lip service to a "children first" attitude, then raise the economic balloon higher and higher, making it ever more difficult for the poor to meet the social expectations of upbringing necessity, however skewed those may be.
This exists in the best tradition of science fiction which is less a lens into the future and more an experimental clarification of who we are now, and what the logical extension of who we are now may become.
A Philip K. Dick idea with a William Gibson voice, "Tranquility" tells a tale in which moods are evoked by pills of the desired-effect's name, but the only legal ones are uppers (or sedatives) like "Tranquility." Of important note, too, is the prose itself: it's still lean and spare as in the other stories, but also manages to be more emotive and evocative than many other samples in this collection.
The story is told in a series of five diary-like entries in which we discover that the narrator and her husband, Martin, have recently experienced a miscarriage. Martin, who works too much, leaves his wife behind while he goes on a business trip.
When he's gone, the narrator buys a batch of illegals, the Complete Negative Cuisine: Loneliness, Righteous Fury, Envy, Grief, Despair. Her using them roughly corresponds to a chemically induced four stages of grief, and the fact that such mood altering drugs exist with such social integration manages to say something about how an emotionally benumbed individual (and society) copes.
HOW THE WITNESS HOOKED ME
Earth people have signed a Treaty with aliens called Eridanians, and in this treaty Earth has given up its right to self government so it can be part of the Trade Worlds, which are controlled by the Witness, a collection of mind-reading aliens of different kinds.
David is a 13-year-old Earth kid whose father raised him to be nice and respectful to the aliens though a lot of other Earthers despise them. Heck, pop and David even have some Eridanians living with them kind of like foreign exchange students.
But here's the plot pivot: one of these Eridanians living with David is a Witness, and she wants David to be a Witness too because he has the rare knack for it. Pop isn't happy. David is intrigued. The Witness shows him some of what the work entails by letting him accompany her to mind-reading judgement of some criminal cases that horrify him.
There's enough here to use the material as a jumping off point for a novel, but there's also some strange wobbly characteristics in the father that don't seem true to his persona. After all, if he's so open to the aliens, why should he balk when they offer to make his son a Witness?
Additionally, the ending comes off as rushed, and the father's eventual reaction to his son's choice doesn't seem believable in light of the foregoing attitude, as if there's a piece missing here that would make it all make sense. That missing piece seems to be this: the Trade Worlds are Witness controlled and the right to self-government has been lost to those worlds, which means their self-direction and their autonomy has been weighed against the public good, but all of the social clash is background noise. My drama receptors wanted more clearly to see this conflict played out in the evolving relationship of the father and son. It isn't.
Two people who don't really like each other and who really shouldn't be married to each other, are. Their names are Richard and Lisa, and Lisa has a medical problem severe enough Richard undergoes a potentially fatal "linking" to her which allows them each to see through the electronically linked eye of the other and to also experience the thoughts of the other. Lisa's medical problem isn't identified (or I missed it in two readings), but it's serious enough she has only a handful of months left to live, and we know that she was apparently unhappy, and that this may have something to do with not being able to have a child. Oh, and by the way, no one who has been so linked has survived very long.
The biggest hurdle in this story is the aforementioned dislike, so it seems to want to be a tale about a damaged relationship -- the husband is an emotionally and physically absentee one because of his addiction to work -- finally repaired by the trauma of the impending Big Sleep.
But I'm not convinced these folks would really undertake the severe action they do here instead of simply getting a divorce, and you probably won't be convinced either. Of interesting note, however, is the recurring matter of the childless couple, already used in "Tranquility," as if this story were a continuation of that one, only the names have changed.
Amusing and moralizing in its vaunting of education, "Luna Incognita" tells the story of a bug (okay, an alien) who goes to school among Earth folks on the moon. Part of the fun is seeing the alien's reaction to and interpretation of the humans and their environment, especially as the humans don't seem to be too studied concerning the alien's needs -- for instance expecting him to sit in a chair clearly not designed for his alien features. The end result is partly a cultural observance in which socially stiff bug-boy learns to loosen up, but it's mostly about the value of asking questions.
In 2162 human life is so controlled that "the system" disparages human choice and marriage to such a degree that counselors advise against marriage, using the present-day feminist refrain "marriage is an instrument of oppression" (though here meaning oppression of both parties), and instead advise that one's partner be chosen by the system rather than by the individual -- implication being that temporary "hookups" are probably the unspoken norm.
Kyoko is one of those odd birds who has chosen to marry Nicholas and, what's more, believes she is in love with him, despite her court-recommended appointments with a psychiatrist whose job it is to convince her she's wrong.
What's afoot here is a tale of dashed blind love by the bludgeon adultery, and it's even well told, but it's also oddly mixed with a Big Brother we-know-what's-best-for-you neo-fascist world. The oddness is that the story confirms the rightness of the system, the dehumanizing system that may or may not have put her old crush, Chris Ina, on the street to meet her after a counseling session advising her that the system can do better for her than she can.
The end-effect is rather a gloomy prospect, never mind the discovery of adultery suffered by the main characters, and that prospect is, "we are all numbers in the great, ongoing calculation." But just because it's depressing and cynical beneath what may be taken as a hopeful veneer doesn't mean it's no good. The quality of social commentary and, indeed, literary merit, here is only obscured by the fact that this is genre fiction, after all, which means, unfortunately, few outside the genre will want to treat it seriously.
Ebb Tides, by Mary Soon Lee on Amazon