|Art by Priscilla H. Kim|
"The Virgin Played Bass" by Maria Dahvana Headley (8708 words)
Well that was pretty damn weird. In this story a failed poet turned accordion player named Bruno joined up with a giant anthropomorphic cat named the Pet to avoid a war that is walking, a war that threatens to destroy everything in its path. The story is set in (mostly) Eastern Europe, and I hesitate to place it in time because the story is so surreal it could be nearly any time. Is the first war mentioned WWI and this new one WWII? Or are these wars more obscure, or are they entirely fictional. What remains clear (in as far as anything in this story is clear) is that whoever joins the Pet lives longer, shares in his nine lives. So the Pet builds up a group of followers, musicians to travel from place to place, a step ahead of the war, always on the road to a city that doesn't exist. The action of the story is clear enough, following the deaths of the troupe and their subsequent resurrections, showing the miracles of not their faith but their defiance, their willingness to sing in the face of a war that they have seen the like of before, that has ripped apart their lives. With the Pet they cling to each other, all fighters and all musicians and all without a lot of options. The story became, to me, one about transformation and war, about life in the face of death, madness in the face of death, revelry in the face of death, and the power of people to create something beautiful with each other, something that can stand against war itself. It's also just, as said, damned weird, which I quite enjoy, and the voice is charming and a little clueless, the Pet amazingly fun, and the story as a whole a joy to read, a riot of ideas and images with an ending that just fits. Quite good.
"Lotus Face and the Fox" by Nghi Vo (3186 words)
This is a story, to me, about loss and about bargaining. About deals. The story follows a young girl in a fox mask, a young girl who has lost a sister and who is reminded of that loss every time she looks in a mirror. The world is unfair for the girl and her friends, was unfair for her sister. Without parents they are homeless, and without having the right blood, the right skin, they are outcasts even among the outcasts, not able to hope to thrive even in criminal matters, always prey running, always hoping to last just a bit longer. But it's not much of a life, and the fox wants to find another way, wants to escape at least the debilitating memory of her sister, to escape her own face. To this end she travels to the tower of Lotus Face, a mysterious and magical being who is said to grant wishes. To get in she has to climb, and it's no easy thing. The story does a great job of showing the oppression of place, of building a living world where these children are suffering. It is gritty in that way and it is dark and yet I didn't find it overly morose. It was matter of fact about the world and about how broken it was, that honesty that springs from the young main character, from her friends. There are no illusions here, not exactly, just a girl hoping to bargain with the universe, to bring back her sister or, failing that, to escape the pain of her passing. And I liked that there are no very easy outs in the story, and yet despite that there is some hope. That idea that story expresses, that loss cannot be cast off but that someone else might bear it better, that struck me. There is loss and there is loss, but the story doesn't blame or demonize the fox for wanting to change, for wanting a release from pain. Instead it gives this snapshot, this transformation, a lingering question of what will be seen years from this moment. It's a good story, compelling and a mix of triumph and despair. Indeed.
"tended, tangled, and veined" by Kayla Whaley
Well…that's…okay then. This is a dark and visceral poem about names and labels, about the power of them and how they fail, fail both to convey the truth of a person to others and fail to convey the truth of a person to themself. The words that are too small, girl and rosie, are not those that the person in the poem really chooses to take on. They are chosen for her and she wears them as daringly as she can, but these words are chains on her freedoms, come with more than just syllables to distinguish how to call her. They come loaded, ripe with meanings that oppress, that simplify, that try to force her to be something that she is not. The poem revolves around the idea of names, of the narrator trying to use the power of them, to try and use what people call her in order to thrive, but the name doesn't fit right, the idea of girl doesn't fit right, and so the tragedy of the poem unfolds. It's a powerful piece, moving and fierce and violent, showing the strain the name and labels put on the narrator, on anyone who doesn't fit in, who doesn't go along. It's dark and it's rather disturbing but it is very good, about self and determination and the language of oppression. Do not miss checking out this poem.
"Growing Up in Hyperspace" by Max Gladstone
This is an interesting article for me in part because I'm not the hugest of Star Wars fans. I grew up with Star Wars, yes, and for a while I was all about the Star Wars. But I will admit that in some ways, that spaceship sailed for me. I never really got into the prequels and now, by the time of this new direction, I find it rather difficult to muster up the excitement for it. But I do get what the article is saying, pointing out how the SFF landscape has changed because of it and how works like Star Wars brought SFF into the mainstream to the point where they are not subcultural but cultural. In a way that Star Wars became what people thought of when they thought science fiction. And yes, for good and for ill. I'm less sure about the lasting cultural impact the movies will have this time around, to be honest (especially dubious of queer content put into EO works or even non-movie works that are then completely absent from the main show, the thing that everyone will actually see, but that's a different article). But I do see this as something of a big moment for the field, to look at both how far things have come and how far they can still come. Because yes, everyone is a SFF fan, basically. That's what the biggest movies have been. These are cultural moments that, in many ways, the rest of SFF has to move around. It puts asses in the seats, as it were—and it gets people thinking about SFF, which is important. What people find when they're sitting, though, and the direction the conversation takes, have perhaps yet to be wholly decided. Still, it's a thoughtful article and a very good read. Definitely worth a look.
"Gatekeepers: The Nerd/Jock False Division" by Chris Kluwe
And this is a another fine article about false dichotomies and the general asshat-ery of gatekeeping. It is a strange thing, the divide between jock and nerd, one that I'm not so sure exists anymore (at least in many popular views). Because, as the article points out, most people are some sort of nerd. And as the last article pointed out, things like video games and SFF movies and many books are not so much subculture as culture. There is no real stigma for enjoying them. But there is still a whole lot of gatekeeping that goes on. I swear that's like the first thing that people do when you enter into almost any sort of conversation in SFF. You haven't read the right books, or stories, or haven't read enough of them. You haven't seen this or don't remember what this person said or on and on and on. When right, people like what they like. One's goal in liking a thing should probably not to use that like in order to feel better than others. And trying to gatekeep in order to keep your passion "pure" is just flat-out wrong (I'm looking at you, Minnesota Vikings, and your sketchy tactics concerning a certain very talented kicker). It creates an atmosphere that promotes bigotry and violence, that promotes seeing certain people as lesser. When there is no objective measure of a person. Sure, some people are bastards and no one should really have to deal with them, but even bastards shouldn't be judged based on their passions (though, let me be clear, they should still very much be judged for being bastards). The article is a fine one, that promotes compassion over defensiveness, and that asks everyone to help each other out in breaking down the gates put up to keep people isolated.