by Eliot M.B. Howard


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IFComp 2022: Prism: A Tale of Heterogenous Futures, October 8, 2022
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

“What am I for? How do I do what I am for?” asks the city to itself, and you the courier reply, judging the answer from the linkages you make, break, escape. A city of inventive momentum wresting industry from the sands, automaton hive built of billions of little like yous amalgamated into “Infrastructure, precious and invisible”, prisms you only through what you carry, whether you choose to carry it with you, down through “the myriad paths beneath.”

In a relatively compact pinball sequence, we are given five or six or seven threads, however many may the completionist collect, which our courier can unravel to see behind the weft the touches fragilely interdigitating motionblur vistas. Conduin, a city in steampunk arabesque, hums neon with Proper Noun fantasies that keep the world always one secret ahead, as you chase vignettes that can’t be explained without footnotes, though these details do not detain the reader but supercharge them through thematic skeins, stylism Ursula K. Le Guin.

Or at least, at its best, it does. The prose zeniths in a vibrant fluency that keeps its aorta pumping: “You watch the shock of jolt streak from the collector behind you out across twisting brutalist sandstone roofworks, powering domiciles rumbling to life with the morning, musical inventions, tools of industry carving out the Tourmaline District at the far edge of Conduin's circular city walls.” Little phrases like watching “the shock of jolt streak” work on their own as unexpected turns, but which shed shadows as you realize that “jolt” is the in universe name for the magical electricity harvested from the eternal storm above. Similarly, the story uses the ways this fantasy directly entwines with our current malaises to build a ready rapport that has us eager to explore some more: “As the city grows, its residents become accustomed to wonders beyond understanding. Endless water pouring from its heart, geologicians pulling clastic stone structure from the sand in mere days, the sky itself tamed in the name of invented light and sound. Citizens carry lightning in their pockets, humming battery-wands sheathed in stone to transfer payment. You can hear the zap-buzz of commerce now, whirring contraptions winding up to fill sitting halls with constant novelty, if not harmony.” This is the kind of pseudounfamiliarization that is easy to bobble to eyerolls, indeed the last sentence starts wobbling, but here it injects a selfreflective vision of place to make it feel lived in, worried in. When the story keeps running down the powerlines, it really works.

That wobbling of the spinning top hits most when the desire for exposition floods free of the canals, forcing us into screeching halt wiki entries: “You get the sense she's drifted deeply into thought. The crease in her brow deepens, and she flexes her scarred fingers. / "You know the Unseen Strings?" She finally says. / "Is that a book?" / You offer your best guess. / "Good one." She says. "But no. It's that beyond sight which puppets us. Hunger, emotion, duty. What we sense people want from us. Streetborn call them Strings. Do you think we are slaves to them? Do we have a scrap of a choice?"” Nod to the fourth wall exposition, just so anyone from another world listening in doesn’t have to be kept curious. This anxiety about ambiguity dulls some of the otherwise excellent razorsharp descriptions: “Upward, tiered hard angles create a tempting staircase, though you know as soon as you place a foot off the ground the Constables could be on you.” The first phrase of the sentence is wonderfully resonant imagery, but then the insistence on worldbuilding rushes into the room to ruin the mood, breathlessly explaining the civic ordinance with your lawyer’s concern. Sometimes, with an editor’s touch, you want to prune sentences to focus on the flowers: “A painting of deep, reverent colour occupies a place of honour in the center of the room” says it all, but then it says more.

With every whirl it does not wobble we twist through dizzy streams of delights to alight on a detail enlivened with fear of steel outclanging beauty’s silence: “Conduin's walls are high enough now to make sunrise a little later, sunset early.” Enmeshed in a matrix of designs increasingly more intricate than we: “What next? Another intrusive thought. How long before the city finally proves me obsolete? / A question too big for your body. The idle melodic hum at your side pulls you back.” And yet it’s hard not to get carried along by the music unique to this world, as in lovely vernacular chirps like “You find Sixwise Chimmering a fewfolk up from street level, in a walkup with a fading façade.” The linguistic music timbres each faction unique, especially the Sympaths, whose formalist dataset neologizes in tongues: “Weldingsand, unfolding mindflower how. Internal lightning.” and "Lexical semiotic selection lightningrod.” and, best of all, “Wireframe web in the wind of others' speech. Interlocuter output taxonomization, categorization.” With clockmaker’s tightness, “wind” can be breeze to play with “web” or it can be turning to play with “wireframe”, and how both of these play together inlays the diamond gleam.

Thus, all the Proper Nouns, rather than dwell aloof in Lore, prove fecund with painterly possibilities: “Gold fluid - sparkling in a ray through the hexagonal drystorm clouds above, thick, attempting to congeal - is gushing from the wound in their midsection.” Presented with all these presiding curiosities, your choices reflect a personality through fragrant spices that mull your streetwine worldview, whichever you wish to adopt: “If there's one thing guaranteed in life, it's adaptation. / Perhaps the street might overtake the desert itself. / Or perhaps they will always be flowing into one another.” A great choice tree that reflects many different philosophies on the same observation without feeling pitched. The kind of off-hand thought that reflects onto what the dominant hand holds.

Whichever outcome we grasp hard won, or swiftly stolen, we find a tenuous peace with the city, our place within it or without it. Swerving severances like “Even as a beggar, you've never asked like this” simply strengthen your resolutions more empowered than the jolt all aclattering in the machinery and the mastery: “Freedom was made to be bought, but you dare seize it from thin air.” Because, somewhere, wherever amidst the sprawling you stop falling, is not simply the city, is where you live.

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