August concludes with three weeks of content from Strange Horizons, including a pair of linked reprints that I apparently had time for and was very curious about. And they are worth it! It helps that the original fiction is also incredible and the poetry is wrenching and the nonfiction tackles some of the recent reports coming out of SFF. It's a nicely balanced few weeks and a great way to close out the summer and get things ready for the real beginning of autumn. To the reviews!
"In Our Rages of Light" by Shira Lipkin (4323 words)
This is a story about growing up and about danger and about power. About magic and about a young woman named Jess who knows just a little about magic and warmth and finds herself drawn to it. I love the way the story draws parallels between her and a moth, that idea of magic as warmth, as fire, and her compelled to chase it. But at the same time having her reject the comparison because she is not doing so blindly. She knows full well the danger she plays with, feels it as a young woman surrounded by young men and their desires and their views on women. She plays at being what they want in order to feed off them, in order to draw on their magic because here it’s almost as if the confidence is magic, the privilege is magic, and what she does by playing into their expectations is steal some for herself. Not enough to really protect herself but enough to feel good, to blur the hard lines of the world and offer her some distraction from the real danger, the fact that it doesn’t really matter what she does if a man decides to take out his anger on her. And seeing this moment of magic and growth, Jess realizing what she’s doing and seeing that there’s more to it than that. That magic goes deeper and that while what she did is nothing to hate, to disdain, it’s also something she’s glad she’s past. And her relationship with Ben and her relationship with her past here is interesting and deep and complex, and the way the magic works is subtle but compelling. It’s a story that looks to small magic and personal growth and it’s an excellent read! Definitely go check it out.
"Sultana's Dream" by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (3985 words)
Yes. Wow, I love how this story eviscerates the idea of gender roles and the "way things are" by pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of systems that privilege men for being, essentially, assholes. This is something that is seen again and again in misogynist systems, where men are excused of committing crimes because they're just acting according to their gender while everyone else who is the victim of male aggression is blamed for not appeasing the man somehow. And yet the story points out how truly stupid that is and imagines a world where the gender roles haven't been reversed but rather have been rectified. The men are still men but they are the ones tucked away, because it makes much more sense to keep the dangerous beasts locked away. And through that I don't think that the story really claims that men are worthless, but rather that it uses the logic of misogyny to counter it, to say that if this is what you believe, this system makes more sense than the one where everyone has to bow to the men who are little more than animals. It's great and exposes the double standards at work and shows that by embracing many of the things that make one feminine a better society can be created. That what we want and what works best is a society that isn't so masculine, that isn't so shitty toward everyone but men. It's an old story and told as maybe a dream and I like it for that, a sort of question as to whether this place exists somewhat magically or if the place is only a dream, but one that we should work for still. It seems quite ahead of its time in terms of technology, and it has a great optimism, that we can solve our problems if we first solve the institutions that hold people back from reaching their full potential. It's a delightful read and a great vision from the past of what a future might have looked like and what we can still very much aspire to reach.
"Fifty Years in the Virtuous City" by Leo Mandel (7684 words)
And this is a great follow-up to the last story, a tale that takes the setting deeper, that fleshes it out through the eyes of one of two principals of the great universities of this Ladyland, this Naaridesh. The story is about the transition from the ways things were to the way things were better. Not just different, because while there is the question of sexism that gets brought up here, of misandry, it's not really of the same level of misogyny, and is certainly not put up as an equal injustice. It is a story about how, in this place, these women prove themselves more capable. Smarter and cleverer and better able to protect their country, better able to pull it forward. Better able to teach and to progress. And that part of what allows this progress to take place is that it takes place absent of men, absent of having to wait or having to really consider men. That the reason that it works so well is because men do not get a chance to make it about them, or about equality, or about any of that. The men try and run things themselves and then gladly step aside and find that the women don't really need them. And this story goes further than the last, imagining how change would happen, how the women would treat the men, not with the same disdain as they were treated but with something of the knowledge of the past. This is not a setting where misandry has always been a thing, but comes out of how the world begins to improve. And, as shown, it's not without change, but it is without the rapes and violence, is a better way of doing things. In effect, men lost the trust of the nation, and have to earn it back. And as much as it's not really that fair at times, it also is, because it comes as a way of protecting people. It feels just to me, because the system as proved itself. It's not perfect, but it's so much better. And this is just a moving and rich story, the emotions full and the characters allowed to develop over the course of decades. It is an amazing read!
"To the Girl Who Ran Through Crop Circles" by Karen J. Weyant
This poem speaks to me of change and routine and the unknown. Of something poking through the crushing sameness of life, of the endless cycle of seasons on a farm. For the narrator this seems like their world, one that they find lacking, oppressive. The image of circles recurs, in the crops yes but also in the narrator’s own movement, the cartwheels that they seem compelled to repeat, as if they are trying by that motion to change things. Their perspective. Their life. That the crop circles seem to me to represent the unexpected, the unaccounted for, gives them a certain power and a certain magic. They intrude into this world of order and necessity. The cycle of plant and harvest is a strict one and for the narrator seems to be stifling. They want more and yet it is cut off from them. Their eyes are too fixed outward and so this ritual, this spinning, comes to me to be an imploring, a prayer almost. A sacrifice in the pain and blood that will sprout from the narrator’s palms. And I love that last line, the idea of bending without breaking, the thing that people point to about crop circles, that they don’t break the stalks of the corn, that there’s a trick to it. And it’s a compelling read, a poem that seems to me to strike at being in this setting of a farm, the wide stretches of plants, the isolation of it and the utility it requires, the straight rows that don’t seem to offer the chance for deviance or difference. A wonderful poem!
"To my Shyaam" by Shweta Narayan
This is a poem that, to me, is about reality versus art, about people versus myths. About a person and a child and a story. And this is one of those poems where I'm not actually sure if there is another layer underneath the one that I'm reading, if there is a specific context that I'm missing. But the poem speaks to me of how religious iconography is depicted in art. How religious figures are shown, often as children, often accompanied by their mother. To create this powerful feeling of child and parent, person and the divine. Or it might be a more national figure, one who isn't religious per se but basically is a cult figure who has become a myth. Whose story has grown into something larger than life. But the poem delves into how the story remains about humans. About human bodies and weakness and strength. To me the story is trying to give this human voice to someone who has become more icon. The Mary who becomes only that suffering and perfect woman. Who carries a child as if it weighs nothing. And it's a lovely poem and a great subject to explore, the humanity behind the myths, the fear behind the fabled bravery. To remember not that there is some heroic quality at play here exactly but rather that to be human is to be heroic, to suffer not because of some inner knowledge or recognition of greatness but because there is no other option, because this person is stubborn and full of love. Which is still heroic, but not some paragon of virtue. At least, that's how I read the poem, which is nicely framed as a sort of list, or maybe a religious text, with numbers to set apart the stanzas. It's an interesting effect and there's lots to think about. Another amazing piece!
"The Next Horizon" by Niall Harrison
This is one of the first official responses to the recent Fireside report that I've seen from one of the publications mentioned. And it's a nice way of sort of putting things out there and laying down a plan for how to be more inclusive and, I guess, transparent. Which seems to be the largest part of this, or at least the largest part beyond diversifying at the top, from editors down to slush readers. Staff changes seem like they're the slowest to implement for many reasons, though (partly because most positions are not paid and asking marginalized people to give their time for what might be a painful process for no compensation isn't exactly the coolest of things), so transparency and reporting does seem to be a step in the right direction. For me, as a writer, I don't think I would mind filling out an optional, anonymous survey with my submission. It would have to be short and it would have to I guess be meaningful in some way, which I guess is part of the challenge is to know what to ask and to respect self reporting. It does bother me that the numbers from the submissions and such are based on gender derived from names. Because…well, because is that legal name or chosen name or what? But as the info from the report wasn't self reported, the info from this report is only striving to maintain some level of transparency. Which okay. But it would be much better to have an anonymous survey to complete with a submission, that wouldn't really be attached to the submission itself, but for statistic purposes.