Wow, sometimes I forget just how much content Strange Horizons comes out with in a month. I'm only looking at three weeks, but there are two stories, four poems, and a few nonfiction pieces that are definitely all worth checking out. Both fiction pieces look firmly to the stars to tell their tales while the poetry brings things back home in very powerful ways, and the nonfiction looks at things from a truly global perspective. Lots to enjoy, lots to review!
"Into the Wreck" by June Oldfather (4467 words)
Well okay then. This is a story about darkness and distance, about loneliness and isolation. It follows a scientific expedition to study an alien ship that's full of water, an entire dead aquasystem, that experiences a problem with their ship and has to survive within the structure, within that alien space. The story is in some ways about being lost in the dark. About sensory depravation. The scientists press on with their studies, with their lives, but there is always fear. Of abandonment. Of death. Of the dark that presses in all around them. The main character, Gwendolyn, is a runner (swimmer?) who carries messages but who can never bring the one message people want to hear. She swims through the dark and uncertainty with a ease and yet it seeps into her all the same. Through the loss she experiences. Through the loneliness. The story does an amazing job of showing people surviving in a place that is very much not designed for them. The mystery of what really happened on this alien craft is solid but more compelling is how the humans adapt. How they keep pushing on despite the uncertainty, the murky darkness that surrounds them. How they maintain their drive and keep from being distracted by the distracting thoughts and lights, doubts and regrets. How every so often you need a human hand to pull you forward, to get you moving again. A quiet and dark and deep story that you should definitely check out!
"The Angel of Divine Intent" by Tim Akers (6783 words)
This is a strange story of angels and faith and space. In it a woman named Haelice, inhabiting an artificial body designed to allow her to pilot a sort of flying asteroid-cathedral through space, accompanies the angel she is assigned to on a mission that turns out to be much different than Haelice imagined. The story has a great sense of magic, the magic of faith mixed with science that can somehow bend the rules of the universe, or at least use them to accomplish the impossible. The conflict of the story is one of will and freedom, worship and prayer. The setting is well bit if a bit sparse on details, but for a story dealing so closely with faith that seems appropriate. We as the reader have to sort of take on faith a lot of the elements of the story and the nature of the angels, and from there the story opens up into an interesting examination of one woman's faith and desire and autonomy. There are times in the story, after all, where her body is not her own, where her actions are not her own. And yet, ultimately, the story is about free will, about freedom from determination. And the story builds a sort of lonely but lovely scene, this ship that is also an asteroid, the moments of silence where Haelice is closest to the true Divine, which comes from within, which exists in the silences and not in the loud demands of the angel she serves. I'm not exactly huge into theology but I like the world that the story introduces and Haelice is a compelling character, and overall I think the story works quite well. In many ways I wish I had more time to spend with the story, because it is complex and layered and because I wanted to dig a bit more into the tree imagery which points back to Garden and all that good stuff. Definitely a story worth checking out!
"Lady Agnes" by Carlene Kucharczyk
I both love that this poem states outright its reference and context and am sort of disappointed that my (admittedly not exhaustive) search for that source came up empty. Regardless of actually having no knowledge of Hesse's fairy tales, though, the poem is a great read that makes me want to go and track them down. There is a strong weirdness that pervades the poem, characters and voices that move in and out, and that play with the idea of shadows and autonomy. The woman of the poem seems to be defined by others, bent to their stories, their wills. The poem is titled after Lady Agnes and yet her name does not appear in the lines. She is absent, alluded to but not exactly there, and it's an interesting choice. That she is basically the shadow, that reason that the dark keeps on getting in. She's a reminder and a power both. I really wish I knew more what happened in the original text because I feel that would help me a bit more, but I don't think I can love that ending line any less. That idea of catastrophe, of willful ignoring of something that you know is wrong. Participating in something that you know is wrong only because it seems unlikely you'll get caught or punished and then realizing that it's a gamble every time, worth doing only if you don't get caught and not able to control if you'll get caught. It's a nice story and one that I hope to return to once I track down that Hesse story. Indeed!
"Notes Toward a Theory of Quantum Blackness" by Sofia Samatar
This poem look at inequality and loss, action and power and force. It looks at physics and the nature of the universe but layers that with social movements, with justice, with activism and visibility and voice. It evokes a great many events and ideas and yet keeps coming back a central loss, a central absence, the missing colleague and the concepts of observation and application. At least, that's how I read that last line, the importance of Notes and Toward. Both the chronicling of that which is ignored, pushed aside, erased, and the movement to something better and more just. That this is a scientific venture not because of how the poem uses physics but because of how the poem uses the scientific method. That idea that there is so much evidence to support that something is wrong. That racism exists and permeates and kills. That it exists to the point that for every action for some is an experiment. What is safe? What is possible? And that with the overwhelming evidence some people still deny that there is a problem, that racism exists, that people are killed because of how they look. It's an incredible poem, deep and powerful and challenging. And again, it's science. Social science. With data that should be incontrovertible except that it is discarded without examination by many. Which to me is the tragedy of the poem, the call to action. The Notes Toward. An amazing read!
"Exchange" by Anne Carly Abad
This is…well, this poem is both terrifying and lovingly sweet to me, a poem about a growth, about twins, about taking a chance. In some ways it's about the unborn, here physically present as a growth inside the narrator's body, a growth that threatens them but which they do not want to be cut out. And so in some ways, to me, the story becomes about the burden of being born, about being connected to so many people, everyone siblings and linked and the option comes to cut it away, to excise it, and the narrator has to face the decision and weigh it and make the choice. The poem also seems to be about voice and about power, though. Obviously the narrator is only made aware of the existence of the twin later in life, is made aware and has to decide to let the twin take (take voice and possible nourishment) or to deny that twin. The case here seems to be that the narrator is obviously better off, is allowed full autonomy and can therefore afford to give some things up. Which is a nice sentiment and an interesting one and an uncomfortable one, especially in how it positions the sister at the start as a tumor (or at least that it is viewed by doctors as a tumor). It's short but it's powerful and uses space to good effect. A fine poem!
"Death by Three Senses" by Lev Mirov
This is a striking and moving look at death and the kinds of death that people can experience. A kind of death that is movement and is loss but also a joining. To me the poem is transformational, about the narrator becoming something else and also losing access to his past (I guess I'm kind of assuming the narrator is male). That there is that sense, brought up in the first stanza of seas never sailed again and Deserts never returned from, that the narrator experiences death like an exile or an exile like a death. That the narrator becomes someone else in this new place and the experience is jarring, strange. But also perhaps that the death here is the death of self as an individual and the beginning of a new existence as part of something else, a pairing in this case, probably romantic because of the language used, the fixation on eyes and the mundane features of life that come alive with a muted passion in the last stanza. And I love the sense of time the poem manages, which mirrors change and death. A death by degrees, by the slow march of days, the way that things change without you realizing it at the time, only by looking back, comparing now to then, and then seeing how vast the change has truly been. Another great poem!
"Emerging Trends in African Speculative Fiction" by Chinelo Onwualu
This article nicely does what the title sets out, showing some trends, both recent and more long-term, in African speculative fiction. Or, perhaps, in people paying more attention to African speculative fiction. And a bit about where and how that fiction seems to be framed in an international setting, which voices are being pushed forward as African spec writers and which are still being ignored. And I am one of the people who never really thought about non-American science fiction or fantasy growing up (and, being honest, not much non-straight white guy science fiction and fantasy). It really was getting into short fiction and making a point to seek out as wide a variety of writers and publications as I could that made me more aware of the global nature of speculative fiction. Including Africa. But I am still super-new to hearing about speculative fiction from outside the US (and even, sadly, hearing about non-dominant speculative fiction from within the US), so articles like this are both calls to push for more stories, from more than token diversity, from a robust international SFF community, as well as calls to reexamine history. To look back on stories and writers who have written and are writing and start talking about them. Start honoring the work. So the article is a fine one, and a bit of an introduction to the reprint of the story this month which I will not be reviewing here because I'm pretty sure I reviewed it last year when it came out. But yeah, definitely give both the story and this article a read!
"Marginalia: The Problem of Other Minds" by Vajra Chandrasekera
Wow. Here is a great article in conversation with some of the recent thoughts spinning around SFF these days, and especially about the inclusivity of SFF as a global thing. Because SFF is both a publishing model and a fandom, a mode of storytelling and an empire. As the article puts it, it's a Dyson Sphere where certain countries and spaces are on the inside and everything else is on the outside. People can pass from the outside to the inside, and bring with them narratives that can be devoured by the inside, but the structure still exists to keep the in in and the out out. I like the use of Childhood's End (in part because hey, I've read that book, though I have not seen the show) because it deepens the idea that SFF is something that has basically always been about colonialism and imperialism. And that, despite the time that has passed, that core hasn't exactly changed (like the TV show, apparently, it's just a bit better ignored now). But I also like the idea of blowing up the Sphere, which might seem odd coming from me (living smack in the middle of the north-central US), but it also speaks to the part of me that is not at all invested in "the way things are." The article ends strong with that sentiment, that be the change you want to see kind of mentality, to exist and succeed and break apart the Sphere so that a better structure can be built. Definitely go check out this article!