|Art by Sunny Efemena|
"Cordyceps" by Alvin Kathembe (4892 words)
This story is…quite the way to kick off the issue, with horror and fungus and the creeping dread that the world might be taking steps to make sure that human population doesn’t climb any higher. The story focuses on an incident at a hotel where things have been overbooked, where a mycologist who had been studying in the Congo arrives and isn’t exactly himself. I like how the story shows the clash of cultures here as something that obscures what’s really going on. Everyone involves just assumes that the behavior, though odd, is due to the man in question being from somewhere else and grumpy at the situation. And I like the way that the story slowly moves, disturbing enough certainly if just the facts are taken, that there’s this incident at a hotel and a man is dead. And yet beneath that there is a lot more going on, and the story begins to unfold like a bio-thriller, with science finding out perhaps too late what nature has cooked up. The way the story jumps around from head to head, too, gives the story a touch of the same feel as the contagion, the way that it spreads, the way that it works on people at their deepest levels, changing their behavior. It works on so many fears that we have, that we are not in control, that among us there are those who have been infected with something alien and hostile. It’s a creepy piece with a great voice and flow and ahh, I just want to like wash my hands a dozen times and wear a breathing mask at all times because fuck, yeah. It’s a great read with a perfect ending and it’s a fantastic way to kick off the issue!
"What if I fall" by Anne Dafeta (2204 words)
This is a story about traditions and expectations. About Udeme, a young woman who has grown up as a pledge, knowing that there would come a time when she might die in order to further a ritual of wind and protection. It’s not something she’s fond of, this forcing of children to risk death in order to fulfill some arcane obligation. It’s something that has killed so many and something that others don’t seem to understand because it’s not them who are pledged. It’s her. And waiting in the wind to be made to step off a cliff to see if she falls or flies, she finds that her mind is drawn back to memories, to the many people hurt by this practice, and to how she doesn’t want to be where she is. And I like that the story shows how people confront the problematic aspects of their communities and cultures, the way that they can sometimes see (especially when they are the ones being victimized by the practices) just how unjust some things are. Udeme knows, in essence, that the mark on her hand is not to affirm her but to destroy her. That she is supposed to be killed by it because she doesn’t believe in it and the chosen person is supposed to believe. Is supposed to pass along this burden to the next generation. And faced with that Udeme is in a great position to do something from within. To use her position, as unfortunate as it is, to resist. To think of a better way. To reform. The story isn’t about getting rid of all traditions but it does stand firmly against injustice and unfairness, against tradition merely for tradition’s sake when changing could mean saving lives. It’s a neat piece with a great magic to it and a nice world-building. Udeme is a strong character put into a terrible situation and her grief and anger and bitterness are apparent throughout, but so is her spirit and stubbornness. And to see the story play out as it does is joyous and affirming and this is another great read!
"The Strange Case of Mary Carter" by Toby Bennett (4980 words)
Okay then, this is a rather disturbing story about difference and about predators. About a young woman named Mary and her father trying to fit in in a village and not having the best time of it. Mary is, after all, an albino, and more than that even she’s a woman who’s vulnerable because she’s an outsider and because her father can’t protect her anymore, too lost to alcohol. She’s being pursued by a group of men and one in particular who has decided that he owns her, that he should own her. The story sets Mary up as different in many ways, not just an albino but also dealing with extreme sensation. Sights and sounds and smells effect her, and because of this it’s difficult for her to fight off her attackers. Even so, the story is more about the ways that she is let down, the ways that the men in her life don’t see her as important or fully human. She’s property to them, something to be used and abused and little more. Once the story gets into its speculative territory, though, it’s revealed that Mary’s true nature is something else entirely. The story does a good job of showing the uncomfortable way that Mary is stalked and preyed upon. The way that these men seek to strip away all her agency. Watching the confrontations is difficult but does show the ways that men seek to intimidate and hurt women, the ways that they seek to control and victimize Mary. That she gets the chance to turn the tables here at the end isn’t exactly a victory then, more the culmination of this sort of mentality, that if people treat women like prey then there might come a time when they aren’t the strongest. When something will be preying upon them. And it’s another creepy piece with a great mood to it and neat twist.
"I Do" by Prossy Bibangambah (2687 words)
This story follows very nicely on the heels of the last not really because of subject but because it breaks a lot of the tension and uncomfortable tension with a lot of humor and fun. The story opens as Karen is at the altar on her wedding day, having just done her vows with her new husband, Malcolm. And then he bursts into flames. The story just drops the reader into this situation and from there things get rather weird rather quickly. The story moves with a frantic pace mostly from Karen’t point of view as she is herded by Malcolm’s twin sister Rowena away from an angry and confused mob and toward a sort-of explanation. The story doesn’t linger on too much, not really explaining things but for the light touches where necessary. Instead it focuses on the immediacy of the moments, on Karen’s series of reactions as she moves from emotionally wrecked to confused to angry to exhausted. It’s a very untreatable string of experiences and it makes for a fast and charming read. Here the story pulls away from Karen at the last moment to focus a bit on the what comes next, and for me a lot of the fun involves that wink that the story gives to the readers, a sort of “if you thought that was intense, just wait” that promises to make things even more interesting going forward. And it’s just a rather great piece that captures this moment of suddenly having the world pulled out from under you and having to figure out what happens next. Plus “Aliens do not come to Uganda” is probably one of the best and funniest lines of dialogue I have read recently. So definitely check out this story because it’s an immensely fun read!
"Typewriter" by Rèlme Divingu (420 words)
This is far and away the shortest of the stories in this issue and also one with the most directed focus. The story is told as a talk-show in the future, where more and more people are trying to integrate with machines, with artificial intelligences and programs and things like that. The main idea of the story is about using computers to aide in the creative writing process, where certain parts of the story can be filled in by algorithm and code rather than human cognition. It’s an idea that’s common in science fiction and especially now that such programs are getting more and more sophisticated. And the idea of computer-derived creative fiction isn’t farfetched. It speaks to a changing way that we experience fiction, a change that is already underway. The role of the writer has shifted over time, after all, and there’s a lot more performance surrounding it (through social media and such) than there has been. Throw in that a lot of the stories we tell can be interactive with the audience and the idea of a computer helping people write stories seems inevitable. The real question is how that will be monetized and made into some sort of new normal. But I’m getting ahead of the story, which imagines this world and new invention and then leaves it for the reader to figure out the implications, to imagine what this might be like. Is it a loss? Or is this progress? It’s a fascinating little story and well worth checking out!
"Underworld 101" by Mame Bougouma Diene (5113 words)
This story seems like a fitting way to close out the issue, as it returns to the horror that has carried through most of the stories. And, further, it is a piece that blurs the line between the main character of the story and the author, both of them Mame Bougouma Diene. The world-building here is intense and decidedly dark, a world of vast overpopulation where humanity is split between the surface and the Underground, where supposedly half the population lives. Bougouma in the story is a student in a university, or so he thinks, the world he inhabits full of holes in his memory, in the shapes of people that he knows. The school progresses as schools do, but there’s a sense that things aren’t quite right, that there’s this mix of magic and technology, that his world isn’t really what it seems. It’s something that he can’t count on other people to help with, because everyone else seems solid. But there’s the feeling that I got from the piece of this building dread. The world is one of vast inequality where Bougouma thinks that he might have a chance of escaping a difficult upbringing, but in a place where a great number of people become food, that hope seems just a bit doomed. Things seem almost too good, even when they seem awful, and Bougouma is haunted by the idea of his brother, who everyone seems to see and yet who never seems to appear. The story is broken up by small snippets of his brother trying to better himself, taking virtual classes, and as the piece progresses the nature of everything begins to intersect and bleed together. Reality and fiction crash in a way that moves beyond the main character, that moves into this entire world, into the nature of Bougouma’s struggles. The story seems to ask how life ignoring the injustices going on isn’t a sort of illusion, isn’t something pointed and dangerous, where you think you’re getting out, rising up, when in reality you’re sliding down a chute to…well, that would be telling. It’s a moving and beautifully imagined story that builds a great sense of paranoia and fear and then implies that even that might not be enough. It’s a wonderful read and a great cap to a fine issue!