- “Steps in the Other Room” by LA Staley
- “Sasha Red” by Tyler A. Young
- “Bodybit” by Mark Parlette-Cariño
- “What We Remember” by Mark Salzwedel
- “Love and Brooding” by M. J. Pettit
- “Steadies” by Robert Dawson
This issue marks the beginning of Compelling‘s incarnation as a purchase-only e-zine after having been a freely available webzine for its first twelve issues.
All six of its offerings are science fiction short stories. Three of them are fairly adventurous. “Sasha Red” is set in a solar system where refugees fleeing Mars are desperate to reach Earth. The title comes from a background element which is paid off later: Sasha Red was a “pirate” who aided refugees by “attacking” their ships, forcing their rescues. In the foreground, we follow a rescue team made up of Tom the Right-Winger, Becca the Left, and Alex the Centrist Narrator. I was initially put off by the idea of another “refugee in space” story but the ideological spread of the characters and the action-plot, involving the effort to rescue forty children before their vessel explodes, engaged me. The only real problems are that some foreshadowing regarding Tom doesn’t seem to pan out and the climax is a little too early with too much “where are they now?” in the ending.
“What We Remember” is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Adam Robson’s “The Ambassador” (from Constellary Tales #2, Feb. 2019) and others in that humans make contact with a sentient fungus and some go crazy. I liked the sort of “Darmok at Tanagra” communication by means of triggered or sent memories but the tale doesn’t seem long enough or fleshed out enough and part of the ending comes off like a joke which is out of place.
Finally, “Love and Brooding” describes the life cycle of fish-like creatures who are raised by paternal mouthbrooders from the point of view of one of the fry. Like other tales of this sort, the cognitive dissonance and generalized weirdness are good, while the largely predetermined plot and difficulty of connecting with the characters are less so. I was also confused by the background milieu. It would seem that the land was once, but is no longer, habitable and that these creatures were engineered to survive in the water (perhaps these are ex-humans on a future Earth?) but, if so, I’d have to wonder why they were engineered this way.
While I prefer “far-out” stories in the abstract and that group wasn’t bad, this issue’s most interesting group of stories are the focused, near-future extrapolations which make up the other half of the issue. “Steps in the Other Room” is set in a 2064 of smart houses and more, and involves a woman calling the cops, represented by one man and one Autonomous Car named Ace, to report that her husband’s ghost has gone missing. This is a minor but decent tale in which things aren’t as they seem and ends up touching on family and loss.
“Steadies” has a very interesting idea which is insufficiently explored though it has a good framework to do so. A doctor who has some expertise in statistics is shown a paper under a non-disclosure agreement which shows, via deep data-mining, that a cholesterol drug has the bizarre side-effect of reducing divorce, especially if both partners take it. Becoming jealous at a party, she guiltily decides to get her husband on it and starts taking it herself. Some of her internal conflict is shown and these conflicts broaden when the paper is released, the drug becomes very popular, and it produces some social and familial side-effects. My immediate question was the mechanism – is this some slave drug which makes people satisfied with unpleasant conditions or a love drug which heightens interpersonal relations or what? One character eventually asks, “I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work. Have you read the article?” and the narrator replies, “They don’t say. Maybe it causes an irresistible compulsion to put the toilet seat down?” So I would have liked to have seen much more serious development of this intriguing idea.
The story which most impressed me in this issue, despite being as philosophically opposed to it as can be, was “Bodybit,” which also addresses coupling and effectively takes us through a large chunk of the protagonist’s life. It takes the notion of people putting all kinds of private information online (for example, “fitbits” and dating apps) and takes it one small/huge step further: what if a device monitored your sexual performance and statistics and put that online? The story gives us a protagonist who doesn’t do so well the first time and suffers shame but perseveres until things get better for him (and his partners). It takes him through his satiety with this new dating scene before focusing on a lasting relationship he develops. The “add-ons” to the bodybit keep surprising and keep the story moving and the dramatic lines of the tale generally work. The only thing that stops me from giving it a full recommendation (and it may be my own bias against social media) is that I can’t persuade myself that this story seriously addresses the consequences in a complete way, considering the possible negatives anywhere near as thoroughly as the positives. Regardless, it is definitely, at the least, a “compelling” and notable tale.