I’d figured these “Selected Stories” posts wouldn’t adhere to any rigid schedule but that there would probably be a couple a month, with one coming after I covered the early issues and the second coming after I covered the later stories but, in January, I took a break before getting to the monthly and most of the weekly stories and covering them in one post, so I wasn’t really expecting to do another one this month. However, two late-breaking stories of note require this post.
Noted Original Fiction:
- “Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (science fiction short story)
- “Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (recommended science fiction short story)
“Thoughts and Prayers” uses multiple first-person narratives to depict the fates of the surviving members of the Fort family in the wake of their daughter’s death in a mass shooting. The mother, Abigail, is a “digital memory” person while the father, Gregg, is a “meat memory” person, driven by childhood events in his own family. Emily is the second child and Aunt Sara provides technical information. When Abigail seeks to weaponize Hayley’s death to bring about gun control and a wave of trolls swamp the initially positive reaction, the family suffers through a second nightmare which prompts Sara to provide Abigail with “armor” or a sort of individualized Bayesian troll-filter. Will it save them?
This is not a perfect story, as I feel like Abigail’s case was weakly made compared to others’, despite not agreeing with her. Even the one deviation from having family members speak, when a troll is given the floor, makes a more forceful case. Sara is too obviously the incarnated infodump and the story drags in the middle with too much isolated exposition. The bulk of the story reads like recent history more than science fiction and even the SF is rarely more extrapolative than saying at 5:50 that the Six O’Clock News will be on in a few minutes. That said, it does reference some important, burgeoning technologies (the armor “algorithm had originated in the entertainment industry“), the psychology of the story is sound, the subjects are important, and the power of some of the earlier and most of the latter part is remarkable. I was worried that, as the story is partly about crafting an emotionally effective narrative to be “a battering ram to shatter the hardened shell of cynicism, spur the viewer to action, shame them for their complacency and defeatism,” it would also be just that. Perhaps it is, in a way, but gun control is not the primary target and it’s not that simple. Instead, it is part of arrays of reality, guns, trolls, and “freedom to” opposed to mediated simulacra, controls, armor, and “freedom from,” which doesn’t conclude as comfortably as many might like.
(Edit (2019-01-31): I do not recommend the companion article. Having finally read it, it may demonstrate my misunderstanding of the story, but it seems to have been written according to a script which is independent of the story and is unconscious of the ironic result.)
On a completely different note, in celebration of 150 years of the Periodic Table, Nature‘s Futures department sends us to “Elementary School” where we learn about a number of new elements with fascinating and hilarious properties. It’s no story, but it’s entertaining.