|Art by Julie Dillon|
"The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies" by Matthew Kressel (6434 words)
A powerful story about generational abuse and release and the dream of freedom, this story does a lot of things right. The setting is incredibly original and imaginative, the world of Aya, the main character, one of near abstraction, where Gardeners care to plants that are entire realms, entire universes. Because everything nests inside of each other. Our own universe, or one very much like it, rests inside a sick realm, a sort of cancerous growth. And according to the doctrine of the Gardeners it's a growth that must be destroyed. But Aya has been questioning things. Gifted as a Gardener, she is still drawn to the sicknesses, to the cancers. She sees a different kind of sickness, one that makes striking young beings by their parents and by their supervisors normal and expected. It normalizes violence and the "perfection" or form, which to them means culling the "weak" parts. Only in sticking to that doctrine they have effectively killed growth. They have created order at the expense of striving, have put all their efforts into maintaining the status quo. And Aya refuses to keep going, refuses to maintain the cycle of violence and abuse. She breaks free and puts all she has into reaching a place where the abuse will end. It's a great story, the characters not humanoid but their tendencies definitely human-like. It's just the sort of science fiction that I love, full of interesting ideas and yet grounded in the idea that people are capable of doing better, capable of being better. Indeed!
"For the Love of Sylvia City" by Andrea M. Pawley (5311 words)
A story about a human living under the ocean among a race of whale-people who have avoided the wars that devastated the dryland world, this one is emotional and action-packed and a little bit of a tear-jerker. The main character is the last human allowed to immigrate to the underwater world of Sylvia City, and has integrate well but still feels something of an outsider. Still feel indebted to the place that saved her. She's now working at the border of the ocean and shore, where a single communication line runs from the shore all the way to Sylvia City. She's in charge of making repairs to it, and she takes her job quite seriously. When she sees a boy in the water, though, she doesn't hesitate. She breaks the surface and breaths the polluted air for the first time to try and save him, and she does, only to discover that he's near death because the dryland is once more at war, a war that will further damage the planet and which might once more try and draw Sylvia City into conflict. So the main character resolves to act, not just to save the boy and warn her adopted home, but to sacrifice herself to dissolve the communication line that would make finding Sylvia City very easy. Because of the damage her suit took in saving the boy, there's no way she could survive the necessary task. BUt her podsisters don't let her die for the cause, and offer her a way to destroy the line but still have a good chance of making it back home. And in that moment she finally feels like she belongs, like she is more than an outsider having to make up for being saved. It's a fast-paced story and with a great imagery and world building that makes the setting really pop. And the main character's need to do something is so very human, so very recognizable, that it gives that ending a strong punch and finish. Another very good story.
"Mrs. Griffin Prepares to Commit Suicide Tonight" by A Que, translated by John Chu (7405 words)
Okay, excuse me a moment for all the cries. Seriously, that is a story that does not pull its emotional punches. It hits and hits hard. An old woman near the end of her life wants to commit suicide, and her loyal robot servant wants to help, as it lives to serve. It has served her for her entire life. But she feels that there is no reason to keep going. Her parents are dead. Her husband died. Her daughter died. And not in very cheery ways. And all of them having something to do with the robot (not, though, at all the robot's fault, just that the robot is the constant in her life through all of this). The story does a damned fine job of really building the emotional impact of each loss, of each death. Everything is tragic, everything is cut short and unresolved and just sad. Add to this that she wants to kill herself but the robot keeps on reminding her that the ways she wants to kill herself will be messy or painful. It really knows how to hit where it hurts. Of course, all of that leading up to the ending, the realization that not everyone she loves or that loves her is dead. Because there has been someone with her for all of it. To take care of her. It's a saccharine sweet ending but with all the sadness and despair it works. It works and it takes its bow and it's just very good. So yes, another good one from this issue, which is already packed with very good stories. Onward!
"Ossuary" by Ian Muneshwar (2570 words)
This story continues the science fiction-heavy route the issue has taken so far, focusing on a sentient ship whose function is to break down the bodies of other ships, to recycle them back into useful materials. It is a job that the ship does well, but even as it works it seems there is something lacking with it. It dreams. Or it remembers. Of an ocean and freedom and a great many things. And so it tries to do something different, something new. It tries to build a new ship from the parts given it instead of only taking them apart. But the people who built the ship don't really appreciate that. It's shut down and that seems to be that until a strange creature wakes it up. A sort of space turtle. The creature that it saw in its visions. It's dying, and while the ship cannot save it, it can rebuild it. Only this time it takes itself and puts it into the making, inserting its programing and core into the creature's heart. What results is a hybrid, is new, but is also free, and the lingering images of the ship/turtle leaving into dark are powerful and well done. The story has a good feeling of confinement and then release, the recycling ship a sympathetic character, trapped by its function and wanting more though unable to articulate how. But another fine story.
"An Evolutionary Myth" by Bo-Young Kim, translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park (8173 words)
I love the fluid nature of humanity in this story, that everything shifts to match perhaps not the conscious desires a person has but rather to suit their nature, to match their inward selves. Here a crowned prince becomes something else when his father is disposed by his uncle. He begins to change, starts to become something inhuman even as he tries to cling to his humanity, even as his fear makes him hesitate. But his life is not a lucky one. His uncle wants to kill him and people seem to suffer in his wake despite his best intentions. And even so he transforms. Slowly, from stage to stage, his form matching his inner self, matching the fear and the uncertainty he feels about his transformation. But every step he takes makes him a little less human, until there is very little recognizable of his old self. Instead he retreats, becomes a creature of the water, until his uncle follows him even there, killing people to try to get to him. And that is when the prince finds that he can let go of his humanity entirely, and finds a power there that he hadn't really expected. He becomes a dragon, rising from the land, able to fly, able to call the rains. It's an uplifting story, not exactly happy because of all the death but still with that core of hope. A story about transformations and evolution on a very micro level, the tale is filled with interesting ideas and memorable images. A nice way to close out the original fiction.
"Another Word: It's Good to Be Lazy and Foolish" by Ken Liu
In the only nonfiction that I'm reviewing here this month, the advice is a little deceptive. Because when you see be lazy and dumb you don't exactly think of quality writing. But there is a lot of solid advice here for not doing things that are drudgery, for finding what gets you as a writer excited and what can get you to write more efficiently. By taking experiences from law and from programming and drawing parallels to writing, the piece implies that writers could afford to be a little lazy sometimes. Now, I'm not sure about calling it lazy, because I feel writers get hit pretty hard with that stick anyway, but I like the idea behind the word, the idea that spending time getting to know what you're doing is just as important as writing. That just getting words is not really the be all/end all, and that writers have to be willing to look for ways to be critical of the status quo from a bunch of outside sources. That you can't be insular. That writing takes a certain amount of risk and a certain amount of foolishness. But yeah, there is a lot of things to like about the article, so hurrah!