Thursday, August 17, 2017

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 08/07/2017 & 08/14/2017

There's a pair of stories and a pair of poems in the first two weeks of Strange Horizons' August content. The stories present brilliant portrayals of minds that are part human and part computer. Minds that have been made into something else—into a ship, into a solar collector. This is not always a consensual act, and the stories look not only of the cost of such a transformation, but how these new beings interact with their world, their civilizations. Through war and extinction, the stories manage two very powerful looks at decay and hope. The poems as well provide a nice array of strange ideas and poignant memories, as they tour a house of birds and the filmography of a dead actor. It's an incredibly two weeks of content, and I will just get to the reviews!

Art by Galen Dara

“These Constellations Will Be Yours” by Elaine Cuyegkeng (4961 words)

Aww. This is an amazing story about colonialism and slavery, pain and conditioning and empire. It finds the main character, a person who has been wired into a ship, who is part of a tradition of flesh and mind that joins living people, psychics who can see the possible futures, to ships, to provide faster than light travel that is coveted throughout the galaxy. The main character has gone through this procedure, has been made into a ship, and the story opens up as she is introduced to another like her, a young woman who is on her way off world to school, but who is from a family wealthy enough so that she avoids the fate of the main character, the narrator. Which of course carries with it a host of conflicted emotions for the narrator, who has to face that she has been made into something different, has been broken and remade in someone else’s vision. I love how the story doesn’t hide from that, the bitterness that the narrator feels toward this other person because she was spared and the narrator wasn’t. And anger at her because there seems to be no other direction to point the rage and hurt that the narrator feels, because pointing at where it belongs, at the people who hurt them, the people who have exploited their people, seems impossible. Only, it turns out, maybe it’s not. I like how so much of the story plays out with the narrator only an observer, and a distant one at that, acting according to the path they’ve been set on and never really entertaining that it can be any other way, but still not completely broken, not unable of acting when injustice is piled on injustice so high that it all must come crashing down. And it’s an amazing moment, full of hope and pain all at once, showing that resistance sometimes means losing something you’ve been told is valuable, when really it’s just a distraction from a deeper truth, that without freedom and justice value has little meaning. The story does a fantastic job of world building this entire galaxy while keeping the core conflict small enough to understand and intimate enough that the character beats hit hard. It’s a wonderful story and you should definitely give it a read!

“unfurl/ed” by Jes Rausch (2442 words)

In some ways this story reminds me of some of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: TNG, where the crew comes across some alien relic leftover from a civilization that has passed, that has suffered some great loss, and in finding this artifact they help to preserve a bit of what those people were. Except here there is no narrative happy ending to extinction, only time and distance and the slow fray of personalities trapped inside a computer, cycling endlessly onward, inward, and downward into disrepair and dissolution. It is a heartbreaking story that finds four minds inhabiting a solar collector orbiting a world that was once thriving, and now...well, that’s a bit of the mystery that propels the story forward, to figure out what exactly has happened. For four beings sharing the same computer gestalt, there are distinctions among then, and secrets. There aren’t supposed to be, but then, the solar collector was probably never supposed to last so long. And as the story moves [SPOILERS] it becomes more and more clear that the program, that the people, are trying to protect against the final dark, the final end. Mixed into that are a series of increasing glitches that correspond to the overtaxing of the hardware the program is running on and the reality that one of the personalities is keeping something from the others. I love the personalities given to the separate beings inside the program, and their situation is wrenching and increasingly bleak. The story shows the horror of memory loss as it effects not human minds but computer consciousnesses, and the decisions of one of the beings as they are forced into more and more difficult territory. The ending on the Star Trek episode would be bittersweet, but here there is no promise of rescue, no real hope to the situation outside an inevitable decay and destruction. And yet the beings still reach for life, for as long as possible, for as good as they can make it, never truly losing hope that something might happen, that help might come. And it’s beautiful and dark and you should definitely go read this story!


“Bird House” by Holly Lyn Walrath

This is a rather strange and rather dense prose-poem that revolves around birds and the dwellings of birds. More specifically, it seems to be a sort of tour through the narrator’s house, which they share with a great many birds, one or more for every room, and each a different kind of omen, a different kind of companion. The poem is constructed room by room and bird by bird, each paired to give added meaning and depth to the piece. And I like how the poem slowly reveals a darkness that grows and grows as the tour progresses, as the reader is shown through each room, learns each wound that the birds seem to represent. There are dead siblings and dead children and a basement of imprisonment and immortality. It’s a wonderful way to explore a place and a person, these birds revealing something about them and where they live. For me, the poem has a heavy feel to it, a sense of decay and loss. The narrator lives with these birds and yet they aren’t exactly great company, and they keep the narrator alone, isolated, subject to these presences that make them something of an outsider even in their own house. It mixes myth and bird lore with much more contemporary flavors, and I like how it all comes together, magical but not really clean. It’s long for a poem, with blocks of prose instead of lines of verse, but it still works for me as a poem, that careful mixing of metaphor and reality, the tour slowly bringing into focus a slow sort of horror, and a lingering unease that’s disquieting. A great read!

“Ode to Dwight Frye” by Gwynne Garfinkle

As the title implies, this is an ode to an actor known for his roles in monster movies. Not as famous as the monsters that were portrayed, but instead playing the smaller parts of those people destroyed by monsters. The ones who are driven mad, or are attacked and killed before the heroes quite know what’s happening. His character is the warning for others to heed, the way that the audience knows who is the bad guy, and how wicked they are. It’s an interesting choice, and I like the way the poem captures him, captures his career and what he might have meant to people. His death, mentioned at the onset, is almost mundane, but for the implications of the rest of the poem. That, if he is the perpetual victim, the note of warning for the audience to know who to root for, here he seems to have been killed by Hollywood itself, by a city or a culture that prizes the monsters and forgets about the victims. At least for me, without having much familiarity with the actor himself, the poem seems to speak as a kind of warning and reminder that in the real world there are not often such obvious monsters as in movies (though sometimes the monsters are every bit as obvious and awful), and that we must keep our eyes open. It’s also a touching way to say good bye to a man that many people probably overlook in favor of more famous names, and there’s something I like in that, too, that reaching past the big lights to the person doing the best he could. It’s a great poem!


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