Okay, so closing up May is proving to take longer than anticipated, but the good news is there's tons of great stuff from this month to enjoy, including another three weeks of content from Strange Horizons. Three fiction pieces, three poems, and a pair of nonfiction makes this a rather weighty post, and it's definitely not any lighter when you look at the subject matter. Loss and growth and guilt dominate—characters stuck in cycles and wanting to know where to go, what to do, where their place is. And with all this great content, I should just get to the reviews!
"Left the Century to Sit Unmoved" by Sarah Pinsker (2241 words)
There are portals and then there are portals, and in some ways the pool of this story is a classic example of a gateway to the unknown with a little Russian roulette thrown in for good measure. A reflective surface that could conceal…anything. And the story contains such a longing, such an uncertain want and indefinable hurt and insecurity and hope and feeling that I can't help but love it. It's a beautiful story, one where there's this central loss and threat. The main character has lost a brother and yet instead of being repulsed by what might have taken him they embrace it, they push on after his example, adding to his legacy, to his list of reasons why we jump. [SPOILERS] And for me part of what makes this story so compelling is that is doesn't offer any real answers. Like the list, the story is a sort of anchor, an acknowledgement that there is something in us that longs and hurts and doesn't know, that is searching for answers and coming up blank. That throws itself into the abyss for any number of reasons and for no reason, because it is in us, because it draws us, because in some ways we feel more defined and in control and whole and alive there, in that moment of falling, of flying, of not knowing if we'll surface and if we do not knowing where we'll be. It's a story of a dissociated sort of want, one that I can empathize with because it seems to draw most from the way people hope without knowing exactly what they're hoping for, just that when it happens it will make sense and feel right. It's a great story, short but with such a vibrant life to it and definitely go read this one!
"The Beef" by J.D. Moyer (5317 words)
This is very interesting story, one that reveals a world in some ways being reclaimed. Or perhaps in some ways being ceded back to the wild. I'm fascinated by rewilding projects and what they might look like and all their various benefits and huge problems. And this story does such a great job of showing how that might work, using technology to try and use what's available now to reclaim some things that have been lost. In this case it's a herd of cattle that are wanted to move across the land, bringing it to life again with their dung and the stomp of their hooves. For the main character of the story, a rancher who owns one of the last herds after using beef for human consumption has been ceased, this rewilding project represents both a chance to do something with her cows and also a way to…to move on. To apologize? I love how the story confronts the human idea that animals all want to be free, that they all want to be in the wild. I love how it evokes the contract between humanity and domesticated animals and what it's like to try and get out of that contract. It's a moving and almost eerie piece and the cows have personality and presence in the story. I'm not entirely sold on the ending, but even that has a lot to mine and I just like the feel of it, the way it moves and the way it circles back and then, finally, lets loose. A great story!
"Left Foot, Right" by Nalo Hopkinson (5456 words)
Okay then. This is a story about forgiveness and grief, regret and penitence. In it Jenna is a young woman punishing herself for her perceived roll in the death of her sister, Zuleika. She's stuck. In a pattern, a cycle, trying to hurt herself enough to earn forgiveness from beyond, trying to forgive herself for what happened, for everything that happened. And along the way she has to confront the things she's been running from, not just her part in the accident but so much more, the lies and the secrets that have risen up and shattered like glass under her half-bare feet. I love the feel of the story, the way that it builds up the mystery surround Jenna and her rituals, her attempts at atonement. And I love the message of forgiveness and strength in facing the truth, facing the full implications of everything, that pervades. [SPOILERS] And I love the personifications that exist in the story, the way that the girl from the shoe store comes from Jenna's rage and hurt and shame, the way that final manifestation of Zuleika represents both the enormity of the loss that has happened but also the enormity of forgiveness and the power of respecting and remembering the dead but not being bound to them. It's powerful and it's a bit heartbreaking and it's quite good. Definitely check this one out!
"Culture Shock From Wild Flowers" by Chengyu Liu
This is a difficult poem for me in part because of the scientific names used and the fact that I often write these reviews while not connected to the internet. But the premise seems instantly arresting—a Lego man wakes up to find the world around him…well, different. Filled with colors, with shapes that do not match with the square blocks of his reality. Instead he is confronted with different geometries, ones that do not share his values. He is shaken by the sight, by the smells, by everything, and in that moment there seems to linger a question of what then will happen. There is a fleeing, an attempt to deny. That these are wildflowers, not manicured or controlled, that these are flowers that are more random, is an affront to the Lego mentality. That everything is planned. That everything fits. The wildflowers grow where they will, how they will, and the poem does a great job of showing that, of confronting little Lego with his own biases and beliefs. At least to me this poem is about seeing something wholly different, nearly alien to the careful life of a Lego, and having to decide whether to retreat to the blocky comforts of hibernation and ignorance or staying awake. Staying awake to find some way to find beauty in the wildflowers. A great poem!
"Godmotherless" by Sara Backer
This poem seems to me to be about being left without guidance, being left without that magical force to explain the rules, to advise on choices. The godmother in the poem seems to evoke the fairy godmother of fairy tales, the imagery magical and loaded with metphors that aren't quite revealed. Boxes of different metals and disembodied voices and absent fathers and questionable mother figures. It speaks to me of childhood and a child trying to find her way among a world that doesn't really meet up to the expectations she's learned from watching Disney, essentially. That here she is, only there is no magical force watching out for her, saving her from the dangers and teaching her about what to avoid and what is safe. Instead there are only things she has to learn on her own, only decisions where there are no good options. It's a powerful poem told in short, simple stanzas, a mixes of fairy tales and modern conveniences, making this seem to me about how we fail children, how society fails children, by telling them that they cannot manage on their own and then expecting them to anyway. I love the confusion of the piece, the searching, the frustration, the feeling of being lost, of being passed over, of being let down. A very nice read!
"Stolen Song" by David C. Findlay
This poem speaks to me of language and harm and value and oppression. It focuses on the idea of the torturer's tongue, which to me suggests that the narrator of the poem has taken perhaps the physical tool, the flesh itself, but more importantly the power of the tongue. The language. That someone oppressed by the very language of the dominant group in their culture has taken it and turned it into a weapon to fight oppression. To fight the oppressors. It speaks to a very long history of language as a tool of dominance, the way that some groups demand people not learn their own native language and instead have access only to the dominant, to the false "universal" language. The poem also speaks to how people can take the language of oppression and twist it. Turn it back against the tongues that wield it. [SPOILERS] I quite like the meta-level the poem reaches for me, the merging of poet and narrator so that the poem itself is the weapon, the myth, the power. That the poem itself is the reclamation of voice, the insistence that the torturer's tongue (English) can be taken away from the dominant groups and used as a tool for freedom, for justice. That it is no less dangerous. That it has not been dulled but remains sharp, incisive, able to cut through the paternal and condescending prejudice that exists against non-English languages. And it's a fun and thrumming poem, one passionately told as a boast, as a truth. An amazing read!
"Another Letter to Tiptree" by Gillian Polack
I never actually read Letters to Tiptree, so I am missing perhaps an essential bit of context for this piece, but that aside I really like what is said here about care and visibility, ambition and erasure and support. And also I feel a bit about the distance between selfishness and self care, and perhaps the realization that the two aren't incredibly distant, or exclusive. The letter reveals a life of service and a struggle for visibility and a deepening understanding that working for visibility can often render one invisible, that in some ways the system is rigged to shelve those whose voices do not meet the message it wants to forward and that working toward change, even when successful in many ways, does not mean being seen or given credit for that change. That is doesn't mean even being able to own your accomplishments. And so the piece is in some ways to me about taking what good you can. About taking things that are there to take and not always being the one to serve, to sacrifice. About taking the time to practice self care, to create, to push forward in different ways, because sometimes there is such a great power in doing that. Not to give up helping others or serving change and justice but to consider that justice involves not putting aside your own talents and dreams and desires. It's a great letter and a great message and definitely worth a read!
"Metagames: Playing at Good and Evil" by Andrea Phillips
The video game train keeps on moving along with this installment in this relatively new series at Strange Horizons. And this time the tracks are leading to…morality. Morality in video games is an interesting thing, in part because the border between choice and authorial intent is one that video games themselves don't really like to address too much. Too much authorial presence can be seen as railroading and too little can seem like there's no stakes or purpose. Why do many games of Sims end with wanton destruction? Probably not because malevolence so much as boredom. Similarly there's something to be said about the fact that some of these moral situations lose their edge when you realize you can play the game again in a slightly different way, and that those moments are in part designed for just that eventually, in part to tell a good story and a complex moral situation but also in part to keep people playing and keep people invested in replay, in exploring all the corridors the game offers. Not that I don't think those moments are valuable, when the player comes to a truly difficult decision, one that isn't free because it represents a certain level of investment. But I'd be interested to see games begin to move away from the branching paths model, at least away from those that allow the players static branches. Essentially, what happens when they are confronted with a choice there is no way of weighing. What if, instead of having to chose between two bad options, they have to chose and those choices will lead to different outcomes arbitrarily. What if one play through the character can try to save both and lose them both, but another time can try to save both and succeed? That is the sort of situation I'd be more interested in part because I'm sure players would hate it. And yet that mirrors more actual moral choices in the world, where it's not often down to your own choice but myriad other factors and having to confront that, having to see that sometimes you act morally and are rewarded and sometimes you act morally and are punished, and yet the action is the same, and then having to assign value to that action…well. Anyway, I do really like the way this article breaks things down and looks at how morality has been handled in video games and the progress along those lines that video games have make. Obviously I found a lot to think about. So thank you, article! Be sure to check it out!