Monday, August 15, 2016

Strange Horizons 08/01/2016 & 08/08/2016

Well, I'll try not to be too sad that Our Queer Planet is done with and instead focus on the fact that Strange Horizons continues with two more weeks of SFF fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. There's a return of the multi-part story (and a nicely subverted fairy tale, at that) which clocks in just into novelette range (by my count), two poems that really don't pull their punches, and two nicely paired nonfiction pieces that examine popular art and what to do when certain aspects of a text don't seem to work quite as well as others. All in all it's a great two weeks of content and helps to relieve a bit of the sting left by Our Queer Planet only having lasted a month. To the reviews! 

Art by Melissa Pagluica


"Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son" by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan (7535 words)

This is an interesting reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, and one with a keen eye for roles and for patience and for grief and for healing. In it, Jocelyn is a princess but suffers from no curse except that some bad things happen to her and, as a princess, she's expected to one day rule, to step into a position of power and responsibility where a great many people will depend on her. But I like that there's no curse at the heart of the story, that instead what you see is a young woman dealing with the loss of a mother and a life of being quiet and trying to be strong for her father. Trying to be strong for everyone, because she feels she cannot show weakness or doubt or anything less than what people want and expect of her. It does not exactly the best of situations make, then, she it comes time for her to ascend, and the story does an excellent job of exploring her guilt and her grief and how she handles the stress, how she seeks to do what is required of her while keeping herself safe.

The story is broken up into two parts and the second one follows Matthias, the eighth prince (out of nine) in a place where…well, it's not that he's not loved so much as he doesn't have a direction. He doesn't fit in. He doesn't really want to follow into the standard princely role and would rather just play chess all day. When he learns of a kingdom and a mystery he's intrigued enough to follow through, and it turns out that he's rather well suited for this particular task. And I like the way the story shows the two characters, both rather quiet and both rather patient and both finding in the other some measure of peace. [SPOILERS] It's still a fairy tale with its very own happily ever after but it doesn't imagine that ending as getting married and having children. Instead it becomes about these characters learning to value themselves and value each other, to listen but also to talk. To learn how to express themselves and how to grow and find a balance for the kingdom. It's a sweet story and one that offers a nice innovation on an old tale. A great read! 


"We Have Slain The Savage Martians, But Their Priness Escaped" by Kayla Bashe

To me this story is about colonialism and about loss and about identity. It's about the way that humans reach and take and pillage, the way that the stars, the planets of our solar system, are about resources. About jewels. It's about the old visions of Mars as housing these empires that humans will overcome to have their idyllic environments and control. To have a Mars that is for humans, not Martians. And the voice of the poem is then the voice of the deposed, the dispossessed, who have to deal with the colonial touch, who have to learn the human ways not because it's civilizing but because it's crueler. Because it's easier to win once you've adapted those tactics. The way that colonies overcome their colonizers is not always or even often peacefully, and this poem looks a bit at that, at the idea that humans on Mars are in an environment not suited to them and that they are, ultimately, the heralds of their own destruction, that by trying to convert the world into something they can use they have revealed their secrets and left themselves open to the colonized using it against them. It's a poem that seems to me aimed at resistance and revolution, a reparation and retaliation. It's a poem of conflict and the violence that blooms from colonialism, a nod to how problematic the old depictions of Mars were, and how they still reveal how we put ourselves out among the stars. A fascinating and fun piece.

"population changes" by Brandon O'Brien

This is a poem that seems to me to speak of violence, of injustice, of death. Of distance. The title sums this idea up nicely, framing something inherently devastating and emotional and making into something that could appear on the cover of a report. Population change. It sounds harmless, boring even. And yet the poem itself is anything but, is tackling the way that lives become numbers, become unimportant to those with power. When, indeed, the number represent the desired result. The poem uses the language of animals like this report is documenting the population of an endangered species. Or, depending on who is reading the report, a grouping requiring control. It reminds me of wolf hunts, of people going through lists of areas, of hunts, deciding how many should be killed, how many is an acceptable number. It’s a subtle point that is driven home with the hurt the poem reveals, the very human tragedy that is unfolding. The way that people are hunted, the way that populations change. The way people are kept in their “environments,” in those places where the more powerful are comfortable with them. It is a visceral poem and a beautiful one, with a great meeting of the world of statistics and the world of human suffering. It’s challenging and it doesn’t hold back and it’s an amazing read. Go check it out! 


"Metagames: Discord in the Symphony" by Andrea Phillips

This piece looks at the collaborative nature of video game design. The way that a video game synthesizes many different game elements into one cohesive whole. And how, when certain elements don’t meet up well with each other, it creates a discord that can distract from the overall enjoyment of the game. Which yeah, makes a lot of sense, and the column does a nice job of giving examples and showing how different elements within a game can fail to mesh well. It’s true that there are times in many games when there is something that just sort of…takes away from it. If you have a truly deep and poignant game with lousy music? Yeah, not so good. Or if you have something epic and understated and powerful but the camera doesn’t want to work and you end dying like a few dozen times (HOW HARD IS IT TO GET THE F*CKING CAMERA RIGHT?!)…umm, ahem, sorry about that. Anyway, the column explores this and how it manifests and how it doesn’t make a game bad necessarily (I still love SotC, after all) but it can be frustrating and it can determine how we approach and enjoy games. I think this is true of most art, to be honest, and especially popular art. Even if there’s only one author there is the sense that some elements might be off with a story or a song. Some choices just seem…off. This column actually pairs very well with the one below, because both look at art and at popular art, because video games also have a large budget and so have to try to maintain that wide appeal. It’s an interesting thought and I like how it’s explored here. Definitely check these nonfiction pieces out!

"Me and Science Fiction: The Marvel Project" by Eleanor Arnason

This piece looks at movies, and in particular the movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and asks, a bit pointedly: are they good art? Which is a rather fair question to ask. And how the piece answers that question is great. Basically, no. No they are not, but… But they don’t have to be to have value. And I love that answer. That these movies are compared to public art which, while not really being of the greatest artistic merit, still improve life. Still increase beauty. The Marvel movies are, in effect, fun and generally positive. They aren’t good art, but they aren’t terrible either. And what they are best at being is, essentially, being popular. Which is to say, making money. Which is to say, being ambiguous. But it also resists being pessimistic. It resists despairing in the world. And perhaps it boils things down too far. It perhaps stumbles with some of its attempts to tell compelling stories. But, by and large, it keeps things hopeful and fun. And there’s something to be said about that. To take DC as its antithesis, I find the Marvel movies much more valuable. Perhaps not even better art, but more valuable movies. Because they don’t wallow in despair. Because they do encourage action and self-examination, though the characters of the films don’t exactly do that well. Still, the piece is interesting and does a good job of thinking about popular art, something that has a lot to do with SFF. So yeah, a fine read!

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