Monday, January 15, 2018

Quick Sips - Apex #104

Apex Magazine kicks off the new year with a continuing tradition—treating readers to an extra big issue as thanks for the success of last year’s subscription drive. Which means six original stories (including a fantastic translation) and the return of poetry (for this issue only)! The prose runs the gamut of what Apex puts out, giving people an excellent sampler platter of dark SFF that leans a bit sci fi but still has an eye for the strange and magical. The stories range from hopeful to abyssally bleak, but even when the stories lack hope, they tend to reveal something compelling and devastating. Gladly most of the works _are_ hopeful, pulling progress and healing from the jaws of predation. There’s a whole lot to experience in this issue, from monsters in the Wild West to twins in the farthest reaches of space. So without further delay, to the reviews!

Art by Daniele Serra

“Asylum of Cuckoos” by Lila Bowen (6600 words)

No Spoilers: Rhett is a Ranger on a mission but trouble comes looking for him when he stops in a small town for a bit of refreshment. Separated from his posse, he has to deal with monsters within and without to get back to what he’s supposed to be doing. Full of action, a weird Western feel, and some poignant character work.
Keywords: Trans Man MC, Western, Monsters, Doppelganger, Shifter
Review: This is a story to whet your whistle, to give you the taste of the world and characters it introduces, all the while promising more to come. Rhett’s larger mission, what he gets distracted from here, isn’t exactly revealed, but I like the general idea of a group of monster-hunting monsters set in a alt-history West. The cast is diverse and the story introduces a lot of small mysteries about who they might be, what they might be able to do, that I at least am curious to see what else these characters will get up to. This story, though, focuses almost entirely on Rhett and his feelings not just about his mission and his purpose, but about himself. As a monster, as a trans man, as a lawman—Rhett has some issues to sort out, and they’re brought to the fore when he meets a doppelganger with his face. The story deals with some heavy themes here of self-violence, Rhett being able to project pretty easily when confronted by his face, his body, on another. And the idea of monstrosity gets complicated here, Rhett hiding behind his badge and his mission, his being a “better” monster, all the while ignoring the deeper implications of a monster-hunting monster. It’s a complex situation, loaded and intense, and the story (I think) handles it very well. It’s a messy dilemma and a messy solution, and while it leaves me a bit uneasy in certain ways, I’m guessing that some of that discomfort would be addressed as the setting and characters are further explored. A great read!

“To Blight a Fig Tree Before it Bears Fruit” by Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley (1300 words)

No Spoilers: An intense and disturbing story featuring women being made to participate in a procedure for the benefit of Investors. Definitely horror, with perhaps an ounce of hope, though even that lies in pain and blood.
Keywords: CW-Forced Breeding, CW-Torture, Immortality, Rebirth, 
Review: The story unfolds where eight women are strung up by their wrists, pregnant and waiting for Investors to arrive to take part in a Meshing that is just as ominous and disturbing as it sounds. The main character is Meshee, which I’m not entirely sure means that this is one character actually named Meshee or different characters all called Meshee because of their role in the procedure. The piece looks directly at the way that people are exploited, losing their bodies, their dignity, their children, and their lives for the benefit of men with money. In vivid and flinch-inducing detail the story shows what these women go through, the horror they feel at what is happening to them, the grim and slim hope they have that maybe they can avoid what’s happening, though everything seems weighed against them, and even if one can escape, they all cannot. And even if they escape the immediate situation, a greater horror remains—the one that allows this to continue, to be accepted and even celebrated by the rest of the society. it’s dark and it’s difficult and it’s not exactly a fun story to read, but I think it does a good job of exploring this feeling of dread and pain of the situation. It’s hard to recommend people to this story, because of the content warnings involved, but if those aren’t a deterrent, then definitely check this one out.

“A Night Out at a Nice Place” by Nick Mamatas (2500 words)

No Spoilers: A...being and a woman go on a blind date, which goes a bit sideways when the conversation drifts into some strange territory. Strange yet charming, with a nice use of language to feel significant even if a lot of what might have been said was lost on me, or was meaningless to begin with.
Keywords: Weird, Aliens, Blind Date, Jargon
Review: This story makes great use of language to find a being on a different plane of sensation and reality downlowing (slumming it, essentially) in a skin suit in order to have a date with a human in hopes of fucking. The piece is really centered on their conversation, which ranges from the nature of existence to sensory realities and back again, the narrator dealing with seeing the human as lesser and the human revealing that things aren’t exactly what they seem, turning the tables in this exploration of words in order to prove a point. I think. I’ll be honest part of why I like the story and part of what makes it slightly frustrating for me at times is that the language is dense, filtered through the “other layer” that the narrator is coming down from in order to converse (and presumably fuck). So everything here is vaguely translated through the lens of the narrator, which gives it a sense that a lot is being said while obfuscating what is actually being said. What I’m left with is something of a meta triumph, where the reader must piece together what’s really being said through context and not solely through the literal words, the meaning coming from the flow and the reactions and the feeling of what’s going on. Which is interesting and complex and I think does a lot to sell this feeling that, in the end, the narrator has been defeated, and yet maybe that’s what they were looking for all along. It’s a strange, unique piece that is definitely worth spending some time with (just please, for your own sanity, not _too much_ time) to enjoy the fun and flow.

“The Heaven-Moving Way” by Chi Hui, translated by Andy Dudak (4400 words)

No Spoilers: A pair of siblings, twins, Zhang Xuan and Zhang Kai, find themselves at the heart of a mystery that seems as old as life itself, a project that they have the opportunity to be a part of, or shrink away from. Amazingly optimistic and breathtaking in its scope, the story images the trajectory of those reaching out into the stars, and beyond, and beyond.
Keywords: Exploration, Siblings, Extinction, Science!, Inheritance
Review: This is a stunning story about exploration and about hope and about two siblings who, together, go about naming the unnamed, finding meaning in a cosmos that might seem random and harsh. They are people who push out into the unknown, though in different ways and different connections. Zhang Kai is mathematical, empirical, wanting numbers and certainty, seeing in the vast stars a system. And Zhang Xuan, more creative and leaning into exploring the past as well as the future, acts as the one who humanizes the science, to finds the practical but also the aspirational. Together they form a whole, as their names imply, a triumphant return, and push for humanity to join the many civilizations who have risen and fallen over the galaxy’s long history. It’s a story, to me, about significance and about scale. They are both faced with this enormous truth, this enormous project that, on one level, they will never see the end of and their civilization will never see the end of. And if all they were connected to was humanity, then that might be end, a sad flare in the dark. But especially for Zhang Xuan, there’s this way that is able to contextualize what they find in such a way that they can still be a part of it, can still make a contribution and share in the legacy, both forward and back, so that the triumph in the end, even if no human will ever see it, will still be their triumph. And it’s just a hopeful and inspiring story about working for connection and cooperation, of opening doors in hopes of finding something beautiful and meaningful. It’s a fun and wonderful piece that you should read immediately!

“Symphony to a City Under the Stars” by Armando Saldaña (2500 words)

No Spoilers: In a strange City, in a strange future, two people meet in a garden. Strange and striking with its imagery and its thirst for sights intense enough to leave people blind. The narrative picture was a bit foggy to me, but it’s still a beautifully set piece with a feeling of longing.
Keywords: Vision, Space Travel, Art, Music
Review: This story sets its scene well, crafting a narrative that’s something like a song, full of feelings and sounds and the promise of something that’s not entirely tangible. At least, for me, though Sinclair and Nadia and Gideon all feel like complete characters, the story doesn’t exactly provide the full context for what binds them or motivates them, beyond love and yearning. Sinclair saw the galaxy, but has been largely blinded by it, and wants in Nadia someone to stay with him. Which seems to be what she wants, too, only I like how the story sets up how she can’t, how there will always be a distance between them because of what he has seen and she has not, and so there’s a sense of parting, and returning. For me, the haziness of the details, and of the setting, which is more a collection of setting archetypes (a garden, a city, the distant stars), match the way that music can convey place and action and detail, but only in wide brushstrokes. What it really does is create moods, bouncing along and drawing heavier notes to give the piece a moving feel. Nadia and Sinclair’s love, their yearning, their parting and their eventual reunion, comes with a swell of music and emotion, a beautiful harmony that lends the story a strange magic. It’s strange and it’s a bit haunting, fading out as the two main characters try to find a way forward and together again. A great read!

“The Best Friend We Never Had” by Nisi Shawl (6600 words)

No Spoilers: Josie is a woman on a mission to gather some recruits, but things do not go as planned when she revisits her past to get them. Unfolding in a galaxy still polluted by corruption and corporations, the story manages to weave conspiracy, betrayal, loss, and rebirth. There’s a nice mix of action, movement, and a momentum toward the unknown.
Keywords: Corporations, Returning Home, Friends, Corruption
Review: This is another story that has the sense that it’s a part of something larger, with Josie revisiting a past she ran away from in order to join up with the ARPA, an organization that now needs volunteers to participate in a mission that will require the participants to give up their bodies to survive a long-distance voyage through the stars. Josie’s return is presumably for business, but for me it feels a lot more like she wants closure, wants to know what happened to those she left behind. Only when she does find out, it’s very much not what she expected, or wanted. And I love how the story handles that, Josie’s desire to return back as someone she wasn’t, with power and perhaps a bit of influence, able to maybe help her old friends into a better life. Only to find out that what she wanted most has been lost to her. Only to find that what remains is still a mess and that for all she hoped she had made something of herself, she’s still back where she always was, without control over her life, her future. So she tries to take some control back, and I like how the story explores that. Plus the piece has a great style and voice to it, the characters all distinct and different flavors of hurt and hopeful, each of them wanting something from life that they don’t really have access to. And the story leaves them aimed at something different, which makes me think maybe this isn’t the end of their story. So yeah, a great way to close out the original fiction on this extra-big and excellent issue!


“Treebound” and “Monster: Puppeteer” by Mary Soon Lee

The first poem, “Treebound,” grows out of a weariness and a longing for change. It features advice or instructions perhaps on a bit of magic for a wizard to try. A final bit of magic. One that will allow for an escape from the stress and the moral compromises of being a wizard, of using magic to try and do good and perhaps succeeding, perhaps not. And I love the way the poem, in a very short space, allows for this feeling of weight and letting go. The poem is structured in three parts, and it gives the piece something of a feel of incantation, of invoking this bit of magic. For the wizard, it’s not death exactly, but rather a rest, a culmination of everything that has gone before. Instead of bending the world to their magic, it’s an acceptance of place, a return to the natural, and a final exhalation. And that last line! I love the idea of it, because of how wizards are often depicted as always in books, learning spells, finding out the secret name of things, this spell, this last step, is a step away. Is a final relinquishing of that life and accepting a different one. One with peace, and atonement, and ending. Just a beautiful read!

The second poem, “Monster: Puppeteer,” is a much darker piece, one without much in the way of silver linings. It follows a predator, a monster who slowly graduates to human prey, to revel in human pain. And in particular it seems to linger on the ways that women are targeted and used against each other, the way that violence is a tool that does more than just cause physical pain. It’s a disturbing poem, and one that’s told in simple rhyming couplets, the effect a mixture of childish sing-song and visceral grimness, evoking a monster that lingers on the edge of things, on the edge of innocence, waiting and hungering. It’s a big departure from the other poem, but very in keeping with the publication, revealing a darkness without trying to redeem or qualify it. It remains, a wound, a reminder that the world is full of monsters. Another fine read, though content warnings abound.

“The Saddest of Angels” by Jeremy Paden

This is a rather prose-ish poem that looks at time and sadness, longing and change. The piece introduces an angel, but one that is not bound by a single definition. Instead, the angel seems to morph with each new stanza, shifting and growing as sadness itself seems to mature throughout the piece. And I like how it sets up this idea of angels not as fixed beings but as collections of parts, all of them building up to a unified whole, divine and mysterious and in some ways unknowable, except for how they are revealed here. And there’s something...almost doomed about the piece, about the character, how they are trapped by the weight of their role, by the way that they have to act in these prescribed ways. As an angel they don’t really have free will, and in that they are like bees, like trees, bound into place and drone-like, except there’s a feeling in the piece that this angel wants something more, is sad because they are stuck, because they can’t escape. For me, at least, the sadness seems to stem from their desire for something different, to sing their own songs, to chart their own course instead of being blown about by a divine wind. Of course, as I’m no expert on angels, I might be way off here. Whatever the case, it’s a nicely weird and dense poem with a breath of something lovely but dark. A nice read!


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