|Art by Sam Schechter|
“The Goddess Has Many Faces” by Ashok K. Banker (4350 words)
No Spoilers: Envoy Pillai is sent on a mission to Kali, a fledgling nation in the heart of India, in hopes of putting an end to the trouble it’s causing a United India. Entirely populated by women, it’s a religious refuge, and in order to “solve” it, Pillai has been authorized to use any means necessary. A strange mix of advanced science and religious magic, the piece manages to tell a classic-style sci fi-meets-religion tale steeped with blood and brushing against the idea that there are some mysteries that science might not be able to fully explain.
Keywords: Religion, CW- Assassination, Science!, Souls, Possession
Review: This piece has the feeling of a more “classic” kind of science fiction, one that takes some extreme steps to explore some core ideas about science, religion, politics, and violence. Pillai isn’t exactly supposed to be a sympathetic character—as an assassin his world is killing for money, and he doesn’t care for much else—but his situation is interesting, sent into this breakaway region that wants independence from the greater United India. That he’s an agent of especially male violence against a whole region of women only further solidifies the way that the story becomes about the perseverance and power of the soul. Pillai seeks to kill the heart of this movement, to take out the leader so that the whole thing will fall apart. But finds that, to his surprise, the heart is unkillable. People are not. Individuals are not. But I like how the story shows the root as being something that Pillai cannot wipe out. That something about it, about this urge to resist and revolt, exists beyond violence. That really the only way to kill the movement would be to win the philosophical argument, which Pillai is completely incapable of. In some ways it’s a difficult story because of the violence, because of the lengths that Pillai will go, which never seems completely ridiculous. The violence is very real, and very active, but I like that the story shows that the power of resistance is stronger still, able to spread and to change people. It’s a provocative and interesting read!
“Four-Point Affective Calibration” by Bogi Takács (1450 words)
No Spoilers: A person must undergo a special kind of mental exercise to calibrate a machine that might allow them to communicate with aliens. The piece dissects emotions and the supposed universality of certain “core” emotions, as well as looks at the idea of expectation, immigration, and appearance. Quick but dense with hope, fear, and the barriers of language.
Keywords: Aliens, Emotions, Transcript, Non-binary MC, Immigration, Communication
Review: For me, this story hinges on understanding and communication. The piece is framed as a transcript of a sort of mental calibration—part test, part measurement to set a baseline to allow the narrator to communicate with aliens. I many ways, though, I feel like the communication with the aliens isn’t the most important relationship being explored. Or, I guess I mean, what I keep getting out of the story is that for the narrator, it’s not communicating with the aliens that seems fraught or difficult—it’s communicating with other humans. Because of the barriers that humans erect between each other in order to try and ease communication, but in practice make things much more difficult for many people, especially those who don’t fit in well enough, for whom the burden of communication and understanding is always on appeasing the dominant voices, the dominant empathies. For the narrator, this seems another way that they have to grapple with ideas, “core” emotions, that they might not feel the same as others—because they are autistic, because they aren’t a cisgender person. These things that people take for granted the narrator cannot, nor do they react to this central frustration in the ways that people expect, in ways that are expected of them. And it’s a short but very complex and moving story about the hazards and difficulties of communicating, and of being understood. That there is this frantic kicking of thoughts, worries, fears, just under the surface of the narrator’s thoughts, laid bare here by this test in the hopes that they’ll be able to have this opportunity, to be allowed to have a conversation that excites them. It’s a wonderful read!
“The Quiet Like a Homecoming” by Cassandra Khaw (1980 words)
No Spoilers: A woman travels to Sweden to rewrite her past and get a taste of freedom after a stifling situation. Sharp and with a feeling of overcoming trauma, of burying the past and reinventing the present, it examines the idea of animal wives and reveals how sympathy can be a weapon of oppression.
Keywords: Marriage, Animal Wives, Memories, Freedom, Transformation
Review: I love how this story breathes. In many ways it’s a story about a person who has had to live in a place where they couldn’t take a full breath, where there was always a weight on them, a piece of them missing. It looks at the idea of animal wives and how they are treated, as property instead of peers, as objects instead of people. And how the narrator was led into a situation where her skin was stolen and burned, her voice boxed, her claws and rough edges smoothed into something to look at and be admired. And how it grated, in all the complex ways that relationships and especially marriage can. And I like how it shows the ways that sympathy can be used as a weapon, how the narrator pitied the man who trapped her, wanted to help him, and fall into a trap that he then wouldn’t let her out of, and for me it feels like it’s something that he uses to keep her docile and under control, demanding that she think of his feelings, his wants, while never really having to consider hers. And so the story celebrates the ways that she can try to take back some control, that she can excise her past by replacing it with something without him, memories that aren’t as damaging. It’s her way of asserting her present to reclaim her future, a future that she has built for herself, away and without him, and that has this wonderful feeling to it, lifting and free and full of sudden life. And for that I love Sweden as a setting, a place where darkness can last so long but where the sun returns, and with it beauty and possibility, and it just makes for a healing and joyous read!
“A Coward’s Death” by Rahul Kanakia (2140 words)
No Spoilers: An emperor declares a conscription of men to build for him a great monument, and it falls on those facing ten years of hard labor to make peace with this turn of events or face the wrath of an empire not known for its compassion. Told with a philosophical distance, the story unfolds in visceral detail, asking a lot of uncomfortable questions, not least of which is about who the title refers to.
Keywords: Slavery, Conscription, Peaceful Protest, Violence, Justice
Review: This is a rather uncomfortable story, unfolding as it does around the idea of slavery and what can be done by the enslaved to avoid pain and injustice. The setting has a Roman feel to it, and it serves to make the mood a bit more ponderous, the idea of these people sitting around debating Great Things and coming up with some Serious Truth. Of course, the philosophy here isn’t exactly the most earth-shattering. When confronted with this idea of injustice, with the looming threat of empire, the teacher advises simply accepting fate, because you can still be happy as a slave. Only one of the students decides that he will not go along with it. What unfolds from there is where the story leaves the philosophy behind (kind of) and gets more into the psychology of the situation. Because as one person refuses to go along with it, the punishment falls on others, and as a reader I felt the strain of wanting to blame this one person, who seems almost lazy, who certainly seems like he’s okay with other kinds of slavery. It becomes about attacking him as a person in order to make it okay that he serve as a slave, in order to make it okay that he is hurt by his own people because of the punishment they might face by his resistance. And yet he’s not hurting anyone. That he gets blamed shows just how frightening this situation is, because people blame him for the violence coming from the empire. It’s shocking and difficult, and the story seems to ask who that title is referring to. Which makes for an interesting and unsettling story that’s very much worth spending some time with!