Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sour Milk Girls, by Erin Roberts

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(Near-Future SF) Fourteen-year-old Ghost gave up on finding a foster family a long time ago. She’s just waiting until she turns 18 and can leave “the Agency.” Then a new girl turns up—one who can actually remember her life before she was sent there. (6,447 words; Time: 21m)

Rating: ★★★★★ Deep and Disturbing, but Ultimately Moving

"," by (edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 136, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: This story has a very literary plot, in that at the end of it, nothing has changed except that Ghost has arrived at a different understanding of her situation, and it has made her a better person.

It’s chilling when we realize that the Agency deleted Ghost’s memories for good reason. Ghost herself seems to realize this after she peruses Princess’s memories and realizes how bad they actually are. By discarding Princess’s memories, she seems to discard her own cares about her own lost memories. At the same time, she gives up the idea that the only reason she can’t get adopted is her lack of childhood memories. Finally, when she reintroduces herself to Princess, her tenderness shows us that she’s a different person now. Maybe you really don’t have to say a sour-milk girl forever.

Ghost, Flash, and even Whispers all become real, solid characters, and the interplay between the three provides much of the fun in the story. (Ironically, Princess remains something of a ghost.) The gap between Ghost’s view of Flash (the devil with blonde hair and dimples) vs. the things we actually see Flash do (e.g. rejecting “Dishrag” and “Milkbreath” as too mean) is revealing all by itself: Ghost herself is the scariest inmate, not Flash.

This is crystal clear when Ghost steals Princess's memories out of a combination of envy and a misplaced notion that experiencing a "normal" childhood will make her acceptable to foster parents. Ironically, once she realizes she's taken something awful, not something valuable, it really does seem to change her for the better.

The theme that we might be better off without some of our memories is at least as old as Robert Silverberg’s novella, “How It Was When the Past Went Away” (Three for Tomorrow; Meredith Press; August 1969), but this is certainly a different spin on it.

Con: Ghost’s hacking ability is a little hard to credit, since the Agency doesn’t seem to provide the sort of tools she would have needed to learn how. It’s also puzzling that Ghost can accumulate enough credits to bribe people.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 136)
Erin Roberts Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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4 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Great characterization and interactions between characters! You can find the author's story notes here:


    Erin Roberts is no longer eligible for the Campbell. This year was her second year of eligibility -- first pub in 2016.

    1. Thanks, I've updated Erin's data in the spreadsheet. It'll be reflected in the New Writers page with the next refresh.

  2. This is a very fine story. Well-written and easy to read. The first few lines caught my interest instantly. I agree with the 5-star rating.

    I was bothered about how easy it was to access this memory technology. This sort of technology is potentially damaging and dangerous on an individual level, and a major security hazard on a wider level, but it was readily affordable and accessible for the purposes of the plot. In the story the technology did damage Whispers.

    Otherwise, I will be reading more from this author when it becomes available. Agree with Laura - Great characterization and interactions between characters. The link provided by Laura is worth going to for a read.

    1. She and I were on a panel together at WorldCon 75 in Helsinki. She's got a quick wit, an easy smile, and is good at putting others at ease. At one point in the panel, we were talking about how to measure whether black authors are underrepresented. I pointed out that it's hard to know sometimes. "What are we going to do? Call people at home and say, 'Hi there! Are you black?'

      Erin instantly responded with, "I get that all the time."