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[Themes] Worth Reading: Human? Edition

I read so many shorts and I have nowhere to discuss them. In these segments, I’m going to post my favorite recently-published pieces. At the very least, I’ll enjoy articulating my thoughts and sending them into the aether. Maybe it will lead to more people reading more good stories, which would be kind of a win for me.

Exploring metrics we might use to define what it means to be “human” has been a core aspect of science fiction since the literal beginning. The very first science fiction story featured a man going to great lengths to create life—to build a living “human” from scratch—only to reject his own creation; denying it humanity, denying it a name. As I looked through the best stories I’ve read this spring, I compiled a list that accidentally centered on that same theme. So instead of the winter/spring recap episode I had planned, we have a list of stories that dance around the question:
what does it mean to be human?

Here are some things worth reading:

“Yesterday’s Problems” (by Stanley Schmidt in Analog: Science Fiction & Fact – May/June 2022) is a special feature about evolution, climate change, and the Purported Sanctity of the Human Genome. Schmidt essentially argues that humanity’s best bet at survival might require rethinking our attitude towards our own DNA. If presented with the option to expedite the evolutionary process and adapt ourselves to thrive in Earth’s new climate and on the resources it provides, would we truly choose extinction out of loyalty to our current, ill-fitting evolution?1 Some might argue these new humans would not be human at all; that we’d only be expediting our extinction. I generally try to avoid associating with anyone who vehemently argues for any specific definition of personhood; the desire to place a line between “us” and “them” is rarely admirable. The article is worth checking out; I’ll never see a trip the gym the same way again. 

“Genetic engineering is currently viewed as ‘dirty word’ in many circles, but I suspect history will view that as knee-jerk reaction resulting largely from the newness and unfamiliarity of the concept. I suspect history will decide that it was something people had to do, if they were every to thrive in an ever-changing world—and perhaps an ever-expanding variety of worlds”

Stanley Schmidt – “Yesterday’s Problems

Phoenix Alexander’s “These Brilliant Forms” Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2022) is centered on humanity’s reaction to new—and drastically different—iterations of our own species. I get it. It’s 2022 and the average F&SF reader has likely been exposed to one or two or a thousand stories with the message: “maybe take a second and show kindness to things that aren’t you.” Empathy for the other is a prevailing theme in science fiction; it’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to it. “These Brilliant Forms” captures that theme and more as we are forced to imagine not just how we should treat other humans, other beings, but also what it might be like to live with human DNA in a very different physical form. Without anatomy to consult, how would YOU know you’re human? Alexander takes us inside the mind of a being trying to answer exactly that question; you won’t regret joining Caliphrax’s journey of self-discovery. I’m always a sucker for an imaginative conceit and this story is just really fun, but it is Alexander’s focus on Caliphrax’s sense of self that makes “These Brilliant Forms” so refreshing. 

“Beacon” (by Sean McMullen in Analog May/June 2022) explores the unlikely possibility that humans still exist tens of thousands of years in the future and the forms we might have to take before we actually meet other civilizations. It’s dark and beautiful and satisfying. (Also a bit twisty, so I’ll let you discover the rest on your own.)

Lily, The Immortal” (by Kylie Lee Baker in Uncanny Magazine Issue 44) provides a slightly terrifying glimpse into a near-future world where social media companies decide our online personas are too profitable to die with our physical bodies. (We’d never sign away our rights like that, though! We always read the EULA!) This story raises some very pressing questions about the effects our digital footprint could have on those we leave behind. It is a story about loss and grief and the ways technology might make healing so much harder. (“Nana” by Carl Walmsley in F&SF March/April 2022 also deals with exactly this topic, to devastating effect.)

 “From This Side of the Rock” (by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu in F&SF March/April 2022) provides a truly heartbreaking picture of just how much immigrants sacrifice; about what is lost when nations pursue a facade of homogeneity in lieu of making room for other cultures to thrive. It fits solidly in the “what does it mean to be human” theme by reminding the reader that even among Homo sapiens living on the same planet in the same era, we would struggle to reach a consensus on what is truly important, on what is essential to the experience of being a human. ”From This Side of the Rock” highlights the beauty of those differences and the frivolity of xenophobic nationalism through a chilling portrayal of personal loss. To end with a little present day preaching: a truly Exceptional culture wouldn’t need to diminish others to Manifest its Destiny. 

“A Letter to My Daughter, Emily” (by E.E. King and Richard Lau in Solarpunk Magazine Issue #3) is a perfect bookend for these selections. I’m intrigued by the Solarpunk ethos—by the call to depict the world we want instead of only, ever saying “well, we don’t want this one.” Paired with Stanley’s essay, this epistolary story is another cry to keep a hopeful, open mind about humanity’s future. To welcome beneficial new iterations of ourself in whatever form they take.

1 Obviously, there are nearly endless issues with any real or imagined attempt to alter our own DNA. Schmidt alludes to issues of tyrants and makes it clear that forcing genetic modification is, and will always be, evil. The religious might believe their god built humans specifically this way; they should obviously be allowed to live their own lives, but it’s hard to imagine America’s religious right letting other people do the same. It’s not hard to imagine a population  that so deftly dehumanizes unaltered segments of itself taking bigotry to a new level. Or perhaps a slightly different brand of fascism could try to force their own changes on the populace. Even without hatred, any attempt to address climate change must be accessible to those who will suffer its most brutal effects first and I don’t foresee a climate-proof genome project being accessible to anyone but the wealthy or perhaps the insured, eventually. Billionaires having children that thrive on space-yachts seems the most likely use of the technology, if we ever opt to explore it.

Needles of Power: Volume Two

Needles of Power is a series of short stores written solely to delight my partner, Mathilde. Given that most publications tend to reach a slightly wider audience, this one has the honor of being the first chriscrob.com exclusive work of fiction. Be sure to check out Volume One first!

Eloise snapped awake the moment the dream ended. It was pitch black in their room. The phone said it was three AM, but they had never felt so alert. After quickly scribbling the last few lines of The Sweater’s pattern and a quick trip down the hall, they grabbed the weathered paper bag that held The Needles and yarn and climbed back into bed. Eloise hadn’t used straight needles since their very first project; knitting with circular needles made more sense to them, even on patterns where it wasn’t absolutely necessary. There was no question that The Sweater would be an exception to this rule. 

They were typically meticulous. Sweaters took hundreds of hours and it was their habit to knit and block a swatch before starting every single project to test the gauge and the yarn and mostly to avoid that sinking feeling of realizing things weren’t just right after weeks of wasted effort. This time, they cast on and started immediately. The yarn was a dream to work with; they savored the unique sensation of this singular yarn sliding through their fingers. The pattern was already in their hands; cemented through weeks of nocturnal preparation. 

Time flew by. Morning light streamed into the room then abated as the sun reached the pinnacle of its daily transit. Their phone said it was noon. Their body demanded attention. Eloise begrudgingly acquiesced, leaving their knitting on the bed for a hurried trip the bathroom and then the kitchen. Emptied and made full again, they were back at work within minutes. 

There was always something trance-like about the knitting process for Eloise. It was something they could do mindlessly while watching TV or listening to a book; it brought a bit of calm and lucidity to pretty much any situation that left their hands free. This was different. They knitted as if they were possessed. They were cognizant of what their hands were doing, but only just. Eloise spent the rest of the day glued to the bed, without bothering to turn on a show or a book. It was dark when they got up again. They were parched, but otherwise felt surprisingly comfortable. Their fingers felt none of the stress that usually accompanied sessions this long; they stretched reflexively when they stood, but their back held none of the stiffness typically brought on by sitting in one position for—they checked the time—twenty hours straight? Time really had gotten away from them. 

They looked down. The handwritten pattern lay untouched nearby. The progress was unbelievable; they had done in a day what would normally  have taken a week or more. It was barely August and they had imagined having The Sweater finished for the intermittent cold snaps that wouldn’t truly arrive for months this far south. They could knit quickly, but enjoyed the process too much to rush. The Sweater was large and particularly intricate; knitting in the interstitial periods between work, precious time spent with Alex, and periodic attempts to have a social life, two months had seemed reasonable. If they maintained this rate, they could finish in a week. 

That night Eloise dreamt they were flying. Effortlessly soaring through the air, they flew over the city like some sort of super hero. They smiled when they woke; they had been worried about losing their nightly dose of knitting now that the dream version of The Dream Sweater was complete. If the return to normal dreams was going to be that fun, they didn’t mind. Their phone buzzed with a text from their boss. A pipe had burst and flooded the store. There were questions about structural integrity and it would be at least two days before they could re-open. No need to come in. 

Elated, Eloise ordered food and got back to work, intentionally turning on the TV this time. They were tuned out before title sequence began. They worked until some pressing physical need demanded their attention, then worked some more. The next day followed a similar pattern; constant trance-like knitting only interrupted by periodic reminders that they were indeed a physical being with needs that could only be ignored for so long. 

Alex was coming over for dinner that night. She had been out of town for work and couldn’t text much, so Eloise was eager to catch up. Alex loved to cook and arrived with groceries and two bottles of wine. She wanted to see The Sweater right away.

“I was only gone for two days, right? I know you said you were making progress, but how did you get all this done so fast?” She asked.

“I have no idea. I’ve just been zoning out and knitting for hours straight. Still, it’s hard to believe.”

“Well, you’re crushing it. It’s incredible.”

It really was. Their work was flawless and the design was impressive. Intricate cables snaked together to form a jaw dropping pattern; every time they looked at it, some new detail caught their eye, renewing their belief that The Sweater was going to be something special. It took some effort to put it away and help Alex cook dinner. 

“So the store still can’t open back up?” Alex said as she dried a dinner plate.

“Not tomorrow. They’re still waiting on the inspector to make sure the floor is safe.”

“I mean, this might just be a me thing, but I’ve always preferred to buy my clothes from non-collapsing buildings, so that makes sense,” said Alex.

“I get that. On the other hand, I’ve only worked in the non-collapsing kind of buildings. I think I feel the same way, but I can’t really know for sure, ya now?” 

“Completely understandable. Like, every partner I’ve ever had has been completely un-buried in rubble. I never want anything bad to happen to you, but I’ve never seen you flattened, either.”

“And I would never want to deny you that experience.”

“Seriously though. You aren’t going to go try to help them clean up before that building is definitely safe, right?”

“I promise. You don’t have to worry. I’ve been pretty stoked to be home.”

“I bet. I would be too, if I were making something like that.”

“I’m also pretty stoked to have you home, though,” Eloise pulled Alex closer as they spoke.

“Oh have you?” Alex replied, dropping a dish towel on the floor.

Alex slept over that night and the pair slept in. It was late morning when Alex left and Eloise picked up The Sweater and once again entered that zen-like mode of unconscious progress they had started to view as their natural state of being. Time passed. Darkness came. They knit. And knit. And then suddenly it was done. They sat in silence for a long time. Eventually, they placed the needles back in their case and surveyed The Sweater. It was a masterpiece. The kind of heirloom-quality work that knitters dream about; they chuckled at their unspoken pun and tried it on. The yarn seemed to glow in the dim room. The Sweater fit perfectly; more than that, it felt right to have it on, like it was an extension of their skin—something that had been missing, as if they were incomplete without it. Eloise wanted to wear it to bed, but they could never sleep in actual clothes and it was too warm in the house, anyway. They carefully folded it down and placed it in a drawer beside previously treasured sweaters that seemed dull and lifeless when compared to the luster of their new neighbor. 

They dreamt of flying until they woke early the next morning. They had to go back to work at noon and, after some time spent staring at The Sweater, decided to work on some gloves for Nancy. They set multiple alarms to make sure the trance didn’t last through their entire shift. They had, remarkably, finished the left glove and cast on the right when the “if you don’t get up now, you’re going to be late” alarm rung out. They checked the weather and blushed at how loud they shrieked; a cold front would arrive this afternoon! Sweater. Fucking. Weather.

They packed their bag and pulled the sweater on. Still perfect. Jeans and platform boots completed the outfit, which was objectively “on point.” Their coworkers gushed more than usual; Eloise tried to play humble, but ended up gushing right along with them—telling the story of The Sweater on three separate occasions.

The store wasn’t ready to open, so the first part of their shift was spent hanging clothes—new and salvaged alike—in preparation for the next day. They had an hour for lunch, so they wolfed down a burrito bowl and retired to the break room to work on the last glove. Something happened when they removed the needles from their case. It felt like a wave of energy flowing through their body. The Sweater grew rigid. They looked in a mirror and realized their whole body was glowing. They were wearing what looked like a set of armor. What the actual fuck?

Before they could get a handle on what exactly was going on, they heard a noise. A faint crunch, far away. Like rotten wood about to…oh shit they thought and in a flash they were back on the sales floor. They snatched a coworker moments before the floor gave way beneath them. Within seconds, they were in front of the store. Safely hovering beside the three other people working today, still holding the needles. The groans of the collapsing floor were replaced by the roar of the entire building falling into itself.

“What the fuck?” said their boss.

Wait…hovering? They looked down. 

Six inches beneath them, the ground reflected the pink hue emanating from their body. 

Needles of Power: Volume One

Needles of Power is a series of short stores written solely to delight my partner, Mathilde. Given that most publications tend to reach a wider audience, this one has the honor of being the first chriscrob.com exclusive work of fiction. Hope you enjoy!

Knit one. Purl one. 

Knit one. Purl one. 

Knit one. Purl one. 

Eloise meditatively added another row to their latest project, a pair of socks they were knocking out before starting an intricate sweater that would take months to complete. The blur of the needles snagging loop after endless loop can be deceiving. To the uninitiated, the rapid movement would seem to be the efforts of someone rushing to meet a deadline—a frenzied attempt to knit a bit faster than human hands should move. To Eloise, this was a soothing, relaxed pace on an easy pattern. They were coasting. 

The buzz of a smart watch interrupted their trance. Eloise begrudgingly set their knitting down. It was Alex. She was outside. The pair had planned today’s trip to the antique show weeks prior. As much as Eloise wanted to stay in and knit, it was too late to reschedule now. The show only came around every other month and they always preferred to visit on Friday, before the voracious weekend crowds could strip the vendors of the best deals. But the socks!

They kissed Alex on the lips as they climbed into the passenger seat of her Jeep. It was immaculately clean, as always. Eloise could not say the same of their old Honda; Alex normally drove when the two hung out. 

“I want to find a new chester drawers for the spare bedroom,” Alex said. 

“Chester drawers?” asked Eloise. 

“I know it’s actually ‘chest of drawers,’ but you’ve met my parents. I’ve been saying it that way my whole life,” answered Alex through smiling lips. 

“I’m hoping to find a quilt for that jacket I’ve been wanting to make.”

“Scandalous,” said Alex. 

There was an ongoing war in the online sewing community. Quilters were livid about the latest fad: people were cutting up old quilts and repurposing them into items of clothing. Quilts were apparently meant to be immortal. Sacrosanct. Preserved in plastic, stored in cedar chests, maybe even used for warmth, but never altered. Or so the hardcore quilters seemed to think, at least. Eloise had a hard time understanding this religious fervor; they actually thought it was kind of cool that these old works of art were being displayed in new ways. Even so, they made sure Alex knew better than to bring it up in front of the vendors. For today, they would pretend to be a collector, not a sewist. 

Alex found her chester drawers right off the bat. The elderly man who rolled it out to the parking lot for them had a kind face, at first. His visage transformed when he saw Alex holding Eloise’s hand, but he didn’t verbalize the judgment plastered on his face. Having grown up in the south, the pair were unfortunately used to it by now. 

They were sharing a mediocre baklava from the food court when Alex asked, “So how go the socks?”

So close to being finished. I almost brought them with me for the ride.”

“You should have! I know you’re desperate to start on your dream sweater,” Alex replied.

Eloise laughed. 

“I guess ‘dream sweater’ is a pretty accurate name, huh?”

They had been literally dreaming about this sweater every night for weeks. The dreams were strangely vivid and specific; the weirdest part was that they were serialized. The events in the dreams were happening in order. Each night, they picked up knitting the same sweater from exactly where they had left off the night before. Eloise expected to finish the sweater in their dreams tonight; hence the rush to finish the socks. At the start it had been loosely based on a pattern from a quarterly magazine, but every morning they awoke with some new alteration in mind. Unlike most of their dreams, Eloise remembered the sweater perfectly. A note by their bedside had a nearly complete and completely original pattern written out, one night’s revelation at a time. Only the collar remained. They had worked a double earlier in the week to get tomorrow off; the plan was to get started right after breakfast, but, let’s be honest, they were going to order in and be knitting before they got out of bed. 

Flirting and browsing their way through the various booths, it took a few hours for Eloise to find just the right quilt. They had held off on visiting Nancy’s Nonsense and Notions in the same way someone might save the best bite of food for last. Nancy was always set up in the same corner; her stall was pretty close to heaven, in Eloise’s opinion. Every inch of the table in front of them was covered by vintage fabric printed with ornate floral patterns and art deco designs; one—their favorite—even featured pinup style cowgirls in various poses. Behind the table, dozens of quilts were displayed on racks in a semi-circle; antique sewing machines and other paraphernalia made this spot a sewist’s dream. There was even a loom this time! 

Eloise had spotted exactly the right quilt from three stalls away, but browsed the rest of Nancy’s wares before grabbing it—keeping a careful eye on anyone who wandered too close to the quilt that would be theirs, of course. Eyes filled with longing, Eloise wanted to hand Nancy the keys to their bank account and fill every bag they could carry, but they still needed to buy yarn for The Sweater. As dreadful as it felt to leave the overpriced cowgirls behind, they were holding the quilt and only the quilt as they approached Nancy to check out. She was seated behind a table with a crochet hook—bright with ergonomic foam—in her hand. This was a relatively recent development. Eloise had been coming here for years; Nancy’s arthritis had been getting worse with each visit. Nancy looked up from the blanket she was crocheting and smiled in recognition. 

“You’re back!”

“I wouldn’t miss your booth for the world,” said Eloise.

“How did that silk work out for you?” asked Nancy.

It took Eloise a second to remember. That was two months and a dozen projects ago.

“Great! I made some PJ’s for that one,” they said, gesturing at Alex, who also seemed to be enthralled by the cowgirls. 

 As the small-talk continued, Eloise had a weird feeling that Nancy saw right through their little white lie about a quilt collection, but she didn’t seem upset. They made a mental note to put a reminder in their phone so they wouldn’t forget the lie next time. Nancy obviously had a memory like a steel trap and Eloise liked her. It wouldn’t do for her to find out they were lying. 

The needles caught Eloise’s eye just before their card slid into the reader. Their jaw dropped as they yanked their hand back. In an elaborate pewter case lined with velvet rested the most beautiful set of knitting needles Eloise had ever seen. Not that they normally worried about the aesthetics of knitting needles; the beauty was in the process and in the garments it produced. Needles were just tools. Well, needles were normally just tools.

These were a work of art. For one, they were crafted from some strange material. It had the iridescent fire of labradorite, but it was a closer to mint green in color and oddly translucent. They seemed to glow against the red velvet of its case. The surface appeared perfectly smooth—needles had to be—but it looked as if someone had carved intricate patterns and then covered the whole thing with resin. Except the resin was this weird translucent stone. Eloise had never seen anything like it, on a knitting needle or otherwise. 

“What are those?” they asked.

“Those are a bit special. One of a kind,” said Nancy, “I’ve been doing this awhile and that’s the only pair I’ve come across. I’ve had them for years; thought they were too pretty to sell. But when I was packing up yesterday I decided it was time to let someone else have a turn. Don’t knit much, myself.”

A memory struck Eloise with all the ferocity of a lightning bolt. They had been so focused on The Sweater that they hadn’t even noticed, but there was no question. Every night, they had been knitting a sweater in their dreams. Every night, they had been knitting with exactly those needles. They had to have those needles.

Trying to hide their excitement, Eloise asked, “How much?”

Nancy’s prices were fair, but those were special. Fair would likely be out of Eloise’s price range. They’d surely have to haggle and maybe borrow some money from Alex until payday. They weren’t leaving without those needles, but they couldn’t let Nancy know that. 

The woman eyed Eloise warily. 

“Those are one of a kind. Really special, you know?” said Nancy.

Eloise felt Alex slide her fingertips down their spine; they got the message: “I want you to know that I’m back, but I don’t need your attention right now.” Alex was always thoughtful like that.

“I can tell. I think I want to buy them,” answered Eloise.

“I’d like for you to have them. They should be with someone who will use them and appreciate them, but…” Nancy trailed off.


“Well, why don’t you tell me about this quilt collection of yours?” 

Alex flinched. Eloise felt it.

“I…” Eloise paused to consider their words.

“I lied. I plan on making a coat out of that quilt. I just know how some people get and I didn’t want it to become some kind of thing, you know? I love your shop and I respect you and I didn’t want you to think less of me,” Eloise said in a single breath.

“Thank you for being honest. Sometimes I just know when somebody’s lying to me. Not always, mind you, but when it happens it feels as real to me as my own name and every time I’ve tested it, I’ve been right. I like to think it’s a superpower you can only earn by spending decades in sewing circles, but that’s neither here nor there.”

“I’m so sorry I lied. I shouldn’t have.”

“I believe you, hun. And, since we’re being honest, I didn’t actually pay much for these needles. Could you do five dollars for them?”

“Oh, I couldn’t take them for that! That’s not enough,” said Eloise.

“If I charged what they’re worth, would you be able to pay for them?” asked Nancy.

Eloise grimaced and shook their head. 

“Don’t fret, love. Like I said, I don’t have much in these. I’d rather they end up with someone who’ll treasure them than in some rich bitty’s curio, or worse. I told some spoiled teenager they were already sold earlier; she was going to use them as hair pins. Hair pins! Said they’d go viral, whatever that means. The brat had the audacity to come back with her mother; might as well have had the woman on a leash. Anyway, the point is I want you to have them. If you don’t have $5, I’ll take less.”

Eloise willed moisture from their eyes as they checked out, a steady stream of “thank yous” flowing from their moth.

“How about I knit you something with them? It’s the least I can do.”

“I’d like that. Nothing big though. Like a hat or some socks. Maybe some gloves? Fingerless if you do, so I can work in them.”

Alex checked out with twelve yards of fabric covered in pinup cowgirls. Alex didn’t sew, but she regularly commissioned projects from Eloise (and paid them fairly!) Eloise assumed there would be matching outfits in the couple’s future and they weren’t the least bit sad about it. Nancy handed them two large paper bags. 

“I stuffed a bit of yarn in the bottom there. Came with the needles. Felt right to keep it all together.”

Eloise was eager to find out what kind of yarn had come with those needles, but the bags were full and Alex had already placed hers in the trunk of the Jeep. Eloise begrudgingly followed suit. They were quickly distracted when Alex slid in close and whispered her afternoon plans into their ear, though. The couple rushed to Eloise’s house, leaving the bags in the car and their outfits like breadcrumbs between the front door and the bedroom. 

Hours later, Alex headed back to her place, handing Eloise the bags before she left. They rushed inside to unpack. Somehow, they weren’t surprised when the bag was filled with skein upon skein of yarn, including the exact shades of pink they had been using every night in their dreams. They had touched miles of yarn over the years and had gotten pretty good at identifying different materials by feel alone. Still completely unsurprised, Eloise had never felt yarn like this. It almost hummed as they pulled it through their hands. The Sweater was going to be special. It wasn’t even dark yet, but Eloise couldn’t wait to fall asleep.

The story continues — check out Volume Two!