Thursday, September 7, 2023

We Built This City, by Marie Vibbert

Clarkesworld, June 2022

Julia is one of the workers who cleans the outside surface of the city, protecting it from deterioration and damage by removing the acids and other atmospheric detritus that can dent, crack, or eat away at it. Her mother, Hortensia, is one of those who helped build the city. She wanted Julia to pursue something more in the way of brain work, something that would get her both more pay and more respect, but Julia chose to work at maintaining the city in the most basic way possible. It's hard, physical labor, but she's proud of it.

It's also more dangerous even than you may be thinking, because this city is floating in the atmosphere of Venus.

But there are budgetary problems, and new cuts are announced. Only four dome cleaners will be retained. Julia and three of her team members are the four--because they really are the four best, and this job really does matter.

Which is why Julia and her three remaining coworkers are angry and frustrated.

If they continue working, just the four of them, they can't do a good enough job. Even with crushingly long hours, they won't be able to do a good job on the whole dome. If they walk off the job, they'll have two weeks to find new jobs, which aren't out there to be found, and then they'll be deported. The place they'll be deported to is substantially worse. For all its challenges, they like their lives here.

One of Julia's team, Rafael, was talking walkout before the cuts happened, but when the time came--he needs the job. The four of them need their jobs. Julia feels the same way, and had almost talked herself into walking out with Rafael, until he didn't walk out.

What Julia has that Rafael doesn't, is Julia's mother, Hortensia, at home. Hortensia, it turns out, is a quiet firebrand. She's proud of the job she did, and although she's disappointed in Julia's career choice, she's proud of Julia's commitment to doing what is a crucial, if underappreciated job.

She wants Julia and her team to be proud of the value of their labor, too, and to stand up for their need for enough people to actually do it right.

Julia starts to find her own stubborn, cantankerous pride, too.

A lot of this story is a bit grim. We glimpse the desperation of the poor, the classism that has everyone ignoring the essential nature of the maintenance work on the outside of the dome, and the way Julia, Rafael, and  the others have been ground down. We see the corporate greed that's shipping the unemployed off to far worse conditions.

But we also real pride awakening, and an earned, ambiguous, but hopeful ending. And it's with no one shouting political slogans that make this too facile and too contemporary.

I received this story as part of the 2023 Hugo Voters Packet.

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