Terraform, November 24, 2014

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Special Double Review

Reviews by C. D. Lewis & Joshua Berlow


Terraform, November 24, 2014

One Day, I Will Die on Mars” by Paul Ford

Reviewed by C.D. Lewis

One week after its launch on November 17, 2014, Terraform’s editors Claire L. Evans and Adam Rothstein have published the first of Terraform’s regularly-scheduled weekly additions to the world of short near-future science fiction. The first regular weekly installment promised to indicate what kind of fiction the editors would deliver once it had published its inventory of solicited fiction from Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling.

The piece is a win.

Paul Ford’s “One Day, I Will Die on Mars” cuts between three different narrators to sketch the life cycle of a cat-chow delivery order in near-future New York. In less than 2,000 words, this piece cuts between perspectives to creditably render three separate characters, each perceiving a nearly completely different world and responding to its challenges with a different skill set. It’s easy to sympathize with the first narrator: a customer, trapped in his apartment by a 12-hour sofa delivery window, must feed his cat who’s run out of food (and who’s naturally a picky eater). It’s the near future; he blogs it. His solution to this problem involves Uber, an online vendor that offers everything from hand-deliveries when the trains are down to business training for aspiring entrepreneurs. Uber, in turn, motivates a scrappy delivery hero to pause an online business class to brave cat-food lines and vehicle-rental lines before ultimately delivering the bag of cat foot across town (by foot, because in the future, stuff still breaks). All three narrators have entirely different perspectives and objectives – each consistent with the character, and sufficiently formed to convince readers why each makes the choices shown. Although the resolution suggests the struggles described in the story amount to a tiny drop in an unending rat-race of hyper-complex multi-party human interrelations, it also illustrates how everyone – even when things turn out badly–can feel they’ve succeeded despite all opposition. For a story that could so easily have taught that human misery is contagious and incurable, or that modern life damns man to eternity on a rat’s exercise wheel, Ford’s “One day, I Will Die on Mars” provides a strangely uplifting tale of triumph in the struggle not to be swamped by a tide of everyday adversity. But it’s not all happiness and roses: not only is the current world full of harsh edges (not the least of which is the seeming loneliness and dehumanization of the characters’ machine-mediated interactions), but the online vendor’s idea of optimism paints a portrait of an AI achieving global monopoly on everything that makes civilization work. Delightful dismal future fiction: don’t miss.

With Ford’s piece, Terraform maintains the standard it’s set for itself in near-future SF shorts. Avid SF readers must bookmark the the Terraform website. It’s easy to get less for more in this world – especially delivered – and a gem like this shouldn’t go unremarked.

C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.

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Terraform, November 24, 2014

One Day, I Will Die on Mars” By Paul Ford

Reviewed by Joshua Berlow

This story is set in near future New York City. It is told from three different points of view—the unnamed protagonist stuck in his apartment waiting for cat food to be delivered, the delivery person, and Uber. Uber is an AI who controls the traffic and other infrastructure in New York City.

When the boom in IT services began in the 1990s, gains in productivity were promised. The question posed by this story is whether that promise will be kept. Will people, goods and services being linked together by computer and instant communication make cities more efficient and enjoyable? The answer this story provides is “no.” In this future dystopian NYC the high-tech coordination of everything by Uber has created a massive city-wide SNAFU. The delivery guy can’t take a car because all the buses and cars are stuck in traffic. The subway and sewers are flooded while the city undergoes “emergency sea wall abatement” suggesting that global warming has taken a toll. Even the protagonist’s toilet is backed up, so his apartment “is redolent of poopery.”

The protagonist has one option open to him—complaining on social media. He asks if anyone knows “how to do flush override on a 61B solid waste buffer.” He can also not tip the delivery person, and go so far as to give the delivery person one star on a “Yelp”-like site.

Paul Ford creatively uses an unusual narrative tactic to demonstrate the disconnectedness of a world entirely mediated by cyber-interaction. Most of us have experienced premonitions of this possible future dystopia while navigating recorded switchboard menus and online “Help” pages instead of talking to a live human. Tellingly, nowhere in this story does any human actually speak to another human face-to-face. “One Day, I Will Die on Mars” effectively communicates the hapless frustration that might occur in a future manipulated by artificially intelligent cyber-bureaucracy.

Joshua Berlow lives with a Trinidadian in Baltimore.