Go Read “Charlotte Incorporated”

It’s not really a secret that I’m married to a writer.  I mention Rachael pretty often in the context of our day-to-day lives because that’s the context in which I most often see her (funny how that works), but this time I want to talk about her writing, because she just got a story published that’s been my favorite out of all her work since she started writing short stories in earnest.

First, here’s the link to the story “Charlotte Incorporated” because it’s much better than anything you’re going to read from me in this post.  If you just stop reading here and follow that link, then I’m going to call this post a success (or follow this link to the story’s text over at io9 if you prefer to have audience commentary with your fiction).  If you keep reading, then that’s great too, though it’s mostly just going to be me telling you how much I love “Charlotte Incorporated.”

The big thing about “Charlotte” that really resonates is the way that it reflects a reality for a lot of people of my generation.  The brains in Charlotte’s world begin life in debt to the facilities that produce them, and they have to overcome this debt before they’re really free to pursue the things that make their lives fulfilling, as represented by the corpi that Charlotte’s working so hard to buy.  The whole set up is hugely reminiscent of the ongoing reality of millennials who are dealing with student loan debt and an economic landscape that makes those traditional American markers of personal success like home ownership and a stable job so elusive.  Charlotte’s dealing with all the unfairness endemic to a system designed to fool everyone into thinking they can succeed with just enough hard work and sacrifice.

“Charlotte Incorporated” got to be the cover story for the issue of Lightspeed that it appears in, and that means it got a beautiful piece of companion art to go with it. I don’t imagine the corpi as appearing robotic, but this is still a wonderful piece to look at while thinking about the story. (Image credit: Lightspeed Magazine. Artwork by Elizabeth Leggett)

Of course, the problem of Charlotte’s world isn’t exclusively pertinent to millennials.  Every character we see who’s trying to manage the unfair system is a woman of color, or at least identifies as such (racial identity is complicated by the theoretic interchangeability of corpi), and each of the characters representing the system inhabit minimally varied, presumably white, male corpi.  I’ve been thinking this detail over a bit since re-reading “Charlotte” for this post, and while there’s nothing in the text that specifically identifies the ethnicity of the male characters, I like to think the lack of commentary on their skin color and Charlotte’s observation about the way at least Mr. Dalton stuck mostly to defaults when building his corpus reinforces the reading that these guys are white (everything about the corpus customization process reminds me of character creation in a video game, and white male is always the default setting).  If there’s a generational component to the system’s injustice, it’s compounded by racial and gender facets as well.

If there’s anything about “Charlotte” that I find frustrating, it’s that the ending is left in such an ambiguous place.  Being a story about economic injustice, it’s incredibly depressing to end with Charlotte reset to square one and being forced to make decisions about what parts of herself she’s willing to let go in order to make her dream remain achievable.  Intellectually I know that’s the point, and Charlotte’s refusal to bend to pressures to skirt the system (through an illegal avenue that, if examined more in depth, would probably prove to be more a feature than a bug of Charlotte’s world) when she learns just what it costs in terms of erasing the identities of other people makes her an eminently admirable character, but I desperately wish there were a way for Charlotte to opt out of the whole mess (kind of like how the protagonist in Rachael’s story “Makeisha in Time” is able to).  This distinction makes “Charlotte” a much less optimistic story, but that’s something I can live with as a reader, because Charlotte’s integrity in the face of a no-win situation carries a certain dignity that the wish fulfillment ending of “Makeisha” can’t match.

So yeah.  Go read this story.

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