Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace)" by John Chu (6800 words)
This story focuses on the fallout from a war, one that saw cyborgs used as covert assassins. The war now over, the cyborgs have been sold out, the military reserving judgement on what to do with them but what they're supposed to do is destroy the cyborgs. The problem being that the cyborgs don't want to be destroyed, and can do something about it. In this, Jake is a cyborg hoping to be allowed to pass for human. It's in that pursuit that he meets Tyler, a young man with an interest in Go, and the two of them bond. Of course, Tyler isn't quite what he seems either, and Jake finds out that the military has plans that the cyborgs don't know about. This is a fun story, a romantic piece with Jake and Tyler learning to, well, not really trust each other. More like learning how to betray each other so that they can get to a place they want. Like a game of chess (or Go, probably, but I'm not that familiar with the game), the point is not always to make direct progress, but sometimes works to take different routes. To find a way to get to the end that you desire. It's a sweet story, the two men able to connect, to finally be in a place where they can let down their barriers. And they're so cute! Very much a pleasant reading experience.
"Emergency Repair" by Kate M. Galey (2900 words)
This is a much more tense, much more emotionally eminent story about a person trying to save their partner after a android attack. The android in question one that the main character invented and then unwittingly let loose onto the world. It's an act that they regret, at least to a point. They certainly regret that it has killed their partner. But the reason that the technology was originally designed for was in healing, and so the main character desperately tries to use the killer android to fix the person that they love. It's great to see the panic in the main character, the confession as they go about trying to save the person they love. The pleading for understanding through it all, that resistance still to see themself as the bad guy. They were still going to do good, still going to fix everything. Even if that's true, though, the main character has sort of lost sight of good sense. Even if they can perhaps use the technology to save their partner, given what their technology has already done is it wise? The ending is left open, which means that it's sort of open to interpretation what happens next. I can't imagine it going well. For all that the main character feels like Frankenstein, it implies that what they have managed to do is not quite resurrection. There's a fierce hope in the story but it's more a plea, a desperate need, and one that I don't see working out very well. Still, it's a tense story, well told and with an emotional core that is strong and immediate. A good read.
"Trickier With Each Translation" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (5600 words)
Well this is another rather emotionally fraught story, this time focusing on a woman who's been thrown through her own past by a man she thought of as a friend. She goes back through her memories, unable really to change much, a victim of her former friend who claims to be in love with her, who can't handle that she's ended up with a different man, her husband. It's a messed up situation, made more so because they have super powers, her friend's having to do with time and her own dealing with being able to have wishes she makes on a cork board come true. It's a power she relished when she was with her girlfriend, another person with superpowers, but it's' something she's been stepping back from. She doesn't want the powered life anymore, wants to enjoy what she has with her husband, and yet this friend can't stand that if she's going to be with a man that it's not him. It's a complex look at sexuality, and that discovering yourself can happen again and again, that love doesn't really change over time, that love doesn't invalidate other loves. But that there are some things that you can't keep if you're going to be happy. And toxic friendships is one of them. It's a nice story, rather emotionally draining because of the torture that the main character endures for so long, but in the end it's full of small victories and joys, coming through the past with a new and better appreciation of the present. Another fine story.
"The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red Red Coal" by Chaz Brenchley (7505 words)
Well this one is rather strange, about a group of men on Mars pressed into service by the government to communicate with a creature wholly inhuman, that requires the combined minds of a group of people to interact with. The group of men are all not the most wholesome. They hide themselves away, engage in illegal activities, and yet are all bound together because of a need to have company. They are gathered t hat night to welcome a guest to their city, only for them all to be interrupted by the call to adventure, to participate in something strange and new. And yes, it is strange and new and I'm not entirely sure I got this one but it seems to be about find a way together to attempt something impossible. To reach out to an inhuman mind and make contact. Which they manage to do, though the results are perhaps not what they expected. Because for all their grim resolve they are also in some ways wounded, hiding and flawed and centered around one boy who is the innocent among them, who organizes them but who cannot save them. They all face that inhuman voice and it's not some game or jest. And it's not something that the military man who got them into the attempt expect. At least I hope not, because the ending is unsettling and powerful and left me eyes wide and heart beating a bit faster. Probably a story that requires more than one go to really get into the setting, which does have something of a learning curve, this story still strikes with a mighty fury. Well worth grappling with.
"The Tip of the Tongue" by Felicia Davin (6000 words)
Rarely do fictional dystopia really frighten me, but the one in this story does. Set in a place where the government manages to get airborne nanobots to rewire people's brains so that they can no longer read, the premise alone is terrifying. Because obviously, as someone who loves to read, being in a world without text seems so, so terrible. Because texts are so vital, so important. And here they've been stripped away and Alice, who was also a lover to stories, finds herself with nothing but anger and desire to get back at the government. Armed with a good memory, she joins the resistance and finds that one book remains, a book that she's read before, that she knows well. That can help her relearn how to read. Which makes reading and teaching others to read a revolutionary action. As it can always be, because at its best reading is the most powerful tool a person can have. Without the ability, information is filtered by what you hear. A text, however, comes direct from a source separated perhaps by time and space. It is...vital, and it is nice to read a story in which it is such a loaded action. Also nice to read a story with a nice little romance in it, Alice falling for another one of the people in the resistance, the two of them starting something. It's a lovely story that captures the love of reading that probably brought most people, queer and straight, to stories, to science fiction. A great read.
"How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War" by Rose Lemberg (2800 words)
This story slows things down a bit, moving from resisting oppression to surviving trauma. In it, a former soldier has been shipped to California, to Berkley, following their mind being mostly wiped and their being decommissioned. All they seem to remember is the war, fought not on Earth but some distant place with some distant technology, and now they live in numbers, not really fitting in, not really able to do anything but roil with anger, to punch holes through their walls and then cover them over. It's a nice little parallelism, that, the character taking out their frustration with their situation on the house and also on their body, cutting themself, and in both situations able only to hide the damage, unable really to get at the underlying problems. Until they meet someone on the street who seems to be their commanding officer from when they were in service. Which might have been a hundred lifetimes ago. Still, things start to change. Slowly, but there is some healing going on, not by painting over holes in the walls but by changing tactics. But witnesses something and making connections and the story really is a lot to grapple with, a deep hurt that weighs down the characters. But at the end things seem poised to change, seem ready to change, that weight perhaps able to be at least shifted to bring less discomfort, less pain. It's a haunting story, or perhaps a haunted story, this character by the ghost of who they were. But they are still someone, and it becomes up to that person what to do. A powerful journey.
"Plant Children" by Jessica Yang (3400 words)
It's almost strange how a story about plants can also be a story about love and the bond between generations, the way some people never seem to find the words or actions or anything. In this story a university student struggles to come up with a thesis and decides to try and create sentient plants. It's a small joke on a memory of her great-aunt who always told her to have children, a comment Qiyan, the main character, always resented. So she builds up this garden, these plants, modifying them, teaching them to want humans, making them into plant children. And then they start dying. Which is only what they were supposed to do. They were supposed to grow and die, and yet there is something in Qiyan that resists it, that is saddened by that passing. And in that moment she comes to understand her great-aunt a little better. Herself a little better. Perhaps, at least. The story is fun and moves quickly along, Qiyan a compelling focal point as she struggles with her feelings and with her memories of her family. She's a bit of a slacker but full of life and vigor and she goes into making plants more alive with an infectious energy. It's a fun story, tinged a bit by trying to figure herself out, her relationship with her roommate, her lingering hurt at what she remembers about her great-aunt. It's all played with expertly and then left with a soft finish, not a neat bow but a few lingering questions that make it worth thinking about.
"Nothing is Pixels Here" by K.M. Szpara (4200 words)
I will admit that this story surprised me. I perhaps should have been more prepared than I was for the twist in it, but then it's a testament to how good and compelling the story is that it blindsided me, much as it blindsided the main character. This is a story about Ash, a guy who has grown up in a virtual world and who now lives with his boyfriend. They're in love, successful, but Ash isn't quite happy. He wants to know what the real world is like. He feels a bit out of place and a bit artificial. So he brings it up to his boyfriend, Zane, and together they agree to unplug. And, well, things happen. This is a powerful story about body and self and image and what is real and what is artificial. It might almost be tempting to read the story as an acceptance of illusion over reality, but I think the story succeeds instead at calling into question the nature of reality. Not that they accept an illusion in the end, but that all reality can be an illusion. There is no added "realness" to a non-virtual world. The stimuli are the same. And realizing that, that reality is not an objective measure of a person, is importance and something that the story does a hell of a job exploring. Really, it is sexy and fun at times and destructive and heartbreaking and yet in the end there is this feeling that reality is what we make of it. That striving for some standard of what is "real" is not only impossible, but a little foolish. An excellent story.
"Madeleine" by Amal El-Mohtar (5600 words)
This is another sweet story, but one that deals once more with grief, with loss, with identity. In it a woman takes part in an experimental drug trial only to start suffering from flashbacks, episodes from her past. She's just lost her mother, and her father before that, and the shock of those events has isolated her, made her a sort of outcast. She's lost, not knowing what to do or who to seek. She gets help from a psychiatrist about the episodes but it doesn't really help. Nothing does until she meets another person in her flashbacks, a girl who travels with her through the memories. They start to talk and grow close, though each believes the other to be a figment, to be unreal. The main character fears that she is losing touch, that she is losing her mind, but in truth she's just making a new connecting, a more meaningful connection. What she thought was a curse becomes the vehicle through which she bonds with another person, and for her it's right. It works. The story is slow and building and so full of sorrow and loss but also nostalgic happiness and love. It's a rather difficult story to read at times for the sadness, for the grief, but on the other side is the reassurance that there are other people out there. That together there can be healing. That life can continue and, in many ways, entire new lives can begin. A lovely piece.
"Two by Two" by Tim Susman (6100 words)
I am all about cool grandma stories. Cool grandma's living is conservative environments and still kind of being okay. I mean, not the greatest, because the grandma in this story still does prop up a terrible government, and holds onto her own very fiercely. I some ways she can be viewed as pretty awful because of how she seems to take much more interest in her family. That she will help her family but not a stranger. But then, I can also appreciate the power that a family member like this can have, the importance that such a character can have to someone who has no one. Yes, she's not perfect, but she's still trying, still learning, still unwilling to abandon her grandson no matter what. And oops, got a little distracted by the one aspect of the story. Really this story isn't about grandma's, though one obviously plays a roll in this and apparently has some personal significance for me. But that's not really here nor there. The story! It features a world suffering from a blight, one that has destroyed all plant life on the planet. And now survivors are trying to flee on colony ships to get away. The main characters have a reserved place on one thanks to the main character's grandmother being rich and powerful in the Christian States of America, which is basically the South and which is fundamentalist Christian. The main character and his husband, whose union is not sanctioned in the CSA, can get off the planet but not by being themselves. They would have to pass, would have to hide. For the main character it would mean going back to how he lived his life before he moved away to California. And though he doesn't want to keep his husband from escape, he doesn't see it as escape. It's just another cage, and one that he worked so hard to get out of. And in the end the choice is between relative safety but hiding who you are or being more at risk and being out and open. A choice that has no real "right" decision. So the main character and his husband choose, and find that passing on opportunity doesn't mean giving up. Especially when you have a fabulously wealthy grandma and a van full of meat. A touching story.
"Die, Sophie, Die" by Susan Jane Bigelow (4600 words)
This story is about harassment, mostly (and totally not GG. Not at all. Right). It's about the harm that harassment can cause, about the damage and about how easy it is to harass, how easy it is to be terrible, and how much that can do when stacked up and up. It's how online harassment campaigns operate. No one person is really on the hook for all that much. A comment or two every now and then. Ten minutes of work. But add up hundreds of people and suddenly it becomes scary. Dangerous. That's what happens when the main character writes an article about sexism is gaming. She is attacked. It is damaging and hurts those around her. Her boyfriend leaves her to protect himself, and she ends up going to stay with a friend when her harassers find her address. The harassing messages to her start getting weird, though, with one asking for help. She believes it to be a trap, a ruse, but after she gets closer to her friend she takes a chance and asks if this Twitter bot needs help. It does. It turns out that it's not what it seems to be, and that it needs her help to escape a terrible confinement. The story is both humorous and not, about kindness and not. Because it's not saying "be nice." That's not something that you tell victims of abuse, and the story does not try to say that. It is, after all, not kind at all to the kinds of people who engage in trolling and online harassment. But it does seem to say that even being a victim doesn't mean that you can't help others, even when it seems like no one is helping you. Because sometimes what is needing to pull out of the hole that harassment creates is to help someone else. A rising sea lifts all boats, but more than that, that being that power of kindness even when it doesn't seem like kindness is possible kind of proves it is possible. I mean, the main character needs to find a bit of kindness to be able to give some in return, but just like harassment can be a positive feedback loop, so too can be hope and love. So yeah, another good story and a nice way to finish off the original fiction. Hurrah!