Another issue of Mothership Zeta has landed and it features an actual, literal Mother Ship along with a full roster of excellent stories ranging from zany time travel science fiction to sincere and heartfelt contemporary fantasy. And more than anything else I'm struck by the framing techniques of the issue. There is a series of one sided emails and a detailed bill, a conversation of people remembering an event and a man preparing for a press conference. This alongside more traditional stories that nevertheless manage to present wry and witty narrators, earnest and yearning voices. It's an issue that flows nicely, kicking things off with a smile and a nudge and then slowly drawing to more serious topics and leaving me at least, with a quiet longing for more. For now, though, it's time to review!
|Art by Elizabeth Leggett|
"Noteworthy Customer Service Interactions, Example 12: Mendoza and Squeakybuns" by Laura Pearlman (938 words)
Okay so basically any story that contains a character named Squeakybuns is A-OK in my book. But I suppose I should push deeper than that, as this is a story about a sort of magical help line that researches solutions for a variety of problems. This story is framed as the emails sent from one employee of the company, Claire, to her first customer. It…doesn't exactly go to plan, but the getting there is charming and fun and brings up a lot of little nods to other stories and myths and magical tropes. The main conflict of the story is that the titular Squeakybuns, a mouse, wants to tranform into a cat to protect their lands from incursions of rival mice. It's very simple and I love the earnestness with which Claire attempts to solve the problem. And it's a n ice touch that we only get one side of this exchange, because it allows a voice of Squeakybuns to develop around their absence, around the ways that Claire has to respond and suggest. There also the added level where the story is bookended by Claire confiding in a friend, first of excitement to have a customer, and then the crush of defeat given what happens. And it's just a rather cute piece that doesn't seem able to resist becoming just a bit dark in order to twist things around an ending that is funny, sad, and very endearing. It's a great way to kick off the issue and a marvelously fantastical story. Indeed!
"Rescue" by Sarah Gailey (4440 words)
This story keeps the fun going from the last piece, the humor and the charm, but adds a wry voice and a bit more of a heartwarming feel. The tale is technically a sequel to an earlier one that appeared in the publication, and nicely deepens and slightly complicates that story, where Baxter is demon's best friend to Malachai, who likes to pretend at least that he's very inconvenienced having to deal with the rather adorable (if slobbery) canine. The story looks at that relationship in particular, the way that Malachai likes to protect his ego and his reputation by loudly grumbling about the many ways that he hates caring for Baxter while at the same time taking something, taking comfort and relief from having a companion. It cuts to the heart of why people have pets, and forces Malachai to face his own emotions by providing him a mirror, a human desperate not to be alone again. The action of the story is once again a mix of demonic melodrama and near-parody urban fantasy, where mages leave messages for demons by splitting their heads open and there are certain rules that demons cannot break when it comes to granting wishes. And I love the way that the story cuts through Malachai's gruff exterior and bravado and shows that he's dealing with his own insecurities, his own nature, in many ways reconciling his demon-ness (which in some ways can be read as his masculinity) with this need for comfort and love and his fear that he might lose it. It's a strangely complex story for all that it's also a rather straight-forward demon-comedy, and I think it does a great job of pushing forward the story of Malachai and Baxter while tugging gently at the old heartstrings and being damn fun at the same time. An excellent read.
"The Indigo Ace and the High-Low Split" by Annalee Flower Horne (5229 words)
This story takes a great look at superheroes and parents and children, and at one young woman trying to live in the shadow of her famous parents. The story stars Izzie as the Indigo Ace, daughter and sidekick to two crime-fighting parents. While they're busy with missions they think too dangerous for her, though, Izzie gets into trouble all her own, not least of which revolving around people taking her seriously. As a sidekick and a young person she struggles with people not remembering her and not respecting her, from the Mayor to the supervillains she faces off against (and defeats). Too often it seems like her accomplishments are overlooked and credit given to other, older heroes. It's a great way of looking deeply at the way that young people are treated, that despite their skills and abilities they are denied recognition because of their age, because they don't meet some "respectability" level. And I like how Izzie struggles and fights against that, the drive she has to do things on her own, to trust in her own strength, to make the decisions she feels are right. It's a story of growing up in some ways, but to me more about becoming more comfortable with who you are, with Izzie learning that she doesn't have to prove herself to be a superhero, that she has always been a superhero. It keeps with the heartwarming feel of the previous story and adds a bit of a YA twist while drawing upon themes of family and confidence. And, of course, it very much maintains the fun momentum of the issue and makes for another great read!
"Dear Future Customer" by Darin Ramsey (653 words)
This story brings the issue back to a solid vein of humor while crafting a narrative in the form of a bill, which is a rather novel frame that works on the strength of the piece's premise and a liberal amount of explanatory notes. Part of what I love about this one is that is takes some of the paradox-ridden pitfalls of time travel narratives and just runs with it, creating a world where time travel tourism is very much a thing and, thanks to the nature of the endeavor, billed in advance. So on one level the story works by giving a rather zany accounting (literally) of the presumed main character's travels back in time, to the Civil War and then much, much further back to the time of the dinosaurs. The humor works for me through the use of the dispassionate nature of the bill. This is a financial document, one that penalizes the presumed main character for their (many) misdeeds while in the past and it just feels real to me, like this would be how it works, the time travel company not only finding many ways to penalize customers for attempting to mess with the timeline but also able to pre-bill events that will have already happened and… Well, the tricky tenses of the work alone are enough to make my head spin but the story is never confusing. It just embraces the ridiculous natures of consumer time travel that makes the whole adventure, well, not mundane exactly, but like any family vacation that's subject to endless rules and fines. It's another cute piece and definitely good for a few laughs!
"At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)" by Maurice Broaddus (4760 words)
This story introduces a more somber note to the issue while still driving a fun, relentless beat and shining a light hope into the dark of space. It introduces a lunar colony called First World. Or, more precisely, called Blacktopia, for the colonists who made it their home and made it into something that others, with fear and hate in their hearts, wanted to take from them. The story is framed as a sort of documentary, almost a conversation, between a number of people who were close to a particular incident in the past. An attempt by a white supremacy movement to take control of Blacktopia and the actions of one of the colonists, Astra Black, to stop them. The story evokes a history of Black SFF in music and in other media, imagining a Mother Ship that looked over Blacktopia and represented many of its hopes and its drives. And of course it became the target of hate and aggression, because for some black people simply living free of white oppression seems a threat, a situation that cannot be tolerated. And the story takes a close look at hate and prejudice, hope and escape, and ties it around this lifting SFF premise that is fun and complex. The conversation isn't exactly direct, though occasionally the voices interact. More it's about Astra and her personality and how she handled the situation that unfolded, how she sought to make sense of the hatred she knew was illogical and how, ultimately, she removed the problem. The story is a deft mystery, a lingering question of what happened and a growing realization that it might not matter, that the real point is belief. Is hope in something better. It's a lovely story and it turns the issue once more into deeper waters with a narrative richly conceived and delicately balanced. Definitely check this one out!
"Making a Good Impression" by James Hart (2363 words)
This story keeps things a bit on the heavier side, fun but with the weight of loss and fear and hope. In the story Arturo is the developer of an artificial intelligence, perhaps the first, and together they are working to get ready for the big reveal. For telling the world what he's done. And yet with the stakes so high it's a much more personal drama that dominates the story. Missed connections. Broken promises. Or, perhaps, nearly-missed connections and almost-broken promises. Because at its core the story is about following through, reaching out, and finding hope in the face of tragedy. I love how the story builds the voices of the characters, so at ease with each other, teasing each other like they really are brother and sister. The way that Arturo worries about the man he's been harboring feeling for, the way that Magda chides him and teases him. The way that they both know each other so well and yet there are still things to learn, still new layers to peel away. It's a story that doesn't shy away from being emotional at times and it's a story that embraces a hope and vision of technology that is pretty much completely free of fear. This isn't an AI that will kill us all, but one that will guide and help, that will care about humanity, as Magda cares about Arturo. And it does have its moments of humor, its moments of fun, while also being heartfelt and sincere and full of love. Another excellent story!
"The Penelope Qingdom" by Aidan Moher (5793 words)
This is a sweet and rather nearly bittersweet story about young affection and growing up and the power of a shared fantasy. It draws on the themes of youth and growth from "The Indigo Ace…" and maintains the more emotionally resonant streak from the last few stories. More than that, it shows two young people, Ivan and Penelope, exploring the worlds of their imaginations and their budding sexualities. On one level the story seems to me nearly explicitly about growing up and leaving behind the innocent fantasies of youth. The sections detailing Ivan and Penelope hanging out as friends and then maybe as something that could one day be more are broken up by sections that take place entirely in the fantasy world that Penelope created and Ivan shared in. It's a great way to frame the story and I love how it moves with a child's fancy, focusing on the toys available and some leaps that are 100% how young people think (looking at you, Ultimo Bomb). To say that it's only about growth and leaving behind fantasy, though, I feel would be missing the nicely complex way that it closes. These are two people drawn together by fantasy, and the parts where Ivan [SPOILERS] drifts from that a bit were rather uncomfortable for me, because he seemed to want something very different from Penelope than she was interested in. And yet, ultimately, it's fantasy that saves them. That keeps them together. That allows them to continue to explore their feelings and their relationship in a way that values their consent and agency, without Ivan wanting to take Penelope's away in favor of his own desires and wants. It's an interesting tale and one that captures a nice feel of youth and young relationships and offers a story with a great and lingering magic that looks at how the stories people build together, the fantasies they share, can be foundational to their relationship. Indeed!
"The Last Half Hour of Winter" by Meghan Ball (990 words)
This story speaks to me of seasons and changes. Of cycles. It features a group of old men playing checkers in the cold of late winter and witnessing something that doesn't seem entirely physical. That seems magical, or metaphorical. To me it seems like what they witness is Persephone's return from the underworld and the end of the blight that her mother wrought over her absence. And I like how the story introduces the idea, how it makes it first about these old men who experience a rush of life, who feel so fully alive after the long winter, but then twist that a bit by showing the woman's reaction. Because, to me, there is a hesitation in her to fully embrace what is happening. Despite the way that the men seem instinctually dismissive and mistrusting of her husband and enamored with her, to me it seems like that relationship is much more complex than it seems, is much more affectionate than people realize. At least, from the way she plays checkers it seems like she's not just some virtuous flower, and from that loneliness of the end there is a bittersweet feel to the arrival of spring. This is a parting as much as it is a reunion between mother and daughter. And I love how it leaves that open, how it just brushes against that at lets that sit, giving it space to breathe. It's a powerful last line to the story and a great last line to the issue as well, drawing everything down with a spot of life but also a knowledge of parting. The issue is done for now, which is sad even as I remain hopeful for the next one.