|Art by Reiko Murakami|
"The Smog Society" by Chen Qiufan, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu (4448 words)
There is a certain nostalgia to this story, as the main character, Lao Sun, basically admits as he goes about his duties measuring the smog of his city, gathering information that will be used in a report. As he moves about he remembers the past before the smog, the past where he was happier and gradually fell into darker thoughts, into stagnant ruts. He and his wife fell into patterns of regret and bitterness and unhappiness, a vast shift from the cheery selves they had been, and he knows the world is different now, that the smog is something of a screen that keeps people from the world, that keeps them isolated and alone, having to cover themselves in masks and clothes, barriers to intimacy. [SPOILERS] I love that the story basically posits that the smog is caused by the unhappiness of the city. Not only that it further contributes to unhappiness, but that it is because people started pulling apart from each other, because they got too caught up in the bustle, the workday, because they stopped taking time to be together that the smog rolled in. That it's currents are currents of unhappiness, people going off to work, people stuck in commutes, and that the only way to fight the smog is not necessarily scientific but mental, that what people need is to be happier, and that Lao Sun realizes it late but not too late to try to do something about it makes this a great story, makes it hopeful in the face of despair, despite the missed chances and sadness, there is something that remains, some brightness left in the world.
"And We Were Left Darkling" by Sarah Pinsker (3000 words)
This is a rather disturbing story, actually, about a woman who can't afford to have a child who starts dreaming of one, and that dream-child is real to her. Real enough that she slips more and more into sleep. It's nothing something that her wife really understands, though she is supportive. It's nothing that the main character really understands, other than it is real to her, and it appears to be something that is real to others as well. And then the children become real to everyone, arriving out of the ocean and drawing their dream-parents like sirens. So the main character goes because she feels she has to, though it strains her relationship with her wife. The story does a great job of playing up the creepiness of the situation, the uncertainty of what is happening. It seems almost magical, that these children as borne somehow from the want of children, but there is also something very, very sinister about the whole thing, about how it all works together. How the children might be anything, how they are using the bond of parent and child perhaps for...something. But it has drawn everyone in, has made them unreasonable and there's no real clue as to what the children are. That lingering doubt that is being crushed by parenting instinct is what gives the story such an unsettling feel, that fear that something that is normally viewed as so good, so wholesome, might be blinding people to something very dark, very dangerous. The story works, conveys that creepiness while also being tightly paced and compelling. A good read.
"Ghosts of Home" by Sam J. Miller (6800 words)
This story crafts itself intimately around the idea that houses, that homes, have spirits that inhabit them, that live in the wood and stone, which are all connected to one spirit that exists, somehow, through them all but each spirit manifests differently, fitting itself to its perfect inhabitant. Which is touching and beautiful until it becomes quite clear that something is terribly broken with the way things work. That having a house, a home, isn't what it used to be, and that the promise of home ownership has been shattered. Shattered with the collapse of the market and the way the banks have gamed the system to make money off the hopes and homes of other people, trading off of their desire for a place that is theirs. The story imagines if, because people seem so powerless in the face of the bald greed of lending mega-banks, the houses themselves had wishes. Desires. What if they weren't happy about what it meant to be suddenly empty, rotting while banks still prospered and people, people without homes, went without. The story points a finger directly at the way ownership, especially of houses, has become twisted, a tool by which banks profit off of human suffering. And yet through this is also the story of a woman finding a place to belong, getting over the idea that because she has suffered all people should suffer, realizing that by trying to hurt others because she hurts she is doing something gravely wrong. Incredibly wrong. That banks do not care even for people who benefit them, just for the utility of their exploitation. An excellently crafted story with a solid core and an idea I want to be real. Another one to go out and read as soon as possible.
"Given the Advantage of the Blade" by Genevieve Valentine (2600 words)
This is a story about fairy tales. Or, about the women of fairy tales being placed int a room with knives and killing each other. It's about what happens to women who are brought up in those stories, who know the world only in those terms, who are subject to the masculine gaze, to the masculine saviors and powers. These women are often victims or villains, and the story pits them against each other, again and again, waiting for a time when something might change. The descriptions are visceral and there is something here that's like a fantasy royal rumble of murder that makes it interesting, seeing all these character battling. It is intense and it is disturbing but it is also impacting on another level, in how the women treat each other, in how they never join together, never help each other out. They never realize that their power is not in how they can kill each other. That killing each other is what is expected of them is beside the point, because it never frees them from the cycle of violence and pointless death. That if they helped each other and went to find those really responsible for them being trapped in the same stories maybe they would be able to get out. That what people need is not to dance the violent dance of puppets going through the old motions but to break free of it, to come together, maidens and witches all, and do something about the world. To change it, to turn their blades on targets whose deaths would actually matter. It's a powerful story, dark and gripping and voyeuristic and disturbing and good, so good. Definitely one to read.