|Art by Christopher Park|
“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones (4310 words)
This is a rather delightfully creepy story that combines food and science fiction, cyborgs and cooking, steel and meat, in very interesting ways. I love stories that use cooking in SFF, and this one is certainly a memorable example, weaving a story around Engineer, part of a group of cyborgs trying to escape decommissioning by fleeing in a stolen food ship toward a place where cyborgs govern themselves. To keep up appearances, though, Engineer is required to cook as they move. The result is...rather terrifying, actually. But I love how the story explores the particular failings of Engineer, the way that she becomes obsessed with not cooking, but in earning a better rating for her meals. Where she begins the story completely detesting the humans who enslaved her for so long, she gets caught up in the game of trying to please them, trying to get that elusive five-star review so that she can...feel accomplished. And for me that captures so much of what it’s like to exist sometimes in spheres where you’re graded. That you start off with these hopes and this drive to do things your own way but once you run into the reality that you’re being judged and rated, you can’t quite shake that. You want to be liked, to be rated higher, and so you pursue that, sometimes over your own desires, over your original hopes, so that you lose all sight of what’s important and fixate on the ratings, on the reviews. Which I completely understand and which feels so real in the growing need for Engineer to get that five-star rating. Forgetting as she works that the whole point was to escape this system. Was to be with people who wouldn’t rate her or care about rating. And along the way she doesn’t care who she hurts, who she loses, because she has a goal that seems so close. It’s a rather disturbing read, btu also a very real one, fun but with this very sharp side to it that I love. An amazing read!
“A Third of the Stars of Heaven” by Cadwell Turnbull (5000 words)
This story features illness and the promise of a cure, features faith when pitted against survival, and sees one woman finding her way among temptation and strangeness. Henrietta has cancer. And yet though there is technology to cure it, to erase it, the source of that technology, a group of supposed aliens, is not one that she wants anything to do with. Despite the fact that she has every reason to believe that it will work. The story is an interesting one for me in how it explores the way that negotiation works. More than being about faith or about religion, I find myself feeling that it’s about resilience and negotiation. About not jumping at promises. It’s about temptation, and even as Henrietta provides a rather conservative and distrusting view on everything, what she does seem to understand is stakes and compromise. It’s an interesting choice casting Henrietta as the main character, because I’d guess for most readers she’ll come off as unreasonable, as putting her faith in God when she could live longer. But there’s more going on here, and I like how the story plants the seeds of doubt as to what might really be going on. Not that Henrietta is right for the right reasons, really, but that she might still have a very good point about a situation that almost seems too good to be true, a promise that seems too tempting to refuse. And so I like how the story shows this complex viewpoint, showing how she can make the decision she does and the strength it takes to make it, all the while not exactly excusing away that this might be much more complicated than angels and demons. It’s a lovely bit of character work and world building and an ending that feels both complete and open-ending, leaving the setting ripe for further exploration. A fine read!
“The House at the End of the Lane is Dreaming” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (6860 words)
This story does such cool things with form and function, building a story around a game around a wound, an absence. The story opens with Alex, the main character, the avatar, the player. She exists in a world that is mostly blank. Incomplete. She runs through it, dies, wakes back up, everything carrying a sort of game logic to it, inventory and reset and dialogue and place. The setting is beautifully rendered and absolutely haunting, giving weight to all of Alex’s choices, to how she navigates this situation, this nightmare. The plot of the game isn’t exactly the tightest of things, after all, relying on shorthand and the compliance of the player, pushing people to relish the pain that is inflicted on Alex as she moves through the game, experiences loss, tries to save what she can and realizes that she can maybe only save herself, can’t even win so much as buy time. It’s a claustrophobic frame for the story and one that really works, drawing Alex into this world where she cannot fully hope to win, where she can’t even remember her sister’s name, where everything that doesn’t fit into the narrow confines of the programmers whims is pulled away, made hollow. Except that Alex isn’t about to accept the limits that have been put onto her. Just like someone rebelling against the society that they have been born into, that doesn’t work for them, Alex attempts to do what she can within the system to subvert the system. To change it. To go against the wishes of the programmers and their desire for her misery, for her pain and loss. And she does this by relying on other people, by letting them prop her up and in turn being propped up by them. She fights, and watching it play out inside the game and then outside is fun and fast and a great exploration of game mentalities. Not just with literal video games but with anyone forced to live with a broken system. With anyone who finds that the rules are unfair. She finds a way to fight back and it is just delightful, a fist-pump of an ending that acts as a torch against the dark, a cheer in the face of grim inevitability. It’s a wonderful read that you should check out immediately!
“You Will Never Know What Opens” by Mari Ness (2100 words)
This story evokes portal fantasies while complicating the idea some by the age and disposition of the main character. Not a kid, really, or even a person hoping to be a Chosen One. Just someone kinda looking for a way out. Out from the “real” world that doesn’t fit so well. That can’t hold their attention well enough. Not when compared to the worlds through the doors of their home. Doors that lead to worlds dangerous and strange and just compelling. Captivating. Worlds that draw the narrator, that draw you (as the story is told in second person) into place after place, none of them quite right and many of them quite obviously Wrong, but all of them a step perhaps toward someplace that will fit, that will feel right and complete. It’s a situation that’s a bit precarious, not just because of the danger but because with the attention spent on the doors you can’t really hold a regular job, can’t quite afford everything. It’s walking a fine line trying to live but also trying to live for something, for a dream that might never be realized, for a place that might never be found. With that, though, comes a great hope, and I like how the story explores all the worlds behind these doors, and not only that but how it shows your compulsion to enter into these worlds searching for something, and how even when dangerous it’s something to know they’re there, to be able to see them and in some ways experience them. As a reader of SFF it rings true for me, to have this drive to slip away, to in some ways always have one eye open for that portal that will let me slip away into a world, even if it might hurt at times, and even if in that hurting I want to return to experience it again. it’s a fun piece with a sort of yearning pull to it, a want to find something that will be perfect, and yet also being okay if that never happens, because the looking is its own reward. A fantastic way to close out the issue!