“The Dizzy Room” by Kristina Ten
“Laura Lau Will Drain You Dry” by Wen-yi Lee
“Terms of Service” by Dominica Phetteplace
Reviewed by David Wesley Hill
Language has long been a subject of science fictional speculation. In 1958 The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance explored how words shape society. In Samuel R. Delaney’s 1966 novel Babel-17, the titular artificial language had destructive code buried in its grammar, capable of altering the minds of its speakers. More recently, the movie Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”) created an alien language that challenged our usual perception of time as linear, allowing people to remember the future as readily as the past. Now we come to “The Dizzy Room” by Kristina Ten, the first story in this issue of Nightmare, in which young Uly, the daughter of Russian immigrants, is having trouble learning English, so her parents get her a used Dell Dimension computer—the story takes place in the late 1990s or early aughts—and a bunch of educational software. Most of these are simple programs but one, which Uly calls the “Dizzy Game,” is far more sophisticated than the usual technology of the time, immersing her in a surreal virtual world while teaching her what Uly initially assumes is a “more advanced version of English” but soon suspects is another language entirely—an alien language that, when spoken, can control reality. Unfortunately, the story takes forever to reach this understanding—we only learn of the Dizzy Game after eighteen hundred words of preamble—and fails to explore the idea rigorously in the remaining four thousand words, so the reader is left more confused than enlightened. The author has also chosen to ignore the principle of Chekhov’s gun. For example, Uly is introduced to “oversized fishhooks” that she knows she will one day extract “from the meat of a human eye”—but this creepy observation is never explained. Nor do we hear of the fishhooks again…. An ambitious story that wrestles with a big idea but ultimately fails to pin it to the mat.
Next up is “Laura Lau Will Drain You Dry” by Wen-yi Lee, a nasty little tale about a mean girl being slut shamed by her ex-boyfriend, Del, who distributes nude pictures of her to the entire school. No one deserves to be treated so, not even a self-identified “bitch,” and this reviewer was rooting for Laura as she develops an unnatural connection with the mosquitoes infesting the area—and an unusual power over the boys in her class…. Visceral, unsettling revenge horror. Recommended.
The last offering is a jot of flash fiction, “Terms of Service” by Dominica Phetteplace, which posits that there may be more than boring legal fine print lurking in the lengthy EULAs we all sign when we install new software…. An amusing brief confessional, which emphasizes why you should be really wary of the programs you download.