I read In the Image of Man by Gabriella Stalker from Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction edition.
In the Image of Man is set in a near future or alternate present world where commercialization of the American Mall has completely taken over. People live at the malls, often work there too. American mall culture is now a way of every day life. Including the predatory spending of young people within these environments. Alongside this commercialism is a Bible belt culture that has the churches within the malls as well.
The main character Wendell takes out teen loans each week to buy a variety of things. He is ending up in a dangerous debt cycle with no real plan or aspirations for a career or even to move to a bigger mall. When he is partnered with a student who lives at Walmart and he hears of a church that isn't in a mall. He goes and has a breakdown after a spending spree as a reaction to being away from commercialization.
He soon sets his goal to escape the mall life and get out of this style all together while his girlfriend goes to the biggest mall in America (Mall of America) to go to university.
I found the world building in the story to be extraordinarily clever and nostalgic. I was definitely a mall rat growing up and working and hanging out at the mall was very much what myself and my childhood friends did while growing up.
This definitely included all the mall tropes and imagery — the tiny mall carts, food courts, fall clearance, and more. The world scaled from the individuals and their spending and habits to their families in their retail based apartments and Great Value breakfasts to their entire society.
I read it as a world of caution. What we already know — the dangerous cycles of credit and predatory loans for things that we don’t need, but magnified to the birthplace of much of the front facing system of the mall.
I think this commentary is so good because it feels so familiar. So many readers have been to these malls and can see this. And while malls are definitely declining I look to how we purchase things on Amazon and other online vendors (sometimes with an Amazon credit card) and see a new digital mall and immersion coming to being.