|Art by Ashley Mackenzie
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (2023 words)
This is a blazingly dark story about perception and difference, about the injustices that have been delivered onto those who don’t fit into the category of “normal.” Those who are deemed medical curiosities. Freaks. The story is framed as a sort of tour being given in the second person, the reader becoming someone seeking this show, this museum, this attraction that promises something forbidden and strange. It’s a framing technique that I appreciate, that puts the reader into the position of walking through a portal into a very different kind of fantasy. In many ways this is an portal anti-fantasy, where the participant is put into the lived experience of those who have gone through a medical system that is not in the practice of nurturing empathy but rather treats difference as something to dissected and studied and published about, with the human element and cost buried under the data and the pseudo-science. In many ways the fantasy is that medical science wasn’t just plain sadistic and evil with how it has and in many ways continues to treat people who are different, and I like that the story forces the reader into the narrow confines, denies them a proper voice, allows this person to speak for them as they lead the reader ever on. It’s a story with a strong vein of horror, but it also twists expectations when it comes to these kinds of horror stories. Normally, after all, the retribution visited on the “normal” people is violent, is revenge in the bloodiest sense. Here, though, the violence does not come from someone pushed into rage. The anger is there, beneath the words of the narrator, but all the violence comes from the person doing the tour. What the portal provides, what the story provides and is primarily concerned with to me, is reflection, showing the reader the horror that comes from within this character who is immobilized by the depth of the pain that has been caused, the harm done. It’s a vividly unsettling story, one that doesn’t let the reader look away, and it’s a strange and gutting experience, but also a great read!
“Henosis” by N.K. Jemisin (2004 words)
This story speaks to me of legacy, and the line between an artist and their audience. It features Harkim, an aging writing whose latest book is up for a very special kind of award, the Opus. The story is told out of order, as well, which I think gives the story a nice impact, especially starting as it does at such a dramatic moment and then pulling out from there, messing up the setup to that moment and giving it extra context before truly revealing what’s going on. It’s a story that leans a bit on tropes of authors and fans, most famously probably Misery, but it twists it delightfully, imagining a situation where it’s not really fans who pose the greatest threat to authors, but the authors themselves. Which is an interesting direction to take, especially because so much of the story rings true with the fears of writing, of growing older, of being recognized. I think the story looks at what authors might fear more than death—being forgotten. It plays into the idea that creating texts is in some ways a push toward immortality, Harkim’s desire is to go out on top, to not have to face not just getting older and perhaps having his faculties decrease, but growing out of touch with readers so that his best work is deemed behind him. Which puts the fan of the story in a strange situation, still selfish in her desires to Do Something about the situation but not precisely sure how. For me it complicates things some that Harkim is an older man while the fan is a younger woman who Harkim tries to infantilize, dismissing her concerns as naive. And stories about writing are always interesting to me, because I see here, at least, the frustration and push/pull between not only writers and fans but writers and awards and accolades and publishing at large. Harkim has completely bought into this idea that he is not his own person, that writers need to give themselves fully to the craft, to the industry. And that it’s an industry complicates that it’s also art, and while the art can be amazing, the industry is still capitalist and as such about exploiting labor. And in the end it’s a strange experience, slightly disjointed but creating a compelling whole that doesn’t so much provide a map forward as it describes or perhaps diagnoses a problem. A fascinating read!
“Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney (5793 words)
This is a rather fun but very strange story about transformations and stories, about fear and destruction and friendship. The world has changed ever since the night the sky turned silver, and every person seems to have been transformed, given Endowments that are supposed to help them navigate the new world they find themselves in. And Emma Anne, formerly Emma Santiago when she was an older woman who could never remember to RSVP to Bunko night, is now a perpetual child. The event that caused everything is never fully explained, but it does provide a vivid and weird backdrop for the story, where Emma Anne must fend for herself, her only real friend a pirate captain and a pair of possibly alien stuffed animals. To add to this already surreal landscape, it turns out that Emma Anne is being stalked by something, by the Loping Man, a dark entity that seems intent on destroying her. Alone and without anyone to really rely on, Emma Anne navigates the world gripped by fear and wonder, not sure what anything means or why she’s ended up the way she is, and not quite willing to embrace it. I love how the story sets up the characters, from Emma Anne to Captain Howard to everyone else, and how it sets them in this world that basically has become a story from a book. It Emma Anne was always dissatisfied with her life before, sure that she had missed out on something, she doesn’t quite see this new world as the opportunity it could be. And yet really the story plays with the fact that she was always late to great effect, revealing the moment when she starts to get it, when she starts to perhaps understand the shape the world has taken. Not as something making complete sense, but as something that she needs to embrace or perish by. By keeping it at arm’s length she’s keeping herself isolated and alone, and I love where the story goes with that, crafting a tale that is gripping and tense and weird as all fuck but really a delightful experience. Go read it!
“Birth, Place” by Brandon O’Brien
This is a deep and moving look at the idea of home and a history that has seen that idea complicated, stolen, and taken again. And I love how the piece uses its title to weave all these elements together, to take the concepts and words of birth and place separate, to dive down into the underlying feeling of having a birthplace. For many, after all, and especially those who have been part of diasporas or who have been otherwise displaced from the home of their family and ancestors, a birthplace might be a very complex thing. And it’s something the narrator of the poem seems to wrestle with, growing in a place that does not really feel safe, that does not feel right enough. And so they engage in trying to create their own land. A new land. A home in a sea of hostility, somewhere to carry the magic they hold within and to pass it along to people who have not yet been born. So in many ways then the birth refers to both the act of creating the land and the promise of future births to populate it, to hold it, to essentially wipe it clean of the legacy that the place holds. And really for me I feel the story explores not having something of a homeland. Of having been cut from it and transplanted into foreign soil and expected to grow to suit those people already there. And what is undoubtedly to those people responsible for that transplant, that abduction, the poem becomes about a sort of invasive presence. Those people they wanted for their garden have begun to change it, and the result in something that doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of the intended place. Instead, something new and different is growing and the poem captures the power of it beautifully, that without any other tools the narrator and others are creating something from themselves, planting a land, creating a home that can be theirs. It’s not a fast project, but the point is to put down roots so deep they cannot be pulled out. To have a space even in the heart of this place that was hostile, that was foreign, and make it sovereign and safe and joyful. It’s an amazing piece that I definitely recommend spending some time with!
“Too Much Dystopia?” by Jo Walton
This poem echoes a sentiment of late that there’s a bit too large a focus on dystopian narratives, especially in the face of an increasingly grim reality requiring greater and greater excesses in order to qualify a piece as dystopian. And hey, it’s always rather impressive to find a piece that can maintain a rhyming pattern throughout, as this poem does. At the same time, I will admit that this view of dystopic stories is one that I’m not sure I’m wholly comfortable with. Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve penned a few dystopic stories myself, but I do get the feeling that while there is a certain kind of dystopia reading that sees the stories as allowing the reader to be comfortable and complacent, there is another reading that might state that the point is to make the reader less comfortable. Not to desensitize them to injustice, but to keep reminding them of the injustices all around them. Dystopic stories, after all, are almost always about people fighting against that future, that darkness, that horror. It’s about people resisting and doing so against institutions and systems that are huge and seem undefeatable. Where they are not defeated, and the heroes crushed, and the injustice sustained, the point seems to push readers into not waiting, to act before it’s too late. Where the heroes win and the dark future begins to maybe look a bit lighter, the point seems to be to show that even huge systems can be successfully resisted and defeated, and that people should be fighting back even though they might be scared. I like the poem, and appreciate what it’s trying to say, but especially of late I’ve grown increasingly wary of the arc of justice or any thought that progress is inevitable. It should happen. We should fight for it to happen. But oftentimes hope without discomfort, without a call to push and never stop pushing, is just as dangerous as seeing the battle as already lost. But I do like how the poem provoked me, and it’s quite possible you’ll have a completely different reaction, so I certainly recommend checking it out and seeing what you think.