With two stories and four poems*, Strange Horizons has kicked off their annual fund drive with these two weeks of content. There's announcements galore and, oh right, some SFF to read and enjoy. The fiction offerings are decidedly different, from a longer piece deconstructing the idea of art and death and sentience to a cute little story that looks at loss and fantastical cooking. There's certainly a lot to digest between the stories and the fiction, though, and a great many reasons that giving to Strange Horizons is a great idea! So yeah, time to review! (*well it was two and then bonus content happened so now it's four, hurrah!)
|Art by K. C. Garza|
"Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera (6429 words)
This story is an interesting exploration of technology, personality, history, and art. To me it both shows the push of an artist to remain in control of their art and also the realization and embracing that there is no control, that art is in some ways alive and constantly changing, that it needs to be in order to keep up with a world of vast changes. The plot of the story, which is told as an extended and meandering interview, involves the "interview" of the artist Satka, who was know for creating masks t hat housed interfaces that would allow people to ask questions and to have conversations with people, fictional and nonfictional, in real time. In that the interview of Satka is almost like her face, or mask. Almost. It's also something that was written by Satka, programmed and conceived by her. It exists not as a person, really, but also almost as a person, as an extension of Satka but also as a fiction. Which is a great way, in my opinion, to frame the story, as perhaps one of these masks, drawn from a fictional character to comment on very real things going on. There might not be the interface that the story illuminates, but the experience is still layered and interesting with footnotes and with the feel that this is going on, that the reader has become one of those watching the interview, waiting, perhaps wanting to be noticed. The examination of art is deep and I love how it engages the idea of control and power and futility. That this story, like the interview of Satka, is both shaped and guided by an author but also beyond that control, that the author cannot really shape where the art goes, how it is interpreted, but has to trust to that original programming, has to hope in some ways that the art is malleable enough to survive and thrive. It's a fascinating structure and mirror that the story uses and I love how it flows, part history lesson and part how-to and part conversation with this artist, with this woman who lived through upheaval and war and so much and who now is looking ahead and trying to preserve something. Which is also a role of art, of stories, to try and preserve something of how we are now. Of how we were. Not always by telling the "facts" of what happened but by preserving a voice. A person. And yeah, it's a great read and a challenging one and you should experience it as soon as possible. An excellent read!
"Dragon-Smoked Barbeque" by M. K. Hutchins (755 words)
Aww. This is a rather sweet flash fiction about family and about loss and about food. It's a very short piece with a simple but rather powerful central idea, a person dealing with the death of a grandparent by trying to take part in something alone (well, not completely alone but without the grandparent at least) that they always shared. It's a story that features cooking and a family dragon and it's rather charming, rather lovely, the way that the story builds this barbeque competition and the nervousness and the fear and the hope of the main character. [SPOILERS] It's interesting, too, in how it approaches the idea of memory and food, that what the main character and their grandpa were doing was more than food, had to do with bonding and creating these experiences and that the main character, in participating now in the events, is able to pass on. Like tell a story with food, or conveying some vital emotional state with food. It's fun and it's light and it's got a simpler feel to it, with a nice flavor and a memorable finish. Just the thing to whet my appetite for more SFF. A fine read!
"Taboo" by Sara Norja
This poem looks at something of a fairy tale, something of a magic curse and two lovers who are doomed by it. But to me it also looks deeper to entitlement and fear and trust. Especially in relationships, the idea of trust is something of a tricky issue, because it's something earned and something given and something necessary for love. The characters in the story live by this strange rule, that they can only meet in the darkness, and the narrator cannot open a certain door to discover what their love turns into during the day. And yet in the space of that one constraint doubt grows and fear and while trust should flourish, the nature of the demand and the fact that it can't be explained are a puzzle and a goad that cannot be ignored. The poem does a great job of building both the love and passion between the characters but also the necessity to know, to question. And the way that it dooms people, the way that this situation, caused by neither of them, is destroyed because of these rules. Not because of a lack of trust, exactly, but because the rules at play were rigged, were arbitrary, and created this trap for the lovers. It's a lovely piece and one that is full of longing and regret. For me it comes back to the title, to the idea of the taboo, a constraint that doesn't always make sense but that exists, that plants this seed of doubt and fear, that grows into the act that traps the two people apart. It's a touching piece and definitely worth checking out!
"Sharing Bites" by Ahimaz Rajesh
This poem completes a week of more culinary pieces, and to me is a story about sharing and about bitterness. The poem is instructive as much as anything, a poem about taking some hurt, some anger, some bit of bitterness and slicing it up and giving it away. Passing it around. Which is an interesting idea to me because the poem urges the reader to pass it to those loved and hated alike, to monsters and to friends and to enemies. That in this giving you are doing something constructive. Not just giving away a piece of pain but also of giving away something of yourself. Giving it away both as gift and as exorcism. At least to me it implies that this fruit is not just something bad to be discarded but acts like a bit of empathy, a bit of understand. That you're not giving it away to hurt someone else but so that they can understand you more, so that, ultimately, you can understand yourself and others more. That by dissecting bitterness in such a fashion it is revealed and can be overcome, can be harmonized. It's a fun little poem and I like the imagery of food, the idea of bitterness like a fruit. And trying to hold some of it back for yourself to digest. Another fine poem and a great way to close out these two weeks of content.
"Passing Fair" by Shweta Narayan
I love this poem. There's so much that speaks to me about passing, about spoons, and about cost. It comes at a rather fitting time for me and I just love how it shows this life being lived, full of pains both great and small, costs that are unequal, and still pushing forward regardless. Still excelling regardless. There's something here for me about pushing past the pain and the difficulties and all the ways that the world is unfair, that people are sometimes disadvantaged beyond their control, and yet still manage to, as the title suggests, pass fair. Make it seem like everything is equal, that these changelings are doing no more than their peers when in reality their lives are spent in fear and in crisis, having to see things that others don't, having to feel things that others don't. Having that difference and having to deny it, overcome, pretend it's invisible and free while it's not, while it has a cost, while it isn't nice. And yet the reverse of that is that the changelings get to work for their dreams. Toward their goals. They wish and they wonder if it's worth it but the answer comes from the fact that they don't stop. And maybe it's just that they've invested too much at that point to stop but I rather believe, or want to believe, that it is worth it, that the wish is sweet enough. The poem, though, does a wonderful job of exploring cost and dreams, wishes and bargains, and bringing it to an achingly familiar and personal level. An amazing read!
"Million-Year Elegies: Oviraptor" by Ada Hoffmann
*blinks away tears* Okay then. This poem speaks to me of history and how people can place their own narratives on the past. Illustrated here a group of scientists theorize on the relationship between an ancient dinosaur and her eggs. It goes to examining how scientists and historians frame the past and moralize it, how they project feelings and motives onto bones and fossils they don't understand. Can't understand. And yet they make up these stories about them and the stories have a way of sticking, the way that people visualize dinosaurs, the way that they see them and imagine their behavior. Which has little to do with what we can actually know about them and more to do with guesses and prejudice. That dinosaurs are monsters. It's a poem that uses this to make a deeper point, a more damning point then about how we do this for everything. Exoticizing the past and those who lived there or those who lived outside of our narrow understanding and beliefs. The ways that we put our stories onto those who likely would never have wanted them. The way that we violate the past to fit our agendas. It's a powerful tool and one that is often glossed over because of "science" in the broadest of senses. We want to believe that our stories about the past are right because they comfort us. But we don't actually want to discover why. Why an egg thief is more comforting than a caring mother. Because when we examine that we have to face some very uncomfortable truths about ourselves. And the poem looks and doesn't look away, shows what happens when we allow our prejudices to define our pasts. A fantastic read!