Monday, March 20, 2017

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 03/06/2017 & 03/13/2017

It's another dense two weeks from Strange Horizons, with a novelette cut into two parts, two poems, and a nonfiction piece from the videogame-centric Metagames. Which means that there's a lot to see and experience. The publication doesn't often do multi-part stories, but I'm certainly glad it's made that decision here, presenting a tale that's wrenching and bleak but with a vein of hope and faith. The poetry is all about scope and perspective, about what is hidden, and how we can reveal it. And the nonfiction takes a look at the different reasons people have for playing video games. The different ways that people can engage with the idea of challenge and flow. It's a great pair of issues and I'm going to jump right into my reviews!


"Concessions" by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali (8315 words)

It's rare but certainly not unprecedented for Strange Horizons to do longer stories, and here's one that's split over two issues that centers around faith and sacrifice, atonement and survival. It features Bilqis, a doctor who is living in the desert, trying to make a life for herself, for her family. She's pregnant for the fifth time (I think) and yet none of her earlier pregnancies yielded healthy children. And it's partly her fault, not because of the pregnancies themselves but because of her work before moving to the desert. Because she was part of a medical breakthrough to "cure" cancer and, while rather successful at that, accidentally contributed to pandemic complications with regards to pregnancies. It's a position that is complicated by her faith as a Muslim and her role as healer to the people of the desert. The story blends a certain kind of magic with science to construct a world that has been ravaged by war and distrust. It's a world that's still healing from the wounds that religious intolerance and violence has inflicted, and as a religious person Bilqis has that added wrinkle to her worldview, to her interactions.

To me the story becomes one of healing and atonement. Bilqis is plagued by guilt for her part in creating what has become a scourge of humanity. She has retreated because of it, accepted exile because of it, and has sought in the religion of her mother and in the arms of her husband a sort of forgiveness. Only even with her penance, even with delivering new life and learning magic to help what she can flourish, it seems to pale in comparison to the work to be done. Work that is being done elsewhere. It's a tense story, with a bleak landscape of encroaching desert and devastation and people living on the fringes, having to decide between living on their own terms and being able to contribute to larger solutions. I love how the story takes a complex approach to that idea, to the conflict of living free from concessions versus engaged in work that suits your skill and ability. For Bilqis it's not that delivering children in the desert is not valuable work, but given what she might do…

And in the end I feel like the story does a beautiful job of capturing hope and humanity. Of showing Bilqis having to look wider than the arms of her love, wider than the walls of her home. Wider even than the expanding desert, because while it seems to stretch forever there is still the chance that it can be beaten back. That humanity can recover. And given Bilqis' own experience, her own faith, it's something that she feels is worth fighting for. It's a wonderful and moving story and you should give it a read!


"Small Insects and Their Place Among Main Sequence Stars" by Juanjo Bazán

This is an interesting poem that is built as a bit of advice to an insect. Or a person. And to me the poem is about perspective and about time. It's anchored by a quote that seems to me to speak of the allure of the immediate. Of insect time, where generations pass in the span of a year, as opposed to stellar time, where things mostly seem to happen only slowly. The poem gives a voice to the way that even time is subject to perspective, though, and how we perceive it. How when you alter how you look and how you think about things, the systems all begin to resemble each other. And I love the language of the piece, which feels to me to be spoken to someone small but capable of growth. The way that we were all small at some point, the way that evolution flows and the world opens up and beyond that the solar system and beyond that the galaxy and beyond that…well, I just like the way that the poem engages with scope and with time. That time is not something that anyone can really avoid, not insects and not even stars. The story is about patience and savoring life, savoring every moment and making them count. Not rushing about just because life is short compared to stars. It's a great poem that does a great job tackling some rather large and complex ideas and presenting them in a way that's beautiful and reaching, that shows that value is not limited to things that are very big, but reside even in the smallest of the small. A great read!

"Concerning Boston's Haunted Subways" by Konner Jebb

I love the airy feel of this poem, which seems to me to be about history and about the lingering violence that exists all around us. But I do love that it keeps this loose. If you look at the poem you might see that it's mostly couplets with a single one-line stanza but stanza almost seems inappropriate because the lines are really spaced out. There's a feeling that I could as a reader slip through the lines and into that older conflict, find myself staring into the soldier's eyes, find myself knee deep in history with no real idea of what to do next. And it's just an interesting and powerful idea, that we are all of us living in the wake of older events. In the wake of history. For Boston it's history that most people are familiar with, the founding of the country, the war of American Independence. But really the poem pulls out further than that. Look around you, it seems to say to me, and see the ghosts that are all around you. That we build our subways through. That we pave over. Not necessarily in a naturalist lament about the loss of history, but about the sense that paving over something doesn't really erase it. That the history, and the story, and the blood spilled, remain. They are there, and regardless of how much the landscape changes, we have a responsibility to feel the past around us, and how it shapes us still. And otherwise it's a poem that does a lovely job of selling its images, the way that the ghosts push into the present, the way that we both ignore them and cannot, the way we breath them in. And, most of all, it's a wonderful poem!


"Metagames: Fiero and Frustration" by Andrea Phillips

It's a new edition of Metagames, and this one focused on difficulty in video games. Though also about a bit more than difficulty. The article, to me, feels that it's about the _perception_ of difficulty in video games, largely as perceived by people who want to be experts at video games. I love the different ways that the article looks at how people approach video games and how people get invested in whether or not video games are sufficiently difficult. That what we're dealing with is that there are different people taking very different things out of the field. Just as we see people in SFF who are entrenched in "the way things are" (meaning the way things were first codified in SFF) being sacred and violators a certain kind of outsider. The question does start to become who is the "real" gamer, which I feel this column has touched on before. But here we have this mentality that video games should be made for the hardcore gamers who are into a very specific kind of achievement. But that for many others this isn't really the reason for playing. That there must still be some mix of challenge and reward, some sense of accomplishment, but that it can take many different forms because we are, well, very different, and what we want out of video games is different. I can remember how this has gone for me, personally, as I drifted away from the games that required high levels of technical skill and toward games that rewarded different things. I am not a very technical player. I'm a patience player. I like things that reward being meticulous. So like JRPGs that allow you level up dozens of characters (thank you, Suikoden) and that don't really have time limits. But I just find so much of what this column says interesting. Video games might be a much smaller part of my life than they used to be, but video game theory is something that I am very much fascinated by. If you are too, then definitely check out this piece!


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