|Art by James Lincke|
"To Die Dancing" by Sam J. Miller (6000 words)
This story…this story is about resistance and revolution, about change and fire and loss. In the story Clive is a man lost in time, so concerned with surviving in a time when being himself, gay and liberal, is actually illegal and punishable by torture or death. Clive has survived the country's fall into a Revival, a conservative fascism where women are seen and not heard, where everyone works and toils, where the state has access into the minds of every citizen. Clive is attending Degradation Eve, a night of debauchery to show the conservative masses the horrors of the past, to scare them into never wanting a return to the days when people just danced and were free. It's been organized by Jeremy, a man who worked in the government through the Revival, who Clive sees as a sellout, as a traitor. But the story complicates Jeremy and Clive, refusing to leave them as Clive images. The story does an amazing job of looking at progress and the price of it, at the difference between idealism and realism, the difference between fighting in the streets and fighting in the government. There are no easy outs here. Both men, Jeremy and Clive, are traitors, to themselves and to others. Both men are scared and tired. Both men, in their own way, are trying. But where Clive is waiting, is merely surviving for a time when things will be easier to fight, Jeremy is continuing to work from within. The story captures the liberal dilemma, the want for change and the danger. And the story refuses to let survival be enough, refuses to let Clive off the hook. And in doing so it challenges everyone who wants to opt out of struggle, who wants to stop participating because they don't get enough out of it. Because the struggle is not about one person or one group, is about so much more, and active participation and reform is required, is necessary to not be a greater part of the problem. It's a heartbreaking story, one that builds tragedy over tragedy, failure over failure, and in the beauty of its prose and the humanity of its characters it whispers a warning. That there are things worth fighting for. That survival is not enough if it exists at the expense of others. Go read this story. Go now.
"Blood on Beacon Hill" by Russell Nichols (7100 words)
This story does a great job of taking the idea of vampires and twisting expectations, showing something unexpected and rather uncomfortable. The story stars Teddy, a black young vampire stuck at fifteen years old, though he's been alive for a hundred and fifteen years. His father is running to be the first immortal state representative and all around Teddy's family the pressures of fitting in, of being normal enough, are mounting. People don't know what to think of immortals, but most people are afraid of them, don't see them as properly human. When Teddy has sex with a fifteen year old mortal, he is arrested for statutory rape and put on trial. And the story does a great job at examining who gets to be a child and who is viewed instead solely as a monster, as subhuman, as deserving only the justice of torch and pitchfork. The story walks the tangled streets of wanting to fit in and be accepted and wanting to be free to stand out, to be different. The story examines family and the toxic culture by which people, and especially certain groups of people, are both exotic and demon, magic and sin. And Teddy, caught in the middle of it, not sure what to think of himself because of the split in his family, the split in the nation, must try to stand for what he believes. There is a weight of history behind him and his family, a past they cannot forget because it was so extreme, so brutal. And while everyone wants to pretend that past is long gone, the events of Teddy's present echo back, his actions part of a single struggle that, while some want to say is no longer relevant, is still very much vital today. It's a powerful and moving tale, and definitely worth reading carefully.
"The Beacon and the Coward" by Day Al-Mohamed (6400 words)
It's a bit weird to say that a story about a crew of lighthouse workers trying to save the passengers of a crashed ship off the Atlantic coast of the US would be a bright spot in the issue, but this story is definitely the most fun and straightforward of the original fiction. Which is not a bad thing, as it still provides an experience a bit like The Red Badge of Courage, focusing on Danville, a man who fought for the Union army in an alternate, steam-infused past and considers himself a coward because he ran from battle, because he let down those he was fighting with. Now the only unaltered person in a lighthouse crew populated by black men experimented on during the war, with replacement parts that make them unable to swim the waters to aid in rescue, Danville finds his past has caught up with him, and instead of facing it opts to run away again. Until a storm and a ship in danger test his mettle and find that he's made of much stronger stuff than he thought. The story is immediate, intense, the storm a cloud of chaos and pain and potential death that stalks Danville as surely as the battlefield did. But the story shows how time can change people, how cowards can become brave men and how everyone deserves a place to belong. It's a story of perseverance and bravery, sacrifice and effort. And it's a fine read.
"Rolling Dice" by Chloe Clark
A poem about deals the devil, this one captures the feel of desperation mixed with romance that goes along with selling yourself, with gambling with the lord of darkness. The poem works with the trappings of deals with the devil, the time and the place, the sort of cliches that make up the lore, but more than that it's about the want to play the game, the want to gamble with something so perfect, so dangerous, for the chance to win with the highest of stakes. It's a seductive poem, just as the idea of selling ones soul can be seductive, the chance to win as if the system isn't rigged, the promise of fairness when lies is part of the devil's name. But there is always that human hope that throwing bones with the devil isn't hopeless, that there's a chance to win, and the devil keeps that hope alive even if it is all just showmanship and big words. It's a fun poem and one that captures the feeling well, the impossible made something just out of reach, attainable if only one can cast a higher roll. And it does a nice job selling the ending, that almost inevitable point when things slip away, where the dice are still and there is only you, and you, and the devil. Quite good!
"Mother Doll" by Brittany Warman
This poem takes the ideas of fairy tales, in this case a woman forever asleep, and mixes it into the modern world, in a tale of a daughter trying in vain to wake her mother, to bring her into the waking world. In some ways it's about a woman trapped in the stories of the past, in a system of oppression that she doesn't even realize that she's in. She's asleep, unreachable, only there enough to be a trophy or a martyr. The daughter wants to wake her up, wants her to join a world where she has agency and isn't bound by a witch's curse to be saved by a man. And yet there is no way to penetrate the old stories, no way to bring her forward. The poem does an excellent job of showing the daughter trying to use the rules of the fairy tales to break the "curse" and yet being unable to. It keeps the mother in stasis, forever young because there is no room for women who do not fit into the pre-established categories. That there is no room for women to be anything but virgins or crones, damsels or witches. It's a neat poem, and works quite well at complicating the relationship of mother and daughter, mother and world, showing how it can seem when people are separated by generations. Indeed!
"When the Gods Come Knocking" by Julia Kingston
This is a dark and rather nice poem anthropomorphizing a storm, or perhaps storms in general, personifying them as gods, as a drowned face trying to get it. The poem thrives with its atmosphere, which captures the vague claustrophobia of the storm, the way it seems that something is trying to get in, a lonely but terrible power that yearns for companionship but which only knows how to kill, whose embrace is the cold depths of the sea. There is a safety of being inside, dry by a fire, but there is also the uncertainty of being in the shadow of something so awesome as a storm, so huge and dangerous and deadly, like we're all living at its convenience, at its mercy. On top of the incessant fear is also the allure of the storm, its dark beauty and the rather self-destructive urge to open the door when the gods come knocking, to let them in. That desire is both heightened and suppressed by the danger, by the darkness, and the poem captures that duality well. And it does it with a haunting imagery, that repetition of the knocking, the feel of people huddled together, hoping at a safety that can never be truly guaranteed but which is all they have to cling to in the face of such an immensity. A good, dark poem!
"Time Missing" by Michael Sikkema
This is a rather interesting and strange poem that sees someone with a strange condition, a splintering, a way of diffusing across time and space, at least as I read it. The poem itself is disjointed, filled with small asides as if the narrator is speaking to themself, having to explain and qualify things for clarity, to be understood. Because the poem also has the feel of a person trying to explain something new, something amazing, to get something out so that others will understand because something important is happening, or will happen, or has happened, and yet the depth of their affliction makes effective communication difficult, makes it a jumble of thoughts but a jumble through which certain things do come clear. They disappeared. They were not lost in space exactly but rather became someone else, transformed and then returned later. There is a subtle implication here that the differences that divide us are rather shallow things, easily overcome, that the narrator found a way to bridge the gap, to become someone else, and now has some insight into how its done, a secret of great importance. It's a clever structure and a rather sympathetic voice, one that's frustrating but compelling, that point ever withheld, unsaid but lingering, able to be guessed at but never known. A nice poem.