|Art by Lasse Perala|
"Helio Music" by Mike Buckley (2802 words)
A rather quick story opens the issue, one about music and about oppression and pain and exploitation. It features a young girl who grows up in a place where no one cares about her, where people are commodities and no one values a child. Except that she has music. Has music to help her escape from her surroundings, to help her get noticed by a strange man who puts her in the path of a group that can use her abilities. And, among the stars, she finds her music but she also finds the raw hurt that has fueled her, that has pushed at her. [SPOILERS] And there is a great sweep to this story, a flow that is easy to fall into, a sort of beat that marks time as the girl grows and as she learns to use her talents to kill. To me the story is about the shaping forces in a person's life, how the main character's music reflects the way she has been used and abused, the beat of rock on skull, the way that she becomes a weapon so easily. It's a piece where the hurt is hidden behind a thin layer of music, buried in the notes, her jaunty tune one of blood and death. And it shows her desire both for revenge and for meaning, the way she can't forgive what happened to her even as she knows it fixes nothing, even as she's still searching for a song unlike any she's heard, one that might sound some more hopeful tune, something she's unfamiliar with but hungry for. It's a punchy story and a great way to open the issue!
"Fish Dance" by Eric Schwitzgebel (4370 words)
This is a rather strange but touching story about a man caught between. Life and death. Organic and synthetic. Heaven and Hell. It's laced with religious implications when, after an accident that kills his daughter and leaves his body beyond hope of recovery, Isaac becomes part of a program to become an AI, to map his brain into something permanent, something…well, religious, a bead of a sort of interactive rosary that the Church hopes will bring more people to the flock. The story is loaded with religious imagery in the form of (as I read them) drug-induced hallucinations as Isaac's mind reacts to everything going on around him. Meanwhile his wife and son inhabit different sides of a rather significant divide, his son seeing in AI a sort of immortality and escape from human suffering and his wife believing that once his mind is fully integrated he will die. It's a story that doesn't walk a line so much as dances around it, flowing from point to point, idea to idea, Isaac afraid and vulnerable and not really sure if he wants to live or die, not even really sure what paradise would look like for him. The one thing that's certain in all of this is that the story examines the aftermath of trauma in a profound way, how one person reacts to the enormity of what has happened, how far he might go to save his own life and how much what he's doing is punishment for what happened outside of his control. It's an aching story and one that has a burning grace to it, a style that is poignant and sad and reaching towards transcendence. And for all that it's a strange, trippy read at times, it's also a beautiful piece worth spending some time with.
"The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale" by John Chu (5980 words)
This is a story of parts, a story of process, and a surprisingly emotional story to me, given that much of it is told in rather technical language about the way a processor was supposed to work. It's a story that works on many levels, firstly and most obviously as a rather interesting bit of tech writing, explaining the way the processor was to work to people who probably aren't exactly experts. But as the story progresses, and especially as the footnotes do their wonderful magic, the story becomes about so much more. About passion and about drive, about building something and believing in something and having to deal with the commercial realities of working in tech. And really, it's about predictions, about knowing where to go. The entire Sentry idea is to predict where to go, what path to take, and it's an idea that lends itself incredibly well to real life. Especially when paired with the story behind the story. Or…the story behind the story within the story? The story of the fictional author of the paper and their relationship with Ajay, the way that they wish there was some way to predict, some way to not run down so many blind alleys and find yourself surprised at the Truth. At the outcome. The way that the idea of going back and starting over isn't even really a solution, because you can't really forget the mistakes. As the fairy tale suggest, you can only hope they get overwritten. And this is just an incredibly beautiful piece, layered and technical but also personal and vulnerable and full of regret and hope. Like relationships, like projects, there is always the possibility that they will all come apart. Wouldn't it be better if there was a way to avoid that, to know the "right" path? The story explores that while exploring how it's a sort of dream, that in the end, at least in human life, there are always going to be mistakes that can't be foreseen, paths that will throw a wrench into everything. And the story captures that with a fresh style and an innovative form. An excellent read!
"Sephine and the Leviathan" by Jack Schouten (14,172 words)
This is a fun and fast story about people stuck on an alien world and seeking to get home and, more specifically, the twins Sephine and Rokri, who are inheritors of a dangerous and vital bit of information—the location to the homeworld of their people, something that their enemies, the Fractured, will stop at nothing to obtain. The story is the longest of the issue and uses that extra space to build up a galaxy-spanning conflict between the Leseum and the Fractured. Sephine and Rokri are the children of a Leseum Captain, and as such possess a map buried in their neural net, that will get them home. The situation as the story begins is that the twins were on a ship that crashed on a planet, a ship kept grounded by a different ship that seems to orbit the survivors in taunt. The reality of the situation is a mystery, and one that eventually pulls both siblings up to the strange ship that passes over them once a year. The brother first and then, a few years later, the sister, Sephine, who acts as the main character for the piece. It's a nice bit of world building and creates a rather compelling central mystery. And the story definitely brings the action, opening in the middle of the plot and then working backwards before picking up from the moment the story began and moving forward again. It's a strange framing method but one that avoids front loading all the exposition and makes for a rather thrilling read from the first paragraph. It's also a story with some nice feints and twists, and the character work is solid, fun, and richly visual. [SPOILERS!!!] If I had something that didn't quite work for me it was that things almost seemed…too easy once the twins were reunited, and in these instances where "everything is a lie" I'm always waiting to find out the lie goes even deeper. If there is a huge scenario to manipulate the twins (a plan that seems to have been over a decade in planning and execution), then I would expect it to be a bit more…planned? It's an entertaining and fast-paced read, one that I quite enjoyed, and overall I think the plot holds together quite well. In some ways, though, I feel this wanted to be an even longer work, and I think I would have liked it even more with a bit more time and space for the last two sections. For what's here, though, it's an action-minded science fiction with some great ideas and a flowing style, and is certainly worth checking out!
"Against the Stream" by A. Que, translated by Nick Stember (3039 words)
This story seems to me to be about time and choices, regret and being faced with a very difficult decision. In the story, the main character is a man in a sort of crisis. Having cheated on and then divorced his wife and then been dumped by his mistress, he's…not exactly in a great place. And then he starts to go through time backwards, living each consecutive day one day further into his past. Allowing him to live it all again, to gain a new perspective on it. To fall back in love with his wife and regret all the stupid, selfish things he had done. It's a story full of heart, a man seeing just how gender expectations and time have poisoned him and his relationship. In trying to get his wife to match some idea of what women should be he ends up crushing those parts of her that were most alive, that he actually liked about her. And by the end he had broken everything. So going backwards he finds what he was doing wrong, finds that he could have done so much better, been happier and more satisfied. And then he gets the chance to reverse himself again, so that he could live forward. And…well, I love how the story frames that moment, the dilemma of and the way that he has grown. The way that he makes his decision and doesn't run from the responsibility he bears. [SPOILERS] Basically, I love that he doesn't just see that he has a reset button and hits it thinking he will do better. He knows that he ruined what he had and that he doesn't really deserve to try this again, not if it might lead to the same outcome, because his memories will fade if he reverses again. That he accepts that he did wrong and that the best he can do is to let his wife move on. It's a great moment and a great story, and a great way to close out the issue.