|Art by Reiko Murakami|
“Tongue” by Ashok K. Banker (2580 words)
I will admit that I’m missing some of the cultural knowledge to comment on some parts of this story, but at its heart it’s speaking to something that’s in no way unique to any specific culture—misogyny. In particular, it’s looking at the ways that women are made into property through the institution of marriage, how they are made into objects for their husbands to use and exploit. And the story explores this through a very interesting frame—a family visiting the home of a woman. The story is narrated, after all, is a one-sided conversation that this woman is having with the never-quite-seen visitors. And the frame is a huge reason why I love this story. Because as the narrator speaks and reveals her story—married at the age of nine to an older man who had been married multiple times—the nature of the visit and these visitors becomes more and more important. As outsiders, they become something of a source of hope. The narrator has been brutally conditioned to believe that she has no real worth outside of her use to her husband, and it has cost her so much. And because she doesn’t seem able to see what is wrong with her situation, or perhaps because she can’t say that it’s wrong for fear of what would happen, these visitors hold the power of being outsiders who can reach into her story and pull her out. Who can turn the injustices in the story into something perhaps redemptive, and who might be able to stop the generational tragedy from happening. And where the story goes with that is gripping and heartbreaking. The science fiction elements of the story shine as well, imagining the problems of Earth very much still in play far away from the planet, where racism and inequality and capitalist exploitation all intact and still doing great harm. It’s not exactly an optimistic story but that’s hardly the point. Or, to me at least, the point is to see this and realize that if changes aren’t made now, the harm will always be passed on. That change and progress has to happen now, be fought for now, or else generation after generation will suffer. It’s an amazing story!
“An Inflexible Truth” by Christopher East (8450 words)
This is a story about neutrality and about news, about a man named Roland who works as a neutral news analyst who gets drawn into a plot that shakes him to the core. The story does a great job of building up a world and an America dealing with a mostly post-truth landscape. The media is broken and Roland wants to be a knight. He’s well named in that, this crusader for the truth, for all that he spends his battle at a desk, making sure the news that reaches the people is as free from spin as he can make it. When a colleague goes missing while on an assignment, though, Roland gets the itch to go out into the field, to actually be the one to capture the story. And so he goes out into the Nevada desert, to the site of former Las Vegas, now a waste, to find answers. What he finds instead, though, are more questions, and ones that he’s not very comfortable with. It’s a story that certainly takes its time with the events, slowly building up the situation that at first glance looks familiar—the desk jockey becoming the action hero, finding something important, being the hero. But Roland’s journey isn’t that one. The confrontation that is building throughout the earlier parts of the story comes not in the expected way, and not with the expected outcome. And really the story looks at truth in an interesting way, asking in some ways if it’s possible to really find that truth. Roland is the champion of an abstract idea, and in the end it doesn’t really give him power to act. The truth is passive. The truth just is. To do something, to craft a narrative, is to twist that truth, and the story does a nice job showing how that can work, and questions those who believe in something as vague and absolute as the truth. Which makes for, at least for me, a very interesting read!
“The Shining Hills” by Susan Palwick (3860 words)
This story speaks to me of portals and despair, of isolation and an escape from pain. It features Niff, a young woman seeking to enter into a different realm, to be taken away by strange lights that appear at the top of hills. She’s abroad in Scotland to accomplish her journey, but on her way to the top of the hill she’s stopped by Seamus, a police officer, who is as desperate to save her as she is to go. And I really appreciate how this story sets up the voices of both Niff and Seamus, and how it ultimately treats them. It’s something that resonates through especially stories that get told about younger people wanting to escape this world (typically through suicide, which the story faces rather directly). Seamus is the voice of a person who has been left behind, who sees it as a wrong that’s been done. His perception of Niff strips her of her agency. She’s a child, not understanding what she’s doing, she needs to be saved, etc. And Niff sees through this, feels in some ways that even as he pities and doesn’t trust her, he’s the more pitiable person, because he does this to try and assuage the guilt he feels that he wasn’t able to “save” someone that went. Which I feel often gets talked about over the voices of those people who choose to go. He doesn’t mention what his daughter might have wanted, and he really doesn’t offer Niff any reason to stay other than “think of those people you leave behind” which is a rather terrible thing to say, really. And I just like how the story handles it, how it presents these two views but still leaves the power with Niff, and shows that she’s not being childish or stupid or wrong. It’s a complicated and wrenching story that explores the idea of escape, of wanting to leave the world, and does it in a portal-fantasy way that’s a great wrinkle on that subgenre. There’s a single moment where I got a bit confused about whose viewpoint it was but otherwise the story flows beautifully back and forth and ends with a song and a curse and it’s just a great read!
“Ink” by Bruce McAllister (4270 words)
This is a beautiful and touching story about stamps and about patterns and about the power of making connections. It centers David, who begins the story as a young boy with hemophilia and as such is largely defined by that condition. He has to train the way he walks, and thinks, and his situation is more complicated because his father, who is in the military, is constantly moving around. When they end up in Italy, in a small coastal town, David begins collective stamps. And I like the way that the story treats collecting for David, that they are this way for him to take control over something when so much in his life seems out of control. And I love that the magic of the story, the miracle, does come from this moment of kindness, of two people making a connection and helping each other. And from that there is a spark of something beautiful and true that starts in motion a series of events that seem to cure David. It’s a situation that baffles his parents and his doctors, and it’s not something even he understands until much later. Now, the story isn’t exactly fast-paced. It’s a slower and more luminous story that explores magic in a rather interesting way. And it covers a lot of time, though most of it focuses on David’s past surrounding the disappearance of his illness. It’s well constructed though and I love the way everything comes together in the end, the little hints that blossom into the ending in all its subtle power. It’s...I don’t even know, it’s just goddamn pleasant, okay? Even with the omnipresence of blood and the danger of bleeding, the story finds a way to shine and reach for something wonderful. A great way to close out the issue!