Welcome to another Words for Thought! The leaves are turning; the air is getting chilly. It’s the time of year where you can feel and see the seasons change. These five stories are about change as well—big upheavals and quiet moments where one perspective shifts to another. They are also about what is hidden and what is overlooked. So grab a warm beverage, get cozy, and dig into some excellent reading!
What the Humans Call Heartache by Jiksun Cheung published in Arsenika Magazine is a roughly flash-length piece that effectively packs a lot into a short space of words. Astrid, a service robot, commits a small act of rebellion in breaking the last eggs meant for her mistress’ breakfast. As she sets off to get more, the story turns into a race against the clock as Astrid uses the errand as an excuse to complete an important mission of her own.
Her recent excursions had taken far too long; she had a gnawing feeling that her employer was beginning to suspect that something was off. She had to be careful now, or there’d be a trip in a box to support center, or worse: replacement.
The story delivers an emotional punch while examining the idea of invisible labor. Astrid’s employer considers her so little that it doesn’t even occur to her that there could be any subterfuge or an ulterior motive to Astrid’s errand. Nor does Astrid’s mistress particularly care. All that matters to her is that her breakfast is delivered on time, that the cleaning is done, the fridge is restocked, and that she is not inconvenienced along the way. The story is a perfect example of stakes that are relatively small in the grand scheme of things, but that carry great importance for one character. The world isn’t at stake, but Astrid’s world is. The ticking countdown in the story carries a real sense of weight, and although the change wrought by the end of the story may be small, it counts, and brings with it a sense of satisfaction and victory.
All Us Ghosts by B. Pladek in Strange Horizons offers up a world where rich families pay to create safe, simulated lives for their children, including carefully crafted friends and significant others, so that they don’t have to face the harsh realities of the world too soon. Jude works for such a service, and for many years has been paid to script interactions with a young man named Cam, acting as his girlfriend Emma and his best friend Julian. Cam is being groomed to join his father’s company, and it’s time for him to leave the safety of the nest, meaning Jude has to disengage him from both Emma and Julian as gently as possible.
He starts crying at five minutes, even earlier than I’d anticipated. A dumb innie, but a soft heart—a good heart, I tell Gray sometimes, to defend myself. I want to stop the script, have Emma apologize, comfort him.
Cam knows Jude best as Julian, and even though Julian is similar to Jude, he’s not real and not quite the real Jude. Jude has genuine feelings for Cam, but sharing those feelings would unravel years of lies. To further complicate things, Jude and their co-workers uncover a secret about their company, which just happens to be a subsidiary of the company that Cam is being groomed to join and they recruit Cam for a bit of corporate espionage, still without ever revealing exactly who they are.
Much like “What the Humans Call Heartache,” “All Us Ghosts” deals with the idea of invisible labor—in this case, low-paid workers who are literally invisible as they inhabit virtual bodies to interact with rich clients who have no idea of their lived reality or even the conditions outside their own wealth bubble. The story is poignant and painful as it explores Jude’s impossible situation and asks the question can a friendship be real if one of the people involved in it isn’t? Is it possible for Jude to find a way forward with Cam when their relationship is built on a lie, or is it better and kinder to simply let Cam go, never letting him learn the truth, even if that course of action breaks Jude’s heart?
The Future Library by Peng Shepherd published at Tor.com is a gorgeous novelette that also deals in hidden truths. Ingrid is an arborist who works with Claire, an author who has taken over guardianship of The Future Library, which also happens to be the last forest in the world.
The idea, Claire had said that night as we walked between the dark trees, our only light the moon and the tiny beams from our phones, was to convince one hundred authors to each write one new work, to remain unpublished and unread, and held in trust by the Future Library for a hundred years. At the end of those one hundred years, in the Spring of 2114, long after the authors and Katie Paterson herself would have passed away, the new custodians of the Future Library would cut down one hundred of the thousand trees she had planted, and print these one hundred books on the paper made from their wood for future generations to read.
Ingrid and Claire add a twist to the concept, suggesting that the authors of the future works might want to be buried beneath their trees. As they begin working together, Claire and Ingrid also develop a romantic relationship until a sickness takes Claire and she becomes one of the first authors to be buried beneath her tree. When the time comes to cut down Claire’s tree, a shocking discovery is made—there are words printed inside the wood destined to become her book, words which are supposed to be Claire’s manuscript. The Board of the Future Library immediately puts it out that the trees are a means for humans to communicate from beyond the grave, and they launch the Forever Contest, giving people the opportunity to have their ashes buried in the forest where their trees will later be cut down to reveal their words.
The story is a lovely exploration of various conceptions of immortality, as well as how short-term gain all too frequently wins out over long-term thinking and planning for the future. Books are a form of immortality, and Shepherd looks at the way they might become symbols, eclipsing the values of the people who wrote them. In other words, the idea of immortality becomes more important than actually looking to the future as people latch onto what they see as the immediate benefits of the Future Library, forgetting that it was meant to be a project benefitting generations beyond theirs, not something for their immediate gain. The story is beautiful while also being melancholy, as perfectly befits the fall season.
They Call it Hipster Heaven by Lauren Ring published in The Deadlands is another relatively short piece that packs an emotional punch as the unnamed narrator searches for their dead lover, knowing said lover is likely beyond their reach.
They call it hipster heaven, where all the cool kids go. I walk the dark street alone, searching for the entrance, but no one I pull aside will give me any details. None of them look me in the eye. They shake their heads, shuffle their thrifted boots, and tell me no in a way that clearly means not for you. Not for me, with my wrong-season dresses and my secondhand knowledge of the art scene, with names like Rothko and Duchamp clumsy on my tongue. But for you, nowhere was off-limits. You were always the one who belonged.
Ring’s prose is gorgeous, poetic, and full of striking imagery. She infuses the story with a sense of melancholy while effectively exploring the idea of invisible gatekeepers and access. Some people simply don’t belong. There are unwritten rules that no one ever sees, and you’re either part of the in-crowd or you’re not. No matter what you do, if you aren’t “the right kind of person” you’ll never fit. Like the narrator peering through a gap in a doorway at their lost lover, you will always be left on the outside, looking in at a bright world that simply isn’t for you.
The Revolution Will Not Be Served With Fries by Meg Elison published in Lightspeed Magazine is funny and charming and heartbreaking all at once, dealing with the heavy subject matter of the mistreatment of low-wage workers.
Yvette had been working at this burger joint for six months. She had started as soon as she had turned sixteen, having gotten the permit for school lined up a few weeks before her birthday. Imagining her first job, she thought she’d work with a lot of other teenagers, playing the radio as they grilled and stacked and carried out the cycles of the deep fryer. But all her coworkers were single mothers. And playing the radio was not allowed.
Like Cheung and Pladek’s stories, Elison’s story deals with the invisibility of service workers. The story opens with a rude customer commenting on both the service kiosks and the human staff, knowing full well they will be overheard and not caring. To their mind, neither robot nor minimum wage staff are fully human—they are there simply to serve and to do it as invisibly as possible. The corporate overlords of Burger Bag have the same attitude—their workers, human and robot, are disposable cogs in a larger machine designed to churn out profit.
In a social media post, Elison has shared that the story draws on personal experience. Though it has a science-fictional twist, the story hits close to home with its all-too-real depiction of the way low-wage workers are treated and the way their jobs chew them up and cast them aside. But despite the bleak subject matter, Elison does an excellent job of injecting the story with humor and making it fun as Marxist robots rise up against the unfair conditions imposed on them and convince their human co-workers to join the good fight to change the world for the better.