|Art by Vlada Monakhova|
"Utrechtenaar" by Paul Evanby (9143 words)
A story about history and the erasure of an entire kind of person from the story of a place, this one is strange and hitting and brings up a lot to think about. It takes place in Utrecht and is a historical fantasy in which a young gay man navigates the strange landscape where the government is committed to showing that no one "like that" exists in their city. The way to do this? By capturing one of the suspected men, torturing them until they reveal the names of the other "deviants" in the city, then rounding them all up and executing them in secret. Because even a public trial would be admitting that it existed and the city wants to prevent that, to rewrite history. Meanwhile Gysbert, the main character, avoids being captured by stumbling into a strange underground tunnel where a Roman soldier that exists a bit outside time is guarding the past, is guarding history. What follows is a tense struggle for Gysbert to find and free is friend who was taken by the city and who is being tortured out of sight. Things get out of hand pretty quickly and soon enough Gysbert is going in disguise and being chased by the city soldiers and trying to find a way to help his friend. In the end it is the Roman soldier who finds a way to help, and through sacrifice is able to secure Gysbert's freedom. Of course, I sort of have to talk about the ending, but be warned for spoilers. Because there is this whole level about protecting history, protecting the past, and yet that the past is filled with lies anyway. The bodies of the gay men of the city are in anonymous graves without stories. They were erased from the past and the characters see and understand that even as they chose to forego the Roman's mission of chronicling time. It is a fitting and powerful ending and one that got to me. Because these are the stories that are erased, the trials that were never recorded. And so in many ways there should be no loyalty to the past that has erased you. No loyalty to the history that has told you you don't exist. There must be a searching for a place to belong, a place to impact, a place where these stories can exist and be seen. So I don't see them leaving as a betrayal of the Roman. I see it as an acknowledgment of the world, and a refusal to buy into its crap. Indeed!
"Shadowskin" by Shveta Thakrar
This poem seems to me to be about the power of fairy tales to shape the opinions of children. Especially for children, I guess, though it also works equally well for adults. The poem seems to me to be about the argument that is seen many times around "medieval fantasy" about the lack of diversity but with a bit different twist. Instead of the argument being that it's "not historically" accurate, this poem includes a character that suffers from other people thinking her story isn't for them because she doesn't look like they do. She has dark skin and so her story must be for others with dark skin. The light skinned girl can be a princess, can have her happily every after, because she represents some sort of fictional "ideal" or "universal." Which is all sorts of messed up but you do see that argument crop up. You can't have fairy tales with non-white main characters. That wouldn't be being true to the original stories. Even if the stories did not feature white characters. People just assumed that the characters were white because they assumed that everyone from the area the story came out of was white at that time. So people are told, and children grow up believing, that fairy tales have to be a certain way, that princesses have to look a certain way, or else they have no value. Which means that nothing associated with the darker girl can have value. It's "just not right for us." Only, if people did start growing up with these stories, seeing that the stories are for everyone, not just who most looks like the main character, that everyone would have a place. And that change has to start somewhere. It has to start with picking up the diverse book and reading it and understanding the importance of diverse stories. And I've wandered a bit from the story. A good time.
"Reversed Polarities" by Nin Harris
This poem, told in two parts, seems to me to be about loneliness and finding a way to be true to yourself when seeking to break that loneliness. First part of the poem is one setting up the character as reveling in being alone, in finding the romance in it, to be brooding, to be alone but a warmth to others, to lessen the burden of what being alone means. The second part of the poem reverses this to some degree, setting up the disappointment at being alone, the point when it stops being noble and uplifting and starts to simply be crushing. Of course, the narrator of the poem doesn't seem to fit in with normal expectations of the world. There is a certain rejection of traditional love and physical need. To me, what makes sense is that the narrator might discover that they are asexual, finding the sexual act as something that they can't be a part of, and so they are left without a way of getting to the point that they imagined coupling would be. They can't actually banish the loneliness in a way that they thought they could. Now, this might not be about that at all. It might simply be that they cannot find a way through the loneliness with the world defined as it is, defined by others. The same laws of attraction and repulsion weren't working for them. And so they changed. Or perhaps all they did was realize that what works for them isn't really what works for other people. They tapped into the nascent potential and found that they have a power they never new about. Of course, that's really reading into this poem, but it's how it speaks to me, the narrator realizing that it wasn't them who had to change, but rather that they could change the universe, that they didn't have to concede to what was expected of them. I must apologize if this is way off, but to me it makes the poem a powerful one and one very much worth checking out.
"Challenger" by Bronwyn Lovell
A poem about the Challenger shuttle explosion told in nine couplets, this one is short but full of powerful imagery and ideas. I will admit that I went on wikipedia and looked up more information about the shuttle to see if nine held some significance, and it does appear a few times (the shuttle had nine successful missions before the tenth when it exploded, the designation was OV-099) but really that's only for to add some extra flavor and depth to the poem. It does work more than well enough with only the bare-bones understanding of what Challenger was. The poem reveals it in chilling detail, that the astronauts survived the initial explosion and were still trying to complete something, were still trying to remain at their posts and see themselves through, that there was that desperation but also that professionalism as they saw the end approach. Obviously it's speculation but it is a speculative poem and it captures that moment in time, that image of horror. It captures the public image of what it meant to be an astronaut, to be fearless in these situations, to continue one. And it also captured the tragedy. This was not the story where everyone came home safe, where ingenuity won out in the end. This was the story were nothing could be done, where even with such bravery and focus nothing could be done. And it's heartbreaking. So well done, poem, well done.
"The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twenty-Nine" by Nancy Jane Moore
I like the idea of this column, not only that science fiction is fully capable of being an adult genre, but that it should be something that is complex, that challenges and provokes. I too have heard the refrain that science fiction should be written to be for a somewhat younger crowd. Perhaps not directly stated, because I think people who would say that get insecure about "their" genre being for kids, but the works they would pick as the best are not the ones that thematically are more suited to twelve year old boys who don't want to introspect. I don't think it helps anyone to focus too much just on the young, obliviously straight white guy adventure tales. As a child I know that's mostly the kind of story that I took in, and there was definitely a sense among friends that reading anything that had more complicated themes (especially not straight ones) would make you gay. Oh glob the fear of middle school to high school aged boys about being called gay. A bit related to the "Shdowskin" poem also in the same Strange Horizons week, there is a sense that if people put down the complex stories in favor of the same old, same old, then a great many people get left out and left behind. Which sucks. So yes, I agree, we should be reading diversely. We should be reading for more than just mindless entertainment. Yes, the stories and books should be entertaining, but not because they are easy. They should be entertaining because they are challenging. I think the road is already being paved by amazing YA stories by authors like Alaya Dawn Johnson and Daniel José Older that push and challenge even older readers. We should not be talking down to readers. We should be rising with them. So yes, this is a good column, and not just because I'm twenty-nine now and it makes me feel like there's a whole universe of stories still ahead of me.