|Art by Random Dreaming|
“A Boy and His Cat-Bean” by Kyle E. Miller (4921 words)
This is a rather sweet but dark story about a boy and his cat-bean and the adventures they go on, mostly because the boy fears that the cat-bean isn’t eating. It unfolds in a world lush with strangeness and sensation but one that defies most ways of placing it. It’s a bit like a fairy tale, where the world is magical and each area seems to follow its own set of rules, and yet there is also a sense of decay here, a sense that something large and thriving once existed here and does no longer, and in its place there is this canvas on which Cloud and Sparks paint their lives. I love the way the story retains so much of its innocence in the face of the weird and dark that it uncovers, in the face of this quest to find Sparks something to eat that really takes on so many different meanings and layers. They move through a world that is populated by people who consume, who either strive to live in balance with or dominance over their food. The different places that Cloud travels to, trying to find Sparks something to eat, all seem fraught and dangerous, and yet together the two find ways forward, save each other and push each other, even when the purpose of their quest seems a bit strange, like the reason they are journeying is because they don’t know enough to stay still. Or, more likely, the point is that they live in this cycle of growth and decay. The passage of time and, more importantly, of seasons is huge here, and the story establishes that Cloud is a boy of early summer, and in many ways is stuck there. When time passes, when they pass out of summer and into something else, it means big changes both for Cloud and Sparks. And while it’s not a very happy story, while it does hit very hard toward the end, it’s also about the need and power of change and cycles, that things don’t end necessarily so much as they are reborn, and that there’s a beauty in that as well, even if there’s also a deep pain. It’s a fascinating story and a delightfully weird one that captures a sort-of-juvenile feel with a weighty darkness and a core of friendship and care.A great read!
“Last Stand at Cougar Annie’s” by Scott R Jones (4553 words)
This is a rather difficult story for me to read, and one that deals with the apocalypse and specifically with the idea of a Y-chromosome-destroying virus. This is something that isn’t exactly new in SFF, having been imagined in works before, but it’s one that remains wholly original. At the heart of the narrative is a settlement of women based out of Cougar Annie’s and led by Pure Helen, a woman as violent and competent as she is a bit deranged, a believer in a religion of the Earth and rather strict with the people she watches over. There’s a lot to take in during the story, where most men have become Andy, quasi-monsters to attack whoever they can find. Helen is a warrior, a killer, a hunter—but also a protector, and it’s difficult to argue with her passion, even if her methods can be brutal. It’s a brutal world, though, and the story does a good job examining how that impacts the people trying to live and how they imagine survival. Any tale of post-apocalypse and definitely those that feature chromosome-specific viruses where procreation becomes incredibly difficult tend to push people into thinking about reproduction. How it works and how much it must be a requirement in the face of possible human extinction. And the story does take a rather measured approach between the vision offered by those survivors from Seattle, who feel like they have solved the problem, and Helen, who is much more resistant to anything that resembles the old systems that created the problem in the first place. There is no real right or wrong here, no clear moral judgement the story makes, and I appreciate that. That help is coming from the same quarter as the damage originated from is not something to just be brushed away. And that the tactics involved speak of coercion and violence and manipulation, even to try and promote harmony, leaves the story a very complex map of a world after the end of the world, and the choices that the main character makes are understandable even as the realization sinks in that there might be no right decision, no real winning when the game is already so lost. But yeah, it’s a fascinating story and definitely worth checking out!
“The Fourth” by Naomi Manao (3082 words)
This is another rather difficult story but also another, like the first, that rings with a sort of magic and strangeness that speaks to fairy tales and moral stories. It features a woman named Sorrow who lives under a curse so that she remains alone in her house and, time after time, loses those who might break her isolation. It’s a curse that pushes her to forsake all contact with others, something that doesn’t quite work out when a man, a suitor, refuses to be chased off, and sets himself down to help her, one way or another. There is an interesting nested story going on as well, the mystery of what happened to Sorrow to put her into this situation, and I like that it’s one that carries with it a mythic feel, like it might have happened or not but is still true either way, that the weight of that truth is heavy and lends to the story a lot of its sadness and tragedy. It, too, is a story of cycles, as many of these pieces have been, and views birth not only as a beginning but as a continuation. Here we see that with each birth Sorrow attempts to break the cycle of imprisonment and loneliness that rule her life. With each attempt at new life she is trying to find a way not just to replicate what has come before but to find a better way forward. Sorrow is, then, not seeking just for a child but for a way of ensuring that the same old hurts and abuses are not passed down. It takes a hope in the future to allow the future to have hope, which is an interesting avenue for the story to explore in my opinion. I like that Sorrow, even suffering under the curse, can find that there is a way forward, that even through the weight of her situation, the pain of the constant losing of those around her, she can hold to something and build something and live. And that eventually a way comes clear and she can begin to break down the toxic cycles and find ones that work better. It’s a moving and piercing story full of pain but also inspiration. Another fine read!
“Marta Ranunculus Wolf Calf” by Gillian Barlow Graham (2438 words)
Well this is an odd story, and I say that as a good thing. It’s a story that moves and moves in such a way as to defy convention or logic. Here there is a family of a mother, Ranunculus, and her three children, living in a dying town, subject to death, subject to the toxic hand of a toxic man, always drifting and changing, but also always anchored by each other. By family. Which is what the story becomes about most for me—family. It’s also about how difficult it is to live in a dying world. For the family, life is a bit of a struggle, after all. They don’t exactly fit in, and them being isolated make them easy targets for other people. [SPOILERS] For instance, their house is set on fire and two of them die. The other two drown trying to find some way through their grief. That the story doesn’t end there is interesting but the story never really turns around to be entirely cheery. There are moments of joy throughout, right next to the moments of sorrow and loss. The family is one that mostly gets along but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other. Nor does it mean that they can help each other all that much. Though dead, they do eventually come back as clay and make a new life for themselves that is happy, but that is also brief. There is no real justice for them, no real relief from the suffering. Because they are vulnerable they are subject to the whims of others, must rely on a family of merpeople to craft them a body, and even then it’s a body that cannot last, that cracks and breaks. They love each other, but that love is never really able to get them out and above the difficulties that plague them. Still, I think the story explores the ways that people can still come together, how their joys and their triumphs, however limited, are still beautiful and a sort of miracle in the face of the ugliness all around them. They still strive to do good, by each other and in a larger sense, and in trying they do find a kind of magic, even if it’s not one that can really save them. It’s a wrenching and strange story, and you should certainly spend some time with it!
“Jonathan’s Heaven Has Many Cats” by Rachael K. Jones (4545 words)
Aww. This is a story with a great premise and an amazing scope and even as it cleaves into some dark territory, it is also delightfully fun and funny. The story stars Ruby, who at the onset of the story is dying while her son waits outside, and in many ways the story boils down to this one moment, to all the pain and the anger and the outrage at it, that it is allowed to happen by some god, by some creator. Which is what Ruby learns when she gets up in heaven, that her world was created by someone, and that in many ways he was responsible for what happened to her. If the story merely ended there, it might seem like a shallow exercise, so it’s good that the piece goes SO MUCH deeper than that, exploring the implications of godhood and heaven and the role that Ruby could play in pushing the universe further along toward the unknown and brilliant future. Because in these heavens that link everything together, there are factions who believe in two very different philosophies regarding the afterlife, regarding godhood. [SPOILERS] One, led by a man named Ian, is all about revenge, all about finding the gods who allowed suffering to happen and punishing them. Elaborately. Which is a rather enticing option, given that Ruby is still so raw after what happened to her. After the injustice of her death. The other philosophy, though, promotes growth and attempts at forgiveness and progress. And I love what the story does with that, where it takes Ruby and how she confronts the god in charge of her world. And oh glob when the cat thing was explained I just stared and then laughed and then felt something small inside me break and it’s just perfect. Seriously, this is just a wonderful story with a beating heart and the fate of all universes hanging in the balance. The question is as always how to react to pain and I love what the story provides for that. It is an amazing read and a perfect way to close out the issue!