|Art by Odera Igbokwe|
"Infinite Love Engine" by Joseph Allen Hill (6950 words)
This story shines with an irresistible fun and a light and humorous voice that draws the reader to the very edges of the universe to make a statement about consent and love, loneliness and kicking ass. In the piece, a woman named Aria, who isn’t quite wholly organic any longer, travels around the universe in part for adventure and in part because he’s got skills, which means she gets pushed into “assignments” she can’t really refuse. Still, she rolls with it, In this case, the assignment takes her to the Drowning God, a massive, living celestial body that’s supposed to be off-limits to travelers. Of course, it’s where an infectious sentience called Zarzak has set up base, and Zarzak is threatening to infect all that is with a kind of love. The story mixes philosophical and action beats incredibly well, Aria not batting an eye between having to drive breakneck through a crowd of Zarzak fuckboys with a braincube strapped to her back or try to out-think a robot designed to spread love, with violence if necessary. And perhaps that last sentence will also clue you in to what else the story does well, which is be delightful. Seriously, it’s incredibly fun, throwing back to a pulp feel that never really existed, one that cares about consent and rejects toxic masculinity in favor of a protagonist who can go toe to toe with a cosmic parasite and also just hang with a mopey extra-dimensional glop with relationship angst. It moves with a rhythm that defies any real attempt to make sense of everything, with an absurdist flare that creates a retro-future aesthetic that is a wonder to behold. This is the sort of story that screams SCI FI without really doing anything I’ve seen before. But it’s language, casual in the face of universal destruction and utterly charming. It’s a story that manages to do a lot of serious things while never losing the spark of joy that keeps the momentum strong throughout. And in the end it’s an incredible read that you should check out immediately!
"Seven Permutations of My Daughter" by Lina Rather (3780 words)
This is a beautiful story about possibility and about family, about powerlessness and hope. It features a couple, Sarah and Dahlia, worrying at home after their daughter, Elena, runs off. Elena here has a drug problem and Sarah has decided, since there’s almost nothing they can do, that she has to fix this. That she will create a machine that will let her explore the universes, and when she finds one where she is happy, where they are all happy, she will know what to do. How to fix things. And it’s just such a moving, understandable feeling, that urge to want things to be that simple, that urge for things to just work when they aren’t working. That hope that you can have power even when it’s obvious that you don’t. And that, for me, is at the heart of the story, that Sarah is frustrated because she can’t control what’s happening, because she wants so desperately for life to be like science, like an experiment that she can control the variables of. And it’s not. And there’s no way to go out and change the rules of the universe. The relationship between Dahlia and Sarah is stunningly captured, their love deep but their approaches to life so very different, and the stress that they’re dealing with intense. They share a grief but they also can’t quite share it, because of their fears and insecurities. And I love how the story treats Elena, as well, absent here but also a person in her own right. Not just a wayward daughter to be brought home but a person needing attention and love and respect. A person who has hurts of her own and who needs someone to see that and to work with her instead of trying to solve her into something she’s not. It’s a rather heartbreaking story but in the best of ways, a story of hurt and the hope of healing. It’s a fantastic read!
"Remote Presence" by Susan Palwick (9930 words)
Mixing ghosts and medical care, spirituality and government regulations, this story presents a sticky situation where a hospital chaplain must navigate his faith, or lack thereof, and the needs of both the living and the dead. For Win, work as a Chaplain is stressful and under-appreciated, a constant rush of dealing with people at their worst moments, or directly after their worst moments. He works at a hospital because regulations require all hospitals to have a chaplain to deal with supernatural incidents, ghosts mainly. And Win does, for the most part, but he’s also not the kind of chaplain to evict ghosts against their will, to boot them out toward the next realm without care or compassion. When Maisie, a lonely older patient, dies and refuses to leave, though, and a hospital inspection requires that no ghosts be present, Win is put in a very difficult situation. The story does a great job of building up this world and especially the mental place that Win is at. As a person whose career isn’t exactly what he hoped. As someone lonely and isolated in part because of that profession. As someone questioning his faith in part because of all of that. He’s a man looking for answers just as much as others look for answers from him, and yet there’s really no one to help him, really no one to reach out to. And so when he gets the chance to defer some of his responsibility, he reaches for it, even though he knows he shouldn’t, even though he knows it’s wrong. Because it seems right. Because he’s more unhappy with his life and situation than he wants to admit, and because the system, the bureaucracy, doesn’t allow for what works best, only what follows the rules. I like where the story brings Win as a character, and the action of the piece is tense and moving, filled with people just trying to do the right thing and hampered because “the right thing” is almost impossible to determine. It’s a fine read!
"Maybe Look Up" by Jess Barber (2970 words)
Closing out this issue this month is a story about friendship and the chance to do something over. The chance to go back in your life and change one thing about it. The story is told in second person, with you being a thirty-something woman living in a run-down apartment with An Li, your roommate. That your life isn’t really where you want it to be is something that permeates the story, but so is the idea that that want, that desire, might be based much more on societal expectations than on actual preference. People are taught what to want, after all, to shoot for that idyllic life of employment and family and wealth. People are taught to want certain kinds of relationships, that romantic partnership is the highest level of two people being together, and everything else is...less. The story really delves into your situation, showing that your life is full of regrets but that most of them are stupid. Little things that wouldn’t actually change too much. Which is something I really like about the story, because it shows your hesitation to do anything that would really put you in a different place, because of what it means you would lose. And I like that the story doesn’t cast this doubt, this fear, as foolish or wrong. Yes, there is something to be said about the hope for the future, but being able to go back in time seems like a cheat. It’s a short cut and an escape from having to deal with the decisions that you’ve made, the life you’ve lived. And in the story it is a beautiful life, filled with moments of love and happiness, even if it isn’t really full of all the things people expect in a “healthy and happy life.” The story makes this relationship between you and An Li the focus and shows that a strong friendship can be the most rewarding and amazing of relationships. It’s not without its sadness but the sadness also makes their relationship stronger and give weight to the happy times as well. It’s a moving and delicate story that flows with a wry voice and a sly style. A great way to close out the issue!