Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Quick Sips - Mothership Zeta #6

Well I guess I got a little confused because I thought Mothership Zeta already was on hiatus. The good news is that I was wrong and here's a whole new issue packed with stories to read. The bad news is that I was only off by an issue and this _does_ represent the last from the publication for a while, though I hope not forever. It's a wonderful mix of stories, though, that explore the idea of fun in SFF as well as look at hope and possibility. Many of the stories here are about opportunity, after all, and about life. About those moments when the world seems to open up, with all the fear and all the hesitation that goes along with it. But that shows, in those moments, the hope for humanity, that people are willing to work for a better future. For a better world. That people, even when perhaps they shouldn't, will reach out with compassion. Will keep reaching out. And the stories all look at how we as humans reach out in hope and fear, and how we try to find meaning in a world that is often harsh, and often dangerous. Time to review!

Art by Elizabeth Leggett
"Thursday in the Ice Fortress of Zelatharia the Terrible" by Sarah Crowe (1150 words)

This is a rather cute and fun story that kicks the issue off on a lighter note, though also a wry one. The story is framed as a series of notes that an employee of a supervillain makes throughout her day. The story thrives on the way that it revels in the excesses of supervillainy, the way that the main character has this nearly bored resignation when going through it all. Or maybe that's not quite right. I love the way that the character seems both resigned to this and two seconds away from just walking away. Because it captures the reality of many people—that their jobs are killing them. That they are working for people who seem to have no regard for their well being. That they have to deal with threats both large and small. Annoyances and mistakes that mean losing money, that mean being screwed over time and again. And the main character here copes with taking notes. Copes because for all that this is awful she can't afford to quit. Which in some ways her bosses have to know. That they take advantage of misery and misfortune to make workers work harder. Faster. More efficiently and with worse compensation. Which makes capitalism the real supervillain. All the ways that corporations and business seek to turn people into little more than machines. Into drones. Into henchpeople. And the story does a nice job of that, of showing that this system only makes sense if the people at the top are actually evil. And so since this is something that we can see in a great many places… I like the tone and I like the ridiculousness of so much of this even as it sinks in that this isn't ridiculous. This is much closer to the truth than most people want to admit. An excellent way to start off the issue!

"The Remora" by Matthew Claxton (5000 words)

This story keeps the balance between an almost creepy darkness and a zany fun going with a story of Fitz, a loss prevention agent caught in a dangerous situation because her visual implants have been hacked by a remora, a remote viewer who is keeping her from being able to call for help when an assignment goes bad. The story opens with a rush of action as Fitz fights against repurposed killer robots, mostly in the form of singing bank mascot bears. It's…well, it's rather adorable, to be honest, but also kind of terrifying. I like that the story isn't afraid to mix the ridiculous elements with something that's a good deal more serious, and that's the invasion that Fitz suffers by this remora who just wants to watch the action, and who actively seeks to make things more exciting by violating his ability to see through Fitz's eyes in order to help direct the attack against her. For her part, Fitz is able to keep just a step ahead, dodging attacks and figuring out what's really going on, and I like the way that just what's going on dawns on her slowly. Not that she's naïve or foolish but that she doesn't want to think that this guy suddenly in her head is so terrible a person. Which I think makes a lot of sense, because even for people who we know are doing things we don't agree with, we want to believe that they're operating with a shred of decency. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and yet we sometimes find that some people will only continue to operate in bad faith, and that they need to be stopped. Luckily the story does provide a glimpse at that, showing just how Fitz chooses to pursue matters. It's a fun and funny read, and certainly worth checking out!

"The Mango Tree" by Shveta Thakrar (5800 words)

This story doesn't loose any of the humor, action, or darkness of the previous pieces, though it does present a main character, Lata, who's a bit younger than in the last two stories. But this is a piece that is interested in quite a few things. Healing and growing, magic and food. And oh, the descriptions of food here are amazing as the action derives mostly from a man appearing from a mango tree and confronting Lata with the prospect of her future. Demanding that she confront the uncertainty over what she wants to do while also showing her that she has the gifts of a healer, that she has this ability to do good with it. It's a generational story, one that shows that there's a great value to be had in the lessons of previous generations, and the central relationship in the piece is between Lata and her grandmother. Lata represents some of the new, a young woman trying to be logical and sensible and not really sure what to make of many of her grandmother's beliefs. In magic and in spirits and in gods. And Lata gets something of an education in the form of a daring ride through the night and confrontation with some women who have been wronged. It's an interesting piece that moves quite quickly but does take the time to describe the ingredients in a meal and the scent of the air. It's a vaguely YA-tinged story that does a good job of building up the characters and the situation and showing that it's not really a bad thing to not be sure about the future as long as you're sure about your own power. It's another great read!

"Legendary Legend of the Darkly's Slayer" by J. R. Dawson (5500 words)

This is a story about prophecies and lies and the value of people. It takes aim squarely at the trope and idea of the Chosen One and then twists things around, makes them recognizable but uncomfortable. And really this is a the story of Annie, a poor and disabled girl who grows up with the Chosen One, who protects him from harm and works to try and make sure that he survives long enough to fulfill his destiny. Who travels with him and cares for him because of his honesty and because of his courage, which is no more than hers and yet warms her to see. It's a kind of story and even Annie finds comfort in it, though it continually shuts her out and tries to erase her. It constantly abuses her and makes fun of her, and yet she bears that because she finds value in it, because it gives her some direction. Until it comes time for the prophecy to be fulfilled and things…don't go the way anyone expected. And I love how the story then challenges the narrative of Chosen Ones, the way that it doesn't just let things stand, but also shows that for Annie there's little enough that she can do. That with Chosen Ones there is an element of living up to expectations, and everyone becomes invested in the story, even if it turns out to be untrue. And I like that because it shows just how dangerous those narratives can be, just how damaging, not just to Annie but to everyone. To the Chosen One who has to betray his friend and himself in order to fit the role he feels is required of him. The way that it all just reinforces lies and power structures that are not about light or love or justice. The way that it all creates its own shadow. It's a story that works for me because of the simplicity of the story, the frank style and the way that Annie strips away the façade of righteousness. It's another excellent story!

"Fairies and Tails" by S. Zahedi (450 words)

This story provides a much needed breath in the middle of the issue. The stories so far have been fun but most of them with a layer of darkness to them, and this story keeps some of that going, as well as the subverted trope direction of the last story, but gives a bit more hopeful spin on things. Because while the last story focused on how labels can fail and harm, this story shows a bit more how some labels—true love, for instance—can be a source of strength and beauty. The story reveals a mouse as its main character, and at least heavily implies that this is one of the forgotten characters of Cinderella, a mouse who had fallen in love with the human who graced his home until she escaped and left him behind. And in that this story is again nicely paired with the last piece as both focus on characters forgotten by larger narratives. This story, though, instead of rejecting those kinds of narratives, shows that every mouse has his day, and here the traditional narrative of fairy godmother, magic, true love, and quests, is expanded to fit this character inside. Now is his turn, the story claims, and in executing this turn the story reveals a hope, not that this quest will allow him his heart's desire exactly, but that it will allow him to escape the oppression of his situation and find his destiny out in the world. It's a story that puts value on being active even in a world of magic, because magic will not fix your problems, but it might open doors and provide opportunities to fix them yourself. It's a nice message and a great little story that manages in a very short space to do some very big things (even with a main characters as small as a mouse). Go check it out!

"Montreal, 2014" by Madeline Ray (4500 words)

This story features a Sphinx, or perhaps the Sphinx, living in a modern Montreal and meeting a woman who intrigues her. The Sphinx here is an immortal, detached from many human concepts like death and lust but still like humans in some ways. Experiencing hunger (for human flesh, no less) and curiosity and loneliness. It's this last that propels the story forward, as the Sphinx meets Nashwa, and the two begin to investigate each other. It's a quieter piece than most of the rest in the issue, without a whole lot of action aside from the occasional human eating. But it also has the charm of the main character, a person who has lived so long and has an entirely different concept of time and life but who is still fascinated by humanity. Who still yearns for conversation and intellectual engagement. The story doesn't shy away from exploring the moral implications of eating humans, and neither does it shy away from the ways that humans treat fraternity and empathy. The story is in many ways a series of philosophical discussions that allow the characters to get to know each other, and part of what I like about the story is the way that these conversations circle around hunger and needs. The different ways that these characters hunger, not just for food and flavors but for stimulation and bonds. The story does a great job, too, of showing these two people approaching a new relationship completely unsure of the other, wanting to reach out and empathize but afraid. And finding in their effort something beautiful and worth the effort and risk. That they don't want to hurt each other. And that it doesn't mean that they won't, it does mean they have a place to start from. It's a wonderful story!

"Over and Over Until the End" by Miranda Suri (5400 words)

This story seems to me to be about cycles and regret, about abuse and about potential and about despair. The story features Pheryllt, a man who sought to unlock the magic of immortality and instead got himself stuck inside a box that would become his prison, that would make him like genie, able to grant a wish for each person to open the box but unable to do anything to save himself. The story opens as he's been summoned again, but this time things are different. This time Earth has been abandoned and the last vestiges of humanity are spread in space, dwindling, nearly gone. And Pheryllt must face that his journey might be nearing its end. That maybe he'll never be called back after this. And it brings up the conflict between exhaustion and ambition, between wanting to live and be free and just wanting to be released from the cycle, even if that means death. It's a conflict that finds other actors as well, women aboard the ship he finds himself on, and he's pulled along in their wake because he cannot act on his own. It's a story that looks at this cycle, this knowledge that things go around and around and for Pheryllt they don't change. They don't get better. It's just variations on a theme. And seeing that pattern, the question becomes how worth it is it to continue? What will change when change, real change, doesn't seem possible? But that's also why I like the story [SPOILERS[, because its answer has to do with the nature of hope, that things can change. That we can break out of abuse and damaging cycles. That we can start something new. And maybe, given how the story goes, that's unreasonable. Maybe it will damn everything. But things were pretty damned as it was. Hoping means keeping the possibility alive that things can get better, and the story does a lovely job exploring that. Indeed!

"Aeternum" by Anna F. Humphrey (1050 words)

It's interesting that the second half of the issue has been dominated by stories that center around a leap of faith. Of seeing a doorway, either real or metaphoric, and jumping through it. Despire what reason might imply. Or logic. And this story, the very last of the issue and other rather short one, further explores that moment, that urge to leap away from the ordinary and expected and familiar and reach into someplace new. Or perhaps I misspeak a little bit, because it's not that these places are wholly unfamiliar. But they _are_ new. And their newness, their novelty, speaks to some part of us as humans who yearn for something different. Who dream of something better than here. Who feel something resonating deep inside for a place that isn't quite here, that has something that we're missing. And the story explores this by showing someone staying in an ice cavern overnight and finding an answering call to the note within themselves, finding a portal to step through into a place that feels right. It's a magical and lyrical story that revels in the lights and sounds of this belonging, of this discovery, and the story is sure to ground the main character in the rational, in the skeptical. And yet the power and the beauty that they find in this place that defies their training teaches them something about the universe and about themselves, and it's a great and uplifting story about transformations and journeys. Like many of the pieces in this second half of the issue, it shows that hope lies in the taking of chances. It's not as simple as a magic doorway opens and perfection is on the other side. It's that a magical doorway opens and a challenge waits on the other side. That, essentially, it's not about the stepping through but what happens after that, about the potential and the hope and the new frontiers. It's a great story and a fantastic way to close out the issue. I can only hope that this doesn't mark the last we see from the publications. 


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