|Art by Waiji Choo|
“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas” by Sarah Grey (6920 words)
No Spoilers: Jeri is a hauler looking to trade up to a faster ship. A newer ship. A more profitable ship. Only, even when faced with the reassurances of a powerful trading organization that they selling her ship will not result in the ship being scrapped, Jeri finds it almost impossible to let go. Because her ship, her Cleo, is intuitive, nearly alive, and after seventeen years together the thought of leaving Cleo behind fills Jeri with dread and guilt and really nothing good. It’s a fear that turns out to be quite valid, and the story follows Jeri through the series of decisions she makes, hoping to come out on top in a situation tilted crookedly against her. It’s a piece that captures the fear of making the wrong decision and the bit of freedom that can come in letting go of that fear in the face of the evidence that there’s really no right decision.
Keywords: Ships, Space, Trades, Trickery, AI
Review: I love the way this story features a situation made rather impossible thanks to a corrupt capitalism. One that twists what is legal in order to exploit people to the fullest extent. That lays traps for people that they can’t help falling into, because it preys both upon their need to live and their desire to do the right thing, where this vast system has no regard for what is right, only what will maximize profits. And Jeri is the person trapped, wanting so desperately to do better, to get some comfort for herself after so long getting by. And she has the means the opportunity, but it means leaving behind her ship, who is basically her only friend out in the void and stars. And the story shows just how hard it is to resist the call to get something better, something more profitable. And how damning it can be, because it means playing a game where the rules are rigged against the player. Where the House always wins. For Jeri, that means being double-crossed, and for all this could be a sort of moral story about not being greedy or not turning your back on a friend, I see it instead about a hopeful story about dealing with a corrupt and profit-hungry system, which is to say, sometimes you end up in shark-infested waters, and you have to try and out-swim the sharks. It’s tense and wrenching at every turn, and not exactly unpredictable, but it’s still inspiring to see someone see all the choices laid out before them and know, really _know_, that the only solution is escape. Because some systems twist everything they touch, and trying to reform those places alone can be impossible. A great read!
“The Atonement Path” by Alex Irvine (2690 words)
No Spoilers: You are John, on a business trip to a foreign land where there’s a method of “justice” called the Atonement Path, in which young offenders are surgically altered and made into something less than a citizen—a walking reminder of their own crimes. You are joined by Andrew Blankenship, the narrator, who walks you through what the Path is and what it means to his society. It’s a story that starts out with a chipper, almost old fashioned sort of voice, that leads quickly and sharply into the intricate and uncomfortable reality of the Path. The piece is difficult, in part because of what the Path is and just how heinous it is portrayed as. Told from the point of view of a true believer in the Path, it’s a story that might just leave you feeling oily and gross, which (along with angry) is how it left me.
Keywords: Justice, Punishment, Philosophy, Tourism, Crime, CW- Gender...stuff
Review: So this story takes the chance of leaving you (the character of John) unheard throughout the entire story. The only voices that appear here are those of Andrew, who is part of the system that supports the Atonement Path, and a few of the people on the path itself. It makes for a rather uncomfortable read for me, in part because being silent means there’s a feeling of powerlessness for me, that the story is showing just how pervasive this system is and how resistant it is to change, especially from outside. The other reason I found it uncomfortable, though, is because that voice of Andrew, which has so so many issues, is never really challenged. There’s the feeling that John does disagree with a lot about the path, but very little concrete to take away from that. Andrew speaks, and though there’s the feeling that he’s wrong, there’s also the feeling that John might not reject the whole system, but only parts of it. And while things like gender are...kind of...touched upon, there’s no mention of how race impacts this legal system or how certain adolescents are denied being anything but adults. And really, through that, I got the feeling that the story’s take on justice was interesting, but not without its flaws. I’m not sure what to take away from the fact that criminals are assumed male, or that they are altered bodily in a way to strip them of their gender when...that’s not how gender works and...like...that it came from Andrew obviously means maybe it’s a Bad Take but it’s also the Only Take we get inside the story and so it just made me...not like where the story went. In the end, at least for me, the lack of the voice of John, of You, made the story lose a lot of its impact. There’s a bit of horror at how corrupt justice systems can really screw people over, but I’m not sure I got the feeling that the story was commenting on actual abuses in our own system or merely having a philosophical exercise about crime and punishment, and I would have appreciated more to contextualize what was happening. Still, I recommend people check it out for themselves and see what they think.
“Scavenge, Rustic Hounds!” by Manuel Gonzales (2560 words)
No Spoilers: A person and their husband live in fear of some...things that are moving through the area. Searching for information. Taking some of the neighbors. There is a sense that they have that these scavengers, these creatures, are seeking certain kinds of people. Bad people, perhaps. And so the main character seeks to hide their badness, to burn their secrets. It’s not enough to prevent their husband from drawing the attention of the creatures, though, and from there the story gets strange and dark. It’s an almost claustrophobic story, about being trapped in place, paranoid and unsure of what’s going on. And it delves into the desperation that evokes, when answers are slow in coming, or never come at all.
Keywords: Marriage, Monsters, Dreams, Dogs, Secrets
Review: This is a rather difficult story for me to make literal sense of, because for me at least it has a dreamlike quality to it, something like sinking slowly into a paranoid delusion. The couple involved seems fairly standard, and yet they are convinced that there is something coming for them. And...well...there does seem to be. I actually like that a lot, that the husband is so sure that there’s nothing to be afraid of even as he does know that if he’s being told this then his partner probably has a point. So he vocally denounces the idea while also taking steps he feels will be enough to curb whatever’s coming. But, of course, his level of “paranoid enough” isn’t enough to escape what’s coming. And I rather like that, the feeling that his own entitlement and privilege make him the easier mark for the creatures. Well, also, if they are replacing him, he’s that much more valuable. And that’s a weird part of the story, that it dives so far down this rabbit hole, with the partner seeing everything that happens and knowing that it’s bad, that they have to act, that they have to do something before their husband comes for their eyes. And it’s such a creepy moment, but also one it’s hard to argue with, because to this point they seem to have been right on everything. And not taking this step might indeed mean the creatures will take her eyes and even worse things will happen. It’s a kinda trippy, intense story that for me shows a situation descending into madness, and yet the narrator remains always one step ahead, in part because they know when to listen to their deepest, most paranoid fears. A fine read.
“A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building” by Kate Elliott (5770 words)
No Spoilers: Magnus is an architect and carpenter who has returned to his family’s estate after a long life abroad. His hope is for some peace and solitude from the bustle of being in a powerful family very much focused on magic, and maybe get to focus on his legacy outside of the buildings he’s helped create. Namely, he wants to write down his thoughts, theories, and experiences. As a song of the house with no magic, his place as elder is one of influence but not true authority over matters of the house. But that doesn’t mean that, when a bit of the house drama literally ends up in his workroom, he can’t take steps to try and set things right. The story builds up around education and teaching, with Magnus stepping into a role he didn’t think he wanted—that of mentor. The piece explores the value of age and experience, and also the promise of youth, and connections, and the fight for justice really never being over.
Keywords: Magic, Architecture, Bullying, Class, Education
Review: The world building in this story is smooth and rather effortless, revealing a system of magic, class, gender dynamics, and age with an organic feel and a lovely synergy. Magnus is a man who wants to sit down and record his thoughts for posterity. Pushed by a resentment of his family and how he was devalued because he didn’t have magical abilities, his return is fragile in part because he doesn’t really want to fit back in. And yet, at the same time, I feel like a lot of that hesitation is because he’s unfamiliar with what his role will be. Perhaps what he’s been avoiding is not the drama but the responsibility. That, after a lifetime of (it sounds like) working for justice and progress in his work, he’s expecting to take things easy. But corruption and abuse don’t retire. And, what’s more, he finds he can’t ignore or avoid them. And I like this idea that he’s not resigning himself to losing his retirement so much that he’s realizing he doesn’t want to retire. That the act of writing his book is only part of what his legacy can be. And that while he’s focused on the things that he’ll be leaving behind, he can now perhaps shift his focus to the people he’ll be leaving behind. People he can have a hand in steering toward something better and more just. And it’s a fun, quiet story that looks at systems and communities and the value that elders can have in protecting and promoting young people, instead of only being concerned with their own prestige. A fantastic story!