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Tor.com -- December 2012

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Tor.com, December 2012

“Am I Free to Go?” by Kathryn Cramer

“The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo
“Intestate” by Charlie Jane Anders

Reviewed by Louis West

“Am I Free to Go?,” by Kathryn Cramer, is an edgy tale about a home invasion, except it’s the cops doing the invading. When a once-rich county builds a prison to create jobs and revenues and pushes through a privatization bill that suspends civil liberties, but there aren’t any prisoners available, then it’s time to find some—“men, women and children from nowhere, incarcerated for no reason.” Of course, it’s the cops that are tasked to find them. But cops aren’t really bad; it’s just that working as a corrections officer changes a person. They come to believe that “If you’re arrested, you’re guilty.”

The story wanders, like a victim struggling to understand what happened to them with everything jumbled up in their mind. Lucidity is a goal that’s hard to attain when you realize that underneath the alleged utopia where you live lurks a disempowered and defunded failed state, operating with its own rules. Of course, if you’re an amateur hacker and can’t resist the urge to plunder government computers to “prove” what’s going on, don’t be surprised when federal prison looms in your future. Instead, it’s simplest to be nice and compliant when the cops invade your bedroom at 3 AM. Be quiet and calm and maybe, the next morning, the cops might even be willing to apologize.

A thought-provoking story. I was particularly intrigued by the author’s description of a bio-monitoring system that includes chipped prisoners, Wi-Fi fungal mats growing in the ground and trees that act as Wi-Fi antennas. George Orwell would have been proud of how much technology has advanced the possibilities of a big-brother state.

Brit Mandelo’s “The Finite Canvas” takes place on Downside, a hot, atmosphere-damaged Earth scoured by the sun’s radiation. Civilization thrives on the orbital stations while only the dispossessed live downside. Molly had been deported from the stations for various transgressions and tasked with providing medical humanitarian work. Into her sweltering life comes Jada, syndicate murderer, seeking a new scar-tattoo to memorialize her latest kill, her partner. No anesthesia—the pain of slowly being carved is part of the necessary ritual. Molly agrees, in exchange for more money than she could earn in a year and Jada’s story of her kill. Jada is the canvas, the story and the tattoo pattern the art and Molly the artist. But the story and the reward for turning Jada over to the police change everything.

Desperation makes people do things they would never otherwise consider. And, if we betray someone, do we end up emulating them as a form of atonement? A masterful story that paints a harsh, gritty world and lives with even fewer choices. I truly felt Molly’s pain as she struggled with her final decision. A must read.

“Intestate,” by Charlie Jane Anders, tells of an extended family gathering for one last reunion with their patriarch, a man more cyborg than human, cryptic about his diverse inventions and dying of cancer. The story rambles like all good reunions do with screaming kids, adults reminiscing and the patriarch focusing on his grandkids. Two days and nights of remembering, then the reunion is over with nothing resolved, just like much of life. Thus, the story title—intestate--things left unsettled by a will, answers left begging.