The Strange Horizons fund drive is nearly over, but that doesn't mean that the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have slowed down. Indeed, I'm looking at two stories, four poems, and two nonfiction works today. The stories focus on change and history. On progress and what is lost and what is gained in the slow march of years and opinions. The poetry mixes resistance and loss, folktales and tenacity. And the nonfiction looks at gaming and communities. It's a very full two weeks of content and an amazing publication. If you haven't already, maybe considering contributing to the drive. And now, to the reviews!
"Le Corriveau" by K. T. Bryski (4602 words)
This story does a great job of showing the treacherous nature of history, the subjective spin that gets put on things in the name of nationalism and hate. It looks at a period of time not often explored in speculative fiction, that of when the English took control of Canada from the French. And it does it by focusing on one woman. A myth of sorts, who was horrendously punished for being a woman at the time. Who was accused of witchcraft, and killing off seven husbands. The way the story flashes back and forth between the woman as she likely was and the "historical accounts" of her as a witch and murderer are apt given the framing of the story, which seems to me part museum, part curiosity show. The story is told, is narrated, as the listener gazes upon an artifact from the story. The cage. How the artifact is interpreted leads to how the story is interpreted, and how the cage is interpreted depends on how much the reader pays attention to the scene, to how the cage is set. Surrounded by mirrors. To see the object from every angle and, thereby, the story from every angle. I love this frame, how it leads to this idea of approaching history in different ways, and how it acknowledges that even so there is no way of knowing. But more powerful than the ignorance is the empathy that the story shows, how the listener is confronted with having to see themself inside the cage, is asked to imagine what it must have been like to be a woman at the time, to life with that weight of oppression. So that every evil that can be placed on her seems comforting to everyone else and how it allows for any punishment or torture to be visited on her. That sense of powerlessness is powerful, and the story asks the reader to feel it. To honor the woman who lived and died by feeling it and now allowing it to flourish again. It's a powerful piece and a great story!
"Timothy" by Philip Schweitzer (3147 words)
This is a story that to me is about death and belief and progress. Or perhaps about the illusion of progress. How things change but, ultimately, not as much as people think. The world the story builds is one much like our own, but where the ruling philosophy has been to die and be resurrected. Multiple times, as may be, until some point when you just can't come back. Only the rules seem to be changing, and instead of resurrection people are preferring to die and be raised by a brilliant light directly into an afterlife. It's a rather strange premise that then follows two women, Frances (old and resurrected many times) and Marie (younger, never resurrected), and details how they live and how they have been effected by the death of Marie's son, Timothy. I like how the story mixes the strange with religion, how it shows Frances afraid of what might come next but more confused by it. Because it shakes the firmament of her experience, because he feels too old to really learn what the appeal is to this new way of doing things. For her resurrection is how she keeps going. She dies quite often and comes back. And yet the people who die and just die seem…happier, seem freer. It's a strange thing, and perhaps linked to the fact that they can see and know that there is an afterlife and they are headed there. The details surrounding Timothy are complex and deep, Frances unable to let it go and Marie with her faith in the old ways shattered because of it, hoping to be able to move toward the light she sees others enjoy. I like how the story shows Frances trying to do the right she knows, even as it makes me uncomfortable. The story opens up many more questions about death and religion than it offers answers. But I love the ending of the tale, the quiet hope that seems so very human. It's a fascinating read!
"The Troll Who Hid Her Heart" by Jenn Grunigen (4552 words)
This is a story of trolls and people, of harm and age. It unfolds around a woman, around a girl. It unfolds around a series of stories about trolls. The setting of the piece is interesting but vague, details given without an awful lot of context and left for the reader to piece together. The world has been split in two, into virtual and flesh, and people can augment themselves, can move between the two. There is a sense of age in the story that I quite like, that the main character is telling stories first so they won't be lost and second because she's tired and takes comfort from them. I love how the trolls are built in this story, as part of the natural world, pushed out by the virtual. As contrary and tied to the Earth. As rude and violent but also possessing a power. A presence. For the main character they are something that ties her to her grandma, to a woman who looked out for her and lived fiercely. And the journey that the main character goes through in the story is one to rediscover the trolls, or at least what is left of them, the reflections that her grandmother built and let free into the virtual space to make it more real. To try and counter the sterilized, safe nature of it. To bring back some danger and, though that, something authentic and ancient. I love how the folktales grow and evolve, how they adapt like the trolls. So that it's not just a story of trolls and goats but a tale of stories and realities and destruction. I couldn't quite figure out the full extent to what stories were true and which weren't. Was the Earth really destroyed? There seems to be a climate aspect going on, the natural world made uninhabitable or nearly so and this folktale created to partly explain it. The uncertainty doesn't bother me, at least. I like how there's always this question of what might be going on, and how that falls away next to the power of the stories being told about it. That sometimes the truth is best found through fictions. It's a moving piece and a delightful story with a strong voice and vivid imagery!
"Neustra Señora de las Maravillas Lost at Seas, 1527" by Lisa M. Bradley
This poem is a battle, a violence done, a retribution from the ocean, from the water, repelling an invader. The poem sees the ocean embodied, all the outrage and offense that humanity, that men, would think her conquered by their journeys, by their battles, given lie here as the ocean sends forth messengers to deliver death to her enemies. It's a poem that's full of power and salt air, the concealed panic of people floundering and sinking, the water filling their lungs as they're pulled below. I like the flow of it, the way that the poem mocks its victims, the way that it captures the power of the unknown that existed when ships went to sea and simply vanished. Because when that happens the how is always up in the air and the ocean itself seems alive, like it opened a great mouth and sucked the ship down. Which isn't exactly how the poem imagines it happening but there's still the malevolence of it, the fear present. The fear that seems to stem from the knowledge that we have transgressed. That we have mistreated the seas. That we haven't shown the proper respect. And that here is something so vast and so dark and so powerful that we are afraid of what it might do. And I just love the mood of the piece and the imagery of it, the way that it almost sings what's happened, which is fairly horrific. It's a gripping poem and a great read!
"Classification of Folktales" by Margaret Wack
As I read it, this story is about…well, I'll call it the gravity of folktales. The way that they seem to recur, the way that seem to spread, the way that they seem to be about the same things, over and over again. Folktales are in some ways, to me, how we make sense of the world. And especially how we make sense of an insecure world. Things are boiled down to simple characters and simple situations, even ones that seem complex. As the poem describes, it becomes about sex and tricks and promises. And folktales can't really escape those things because they act as a giant game of telephone. The stories are retold and retold and they change as they go and what remains, what stays true to the original are the basics. The specifics fall away. There is magic maybe or there is blood maybe but those are just adornments. Those are just things that get put in to add some flare. What makes the folktale a folktale is that it's about tricks and sex and promises. Which I love how that then plays into the title, into the classification, because to me then the poem is being especially wide in its classification. It's saying, essentially, all stories can be folktales. Strip them down, whittle them away until just the core remains, and you'll find the same story, or the same enough story. And that's at the heart of our experience, the heart of our being. Despite the trappings, it's human. And it fits. And that's what makes the story, that what makes the tale. Not that it involves a special combination of elements but that it's like a second skin, something you can never really scrape away. And it's another excellent poem!
"swallowing the earth" by Karin Lowachee
…fuck. I am tempted to just let that be my entire review but after leaving, retrieving tea, and returning, that would probably do a great disservice to the amazingly devastating poem. It evokes a world in crisis. In conflict. Where pressures domestically and abroad have been destabilized. This is a future world where conflict is the norm and the main character and their partner meet it by…well, by avoiding it. By escaping into each other and their routine, by pretending that they are safe because they love. And it works, as much as it can work, which is to say that it works until it doesn't. But I love the feel of it, these people living in times where there is no real safety, having to make peace with that by not making peace with it, by ignoring it and smoking a joint and embracing and turning off the news. And I love that feeling because it seems like what one does in the face of uncertainty, in the face of relative comfort and relative powerlessness. There are rallies and there are calls to action but the narrator just wants…peace. Peace that isn't allowed them, that is shattered along with a windshield when the world effectively ends. When one world effectively ends and when the narrator needs to decide to do something. It's a difficult poem and for me a heartbreaking one, brought home by an incredibly final line that is stuck in my head, that despite the calming tea still has this ball of feeling in the center of my chest. It is good. It is good and you need to read it. Go on, now. Read it!
"The Ash Manifesto" by R.B. Lemberg
I love the manifesto element of this poem, that it feels to me that here is a phoenix laying out its plan of action. There is such a swell of power and purpose here, an urge to resist, to rebel, and to do it in a way that the phoenix here can have full ownership of. The poem is short but punchy, the narrator refusing to relinquish agency to some outside force or movement. No, the poem seems to speak to me, I will not lash my expectations, my power, to any other cause. I will fight my fight. I will burn my way. And when I am small it is my smallness. And when I rage it is my rage. There is something so affirming about that, something that just makes me smile. I feel like there is always the pressure to fit yourself in to some other movement. To walk some line of acceptability that will make it somehow okay for other people to grant you what everyone else takes for granted. The poem feels to me like a refusal to be acceptable, to be comfortable. It seems to say no, I will not bend like that. There is power in me that will either find its expression or will kill me. And I love that. I love the way that it seems to open up, how it speaks to burning and to fire and to splendor. That urge to create something and not apologize for it, not distort it, not smooth it out into some quality of smoothness and coolness. To be sharp and aflame and free. The last line speaks to me of storms and space, of being unrestrained and refusing the artificial boundaries placed upon that which is boundless. The rules of art or resistance are thrown out and it's a powerful and burning poem that you should definitely check out!
"Communities: The End by Also the Beginning" by Renay
Two things struck me as I read this piece. First, I did not know this column had been running so long and I have no idea how I thought it started, like, last year? I am slow on the uptake at times. Woo. Secondly, I don't want it to be over! I've quite enjoyed this column and how it's looked at the fan community and how it's looked at blogging and reviewing and about canon and about everything, EVERYTHING. But it's an amazing way to take a bow, with this piece, which is celebratory but measured. It's a piece that strikes a balance between being a fan and being a professional, something that is always an interesting and rather loaded transition. SFF especially is somewhat…weird when it comes to its fan spaces, because some of the biggest fans I know of are creators as well. And when you have that, when you have fans talking to fans talking to creators talking to creators talking to publishers talking to fans…I'm a little dizzy. But it is a great discussion to have, because the fan/creator divide is one that is hazy to start and only gets more hazy the more attention you get as a fan. People go into SFF blogging as fans, yes, definitely, but also as writers of creative nonfiction. Reviews are creative nonfiction, really, and so you get fans who are fans of fans who are fans of…okay, I will refrain from running in circles again. Just saying, that there's this cat's cradle of lines between fans and creators and it creatures a very tricky world to navigate. And this column has been something of…well, not a map exactly. More like a guide. Pointing out the pitfalls and pointing out the places to take in the sights. And I am sad to see it go. It has been a great run and you'll definitely want to check this one out!
"Metagames: Pokémon Go and Staying Power" by Andrea Phillips
This is an article aimed at a certain kind of mobile game, a certain kind of mobile gamer. It's an interesting examination of games like Pokémon Go, which beg players to collect and to play for dwindling returns. And confession time, people. I quite like games like this. But then, most people quite like games like this. The article mentions 2 games, the Pokémons and Neko Atsume, which are like the only games that I play on the phone (DAMN YOU PEACHES AND YOUR STINGY SHRIVELLED SOUL). But this article does hit rather nicely why these games have a rather limited lifespan and how they really aren't designed to keep people engaged and interested. I play Pokémon Go but rather casually. I'm level…16 maybe. Nothing special. I play and I enjoy walking around searching for the mons. It's rather fun especially in the downtown area near where I live (it's a little college town with a ton of stops and gyms). But I don't really do battling because I've never been a high enough level. I go around and collect and hatch eggs and things like that but I don't spend money on the game. And it's true that I get out less now. I want to sort of compare it to a different sort of game that is somewhat similar: Geocaching. Which is great and I like but that also has something of diminishing returns. It's a GPS scavenger hunt type thing that is quite fun and takes you to some really neat places. It can be incredibly fun and incredibly frustrating and it's quite nice to go around and hit up caches and things like that. But…well, after a while you do a lot of the ones in the area. You have to go farther and farther away to find new caches. Some new ones appear, yes, and you can place your own, yes, but there's also the fact that the people who really stay with it can be…intense (and just plain assholes sometimes). And so it's easy to just…lapse occasionally. But then, it's still fun when traveling. It's fun to check out new locations. But I think it sums up my feelings on Pokémon Go. After a while, the freshness does fade. But I don't really want to hold that against Pokémon Go. I have loved the game. It's given me quite a bit of entertainment for free. I'll probably keep playing (though winter is almost here and things might get…bleak, then). But I'll probably also drop it once I get into the next thing. And the next thing. Because I like that I can just walk away after awhile, that I can keep discovering new things. The perfect game isn't exactly to me the game I will play forever. But I really like how this column looks at gaming and mobile gaming especially. A fine read!