|Art by Victo Ngai
“What Futures” by Su-Yee Lin (1134 words)
This story speaks to me of hope and despair, features a cyborg just trying to treated like a person, like man. He has left his home country behind, where cyborgs are common but without rights, and has come to Shanghai to find that he finally fits in. His work, though difficult, is rewarded, and it almost seems that things will go all right, that he will be able to completely escape from the legacy of his homeland. The story doesn’t allow the main character to find that uncomplicated joy or freedom, however. Instead, the story focuses on the ways that the world seems to push the main character back toward the situation he left behind, back towards the stifling oppression that it represents. Because of an accident. Random chance. The story doesn’t really talk about fate, but rather the mixed emotions that the main character feels being faced with a decision to make and having no good options. [SPOILERS] Whatever happens is a concession, is a risk. Go back to the place that doesn’t see him as a person or stay and risk the same treatment but more danger. I like the way that the real tragedy here is that the situation is so fragile. That it can be broken by one accident, by a single bit of bad luck. Like so many, their lives are poised on this razor-thin margin where they can live and maybe find some measure of happiness. Slip off of that, and they risk being cut and falling into something worse, not being able to regain that precious balance they had managed. And yet the story doesn’t despair completely. The main character retains some hope for the future, not because it is fair or will be easy but because he’s done it before. He made something and even if he loses it he can build it again, and there’s a strength he draws from that. It’s a quiet and rather sad story, but with a vein of shining hope that makes for a great read!
“Shadow Animals” by Stephen Graham Jones (4140 words)
This story is about a series of coincidences that lead to a rather shocking end. It’s a mystery, but more than that it’s a story about monsters and knowledge, about doubt and trust and betrayal. Ally is a woman taking a self-care day from work, and I love the way the story works with that, the energy and not-quite-guilt that gets her away from watching shows and to cleaning the apartment she shares with Travis, her boyfriend. It’s the way these little things stack together, all beginning with an annoying coworker who insists on opening a window, that lead Ally to finding something strange with Travis’ bite guard. And from there...well, the story does a nice job of capturing this slow apprehension, Ally trying to reassure herself that things are okay, that her relationship is healthy and fine, that she’s safe and can fix things. When really the truth that she stumbles across is something much larger and much darker than she suspects. There’s a very nice focus in the piece on breath, on the act of breathing and sleeping, and I like how it pulls things from sleep apnea to snoring to the sensation of not breathing and this incremental horror that grows and grows until the end is unavoidable. [SPOILERS] I also like how the story uses light and darkness, the whole escapade beginning in order to avoid the sun, and then the entire relationship that Ally and Travis have being traced back to that as well. So when the story fully reveals itself as something of a vampire piece, everything clicks and I love that moment of sudden escalation. It’s a piece that expected to be more of a science fiction, and the story does indeed invite speculation as to what the secret that Ally’s uncovering is. There are many explanations that might have been safer, less dark, but none I think that would have fit as well. it’s a great twist and one that I really wasn’t expecting until the very end, when Ally let the last hesitation to what was right in front of her melt away. It’s an effective and creepy bit of horror in part because it doesn’t really feel like a horror story until it’s too late. Definitely check out this one!
“The Sacrifice of the Hanged Monkey” by Minsoo Kang (4216 words)
This is a rather strange but also delightful story that’s presented as something of a historical curiosity. It delves into a setting in the distant past that is revealed in a damaged tome that reveals a huge empire conquering a much smaller land, one that worships the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob. I rather enjoy stories framed as found texts, in part because it has such a rich tradition and in part because it does make the reader something of a historical detective, placing together clues to try and figure out what exactly is happening in the text-within-the-text, and I like here that there are notes to assit the reader contextualize the inner-most story within the outer layers. And the tone of the piece is rather casual even as it is a history text, that carries with it the implication of more objectivity. The history has this strange flavor, though, as the text reveals what happened when this small kingdom was conquered and its god, Bob, disrespected. There is no main character, exactly, although the story does a great job of capturing the nature of both the prefect in charge of the military take-over and the people of the country of the Hanged Monkey. There is this conflict between the lazy and ambitious bureaucratic conqueror and a people who are deeply interested in their faith and in their identity, even as it doesn’t seem like it at all. [SPOILERS] And the story does a great job of just providing the clues for the reader to try and figure out, to try and riddle out the significance of what happened. The story’s notes intimate that the events are merely interesting and singular, but didn’t have wider impacts, but there’s the lingering implication that might be a lie, or an oversight. That it might just be that this one moment of disrespect for the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob did indeed lead an entire empire into decline and eventual ruin. And it’s a great move for the story to make, subtle and fun and funny and just great. Go read it!
“Serving Fish” by Christopher Caldwell (6018 words)
This story is about deals and about danger and about transformations. It features Eric, who as a boy saved a talking fish and so earned himself access to the power to make deals. To get things, though not without cost. Gay and nearly always at risk because of it, forced into dangerous places and situations in order to express himself, in order to be himself, Eric finds a long time passes before he calls on the magic of the fish he saved, and takes that first step toward something darker. The story is in many ways about the traps laid for the marginalized, how it is so difficult to resist making deals even when it might be obvious that the house always wins, and no matter how much a person might think they can have just a taste of magic and then walk away, that hunger might become too great, or circumstances might become such that dipping back is basically necessary. The tragedy of the piece is not that without the help of the fish that Eric would have lived a long, fulfilling life. The tragedy is rather that any way Eric moved, it was likely his story was going to be dominated by pain and loss and death. Which makes for a deeply unsettling read, watching Eric reach for this darkness and knowing that it’s not really the wrong choice, that indeed Eric is able to capture something of what he wants, is able to find some joy, even if it doesn’t seem to last. And that is something, even with how the story goes, even with the descent always an inevitable fate. I love how the story circles that, building up the character and his desire, his need, and then showing that for those who don’t fit in having what they want is often a game of making bargains in hopes that things will work out, but being aware that the game is rigged. The deck is stacked. Winning almost seems possible at times, but the horror of this story comes from the oppressive reality that despite how close safety seems, it is a narrow line to walk, and like with some of the previous stories, it shows how easy it is to stumble, or be made to stumble. It’s a wrenching and often beautiful story that is a great way to close out the original fiction in this special (and final) issue of Fantastic Stories!