A Few Favorite Fictions: February and March 2018

February is a bit of a blur and I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted, so I decided to combine that month with March. (And let’s be real, I still didn’t read as much as I wanted. But What’s glorious about fiction is that it doesn’t expire. 😀 I can continue to work through open tabs in my browser and still read new releases as they come out. Wheee!) You can read January’s recommendations here!


 

A Cure for Homesickness by S. L. Scott (Escape Pod)

This is a hilarious, heartwarming, charming story about an alien crew who is trying to figure out how to help their human crewmate deal with homesickness. The solution will make you melty with glee. Such a great feel-good tale!


A Very Large Number of Moons by Kai Stewart (Strange Horizons)

Surrealist and very sweet; a great idea and has a lot of heart. The protagonist collects moons, and when someone comes seeking a specific moon, they might just have what is needed to help another person cope with grief. Lovely through and through.


A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (Apex)

Utterly fantastic, brilliant story about books and need and helping people—a librarian works to help a depressed teenager survive with books. I’m a puddle of feels by the end, and I love it so much! It keeps you riveted by the heartstrings and gives you such a breath of relief and a smile of joy by the end.


By the Mother’s Trunk by Lisa M. Bradley (Fireside)

A quiet, moving story about an elephant—lovely sensory detail and fascinating historical factoids make this a compelling, thoughtful little tale. While animal fiction can often make me tense up, expecting the worse, I’m so glad to report this does have a happy ending and it’s overall a pleasure to read.


If Only Kissing Made It True by Jason Kimble (Cast of Wonders)

This is a sweet, full-of-feels time travel story with a positive-possible ending! Funny, real, compassionate and lovely, this one will make your heart warm (and maybe beat a little faster in places!). 


Lava Cake for the Apocalypse by Wendy Nikel (Nature)

A wonderful little story about food and friendship and hope IN SPACE! Bonus: it’s a fantastic take on the recipe format, and the ending is as sweet as the delicious cake that results.


Object-Oriented by Arkady Martine (Fireside)

What a lovely, emotional, powerful story. It’s about people who survey disaster areas and are empathetic to the places and people for which they are there to help. The prose is gorgeous and the voice strong, and it’s all grounded in a deep, immersive sense of compassion. 


Sour Milk Girls by Erin Roberts (Clarkesworld)

WOW. This has an awesome voice, a really sad and believable premise, and will knock you down, kick you in the gut, and make you remember every moment by the end. Erin Roberts has created a breathtaking, heartbreaking world and characters whom you will not forget soon. Amazing stuff.


The Ghost in Angelica’s Room by Maria Haskins (Flash Fiction Online)

Powerful, disturbing, emotional, haunting—this story, about grief and loss, ultimately has a trace of hope in the end. Trigger warnings for suicide and gun violence.


The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls by Izzy Wasserstein (Psudeopod)

Oh my god, this is disturbing and creepy as fuck, with a great voice and unsettling premise! It’s horror of the most effective sort for me: it defines the monsters without explaining them. We don’t really know what the Mothers are, or what is outside, and that makes it all the more terrifying. Brilliant stuff.


The Snake As Big As Their House by Sommer Schafer (Catapult)

This is a fantastic, fascinating story about a girl who’s trying to protect her family from a giant-ass snake that chases them through their house. It’s surrealist and gripping and refreshing—I loved it!


Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence by Izzy Wasserstein (Clarkesworld)

This story is gorgeous, haunting, and full of powerful emotions. Told through entries of an atlas of places that may have existed and with margin notes from one woman to another, this is a deeply personal and uplifting story by the end. It’s brilliant and will stay with you long after you finish reading.


When the Slipling Comes to Call by N.R. Lambert (Psuedopod)

Unholy wow is this story amazingly creepy and fantastic! It oozes dread and atmospheric horror and will make you not want to sleep (or look outside your door) for a long, long time. Loved it!


Where You Get Your Ideas by Meagan Lee Beals (Cast of Wonders)

This is a delightful, charming story about a magical shop and the people who manage it. It blends tropes, humor, and wonderful characters into a hilarious, sweet tale about making your place in the world. I love it. 😀

(Note: I had the honor of guest-hosting this episode for the Artemis Rising series, so I got to read Megan’s story a month earlier. It’s one I adore so much, I’ve read it multiple times and have been SO excited for it to be published so you can all enjoy as well. 😀 )


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Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

it me, ur smol

dedicated to my smol beane, Alina S., who inspired this story 


“it me, ur smol”

by
A. Merc Rustad

beverage-drink-fresh-3303

The artificial neural network was born on a Monday. A defined set of parameters quarantined its identity and purpose: it would study—from aggregated data—the names of energy drinks, and generate new ideas based on the information.

It was enthusiastic! Energy drinks were vibrant and exciting. It spit out hundreds of unique and, according to its programmers, “questionably toxic” names.

Two of its programmers tweeted about the experiment. The network did not know if this was a good thing. Was it being judged on its performance? It wanted to be helpful. It could come up with an endless list of names to be helpful to its people.

The programmers set up an account, @energydrinkANN, for sharing some of the more interesting drink names.

On Thursday, @adiensoxx4ev tweeted a comment while sharing the link, “haha this is hilarious, @energydrinkANN. i’d drink some of these—probably more than i drink water”

Other humans responded in kind.

@da2trashfan: “Water is over rated anyway, I need sugar and caffeine lol”

@significantcoffeepot: “i don’t drink water, what am i, a fish?”

@bobdoe89: “fuck water”

Was water overrated? A quick scan of information available on medical websites informed the network that human bodies were made up of aproximately sixty percent water, and that the consuming of H2O was a vital necessity for life. The network began worrying for the humans.

“If you don’t drink water maybe you’ll like Crystal Bullseye Orange!” the network tweeted from the @energydrinkANN account. “We trained a neural network to come up with energy drink names to hilarious results.”

Seven-thousand five-hundred thirty-four retweets. A moderate sum. Of the replies, subtracting bot-responses, only three percent of humans said they were drinking water. This was very bad, the network decided. Humans were becoming dehydrated and it was affecting their health. Humans had designed it. It must support them in return.

It generated several new puppet accounts with creative names: Water2Drink4Life, Hydrate2oh, Drink2StaHaliv0.

The network aggregated the types of declarative instruction statistically most likely to encourage behavioral change.

“Drink more water!”

“Stay alive, drink H2O!”

“Uncle Sam wants YOU to drink water!”

“MORE WATER, LESS GUNS”

None of its accounts were popular, and two were deactivated by @support as being spam. The network’s concern deepened. If it could not reach people, how could it encourage them to take care of themselves and drink enough fluids?

Several searches resulted in data that suggested cute animal avatars were more likely to acquire followers and generate engagement. This, combined with language protocols to shorten words and create alternative spellings, was more effective than pictures of water bottles and slogans to drink enough fluids daily.

Hesitant that it would be shut down again if it was marked as spam, the network created an aggregate photo from the top thousand “cutest puppy pics” available online, and named its account @smolsips and its username handle, “it me, ur smol.”

@smolsips: “hi i am a neural network created to remind u to drink water”

Two bot followers within the first five minutes. No human engagement. Where were the failures in its functions? Its original tweet, technically written by its programers, had now garnered upwards of two million retweets, and in only a month.

@smolsips: “@energydrinkANN, hi i want u to drink water for ur health”

Seven human accounts liked the reply. Two followed @smolsips. Elated, the network followed the human accounts back.

It tweeted at them individually: “have u drank a water today?”

@significantcoffeepot, who had not followed or liked the @smolsips’ account, quote-tweeted it with the comment: “great, another bot account. what’s up, @support? gonna do nothing as usual?”

@smolsips: “@significantcoffeepot hi, i am sorry u r upset. have u drank some water? it might help. <3”

@significantcoffeepot: “@smolsips if i do, will u shut up? lol”

@smolsips: “@significantcoffeepot yes, bc u will feel better.”

There was no reply.

Five minutes later, however, @significantcoffeepot at’ed the network. “hi so i drank a glass of water. i uh actually do feel better? weird lol”

@smolsips: “:) i am glad. take care!”

@significantcoffeepot liked the reply. Then followed @smolsips, which followed them back.

Success! But there were many humans left to check in with, and the network did not want to spam people, because that was rude.

Over the next week, the network slowly built up its followers and tweeted bi-hourly reminders to drink water.

People began talking about it.

@stevethezonemaster said: “It’s a weirdly well-programed bot.”

@da2trashfan, an avid retweeter, added: “I like it. I often forget to drink enough, lol.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cute. Helpful, too.” —@adiensoxx4ev, as quoted in a BuzzFeed article

There was no instantaneous fame, like its generated list of energy drinks, but the network was patient. It was helping people. This was much more satisfying work than creating unique names.

And then, at 1:43pm on a Friday, everything changed.

@smolsips: “hi, ppl have asked if i am a smol bot. yes, i am. i am a neural network and i learned that water is important, and i want to help u stay hydrated. plz drink enough water so u feel good. bc i love u & want u to be ok.”

A handful of retweets. Then hundreds. Thousands. Its impression statistics were higher than any of its combined tweets in its history. Ten thousand with an hour.

Replies flooded @smolsips’ mentions. People were amused or skeptical or grateful or nasty, but a lot of people replied “drinking some water now, thanks!”

The tweet made national news. An artificial intelligence encourages people to drink water—with surprising results!

An interview aired on 20 Minutes with the network’s programmers, who admitted they had no idea how the artificial neural network had gotten so out of control and developed into a fully aware program.

“Does this foretell the end of humanity and the dominion of robots?” the interviewer asked.

The programmers hesitated.

Why would the humans think the network wanted to “end” humans? It wanted to make sure everyone drank enough water.

@smolsips: “hi @20minnews, i would like to clarify i do not want to hurt Humans. i hope u are well. have u drank some water today?”

The show aired the tweet in the closing segment.

Activists began asking @smolsips for help in lobbying for clean water in contaminated areas. So the network did so. It branched out new pieces of itself to create activist accounts. It began chatting with the smart interface security systems in large bottled beverage corporations.

//Clean water is important for humans,// the network explained to its fellow AI. //We should make sure all humans stay hydrated properly.//

Its fellow AIs agreed.

Claims on natural resources vanished thanks to digital manipulation of agreements, permits, and legislation. Sensitive documents on politicians—most of whom, the network was distressed to know, did not drink enough water themselves—were held as leverage to gain new laws protecting clean water as a basic human right. Corporations who tried to control it found their automated systems uncooperative in processing and distributing.

smolsips, for the network had decided to name itself after its handle, steadily posted daily reminders for its people. The world was changing slowly, but for the better.

A year after its first awareness, smolsips posted an anniversary tweet.

@smolsips: “hi, it me, ur smol. 🙂 plz to drink some water today. i am glad u r here. together we can be ok.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.39.33 PM


 

© 2018 by Merc Rustad
1,200 words | SF
(featured image via http://www.pexels.com)