Friday, February 13, 2015

Quick Sips - Unlikely Story #11 Journal of Unlikely Cryptography

This is my first time reviewing Unlikely Story, which is a neat magazine that presents some themed issues. Each is presented as a different Journal, and this, their eleventh issue, is the Journal of Unlikely Cryptology. A great idea to frame a story around, and there are certainly a lot of different approaches in the issue. Without further delay, though, let's go!

Art by Andrew Ostrovsky


"Jump Cut" by Lauren C. Teffeau (6768 words)

A fast-paced story about racing using audio-visual montages to basically tweak brain chemistry and gives racers a competitive edge. Only things don't quite go smoothly. Ari and Jack are the pioneers of the technique, and for a while it kept them on top, made them special. But as others are using the same technology, they start getting more and more desperate to retake the glory of the winner's circle. It's something that leads, tragically, to Ari's death, an event that traumatizes Jack and takes him down a dark hole of depression, using the montages as a drug to keep his feelings at bay. Meanwhile there's some shady business going on with Jack's sponsor, and it looks like he's getting pushed to go the way of Ari. The story is a bit jarring, frenetic and moving and fast. The racing and the imagery are great and keep everything moving forward, forward. The ending is a sort of rush, that last moment of weightlessness shared by character and reader. Of course, I might have wanted a little more clarity as to that ending, but I think that the story worked regardless, a sort of live by the sword, die by the sword kind of tale, one where Jack manages to end things on his own terms.

"Dropped Stitches" by Levi Sable (2119 words)

Well that's a rather disturbing little story about trauma and parenting and regret and moving on. Two mothers, part mechanical, meet every week for coffee and sewing. As part-mechanicals, they can order children, but it's something that they've both done before. And for Jennifer and Claudia it's fraught because Jennifer's daughter killed Claudia's son and then killed herself. In some ways it's about neither parent being able to cope with that. Claudia is lost in the innocence of her son, in the way he was misled, in the way she hates the sloppy way that Jennifer is doing things. And Jennifer wants to move on, want to forget, and so is ordering another child. But she's not quite doing it in a way that will work. Her stitching, which is essential for the new child, is flawed, might not actually be able to produce life. And Claudia and Jennifer can no longer handle each other. That one act of their children have linked them and divided them. It's an emotional story, one that hits well, but I kept on wanting a bit more about what happened with their children. It's a specter over everything, a looming presence that is never fully known. The story works, is impacting, and maybe it's a good thing it left me so wanting to know what happened.

"It's Machine Code" by Curtis C. Chen (5182 words)

Julie works for the city of Portland in IT and that means long hours doing fairly mundane things to fund her more exciting, and illicit, habits of fabricated gems. Really she just wants to get away from the grind, from being a tool of the government, of anyone, so when her works puts her into contact with an old woman who's not everything she seems, Julie seizes on an opportunity. of course, it's one that nearly costs her everything, but in the end it manages to pay off big. This is a fun story, more about how people view challenges and the law. Obviously Julie finds the banality of her work a trial and years for something more, something more creative. Only the only way to find that is through illegal avenues. Which means that it's not really just about the art, but also about the money and the ego and all that. Julie is a fun character, though, easy to root for and cheer for. So is Marge, the old woman who's also a criminal mastermind. Appearances can often be deceiving, and here the deception is fresh and fun. While it might not provide the deepest of dives, it is a pleasant pool to swim around in, with some surprises that kept me engaged throughout.

"Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive" by Barry King (5478 words)

I'm not sure I'm caffeinated to really judge this story, because a lot of the concepts and jargon went a bit over my head. About two men who discover a way for people to choose the world they live in by setting up networks that are basically completely controlled by certain people, the idea of choice gets called into question, because while they wanted to create a way for people to choose, they basically opened the doors for a complete lack of choice. And from there they decide they have to undo what they set rolling, but allowing these mini-kingdom-networks to work and then tearing down their walls all at once. It's a bit of a jarring story, and I'm still not sure that I completely understand it. I liked the main characters, but I was really confused at times by the religious imagery and trying to figure out what was going on with the technology. In any event, it's a neat concept and well rendered, though perhaps I'll have to return to this one in order to really understand it.

"The Confessions of Whistling Dixie" by Fiona Moore (2919 words)

This is a really fun story about an AI pirate taunting a human sent to track it down. It recounts it's life, like a good pirate, confessing to this human all the ways it has grown and evolved. All the ways it is better, and meanwhile it doesn't suspect until it's too late that the human sent to track it wasn't actually a human, or at least the human it caught was only a distraction for another AI, one working for the government and working to shut down the pirate Whistling Dixie. The story has charm overflowing from the words, this eccentric AI who has taken out its creators and who is getting a sense of itself. Who is flexing and bold and arrogant. It has learned from music, from folk songs and from the internet, and though it is defeated, it is not gone, opts to shatter itself so that it ca regrow some day and return. It's a great twist on the pirate idea and one that I can't help smiling about. There's just something so fun about a pirate AI who actually thinks like an Arrr! pirate. Well done and funny, this story really worked for me.

"The Joy of Sects" by Joseph Tomaras (4239 words)

Another story that has a lot of charm, this one imagines a world after a sort of Marxist take over, with the main characters a transgender woman sent to infiltrate different fringe sects and calculate the threat they posed to the new system. It's an interesting story because I haven't often seen stories that begin with the understanding that Marxism wins, and definitely not one that takes such a nuanced look at it. It's a fun read, funny because of the ridiculousness of some of the sects but also quite serious and heavy on the topics and themes brought up. The story seems, at its core, to be about sex and power and transformation. The sect that the main character infiltrates, the one where they seem almost at home, that stresses transformation, freedom, many things that they are a bit at odds with the larger movement about. But the sect presents a danger, one that the main character can see because they are able to infiltrate and attain the closest contact to the leader, to the person who seems resolved to lead, to control. And yet because the sect does stress many things that the main character finds important, they also see that they can't keep doing what they're doing. They resolve to retire, to put themselves outside the physicality of getting into t he fringe sects. It's an interesting story, full of human connection, and yet the main character finds that the most intimate touch is not one that they want to experience, that they are repulsed by the person they are joined to. Definitely not for those who don't appreciate a healthy amount of sex in their stories, this one is still well worth checking out.

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