In “Clean” by John Kessel, Elizabeth and Daniel decide, against their daughter Jinny’s insistence, that Daniel should experience mechanical memory erasure in one fell swoop to stave off the degeneration of Alzheimer’s. The process strips away Daniel’s affective memories of his wife and daughter, but leaves his intellect intact. Kessel uses plain and uninflected prose that only hits a poetic surge when describing the memories of which Daniel is stripped as he forgets them. This is a cyclical story of the old becoming young again and the child eventually parenting the parent, but not that profound beyond “we are our memories” and not that affecting except when describing Daniel actually losing his memories.
“I Was Nearly Your Mother” by Ian Creasey follows teenager Marian who meets her dead mom’s alternate from another universe. Della, the alternate, diverged from Marian’s mom when Marian’s mom had her and Della aborted her pregnancy. Both characters, lonely but not wanting to admit it, attempt a relationship, with Della being overeager and Marian cutting and critical. The lively dynamic between them keeps the reader in suspense until sudden revelations and Della’s exit leave Marian with a choice. The story excels at creating the conflict between almost-mother and almost-daughter, but most of the narrative force dribbles away when Della disappears. Marian’s choice appears opaque and underwhelming, ending an otherwise strong story without a thrill.
Boston cabbie Ernie, protagonist of “The Most Important Thing in the World” by Steve Bein, finds a time-changing device that a fare left in his cab. Beginning to exploit the device, he thinks that shifting in and out of time gives him a free pass, but the owner of the device reappears to tell Ernie that payback’s a doozy. Sprightly, funny and ultimately happy, the story suffers from a tonal shift in the middle when detailing the tragedy of the device’s owner. Nevertheless, Bein’s nimble prose makes “Thing” more successful than, say, “Nearly,” primarily because its beginning and ending pack a punch.
“Purple” by Robert Reed finds Tito, a one-armed man who is blind, being cared for by a mysterious presence called the Master. It keeps humans and aliens like pets, providing for them and saying it loves them, but offering no freedom. What is its motive? How does one live under such a rule? A story about people with severe disabilities living in such conditions could easily deprive characters of agency and treat them like institutionalized objects, but I am happy to report that Reed avoids this trap. All characters work to explore their circumstances and, as much as they can, determine their own fates. This is a subtly done story, possibly a commentary on aforesaid institutionalization, with an unexpected ending of fragile hope.
In “Where” by Neal Barrett, Jr., a robot kid, a “jimmie,” is rented by robot parents, a “tom “and a “perry.” The protagonist jimmie tries to get out of its endless present. I think the main character has a spark of an epiphany about time and memory, making it another story in this issue concerned with memory and self-definition. I like Barrett’s clever worldcraft here, through the use of undefined terms, but I’m not 100% sure about what happens and what the point is.
In “God in the Sky” by An Owomoyela, the world panics over the sight of an expanding light in the sky. Katrina, her partner Josey, her grandfather, and Katrina’s parents observe. End times, some proclaim, and gather their loved ones. No, says Katrina, no no no (perhaps in denial?). The story asks how people find meaning in the face of the impossible or unexpected, perhaps how they live life with the knowledge of impending death. This is one situation in which an open, somewhat opaque, ending works for the story, as the light does not easily explain itself, but instead continues to hang suspensefully.
Hannah, who tells the story in Nancy Fulda’s “Movement,” experiences that passage of time differently from others. She feels the tug of time more strongly, yet also thinks more slowly than most people. Her parents call her condition “temporal autism” and propose “direct synaptic grafting” to retrain her neurons and normalize her. Should she accept the grafting? The first-person narrative makes this story work, providing vivid sensory images that immerse the readers in Hannah’s head. My pick for the issue’s most fascinatingly executed story.
In “Lost in the Memory Palace, I Found You” by Nick Wolven, a man with no memory undergoes subliminal stimulation to remember a woman who gave him a sense of hope. I think he destroys his own memories even more in the process. If “we are our memories,” who are we with no memories? Incoherent cycles, says this story. A slippery, hostile world, a jaded, weary protagonist, an elegantly written story.