|Art by Caroline Dougherty|
December brings a new Samovar to the world, as well as a new issue of Strange Horizons. Between them, they feature two short stories, a novelette, and two poems. And the works as a whole are strange ones (perhaps not so surprising, given the name of the publication), featuring ghosts, post-apocalyptic horrors, and a rather shocking take on prophecy. They reveal characters who think they know what they’re about—inventors, judges, inmates—who find that the shape of their worlds, be it a tiny cell or a vast and untamed world, are not what they thought they were. And they have to deal with the changing definitions as best they can. Some find it easy to shift, to edit the rules of their existence. Others find it much more difficult, if not outright impossible. So let’s get to the reviews!
“Fluxless” by and translated by Mike Jansen (9364 words)
No Spoilers: Tanmee has grown up listening to the stories of a traveler through the strange wastes that the world has become. Europe is long stretches of technological and biological phages interspersed by pockets of humanity using flux (a sort of EMP) to carve out fragile settlements. The rest of Tanmee’s village cares only for survival, for holding onto what’s left without thought of really making the future worth living, and so when Tanmee gets a mission to try and complete a device that might be able to defeat the phages once and for all, she decides to pursue it. After a few close scrapes, though, she finds that the world is in even worse shape than it seemed, with human settlements being wiped out by more and more sophisticated phages. Her mission seems more important than ever...and then she meets Swarm. The piece does a great job of building up a devastated world and showing how humans have clung on to what’s as safe as possible. And it hints that, in the face of such horror, the only option for real survival is taking risks and trying something new, instead of falling into the same patterns that caused the problems in the first place.
Keywords: Post-Apocalypse, Flying, Spore, AI, Nanobots, Symbiosis
Review: So I’m very much a fan of post-apocalyptic stories that manage to complicate the survival-at-all-costs what-about-the-good-old-days mentality that often creeps into how people imagine it would be like to live in such a time. But those are some deeply conservative and pessimistic takes on humanity, that we would just flounder looking for ways of recreating the same old bullshit systems. And I love how Tanmee at first gets drawn into that, despite that system really only valuing her as a breeder. She rejects that, and as the story progresses she rejects more, until eventually she comes to the point where she sees that maybe this thing that has happened, this disaster, is actually something that can help humanity reach a better potential. That the stars are not out of reach if, essentially, humanity can learn to put away its xenophobic fear and change. And yeah, there are some dangers involved in that and yeah, it’s possible that what will come about won’t be the same kind of human. But I think that Tanmee sees that the same kind of human is the one that wrecked the world. That made it so hostile. And that instead of trying to claw back toward that on the back of violated freedoms, there’s another way. One that will give humans an edge in this world where adaptation is key. And it will require partnering with beings who are aware and who are coming at everything from an non-human perspective, and that is something that is valuable, too, as Tanmee discovers with Swarm. And it’s a wonderfully fun story, too, with a flying bike and a ruined landscape and there’s so much to see and feel and experience. It’s, in short, a fantastic story that you should definitely check out!
“The Prince of Eternity” by Laura Quijano Vincenzi, translated by Jerry L. Robinette (1493 words)
No Spoilers: Andrés Batista is a judge who has dedicated his life to the truth. Who does not indulge in the belief in the supernatural, in the seeing of ghosts everywhere. He’s devoted instead to the very real ways of finding the truth and seeking justice, and as such is rather surprised when, after moving back to his home town, he is approached by a ghost. The piece walks the line between humor and a more philosophical contemporary fantasy, where Batista is charged with hearing the truth and finding justice. Of course, not all seeking justice are really hoping to find a fair judgement, and it makes for a short, rather satisfying exchange where not even a breaking of the veil of death can dissuade Batista from his passion and calling.
Keywords: Justice, Ghosts, Confessions, Lies, Afterlife
Review: This story does a great job of capturing this relationship between ghost and man, and between both and justice. I love how Batista is so certain of himself and his judgment, and how seeing a ghost shakes him, but that he decides to just act as if it’s normal, because he’s allowed to cling to something that he’s used to—hearing a confession. And Solera, the ghost, sees Batista as someone who can offer him some sort of absolution, some sort of forgiveness for what he’s done, and yet he’s relying on his supernatural nature to carry a lot of the weight there, to bully Batista into reaching a favorable conclusion, when the truth is that the judgment in the case has already been reached and sentenced. And I like how the story revolves around that, coming to a place where Batista is able to show his skill as a judge. For me, at least, a lot of it comes down to the end, where Batista says that he doesn’t believe in ghosts. And it’s such an interesting place where he can find himself agreeing with the judgment on this ghost and at the same time not believing in ghosts. Essentially that he’s able to approach all of this in the abstract, seeking the ideals of justice, without forcing himself to confront a misconception. For him, ghosts don’t exist, and as long as he refuses to think about it, it all works. Not really what one hopes for in a judge, but at the same time it gives him a power and perhaps an ability to approach truth, which is both unknowable and yet vital for justice. It’s a strange and fun little story, and a fine read!
“How Pleasant the Red Bloom” by Lucy Harlow (1519 words)
No Spoilers: An inmate in a strange kind of jail carves a letter to another who will come after them. And the piece is crossed with corrections and additions from a very different hand/style, which might imply that this message has been passed down some. What starts as something almost upbeat, though, quickly becomes a descent into a horror of exploitation, imprisonment, and perhaps madness. The piece establishes a world where Ciphers (people with conditions like epilepsy where they have frequent seizures) are held by Diviners who predict the future using some unknown interpretation of those fits. The result it dark and uncomfortable, with a drive toward anger, isolation, and annihilation.
Keywords: Captivity, Cells, Letters, Teeth, Prophecy
Review: I love the way that the story plays with voice and expectation. The use of the different “voices” within this letter make it one that seems like it’s coming from many different people. The first, almost achingly clueless and naive one is undercut by those who have more experience and more anger about what has happened to them. And then, as the story progresses, it reveals the natures of those characters, and I love it. I love it because for me it also changes the nature of the reader. Because at first and throughout the piece, the audience seems to be a future inmate in this cell. And those future inmates seem to change the text of the carved letter as it suits them. Only I just love that it’s the same person. That all of the characters in the piece, all of the voices _and_ the intended audience, are one and the same. That this one person is essentially writing to themself, correcting themself, struggling against themself because they are allowed no one else. Because their cell is designed not only to keep them alone but to trigger their seizures as much as possible. To reduce them down to a prophecy for other people. It’s a statement on how disabled people have been treated through time, seen as a means to an end for the abled and otherwise condemned to a world seemingly designed for their torment. Here the story brings the reader down into the mind of this inmate, who seems at the same time so put together and yet cheerfully removes their own tooth so they can use it to carve a letter into the underside of their bunk. It’s horrifying and difficult and yet almost playful, a puzzle that grows more and more painful with time, like finding a solution comes only to reveal you’ve been slowly plunging a knife into your own heart. It’s a difficult but wonderful read that’s very much worth spending some time with!
“Lo Steddazzu” by Cesare Pavese, translated by André Naffis-Sahely
This poem speaks to me of hopelessness, though not necessarily despair. It seems to me to be about waiting, and having lived perhaps longer than intended. Or, I should say, two main interpretations occur to me when looking at the poem. The first is that the narrator is lonely and has basically always been lonely. Has wanted to have a family and friends and people around him, but doesn’t. And never really has. It’s something that gives his life a sort of gray, washed out feeling, and he has this routine that at this point doesn’t do much other than pass the time. And yet time passes slowly when there’s nothing really to look forward to, when everything is the same, just him all the time. The second reading I can see is that he has had family or friends. He’s had a partner and had a time when life wasn’t this endless cycle of sameness. But that he’s lost those people who enriched his life. And, failing them, he has sunk into a sort of funk himself, alone and lonely without real hope of recovery because death is that barrier he cannot cross until he crosses it. For me, it’s difficult to really tell which I prefer, because the poem does have this endless cycle aspect that makes me feel it might not be some sort of recent development. That this man is just lonely and that’s how he’s been, as evidenced by the way lonely seems more like a title than an adjective. There’s a sense that he’s just in decline and knows it, seems himself as just tracing his path through the cosmos, nothing new or interesting to do or think about. It’s a rather sad story in that, and maybe that’s a point for the second reading, because in that reading his doing nothing might be because of his grief, his loss. Otherwise he’s just lonely, and alone, and doesn’t really feel like he can do anything about it. Whatever the case, it’s a rather aching and lovely poem and a great read!
“How to Hallucinate Your Zombie Lover” by Kayla Bashe
This piece speaks to me of the dangers of looking back, of refusing to let go. The piece is fragmented, with lots of space, each line separated and airy. Which for me gives the feel of firstly a list. Which makes sense as the poem’s title evokes a list, a sort of guide to doing this thing, even though in practice the poem might be more of a guide of how not to do this thing, or how to get over it. Second, though, the space gives the poem breathes. So that it feels...almost like a series of mantras. The narrator here is speaking to someone—presumably to the reader, who is seeking advice on this topic. But it might also be that they are reciting this to themself. That, regardless of how much they know the points here, the hows of hallucinating their dead lover, what they’re really trying to do is ground it in a way that isn’t quite so immediately painful. For me at least the piece has a feel of desperately trying to avoid a hurt, of slipping back into memories that aren’t painful in order to get away from those that are too difficult to face. And it’s possible that the zombie part of the title isn’t literal, and that this lover isn’t dead. Even so, the relationship feels dead, and the poem seems to be about those times when you can’t help wondering about what might have been. If you hadn’t broken up. If things had gone differently. If you were still together and happy and...well, it’s a trap. Because it’s just avoiding all the reasons that it’s both impossible and probably not a good idea. And it’s just a short and lovely poem that seems to carry an edge of danger to it. A feeling of playing with something deadly. Of needing to let go and walk away. And finding that very, very difficult. A great read!