This week’s stories are about the housing crisis. They’re about ruthless politicians screwing everyone over in service of their own power games. And how making people safe means stripping them of everything that makes them real and worthwhile. And yes, these stories are speculative fiction and not articles from Reason Magazine.
Ghosts of Home by Sam J. Miller | Lightspeed Magazine
The bank didn’t pay for the oranges. They should have — offerings were clearly listed as a reimbursable expense — but the turnaround time and degree of nudging needed when Agnes submitted receipts made the whole process prohibitive. If she bugged Trask too much around the wrong things she might lose the job, and with it the gas card, which was worth a lot more money than the oranges. Sucking up the expense was an investment in staving off unemployment.
Plus, she liked the feeling that since they came out of her pocket, it was she that was stockpiling favor with the spirits, instead of the bank. What did JPMorgan Chase need with the gratitude of a piddling household spirit in one of the hundreds of thousands of falling-down buildings that dotted its asset spreadsheets? All her boss cared about was keeping the spirits happy enough that roofs would not collapse or bloodstains spread on whitewashed walls when it came time to show the place — or a hearth god or brownie cause a slip or tumble that would lead to a lawsuit. The offerings came from her, and with each gift she could feel their gratitude. Interaction with household spirits was strictly forbidden, but she enjoyed knowing they were grateful. As now, entering the tiny red house at 5775 Route 9, just past the Tomahawk Diner. She breathed deep the dry wood-and-mothballs smell. She struck a match, lit the incense stick, made a small slit in the orange peel with her fingernail. Spirits were easy to please. What they wanted was simple. Not like people.
Wind shifted in the attic above her, and she caught the scent of potpourri. A sachet left in a closet upstairs, perhaps, or the scented breath of the spirit of the place. Agnes knew nothing about this one, or any of the foreclosed houses on her route. Who had lived there. Where they went. All she knew was the bank evicted them. A month ago or back in 2008 when the bubble first began to burst. Six months on the job and she still loved to investigate, but her roster of properties was too long to let her spend much time in each. And the longer she stayed, the harder it was to avoid interacting.
When she turned to go, he was standing by the door.
Full Disclosure: I workshopped this story with Sam so I will admit to some level of bias in liking it so much. But it was a good story before I even got to it.
The main thing I love about this story is that it empathizes with a type of person who doesn’t often get empathy. We often hear about those mysterious people out there who vote against their own interests or support politicians, policies, and official actions that harm them personally or harm their community. Writing such people off is easy. Understanding how it is they got to that place isn’t, and that’s one of the things Miller tackles here.
I also love the idea of houses having spirits that must be appeased once the house is empty for too long. Highly Recommended.
Art by Sam J Miller
The Servant by Emily Devenport | Clarkesworld Magazine
My name is Oichi Angelis, and I am a worm. I exist in the outer skin of the Generation Ship Olympia, and I spend most of my time squeezing through its utility tunnels, doing work for the Executives. I am partially deaf, dumb, and blind. That I am not entirely so is my greatest secret. It is the reason I was able to kill Ryan Charmayne two hours after curfew, inside Lock 212.
Don’t feel too bad for Ryan. He was there to commit murder, too. He thought he was going to bump off a rival who was using Lock 212 to rendezvous with a mole from his inner circle. The fact that Ryan didn’t know who the mole was prevented him from ordering someone else to do the killing, but it wasn’t the only reason he came in person. Ryan enjoyed the dirty work. He just couldn’t afford to stoop to it as often as he would like to, considering his lofty position in the House of Clans.
Curfew doesn’t apply to Executives, so Ryan roamed at will. His brethren rarely had business in the tunnels where we wormy folk live; he felt sure no one would see him. He hardly seemed to mind that it was cold enough to make his breath condense into mist as he marched through the tangle of narrow corridors.
He slowed his pace when he saw the inner door. It was open, which is against regulations. If the outer door suffered a catastrophic breach, depressurization would occur until the emergency doors spun shut. They shut within ten seconds, but that was all it would take to suck a bunch of people and equipment out the door. Ryan didn’t give a damn about the potential loss of life, but if there’s one thing that will piss an Executive off, it’s a broken rule. Disapproval was clear on his face, until it gave way to curiosity. After all, he had two goals: to kill the rival and to find out who the mole was. They must be somewhere inside, plotting, and that must also be why they had left the door open.
I wondered why he didn’t smell the blood. I smelled it from my position. I’m a Servant, and the Executives believe that they control everything I see and hear. All worms share this modification, it’s implanted into our brains. But for some reason, they never thought to control what I smell, taste, or feel. I would have been able to smell the blood even before I entered the lock, but he didn’t react until he saw his rival’s body.
The world of generation ships is rough and ruthless. I very much appreciate the idea that music is key to making things better, though not quite directly. I’m also a fan of the robotic entities in the world Devenport created.
The idea that equality is unnatural and wrong is a very powerful one amongst those who design dystopian—or, at least very imbalanced—societies. The question of how to design a more equal society is also a hot button issue in a lot of our communities right now.
Cover Art by Julie Dillon
Security Check by Han Song, translated by Ken Liu | Clarkesworld Magazine
My wife and I are celebrating our twentieth anniversary today. After work, I walk to the mall and pick out a necklace for her; then I walk to the subway station in the mall to take the train home.
Subway stations are everywhere in New York City, and I do meaneverywhere. The lines connect the most expensive neighborhoods with the poorest slums, and stations can be found in every shopping center, office building, theater, restaurant, nightclub, bar, church . . .
A group of security agents, dressed in black uniforms with red armbands, are stationed at the entrance. They stand with their arms held behind their backs, their feet planted firmly apart, and survey the crowd with cold gazes. I try to go by them nonchalantly, but my legs start going rubbery as soon as I meet their gaze. I take off my jacket without prompting and place it—the necklace nestled in a pocket—and my briefcase into the yawning, dark maw of the x-ray machine.
After the security check, they place a “safe” sticker on my chest.
Dazed and numb, I get on the subway. All the other passengers are also wearing “safe” stickers. Preoccupied, none of us say a word.
We’re at my stop. I walk home. My wife is already there. Trembling, I take out the necklace and hand it to her. She forces a smile and tries on the necklace once before putting it away. We eat dinner in silence, as is our habit. And then we go to bed, lying back to back, both of us quickly falling asleep.
We first met twenty years ago, also at a subway stop. Back then, everything was falling apart, and lawlessness reigned. One day, someone shouted that a killer was slashing at people in the subway, and we all panicked and stampeded. A woman in front of me fell; I rushed to help her up . . .
Later, she said to me, “No matter how chaotic the world becomes, as long as you’re with me, I’ll feel safe.”
Twenty years have passed, and life has been rendered one hundred percent safe, cleansed of all risks, dangers, and perils. It seems we’re left with nothing.
This story exemplifies one of the many reasons to appreciate works in translation. This story is very nationalist and sends a strong message of national exceptionalism... but probably not for the nation you’re thinking of. Love it. I can imagine a lot of people getting upset with the way things in this story go down because Americans and Westerners in general are not used to seeing ourselves portrayed in this way. That’s one of the things that make this story work for me. Plus, it’s creepy.