Monday, July 25, 2016

Quick Sips - Apex #86

The stories in this month's Apex Magazine deal with superpowers. Certainly not in the most standard or typical of ways, but both look at what happens when young men realize that they have powers beyond those of normal people. The stories also are about rage and privilege. About responsibility. And about art. They are two incredibly paired stories for the issue, and make for some great reading. The poety is also tight, looking at departures, looking across space, looking across cultures. It's fascinating to see how all these works play off each other, and I guess I should stop talking about it and get right to the reviews! 

Art by Sunny Ray


"Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix" by Jennifer Giesbrecht (7500 words)

To me this is a story of anger and fire, about superheroes and about justice. It features a young man murdered, burned to death only to come back alive, to be found by a man like him, who died in fire, who came back. The framing of the story is interesting, a mix of classic comic book script and prose sections, the scripts mostly in the golden age, classic style, full of small acts of heroism and a more innocent feel, no real unleashing of powers, which for the main character involve being able to transform into fire. I like how the story creates the mentor relationship with Old Man Gasper, how the main character at the same time looks up to him and resents him, how there is this unspoken history that Gasper doesn't really want to say, in part because he doesn't want it to repeat. How Gasper represents this older style, not because he doesn't understand the anger that Kid Phoenix feels but because he knows where it leads. He knows that the anger doesn't last, that it just burns you out faster. That there are different uses for fire. [SPOILERS] I do love how the story sells the burning inside of the main character, so willing to play superhero, to channel himself that way, until he sees his murderer. And that's probably my favorite scene in the story, when the script breaks from the golden age goofiness to something raw and hurt and real. And I like how the story resolves itself, Gasper showing what happens to them, showing what must have happened to all of them before. Refusing in many ways to buy into the idea that they are avenging angels. Wanting to be something else, something redemptive, which involves seeing justice as more than revenge. It's a nicely balanced story with a great emotional payoff and a subtle (and not-so-subtle) critique on superhero narratives. An excellent read!

"Starpower" by Christopher Shultz (5900 words)

This story, like the last, is a sort of superhero story, but one that revolves around music and messaging. About the power of a blunt statement and the responsibility that comes with finding out that your words, meant as metaphor, can be considered literally. In that way the story is also, to me, a story about the power and responsibility of art. About making statements and about anger and violence. The main character is the lead singer of a band who finds some modest success in the indie crowd and has a chance to play somewhere that will up their profile. Their songs are just burgeoning on political and when the lyrics take on more edgy and literal sharpness, imploring people who voted for a conservative governor to kill themselves, things get a bit out of hand. [SPOILERS] I like how the story plays with the distance between intent and interpretation. How the band is being made famous by a song in part because people are reading the opposite of what the band wants from it. And it is a question that plagues people that center characters or narratives that are dangerous—by focusing on them, even in a critical way, there is the danger of that criticalness being wiped out and replaced by the dominant narrative. Texts that seek to subvert end up reinforcing. And I wonder with this story how far that goes, because here again we have a main character who is of the mostly-dominant group. If he is ace then he is not open about it. He is presented, at least, as straight and cis male and white, and he has the power that people take him seriously. His power is literally being listened to and believed, which is a sort of superpower that people of that group seem to possess. So as I read it the story is commenting on itself as well, trying to critique the way that liberal straight, white, cis men treat their powers. Not by trying to listen, really, or put others first, but by going with that privilege in order to gain power and influence. It's definitely a subtle line the story walks, but it a fascinating examination of the powers that people have, and how they can use them, and how it can manifest in art and expression. Definitely a story to spend some time with! 


"La Llorona" by Rodney Gomez

This prose-poem speaks to me of inspiration and art, folklore and fear. It's something that I'm not sure quite how to interpret. The title evokes the story of death and loss and warning, but to me there's a different angle being explored. Of songs and nightmares and power. There is a story here, of sorts, of the narrator buying a stone and finding it full. Of being possessed by snakes and compelled to pay into a jukebox in a rather unconventional way. And it's weird and it's compelling and to me speaks of creation, of art. The head is something simple but it's something that the narrator can't resist, and it inspires him, comes to possess him. For me at least it's a feeling that's somewhat familiar, that pull of something, that demand, that feeling of being "a tube filled with maps." For finding that purpose, of finding yourself full of different worlds and places and views. It's like a much more disturbing muse story in that regard, and might speak to being inspired by dark myths. By ghost stories. About finding in them some sort of vessel and frame by which to create stories. Or poems. The experience for the man is not terrible, after all, but seems more…beautiful, religious almost. Enough to move the man to tears that don't seem sad or scared. The act of being filled and emptied seems like a rapture. At least, that's how I read this piece, which in any case is evocative and lovely and a bit creepy and just quite well done. Definitely check it out!

"Knights of the Smooth Hill" by Chris Phillips

This is a rather strange poem about hunting, about instincts, about humanity in the cage of a ship sailing toward a new world. It's a poem that, to me, brings up the idea of humans as predators, as humans as destroyers. The premise is interesting with the hints of violence and need. These humans aboard the ship are leaving Earth to save humanity but the implication is that it was to save humanity from its own mess. That the world had become unlivable and that these people are going hungry to a new world, one that they can spoil all over again. With the name of New Earth there is a franchise feeling to the endeavor, and with the repeated imagery of hunting, of games of death, of the salivatory anticipation for new expoitables. It evokes a past that doesn't exactly exist, this idea of hunting on horseback. And I like that touch, because people can imagine people hunting on horseback, but really by the time humans had domesticated horses they didn't exactly need to go out hunting like that. That hunting on horseback was about the sport, about having the power to do it and killing something not out of hunger but out of boredom. It's a great and visceral poem, one that looks at how people view progress and past, how people view humanity. As a predator, as a killer, as basically the very thing that we fear showing up from outer space to hunt us. An interesting piece!

"Earth, Hearing Her Children Cry Out Sharp Like Broken Pottery, Shrinks" by Jon Olsen

This poem is a nice contrast to the previous because it's also about leaving Earth. But as opposed to the poem being about leaving Earth in ruins, about seeking some other source of conflict and blood, this is a much more hopeful piece, at least as I read it. As far as I can tell the action of the poem happens as a ship of some sort leaves Earth behind. While this might be as mundane (and I use that word very liberally here) as a rocket launch to the moon, or the International Space Station, I got the feeling this was something bigger. Something aimed at farther away than that. Something that wasn't coming back. That here was a mission, a ship, that was going beyond, and the Earth, personified, watched as these humans stole away and both hoped and mourned. Hoped because here Earth is compassionate, nearly maternal, proud at seeings its children depart. And mourned because, like a parent watching a child grow and move on, the Earth is diminished by this departure. Made only the first step on a larger journey. Not less important or formative or alive, but in this one way lesser. Which I love that it ties then back into the title, that idea of shrinking, which to me is both a reference to how the Earth seems to shrink for the people on the ship as they move away and a more figurative way of saying that the Earth will ever seem smaller with the horizons opened up, with the stars within reach. And it's a beautiful and touching poem and you should go read it and feel warm inside. Go on!

"Canals of Mars" by David Jibson

This poem is a sort-of classic twist on the idea of people debating life on Mars. By having life on Mars debate about the possibility and nature of life on Earth. Which is cute and charming and here nicely dense. Because it hits the scientific reasons first and hardest, the debate about if life is possible there. As we debate if life is possible to exist on Mars, when there are answers that would question what we think of as life. As possible of sentience. Classic science fiction questions that aren't so much science as sciency. But there's a heart of something deeper than the physical sciences, something that is echoed by having the Martians be split in their professions. They are philosopher-scientists. They are philosopher-physicians. Asking questions about how and what shape. And then the philosopher-poets arrive and that's where I was really charmed by the story, because it shows that added conceit, that added planet-centrist attitude that anyone different cannot be like us because they would love differently. They would express differently. And, by extension, inferiorly. Which is an attitude that exists about much more than just life on other planets. And the poem does a great job of showing both how silly that is and how irrelevant. Because even if people are different, those differences don't make them lesser. That we have to think about perspective and recognize our own when passing judgment on what is and isn't possible elsewhere, about what is and isn't valuable elsewhere. It's a fine poem and nice way to close out the issue.

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