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ATL: STORIES FROM THE RETROFUTURE

Hilarious and Wonderful

By ElliottThomasStaude, author of Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

Jun 8, 2019: The thing which shall be called ATL from here on in (and sadly the meaning of that acronym presently cannot be brought to mind) is a wonderful alternate history story set in Atlanta. It bounces all over the place, from the ambiguously-sexed protagonist Morgan’s residence during a shakedown straight from a Coen brothers movie to an old church which is the lair of a robot hiding out like a celebrity in rehab. It’s apt in its adoption of the descriptive setting of the “retrofuture” – some advances which are surprising, some regressions (or perhaps “failures to innovate” is more accurate”) that depict a strange world. For one, that world’s modern de-facto cultural Zion is Atlanta. However, these stories are very much worth your investigation, and have a lighthanded touch that’s also suggestive of the Coen brothers. It’s a tad difficult to adequately pigeonhole the genre of the franchise, but an enterprising mind might place it as action-intrigue – something that’s not entirely without flaws, and which has many elements that the reader may recognize from other works, but that buoys the audience along with its direction and care of crafting. It’s funny, it’s grounded, it knows exactly what it wants, and it’s got the knife skills to handle a fugu fish of a plot without poisoning its customer. The subject matter could have been a terrible slog, and the presentation of its actors and what it is makes it a joy instead.

Thus far, following the adventures of the Social Media Killer, ATL’s is a kind of bleak society, where the planet’s axial spin seems to have slowed down to a slumped everyday continuity and change is remarkable for its rarity. It’s the sort of place where, if not for the characters, it’d probably be a real downer to try and get through any of the described tales. However, Morgan and Morgan’s friend Karina are absolutely wonderful tugboats leading the beholder from meal to deed to ideology to crime scene. Morgan is wonderful, being a person who really tries to keep a hoodie or a suitable substitute between head and rest of the world and who genuinely just wants to be done with it . . . the it in this case being just about anything to do with Atlanta or secretarial work for a less-than-formidable financial entity. Like all good adventures, the chiefest puppets get dragged in by their strings with a minimum of consent or desire. Morgan say “no” and universe say “OH YES.” Karina, a girl whose agenda for a single day is more populated than that of a normal person’s week, forms a perfect counterpoint to Morgan’s not-quite-apathetic disdain for navigating the behemoth of ATL’s deliciously gray scenery. The rest of the cast is just as colorful, weird, perhaps a few teacups short of a full china set, and the sort of people who’ll probably get plushies sold of their likenesses if this is ever adapted to cinema. A few too many people of high school age, perhaps, but high school is of course the source of more drama per capita than virtually anything else in the world.

When you embark on the journey of ATL, you’re jumping into something of quality with a faint whiff of self-parody about it. At the risk of being repetitive and even more pretentious than usual, the cast and artistry of the story’s telling truly make the experience something a cut above the expected, and there’s something about even the grimness of a corporate-run universe in this case that brings a smile to the face which not even profusions of teenage angst can ruin. You don’t need to enjoy sci-fi to get a kick out of this.

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STAR CAPTAIN ANNIE

Three Episodes In…

By Wayne Basta, author of Seraph's Gambit

Jan 2, 2019: "Star Captain Annie" by Will Cereal starts out with a nearly derelict ship. The sentient AI searches for any surviving crew but the only survivor turns out to be the captain’s infant daughter; who is immediately promoted to captain. The next episode jumps to find a nine-year-old Captain Annie the sole crew aboard the Nightingale on her way to a trade deal with an unsavory character called Ashur over a junk planet.

The rest of the next two episodes see Captain Annie’s deal falls apart as Ashur betrays her and then a notorious pirate attacks. The deal goes bad but clever Annie surmises, correctly, that pirate Captain Scarheart is nothing more than a ruse. Turns out, he’s nothing more than a teenager named Nate playing a part, under the guidance of another AI. Meanwhile, the artifact Annie wanted to retrieve tumbles to the planet below, right into the hands of an orphan girl named Kaori, marooned on the planet of junk. 

Of course, the artifact is immediately stolen by the Scrap King as tribute. Kaori meets the trader Ashur, come to retrieve his artifact. She takes him to the King and learns the concept of rebellion, using a French term Viva la Revolucion, spoken by a non-human. Kaori then proceeds to lead the other scrappers in a spontaneous revolt against the scrap king. 

To say "Star Captain Annie" is quirky would be putting it mild. The concept of an infant being raised by an AI to become a starship captain is quite unique. A new twist on the ‘raised by wolves’ trope. The prose in the prologue intrigues and engages you. The opening scenes with Annie are amusing but almost to an extreme. She commands the AI, whose raised her, like a confident captain, who wears spaceship jammies and has a captain hat glued to her spacesuit helmet. It’s almost as if the story is trying to hard to be quirky.

The scenes with Kaori are more engaging, at least at first. When she suddenly discovers the concept of rebellion after a single comment from Ashur, and then is inspired to lead a rebellion of other scrappers, it goes off the rails. Her story goes from interesting to ridiculous in a heartbeat. 

To further complicate things, the stories formatting is just atrocious. Some paragraphs are nicely spaced. Some have two lines between them. POV shifts multiple times, from Annie, to Ashur, to Kaori, to Nate, to a scavenger drone. But you can only tell via context because there is no other indication. It finally becomes untenable in the third episode where, instead of too many spaces between paragraphs, there aren’t enough and the whole thing becomes a giant wall of text. 

Additionally, navigation between episodes is left to the whim of WordPress. There are no links to the next episode built in. Just WordPress’ randomly chosen ‘related’ links. This requires going to the table of contents page between each episode. Just one more minor annoyance. 

Still, despite those complaints, I still give it 2.5 stars, Almost Worth a Look. The prose itself isn’t bad. The concepts are great if unevenly implemented. The formatting could be fixed quite easily. So it’s almost there. I’m curious to see how all this comes together, though not curious enough to decipher the wall of text. Maybe I’ll check back in a few months.

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ATL: STORIES FROM THE RETROFUTURE

A Retrofuture Worth Visiting

By Hejin57, author of Music Masters

Dec 6, 2018: It’s not often that I find a story that is both intellectual and thoroughly amusing at the same time. Smart humor is often rare, because it’s so difficult to juggle good jokes with intelligent banter.

Enter case and point: ATL: Stories from the Retrofuture. For now, we’ll refer to it in its current arc, The Social Media Killer.

Think of this story as a sort of sci-fi political pulp story. It fits well into the realm of stories like Transmetropolitian, though far, far less abrasive.

The story in question revolves around 22-year old slacker and layabout Morgan Harding, who works a job they despise and dreams of leaving the town of Atlanta and their old life behind. Morgan’s friends include the bubbly and always energetic Karina, and snarky robot ally R8PR. The setting is pretty interesting; it’s a strange futuristic take on Atlanta that both mocks and embraces the internet-dependent culture that we human beings have grown so accustomed to.

It’s silly, yet smart. Ridiculous yet composed. A real cocktail of ideas that works so well just as it draws you into its zaniness.

The current arc, The Social Media Killer, revolves around a murder mystery that doesn’t actually involve murder. Famous people and other celebrities find themselves being "murdered", i.e their social lives and and careers being maimed as their crimes and past misdeeds are shown for all the world to see on the internet. After Morgan’s apartment gets ransacked by men assuming he has ties to the killer, he goes on his own search for answers and invariably draws Karina and R8PR with him. All the while, we’re reminded of how much he wants to leave Atlanta, and its amusing to think that the only reason he hasn’t left is because of this.

What follows is a sort of grounded piece of detective fiction that neverthless knows how to throw in a good bit of political sci-fi fun. Some pretty amazing reveals follow, and I think one of the author’s greatest strengths is in how easily they’re able to get us invested in the characters. Morgan and Karina are a great duo, and many other characters like Morgan’s sister Marge and especially R8PR become memorable only after their first appearance.

One little thing I noticied, is the ambiguity of Morgan’s gender. I assumed he was a he, but even as a I go back and read the story, it’s not so apparent. I would normally put this as a deteriment, since it’s a part of a character that I can’t quantify, and thus is makes me slightly less invested, but I’ll honestly go back and say it’s a strength to the story. Morgan’s character isn’t necessairly held down by something simple like gender, and I think it makes them stronger because of it.

That could just be a reader’s opinion, of course. Judge for yourself in the end.

To conclude, this is a great story. Phenomenal, possibly. Unique, fun, well-written and bereft with intrigue and well-realized characters. It’s well worth a read and I can only imagine where the writer will take it from here.

Final score: 4.5/5

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