Short Stories 366:10 — “In the Image of Man,” by Gabriella Stalker

coverOne of the things I’ve always enjoyed about science fiction is how often it takes a facet of contemporary life and aims a lens at it. Sometimes it can do so with a very subtle, light touch, and sometimes it’s a heavier stroke of the brush, but it can be super effective anywhere between the extremes. This story, from Women Destroy Science Fiction, is definitely not pulling punches, and yet the over-the-top-ness of the world Stalker creates has an unnerving ability to read a little too plausibly.

Set in the (near?) future when malls have apartment complexes and churches built right in, and the world outside those malls is rarely visited by anyone—other than to take a bus to a better or bigger mall—we meet Wendell, a young man in Texas who is absolutely taking part in the current culture. He gets his weekly teen loan (which he’ll have to pay back when he’s older, and to his mother’s frustration seems to be on the same path as his father who is still paying off his own teen loans), he has a girlfriend, he doesn’t question much of anything going on, and he’s about to graduate. And then he goes to a church that’s outside of any mall.

What follows could have been done with an even heavier hand, but thankfully isn’t, and the result made me nervous, waiting for a certain kind of penny to drop, but instead Stalker brings the story to a close in a way that managed to balance hopeful with realism… frustrating realism, but realism. The audio narrator also really pulled off intonations here, which added a kind of twangy gravitas hard to put into words, but really worked for the piece.

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