Well it's been a busy two weeks over at Strange Horizons, it would seem. Today I'm looking at two stories, two poems, and three pieces of nonfiction, which makes this a pretty meaty review. As is usual with the publication, the stories and poems aren't really linked thematically, so everything is interesting in its own way, more to be taken separately than together. Which is just fine by me when the quality of the work is so high. Few enough places put out such a great range of stories, poems, and nonfiction, which is probably why Strange Horizons nabbed a Hugo nomination this year. So to the reviews!
"Noise Pollution" by Alison Wilgus (3359 words)
Wow, this story is rather intense. Not emotionally, exactly, but rather with action, with movement, with force. I'm quite a big fan of music in fiction, maybe because I like music but am completely unmusical so it already seems magic to me, but this story makes music into magic literally, with Musical individuals having to protect themselves at all times from the Noise, from sentient noise that wants to rip them apart. Which is great and terrifying and the main character is something of a flake who's having a bad day that only gets worse when her protection spells fail and the Noise comes for her. And while she can protect herself, it takes a little more than that to dispel the Noise, to actually beat it back. Which means it's lucky for her that the person she was haggling with about buying some stolen tapes turns out to be a latent Musical. It's a great story, fast and with a flow that just made me smile, that, like a song, pumped me up and got me nodding right along. It's just so much fun, and has the benefit of being filled with interesting ideas and strong images. Like, I want a novel of this. Really I would read that and keep reading it. The music works as metaphor, that it is accessible to all, that there aren't many barriers to it and that it crosses race and class. It works and is strong and really just go and read this story. Okay, gush over.
"Among the Sighs of the Violoncellos" by Daniel Ausema (1531 words)
A short story but with a great sense of place. Indeed, the story is mostly scenery, but with the setting, this magical garden, a story emerges almost effortlessly. It's a fun and twisty place, this garden, filled with strange sights and even stranger ideas. The magical trees take center stage, the orphan farmboy tree being the most discussed and the one that adds the most meaning to the story, as the ripeness of the fruit becomes something of a metaphor for people in general. There's a lot of nice touches, the way the story moves from tropes to gender to magic to time. Causality is a loop in the garden, new trees being planted leading to events that happen well before the story began. And that's probably why I like the story, that strangeness, the way everything loops together and creates a satisfying whole. The story is mostly about the various denizens of the garden, the poetry flowers and the magic trees and the mechanical swan, but the story is told by the staff of the garden, who are largely invisible. Which works well because they are abused and mistreated, and because the story gives them a certain hope that they will be able to do something about their situation, that they can escape the servitude they are stuck in. A lovely story with some great moments, and well worth a read.
"Ekphrastic 25/The Fox Woman" by Jen Grunigen
This is one of those poems that I always feel weird about reviewing because I'm really not sure if I got it. The poem is short, with rather short lines and a fairly definite three line stanza form, the third line being a parenthetical. That structure is tweaked twice, first in the third stanza where the parenthetical is much longer and more detailed than the rest but still acts as the one line closing the stanza, and then again in the last stanza where there is no parenthetical, where the ice has melted and opened up and there is only that image of the woman, thawed from the snow. I really did like the images, the way it shows a body in the lake, frozen there, eyelashes and whiskers contrasting and unifying a lot of the picture. It's a bit creepy, being that it seems to be about a dead body in a lake, this structure intruding into the natural world, becoming the natural world as it is observed. And then I look up what Ekphrastic means and oooh, it's describing something else, most likely a piece of visual art, though I am unfamiliar with the specific one. Still, it makes sense, drawing the images from this other piece and emphasizing the transformation, that final moment where the woman floats in the water, a crescent and a fox. Now I really want to know what's being described, so I can have the both to examine. But good work, and it taught me a new term about poetry. Woo.
"Misogyny" by Gwynne Garfinkle
This poem is much more literal than the last one, or maybe that's not quite right. It's still using a metaphor to make its point, that of men replacing their wives with robot doubles that don't age, that don't talk back. That Hollywood teaches us that it's the reward men deserve, to own a woman of their very own that not only will do what they want, but that wants to do and sacrifice for a man. So it's not exactly that the poem is without metaphor, just that the metaphor isn't trying to be subtle. As with the title of the poem, the actual meaning is meant to reach out and smack the reader upside the head. There is supposed to be that blunt force to it, that way of demanding, in this world where men teach boys that this is their reward, what happens to the daughters. It's a question that needs to be asked, because I think in this case it's that men don't teach their daughters. They count on their wives to teach them, to prepare them for the transition to adulthood and being converted. To be taught that it's what is necessary, to try and get girls to want to adopt that role. Obviously that's not always what happens, but that does tend to be the Hollywood message, the misogyny of the message. That boys and girls are different and that those differences reinforce the existing power structures. The poem is a solid condemnation of the whole affair, calling out the inherent shit of not only the popular culture that many men and women value, but of the popular culture that women are expected to participate in and support in order to avoid harassment and attack. So yeah, a good poem artfully written.
"The Puppy Hugos" by Niall Harrison
The continued drama surrounding the Hugos and the Puppy slates keeps right on moving, and now Strange Horizons, which is up for best semipro-zine, is weighing in. It's a good read, a new voice adding itself to the din. And I like that the publication is dealing with the issue directly and not staying out of it in an attempt to be "impartial" or something like that. Because this isn't a neutral conversation that fandom is having. This column seems convinced that the Hugos will recover from this, that they will keep going, that they will be able to improve themselves to avoid there being a slate victory like there was this year again. Because the thing about the Puppies is that they do seem out to hurt the Hugos because they didn't like who was winning. Not to reform but to hurt. The reform I suspect they want no part of because they'll claim it's stacked against them anyway. But there it is. I like the hope of the piece and the faith in the award and WorldCon itself to fix the problems that have risen up from this incident. Because I'm sure a lot of what the Puppies want is to push fans of SF they don't like out of the genre, out of the sandbox. They want to bully people into leaving, like GG wants to bully people away from video games. It's sad and terrible, but like with GG, I don't think it will ultimately have the effect it was hoping for. So a good article.
"Intertitles: Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong and the Hollywood Problem" by Genevieve Valentine
This column takes a look at diversity in film and television, and (like the Arnason column reviewed below) takes aim at the recent trend of claiming that Hollywood is engaged in "diversity casting." I'll admit that, having not the greatest interest in film and almost no experience with older film, this was basically all new to me. Which is fine and fun, because learning about the way things are is great. Finding out the story of Anna May Wong is interesting, and once again gives credence to the idea that race is not something Hollywood handles...well. But it also goes to show that this isn't a new problem. Being able to connect past events with present ones is great because it shows those who are suffering that they aren't alone, that they aren't new. It gives them historical precedent and grounds their struggle in a larger one that has been going on for a long time, that most people will agree needs to happen to make Hollywood, and our culture in general, less crappy. So this is an interesting piece, well written and with some clear parallels to what's going on today. The urge to label recent trends as recent and isolated and "diverse" does a disservice to the past because it strips the past of its accomplishments, strips people who fought so hard for diversity in the various fields of their status and influence. It's erasure, and articles like this one refuse to erase the past, refuse to let those with the most power to define the narrative of film and diversity. An informative piece.
"Me and Science Fiction: What Are We, Chopped Liver?" by Eleanor Arnason
Once again, I love columns like this one, in part because it's always great to be schooled in the history of diversity in SFF, and in part because I get to steal reading lists and get more ideas for my next year's diversity challenge. It's an engaging and interesting piece, this article, full of some rather justified (if light) grump at the narrative being written that the present is the advent of diversity in SFF. I say justified because trying to make the narrative be that SFF is just now opening up to diversity is to miss a lot of the history of the genre, and is also to assume that things are radically changing. Obviously progress is being made, but as the latest Hugos episode has shown, SFF is not suddenly an Eden of openness. No, this is just the latest in a long line of incidents in SFF, the current diverse writers the latest in a line of diverse writers, which does not diminish their importance. Indeed, it makes them more powerful, with a richer history and momentum to them. A momentum that must not be erased, or else the progress made by those past writers will be erased. People have to keep saying that people have been in SFF forever. This is nothing new. It is, however, a sign that the field continues to progress, that it continues to grow and thrive despite the doom-tellers and naysayers warning that the genre is being destroyed. If that is what destruction is, then SFF has been in the process of slowly destroying itself since its inception. As it should. As it must. So yes, a great article.