Monday, December 14, 2015

Quick Sips - Apex #79

It's December and this year it means the results from the Apex Magazine Christmas Invasion microfiction contest. As well as, you know, an issue of fiction that is incredibly dark and rather disturbing. The stories are mostly dealing with the line between the perceived and the real, the line between how people are interpreted and how they interpret themselves. It makes for a very strong issue, one that is quite difficult to read at times. Trigger warnings abound in this issue, so that should tell you something. For me it means that these are stories that might require more than one sitting to take in. But they are very good. Now to the reviews!

Art by Irek Konior


"She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow" by Sam Fleming (6500 words)

This story is an interesting mix of science fiction and fantasy, the story of a woman living on an island, protected from a deadly virus that might not really be a virus, that might be caused either by the main character, Chancery, or by a man/creature who goes by the name Hadron. The story is gothic in nature, a stranded women who in this case seems not neurotypical, though she is quite high functioning and loves cooking. Dealing with people, however, is not something she enjoys, and so in that case the gothic isolation, the dense fog, the creepy protector all take on difference roles than usual. They are protectors and saviors at the same time they are agents of darkness, and it's quite interesting to see the Gothic flipped in this manner. Normally there is an air that the heroine in Gothic tales goes mad from being alone (a sentiment that Kay, Chancery's love interest and would-be savior, holds and voices more than once). Here the isolation is what keeps Chancery sane. It's an interesting and layered story, with a strong vein of darkness and a rather disturbing ending, though again one that plays on the Gothic tradition [SPOILERS] (the supernatural is normally resolved and either punishes those who deserve it or is revealed to be mundane after all…here the supernatural is left to linger, the questions of whether or not Hadron is "real" answered pretty strongly but not his nature, not what he really is). And I ended up quite enjoying the story, the ways it defied my expectations and the ways Chancery remained compelling, interesting. Like the character herself, the story refuses to provide a traditionally satisfying ending, instead asking the reader to shift their expectations, to shift what they expect out of a story and a protagonist and remain open for new experiences. A fine tale.

"Aishiteru Means I Love You" by Troy Tang (2500 words)

Well okay then. This is…a very disturbing story. Definitely keeps things dark this issue. And it focuses on advanced AI and how they can be used, and abused, by people on the internet. How they can be viewed as not real in order to commit some seriously criminal acts, and examines how those acts reflect the person who commits them and the place that created them. Because yeah, wow, this story takes the risk of using the voice of a person who illegally acquires an AI that he can interact with, that learns, that can feel pain that he inflicts. And it's a risk because he's not a victim anywhere but in his own mind. He sees himself as a monster but not, a product of his times, of being allowed anything. To the narrator, the main character, he can't be faulted for taking advantage of this programming because it exists. Because in some ways people want him to act on his impulses. It's a tricky thing to give voice to that because that is already the dominant voice, the culture we live in. To blame the victim, to excuse male aggression and dominance. I think the story does subvert that idea, manages to create a more interesting whole by adding in some snippets from a forum where the character is trying to vent, showing the kind of culture this man is coming from. That sort of echo chamber of the worst of humanity. The story is unpleasant and abrasive and disturbing, but pointedly so, and I think it's worth reading (for those it doesn't really trigger).

"The Phylactery" by Nick Mamatas (2760 words)

I think I can safely say that this is the least disturbing of the four longer original fiction pieces this week, though that's not to say it's not dark, or that it's not good. It's a slower story, a softer story, a story about generations and family and culture, and losing culture. It's about the march of time, and valuing a heritage even when you don't really value it. Maybe more about not wanting to be last. Wanting to pass something on as a physical way of not being responsible for letting everything slip away, even if you kind of are. And I like that message, that here we see a man who is not exactly very into his Greek roots but wants to pass them on in some superficial way, just as we have people who want to pass along a viable Earth but don't believe in it. And so culture is lost, and the Earth is lost, and what remains, though certainly not worthless, certainly not without beauty, has no memory of where it came from, cannot experience it's ancestral past any longer. At least, that's how I read it. It's not exactly a fist shaking "kids these days" sort of story, because it recognizes that the young bring their own value, but it is a nostalgic story in some ways, and a melancholy one. And it's an interesting read. Indeed!

"Memory Tree" by Jes Rausch (3600 words)

I cannot exactly be impartial to this story because I got to help workshop it. But I can say that it disturbed me the first time I read it and it continues to disturb me now. It's a story that focuses on life after death, or at least how people can be memorialized. The story is a series of texts and experiences, most of them revolving around death and art. The Memory Trees themselves are like smart phones by which you can communicate to facsimiles of the dead. How that idea crosses gender and age and social class and religion are all explored here. How they can be art. How the trapping of death can be used to erase voices that don't have the funds to afford the premium service. How the voices are modeled on the faces people show their families. These are their Facebook faces, which are not necessarily real. They are used for comfort, to avoid facing death and to avoid facing life. The sections of the story are all interesting, though the last is certainly the most chilling, and the written as diary entries is the one that made me cry the most. I love how it goes from dry to raw, from the online article to the detached report from a child to a indictment from a victim erased by a Memory Tree, alive and dead and nothing so simple as the Tree could contain. That it shows to the extent people want to write the past as much as they don't want to let it go. It is a powerful tale, building and shocking and bracing and I really, really like this one. And it fits right in with a month of fiction that is incredibly dark and rather disturbing and just all around good. Definitely read this one.

"A Letter to Santa" by Melanie Rees (250 words)

And I'm into the Christmas Invasion microfiction starting with this story. It's a bit of a sad one, really, featuring a little body trapped in a bubble. Like, a medical bubble, because of an invasion going on his body. It's a nice twist on the theme, and one that makes the situation much more horrible and tragic. The story is told as a letter to Santa, and so captures the voice of a child, the hope of the holidays, the crushing weight of what has happened. That ignorance that sick children can have of their situation. It is a well crafted piece, has to be to work in such a short space, and a very sentimental one. The speculative aspect is that there are nanobots at work, so this is a near-future science fiction, but a light science fiction, focusing more on the emotion of the season, the sadness wrapped up in a child unable to go out for fear of infecting everyone, the slight chance that maybe he has already. A sweetly dark way to kick of the micros.

"Christmas is Coming" by Gina L. Grandi (250 words)

Well, things go creepy real fast with this story, which features a different interesting twist on the theme. Here the invasion is one of privacy, of trust. Here we have [SPOILERS] super-creepy-stalker-Santa in the bedroom of a child. Moving things around. Fantasizing about the child, about touching the child. Being all around really messed up. It's cleverly and effectively done in a skin-crawling way, perverting Santa (quite literally) away from the joyful Saint and into something…well, a whole lot less wholesome. It definitely…complicates the idea of letting a strange man into your home year after year. Or, worse yet, the idea that this is a magical being who cannot be kept out, who can do anything and gets off on that, on the violation he represents. Also, the title. The entire thing is very sexually charged and it is delightfully oh-my-glob-no! In short, I love it. Full points for capturing the theme in an incredibly dark and unsettling way. Onward!

"Reconstituted" by Marlee Jane Ward (250 words)

This last Christmas Invasion micro is the most out-and-out spec story, taking place in a more distant future where humans have spread out and teleportation is possible. This one once again features a child, and once again features that child being invaded. Instead of a letter, though, this one delves into the mind of the child directly, mostly so that it can pick up on the twist mid-micro, the transporter malfunction that leads to the invasion. And might I say, I rather love transporter malfunctions (probably because Star Trek). But the voice of the child is much different from the sweet doomed boy. Here we get a more sure voice, older and more brash, more technological. I apologize to some extent that much of this review is a comparison to the previous entry, but I find them an interesting pair and looking at how they compare and contrast is rather neat. Back to the story, though. It does a nice job of selling things, keeping it light but also with that sinking dread. Something has happened. It happens with a hint of absurdity that gives way to a whole nice pit of darkness. Something has happened. A change has occurred. And the full implications are not explored, but they don't really have to be. The micro lets them lingers, the questions unanswered. And it works pretty well. Indeed.


"Grotesque" by J.J. Hunter

What this poem does incredibly well is build up the mystery of why it is named what it is named. Why grotesque. Because while any baby is grotesque and ugly, I'm not really thinking that it was going in that direction, and there are ample hints within the text that something is…different about the child. The allusions to features and beady eyes, to crowing and flapping—there is certainly the sense that the child is not entirely normal, not entirely human. The reference to "his father's people" and the general weirdness surrounding the child do a nice job of adding tension, unease. Because it could just be a story about a single mother, about the stories people tell about women on their own. And indeed whatever the case that seems to be at the heart of the poem, that what is grotesque is what is called grotesque, that whatever the child's true nature, they are no more grotesque than any child, and what the baby is then is a mirror by which true ugliness and grotesquery can be revealed. In those that would condemn a mother because of her choices. In those that would condemn a child because of its parents. It's nicely dark and deliciously vague and a nice bit of poetry. Indeed.

"Myrrh, and the Sun" by Lara Ek

This poem, which is rather long as far as poems go, is built around absence. The absence dominates the story, that idea that this is a place where people used to be. Where people have abandoned. In some ways it's about waves of abandonment, that of a long ago time and that of a much more recent one, a sort of apocalypse that is never really explained. But the absence is most obvious when looking at the blank space where a pronoun could be. Is it you? Is it a name? Is it he or she or I? There is no answer to that, just the mystery of the absence. Just the space where answers might be if there are people to figure them out. The sense of desolation is strong, ruins aside ruins, and I like how the poem stands as its own sort of empty space. That it remains for someone to find, for someone to try and figure out. It makes the world inside the text and the real world that it evokes a text that we are left to interpret. For us to let our imaginations fill in. Something has happened, but for those who do not know what that something is can see in the absences a form of magic. It's a strong poem with some great images and a nice flow. The form relies on uneven stanzas and some fairly long lines, and it makes it read a bit like a story. Something dense. Something solid and tangible except where you can see the holes. It feels like history. And it's another good poem.

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