I'm looking at two weeks of Strange Horizons content today, which means two stories and two poems. I also recommend checking out the nonfiction, but because of time and inclination I'm not going to be discussing those here. The fiction in these two issues both imagine catastrophic journeys and different worlds. Now, one is a science fiction piece and one a fantasy, so those mean very different things, but both stories show characters falling into situations they can't control and having to adapt. Having to dance with their circumstances and their fears and their emotions. And the poetry is about lust and distance and darkness. And together it makes for a fascinating issue that I should just review already. Let's go!
"One Giant Leap" by Jay Werkheiser (4506 words)
This story imagines a fall. A mistake. A chance. A catastrophe. What follows is the main character, Kent, slowly descending. Running through the stages of grief. Because of the situation, because of where he falls, Venus, it's a slow drop. The air pressure and other factors mean that he has a long time to think about what's happening. And to speak with his team above, including his commanding officer, who also happens to be his father. The framing of the story is amazing, because the heat and the pressure and the fall all combine with Kent's emotional state, his anger at his father and the weight of expectations on him, of trying to live up to some ideal. It's drawn in parallel to a dive, which Kent always loved, to slowly sinking away. This is a fall away from his father in literal terms and reflects this feeling of falling short of familiar expectations, of the legacy that his father created and wanted from him. He's sinking, being crushed under that expectation, destroyed for trying to live as his own person and still get respect and love from a man who wasn't taught how to give it. The story reveals the damage that toxic masculinity causes, the way that it poisons relationships and keeps men alone and unable to express themselves. Abuse becomes what passes for love and the story does a heartbreaking job of slowly having not only Kent but his father come to terms with this. To the ways that they have failed to overcome this societal expectation. And in the end there is a triumph but one that is not allowed to be truly celebratory. [SPOILERS] At least, as I read it, that final line, the first spoken on Venus' surface, represents a painful truth. That the father's legacy is that his son should be the first on the surface. But that it killed him. That it's ultimately a hollow thing, and for all the two characters want it to mean more, what I read from it is only tragedy. It's a triumph of engineering, of endurance, but failure to bridge the gap that tradition and roles create. It's an amazing read, though, and you should definitely give it a read.
"The Dancer on the Stairs" by Sarah Tolmie (13,299 words)
This is a long and intricate story that unfolds like a dance, a very fascinating portal fantasy that looks very different from what I'm used to. It features a woman taken from a world that sounds very much like our own and put into a place that is basically one huge house. One enormous building with floors connected by a very special stairway. And it's a great reversal of what normally happens in portal fantasies, where the main character is some sort of Chosen One. Here the woman is the lowest of the low, without the currency that would make her even able to leave the stairs she finds herself on. What follows is a rough education and the slow reveal of this society. And despite the strange circumstances of her journey, the story does become about finding something in this world that she was missing. Finding purpose and function and acceptance even though she is different, even though she is marked as strange. Because despite it all this place contains a language of dance that she finds she understands perfectly. And I love how the idea of dance and communication are used here. Dance is a language but it is also a movement, and the entire structure of the society here is like a dance, with people only allowed to touch certain people and everything swirling. And the moments like when the main character arrive are just flourishes in this dance, to draw in new dancers, to create some new patterns while maintaining the core, the heart of what makes this world unique and beautiful. The main character arrives because, in some ways, she will be needed. So she is a Chosen One. Just not one that gets to enjoy what that usually means. But she does gain power, and find her prince, and find a home that she loves. It's a great and moving story that's enchanting and magical and elegantly layered. An excellent read!
"Perihelion" by Toby MacNutt
This is a lovely and sensual poem about comets, about orbits. About celestial bodies. I love the way that the poem moves, the way it paints this picture of the night sky and lights moving through it and in that vast field being alive who are courting each other, orbiting each other, falling and burning on and on. It's a great feeling that's captured in this dance and distance. Space can often feel lonely, what with the vast darkness, but here there is a warm that cuts through the cold and a desire that reaches out. This is a poem in some ways about creation, I think, linking the choosing of the first line with the glittering gift of the last stanza. There is a joining as well, these two being coming together, banishing all else in this moment, even if it is passing, even if their orbits will take them apart again. And that's something I think the title does a good job evoking that's not necessarily said. That perihelion implies that these are bodies that will get closer and farther away, that they are linked by primal forces, gravity and yearning, and that even at their most distant they remember each other, long for each other. It's short but quite dense and there's definitely a lot to pull out of this poem, and it's definitely worth spending some time with. A great read!
"Under Silver Waves" by Hester J. Rook
This is another nicely sensual poem that moves around a narrator and someone who the narrator is admiring. There is a feeling here that the two characters are separated by danger and by nature. Below there is a person in the water and above there is someone in the air and between them there is a fire igniting. It's difficult to tell exactly what is going on between the two, and namely it is difficult to know what the person under the silver waves thinks or feels. They are a canvas onto which the narrator paints their lusts and wants, and there is a bit of an uncomfortable feeling associated with that, like the narrator could be the prince wanting to wake Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. And the imagery and the feel of the poem are rather dark and rather disturbing. There is blood and the feeling of temptation in the face of being of two different situations. The narrator desires the person below because they are distant, because they are beautiful, because the narrator can't seem to help themself from wanting that figure. The figure, however, does not act, and so it builds very nicely this situation of unease, where I as a reader am both drawn and repulsed, the language compelling but, once you start to examine it, really fucking creepy. It's a wonderful poem, though, that describes the feeling of lust and longing, of wanting someone who never is given a voice. And it's a compelling and unsettling work, short and punchy and dark and definitely worth checking out!