|Art by Geneva Benton
“Sisyphus” by C. L. Clark (4331 words)
This is an incredibly intense story about intimacy and conditioning and the breaking of a person to make them into a weapon. The main character of the piece is in training to become an Elite Operative, something she thought was just a glorified soldier. In a future where that’s about the only path to security not just for yourself but for your family, it seems like a good idea, and she’s always enjoyed physical activity and competition, thinks that being an EO will be easy, maybe even enjoyable. What she doesn’t anticipate is that the training will be...well, it’s pretty fucking messed up. The killing of her past in order to make her into a creature of the government, of those who would use her, is quite literal in the story, and she must relive a hell every day until she can progress to the final level. The story itself opens as she begins a day and it is disturbing and yet makes a lot of sense given the setting, given the situation, given what she’ll be expected to do when she’s an EO. The story is very much about how she can be made into a weapon, but not only that, how she can be made into a weapon that will turn on those she was hoping to protect. The very reason she joined becomes the thing that needs to be destroyed, her loyalty and love for the people who care about her, and it is a gutting read. I love the way the story builds up, how it just keeps hitting with emotional bombshells, reaching an ending that is devastating and powerful and just, well, yeah. It’s a story that doesn’t flinch away from showing what it can mean for someone to join a system that specifically targets their own identities, that makes them first hate themself in order to maintain order for those with more. And glob, you should just read this one and experience it. A fantastic start to the issue!
“Forty Acres and a Mule” by Stephanie Malia Morris (2666 words)
This story manages to be rather unsettling and rather uplifting all at the same time, about histories of oppression and working toward healing, about connections to the land and to people and the way that relationships can free or suffocate. The piece follows Erin, who is home visiting her parents with her boyfriend, Caleb, and is drawn to the enormous pear tree in the yard. The relationship between Erin and Caleb is well captured, her black and him white (I’m guessing) and the racial tension present in the way he treats her and fails her even as she seeks to navigate her own feelings about him and how he makes her feel. It’s obvious that he doesn’t approve of her climbing a tree, though, and his presence in the story is a weight trying to pull her back to the ground, back toward his domain and his reach, where he can seek to control her. In the tree, away from his grasp, she begins to feel and reconnect a bit with her past and with her history, the tree something of a tether to the injustices that have visited her family while also becoming a gift and a hope. That the land that oversaw such harm done to them has been reclaimed, that it has been made into something that is protective and safe. The magic of the piece seems dangerous at first, the tree connecting back to a time when death and torture were common, and yet in invoking that I don’t feel the tree is being threatening (though it is a bit creepy) so much as reminding Erin and her family of what they have overcome to be in this place, to renew their connection to the land and give it a better, more joyous context. For Caleb, it’s a danger to see Erin realize that it’s not him that will catch her if she falls, and I love how the story circles around that, delivering a message that is positive and hopeful even as it might just be heralding an end to a certain relationship. Another great read!
“Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington (4144 words)
Those who know me know that I love short SFF that deals with cooking, and I love short SFF with happy queer people and, well, this story. People, this story! It is fun and amazing and features Bab, a young trans woman going to college after things not going well when she was put in boys’ housing and now getting a better chance in a women’s dorm. Thing is, she can’t quite shake the fear that she’s going to do something wrong and things will end up just the way things were before. The strongest voice against that fear isn’t a voice at all, but a magic portrait of her grandfather’s great-aunt, Barbara. The portrait is alive with magic, not able to talk exactly but certainly able to communicate with her expressions, with her familiar gestures. Bab takes comfort in having this bit of home with her at all times, even as she’s something of a stranger to the people around her, knowing that trust is a dangerous thing. And yet as the story moves it shows the power of not just confidence but cooking to bring people together and to work to ease the anxiety and stress that the world brings. For Bab, there really isn’t a way to guarantee success or safety, but there are ways to make life more bearable, more pleasant. Friends aren’t something she feels she can get, and in some ways it’s not that she needs many other people—what she’s done she’s done largely because of her own skills and drive, but that’s not to say that friendship and community wouldn’t be great helps, and I just love how the story handles that, portraying the fear and the hesitation so well but also showing that Bab doesn’t have to move through this situation alone and afraid. It’s fun and it’s affirming and it makes me hungry and you should definitely read this story. It’s amazing!
“Riley and Robot” by Arnica Ross (2801 words)
This is a wonderfully adorable story about a mom raising a son who is having some difficulties—making friends, mostly, but also just fitting in and finding a place to belong. For Nicey, the main character, the situation is made much harder by poverty, by the insecurity that comes from not being able to afford too many nice things, and having some of the not-so-nice things that are still necessary break down. Like the washing machine and dryer. To have to face the prospect that her son, Riley, is getting into trouble at school because in some ways he’s being bullied by the school itself, is...well, it’s incredibly frustrating and I like how the story captures that without making Nicey feel like this is something that she needs to take complete ownership of. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a story where the parent is respecting that the child’s problems are not really the child’s fault, while also acknowledging that the issue isn’t something that can really be fixed. Riley is a bit different, and the system isn’t really designed for him, but it’s the only system that they have access to, I like how Nicey listens to her son and allows him to be angry and tries to work with him toward solutions, keeping in mind his status as an individual and human fully capable of consent. The speculative element, the robot that anchors half of the title, is a great way to confront a bit of the underlying problem, a way of showing that sometimes what helps those even struggling with money is to be able to buy something nice, something that will make at least one thing easier. For Nicey, that means trying to help her son focus his energy and feel better, which might in turn allow him to do better in school, get in trouble less, and ultimately thrive more. It’s not a perfect solution, as poverty rarely offers those, but it is a sweet and moving look at this one act and how it might impact, how it might help, and the joy it creates. It’s a lovely and touching story that you should make time for!
“Excavate” by Melody Gordon (3770 words)
This story speaks to me of healing and pain, of delving into the past to find reserves of strength and connection that might otherwise have gone unknown, untapped—erased. For Danielle and her family, the Pearsons, pain is something that they’ve become well acquainted with, each in rather different ways, though for each of them it has gotten them depressed and rather desperate to find a way out of the cloud that seems to be hanging over them, bringing them misery. When they hear of an experimental program that promises to make them feel better, they jump at it, and find that by experimental it means...well, downright magical. The story does a fantastic job of capturing a fast pace and rather thrilling sequence as the family airdrops onto a Southern plantation in an attempt to find and excavate the soul of one of their ancestors. And I like how that works, that in some ways the story is about the power of digging into the past, of finding the connections that time and records and racism and a broken system might have blurred and obscured. The act of bringing back the past, of rescuing this person who endured so much, who survived so much, in some ways allows the family to find the strength in themselves to keep going, to break the spell that seemed to be keeping them down. It’s a story about magic, and about hope, and the power of knowing that someone can understand fully the pain that you’re going through, and can offer some hope that the storms will be weathered, that there is a future yet to fight for. It’s another fun story and one with a family in jetpacks killing zombie slave-owners and well, do you need more of a reason to check this story out? It’s kinda weird but heartwarming and an amazing way not only to close out the fiction for the issue, but to round out an amazing first year of fiction from the publication as a whole. A great story!
“Journey of the Dead” by Resoketswe Manenzhe
This poem to me speaks to a world, to a system, to a universe, that has been rent and rearranged and flipped upside down. The narrator is someone on their way to heaven, only to find that the management has changed, that the entire afterlife has been thrown into a sort of chaos. They wander, moving from heaven to purgatory to hell, and at least place find a piece of the old order in a new situation, and not really one that suits anyone. And wow, this is a feeling that I can understand quite well, the narrator standing in for anyone who started on a journey only to find that the landscape changed while they were on their way. Before they could get to the end, what was supposed to be their reward, they find that instead everything is a sort of punishment, that there is no good place to go, that heaven is a sort of hell now and hell no sort of heaven. For me at least it speaks to the disillusionment at finding things so very altered, that it throws into doubt all faith in a system that would let this happen, that offers no remedy for it, for even as it’s been turned upside down the mechanism to right it feels out of reach, is still in the hands of those forces that screwed everything up to begin with. Or, at least, that’s how I see it in the face of recent events, that just as some are coming into the age when they should be able to start effecting change their ability to do so is being undermined, and instead of the bright future they hoped for, hell has seeped into all corners. It’s a difficult poem and one with a good sense of movement and story, the narrator not quite making judgments so much as observing the damage done. A great read!
“Rootwork” by Constance Collier-Mercado
This is a poem that seems to me to act as a sort of guide, or a spot of advice for when things are bad. That counsels the reader and the audience of the narrator where to begin. With water, with life. There’s a mix of imagery in the poem, growth and food amid a deeper feeling of trauma and exhaustion and grief. The poem is offering a sort of solace to the audience, and a promise as well, not necessarily that things will get better or easier but that practicing self-care, self-healing, is not wasted effort. I like the use of water here because it’s a great place to start. What the audience does with it, how they use it, is so open. They can drink it or they can use it to grow something or they can cook with it or they can cleanse something with it and through all of these things they can focus on themselves, using the water as nourishment and being further nourished by these acts that take water and do something with it. Obviously the title helps to inform this as well, evoking plants and the base of things. The foundation. That to get at some of our very specific and systemic issues we have to focus on some core values, some core goals. And water is core, is foundational. It’s also rather political, given water crises and how and where they occur, and the how water can be a devastating force as well as something gentle and giving. So there’s a nice complexity to the piece, I feel, a way that it remains somewhat vague, pushing the audience to feed the roots, so that the whole being can prosper. Which is a great sentiment captured here with a lyrical grace and strong finish. Another excellent piece!