|Art by Veli Nyström|
“The Mouth of the Oyster” by Adam-Troy Castro & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (5847 words)
This is a rather ponderous and philosophical story about sight, in its various types and shades, as it centers a blind man and his wife, wealthy merchants who have live through a harrowing ordeal. A plague passed through their land, leaving many damaged, not least of whom the narrator and his wife, Li-Fan. The narrator lost his sight and Li-Fan a good deal of her mobility, but both were fortunate to have survived, and even profited from the scourge, though they have given most of their profits to charity, not feeling right about benefiting from so much suffering. Their relationship is a loving one, both depending on the other and supporting the other, helping each other in all things. And then Li-Fan brings home a man who makes eyes. Eyes that see. Not as normal eyes would be specialized so that they can see one specific aspect of the world, from evil to sunrises to beauty. And in the question of what the narrator would want to see, the story twists and turns. I like how it frames this question and more, how it imagines how these various kinds of sight would impact the narrator. How the temptation to see things, to see secret or invisible layers of reality, is something that doesn’t really add to happiness. That, in truth, these things can spring from greed, can drive a person in distrust and envy and hate. That they can poison relationships and sew discord. There’s some slight playing into traditional gender roles with this, but I think the relationship between the narrator in his wife is interesting and complex, a source of great strength and healing for characters who have survived and have to make their way through a world where they have already had their eyes opened to how awful and random life can be. And I like how they find their own wisdom not in the promise of magic eyes but in their own experiences, trusting each other and their own judgment, though the narrator can’t seem to completely resist trying out one of the special eyes. But it’s a slow and moving story, told as a sort of fable or parable, about being careful what you wish for in many ways, but also just a rather lovely quiet and straight-forward fantasy tale. A nice read!
“Woe and Other Remedies” by Michael Anthony Ashley (7114 words)
This story does a good job of marrying a very strange and rather opulent setting and feel with the raw desperation of the need to feel, the desire to desire. The main character, Gama III, is a veteran of the greatest parties in this vast and decadent empire where people don’t seem to die, where wealthy grows and grows, and people the people are toxic, poison, with hearts that rarely beat and bodies that have largely forgotten not only the capacity of joy but the ability to hurt. They pursue feelings as the highest of things, but those they can obtain, Thrill and Anticipation and Fear, they can only get with the help of artists who design elaborate death-parties. And in these places the wealthy and powerful and, most importantly, bored, come to shrug off the constraints of having nothing really to live for. They are the idle rich but made into a sort of species, the setting like a fever-dream interpretation of Victorian prejudices, where slaves are literal beasts and the nobility seem like monsters, interested only in trying to wring as much feeling as they can from their meaningless intrigues and parties. That they actually come together with the knowledge that many of them will die is odd but the story does a great job of wrapping it in the nature of these people, in their society structure, and it does an even better job of showing how fragile it is, how hollow. The pursuit is supposed to make them feel alive, powerful, vibrant, and in some ways it does. But it’s something that depends on the constant expansion, the constant increase, and the diminishing returns. The ambiguity of the artist herself here is great, too, and I like how it almost seems like she’s playing a different game, one so wrapped in the hatred of these people who she genuinely wants to see dead that she cannot cope with how they miss the point. And the ending delivers a nicely powerful message of the idea of being genuine. That in this place, in this environment, genuine feeling is a taboo. Instead things need to be about the show and the excess, about the wealthy and ridiculousness of the situation, to insulate everyone from actually feelings. It’s a weird story but I think, ultimately, one well worth spending some time with, for all that it’s a rather uncomfortable read. So yeah, check it out!