"For We Are Young and Free" by Maddison Stoff reads like a warning of what's to come. It drops you into unjust systems cranked to a fever's pitch and lets you fall through every corporate, authoritarian and technocratic tunnel. But it does not leave you behind, nor does it lose you. You are seen, because it's full of truth we all know but rarely pin so eloquently. A breath-taking work that honors everyone's library.
— K. Leigh
For We Are Young and Free is a visceral experimental work by a literary powerhouse and fascinating mind, Maddison Stoff. It's a work constructed in fourteen chapters—truthfully short stories—that depict a future cyberpunk dystopian Australia. ‘High-tech, low- life’ aesthetic, VR, corporatocracies, implants and more take central stage in this intricate web of narratives.
An in-depth breakdown of the work:
Massive spoilers included
For We Are Young and Free is constructed in fourteen short stories. Because they're so rich, my review aims to go over each of them as best I can without spoiling too much. Please don't read this section if you don't want spoilers and instead purchase the work below. It's worth it.
The first, "Elixir," introduces us to Raymond Burnes, a character whose ethos is at odds with his deceased father's voracious libertarianism. It also introduces us to a future where it's possible to live forever with an Elixir, as long as you have access/wealth, yet the millennials are dying and nothing novel is affordable without inheritance.
A group of friends are unable to access the Elixir that keeps one young and younger still, all save Raymond Burnes. Has his newfound youth and affluence changed him? A worthy question and one the narrative wants the reader to answer for themselves.
I particularly enjoyed the heaviness of "Elixir" and desire for a nostalgic better world. It was relatable, well-written and bittersweet. What humans have is each other, come what may, and that never truly changes.
The second, "The Robbery," introduces knowledge-downloads as a concept, but it's far more insidious than that. Education acts as gatekeeping to financial and social mobility. The only solution is to rob for knowledge. Events logically spiral out of control.
A bleak short that puts a deep pit in your stomach: all of this just for information? What do we gatekeep now, and what will that look like in the future?
"The Intervention" takes a brisk look at surveillance states, and how one might fall into an unwinnable position of evil by accepting powerful evil as static and inevitable. Sometimes, there is no other option when survival's on the table.
Is that the case, or is there truly another way?
I found this piece structurally challenging. After many fuzzy points of social phenomena, educatory challenges, social apathy and even a (I believe) critique of allistic communication styles, we reach a grinding-down of internal values under the fist of technocratic-governmental omnipotence.
I find the overall theme integral but wished for more elemental cohesion here. Still a well-written and thematically important piece, regardless.
In "There Are Two Types of People" we're met with a fictional chat transcript. A pair describe a violent VR game, yet only one of them takes moral pause for the consequences to letting one set themselves loose in a virtual space. There are two types of people, indeed.
I greatly enjoyed this piece. There's just something about displaying a critical eye towards what one allows themselves to be in a non-real space. Who are we in digital spaces? Is that a different person, or is it a horrible truth?
In "I'm the Hero," a teenaged character named Rajesh is an avid Virtual Reality gamer and gets himself into real hot-water via protagonist syndrome.
What happens when we carry our hero fantasies in the real world, especially while young and naïve? Tragic, poignant and made my heart hurt as someone with an education background. Young people are so optimistic, yet sometimes they do need to listen to avoid the worst. A riveting short story.
"Looking for Work" is another brisk facet not unlike "There Are Two Types of People" and I find it particularly exceptional. We're introduced to jobseeker Marty who—in dystopian cyberpunk fashion—must therein lease parts of himself for a low-wage, predatory job.
I hate to use the word "funny" for such serious short story, but "Looking for Work" was quite darkly funny. How happy can you be in a job that takes so much? Marty seems happy with the comfortable misery and that's why it's funny. It's painful and so, I smile. I loved this short. Stoff's prose here is like a half-grin primed on a lemon made from nuclear material. Truly fascinating stuff.
"Hospital Tower" deals with sexism, sexual harassment, meritocracy-as-cloak-for-bad-actors and starts with the explosive introduction of a terrorist event unfolding.
We're shortly introduced to a relic of the "old world"; journalism, but truthfully it's amalgamate Clickbait in a future-flavor, wielding narratives as always. This time, it's a socialist insurgency that gets the propaganda fluff-piece "terrorist" treatment, which isn't so different than our current era.
What I'm struck by in this piece is the humanizing: the beautiful relationship between two women and how greatly they love, as wives, partners and parents, as juxtaposed against an objectively horrible boss.
To take a moment for personal investment, my background is content marketing, and I deftly fought to never take on this sort of copywriting. I realize in reading this that perhaps I'm privileged to have never needed to. Can we blame everyday people for merely trying to survive in unwinnable, sketchy, terrible scenarios created by absolutely despicable powerful people?
I'm not sure we can. I think, as Stoff perhaps suggests with the empathy employed here, that we must still yet blame what's above us.
"Solidarity" is an interesting piece, which becomes even more interesting when knowing how to interpret it is blurry. We're faced with the terrorists of earlier, citing themselves as beacons of righteousness, Lucy (a trans woman) gets caught in the middle, and Lucy's father expresses humility and love for almost losing her.
As this is a dystopian cyberpunk work, I'm less struck by the rebellion than I am by the authentic sense of uncertainty. I'm not quite sure what this facet asks of me as a reader, especially a trans reader. I don't know how to feel and that's unnerving—and effective—to say the least.
Maybe the assessment of "love but not acceptance" is murky when the stakes are so very high. I feel scared for Lucy in "Solidarity" and that means Stoff has done something very impressive. She made me care in record-breaking time which is no small feat.
In "Building Mars" we take a curious tone. In this short, a steampunk-loving multi-trillionaire named Lady Toussaint takes it upon herself to cultivate a rich, seemingly humanist society on Mars after a failed prior colonization attempt. Toussaint, purchasing the colony, returns Mars to something of yesteryear: an apparently shining example of what dystopian Earth now lacks.
In this short, you almost buy Toussaint's charity and vision. Almost. If not for the careful interweaving of corporate propaganda, free market favoritism and more, you may yet buy what she's selling. It's a very surgical piece and wildly clever.
"The Underdogs" is a great work that directly connects to the prior. Clancy, the character whose skull we sit within, seems a worker on this Mars colony, as is Swanson. They describe it, and are impacted by it, in a much different way than Toussaint's branding-fiction.
I don't want to spoil "The Underdogs" for readers. It's a harrowing experience that leaves you—when paired with "Building Mars"—wondering how anyone could ever buy the dream when the reality is so stark. Yet so many do nowadays, don't they?
This short, titled "Whistleblower" seems more relevant now than ever before. A conversation between an old-guard politician and a third party is played back as if transposed by an AI. Little information is given about a looming threat, yet I'm on the edge of my seat to see what comes next for these interconnected stories. Stoff's predictive worst-case scenario might just hit close to home.
For the ending, I will pair "Republic Day" with the Epilogue. I don't want to spoil this, so let me just say: something happens that threads together every short story in a web pulled taut like a societal noose. I'm left wondering if we'd ever go this far as a species, but my answer is only: if it were possible, certainly the powers that be might try, and that's fairly terrifying. This is a wonderful conclusion to a thought-provoking series of stories.
For We Are Young and Free by Maddison Stoff is a riveting look of what may yet come to pass
5/5 stars all around for invaluable work
For We Are Young and Free by Maddison Stoff is truly one of the best pieces of cyberpunk fiction I've ever had the pleasure of reading. We'd all do well to listen to the lessons found within this gorgeously written, deeply empathetic, intellectual piece of experimental work. For sometimes, being free means wrenching free, and eye-opening stories can certainly help by peeling back the layers.