Monday, October 26, 2015

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 10/05/2015, 10/12/2015, and 10/19/2015

Okay, here we are in the fourth week of October, and with these three weeks of Strange Horizons the month shows no signs of slowing down. The good news is that the fund drive that had been going on was fully funded! So there will be even more great stories, poems, and nonfiction next year. The other good news is that there is a lot of fiction and poetry that was released as part of the bonus issue. I say good news because, while it might destroy me, there is an awful lot to like about these pieces, many of which deal with the way we tell stories, and what we choose to tell stories about. And I just need to get to the reviews!

Art by Rachel Kahn


"Broken-Winged Love" by Naru Dames Sundar (974 words)

I'm normally not the hugest of fans of stories about parenting, and kind of especially about people not wanting children having children, but this story does a fine job of complicated the role of the parent by populating the story entirely with non-human characters. Here is a dragon who literally goes into heat who gets pregnant and births a child with a deformed wing and so is unable to fly. The story focuses mainly on the refrain of the parent dragon not loving the child. Now, most of the time when a mother says she does not love her child, people tell her she is wrong. Or people think she is the worst person in the world. Here the dragon continues to say she doesn't love her child, and it's entirely possible that she does not. I, for one, sort of have to take her at her word that she does not, or at least that her feelings toward her child are not simple, not able to be broken down into simple declarations. But I do like that she is never "wrong" for not loving her child. She still is a parent to him, still loses everything for a chance for him to be free. It challenges what love must look like, what parenting might look like, and the labels people would try to put on the relationship between mother and child. A short, complex story, and one worth reading into.

"Let's Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children" by Margaret Ronald (2806 words)

Well, this is another rather dark tale that centers around children, this time more specifically about the stories that people tell of children. Of the tendency for stories to use children as plot devices, as objects rather than people. The story uses Lilit, who's trying to avoid taking children because she believes they are wanted, because she wants to avoid doing harm to the parents, but the care that people put into protecting their children is in direct contradiction to the stories people tell with children, where children are killed for emotional impact, to make a father sad, to give depth to a different character. Which is how a great many kinds of characters are used, but it does seem especially true for children because the kind of core idea that I read into the story, that people treat and think of their children as property and not as people, and when that happens the children are not really being considered, cared for, loved, or wanted. And Lilit decides she wants to remind people of it, to put fear in them in order to show them how they fear and what that fear means. It's a dark, layered story, where Lilit's stories are in themselves stories of children as objects, about the pain of the parents and not the children, which are normally just fine. It's the parents' pain that Lilit had been prioritizing, and here she seems to want to change that, to show people something rather wrong with the way we think about children. A very nice piece.

"Artemis, with Wildflowers" by Ani King (654 words)

This is a somewhat strange, poetic story about Artemis, Apollo, and Orion. Sort of. It also draws in art and programming and a number of other stylistic choices that make it interesting and vaguely unnerving. There is something unstoppable about the death of the story, of Artemis killing Orion. Something inevitable that is established by the If/Then parameters, the way the story builds to make any other outcome impossible. It's not a question of might or might not, but an almost robotic certainly that there is no denying or avoiding. And yet there is also a human element, something from the outside, a will that wants to break the system, to defy the programming. Of course, with the stylistic choices I'm also convinced that I'm missing something, perhaps in the myth itself that resonates here, but I think it does set nicely the tragedy of the scene, a human and the gods, the power of violence to cut short the possibility of love. And also the very human drive to defy the impossible. Not only Orion hoping to aim his love at Artemis, but the You of the last chapter of the story, the You that wants to warn Orion, that wants to somehow change the outcome of the painting despite the fact that it's a static scene, despite the fact that it's not possible to stand up to the gods. Except that there's still the urge to try, to always try. An interesting story in form and message. Indeed!

"The Game of Smash and Recovery" by Kelly Link (5583 words)

This story does an excellent job of playing with the ideas of its title. Smash and recovery. On one level it is a game that Anat and her brother Oscar play. A strategy game. But one that is layered much more than it seems as first. It's also the lasting, resonating part of the story that lingers much after the rest is over. The ways in which Anat is no longer Anat, in which Oscar is no longer Oscar. The ways in which they never were those people, that those people were illusions but also true. So that they require smashing just as they require recovery. It's a rather sentimental story, these two characters still caring for each other even as they hurt each other, even as they discover just how different they are, just how much they've already suffered for the other. The setting and the set up are startling, striking, and rather fun. There is a rush of youth that slowly gives way to something older, darker, that ends up taking the story into the headier waters of the conclusion, leaving childhood behind, a smash and recovery in its own right. Quite good!


"Swan Girls" by Theodora Goss

This poem is a rather excellent guide to swan girls, a collection of advice on them, how to recognize and attract and lose them. There is a sweep in the lines, a defiance for standard stanza structure or length that fits with the overall theme. It's also interesting that most of the poem is concerned with questions of those who would seek a swan girl, who would try and tie them down, though it's impossible. Still, it's interesting in that all the sections but the last are concerned more with those chasing after swan girls than with the girls themselves, offering tips that all tend to boil down to "have a light touch, be ready for them to leave." The poem reverses nicely, though, with the final point, the longest point. Which drops away those that would chase the swan girls to possess them and focuses instead on those who want to become swan girls, who want the power to leave, who want the romance of being always going somewhere, to be called off and on and on and free. The poem mixes desires, to have and hold and to release and let fly. It captures a philosophy of impermanence, of never being satisfied with cages, with just one pond for all eternity. Quite good.

"B'resheet" by Julia Burns Liberman

Hey, another piece about Lilith, this one taking a much different approach than "Let's Tell Stories..." above. This Lilith is searching for the spark of creation, is not an outcast so much as devout in her own way, on a mission that Adam cannot participate in. Eyes open, she knew the joy and pleasure of being born full formed, of being touched by God, and goes searching for something to match it, an experience to match that intensity. Where she goes looking is within and without, is sexual release and knowledge and all the ways that are viewed as taboo, as against the rules. Only she feels no shame in seeking knowledge, no shame is finding pleasure in herself, no guilt in leaving Adam behind and seeking on her own. It's a complex poem, one that refuses the traditional Christian definitions of what female pleasure should be, in servitude and child-birthing and all that. Here the implication that no pain is a pleasure, no restriction a joy, and Lilith gets demonized for it even as she is filled with a more divine purpose than Adam, one that is not bound by guilt or shame. It argues for a different understanding of genesis, of the beginning, one divorced from most of the meanings that got associated with it following Lilith's departure.

"Three Principles of Strong Building" by R.B. Lemberg

Ah, something to hold me over a little while longer while waiting for the next Birdverse story to read. This poem sheds some light on the system of magic created in the stories and also just does a fine job examining the relationship between the land, the individual, and the creations of the individual. Instead of the relationship being one directional, with the land creating all and the individual channeling that power into creations that imitate, instead there is a constant exchange, a way in which what is built and named on the earth effects the land, the grid that keeps everything balanced and functioning properly. Just as the land and the creations of people effect the mental landscape that give individuals power. That allow them to take deepnames. I love the structure of the poem, mirroring the deepnames of the Builder's Triangle, beginning with a three part section, then a two part one, and culminating with a one part section, the parts matching to the differently syllabled deepnames, and also building up the grid. The poem itself seems part of some larger text, an instructional one designed to inform the reader of the relationship between land and mind, mind and building, land and building. Triangles all, balanced and balancing, and damn I want more stories now. Or perhaps I just need to go back and reread the ones already out, armed with this new bit of awesome. This setting continues to be a rich source of great stories, and now great poems as well. Indeed!

"Nettle-stung" by Shweta Narayan

This poem has a feel of colonialism to it, the idea that people have arrived to take the power of a people, to strip them of what makes them different, unique, able to tell their own stories. Instead the stories because things to study, things that are the domain of experts, of scholars, and no longer living things, no longer able to be drawn on by those who lived them. What's left is a wound, is the aftermath of violence and pain and oppression. What is left is a complete inversion of power and voice and agency, those once free now unable to own their own stories, forced to speak a different language, to value a system that is key to their own pain and silencing. What is left is the struggle to reclaim what can be reclaimed, which is never much, and never easy, because the scholars and experts always wield their superiority like cudgels to beat down those who argue. But that idea, that the experts have it wrong. That it's not up to experts to explain or conclude, that their power was only to destroy and that the only ones really capable of capturing the truth of what was, of knowing the stories for what they were, are those who have been pushed down and ignored, are those who nevertheless can gain enough voice in their new tongue to say that it's wrong, that it's all wrong. It's a deep poem, and I love the way it's presented in the illustration, how it moves, how it surveys the damage done and captures the loss, the sadness, the lack of agency and voice, but doesn't give up, posits a tool that remains, not exactly to build but to break down the lies and misconceptions. A very good poem.

"Harrowing" by Lynette Mejía

This is a poem told in couplets, following a person on a couch, a person haunted by a voice, an idea, that will not relent. Just what the narrator is is slightly obscure to me, but if pressed I would guess it's anxiety, worry, the weight of the ugliness and pain of the world. That the person on the couch is effected by a grief they cannot shake, and the voice is the reminder of what remains, deaths and tortures and all the things that stream into our homes and minds constantly. There is the possibility that what the person on the couch is doing is watching fiction. A show. But the show is the remembrance of real tragedies, and in there the watcher cannot escape the old aches, the exhaustion of being confronted by the legions of the dead and dying and in pain. Like the "Let's Tell Stories..." tale that appears the same week as this poem, the true Harrowing might be in a fictional world, in the stories that we tell, in the television that sometimes can seem like a constant ticker of the dead. Shows, the news, everything is preoccupied with death, and for those watching and caring it is a burden that cannot be put down, that remains despite the distance fiction gives. For some it lingers still, clings, chokes. It's a nice poem, the voice caring but cruel, the couplets nicely balanced and leading on, and on. A good one!

"A Love in Twelve Feathers" by Shveta Thakrar

This is a rather romantic poem told in twelve unequal parts, the story of two people as they fall in love, as they fall in love and lose each other and then find each other again. The characters are artist and muse, the main character of the poem the muse, the subject of the artist, both of their art and to their person. And yet the main character also knows magic, and when the artist dies it is up to the main character to find a way to find them again in the cycle of death and rebirth. It's a moving poem, building slowly the relationship, the way the main character seems to worship the artist, but the way that they revel in each other, the way they are drawn together and the way that the main character refuses to let death separate them. They are reunited, but not in a way that many would see as all that useful. But in this transformation their relationship is balanced, and they can be together, and if the first incarnation of their love was romantic then this is as well, the two together and linked despite it all. It's a moving poem, one that makes good use of its sections to introduce different ideas and voices, snippets of a love that comes full circle over the course of the work. Paired with the piece of jewelry at the top and the poem has a feeling of myth to it, and magic. Quite nice.

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