Strange Horizons, September 6, 2021

[On May 10, 2021 Strange Horizons officially expressed its political support for Palestinian solidarity. The views of Tangent Online reviewers are not necessarily those of Strange Horizons. Fiction critiqued at Tangent Online is, as much as is humanly possible, without prejudice and based solely on artistic merit.]

Strange Horizons, September 6, 2021

“All Us Ghosts” by B. Pladek

Reviewed by Tara Grímravn

In September’s first installment of Strange Horizons, the editor has chosen to feature a first-person perspective SF story titled “All Us Ghosts” by author B. Pladek. The tale opens in a dystopian future where the natural world has been ruined by human greed. While the wealthy live most of their lives in virtual reality, the rest of humanity is left to their own devices as they try to survive in the real world as best they can.

The protagonist, Jude, works as a ghostwriter for ElectiveAffinities, a company that specializes in prepping the children of the elite for their lives of privilege and pre-planned careers. Of course, like many things in life, it’s not as simple as it seems. These young people, referred to as “innies,” have no idea that most of their virtual friends and relationships are just characters written and acted by paid writers selected by their parents. And for the ghostwriters, every one of them a member of the starving lower classes, it often means being subjected to serious abuse at the hands of the wealthy and ElectiveAffinities. Jude’s current contract is to prepare the heir to the Derhheim company fortune, Cameron, for a life following in his father’s footsteps. Now, after several years of pretending to be various girlfriends and school chums, Cameron is about to graduate college and his parents feel he’s ready to take on a new role in the family business, so Jude will have to move on to a new contract with a new innie. The thing is, it’s just not that easy. It’s never that easy.

At its core, Pladek’s story is a tragic tale of unrequited love in a relatively horrifying future. Or, perhaps, forbidden love is the better term. As we come to know the struggles faced by the ghostwriters beyond Jude’s obvious romantic affections for Cameron, the story takes on the flavor of a far darker Romeo & Juliet meets The Matrix.

Of course, while I appreciate the twist the author took on these well-worn tropes, the tropes themselves are problematic. Perhaps if this was a case of one or the other, it wouldn’t be quite so predictable. Unfortunately, it’s the combination of star-crossed lovers, the interminable evil of the wealthy, the “life lived in virtual reality,” and the ruined, dystopian world that makes Pladek’s tale far too cliché. The twist on the forbidden love trope just isn’t enough save it from itself.

The story’s opening also leaves a lot to be desired. It drops the reader into the middle of Jude logging into the virtual world to meet Cameron so that his “girlfriend,” Emma, can break up with him. Sadly, it’s a tad disconcerting, especially when encountering terms like “innie” with no context to provide meaning. Granted, it doesn’t take too long after this to get one’s bearings, but it’s a little too long to leave the reader wondering what they’ve just walked into.

When it comes to the relationship between Cam and Jude, there are issues there, too. It’s never clear whether Cam returns Jude’s feelings, even if he thought he was falling for Jules, one of the characters that Jude wrote to be Cam’s friend. It’s almost as if the story is afraid to either confirm or deny it, preferring instead to skirt the issue. That said, it could be simply that Cam is simply a weak character. While I understand that he’s lived a rather sheltered life, he’s still far too naïve to be believable. The same could be said of Jude, however, who seems far too vulnerable for the job he’s doing.

In short, while it’s not a terrible read, it’s still a problematic one.