Monday, February 14, 2022

Brozek & Rambo, Reinvented Heart (2022)

Jennifer Brozek & Cat Rambo (edd.), The Reinvented Heart. Caezik SF & Fantasy, 2022. Pp. 274. ISBN 978-1-6471-0042-1. $34.14/£21.01.

Reviewed by M.L. Clark

Sometimes an anthology is just a really good excuse to sit with strong and wide-ranging storytelling. Such was certainly the case with The Reinvented Heart, a collection of 24 stories centered on a wide range of emotional bonds, challenges, and opportunities. Across the board, the writing was deft and immersive, the stories were distinct and memorable, and many worked in striking conversation with their neighbours. The organization of this collection into three overarching “movements”—”Hearts,” “Hands,” and “Minds,” each opening with a small but potent bit of poetry by Jane Yolen, and revealing plenty of resonant story placements—also makes for an excellently curated reading experience, best read in the provided order. My only caveat, before I leap into high praise for the pieces themselves, is that I don’t think all of these stories reflect the anthology’s explicit mission statement. Then again, an anthology is often expected to carve out a singular role for itself in the market, and promotional material often makes sweeping claims to bring readers in.

Still, two points are worth noting, so that other readers can set their expectations accordingly. The anthology’s establishing claim is that “science fiction often focuses on future technology and science without considering the ways social structures will change as tech changes—or not”: a classic case of throwing the rest of the genre under the bus to make the work on hand appear more innovative. That was a bit unfortunate, and denied us the opportunity to think of these stories as themselves in a deep and longstanding relationship with other work come before. I would have much preferred, for instance, an introduction that situated these stories within the wealth of science fiction that doesn’t focus on predicting the car, so much as the traffic jam (to riff on Frederik Pohl’s famous assertion about what makes for a good SF story).

The other, related issue is that some of these stories absolutely do not predict the traffic jam, so to speak. They have the technology! But they don’t imagine that technology really changing the future—and have no explanation for why not. For instance, even though the collection explicitly incorporates asexual, aromantic, pansexual, poly, lesbian, and gay relationships (along with familial, platonic, and situational bonding), its non-binary stories were the most expressly tied to technological advancements… that somehow did not change contemporary notions of gender in the slightest.

Lisa Morton’s “Touch has a Memory,” for instance, has a hardboiled set-up with a soft and sweet interior: it follows a U.S. attorney who takes up the case of an emancipated mech who wants to be legally recognized as “non-binary pansexual.” For all its science-fictional feel (and well-paced love-and-tragedy plot), the piece is also unwittingly horrifying, because it imagines a near-future U.S. where everyone’s gender and sexuality requires formal classification… and where none of the supposedly justice-seeking characters seems to bat an eye at this state of affairs. Similarly, Madeline Pine’s warmly told “Ping-Pong Dysphoria” imagines a world where popping in and out of differently sexed cyborg bodies is no harder than slipping between femme and dapper outfits… but there’s still apparently such outsized stigma not to do so that the protagonist needs a great leap of courage to leave an unsupportive boyfriend? Again, though, this is really just quibbling over whether all the stories do (or even can do) what the promo materials claim. It’s trite to say, but these stories speak for themselves just fine—not a poorly told tale in the bunch—and are worthy, thought-provoking reads.

So, let’s look through the rest:

In “Retrospect,” Seanan McGuire starts us off on that delicious edge of romance and horror, set spectacularly well in a scientific context where a researcher becomes more wedded to their work than most. You will never look at fungus the same way… and maybe never want to? AnaMaria Curtis’s “Lockpick, Locked Heart” then imagines a heartbreaking confluence of deep-space travel, global decline, and corporate solutions for human suffering. (Or rather, it’s only heartbreaking if you didn’t have that emotional capacity locked behind a paywall!) Morton’s and Pine’s pieces follow, with fully realized characters and solid writing even though I find their visions of a genderqueer/enby future unsettlingly rigid and more of the present.

Sam Fleming’s “In Our Masks, the Shadows” then tosses us into the sordid power-plays of dating in a VR-forged world where the preservation of fabricated personas and the sanctity of the system’s algorithm is tantamount. But does that ever work out as well as a chance encounter with someone with no interest in or need for masks? Felicity Drake’s “Ships of Theseus” then introduces some of the most nuanced future-crafting I’ve yet seen around what advanced prosthetic technologies might mean for us. This story definitely lives up to the SF standard of predicting the traffic jam, not just the car, by exploring the addictive, risk-seeking, and entirely new bonding behaviours that could easily emerge.

“With All Souls Still Aboard,” by Premee Mohamed, operates in excellent conversation with Drake’s piece, while also offering a distinctly urgent set of problems that might arise when we’re given the opportunity to be remade. Who gets to be remade? Who gets to choose? And what horrifically arbitrary variables will ultimately tip the scales in making that choice? Beth Cato’s “More Than Nine” is in the running for goofiest piece in the collection; it involves a relentlessly cloned cat who is our protagonist’s dearest comfort, and whom a member of a long-suffering alien species takes away. The galactic politics at play here are wobbly, but this absolutely accords with the protagonist’s sense of entitlement—which is about to be corrected.

“The Shape of the Particle,” by Naomi Kritzer, is… well, barely science fiction, but still a warm-hearted and well-written read. The occasional, vague reference to robots and AI aside, it’s the story of a found family forged in an academic residence that burns down—and how that fluid community of scholars and scholarly adjacent housemates rebuilds a sense of home. Sophie Giroir’s “No Want to Spend” then imagines a starkly hyper-sexualized world where everyone is expected to make money that they then spend buying or soliciting sex. Our protagonist is asexual, and longing to leave the world entirely—but might just be overlooking opportunities for belonging, exactly as she is, that already exist in her neck of the woods.

“Little Deaths and Missed Connections” by Maria Dong is a clever exploration of how human messiness will creep into even the most automatic lifestyle—in this case, with a series of love notes slipped into a mandatory sleeping creche that Alex shares with different workers across three shift cycles. Does she have a secret admirer, or is this a case of missed connections? Lyda Morehouse’s “Sincerely Yours” then makes endearing use of an isolated space job and an accidental bit of antiquated mail to imagine the building of a beautiful friendship via correspondence. Our protagonist bonds fast and well with this fellow lover of anime… so long as there is no risk of ever sharing space. But what if her new friend wants something more?

Devin Miller’s “Photosynthesis, Growth” offers splendid resonance with this idea that many relationships thrive on space—and does so with a perfect metaphor: a lover who literally flowers and blooms, and also has seasons where she cannot be around her lover. No matter. The pair has built a love that is all the stronger for its distances, in time. Aimee Ogden’s “No Pain But That of Memory” then switches between the perspectives of two siblings differently weaponized by cruel parents. The analogy here, for ever so many messy, painful relationships between siblings growing up in domestic abuse, is rightly a whole world in violent struggle: exactly what a child’s is, when there is no hope of safety at home.

“Go Where the Heart Takes You,” by Anita Ensal, then operates in striking counterpoint: it’s the story of one very big, very wealthy family that comes across another very big, found family that’s fallen on hard times but never once wavered in its commitment to love. What else is there to do, in a sprawling space-faring solar system, but to grow the borders of family still? Fran Wilde’s “The Star-Crossed Horoscope for Interstellar Travelers” gives us our second contender for goofiest entry. It’s literally an interstellar horoscope, complete with new entries to accommodate for different relationships to the stars caused by space travel and AI tech—but it’s also, more than anything, the writer’s attempt to reach out to one person, and be heard. Mercedes M. Yardley’s “Canvas of Sins” then gives us a world where sin-eaters consume the blood of transgressors, and cleanse them of their crimes. This is another piece that doesn’t quite fit as tech-driven science-fiction, but it suitably reflects the cruelty of treating anyone in a too-mechanical a way—especially when that person is doing so much for everyone else.

“If My Body is a Temple, Raze It to the Ground,” by Lauren Ring, makes for a lovely point of comparison. It has a literally automated person—uploaded into corporate service but still consciously human—whose exploitation within that system reaches someone who becomes a whistleblower to save her. But the fight is far from over once the corruption’s been revealed. Xander Odell’s “Perfectmate™” is easily the cutest piece here. It’s told through the scripts presented by a dating program to one unlucky user who keeps failing to hit it off with each of the matches the system presents. Even if you guess the ending, the journey’s pretty sweet. Rosemary Claire Smith’s “Etruscan Afterlife” is another strong contender for the collection’s most nuanced treatment of possible social impacts of future tech. Maybe you and your partner can upload yourselves—but if you struggled for so long to find that meaningful relationship at all, are you really willing to risk the two of you changing, post-upload, and growing apart?

Justina Robson’s “Our Savage Heart Calls to Itself (Across the Endless Tides)” is the whopper in the collection—13,000 words, in contrast to the others, which sit at around 5,000 or under. It’s a surprisingly zippy tale, though, of a lab-grown human who helps all sorts of “Forged” AIs that have been scattered across the system and are aching for fuller self-actualization—including, when the opportunity arises, the fruits of a sort of family reunification all their own.

Taken collectively, this is an excellent run of stories, well-curated to elevate complementary explorations of key relational themes. The stories here may not all be responding to the questions of future tech and ensuing social consequence that were prominently raised in the anthology’s promo copy—but some of them definitely do, and to great effect. More importantly, all of them speak not just to the primacy of relationships in our lives, but also to the immense variation in what a “relationship” even means.

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