Welcome to August’s “Words for Thought.” This month’s stories are all about other forms of consciousness, whether that be ghosts, memories, or artificial intelligence. Enjoy!
The Anchorite Wakes by R.S.A Garcia, in August’s Clarkesworld, introduces us to Sister Nadine, whose first thought, we are told, is of beauty.
Father Paul is delivering a sermon on sacrifice in his deep voice, pausing for emphasis every so often, when the bird lands on the ledge of her squint with a silent flutter of wings. It’s smaller than her hand and has the same wavy translucence as the glass in the window across from the altar, opposite her little anchorhold. It tilts its head toward her, and she sees beneath the grayish tinge of its outline, the glowing flow of life within its veins, the pulsing beat of its miniscule heart flashing like a tiny gem.
Sister Nadine watches the bird swallowed by a young girl named Louisa Simmons, marking the girl as someone worthy of attention. The next time they speak, Louisa cryptically tells Sister Nadine she can see her chains, which leads Sister Nadine to ponder the narrowness and strangeness of her world, and ultimately leads her to a new self-awareness. Sister Nadine isn’t human. She’s an AI in a world is at war, designed to gather and report information, but Louisa helps her see that she can transcend her programming and become something more. The story is beautifully written. Garcia’s imagery is stunning—from birds made of light to tigers conjured from nightmares and spiders weaving golden webs of information. Within this imagery, Garcia explores the nature of existence, faith, and self-determination, and who counts as a person. The idea of prayers as informational input capable of altering machine code is a fascinating one, just one of many details that makes the world of the story feel rich and like one that extends far beyond the page.
Control by Davian Aw, in the August issue of Anathema Magazine, centers on Chris and Jan, two young women who have developed the technology to put a person’s mind in someone else’s body, allowing them to see, hear, and feel everything that person does, and they’re using the technology to cash in. For just $300/hour, Chris will put Jan into a client’s body, and she’ll exercise for them and eat healthy food, while they chill out in her body, being as lazy as they want and eating junk food. It’s a great deal for the clients, who get a perfect, toned body with none of the work, but not such a great deal for Jan.
Her days blend into a haze of non-stop exercise and travel, trying to salvage as much sleep as she can lest clients complain that her body is always tired. Chris drives her from one home to the next and spends the two hours with Jan’s body. Watching it. Keeping it safe.
As exhaustion takes its toll, Chris and Jan agree to split the workload, which has the added bonus of allowing them to make money faster. But with both of them working, they are left vulnerable as they cede control of their bodies, and they quickly realize that not every client is willing to respect boundaries. The story is unsettling on several levels. The idea of literally seeing through someone else’s eyes, controlling their body, and giving your own body up to someone else’s control is only part of it. Jan and Chris both experience moments of dislocation and disassociation, and question whether they can still be themselves in someone else’s body. Along with questions about the nature of self, the story also plays with the idea of quick-fixes and miracles cures. What if you could eat all you want, but take one pill and still lose weight? What if you could have the perfect body, and all you had to do was give up complete control to a perfect stranger? Aw puts a science-fictional spin on the way people are willing to put themselves in potential danger to fit a societal ideal and put their trust in the hands of anyone who promises to make their lives easier. As good science fiction should, this story simultaneously explores human nature and the power of technology to reshape our lives.
Dead Air by Nino Cipri, in August’s Nightmare Magazine, effectively uses the found material narrative structure, unfolding the story through a series of audio recordings made by a woman named Nita who is creating an art piece/sociology experiment by interviewing her sex partners. Her latest subject is Maddie, who seems game enough to participate, but refuses to answer certain questions—particularly ones about her past and her hometown.
Maddie: Used to be a logging town, now it’s a ghost town. Gray and rainy. Lots of forests, lots of overgrown clearcuts.
Nita: Is it pretty, at least? With the woods and the mountains?
Maddie: I guess. Pretty isn’t really the word I’d use.
Nita: What word would you use, then? To describe it?
Maddie: Hmmm. Fairytale-ish. But not the nice kind of fairytale. Not something Disney would make into a movie.
Nita: [Laughs.] I’m gonna nod like I totally understand what you’re talking about.
Maddie: You never read the old versions of fairytales? The kind where like, girls drown and turn into swans—
Nita eventually learns Maddie was in a car crash, one that left her with scars and killed the girl she was driving with. As their relationship deepens, Maddie takes Nita home with her, promising to keep Nita safe, but it isn’t a promise she can keep. In addition to the girls’ voices on the recordings, there’s another presence, or presences, one that seems aware and malevolent. Not only does the (possibly collective) presence speak into the gaps between words, Cipri effectively uses static and silence to increase the sense of unease. Maddie can’t say the name of her hometown aloud. Even when she intends to tell the truth, the recording cuts out, occluding vital information. The story is just over 10,000 words, but Cipri keeps up a good pace, doling out just enough back story to increase tension, and effectively deploying lost bits of audio, and/or the actual loss of voice. Sometimes the worst horrors are the ones that readers bring themselves, filling in the gaps with terrifying details supplied by their own imaginations.
Rapture by Meg Elison, in the July issue of Shimmer, is a story wherein the memory of dead authors and poets takes on new life every time someone reads their work. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one such ghost, awoken by a young man reading her poem “How Do I Love Thee” (Sonnet 43) and finding himself unexpectedly moved.
He is moved, instead, by a poem he knew first as a joke. As a litany recited by cartoon rabbits and snide antagonists who mock anyone who dares to show their heart. It comes over him the way a man is taken by sickness and he must step out of the gallery, into the corridor, to try and compose himself. He is weeping as though his heart is broken.
It is a quiet story, one likely to strike a chord with many artists. Those who create work for public consumption hope to be remembered, and more, hope their art might touch someone at just the right moment and give exactly what that they need. The core of the story revolves around Barrett Browning observing her work’s impact on the young man, but Elison also offers glimpses of other authors and poets, such as William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. The idea of work taking on a life of its own, and memory creating a consciousness that outlives the body, is a lovely one, but this is more than a story about artists’ egos and achieving immortality through art. Elizabeth doesn’t merely want her work remembered, she wants it make readers feel the way she did when writing it. She wants it to mean something. While the action of the story is slight, it carries emotional weight. There are deeply human moments—Elizabeth’s embarrassment over her first draft with her terrible handwriting, with crossed-out words; her distress over the way her original sentiments have been reduced to over-quoted lines, divorced from their original context; and her quiet joy at never having seen Robert Browning in the afterlife and her preference for sleeping alone. There are also glimpses of implied and overt queer relationships between authors who might not have been able to be open about their sexuality in their own time—Whitman, Shakespeare, and Wilde with their arms casually draped around each other, Anaïs Nin and Sappho visiting each other’s rooms. In addition to the specifics of the story, Elison also evokes the idea of art as a universal language, capable of speaking across generations, with the ability to heal and to help people communicate, which is a lovely thing.
Late Night at the Low Road Diner by Frances Rowat, in the Spring/Summer issue of Liminal, like Cipri’s story, is another piece that deals with a character haunted by an otherworldly consciousness. Marisse works the late shift at a diner, during the lonely time of night when there are hardly any customers.
Marisse, like the little dark core of a candle flame, moves around the diner. This is the heart of the night, and the only things in the building except her are yellow light and empty tables and the smells of coffee and old grease. From the inside, the windows are printed with a long reflection of the empty room, backed with the ghost of the parking lot. Once in a long while something goes by outside. Usually it’s a car chasing the fan of its headlights or a big truck garlanded in running lights.
Then a young man enters, accompanied by a white, almost featureless figure with eyes like green traffic lights and translucent skin. Even though Marisse sees a meanness in the young man’s expression, he seems concerned for his featureless companion. When he pulls a gun on her, she turns that spark of compassion back on him, making him a deal. If he gives up his bullets, she’ll teach him how to feed the creature haunting him and keep it alive. It’s an uneasy story. Again, like Cipri, Rowat leaves questions unanswered, adding to the story’s effectiveness. The white figure may be guilt, some manifestation of a side of the young man he cannot express, a victim of violence, or something else entirely. While leaving these questions open, Rowat delivers a satisfying tale through atmospheric writing that sets the scene, and characters that feel fully developed even in such a short piece. On the surface, Marisse is an unassuming waitress, the kind of person who tends to get overlooked, but she immediately gains the upper hand when a gun is pulled on her, and it’s clear she has more than a little experience with the supernatural. In the same way, the young man appears posturing and tough, but Marisse sees through to something deeper and more troubled. The two characters balance each other, Marisse seeing past surface appearances and the young man taking things at face value. It’s an effective story, and haunting in more than one way.