|Art by Elizabeth Leggett|
"You, an Accidental Astronaut" by Sonja Natasha (974 words)
The issues starts off on a rather bittersweet note with this story, one of a woman running away from her life, from her girlfriend, and finding a place among the stars as part of an alien crew messing about space. About fear of commitment and about growth and finding yourself in trying to lose yourself, the story does a great job of capturing a bit of fun and a bit of sorrow and a bit of hope. I loved the way the story moved, the voice that is at turns stubborn and prideful and vulnerable. [MAYBE SPOILERS? LIGHT, IF ANY] Sometimes it seems that the only way to know if something is right is to leave it and see how you feel and the story plays with that idea, that no matter the wonders the main character witnesses or participates in, she finds herself drawn back to that old life, to the woman she left behind. It's sweet and it's a little bit heartbreaking but it's also a triumph in how it pulls things back together, refuses to leave them broken and undone, refuses to deny the characters a chance to go back and start again, not as if it never happened but knowing fully what leaving meant and what returning means and it's a strong, emotionally resonant story that I couldn't help but loving, a little romantic and a little stargazing and quite a nice way to start the issue.
"That Time with Bob and the Unicorn" by T. Kingfisher (2804 words)
This story dips rather fully into the cute and ridiculous, telling the tale of a retired person trying to save a narwhal stranded thanks to the misguided efforts of a men's rights advocate. The story oozes charm and humor, the characters full of small-town personality and a great mix of opinions and radical ideas. I quite liked the way the story portrayed the main character's retirement, not empty at all but filled with opportunities to learn and act, the main character bordering a bit on busybody-hood but with their heart firmly in the right place. And there is enough of a sense of magic to the piece that nothing seems too surreal or strange. Sure, a narwhal appearing to a re-virgin's call is absurd, but the absurdity enhanced the humor for me and all in all I found it quite an entertaining read. [SOME SPOILERS I THINK] Pushing past the surface goofiness leads to a bit of a mixed bag, as the story centers around a cycle of abuse and damage caused by one man and the lengths and efforts (and wealth) that are required to counter them. In some ways there are terrifying implications as to what might have been if the main character hadn't had a great deal of money to smooth things over, but probably the story is best served as experienced for the fun it evokes, the mix of the strange and the magical, which it does very well!
"The Android's Prehistoric Menagerie" by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (3300 words)
Awwww. This is a nearly phenomenally heartbreaking story that explores life and sentience and family and the mark left by humanity. In many ways it is about human arrogance, but it's about more than that I think. The story follows EX-702, perhaps the last android on Earth following an extinction event that has left humanity wiped away and previously-extinct animals back in charge. Only with a twist, as these new creatures that EX-702 finds are sentient, are aware and intelligent and capable of just as much ingenuity and compassion and construction as any human. And EX-702, still struggling with the restraints put on it by humanity, struggles with its programming at the same time that it enjoys and revels in the life it builds, the family it has found. Humanity, meanwhile, has left a legacy of self-importance, an arrogance that continues still but that is overcome by EX-702 and her family. And in EX-702 there lives the memory of humans in all their greatness and their folly, and there exists before it the possibility of a world without humanity, that can be anything, that can at the same time fulfill the wishes of humans, that the future might be better. It's an emotional story for all that it's about an android and some dinosaurs, but it has a heart and a feel that is deep and vivid, and I love the way it builds and teases such utter tragedy. Tears narrowly avoided! A very good story!
"The Elixir of the Not-So-Disgusting Death Smell" by Carlie St. George (5600 words)
Well this is another rather sweet story that further fleshes out the criminally underpopulated subgenre of zombie romance. And it's cute and it's shocking at it's sad and desperate and funny and just a lot of things all at once that work quite well. The story shows Rachel, a mad scientist who finds her boyfriend dead one morning from a heart defect and, well, doesn't accept death as the end. It forms a very strong emotional core and the story revolves around that hurt and loss, the way both character don't entirely want to deal with it and have avoided it because Brandon, the boyfriend, is kinda-sorta still alive. Or re-alive. Except that he stinks and has a craving to eat people occasionally. The stink part is, practically enough, the main conflict of the story, because a person smelling dead is a pretty big deal, and I thought the story did an excellent job showing these two people, young and in love and alive, dealing with their relationship and the insanity of the situation. They are cute together and clever and the voice of the story is witty, sharp, and wounded. There is a drive that makes the story pop, and there are enough complications to keep things fresh and suspenseful. All in all it's a romantic piece that combines a lot of elements very successfully and kept me smiling throughout. An excellent tale!
"A Bird, a Broad, and a Mess of Kyodatsu" by Stephen Lickman (3300 words)
This is another story that melds a lot genre elements: steampunk, noir, war and occupation, all tied into a bit of Japanese folklore and pickled in cheap booze. The story stars a Tengu trying to recover a Buddha statue and also a bit of his purpose, a bit of his pride after a war that has left his country beaten and broken. As a bit of fantasy I think this works quite well, the desperation of the people, the way the Tengu is divorced from his original purpose and bordering on despair. As a story about Japanese culture written from outside that culture I hesitate a bit because as an outsider myself I'm likely a terrible judge of how the outside gaze shifts the actual beliefs and exoticizes them. But as a fantasy the story is steeped in magic and rather compelling, the setting grim and gritty and filled with the apathy the main character observes, the sickness of apathy that can come with occupation and loss. And the action of the story, the magic of it, is fun and nicely paced and described. As just a fantasy the story has a classic feel to it, but there are elements to it that didn't quite sit the best with me and I'm not sure it complicates the more problematic aspects of noir enough for my tastes. It's a nice bit of writing, and the mood keeps the action from the last story moving nicely, and probably many people will have no problem liking this story.
"Fire in the Belly" by Rachael Acks (4830 words)
And here's yet another story that combines a lot of elements, science fiction and westerns and fantasy, all seen through the eyes of a young girl who's been dealt a rather shitty life. Henrietta was born in space, raised in space, a mouser on a giant ship, but after a few too many run-ins with ship security she jumps while the ship is on-planet and finds things much different. Not just terrestrial and wonderful but a new and different sort of awful, still unfair, still oppressive. But she has a plan and a stubborn will to life that doesn't leave room for failure, and when she meets a strange man who offers her a chance at magic, she makes her choice. The story does a great job of selling Henrietta as a character, the urchin thief who manages to be the most moral actor in the story, the victim of circumstance and systemic inequality who finds a way to be free, who finds a way to get a power that no one can take from her. It's a well paced and excellently executed story, one that shows the resolve, the stubborn refusal to bend, that makes Henrietta such a compelling, fun character, a character to root for. The setting is alive with heat and light and wonders glimpsed for the first time and there's that great magic that almost seems out of place in a science fiction story but works. It all works, a fist-pumping story of not giving up, and it keeps the momentum going into the end of the issue. Hurrah!
"Forty-One Bad Breakups and One Redemptive Reunion" by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (950 words)
And the issue ends on another short, cute note with this story about a person traveling through many alternate Earths looking for their Ideal Partner. The story is filled with the humor of expectations and a narrator blind to how their own impact their relationships. They travel from world to world with their Companion program ever in their mind and they fail to connect with people, fail because they go in looking for something specific, some quality inherent to the person without actually caring to see the person. And I liked the way it plays out, the way it all crashes, the way the narrator can't quite figure out themself despite being basically told what they are doing. But it seems a very human story, even if the human is able to change gender at will, change their mind at will. The story looks at the idea of the Ideal Partner, the way chasing after it can often lead to heartbreak and how it fails to see people outside that limiting box. It's a story that manages, in short space, to nicely sum up the issue, the visiting of multiple worlds and the humor and the searching, and is a great way to close things out.