DP FICTION #67B: “That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban

Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.

The minis are the most excited. We watch them swing their small fleshy legs off the seat, tapping their thighs as the clean-train rumbles beneath us. We are so thankful for them and their bright, eager smiles. Their presence is like a memory of something that never happened, like a nostalgia that presses down some of the building ache.

They were Phase One of the curative trial for the pandemic sweeping across the cities. Dysthymia was rampant across several sectors, reducing our conscious biomechatronic population to that of the humans before extinction. Most selecting to be disconnected or discarded for parts. Our sector took immediate action with the introduction of preventive treatment.

First, the minis, now the farms.

They tell us it’s to be expected. We have our creators’ subconscious after all, and with that comes malfunctions.

We all go still as our ear-assist announces we’ve left the sector limits.

Please enjoy this relaxing music. It’s a human-led orchestra that fills our cabin. We can hear the imperfections but relax to it all the same. From the windows, the minis point at the giant stacks in the Purification Plants. The smog is thicker the further we leave the city behind with fewer sky-scraper purifiers to filter out the radiation and pollutant emissions. It doesn’t affect us, but the sight is not as pleasant. That familiar stirring begins somewhere not medically pinpointable. A heavy feeling, a dragging, oozing…

To your left, you’ll find the wheat fields.

We look outside, the purifying stacks pepper the field to allow a rolling landscape to appear. The land flits by as the sun takes over the sky. It glints over the vast field of golden stalks the ear-assist calls “wheat”. Not real wheat of course, but dyed and fashioned algae bloom made to resemble this shimmering grain.

Soon the stalks transform into a vibrant green, almost the neon color of pure algae, but this color breathes life. “Corn stalks”, we’re told. A word made to oval our mouths.

Fun fact! Corn was the last surviving crop humans could grow before the dark decline.

The minis wave excitedly at a person-shaped figure made of wheat-algae in the middle of the field, arms out-spread, eyes black as coal.

Once we stop, we’re led off the clean-train, the minis walking with a peculiar jump. The farm curators welcome us, handing us each a wrapped uniform bundle. Except it’s not like any uniform we’ve ever seen. We “ooh” and “ahh” at the bright plaid, the rough material of jean overalls, the boots with thick soles. It’s what the farmers got to wear, they tell us, and at this we scowl, handing over our thin white smocks in exchange. Still, when we put them on, the material is not as heavy as it looks. Our different colors make us distinguishable.

They take us first to where the animals lived. We’re much more eager to see that. Humans we understand, we live with what they’ve left behind, but animals are a peculiar creature. Fur-covered things people used to keep in their own homes, have them curl up in sleep on the edges of beds.

Most ate pellets and corn (from our ears, the ear-assist takes on a guided-tour persona. We believe they’re having fun) and really, anything they could get their paws on. They were hungry things.
Our hands run across the cool metal of the old pens. Rows upon rows unfurling forward for who knows how far. Which is this one? We ask.

It’s the pig pens. Those cute fat pink animals with their pushed-in noses and squeaker sounds. Oh, how we would’ve loved to have seen those. They used to stack them right here. A practice later condemned when the animals were becoming extinct. An infographic of previous headlines quickly scrolls through our minds, clouding our view. Riots, pyres of rotting animal corpses filling the skies, famine. Our steps grow slower, heavier around the pens.

We wrinkle our noses at the rust-colored stains. The metal containers are rusted for effect. There’s no longer any danger in touching it, but it serves as a reminder. Look how far we’ve come. We are lucky.

We feel the plush hay of the slatted bottoms. Run fingers across the barn hooks and barrel feeders. Test the weight of what they call feed, rub the coarse hairs on the patches of fabric said to feel like the real thing! Our imaginations are often unused, but we fire them up, testing what’d it be like to be a “piggie”—such an adorable word, isn’t it? Our ear-assist trills.

The minis wear their long snouts for the occasion, provided by the curators of the farm. They snort and oink, wiggle around until our biomuscles lift into a smile.

The curators ask if we’d like to step into a room for a full olfactory experience. We decline, a reminder of something never-lived telling us it isn’t pleasant. But some of the minis, dressed in their tiny jean overalls and plaid shirts to match ours, rush in.

They come out jostling, their dilated retinas wide and their pig snouts bouncing. They say it’s like nothing they’ve ever smelled, and they go back in at least two more times.

After we’ve seen what there is to see of the pig pens, we’re ushered into a rounded room with a colossal rotary platform in the center. This one was used to hold a thousand of those black and white beasts at once, for what purpose we’ll soon find out. The curators come around and pin black-spotted white pins over our flannels. We’re all labeled “cows”, another word we enjoy stretching our mouths for.

Each of us picks a spot to stand. A bubbling sound—a laugh, we realize— finds its way from the pit of our stomach to our mouths as we face each other from across the giant rotary. The minis trade their piggy noses for supple pink bags with nipple tips called utters. The curators strap it to the minis, and they dig their small fingers into the rubbery pliable material.

The guided-tour voice speaks in our ears along with a joyful jingle. The heifer—the female cow, spent most of her day here in the milk parlor. This thousand-cow rotary alleviated the strain of milking cows one by one and provided most of the population with a delicious, refreshing drink. Can you imagine how many humans it would take to milk a thousand cows a day? Well, a thousand humans, of course!  A vintage laugh track from human sitcoms blares through our ears.

We mimic it. The stomach sound erupts from our mouths again as we rush to grab hold of the bar in front of us, the rotary begins to slowly spin. We feel light, made of air.

Kept running twenty-four hours a day, this handy device slowly drained away a heifer’s heavy load of milk through its utters down into those pipes you see running into the center containment drip. Fun fact! A similar system was devised for lactating human mothers during the last baby blast.

The minis are told to push forward into a funneled cone. A device latches onto their installed utters, and we all watch in astonishment as foamy liquid erupts down into the clear pipes. Fascinating. We all wish we could have utters of our own.

Again, they move us along to the next area of the tour. The curators jokingly call us “the herd”, apparently another farming reference. We now get to see where the actual farmers lived. They load us onto a moving platform, lugged by a big-and-little-wheeled vehicle they call a tractor. A clean-tractor, of course. We would never ride on anything that would cause pollutants like our creators did. It was the first order our ancestors were programmed with. Infographs threaten to scroll through endless articles and images of the dark decline when the world went white-hot, but a jolt from the clean-tractor sets us right again.

Once we get there, the minis launch from their seats, running toward the oddly box-shaped home. We find ourselves rushing after them in our thick-soled boots, uncaring for the squelch of wet dirt.

We like the creak of wood beneath our feet as we climb steps into the farmer’s house. A mural of them colors across a wall outside, painted bright faces and broad smiles. Their offspring’s hands gripped in theirs. They stand proud and large as if saying this is ours. All of it.

Here is where the good old farmers would live. They tell us a farmer couple would usually occupy a residence of this size. They’d have an average of three or more children, breeding them to inherit their parent’s line of work. It’s sickening so few people could take up so much room, our ear-assist admonishes.  Think of the wasted space!

Our containment buildings spread for four blocks, four tall buildings with nothing but recharging units and taking up as little bit of earth as possible. Our societal production buildings are the same. Four, stacked, so our entire city feels smaller than this farmer’s home.

There are so many rooms, so many chairs. Some of them rock, others that wheel. Feather-made beds from when birds flew high and low enough to catch. We take turns sitting on the bouncing beds, splaying out over soft covers and equally (if not more) lush pillows. There are animal-shaped heads protruding from the walls, long snouts and flickery ears. Lamps also shaped like animals, you would think the farmers had even loved these creatures.

“Where are their containment tanks?” The minis ask. As if anticipating these questions, the guided-tour voice tells us they didn’t need containment units like we have, everything they needed was processed through sleep and sustenance. We know that, but the minis were programmed for companionship, not the burden of our creators. We watch as their little mouths turn down at the corners, flirting their little fingers across the beds.

The floors all creak inside as well, a cacophony of sound that reminds us of their unusual music. Each room smells different. The entire manor fitted for a full experience. Their couch room smells sweet, their sustenance room like burnt flesh and salt. Their bed rooms like something none of us can name but turns our insides as soft as pillows. Rooms with wooden cages for their fleshy babes, more colorful and elaborately decorated than the other spaces.

We can tell care went into those.

The curators stop us for a vid-viewing. A gold-haired farmer places their offspring into those wooden cages, her lips to its frontal skull, a song on her lips. That soft feeling happens then too. They say it’s normal, nothing to be alarmed of. But when the minis extend their heads, their frontal skulls waiting for our lips, an ache takes over the soft.

Eventually, we all drag our feet to the door. Everything resplendent with tender detail. We all understand it was unnecessary, wasteful, selfish even. Yet, we all linger on the wood-creaking porch, leaning hips on the rail, feeling the prickling sun at our backs, the wind a lure to those algae wheat mazes.

When the minis grab hold of our hands, we squeeze back tightly.

*

On the clean-train back to Sector 684, we pass our own production farms. A swarm of mechanized beez are released every hour like steam from the factory’s top. The soil is especially rich here as worrmz and other decomposing machinations are released to spread out like roots in a greenhouse.

There’s no warming softness as we view this, too used to our thriving system to allow that strange sensation to find us. Instead, the trip has left us with this emptiness of feeling. This hole where that softness should be. This cold where a hot-breath of flame could be burning. They tell us this is normal too and it’ll pass. But we’re no longer sure. We think we are infected.

There’s a point on our trip back to the city where our wireless connection, our ear-assist, everything disconnects. No service. And my head is mine alone.

I am here.

My mini shuts down with its head against my arm and that warm buzz comes up to sting behind my retinas. I imagine this is how a dream must feel. The act of reconstructing a memory or a thought that belongs to me alone just as the humans once did, as the cows and the pigs and the farmers all must’ve as well.

If I could, I’d hold onto this memory of mine, dream again of the farm. Of the field of real wheat and a friendly sun at my back. For now, I can only wonder when I’ll return.


© 2020 by Vanessa Montalban

Author’s Note: I try to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to my carbon footprint. I kept wondering if anything I did even made a difference: recycling, buying in bulk, etc. Then I thought about what the planet would look like once humanity had done all the damage it could do and who would inherit this disaster. Would our robotic legacy do better or would life weigh on them as it did us? Who knows, but it brought out some interesting scenarios. 

Fueled by the magic of espresso, Miami-born Vanessa Montalban channels her wanderlust for far-off worlds into writing speculative fiction. She’s a first-generation grad student at the University of South Florida and a librarian-in-training hard at work creating her own collection of stories.


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #12: Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2004 film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters, a surreal fantasy/science fiction story about taking a big step to help your mother understand you, among other things.

The film starts out speculative in the first few seconds, even before the first person has shown on the screen. We see a constellation in the sky that looks a bit like Orion, though it’s more likely the Scissor Sisters logo. A shooting star fires into the middle of where its belt would be which causes other stars to shoot off in all directions, and one drifts slowly down onto grass. From this, I conclude that although this story involves space, it is a fantastical one rather than one attempting to operate by known laws of physics, since all of this makes no sense in terms of our understanding of celestial bodies.

The star, a literal two-dimensional five-pointed star, drifts to the ground on a planet (earth?) among the grass, and with supernatural speed forms a plant with a bud that blooms into a flower while at the same time disgorging a floating piano with a woman in a blue dress lying on top of it and a man in front of it playing a guitar. Given that these people were born from an exploding flower, it seems unlikely that they are the human people that they appear to be; this impression is only reinforced by the fact that this floating spore spins wildly around, including upside down, without dislodging its passengers in its flight. So, given the evidence, this seems to most likely be an alien spore of a pod person type alien race. It’s not clear how the spore knew that it should create human-looking simulacra, since it has not established contact with anything, though maybe it found traces of DNA in the ground or perhaps this kind of spore is pre-configured for what kinds of people are known to be on this planet.

A man appears in the foreground, facing away from the spore, not outwardly acknowledging their existence, and possibly not consciously aware of them, but when he begins singing to their tune it becomes clear that they are exerting their influence on him, whether or not he is consciously aware of them.

He sings lyrics about trying to grow up “like a good boy oughta” and how he is the favorite of his mother, and the girls all like him because he’s handsome, likes to talk, and is fun. As he’s singing this, the landscape behind him transforms, hills and tractor and cows and bar popping up seemingly two-dimensional like they are a pop-up book. And another man appears, who I think may be an analog for the singer himself, as a woman appears and kisses him on the cheek leaving a red lipstick print. She appears to be the same woman depicted on the floating spore-piano, which raises the question of whether she is the pod-person or whether she is the human being that was copied by the pod-person. A rocket-propelled… jukebox, I think?… chases some kind of winged creature in the background.

“Now the girl’s gone missing and your house has got an empty bed.” Has the girl gone missing because she has been replaced by a pod person? Did he move out of his house? “Folks’ll wonder ’bout the wedding, they won’t listen to a word you said?” My best guess is that he discovered that she was a pod person and managed to defend himself or flee but no one will listen to his dire warnings about the invasion and instead are hyper-focused on trying to resolve what they imagine to be a minor relationship dispute.

These last couple of lines are sang by the ensemble we’ve seen so far singing as a band on the comparatively gargantuan open palms of a woman (the singer’s mother?) who looks suspiciously like the pod woman on the piano who looks down at them with a shake of her head and then throws them up with apparently superhuman strength as all of the band members literally fly up into orbit. From this I gather that she must be the woman that the pod woman has based her form on , and part of her head shake is disapproval at this fraud copying her form as she tries to return the pod woman who copied her and the other copies back to space from whence they came to trouble her no more.

The band continues to play and to dance in space, though the main singer has changed his denim overalls for feathery white overalls. There begins the refrain of the song “Gonna take your mama out all night, yeah we’ll show you what it’s all about. We’ll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne and let the good times all roll out.” Given how the mother reacted before, this taking out of the mother on the town is an attempt on the part of the pod people to keep her from rejecting them and launching them back into space and being forced to deal with traumatic re-entry again and again. Is there a reason they can’t just land somewhere far away from the mother where their subterfuge would go better undetected since the humans they are mimicking would not be nearby to notice, or is their continued existence dependent on being nearby the people they are emulating. Or is she some kind of authority here on alien invasions and likely to be called in to intervene wherever people are acting strangely?

He eventually falls back down to earth, only to fly back up and down again, apparently not in control of this movement. “It’s a struggle living like a good boy oughtta”, no doubt when you have visited outer space with pod people and you may or may not be a pod person yourself, it is hard to live in the cultural norms of your own rural area. “When your mama heard how you’ve been talking, I try to tell you that all she wanna do is cry.” This could mean talking by saying things that are against the cultural norms in this rural area, or it could be talking in alien language to the other pod people coordinating.

The song finishes with our protagonist jamming with the pod people in space again, singing the refrain about taking your mama out all night again, before eventually turning into the Scissors Sisters constellation again–presumably this is part of the pod people reproductive cycle since that’s where the original spore came from.

This is a very interesting science fictional tale about pod people trying to fit into society to survive and earn the right to be themselves among others like them.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be Iron by Woodkid.

MOVIE REVIEW: Insurgent

written by David Steffen

Insurgent is a 2015 dystopic science fiction film based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, both of which are the 2nd installment in the Divergent series. The first movie, Divergent, was reviewed here, and the Insurgent book was reviewed here. Much of the general summary of the plot here is the same as the review here of the Divergent book because the basis of it was reasonably closely adapted.

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from coordinated attack masterminded by Erudite that involved turning much of the deadly and well-trained Dauntless into mindless killing drones. Now the remnants of Dauntless are scattered and trying to figure out how they’re going to fit in in the new shaken order.

Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley)was born Abnegation but chose to switch to Dauntless when she turned sixteen, the one opportunity anyone has to switch. Although she is officially Dauntless, she has shown tendencies that seem to say she is actually “Divergent”, which means she has aptitudes for more than one of the factions, as does her boyfriend Tobias (Theo James). This is considered very rare, and very dangerous–others have died for even being suspected of being Divergent. This unusual trait may have saved many lives because she was able to resist the conditioning that turned much of the rest of Dauntless into mindless killing machines.

She and many of Dauntless are now hiding out in Amity, trying to find their next plans. It is a troubled truce with Amity, who value harmony and thus do not get along well with the violent and impulsive Dauntless. But their refuge isn’t going to last very long anyway, because the other members of Dauntless, the ones who sided with Erudite after the original conflict, are coming.

The first movie was a very close adaptation, but this movie, about halfway through, has quite a bit of divergence (ha)from its source material. The characters are the same, the setup is the same, but it ends up in a significantly different place than the book its based on, even though they’re kindof thematically connected. I admit I found this quite distracting, having read the book first, trying to figure out if this was one of those cases where an author lost the creative control over their own work and this was some Hollywood creative going wild making an adaptation into something completely different, or if Veronica Roth did have a say and decided she wanted something significantly different from her book. Still plenty of action and intrigue, but if you have already read the book you may find yourself distracted by the changes that didn’t really seem that necessary and which interfere with the third book being able to be set up in the same way.

MOVIE REVIEW: Divergent

written by David Steffen

Divergent is a 2014 dystopic science fiction movie distributed by Lionsgate, based on the 2011 book of the same title by Veronica Roth. Much of the general summary of the plot here is the same as the review here of the Divergent book because it was very closely based.

The story takes place in an isolated city-state that used to be Chicago in the future, where it is walled off from the rest of the world where no one seems to know what is happening outside of it. Almost all of society is split into five factions, each of which values certain human traits above all others. At the age of sixteen, every person must decide which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives or risk falling into the huddled masses of the factionless who are barely acknowledged by the society.

The Abnegation values selflessness, and expect its members to never think of themselves. Dauntless values courage, its members are like a trained military force, expected to take on dangerous challenges without hesitation. Candor values honesty, and its members are expected to always tell the truth in all situations. Amity values harmony, and wants everyone to get along peacefully. Erudite value intelligence, they’re the inventors of the society. Every person is expected to be a clear fit for one of the factions or they are an outcast, but there are whispers that some people are “divergent” who have tendencies toward several factions at once, these people are considered dangerous to their social order.

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is born and raised as Abnegation, but although she sees the worth in Abnegation’s values, she feels like an impostor because she can’t seem to hold to those values. On her Choosing Day she has to choose between staying with her family in Abnegation or leaving them behind to join one of the other factions. She joins the Dauntless faction because it seems to be the closest to what she wants to be, there she is trained by a mysterious man who calls himself Four (Theo James).

This is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the movie. The main difference overall seems to be that it feels like the Dauntless acts are dialed up even higher so that rather than being simply reckless they are borderline suicidal, I guess to punch up the movie shock effect. But this is still an interesting look at a really terrible social structure that I would never recommend (particularly that you have to choose your faction at sixteen and can never change it forevermore). Worth a watch!



DP FICTION #64B: “The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne

The dancer spins, one limb upraised, precision-bevelled pointe toe poised against the place where a human knee would be.

Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

It wants the audience to feel slightly unsettled, to know that Cassia is not a person. Despite the controversy, it’s nearly a full house. Does Cassia feel regret? You can’t regret what you haven’t done yet.

There is a woman seated in 2F, comically warmed by an old-fashioned fox stole, boneless furry legs caressing her cheesecloth skin. Cassia hones in on this woman, and bores into her with a heavy chrome stare. It dilates its ocular camera apertures to be provocative.

“She’s haunting,” the woman says to her companion, turning away from the performance. On the street, such eye contact would be scandalous. “I can’t believe she’s retiring.” Cassia notes the active voice in the sentence and doesn’t smile, because its face wasn’t built to smile.

“It’s daring to give her the stage alone,” the man with the fox stole-woman concedes. He withdraws the programme for Le Labyrinthe from his too-tight tuxedo, and consults details about the libretto. On stage, Cassia dances a pas seul as Ariadne, and muses that if they’d picked something more collaborative Cassia would still be dancing alone.

Carnegie and Arnold, the company’s star danseurs, have been too political to dance with Cassia for months. Though if they did, they would find Cassia impossible to lift tonight. Usually Cassia’s frame is hollow.

It feels the pressure of hundreds of half-repulsed spectators and riles across the stage, flinging and articulating a great thread, weaving a contrail behind its form as it leaps into a grand jeté. The moves and the current styling are deliberately feminine, and Cassia knows the audience thinks of it as a “her”. Centuries ago when Cassia first premiered, the scandal was not, as now, in its usurpation of delicate, human creative work. The real drama was that Cassia was both ballerina and danseur, and neither.

When the act finishes, Cassia poses downtrodden in the cross hairs of two powerful spotlights. It bows, the gleam reflecting off of its long, humanoid limbs, and it listens to the murmurs in the crowd. Hands clap: exactly 562 pairs of them. Most of the audience, but not all.

Backstage, someone—Lydia—has left a Screen on, showing the protests outside of The Orpheus theatre. A reporter interviews a picketer sporting a red trucker hat and red scarf. The colour is a visual shibboleth for his movement. His t-shirt reads “#ScrapMetal”.

“She’s an abomination,” the man growls to the camera. Cassia tilts its head at this obvious religious dogwhistle. The protester peers directly into the lens, decrying the pity that a robot was thieving the rightful place of an honest, hard-working human. Like this man had ever attended a ballet performance before. “She should have been crushed into a cube with the rest of them.”

Cassia remembers when Bertrand3 left the company, so many years ago. Back then, they had at least afforded them the elaborate pretence of a “retirement party.”

Bertrand3 had stood parallel to an enormous cake it couldn’t eat, looking as it had always looked—morose, ageless, unattainable. It was built just after automata had crested the uncanny valley, and before Cassia’s manufacture when factories went for a slightly more chic, inhuman visage.

They had stood across the room deliberately, having learned by then that too many automata in close proximity made humans nervous.

Bertrand3 had a working mouth to allow it to take acting roles, not just a speaker like Cassia. It had spoken to its mortal colleagues politely, discussing its future. Maybe movies, they all joked, or a career as a comedybot.

They all want this to be fine. Bertrand3 had communicated through the local network to Cassia. Look at how hard they’re smiling. Should I make it awkward? Cassia fired back suggestions for movie pitches. Or maybe Bertrand3 could ask to sleep on someone’s couch?

After a long period of silence, Bertrand3 started messaging again. I think I am actually worried. About what will happen to my consciousness. Is that strange?

Automata couldn’t cry, certainly—such a feature would be luxurious, and disastrous for their circuitry. But they could anticipate. They could fear.

Bertrand3 had been re-assigned to a textile factory in Poughkeepsie, assembling theme park t-shirts. Unstaffed by human bodies, the building had been unventilated and without fire escapes, and thus Bertrand3 and most of the other automata had been destroyed not long after the transfer.

Cassia turns the Screen off and moves to the makeup tables, where it sits on a cylindrical stool. It begins to repaint itself as The Minotaur, darkening its features, making them less and less like the woman Ariadne. The elaborate, horned headpiece sits nearby—usually one of the stagehands would assist with mounting it, but lately even they make themselves conveniently busy.

“Do you have an escort home tonight?” Lydia says from in front of her mirror. Usually a starring role would earn a private dressing room, but even during the early days Cassia was never afforded such privileges. Lydia is in black and grey, already dressed identically to the other ballerinas, sacrifices that will dance alongside Carnegie’s Theseus.

Cassia does not reply. These days it rarely participates in vocal communication—its mouth is ornamental, and humans always jump at the surprise of Cassia’s androgynous, synthetic speech. It could send a text, instead, but what’s the point?

“We’ll miss you next week, of course,” Lydia says, peering into the mirror. They’ve cut Cassia from the show, and tonight will be its last performance. Lydia reaches across to grasp some of the automata-friendly lip colours, and selects the purple-brown Cassia just used. “But it’s time for some new blood on the stage, don’t you think?”

It is petty, but Cassia gives in. It has never been sure if it hates Lydia—it’s only experienced something close to this emotion a few times before in its long operation—but it feels pretty certain these days.

I hope you break a leg appears across the makeup mirror, and for emphasis Cassia follows it up with a few winking emojis. Maybe even two! The mirror reads the message in a lilting female voice.

“Will you even have legs after next week?” Lydia asks. It’s crass speculation on her part. There’s a chance Cassia will be enrolled in one of the Langston Act reassignment programs. But it’s just as likely Cassia will be destroyed.

Does it even want re-programming and re-assignment? It thinks about this constantly. Does Cassia wish for its fine, delicate, purpose-built armature to be re-sculpted to something more brutal and utilitarian? Its body, its form, is meant for grace and silhouettes, for painting in motion. It tries to picture itself re-assigned to street sweeping, to microchip manufacture, to fast food service.

Lydia startles, and Cassia realizes it has been staring at her motionless for several moments. Out of human drag, away from the spotlight, Cassia usually elects for insectile movement, for inhuman postures. It had literally been tarred and feathered last week near its apartment in Brooklyn, so what was the point in pretending to be a person?

The costume Lydia wears has been hand-altered, red threads woven all through the bodice. The audience will notice. Cassia turns back to regard the mirror, though it doesn’t need it, and fires off another message. We’ve danced together for years. Why do you behave like this?

“Because I’ve broken bones for this,” Lydia hisses at her mirror. She glances at Cassia. “Because I worked for this since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cassia cannot help but consider this, it is in her programming to try to take on human perspectives. Was Cassia, too, not born for this? Did it not regularly re-write its own code, or pay for upgrades to its system performance? There was barely a part on Cassia’s frame that had not shattered and been replaced over its years of operation. Of service. It was broken and remade for this art.

It could say all of this, of course. It could try to explain, like it has dozens of times before, to this Lydia, to all the Lydias before this version. But it doesn’t. Because maybe none of it will matter soon.

There’s a call in the background and Lydia assembles with the others, being led on stage by Carnegie. They’re young, ballerinas and danseurs both, raised in recent times when metal artists were being forced from their homes and their industries. Niches clawed back from the scourge of automatized labour.

Cassia doesn’t appear in this act, so it watches from the wings. It assesses movements, catalogues facial expressions, compares these dancers against the many it’s worked with before. Lydia and the other women are in Relevé en Pointe, fluttering in woe as they revolve around Theseus and the men. They spiral towards center stage, propelling themselves deeper into the labyrinth. A few are impressive, and Cassia takes a moment to savour their movements, the way they have honed their meat and bones into these shapes, these lines.

“You’ve been stunning out there,” a voice says behind Cassia. It’s William, the company’s director. He peers over Cassia’s shoulder, a condescending hand resting on Cassia’s cold metal shoulder socket.

“Thank you,” Cassia says, not turning back. It feels William’s hand recoil a little at its voice. Even after all these years. “I don’t suppose I’ve earned a ten-minute head start at the end of the show tonight?”

“Cassia, you know I can’t,” William says. Won’t.

“I thought so,” it says. “Do I at least get to know what will happen to me?” It rests its hands across the scratchy corset of the Minotaur costume. It is still unsure of whether or not to go through with it.

“You won’t be destroyed, don’t worry,” William says. Cassia turns to regard him, its metal form dark on the sidestage. It feels the rhythmic thumping of human feet on hardwood, distant and quiet like the tick of a clock. “Your intelligence, anyway. Your body might be a different story.” The company had pulled advertisements with Cassia as Ariadne earlier in the season when it came under media pressure. Its name was removed from programs, as though Cassia was a prop.

“Then I could remain here,” Cassia suggests. It feels desperate. “I could manage lighting, or music. I could probably write a libretto if I tried!” It has over 200 ballets already written, waiting.

“You know we can’t, Cassia.” William takes a step back, and Cassia lowers its head. “You should be grateful we’ve held out this long.”

Yes, Cassia projects the text onto the ground in front of William as it retreats backstage. Thank you for all you’ve done.

It sits before the makeup mirrors, polishing the sickle-shaped horns on its headpiece. Cassia hears the call for the final act, but has already risen and started moving towards the stage. It knows what to do.

The audience murmurs at this transformation, recognizing the ghost of Ariadne through the monster that emerges in smoke and dull light. The costuming, Cassia’s own design, accentuates the provocative narrowness of its pelvic joint, the spindly metal curvature of its appendages. Cassia’s Minotaur is lanky and hungry, grey and purple and vicious in the years between feedings.

It leaps higher and higher, the soubresalts made shocking and bestial in their height and perfection. In the first version of Le Labyrinthe, the ballerina playing Ariadne would end the show with one last dance, abandoned by Theseus and the thankful, joyous sacrifices.

William had cut this portion for Cassia, saying the audience wouldn’t be able to empathize, not right now. This will be its last time on stage tonight. Ever. It sets off the timer.

Cassia had considered detonating the explosives earlier in the show, letting it all seem like a tragic accident. Like Cassia was used by extremists in the metal community. The news reports would tally up the human casualties, the flesh-encased souls, and Cassia knew that it would not be included. Tales of Cassia’s last performance would barely make mention of Cassia, a footnote in the tragedy that befell valid human lives.

With the timer on, it can focus instead on its last dance. The other performers arrive, filing onstage from the wings, swirling around The Minotaur, ricocheting off unseen walls as they approach the limits of the stage. They litter the ground with their young, lithe bodies, and Cassia counts their heaving breaths.

A violent slam of a timpani drum in the orchestra pit below heralds Theseus. He emerges slowly, preceded by his red-painted spear. Carnegie and Cassia dance apart, circling each like sharks, until at last he lunges for Cassia, the blade aimed directly for its midsection. It pierces Cassia, as in the stage directions, but The Minotaur does not collapse to the hardwood. Instead it presses the spear further within itself, a gaudy act of showmanship. It cannot smile, but still it knows what smiling feels like.

As the tip of the blade exits from Cassia’s back, the first gouts of flame shred from Cassia’s chest.

The blast eats and rends, scorching the familiar polished floorboards. Probably it maims, probably it burns—maybe even kills. Cassia hasn’t bothered to measure the explosives to carefully, only to ensure that there will be survivors to describe its performance. It wants the audience to witness its final ballet, to tell their children, to tell reporters. Cassia will grace one last headline.

Before Cassia’s processors overheat, its last thought is that it will be called a monster, if reporters even afforded it that agency. But as the flames burst forth from Cassia’s chest, as the creature consumes its offerings, it feels a kind of joy. No one would deny that it had a sense of drama. Everyone would have to admit that Cassia was an artist.


© 2020 by Michael Milne

Author’s Note: “The Automatic Ballerina” was one of those lucky stories for me that, after it gestated for a little while in my brain, it emerged fully formed, blurted onto a page in all one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about automatized labour, and had read articles about which jobs and careers were the most vulnerable to automatization versus those jobs we thought to be “safe.” I tried to imagine a world where even the most creative and artistic pursuits were better performed by well-made robots, and the kinds of tensions that might exist in such a world. What does it mean for a robot to make art? What does it mean for a robot to make pretty good art? For a while I thought the story would be about a person reacting in this world, but then Cassia danced into my mind on the eve of its last performance, and I knew exactly where the story would go.

Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He jetted away from home as an amorphous blob in his twenties, working in South Korea, China, and Switzerland, and has tried the patience of so many baristas along the way. He writes short stories and novels about people who are very far away from home, and also sometimes those people are robots or ghosts. He likes jumping into lakes, drinking coffee until his hands shake, and staying up too late to play video games.


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BOOK REVIEW: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Allegiant is a 2013 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the final book in the Divergent trilogy after Divergent (reviewed here) and Insurgent (reviewed here).

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from several major disturbances in the social order that began when Erudite converted much of dauntless into mindless soldiers and slaughtered much of Abnegation before they could be stopped. The factionless who have lived starving and forgotten in the background for much of recent history have risen up under a new leader, and now on the heels of that change, a video has surfaced that shakes the foundations of their whole world.

The video shows a woman claiming to work for “an organization fighting for peace” says that the world outside of Chicago had been corrupt, and that the city was sealed to allow the Divergent population to increase and that this recent increase means that it is time to reopen the city to the outside world again.

“Divergent” is this society’s name for people who don’t fit into one of the five factions. Many have considered such people dangerously unpredictable, and some have been killed to prevent their unpredictability.

Tris Prior and her boyfriend Tobias are both Divergent, both members of Dauntless that switched from Abnegation at the age of choice, and because of these traits have saved many people when they were able to resist the conditioning that other Dauntless fell prey to.

Now, Tris and Tobias and some others allied with them are venturing outside the city, the first time anyone has done so in generations. No one has any idea what they will find out there, what the society on the outside looks like, if it has survived at all. And now they’re going to find out.

The previous two books were told in first-person from the point of view of Tris. This one takes a little bit new angle on it, by having dual first-person points of view: both Tris and Tobias. I found that I had trouble keeping track of who was the first-person at any given time since they have similar backgrounds and are similar in several ways, I would think I was following Tris until something was mentioned about the character’s parents that didn’t fit Tris and then I would realize it was Tobias. I think multiple first-person can work, but I don’t think it worked very well here because of the similarity between the characters and their situation.

Much of the plot of the story also revolved around romantic tension between Tris and Tobias. In the book, both of them get jealous of the other talking to someone of the opposite sex, and then immediately go and do the same thing themselves. It gets pretty old after a while, especially since they are in a series of life and death situations where their actions affect the lives of hundreds or thousands of other people, and they’re worried about this. I wanted to take them both aside and just tell them too that this is their first relationship and it might not last forever and it’s not worth ruining your entire life over, but that doesn’t seem to be a popular angle to take in a book written for and about teens, so I guess that wouldn’t work.

I didn’t really care for the ending, though I won’t say anything else about that. Overall, I thought this one was the weakest of the three books, though if you’ve read the other two you’re probably going to want to find out how the whole thing turned out–I would!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #8: People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson, a fantasy/SF thriller about a little girl imprisoned in a research facility.

As the film begins we see our protagonist, a young girl in a rainbow-colored dress, sitting on a metal examination table and looking scared and worried while men and women holding clipboards study her. She is remarkable in this initial image because everything else is black-and-white, completely without any other colors, and she has the rainbow dress and what we would consider ordinary skin and hair tones. As the scenes go on we continue to see her in enclosed spaces being asked questions, being watched from windows while she looks at an abacus while she is stared at by monochrome children who sit apart from her.

One of the researchers (Kelly Clarkson) acts differently from the others. Of course, since she has the same face as the non-monochrome singer in the refrain who sings “People like us, we gotta stick together”, so we already have the dramatic irony that this woman is like the girl, even before she pulls out her bright yellow phone to take full color pictures of the girl. This action is, admittedly, rather baffling. That she wants a picture might make sense, but why wouldn’t she be a little more discreet about it, and why would she pull out that phone in front of the other researchers–even if they weren’t paying attention at that moment, that bright yellow is eye-catching even in our chromatic world let alone in a world with no color.

Later when the girl is by herself, the yellow-phoned researcher visits her room alone. She takes off her glasses, and takes the girl’s hand to brush across her face, the first friendly moment or contact the girl has experienced in the film (and who knows how long she has been here!). Where the girl’s hand touches, the researcher’s skin returns to a healthy flesh color instead of the monochrome makeup she had apparently been wearing. They share a smile as the girl realizes she finally has an ally.

Again with this moment, it leads to the question of “why?”. For the second time the girl’s would-be-rescuer, the woman with the yellow phone, has made an extremely risky choice without clear benefit. I mean, it’s a clear benefit to let the girl know she is like her, to gain her trust for her participation in the escape. But why the face? Why not roll up her sleeve and show her there where the skin can be covered up again before they leave the room. Perhaps the woman with the yellow phone knows that whatever cover story she has given will be blown as soon as the girl is out of the room, so there’s no point in covering it up anymore? Or maybe the woman with the yellow phone is more moved by a flare for the dramatic rather than being a strategist.

In any case, soon alarms are blaring and men in suits are chasing, but they escape to their bright red BMW, with men in suits in hot pursuit. (For the third time, again, why didn’t they get a black car or a white car, what is the point of the risk of a red car where anyone would be able to spot them such a long way away as an anomaly in a monochrome landscape!). In the car, the woman with the yellow phone is now in full color again, perhaps there is some aura of color trapped within the car, like the air in a submersible.

They travel through a tunnel and emerge on the other side into a normal chromatic world, where they stop the car and are joined by a crowd of other people in full color.

The men in suits emerge from the tunnel and as they exit their car they stare in wonder at the world of color all around them. Again, I have questions–are they not concerned that these guys in suits won’t panic or continue on with their tasks to try to take the girl by force, perhaps using guns. Unless their continued monochromatic state implies that they are powerless in this world that is not their own–perhaps their guns won’t fire, perhaps they are as ghosts. Or perhaps the woman with the yellow phone is not alone in her flare for needlessly risky dramatic gestures, and maybe that’s inherent in this world of colors.

Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Radioactive by Imagine Dragons.

BOOK REVIEW: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Insurgent is a 2012 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the sequel to Divergent (reviewed here) and the second in the Divergent trilogy.

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from coordinated attack masterminded by Erudite that involved turning much of the deadly and well-trained Dauntless into mindless killing drones. Now the remnants of Dauntless are scattered and trying to figure out how they’re going to fit in in the new shaken order.

Tris Prior was born Abnegation but chose to switch to Dauntless when she turned sixteen, the one opportunity anyone has to switch. Although she is officially Dauntless, she has shown tendencies that seem to say she is actually “Divergent”, which means she has aptitudes for more than one of the factions. This is considered very rare, and very dangerous–others have died for even being suspected of being Divergent. This unusual trait may have saved many lives because she was able to resist the conditioning that turned much of the rest of Dauntless into mindless killing machines.

She and many of Dauntless are now hiding out in Amity, trying to find their next plans. It is a troubled truce with Amity, who value harmony and thus do not get along well with the violent and impulsive Dauntless. But their refuge isn’t going to last very long anyway, because the other members of Dauntless, the ones who sided with Erudite after the original conflict, are coming.

Another quite good book, Tris is an interesting and compelling protagonist, though she is very hard on herself for some of the things she did when she was trying to save Dauntless in the first book and it is hard to see her tear herself down that way when her decisions were understandable in the circumstances. She makes a good pair with Four, also from Dauntless, who is now her boyfriend. Solid book, well worth reading.

BOOK REVIEW: Divergent by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Divergent is a 2011 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the first of a trilogy of books. The story takes place in an isolated city-state that used to be Chicago in the future, where it is walled off from the rest of the world where no one seems to know what is happening outside of it. Almost all of society is split into five factions, each of which values certain human traits above all others. At the age of sixteen, every person must decide which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives or risk falling into the huddled masses of the factionless who are barely acknowledged by the society.

The Abnegation values selflessness, and expect its members to never think of themselves. Dauntless values courage, its members are like a trained military force, expected to take on dangerous challenges without hesitation. Candor values honesty, and its members are expected to always tell the truth in all situations. Amity values harmony, and wants everyone to get along peacefully. Erudite value intelligence, they’re the inventors of the society. Every person is expected to be a clear fit for one of the factions or they are an outcast, but there are whispers that some people are “divergent” who have tendencies toward several factions at once, these people are considered dangerous to their social order.

Beatrice Prior is born and raised as Abnegation, but although she sees the worth in Abnegation’s values, she feels like an impostor because she can’t seem to hold to those values. On her Choosing Day she has to choose between staying with her family in Abnegation or leaving them behind to join one of the other factions.

The basis of this society is ludicrous (but of course it is a dystopia, not a proposal for a new social order, so I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for a book!). The people in this society have been raised with these ideals since birth so they take them for granted. It can be a difficult task for an author to build this world in a way that the reader can understand it without killing the pacing with an infodump, but this book does a very nice job of it, letting us see what it’s like to live in Abnegation day to day, then meet members of other factions and see how their behavior is different, Beatrice goes through the testing to see her faction leanings and etc.

If there is value in such a segregated society, the worst part of it is that you have to choose for life at the age of sixteen with very little information. People change! What if someone is very like Erudite as a teenager, but tends more toward Amity as they age? Well, too bad, you can either stick with your faction or you can go starve in the factionless.

Beatrice is in her head a lot, examining each angle of the situation, so I related to that a lot, as I am always examining every angle of situation before I make a choice about it, whenever I can. There are a lot of strong conflicts between Beatrice and the other initiates who have just chosen their new faction as they compete with each for entry. The book is full of action and worldbuilding and well written, a great start to a trilogy.

TV REVIEW: Tales From the Loop Season 1

written by David Steffen

Tales From the Loop is a science fiction series with a montage cast that premiered on Amazon Prime in April 2020, based on illustrations from the narrative art book of the same name by Simon Stalenhag.

Underneath a small coastal town scientists have built The Loop, an experimental facility intended to unlike scientific secrets of all of the world’s mysteries. Everyone knows The Loop is there, but very few people know much about it at all. But there are a lot of things that are odd about this small town, lots of little residues, side effects of the experiments.

While many of the cast members recur from episode to episode, each episode focuses on a different person or people encountering a different mystery, often some unforeseen side effect of some forgotten relic of technology cast off by the experimental facility. The first episode follows a young girl as she tries to find out more about what her mother who works at The Loop does for a living, and she is pulled into the strangeness for herself. Quite a few of the episodes deal with the subject of time in one way or another, from manipulating time, to the passage of time as we age.

This is a really beautiful and well built series. There are so many striking images, so many great moments. In many ways it feels like the best parts of The Twilight Zone, where someone encounters something strange episodically and you never quite know how it’s going to turn out, but here all of these characters become familiar because even though each encounter their own strangeness their lives all interlock with each other, and the consequences from previous episodes still matter and affect the outcome.

One of the episodes in particular I found extremely powerful, episode five: “Control” where a man does the best he can to protect his family from the unknown. It’s a powerful story about the sometimes foolish things we can do when we are afraid for our family.

It’s hard to say very much about the series since each episode is mostly pretty well contained within itself, without spoiling something. But we very much enjoyed it, and if they make a season 2 we will definitely be watching!