Thursday, November 19, 2015

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 10/26/2015, 11/02/2015, 11/09/2015, and 11/16/2015

Well this was certainly another full few weeks of Strange Horizons, though I suppose that's more my fault for letting four weeks go by without checking in. In that time there have been three short stories, four poems, and three nonfiction pieces (at least, three nonfiction pieces I'm looking at). But Strange Horizons shows just how strong it can be with stories that show loss and hope and rebellion, poems that unsettle and shadow the dark corners of the world, and nonfiction dealing with everyone's favorite topic: sex. It's a full four weeks to get through, but very rewarding and enjoyable, even when it is uncomfortable and challenging. To the reviews!

Art by Stephen Hamilton


"Needle on Bone" by Helena Bell (2185 words)

Well this is a rather sad and very beautiful story about loss and love and memory. About the ephemeral, the only-partly here. In the story a person falls in love with an alien. Or kind of. The way aliens work here, it's hard to remember them. They struggle to fit into any one thing. They are a disquiet, as the story states, and I love that idea, that these aliens arrive in our world and die only as the vague outlines of memories. Holes where things should be. And the way this relationship worked that alien was both there and not, their dates the same or not but definitely patterns, patterns over and over again trying at permanence, trying to create something to escape the cycle and, ultimately, doing just that. [SPOILERS] Enter sadness, because memory is a tricky thing, and for all that the main character remembers, it is a memory that is not free of holes. The story centers on the hole, on the absence of the alien, trying to find and define the space that they occupied and only being partly successful. Something remains, yes, but it is as much sorrow as joy. And it makes the story nostalgic and bittersweet and quite, quite good.

"Liminal Grid" by Jaymee Goh (5958 words)

This is an excellent story about corruption and resistance, and passive resistance in particular, or at least non-violent resistance. Passive isn't exactly right but it captures something about this struggle in particular that is interesting and great. The story itself is told in the second person, drawing the reader into the role of subversive, in the role of Chien, one of the resistance leaders. The story takes a close and detailed look at what resistance can look like, something not without precedent but definitely one that hasn't often worked in more modern times. And perhaps that's why I like it, because there is something just in the way that Chien and Farah decide to break from their country, from the government of it which plans to monitor everyone, which seeks to control everyone. In such totalitarian states it's perhaps more obvious to fight back with guns, with blades. To fight in the streets. But the reader is confronted with another idea, one that is almost viral in how it seems to spring from the reader themself. That idea of just going. Of cutting ties, of being self-sufficient. It's not an easy choice and for many that wouldn't want to lose what it would mean losing, there's bound to be confusion, anger. But it shows that choice, that sometimes the best option is to cut ties, to stop the hurt by cutting contact. This is very often the case with people, so the theory is sound. What happens next, what the repraisal might be, is left rather up in the air, but there is a power in this idea, and power of putting the reader into the story. A great story.

"First Do No Harm" by Jonathan Edelstein (7570 words)

This is a great and moving story about healing and about knowledge and about daring to reach beyond the limits of what you know. With medicine there is a very tricky line to walk, because learning how to cure brings with it the possibility of failure, and with failure, killing someone. Drug tests and procedure tests are not often perfect the first try, and so people can and do die in order to make the drugs and procedures better. And there is no real way around it. When the first doctrine of medicine is first do no harm, then learning new techniques becomes very different. People do not want to conduct research at the expense of life, and yet where there is consent there can be progress. The setting of this story is vibrant and real, a place where knowledge has been lost, where the prevailing school of thought is that first people must achieve the knowledge lost before trying to build any new knowledge. But for the many sick this is not really a good option. And for Mutende, a doctor-in-training, and his sick neighbor, it's not what they decide to do. They try something, something experimental and dangerous. And they learn, though not without a cost. The story is emotionally resonant, exploring the frustration with education that is restrained by dogma rather than people. The story takes great care to show how doing harm can sometimes be moral, as long as those involved accept the risk, as long as there is informed consent. But it is a tricky dilemma and one the story works wondes with, building up a world and universe ready to start trying new things again, ready to push boundaries in new ways, not always trapped looking back to some imagined glory but blazing new trails that might lead to even different futures. It's a hopeful story and a progressive one, refusing to accept that conservation is enough. It's got a great voice and a moving tone and impact. Go read this one!


"Octopi Viewing A Submersible" by Ada Hoffman

This is a short but nicely creepy poem that is a bit what its title implies, a group of octopi seeing a submersible for the first time. I love the sense of waiting, like this is a religious moment for the octopi, something that not only is important but also expected. That they have stories about this and that they have plans for what to do next. The action of the poem is simple but the implications are rather complex, that this submersible, sinking into the dark, is starting something, is the seed that will bring something up from the deep. There is that feeling that the submersible, for all it is there, is not aware of the danger. That there is something that blinds it to the possibility that it isn't the dominant force here, that of course those on board would be so full of their own genius, their own ingenuity for building a submersible, that it would not occur that they are in danger, that they are about to become part of something older and darker. It's a nice, bracing poem!

"Mary Shelly Makes a Monster" by Octavia Cade

This is a rather stark and violent poem, beautiful in the human ugliness and frailty it shows. Not necessarily in Mary, who is one of the major characters of the poem, as she is portrayed as strong, as confident, as cruel in some ways and definitely to her monster, to the creature she made and then punished. This poem seems to be about the act of creation, and the act as it is different for women. For Mary her creative potential is measured in part in her ability to have children, to breed, and yet it is through the conscious act of creation, her writing, that she makes the more lasting change. And the monster, for all that it is still her child, sort of kills her and takes what it needs from her. After Mary is gone, her work continues on, a cold reflection of the woman that lived, not a sort of force instead, a thing that is in many ways indistinguishable from the woman. She becomes the Author, and in that role is something much different from a living person. But in the monster, in the created work, Mary has a sort of second life. It's a strange but interesting look at creation and more specifically at writing, how it makes monsters out of its authors, both in how they treat their work and also in how they become it. What remains is the monster, long after the person is gone. The poem is dark and haunting and very well done. Indeed!

"I am Alive" by Lev Mirov

This is a bit of a surreal one, though saying that about a poem is only saying that it effectively stages itself, its effect on the reader a bit jarring, a bit unearthly for all that it unhinges time and life and death. It circles, the poem focusing on both a moment of time, the moment of death or possible death when the narrator gets into a car accident, and also on the feeling of being timeless, like the character is stuck in that moment before impact perpetually, regardless of whether or not they actual "survive." They are both alive and dead, trapped forever now by this trauma, alive because their heart is beating, their lungs are breathing, but with full knowledge now of their own fragility. Backwards and forwards, that moment of impact defines them, and the poem does a seriously good job capturing the feel of it, the way the universe bends itself around that moment of time. How time itself fractures as death lingers, as time refuses to heal properly, as the main character hasn't healed properly, after that moment. It comes to define them, like any trauma great enough can define a person, and the poem makes great use of it. It's an unsettling and wrenching poem, and very well done.

"Actaeon" by Alice Fanchiang

This poem is about myth but also love and transformation. About fate and a bit about how people can be wrong for each other. Here specifically, it's about the narrator, perhaps Artemis but perhaps someone else, fleeing from unwanted advances. Fleeing from the unhealthy relationship that they are in. Fleeing the desire of the other, the one addressed by the poem, the "you," to possess the narrator. And in that it does a great job of drawing the myth to a more modern and more universal dilemma. Not to beware offending the gods but to beware wanting to possess someone else, and to beware those who want to possess you. To beware the urge to chase and follow when that's obviously not what's wanted. It's also a story about transformation and power and reversing roles, about the hunter becoming the hunted, which is the central idea of the Actaeon myth, and one used to very good effect here with that last line, with the idea that things change, and that those that pursue should know that there may come a time when they are on the other side. A very interesting and satisfying poem!


"Out of This World Sex Writing" by Cecelia Tan

Ah, sex writing. I kind of love this article, not just because I like sex in my stories, like sexuality in my stories, and not just because I also love writing about sex and sexuality. What really sells this article for me is the concentration on the ideas of inward-facing fiction and outward-facing fiction and how it complicates both. Sex writing is a weird thing, especially in SFF, because sex is something that is both sought and reviled. Books that focus on sex (or even really include sex) are often conflated with romance, with inferiority, with the feminine. Which is really messed up, because I have always loved explorations of sexuality in SFF. And now I read and write both mainstream and erotic SFF and the differences are…well, sometimes quite different and sometimes hardly existent. But the article does a very good job of showing the fallacy of seeing sex writing as having nothing to do with SFF, and also with showing that divides of "literary" and "genre" writing are largely artificial. My personal reasons for liking the article is that I'm still figuring myself out, still looking inward even as most of my erotic writing is more outward-facing. I'm still finding a balance and this article gives me hope. It's a very neat piece of nonfiction, so definitely take some time to give it a read.

"Naked Prose" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Another excellent article about sex writing, this one focuses on the uses of sex in fiction, sex as a way of revealing character, as a way of forwarding plot. Sex being about something. And there's a lot to like about this consciousness of writing sex as craft, as having some agency as a writer in making the sex mean something. I'm not certain I necessarily agree one hundred percent, but that might just be because I believe that sex is basically always about something, always means something, even in works where sex is meant to be more erotic. This is a much different kind of article than the last, because there is no real engagement with erotica here. This is writing sex for more…hmmm…well, non-erotic writers. For genre writers or literary writers. There isn't an awful lot of talking to writers who want to write to arouse, to explore, and to engage directly and explicitly with sex and the erotic. It makes a very interesting contrast to the last article, though, and it offers up quite a bit of insight and advice for writers. A great idea to include both of these articles in the same week. Indeed!

"Intertitles: The Guest, Camp, and the Horror of Masculinity" by Genevieve Valentine

I'm not actually familiar with the main text being discussed in this column, but I don't feel I really need to be to understand that what's being talking about is the conversation that horror is having with itself. The way in which the old tropes, the camp, are being complicated. The way that works can use camp and the inherent silliness of it to question the idea of that camp really being funny. The column does a great job of showing how horror circles around ideas of toxic masculinity and sin and how as a genre it operates on certain tendencies in people that even while conscious of them can produce a rather…problematic text. Just being aware of the problems is not enough, basically. Instead, that awareness needs to lead to a complicating of what horror does, which is to play with human desire to see pain, the human desire to be scared but also to be comforted. And the column does a good job of asking if horror is something we should take comfort in, especially when its tropes are steeped in misogyny and racism. Another great piece of nonfiction.

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