The latest offering from Unlikely Story is out, and this time it's The Journal of Unlikely Observances. The call for this issue included a list of elements, a certain number of which had to be in each story. Water fights. Resurrections. Celebrations. What comes out of those guidelines is a very fn and mostly joyous issue. Now, full disclosure, I have a story in this issue as well, and as my custom I will not be looking at it here. But that still leaves a bunch of stories to see and experience and love. Stories that touch on what it means to live and be free and imagine a different world. Stories that touch on death and rebirth and cycles and history. Stories that I should really just start reviewing!
|Art by Linda Saboe|
"The Death of Chaos" by anne m. gibson (2018 words)
This story captures a fun and a vibrancy of chaos, the power and the necessity of random acts, though delightfully taken to extremes. In it a small Mediterranean island is stuck in a cycle of summer and winter, tranquil order and miasmic chaos. For in the winter the Mad Chicken-Hatted God Seth holds sway, and his whims are nature, his chaos the winter normal. And for the people of the island it means dealing with some rather strange phenomenon. Until one day an accountant decides it's too much and goes off to confront and slay the god of chaos. And I love the humor of the piece, the ridiculousness and the idea that the gods are actually living among the people, making life difficult with their moods and their passions. And at its heart I read this story as about the necessity of chaos, of random catastrophe, as necessary to art, and to love, and to the human spirit. Because there is something to be said about the way randomness brings people together. The way it inspires people. The story is told as a myth, but one with very modern sensibilities (and a fair amount of nudity). The humor is silly but also touched with violence and darkness and the pairing gives it an edge that is charming. The setting is imaginative and the world building strong for such a small space. There's something generally anachronistic about the story that I find fun and fresh and full of life. A fine way to kick off this flurry of unlikely observances!
"Old Customs" by Rajiv Moté (1994 words)
This is a story told moving backwards in time, peeling away layers of customs and generations to reach for the origins of a holiday, of a celebration. And I love the way the story moves, the way that it shows how significance is lost, how meanings change. How power shifts from something that is at its core subversive and rebellious and twists it until, so many years later, the story is one that affirms the power structure, that allows the abuse to continue once more. I don't think that it's necessarily a pessimistic story so much that shows with a clarity how these things happen, how people who are powerless latch onto celebrations, how they can be used for social good, but that the longer things run the more that the dominant group can tweak the message, the importance, the narrative, so that by the beginning of the story the holiday is something that isn't really dangerous. [SPOILERS] The white is about winter and spring and not about widows. The colors are about celebrating love and pairing off and not about the blood of justice. The rods are about play, good natured and ending in submission, not about torment and pain and frustration and death. The raw moment of hurt and strength that at first defines the act that inspires the holiday is not lost quickly, but it is lost, erased and replaced by something palatable, at the same time making the holiday more appealing to all and stripping it of its power. It's a beautifully rendered piece and I love the framing, the falling back through time, through history, to find an inspiration and a power that has been suppressed. A great read!
"The City & the Man; the Man & the City" by Joshua A. Dilk (2059 words)
This is a strange story about living cities and a festival about getting new experiences by switching lives with someone. For a night, at least. Doing something far different than you normally do. Putting down your life and seeing what it's like to be something else. It's a great idea for a holiday and I love the world building here, the living city and the gardens and the people all linked. And the main character, Delfft, child of immigrants and somewhat low in the social hierarchy, who finds himself being interrogated and with no immediate memory of what happened to him the previous night. The night of the festival. And what happens is equal parts hilarious and poignant, a great mix of human hopes and failings with the ponderous mind of a city, all showing the same desire to feel more, to see what it might be like if life had taken a different path. For Delfft it comes with some unanticipated side effects, but for everyone it's a way to step back to get some perspective on what's been happening, on yourself by seeing what you'd be like as someone else. And I love that, love the way the story binds it all together, how it interrogates Delfft about the festival which he doesn't really think much about himself until this moment when shit happens and he's allowed to see so much. Experience so much. It's a wonderfully imaginative piece and definitely worth checking out!
"Little Government Gets Us Nowhere" by Rhonda Eikamp (2005 words)
Okay, you know how I said the last story was weird? Well…this one turns things to eleven with the strange and then tears the dial off and swallows it. Because here is a world where parents follow the laws of their children, their leaders. Where things are outlawed like thinking about the future or eating’s things that don't taste good. People starve and people suffer but people aren't allowed to be sad. It's the law. It's a story that really gets to the inverted nature of the call, that here are people who have given up what they had before and gone to what they thought might work. Went toward the promise of things being easier, of things being better. It's a story of what happens when they take nostalgia for a happy past and try to govern that way. Try to take away the responsibility and make things only happy, only free. And the story shows just how dangerous and suffocating that can be, when laws aren't designed to help people but to promote a sort of childishness. Now, I don't really think this is a "darn kids" kind of story, though there are aspects of the tale that I feel are a bit anti-child, that children need the guidance and rules of adults (which might be close to true but I don't think is how most people mean it when they say things like "kids need rules and guidance"). I like how things are inverted here but to me if feels like this vision of society is not one where children rule necessarily, but where there is a value placed on avoiding responsibility and being free, a willful giving up of power by the parents because they want to be free of the burden of running things. Which is a neat idea and makes for a surreal and memorable story. Indeed.
"'Fear Death by Water'" by Arkady Martine (1670 words)
This is a story of war and law and empire and choice. It's a story about a great galactic civilization spanning thousands of systems. About an imperator hungry for war and a senator, her friend, who is forced to make a choice. A distinction. To decide what an empire is, and how an empire survives. I love the aesthetic of this story, a sort of sci fi Rome with senators and emperors and plots and [SPOILERS] assassinations and cycles. The feeling of celebration is present but it's a different sort of celebration, a ritual that's intended to keep the empire from falling under the weight of its own expanse. A constant struggle within, a constant renewal. Plots and threats and deaths. Blood and circuses. And set among the stars it's part Star Wars as it ought to be and part Shakespearean drama, a tragedy and comedy in one, the assassin rewarded with being set into the place she emptied, knowing that there will come a time when her summer will end as well. The empire survives. Only the emperor changes. And it's just such a fun story, filled with a lifting and epic voice and a great pair of central characters. I want more of this. So much more. But until there is a series of novels featuring this world, I suppose we must all just read this story over and over again. Because it is great. Go check it out!
"Ship of Fools" by Heather Morris (1846 words)
This is a story about Spring aboard a starship, one where a young woman is learning how to rebel and how to defy and how to live away from the overprotective hand of her father. It's a story that sees her adopting a new identity, if only for the night, if only for the festival. The story features many uses of compartmentalization. The way that the ship is structured seems to have each deck have a specific purpose. And Sunday, the main character, isn't allowed very far for fear that she, like her mother, will find something more appealing and leave her father behind. But in his push to keep her shielded he has stunted her and kept her from exploring herself. Kept to only certain levels of the ship, she is unable to truly grow or learn everything that she needs to. The story is about celebration, about festival, and it's also about taking chances. Learning how far you can take things safely. Because without that knowledge, without some way of being able to test boundaries that are relatively safe, Sunday can't really live. Can't experience what it means to be alive and be a child and be in love. And I love the way the story builds the ship and populates it with such great characters. The dynamic between the friends is amazing, all of the characters with a distinct style and voice, and there's so much just hinted at, the depths of each person glimpsed and present but left mostly unexplored. It's another story that makes me wish for more, for the time and space to follow this story further. It's got a great YA aesthetic and feel (in the best of SFF ways) and it's an incredibly affirming, uplifting tale. Another amazing read!