Terraform, August 4, 7, & 10, 2015
“Parse. Error. Reset.” by Wole Talabi (8-4-15)
Reviewed by Nicky Magas
In “Parse. Error. Reset.” by Wole Talabi, social media has stepped out of our computers and into the real world. Our avatars have become physical embodiments of ourselves, able to take our place at social functions, family outings, or even at work. As near-as-can-be copies, they can be trusted to do anything we would do, giving us the opportunity to wiggle out of those more awkward or not so pressing engagements. There are limitations, however. After ninety-days, if you haven’t disposed of your avatar it can legally file to become its own separate entity. And for some people, the temptation to let their life and all its complications, disappointments and weariness slip to someone else, to reset, is too great to pass up.
I enjoyed the premise of “Parse. Error. Reset.”. There are few among us today who have not considered that social media might be taking over our lives a little too completely. In Talabi’s world, the façade of social media is all that matters. Impressions, appearances and gossip mean more than integrity and personal autonomy. Letting fake people run our fake lives doesn’t seem all that strange in the circumstances of “Parse. Error. Reset.,” nor do they seem all that out of place in our world. The chilling addition of letting one’s real self fade into blackness while an AI simulation takes over the controls gives the story a bit of extra intrigue, however I wasn’t altogether sold on the protagonist’s decision to do so at the end. There isn’t enough in the beginning of the story to convince me that his choice had been as premeditated as the wording suggests. The protagonist is weary, yes, frustrated, sure, but the emotional reaction to the news of Deinde’s own reset does not fit with one who was planning the same destination for himself. For the author to deliberately withhold this information for a surprise reveal at the end, especially in a first person narrative, was a bit of a let down.
Peter Milne Greiner’s story, “Tropical Premises” takes readers high above a bloody, war-torn Earth, to orbiting space stations where researchers are testing the habitability of far off worlds. On one such station, Cory works alone with Smarti, a self-aware AI who is becoming more and more unstable. While Cory dreams of mountains and oceans back on Earth, Smarti tears herself apart with human art and philosophy that cannot harmonize with her purpose and internal machinery. To make things even more difficult, Smarti has decided she hates one of Cory’s coworkers, and is losing touch with who, or what is human.
It takes a couple reads to get to the heart of this story. While it is clear to the reader that Cory, at least, is human, Smarti is a bit harder to understand until later in the story. While Smarti babbles along like a small child and Cory alternatively humors and tries to pry productivity from her, the reader becomes lost in what seems like utter nonsense. Perhaps it is. I’m not sure if it is the prospect of losing Smarti to robot insanity, or something deeper between the lines that makes Cory so very nervous throughout the narrative, but the interpersonal relationships between all the astronauts and the AI remains a mystery, even until the end. What makes “Tropical Premises” difficult to understand is that there are so many threads that the reader can see neither the beginning nor the end of. As if looking at a tapestry through a microscope, it is impossible to see the big picture of this story, yet taking it at face value leaves only confusion. If there is deeper meaning here it is lost in Smarti’s rambles and Cory’s indecisiveness.
When a new disease strikes the population in Kelli Trapnell’s “Greenhouse,” the public is thrown into a panic. The symptoms are unexplainable and so far there is no cure. Plants are erupting from people’s bodies in viscerally terrifying ways, and the epidemic is spreading like wildfire. Worse yet, the symptoms are accelerating and no one, not the pathologists, not the hospitals, not even the CDC can stop it.
As short horror fiction goes, “Greenhouse” certainly lingers in the brain as one of the more chilling stories in recent memory. Packed with lots of squelchy, organic imagery the reader can sympathize with the protagonist when she vomits out her window. The story is fast-paced; before the reader has enough time to digest the implications of humans becoming living Chia Pets, everyone in the protagonist’s apartment building explodes into petunias and mulch. Because of the speed of the plot, neither the protagonist nor the reader has much time for an emotional response. A lot of the story is between the lines and left to the reader to fill in, but what is on the page is truly horrifying.