|Art by Jon Orr|
"After the War" by Hope Erica Schultz (1000 words)
A cute little story about what happens in a fantasy world when good wins and sucks the evil right out the environment. In some ways this story works brilliantly as a way of critiquing the system in fantasy genres (and moreso in D&D) where evil is an actual, measurable attribute. Because how messed up is that? But this story goes a bit deeper, with a former hero bemoaning that there is more evil to slay and fight against. I'm not entirely sure if the story is trying to make a point about evil being necessary, but if that's what it was going for it succeeds more at showing what a ridiculous idea it is that good needs evil. Heroes might need evil, but heroes really aren't good. They're violent and, as Finn proves, can be used for "evil" pretty easily. So I like how the story goes, how it brings Finn to the moment when he's wiped of his evil and is made happy and it's...well, pretty good. People are happy. Weapons are useless. Might not make the most exciting of places, but Finn actually seems to start getting his priorities straight after being drained of evil. Well, maybe not quite straight...
"Selection Process" by Darrel Duckworth (6000 words)
This story deals with the question of how an advanced and rather idyllic system can function when those who want power are often those who want to abuse power. It's set up well, showing a group of young-ish people (over 25, but not by much) competing for a place in a shadow government. The competition isn't quite what it seems, though. It's a well laid out story, with characters that show the difference between ambition and megalomania quite well. The twist, in the end, I think was handled all right, though by that point it stopped being quite so much a twist. It's really the only direction the story was going, but it makes getting to the end a pleasant experience. I think the story rather succeeds or fails based on how much one agrees with the simple premise that some people are too dangerous to let live. If there was one thing that kind of disappointed me about it it's that good and evil are rather absolutely conceived. Which works in the context of the story, but less so for me personally. I think there were other options, that really there are some tactics that cannot be condoned for a system to be ethical. The story works and the characters are well done, the action interesting, but I disagree with where I feel the story comes down, with the point I think it makes. Still, it got me thinking and I like it for that.
"Et in Arcadia Ego" by S.L. Harris (2500 words)
Death is something strange in this story set in a world where humans aren't really supposed to die unless they choose to. Bolstered by nanotechnology, humans can live basically forever. And yet when one dies in an accident, the event causes a little girl to become obsessed with death. Much to her parents' dismay, she throws herself back into old poems about death, iconography of death, manic about how it is coming, how it can't be avoided. She seems on the brink of complete despair, and then her friend dies in an accident. And that event snaps her out of it. It wakes her up from her fixation that death is something to fear and that is chasing everyone. Instead she realizes that she has to focus on life as well, and uses her new understanding to move forward. It's a sweet story, a balance of some creepy aspects because of all the death but also a rather natural thing in a world where death is so rare. Moving and effective, this one borrows from some older thinkers on death and manages to add a few thoughts of its own. Good stuff.
"The Lantern" by D.S. Ullery (700 words)
Well this is a short and rather...funny(?) story that's a horror using a classic twist. It sets up well, a mother and child waiting for a father to return with a lantern for them to decorate as part of a celebration, a holiday. The language is left so that the twist comes as a rather...interesting surprise. I'm going to just assume that this is supposed to be funny, because while it has uses horror as its language, the idea of evolved fruit-vegetables making a lantern out of a human skull is just funny. I'm sorry if it wasn't meant to be funny, but it is definitely entertaining, something out of "The Scary Door" or something like that. Effective for being quite short, it gave me a chuckle and I do admire the imagery of the piece.
"The Greatest Prophecy of All" by KJ Kabza (950 words)
Another short and sweet piece, this one a fantasy about an Oracle's apprentice and a young man on a quest. Every hero has to visit the Oracle to know what to do next, and every time the Oracle pulls their future down from the sky and the Oracle's apprentice assist. But this time is different. This time the hero see's the apprentice and stops. The two find that they like each other, are drawn to each other, and instead of seeing to the fate that the Oracle foretold, the two find an even older prophecy and are able to be together. It's cute with the simply love between them, the way they fall for each other, and also that they conquer fate simply by choosing to. Perhaps not the deepest well to drink from, but the water's fine. The writing is solid and the longing in the characters, especially the Oracle's apprentice, is handled well. Also, it was rather nice to see that the hero was the one giving up his quest, that the apprentice's role was seen as more important. Indeed. A fun story.
"Venus Snow" by Jeffrey A. Ballard (5800 words)
This story does a nice job of capturing some of the feel of what it might be like to be on a long-term space exploration mission to venus. Three scientists are sent to do tests using robots and rovers and similar instrumentation. And one of the scientists is anxious to see to a project she's been wondering at for a long time, what a mysterious substance is on some of Venus' highest mountain. It looks a bit like snow, but when an unexpected radiation surge causes her to have to cut out of her mission in mid-go, she returns to find herself mere meters from her goal. Mere meters but with a partially busted rover that can't move any closer. The story really does a nice job of showing the disappointment, how the women on the mission play off each other, and how she manages to find a way to get the rover working enough to cross those last meters and arrive at the snow. And make a discovery that will be remembered for a long, long time. I liked the sense of accomplishment of it, celebrated along with the characters when the rover finally gets repaired, which means the story does a good job making me feel for the situation, wanting to see the mission succeed. So yeah, another nice story.
"Bloom" by Nolan Liebert (400 words)
This is the shortest story in the issue and also the most abstract. It's almost poetry, probably could be poetry if given a different form and reimagined. In most ways I read this story as about death. As about what happens to us as we die, the way everything breaks apart. Only this is more lovely and more thoroughly imagined, the way every part of us retains us, the way it grows and reforms and nothing really every dies. Conservation of energy or maybe conservation of life or something like that but the story is weird and full of some vivid pictures. There is the sense of movement and change as life becomes life becomes life. It's all different but almost comforting to think that life doesn't really ever go out. I guess that's what I'd see as more the point of the story, that binding aspect, that everyone is united in death and so everyone becomes united in life. An interested story, poetic and moving.
"Naked I Was" by Rebekah Orton (4800 words)
When I read stories with gender dynamics that are female dominated and male restrictive, I normally find that the basic point is to say "look how ridiculous it is to have these roles/expectations on one group." By showing how ridiculous it seems when men are made secondary, that women are treated as secondary comes into focus more clearly. And this story...doesn't exactly do that, which is both refreshing and a little confusing to me. In this, men are basically livestock, studs, using for breeding but nothing else. Men are seen as good for only that, as being overly aggressive and sexual and nothing else. And women are seen as people. Men are just donors. Which to that point makes sense to me. Because women are often seen as merely sexual, as merely vessels. The story gets a little more complicated, though. How men are perceived from children in this setting is a mystery, and there is the sense that men are taken as children and basically made into donors by keeping them completely separate from women, from people. And at that point I started to wonder where the parallel was. Women and men don't interact in this story except that women still need to be sexually objectified for the men to "donate." And there's one...boy, I guess, who's allowed to be with other children but once it's found out that...he's a boy he's treated differently. And I guess I was wondering at that point where intersex or trans people would be. They seem absent in a way that I wondered at and I felt vaguely uncomfortable about it. Now, the story definitely deals with some serious stuff. I'm just not quite sure I was clear on what it was saying about gender and culture. So I might need to return to this later to see if it makes more sense to me.
"Don't Talk to the Robots" by H.L. Fullerton (1050 words)
The issue ends on a rather interesting story where robots have overrun the world. But they're not really very helpful robots, though they're obviously meant to be, obviously designed after the countless robotic voices that fill our lives. Phone operators and automated messages at all sorts of places become robots cluttering the streets, and if a person speaks they risk rousing the whole bunch which seem desperate for human attention. Meanwhile a mother and her two children are out looking for their husband/father and trying to avoid the robots. The youngest child, the narrator, is outside for the first time, and the world seems magical. They are determined to see the world, to find their father, even if that means breaking the rule of not talking. The end is left open, to be however hopeful or depressing the reader wants it to be. I personally feel like it's the beginning of something, of people moving forward, that part of the problem is that the robots need people to make sense of everything, need to serve. But perhaps it will end in blood. Anyway, a good way to go out.