Small Thoughts: Ephemera by Ian R. MacLeod

Ephemera is the title story of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July/August 2018 issue. It takes place in a near(ish) future world in which humans have created a database “cloud” that is kept in outer space that is somehow protected from cosmic rays and the like. To monitor and care for this database, which is named the “Argo,” for the Argonauts, a sentient robot is made who can live in space for thousands of years if needed. They call this robot KAT, which See the source imageis an acronym for Kinetic Autonomous Thought.

Plot: The central plot of this piece revolves around the inevitable destruction of humanity as KAT watches from the safety of her Argo spaceship/database center. She is to preserve all the data in the Argo and teach the humans who survive this nuclear war once they emerge from underground after the ensuing ice age is over.

While upon the Argo, KAT busies herself with learning all about humanity. She (yes, KAT identifies as a gender), reads classics like Jane Austen, watches classic films, and observes the great works of art. She is able to enter digital versions of museums that once were and experiences all the masterworks of every age. She waits millennia for humans to re-emerge. They never do. Then, out of nowhere Mr. Darcy comes to have a conversation with KAT. It turns out somehow a consciousness has been created by humans that can move between networks and worlds. This consciousness has gone on across the universe doing whatever a high consciousness does. It asks KAT to come with it.

How Things Feel Tried: Much of this story, for me, felt tried. The idea of a high consciousness appearing to a lower one as “something you’d find familiar,” is straight out of the book and movie Contact. The idea of a nuclear war that wipes out humanity, tried. A robot watching as humanity destroys itself, tried. A robot finding humanity so fascinating it’s willing to stay in solitude, in exile, simply to visit and revisit the digital recreations of human creations reeks of exceptionalism and the belief that somehow there is some intrinsic worth to anything humans do. On all these accounts I’m confused why I kept reading.

But I Kept Reading: Despite all these grievances I kept reading. This is a short story, but it’s not THAT short. It’s a novelette and I’m not a fast reader, so it took me a bit of time to get through this. One aspect I enjoyed about this piece was the fact that, despite the self-aggrandizement of the human race, the author also acknowledged the fact that everything we strive for in art may ultimately be found through a technological consciousness greater than our own.

Conclusion: While I feel like this piece is tried, I also think it may be an interesting access point for many people who aren’t necessarily as steeped in the SF genre as myself. It packs a lot of ideas into a relatively small space, albeit ideas I’ve seen before. I think the thing that really kept me reading was the narration–it was clever and new enough in tone that despite the tropes, I found myself interested.


Small Thoughts: We Mete Justice with Beak and Talon by Jeremiah Tolbert, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Sept/Oct 2018

Jeremiah Tolbert might be new to the pages of F&SF, but he seems like an old hat to those who follow other genre magazines such as Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld. Tolbert skews, if my memory serves, many of his stories to immediate action scenes that illustrate a technology or idea relevant in todays world.

This story deals with drones, but more specifically, how drones are regulated, or not, and how they can be used for illegal use. Drones are already used to deliver illegal packages to people in prison–so, what happens when the first murder is committed with a illegally modified drone? How will law enforcement respond? This story goes way past these questions and strikes at the eventuality of political assassination attempts using such technology.

This story is a in-depth look at how this type of crime would be fought. It uses (mostly) a 2nd person plural narration as minds and instincts are fused with technologies, the idea being that, though drones may be the latest tech, sometimes it is the old way of doing things that are the best. In Europe, for instance, falconers have been used to target illegal drone use. That’s a hint.

A thoroughly enjoyable piece from a writer that always brings a solid story to his readers. This is the first story I’ve read from this issue and I picked Tolbert’s story because I typically enjoy his work.

Small Thoughts: Women These Days by Amy Butcher, Brevity, May 14th, 2018

There is something strangely mesmerizing about the violence directed at women in our current society. Anyone who has watched Law and Order: SVU knows this. Anyone who has watched Mindhunters on Netflix knows this. Anyone who has read an Anne Rule book watched or read interviews and accounts of Ted Bundy knows this. Anyone who is excited to see the new Zach Efron biopic about Bundy knows this–yet we all pretend as though this type of violence is rare. On the fringe. Removed. It is other. But the truth is it isn’t other. It’s on our doorstep and the victims and perpetrators are people we likely know–or could know–and see often in the background of the selfies we take, the moments we share with friends, we spent in the park or at the beach or in the movie theater.

butcher_It is prophetic that the author of this piece has the last name of “Butcher,” as she compiles all the headlines after a year of Googling “Woman Walking” and here are the results. I won’t share, but it is a long list of murders, rapes, abductions, maimings, destruction of perceived weakness. Like any ultra-violent piece, it raises questions of masculinity. What is it? While this piece is titled “Woman These Days” it should be titled, “Men These Days,” because the men in this piece are the agents of change and the women the unlucky ones who cannot seem to escape a societal phenomenon that perceives their pain and death as a spectacle to gasp at, but not to end.

The end of the piece is a slap to the face of anyone who believes feminism is harmful to the female gender. Of course, I’d posit that anyone who thinks feminism is a bad thing has an incomplete/ignorant understanding of what feminism is. But the ending of this piece is a snippet of conversation between the author and her male partner: the love of her life–as he explains that feminism is nothing more than a bunch of women that hate men, and how feminism is hurting the entire gender.

Paired with all the news reports, this ending strikes the heart of any reader. It turns the argument that feminism is about hating men on its head. Is it women who hate men in our society, feminist or not? Or is it men in our society who cannot grasp the vulnerabilities of womanhood and so lash out in anger, hatred, and violence?

Read the piece on Brevity’s website by clicking here.