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The city is changing: new faces, apartments, businesses. These changes are often framed as progress or advancement. But what about what's left behind? What happens to those who can't afford the tickets to the future? In the COVID era, remote lifestyles radically alter the flow of life in Philadelphia. The past is being pushed out at a rate that quickens with society's digital consciousness, which makes M. Téllez’s short-story collection, Transitional Times Transitional Bodies, especially timely.
Instability and transience anchor this short collection of six speculative fictions. Most of the characters seem to be born and raised in Philadelphia. They're uncomfortable with the ways their city changes on them, and mostly self-informed about what's happening. Autonomous communities share resources, suspicious of unknown people and new systems. Change is largely a negative element for the people not wanting or seeing the point in it.
These elements are true to other works from METROPOLARITY, a Philly-based sci-fi collective that includes Téllez. The group has been putting out excellent books and zines for most of the last decade, and are worth checking out. (Transitional Times specifically is self-published by the author's own DHD Heavy Industries imprint.)
Choosing to survive
Within Transitional Times, "Monk's Dream" and "Real Work You Deserve" explore resistance from different angles. Labeled more of a performance piece, "Monk's Dream" fantasizes in all caps about a reclamation of the city from gentrification. Syllabic rhythmic cycles build an ecstatic tone you might have trouble understanding from the outside looking in. Full technological collapse singles out people accustomed to improvising: transplants, students, and the police, and lets them improvise a new(ish) system.
"Real Work You Deserve" is the longest story, taking up a majority of the book in its depiction of the choices you have to make to survive. It approaches the ravaged urbanscape from an isolated perspective: Kay struggles through a barren neighborhood that for her has always existed in disarray. Chronic illness and nearly no money or resources keep her conflicted about whether to stay or go. Corporate beings flush out the last aspects of familiarity in the area, offering Kay an escape in exchange for her body and loyalty to their sterile, shiny new world.
What happens next is a heady haze of coercion—a sequence of surgical procedures and endless shuffling from unexplained space to space. The prose goes in two different directions: Kay's struggling freedom and her submission to an insidiously positive corporatocracy. This story is especially interesting in the way different perspectives perceive the protagonist's gender. Pronouns switch depending who's mouth they're in, leaving the reader unsure about the transitional body.
Also concerned with ambiguously gendered bodies, "Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance" shows an interspecies romance. Members of Inri's species have been given autonomous rights by activists like Inri’s partner Loma. The relationship mirrors a dynamic present in “Real Work”—the well-intentioned control of another being that steps into realms of objectification. Queer sex spices the contemplative narrative from inside Inri's head. They find spoken words and definition to dull the universal, intuitive feelings made by all organisms. The language and thoughts of a being forced to interact with people are very interesting.
Queer relations and the reclamation of urban land by nature play out in "About a Woman and a Kid.” Marshy, overgrown sections of the city house a community of witches living off the land. The narrator's loneliness and anxieties are soothed by a new connection. Even in consistently unstable futures, bonds are still formable, hope is still present.
Every piece of this collection ends on a hopeful note. Téllez's distinctly Philly feel for speech and the attitudes of their characters jump from the page into your space. These displaced people aren't going anywhere. Things will get harder, but people are ready to work with what's left behind.
What, When, Where
Transitional Times Transitional Body. By M. Téllez. Philadelphia: DHD Heavy Industries, 2020. 106 pages, paperback. Get it here.
Transitional Times Transitional Body is set in OpenDyslexic typeface.
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