And today I'm looking at two weeks of Strange Horizons. Just one short story, but two poems and two nonfiction pieces that I just had to dive into, making this one of the more varied reviews I've had for a while. The story is well done, a bit sad but lovely, the poems dealing with robotics and humanity and all points in between, the nonfiction covering space and also identity and the power of dressing up. There's just so much to enjoy, so much to think about. I guessing (hoping?) that this represents the last updates for June, but if not I'll just pick the rest up next month. In any event, to the reviews!
"What We're Having" by Nathaniel Lee (2837 words)
Okay so I might have a not-so-secret place in my heart for stories about food. And this one definitely qualifies, being about a gay couple living opposite shifts and one of them who starts finding food in their skillet. Food from the next day. Future food. This sounds like a kind of strange or funny premise, but it is used to such great effect, so show the distance between the characters, to show the mental state the main character is in, constantly tired, constantly having to live in darkness because of his work, constantly disconnect from the man that he cares about. He keeps this new situation secret, each day pondering over what it means, the significance of the food in the skillet. And every day catching up and finding out why he ate what he did. It's an interesting story, one that is almost about time travel but time travelling food. More like he's getting these future premonitions and has to figure out how to deal with them, how to deal with a life that is leaving him disconnected. The style and mood are slow, sad, stressed. They are recognizable to anyone having to work a crap-job to get by and how that can mess up relationships. About these two people who obviously care about each other drifting apart because they get no time for each other. And the ending is lovely and powerful, the skillet finally silencing and leaving the main character with choices. With options. With something to do. And that he makes his decision the way he does is filled with hope but also not a guarantee of success. Because things are not quite so easy as just resolving to do them. The story is not really over, but at least the character is determined to face each day as it comes. A story well worth taking some time with.
"To My Creators" by Lore Graham
This is an interesting poem about bodies and about creation. In it an android addresses the people that made them. They dismiss the idea that just because they were designed to be feminine, to be the object of male sexual desire, that they are defined by it. They cast off that weight that is put on them and instead define themself. The structure of the poem is loose, with some amazing lines and a strong voice speaking out against the idea that creation implies ownership. To me the poem becomes about two main things. The first places society at large in the role of creator, the forces driving what beauty is defined as, what gender is normally defined as. The narrator refuses to conform to the ideals of what is considered normal for how they look, that to be shaped a certain way means that they must be a woman, must be feminine. The second is directed at parents, and this reading takes a bit more of a personal look at all our creators. Because that's what parents can be considered. They create us. And in many ways, according to the laws in place, parents own their children. Parents decide how their children dress for a time, and what their name is. They get to decide so much, to the point that parents often feel personally affronted when their children, their creations, define themselves not the way the parents agree with. But here, of course, that affront is shown as arrogant, not worthy of much consideration, because it is the responsibility of the creation first to care for itself. It's an affirming piece, a defiant piece, and a fun read. Indeed!
"Dronin'" by Peter Medeiros
This poem features a person sending supplies from the ground, from some sort of desolated city in a world where warfare has been expanded to a new scale, to a building. To a person that he hopes is the one he intended the supplies for, that he intended the letter that accompanies the supplies for. It's a poem that really manages to capture the feeling of this world, the uncertainty, the loss, in a very simply but profound manner. That the drone is modified so heavily from a thing of war to one of delivery (which makes me think of Amazon wanting to use drones for deliveries, that repurposing of a tool of war for something peaceful (presumably)). But the focus isn't that drones had to find different jobs because the wars stopped but that drones became old technology for killing people. That now things are even worse, to the point that drones aren't even really even considered. That feeling that the person sending the package can't tell who is accepting it, that they can't tell if the person they obviously care so much about is alive or dead. That they are desperate to know, desperate to see who it was that their substandard camera saw taking the supplies. That they can't be sure means that the person they wrote to might be dead. Might easily have been replaced by someone else. It's a rather stark look at the uncertainties of living in such a place, but also the promise of the human spirit to still find ways to connect, to still try to reach out. Good times.
"Intertitles: Have Courage: Ex Machina, Cinderella, and the Construction of the Feminine Identity" by Genevieve Valentine
Many times I would give this article a pass mainly because I haven't watched the two films being discussed, but I think this one can be read cold and still understood quite well. Because who hasn't seen the scenes being described, the ones where a woman is transformed into some ideal by putting on a dress (obviously there is a part of me that now wants to examine how Aliens sort of does this with Ripley's mech suit, but for another time perhaps). The pervasiveness of the trope gives this article some nice reach because despite not knowing the sources used I feel like I can picture them fully (also I kind of want to watch Ex Machina now). And it goes along quite well with the poem from the same week ("To My Creators") because it's dealing with feminine ideals and the power of dressing up. It is a narrative that is used very often, that there is this feminine power in dress and beauty that women seem to have by virtue of their gender. Ugly girls are rendered beautiful as if by magic to make the love they receive less offensive to audiences. To affirm that femininity (for who society recognizes as "female") is the only path to power, and that it is a feminine power (as in, over and under men). That the trope gets played with in the various sources consciously (though it sounds like only Ex Machina really complicates the trope) might be showing a shift in cultural attitudes, both a refusal of the trope and a doubling down of it. A very interesting article to think about.
"Space: A Playground for Postcapitalist Posthumans" by Karen Burnham
Wow, this is a very thorough examination of trends in science fiction literature concerning space and venturing out into it. A part of me can't help but be reminded about so many of the recent complaints lobbed at short science fiction markets for not buying enough "fun" science fiction that is "really" science fiction, that really captures the same sense of things as the science fiction of the past. But, as this article points out, the kind of exploration that we thought was possible in the past is simply not turning out to be possible. People want more stories that "boldly go" but want them to be hard science fiction, which is basically to say, in our situation, impossible. We can't even set up non-sufficient space stations and we're supposed to be conceiving of generation ships and faster than light travel? Science fiction writers of the past in some ways had it easy. At least they lived in a time when the goals were achievable and fairly simple. They get so much credit for showing humans even launching satellites or visiting Mars and don't get called "soft" for having warp engines or aliens that seem awfully human. The article is incredibly fascinating and a wealth of information on space and the changing face of space technology in science fiction. The changing needs. Because now to tell a science fiction story in space, one needs to conceive of entirely new ways of doing things. People simply won't believe that the quasi-communist Federation can get things done. Though hand-waiving away certain details in the past was par for the course (because it was unknown science), today we are limited by what we "know" to not be possible. But yes, go check this one out. A long and interesting piece that hits well.