“Superfluous Preferences” by Jenni Juvonen (644 words)
I very much hesitate at stories like this, for a number of reasons. As I read it, it centers a person, Mark, petitioning the captain of the vessel they both work on, Evie, to facilitate a sexual liaison. This in itself doesn’t seem odd in the setting, as there is always someone assigned to handle the sexual needs of the people on board, so that it doesn’t get in the way of their work. Only Mark has some strong preferences, which is seen as strange in the setting, as sexual preference seems to be something that isn’t encouraged in the face of the utility required for space travel. The reason that I hesitate is in part, though, that any attempt to extrapolate out sexual norms so that people with preferences at all are seen as perhaps discriminated against...seems to me to warn against a sort of Tolerance Police, that a focus on eliminating discrimination is in effect discrimination, and will invariably turn into a situation where difference & preference are censured. Further, the stories language and emphasis on genitals make me a bit uncomfortable, because it’s language that is used against trans people to deny them their identity. The tone is light and leans toward ridiculousness and humor, so perhaps I’m just being to sensitive, but as I read the story it walks a very fine line and for me it’s not entirely successful at staying on target, unless the target was a move to say that sexuality is all about what kind of genitals you prefer and so is a valid form of discrimination. And I really hope that’s not the target. In any event, I certainly recommend people make up their own minds about this story. Indeed.
“Swarm” by Sean Patrick Hazlett (1184 words)
This is a fairly straight forward but still gripping story about conflict and war, soldiers and sacrifice. It finds Captain Skaskiw, working covertly for the UN in a war-torn Ukraine, doing his best to stay alive and, in some way, make up for the death of his daughter. The prose is punchy and fast, weighed with a neat mix of sci fi idea and military tech. The action is intense even as the scenario doesn’t seem nearly as unbelievable as it should. The prospect of war breaking out between major powers on a global scale while still maintaining an intimacy and covert nature makes the story complex enough in its politics and implications while keeping things very grounded in the perspective of the main character and his remaining comrades. For some the use of a dead daughter to push him into what happens, to keep him noble and strong in the face of everything, might be a little heavy-handed, but I appreciated the way the main character was never really able to shake it, the way that it makes things so much more immediate when you can see something familiar even in the middle of a war zone. For most soldiers fighting foreign wars, there’s a sense that often they’re supposed to distance themselves as much as possible from the people. At least, this is a sentiment that comes up a lot in military SFF stories, where the soldiers are more aloof. But I like the way the story focuses on the soldiers finding a shared humanity and similarity to these children a reason to fight harder, to give more. Because without that, without seeing their own children in the children of war, how could they act morally? How could they not be monsters? So yeah, it’s a nice piece with lots of action and a gutting ending, though one that carried with it a certain sweetness. A fine read!
“An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” by Debbie Urbanski (1173 words)
This story reveals a trajectory. Of disaster. Of hope. Of the end of the world as we know it, or at the very least the end of humanity. In many ways it’s told in reverse, a maze where you get to start at the end and cruise back to the beginning, but there’s a weight to what’s happening, a sort of muted shock that the story manages by really sticking to the list format, only breaking slightly at times of offer a bit deeper of a take on a few points. Mostly, though, it’s about the things we’re doing and not doing to deal with the changing climate, with the ways that humans are impacting the Earth. And it shows the ways that we might act to try and combat climate change, while also closely noting what takes longer to change, and what matters the most. For me it’s a way of showing just how far many people will go to not have to act, the many ways that people attempt to punt on the issue, to push it off on their children and on their children’s children while at the same time not considering them when it comes to basically anything else. I love how the story highlights the way that people try to shrug off responsibility, by first denying that there’s a problem, then by trying to prevent anyone from acting on it, then by accepting that everyone is powerless against it. It’s the narrative that allows them the most power, the most of what they’ve gotten because they’ve benefitted so long on the exploitation of the natural world, the world that they were supposed to be caring for. It’s bleak and it’s dark but I do love how it shows these steps, and shows where we might be on this timeline. It’s a sort of call to action, because at the end of this timelines is, well, a very big end, and only by breaking from it can we hope to avoid that end of the line. To me, it pushes people to think of other ways, to try and nudge the tracks now that we do have a few more options, even if the time to have gotten out of this easier was a while ago. For me it’s a call to refuse the impulse to label the endeavor too hard or too late and just do things that we haven’t tried. But yeah, it’s a wonderfully understated story that hits hard. Go read it!
“Last Christmas” by Tim Maughan (2041 words)
This story imagines the end of the world in rather vivid detail, as experienced through the perspective of a man refusing to acknowledge it. It opens with childhood innocence, which is another word I guess for controlled ignorance, where there’s a situation going on that this man wants to keep from his daughter, Astrid. It’s interesting here that the story never really gives the main character nor his presumed partner a name. On level I read this as his view, as defining himself only in relation to his kid, so that he’s “Daddy.” On another level this seems to be the lie that he’s telling himself so that he doesn’t really have to face or deal with what’s going on. His partner is “the woman” to him, which helps to reinforce that this idea that he’s trying to sell himself that he’s doing this for his child, that this isn’t a completely selfish thing he’s doing. They live in a rather sealed off house, where the rest of the world is at a distance, where they only need to see it through a screen and even the images they do see that reveal a setting riddled with disaster and decline, he is able to recontextualize into something more pleasant. Of course, the real world can’t be kept at bay forever, and I liked how the story broke down when that moment came, how the structure of thes tory shifted to fit what was happening, and how it left the main character without really anywhere to go or to say. For me the story’s about responsibility and community. The main character is able to focus solely on his own family, to consider everyone else unworthy of the things that he has. To do this, though, he has to take away any informed consent that even his child could have, has to make all these decision for her, to “protect” her, when really he’s protecting himself, putting his head in the sand and hoping that everything will magically pass him by, knowing that it won’t but too used to his things to want to really work for something else. It’s a heavy contrast to run with a Christmas story but also an effective one that highlights where we are with our consumer focus, our focus on things, and how it’s leading to our ruin, to the destruction of our planet. Which is nicely accomplished in this story. So go check it out!