|Art by Alan Bao|
“An Ever-Expanding Flash of Light” by Timothy Mudie (4790 words)
This is a rather sweet and rather heartbreaking story about time and about hope, about the future and about cancer. At its core, it’s about Tone and Irina, a couple who are as deeply in love as they are vey different—Irina a scientist, Tone a poet. When Irina gets sick, Tone refuses to accept it, and together they come up with a plan where both of them might be able to live to see a future where things are different, where cancer has a cure. It’s an incredibly wrenching premise and it explores the time that Tone and Irina spend apart, as well as the time that they effectively skip over. And the story takes aim, for me, at the idea that illness will be magically cured in the future. I’m remembering the moment in Star Trek where Bones just gives someone a pill for a terminal illness, and how people have this romantic vision of what the future can bring. And how, effectively, for those facing illness like that, the future can be a way of denying a situation. For Tone, it’s an escape that might offer him a cheat to avoid the death of the person he loves. For Irina, it’s a chance to take, but something she seems to do more for Tone than for herself. Tone’s journey through time and through the galaxy is fun while being touched by tragedy, by a heavy bittersweet note. It’s a tour of a future that changes but not in the ways Tone wants. And the story brings this to a lovely and touching crescendo, showing how Tone must eventually face the situation, must stop running, and how together the two of them decide to banish the romantic vagueness of the future and embrace the realities of it. With hope and resilience and strength, together and still full of love. It’s a fantastic way to kick off the issue!
“Ugo” by Giovanni De Feo (7230 words)
To me, this is a story about uncertainty and about the future, about knowing what is coming, where life is leading, and walking the line between treating it as inevitable and trying to do something about it. The plot follows Cynthia, a young girl who meets a boy named Ugo, who seems to be something of a time traveler. Or, perhaps more accurately, he’s become unstuck in his own timeline, Leaping forward and back, remembering everything, trying desperately to maintain the timeline that he thinks is true, certain that if he deviates he will somehow cease to be. The story begins with Ugo but is really more about Cynthia. About her coming to terms with the story that Ugo tells, about her being confronted by this idea that he knows the future, that he’s seen the future, that there is some path laid out for her, and having moments when she wants to believe him and times when she wants to reject him. And beyond that it’s about the uncertainty of the future and about love. In that it’s very well paired with the previous story, because both are about working toward a future that seems set in stone and yet might not be. This story leaves things much more up in the air about whether or not certain aspects of the story are speculative but the main heart of things seems to be what Cynthia believes. [SPOILERS] I’m vaguely uncomfortable that I can see a reading that sees Ugo as this guy who sacrifices himself for Cynthia’s dreams and then she’s “punished” for it by not really being able to enjoy the fulfillment of those dreams, and by extension there’s a gentle tug that might be reprimanding her for wanting more than the life she was destined to have with Ugo, but at the same time I can see a more hopeful story here as well, about not being a slave to the future or to expectations, and to believing in a world where anything is possible. The story isn’t exactly tragic, but another story with bittersweet tones and a sense of hope even in the face of loss. So yeah, it’s certainly an interesting story that I recommend checking out!
“The Last Cheng Beng Gift” by Jaymee Goh (3025 words)
This story speaks to me of parents and children, of death and life. Mrs. Lim is a ghost living in the underworld awaiting the gifts that come to her every year for Cheng Beng. She is a force of a woman, the matriarch of her family while alive, important and vital and in charge of making sure that her family flourished. And in death she can finally begin to relax, only it doesn’t really seem to be the case. And, truly, a lot of her concern comes from her one child who she never got on very well with, who never fit into the plan for the family that Mrs. Lim had. And yet every year Hong Yin sends her something. It’s just...not what she expects. Not what she really wants. Instead of the proper gifts of clothes and things like that, Hong Yin gives her mother coupons for a fish spa. Or an actual fish spa itself. And Mrs. Lim, despite the way these gifts show care and even love, cannot quite get over that they aren’t what she expects. It strikes at the relationship between Mrs. Lim and Hong Yin, one that was dominated by Mrs. Lim trying to force her daughter to conform to what was expected. In death, Mrs. Lim still expects to be listened to, and yet it becomes more and more obvious that Hong Yin lives her own life to her own passions, and though Mrs. Lim did what she thought was right by her daughter, what she really might have done was doom them to a fractured relationship. And that’s something that no ordering or anger or reprimand can fix. It’s a story that really delves into the relationship between the living and the living, the living and the dead. It’s about the ways that parents can impact their children in all sorts of ways, even after their gone. And in some ways it’s about putting ghosts to rest, and leaving behind mortal concerns with mortality. It’s a fun story with a nice bit of humor and a heaping helping of heartwarming. It’s another great read!
“A Pound of Darkness, a Quarter of Dreams” by Tony Ballantyne (5790 words)
This story takes is cues from the long tradition of contests with demons stories, and to a lesser degree deal with the devil stories. In it, Mr. Black visits Miss Scales, a shop keeper in a rather remote UK town wo also happens to be a veteran of a European War that involved souls, magic, and a hell of a lot of darkness. The tone of the story is quick and rather charming, the focus on the battle going on underneath the words that Mr. Black and Miss Scales are using, both of them fighting for much more than just the wares in the shop. And I like how that is built up, how Mr. Black represents a changing times that are a threat of the small-scale and more community-oriented business that Miss Scales is running. Of course, part of that tiptoes close to being more of a “changing times are bad” that sometimes crops up when thinking about capitalism, which also runs the risk of romanticizing small towns and their myriad problems, but the story mostly avoids all that by focusing on the conflict between Miss Scales, who represents compassion and freedom, and Mr. Black, who drapes himself in the language of freedom while offering everything but. So it’s an interesting framing of the larger conflict and I do like that the contest they agree on is both classic and complicated by an early failed gambit on Miss Scales part. The ending comes with something of a neat twist that speaks to redemption and hope, and while any story that takes on the nature of souls is one that you might have to take with a grain of salt at times, I do very much like what the story did with that. it’s charming and fun and manages to blaze some new territory in a rather classic trope. A fine way to close out the issue!