|Art by Wylie Beckert|
"Hot Rods" by Cat Sparks (7675 words)
A story set in Australia following a global warming that has left almost the entire continent a bust bowl, this follows a woman whose partner has signed himself away to work for an American base. It's not a promising move, as the contract seems to render him property, able to send out money but really nothing else. He's stuck inside until his contracts up, while outside the base the locals deal with extreme drought, trusting in spiritual charlatans to call down the rain. Or some do. The main character knows it was a mistake that her partner went into the base. She knows it, and is beginning to suspect that she won't really see him again. When the whole area lights up with a strange sort of show, though, lightning of different colors striking down in the desert, she and the rest of the locals race out to see what happened, only to find her partner and two other men from town who had gone to work in the base in bad shape. Obviously used in some sort of experiment, they are near death and taken to a local hospital, but the way things are, the Americans come for them. Only this time the main character isn't willing to back down. She goes after him, and the story ends with the feeling that it's all over. That she won't get him back and might lose herself in the process. But that it's all she can do. That her love isn't such that she can fly alone. It's a melancholy story, fairly bleak, but with a very interesting setting and excellent world-building. I loved the lines toward the end about war, that she's told that the country is at war, but not which country or what war, that those things are distant and unimportant next to her wanting her partner back just as her needs are unimportant to the base. A good story.
"A Face of Black Iron" by Matthew Hughes (7463 words)
At some point I should catch myself up on the earliest parts of this serial. I've read most of them, though, and the project continues to be a rather fun one, a universe where magic has replaced reason as the grounding principle. In this one, Kaslo flies with Obron and Filidor and a few other allies toward an unknown place to confront the mysterious antagonist who has been plaguing them. Still rather glum, Kaslo at least now seems to have made up his mind to do what he can. Unfortunately that ends up being not an awful lot. Overmatched by his allies, his presence doesn't do an awful lot of good and then, because he lacks the will necessary to battle on the level required, he is captured. All seems rather grim at that point, but then something strange happens. He makes contact with a creature that seems made of regret and despair and guilt. Instead of giving in, though, he reaches out and makes contact with the creature. And something happens. The chapter ends on a cliffhanger. So slight grr to that, but it makes for a nice read, a bit more eventful than the last chapter, with things happening again. The setting and situation is nicely built, and Kaslo a nice viewpoint character because the world seems as strange to him as it does to the reader. It continues to be a serial worth checking back into.
"Surfacing" by Marissa Lingen (5977 words)
A woman who has lived for twenty years beneath the seas returns to the land and the war she fled to try and find a better way in this story. It's an interesting setting, this, a mix of land and sea. Or kind of. The main character, Mishy, fled the war of the surface long ago and found a civilization underwater, but it's not a place that most people knew about. And it was hers alone. She was the lone human there, seen as a soldier. And now that she's older she's decided to return. When she does she is taken in by a family whose young daughter is something of a prodigy. A prodigy that seems to be in the process of being groomed for war, though. And when Mishy finds out that the army is likely on the way to collect the girl, she realizes that what brought her out of the water might have been a desire to show the people on the surface a better way. To keep children from being drafted into conflict. And so he enlists the girl's help to start something. Maybe a revolution of sorts. Maybe something different still. But something. It's a fun story, with a setting that sets it apart from anything else I've really read. It's interesting and deep, though it does feel a bit like only the beginning of something. But it shows that there are options, and sometimes it takes stepping away from a thing for a while for solutions to become clear. It's definitely something I wouldn't mind reading more of. Indeed.
"Documentary" by Vajra Chandrasekera (1649 words)
The last story is both the strangest this month and also the most intense. While all the stories (with the exception of the serial) deal with war in some way, this one deals with the aftermath. In some ways you could view the issue as a progression. "Hot Rods" deals with ongoing and anonymous war, "Surfacing" with the resolve to stop war, and "Documentary" with the wounds left over when war is done. The spirits of the dead haunt a couple, one of which is a were-helicopter. Which is a rather interesting twist but one that works here. Especially in war settings, were-weapons are great for their shocking imagery and twist on the old tropes. The spirits plague the couple, who are trying to have a child, but something makes them unable to move on, prevents the world from moving on. The woman, the were-helicopter, wants a way out of the violence, but at the same time cannot escape the spirits, who seek a narrative in her and her partner because theirs has been stripped from them. They are disembodied, waiting for her to act, to fire on them with her guns when she is a helicopter. And she doesn't. She manages to hold on enough to not fire. But the cycle repeats. It brings up the question of how the cycle will be broken. Does she fire, and maybe end their attempts to define her life? Do the survivors of war bury the dead and forget, a violent act but one that frees them from having to face the perhaps-impossible task of atoning for what happened? Or is there another way? The story seems to imply the later, that there is a way forward that doesn't involve shooting the spirits, the nobodies, but that way is not defined. It's left open for the couple to discover. It's a great little story with a lot to unpack, with some striking ideas and images. Very well done!