Strange Horizons has a treat to close out March. That's right, Samovar has officially arrived, and with it a pair of translated stories and a translated poem. Plus, you know, the other outstanding work from the regular issue (which also includes a translated story). Sadly, for time reasons, I am skipping the reprint, but I do encourage everyone to go and check that out. What's here is gorgeous, though, at times bleak but with an unrelenting current of hope and empathy and reaching out. These are pieces that ask us not only to survive but to stand up. To preach. To inspire. And what results are some amazing pieces of SFF. So yeah, without further ado, the reviews!
|Art by Sishir Bommakanti|
"Terra Nullius" by Hanuš Seiner, translated by Julie Nováková (6547 words)
This is a beautiful and rather haunting story that follows a dramatic confrontation, but only along its peripheral. The story explores the vast worlds inside of alien beings, where one human is diving over and over again to try and find the key to human survival in the face of an ever-adapting enemy. It’s a story of alien invasion, and a sort of invasion that humanity cannot hold out forever against, these aliens capable of taking their experiences and creating a sort of illusory world for their next generation to adapt safe and better, to learn how better to conquer and spread. And the main character of the story seems the first able to slip inside these worlds to study them and also to try and turn them against their purpose. Because these aliens once they emerge from these cocoons, are rigid and unlearning. They act. They fight. They die. Any change only occurs amoung the children, the young who are isolated, and I just love this mechanic of the story, how it mirrors the way that humans are raised and how many of us learn, and how many of us are trained into rigidity, into not being able to learn and adapt to new circumstances. And fuck, when viewed like that it’s a hitting story about trying to break this echo-chamber of conditioned abuse that just prepares people for war. That makes people into something less than community, into something almost less than human. And now, yes, that is itself a dangerous track but it does speak to the question of what people are if they lose their curiosity and their compassion. What happens when people are so trained and programed just for conflict, just to believe that their illusion is real? There’s a lot going on in the story and it’s nicely built to show the depth of these illusions, how it gets into everything. How these aliens are taught how to act and how to hate and how to fight and that really the only hope for the future is to reach into those worlds and disrupt them, try to push empathy and understanding in there while the young aliens are still capable of learning and breaking out of their destructive cycles. It’s a story that really dives into illusions and isolation and how the young and conditioned by the older generations. It’s chilling and yet not without a spark of hope. An amazing read!
"Wither and Blossom" | "Oka Ja Kukinto" by (and translated by) Suvi Kauppila (2060 words)
This is a tender and moving story about sisters and about belonging. About fantasies and reality and how sometimes what is more real isn't what is grounded in what people accept as the real world. It's a portal fantasy in many ways, where the main character visited the Other place often with her sister, who I read as autistic or on the autism spectrum. The story is also tinged in sadness and loss, the main character making a decision early on that brings her away from her sister and locks her out of the fantasy world that they shared. And I like how the story explores this world and how the main character slowly comes to terms with her loss while never really leaving it behind her. This loss still touches her, through everything, still informs how she moves through the "real" world, and I love how she becomes a storyteller to try and match the power of stories that her sister had, love how she never really gave up on that world even when she was cut off from it. And I love how, as old age settles in, she makes the decision to return and find her sister. The metaphor of the story is heavy, and the setting is one that bears the scars of war and loss, but it's also a lovely piece that slowly and carefully brings the main character through the dark woods of doubt and reality to find a more important truth in a place that is fantasy but still "real." How happy the story is depends on a how you read it, though, and how linked to death you feel this fantasy world is. For me, the connections to death can't really be ignored, but the Other place still feels real to me, more than a dream and more than an escape. And as such I think the piece remains hopeful even as it deals with some bleak and heavy themes. And whatever the case, it's a beautiful read that you should definitely check out!
"Faces and Thoughts" | "څېرې او اندېښنې" by Abdul Wakil Sulamal, translated by James Caron (3490 words)
This is a rather strange story that takes the shape of a moral story, or a sort of parable. In some ways it feels to me like The Emperor's New Clothes, because it involves a man of power and influence trying to force his vision of the world onto everyone, and on how people around him refuse to tell him the truth because of his power, because he can (and would) have them killed for it. It focuses on this Sir and his insecurity at examining some photo albums from his past. He sees how he is now and sees an old, unhappy man, and that vision of himself is unacceptable. He refuses to believe in it because he doesn't think he should feel that way. He thinks that having the power and influence should make him happy, and now that he's getting older there seems to be this feeling that his life should be worth it, that his power should have bought happiness. And I love how he can't tell, how he relies on everyone else to tell him how things are. He has grown so used to letting other people do his thinking for him that he can't see himself anymore, just his reflection in their eyes, just the fear they have of him. And yet seeing the actual way he looks fills him with rage. I like how the story slowly builds that and how it shows an alternative. How he is presented with a vision of himself that he likes, that he is drawn to, except that he also feels that it demeans him by implying that power is not a good, that it doesn't bring happiness. It's a story that moves very well, that gets into the head of this man in order to show his many reflections, to show the ways he has twisted himself and been twisted by power and corruption. And it's another great read!
"If I Told You" by Gabriel Noel
This poem preambles itself with two quotes that the piece itself unifies into a single lingering message. At least, the poem to me is about trust, and about the artificial being passed off as genuine, as the genuine being inveigled and obfuscated to benefit a message of inequality and inequity. The language is alive throughout, painting a picture of cold streets and vast distances. There is a sense throughout of a desert that can been made, not out of sand but out of misery and oppression. That this desert stretches wherever it needs to in order to keep certain people down, in order to further the cause and justification of racism and injustice. The poem seems occupied first and foremost with place, with landscape. And I think that works wonderfully into that first quote and the title of the poem. The question of whether a person would trust something that is unexpected. Is beauty and value found where it’s not supposed to flourish be met with joy or suspicion. Given the state of things now, the poem doesn’t exactly answer that question so much as it leads the reader to that final break, that moment of having reach beyond this metaphor, this hypothetical, and into the real world. To where people are being killed. To where beauty is being snuffed out. Stepped on. It’s a beautiful poem and one that challenges the reader, or challenged me at least, to ask after what I trust. What I’m suspicious of. What I don’t want to believe. The poem asks how we judge, and if perhaps we’re doing it all wrong. It’s a great read!
Okay I love the premise of this poem, which imagines the thoughts of the Curiosity rover upon landing on Mars. It's a piece that reminds me of the romance of space exploration, the way that we want to believe that there is something hidden on Mars. Not just because it would be cool but because we think ourselves as important, that this is something for us to discover, that Earth would not have some boring neighbor or sibling planet. The poem deals with the central disappointment of actually getting close enough to touch Mars, that it erases a lot of the mystery and the romance, and that in many ways it reminds us that our situation among the stars is not secure. That it isn't all that difficult to imagine that we might end up like Mars. When we see the Red Planet, are we seeing our future, or a past that never was. And the rover doesn't really answer that question. It seems disappointed but some of that seems to be because curiosity inspires fantasy, inspires these stories about what Mars might be. About its role and what it can show us. And when the explanations all start to fall together, without the magic that we hoped for, curiosity can turn sour. And I just like how the poem shows this situation so clearly, the anticipation for reaching out to this new world but also the hesitation because, once reached, all the bright hopes get stripped away and what is left seems...boring. Even then, though, I think the poem also asks that we don't discount Mars for appearing boring, that our curiosity has to deepen, that we need to pay attention to the planet all around us even as we look outward to the galaxy. Indeed!
"Conjurations and Speculations: Preaching to the Choir " by Andrea Hairston
Okay yes to all of this essay. I love how directly it addresses a core hypocrisy among people engaged in concern trolling and those who think that it’s the fault of the oppressed that those engaged in oppression aren’t comfortable with the idea of justice. Oh glob has this been one of the most obvious ways to spot someone only interested in the abstract of diversity or inclusion or social justice, especially after the election. I can’t speak for everyone but I know I can’t be the only one who has seen a spike in arguments about why liberals aren’t doing enough to reach out to conservatives. That it’s the fault of diverse voices that people take comfort in racism, misogyny, and exploitation. That if only trans people didn’t care about bathrooms. Or women about equal pay. Or people of color about police violence. And all this PC Culture being shoved down poor, rural, hard working people’s throats, amirite? Outrageous. This essay does an amazing job of showing just how ridiculous and insideous it is to demand that those already victimized by the system, already erased from popular culture, engage directly in that same erasure to be taken seriously. Oh, people will listen as long as you talk like them. As long as you look like them. As long as you don’t say anything they disagree with. Fuck, climate science is considered a debate in many places, so obviously we have to wait and consider “both sides” while the seas rise and the corals die. Oh yes, let’s debate whether or not injustice is “a real thing” while people die, are gunned down, find every door of opportunity locked to them. And the essay pushes all of that aside, revels in the power of stories to preach to the choir. To preach. To provoke people to stand up, to march, to take action. To inpsire and to affirm because so many desperately need that affirmation but they also need to do something. So yes to this essay. It is beautiful and you should all read it as soon as possible!