|Art by Max Cole-Takanikos|
“The Scenarist” by Stu West (974 words)
This is a short and rather punchy story that is at its surface about interview questions for perspective doctors and on a deeper level is about knowledge that you can learn from books and other open sources and knowledge that can only come from experience or from those with experience—knowledge that is often erased from open sources. The narrator of the piece is someone trying to bring in doctors who will be a good fit for the area, who will be thorough enough, intuitive enough, to be able to be in place to best help people. To best treat people. And I like that the story recognizes that for a doctor that often means having to best deal with the lay of the land, with the specific systems and what they allow and what they do not. Because the narrator discovers that if they push too hard, if they are too inflexible in their methods, that their ability to do good can be very negatively impacted. So the story is about the questions, but also about the way that it pushes for a certain kind of flexibility, an ability to role with a rather tricky set of circumstances. For the narrator, it means appearing to toe the line while in practice bringing some of the work out of the light. Because when dealing with helping people, with treating people, those needs loom larger than the need to have a spotless conscience. And for me the heart of the story is how it handles the difficulty of having to navigate the distance between what it’s possible to learn in books and through traditional means and what needs to be learned in the field, taking things away from theoretical territory and into the imminently practical. The tone is fun while the subject is serious and nuanced, and the story manages to balance a lot in a very short space. Which makes it a rather fine read!
“Anticipation” by Sarah Gailey (Fisher of Bones, chapter 8) (1245 words)
Shit is starting to hit the fan. Even as things are getting “more real” for people because a man is saying it instead of Fisher, there’s a lot of problems that crop up in this chapter. Namely, what with the miraculous healing of Marc, people are both more certain of their religion while being less satisfied with Fisher. To them, such a miracle (which should really be attributed to her) is confirmation of the faith in general, and those already hostile toward having a woman Fisher are taking the opportunity to stage a kind of rebellion, though the story is still keeping a rather slow and steady pace. But here are the first signs of something breaking. Last chapter showed s schism, a fracturing, and here we find that what seemed to be mended has been weakened and is definitely leaking. The cast of characters remains somewhat limited for all that the community is large, and it seems like the final part of this is going to be somewhat intimate. It’s telling, though, and I like how the story is playing with the ways that Fisher finds her power eroding because she’s a woman, because she’s pregnant, because she might need rest and a man wouldn’t need to because he’d never be in this situation. And if he were somehow compromised or weakened, it wouldn’t be because he’s weak, but because of the strain. Meanwhile Fisher is doing this all with less support, with less experienced people to work with, with others actively undermining her authority, and still holding things mostly together. But it’s not enough and the truth seems to be it might never be enough, that even a miracle isn’t enough to show people that she’s legitimate. It’s a difficult message and there’s still a pit of fear in my gut that things are going to get much worse before everything is said and done. That said, the novella continues to be a compelling and great read!
“Caesura” by Hayley Stone (3704 words)
This is a stunning story of loss and grief and poetry and intelligence all wrapped around the relationship between a woman, Priya, and her AI, Demi. In the background to this relationship, though, is the ghost of an old one, the absence left where Priya’s brother, Demetri, who was killed. Whose death was senseless and has left Priya with a deep anger and hurt, something that she’s channeling into teaching an AI, into trying to get it to understand something of her feelings, trying to get it to be more human. In some ways it’s an exercise in trying to make sense of her environment, using Demi as a way to work through her own pain. As time goes on, though, the relationship between Priya and Demi twists and turns, where Priya has to face that this being that she’s helped usher into the world is also separate from her and her issues, has needs and problems of its own, and that it, too, needs compassion and understanding. For me, the story does a great job of getting at the power of art and expression in the face of intense emotions and turmoil. Priya doesn’t exactly teach Demi how to be human by listing what being human is, not by using the textbook definition. Instead, she seeks to teach Demi poetry. Because poetry is this method of expression, is not only about getting out a feeling in yourself but evoking a feeling in another person. It’s about empathy, about connection. In order to convey meaning through poetry, the writer and reader have to come to some sort of understanding. The language of the poem has to work to stir the right feelings in the reader, and it means that to understand poetry is to in some ways understand what it is to be human. For Priya and Demi, it means knowing fear and knowing love without necessarily having to use the words for them. To be able to describe them not by what’s explicitly said and defined but by the absence of definitions and the presence of art. Like how Demetri represents a gap in Priya’s life, and yet is also felt, is also present. And it takes having Demi there, learning, to show Priya how to heal, how to face her own feelings and express them. It’s a deeply moving story that explores humanity and intelligence, and it’s very much worth checking out and spending some time with. Go read it!
“A Cure for Ghosts” by Eden Royce (828 words)
This is a deceptively heavy story that for me unfolds with a conversational, almost lecturing tone, one that reveals a situation full of trespass and possession, of many different types. The story is told by a narrator who works at a former plantation, one with something of an abundance of ghosts, which might have been disturbed when a young girl broke into a sealed-off room and opened a bottle she shouldn’t have. Now her father has taken her to the source of the issue to try and resolve things, only to find that the narrator, who knows quite well what has happened, has a wholly unexpected “cure” in mind. Part of what surprises me about the story is how much I wasn’t expecting it to be as horrifying as I ultimately feel it was. Perhaps because of the publication or because of the tone of the narrator, I was waiting for something to twist up, to pull away from the rather uncomfortable path the story was on. But fair warning, the story does not get off that path. Instead we have a story about trespass and about possession, where the young woman who is at the heart of this story has been silenced, has been made to be something of an unwilling passenger. Which might not have been too bad except the lingering doubt and realization that this young person, this twelve-year-old girl, is going to perhaps be branded for the rest of her life because of a lapse in judgment, because she broke just one rule. And the truth might be that people are completely okay with that, that what we’ve found is that the real horror isn’t in the existence of ghosts or what happens to this person, but in how [SPOILERS] the ending stages a continuation of it, an acceptance of it because the ghost might be better behaved. Because what’s the difference if this body acts better, more obedient? Who will fight for this girl who has been taken, if even her father is tempted to just accept what’s happening. It’s a complex and biting story that seems almost convincing when told with this style and tone. Which is an uncomfortable and unsettling thing, to be stuck wondering if this shouldn’t feel happy in some way, or fun, or funny, and not wrenchingly tragic. So yes, it’s an excellent read!
“Sundering” by Sarah Gailey (The Fisher of Bones, chapter 9) (1009 words)
This chapter feels like something of a breath before something. A pause. A birth. Here at last Fisher’s child is born, and it is something of a relief, a release. Fisher has dealt with so much up to this point, has sacrificed and tried and tried and yet been beaten down, doubted, gaslit, and threatened. Not just by her people, those she’s supposed to be leading, but by the gods who are supposed to be guiding and protecting her. Her at last she finds a way to take something for herself. Even if it’s not really for herself. Even if there’s something strangely ominous about it. There’s not too much for me to say here except that it’s compelling, the prose solid and the moment rather triumphant. Here we have Fisher beginning to take control of the situation, of her life. She seems energized by this even as in some ways it makes her less vulnerable. I still have something of a bad feeling going forward but this does give me some hope. That she’s done being used and manipulated either by the gods or her people. That she’s ready to fucking carve her own path toward what she thinks best instead of waiting to be told. It’s an interesting moment and I just continue to be left wanting to know what happens next. Another great chapter!
“Portrait of Skull with Man” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (1344 words)
This is a tender and sweet story about, well, death and skulls and art. About the way that some people stick with us after they are gone, haunt us in ways that isn’t horrific or violent but remains loving and rather adorable. The story itself centers a man whose boyfriend, Richard, has died and yet who is somehow stuck with both the skull and the ghost. I find it rather hilarious (if perhaps in a juvenile way) that the guy’s name is Dick because he’s sort of an asshole, self-centered and brash and hipstery, but all the same the connection that he has with the main character is one that suits them, that enriches them. And the story is about pictures, about portraits, about art, but it’s also about the time that the two men share, the way that they are still close, still in love. It’s a charming piece that unfolds like the photo album that rests at its heart—as snapshots, as peeks into this relationship and how it has evolved. I think there’s a lingering sadness to the piece, but I like how the story refuses to be tragic. There is such a gravity to these sorts of situations to make it about the loss, to make it about the Doomed Queer Love, and yet there’s a brilliant subversion of that going on here. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s sweet, as much as all of those things don’t seem like they should be the case. The story works because it doesn’t give in to the temptation to make it all about tears and the reality of the situation creeping under their happiness. It feels genuine and real and still like there’s a future for them. For them both perhaps, like death itself isn’t going to stop them. Like they’ll find a way forward, in all the ways they are flawed but beautiful. It’s a wonderful story!