Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 01/29/2018

A fifth Monday in a month typically means something special from Strange Horizons, and January definitely brings something special in this week’s issue focusing on Trans / Nonbinary SFF. Two original stories and three poems anchor an issue that is very aware of perception, identity, and defiance. In many of the pieces, the authors explore the ways that the world, that society, seeks to force people into neat lines, into binaries and labels. How systems evolve to coerce people into erasing themselves or others for the sake of the comfort and profit of the dominant. These are sharp stories that reveal characters struggling under the weight of those seeking to punish them for existing. And yet not giving up. And yet finding that they’re not alone, and don’t have to be alone. And yet carving out something for themselves. It’s a fantastic special issue and without further delay, the reviews!

Art by Alex Dingley


“Obscura” by Yoon Ha Lee (2444 words)

No Spoilers: A fourteen-year-old trying to escape a spiraling home life meets a man with a strange camera. The nature of the camera, and the man who uses it, come in and out of focus in this strange, heavy story. There’s a great feel of contrast and absence here, but also found family and escape from conflict and turmoil. It’s about gaze and seeing yourself, and learning from that moment of clarity and focus.
Keywords: Photography, Absences, Family, Cameras, Found Family
Review: For me, the story moves with the weight of the world that the narrator is trying to escape. What they’re trying to avoid. Their home life is falling apart, their parents always fighting, themself lost in the conflict of it, lost and looking for something to do to either get their attention back or break free from the gravity of the destruction of their relationship. When they meet the photographer, the man, they make a connection, a bond that allows them both to speak without really talking about themselves. And in some ways the story becomes then about this refusal to look at what’s really going on, the man giving the narrator a chance to remain in some ways in denial about it, unseeing. As long as they refuse to look, they won’t see what’s happening, what their future holds. But refusing to look is also about refusing to really examine themself, what they want and who they are. It’s a difficult piece for me in part because the man and the woman seem so nebulous, so magical, as if both are shades of the main character, projections of themself, aspects of their desire to avoid and their willingness to face the difficult truths. The piece is quite focused on reflections and presence, and it carries with it an almost dreamlike quality, the narrator leaning toward this magical situation that cannot last, that they don’t need as soon as they choose to face what they’ve been trying to avoid—the dissolution of their family. For me, facing that opens them to the realization that they remain, that they cannot control their parents but that doesn’t define who they are—that they can still forge their own family and their own life. And it’s a lovely and complex read that you should definitely check out!

“A Snow, A Flood, A Fire” by Jamie Berrout (4119 words)

No Spoilers: Lupita is a trans woman working a shitty job at a museum, where she is watched constantly by an AI designed to maximize efficiency and generally make employee’s lives miserable. Locked into a bad situation because of misfortune when she was young, Lupita yearns to climb up, start a family, and begin to heal. Only healing really isn’t something this setting, this world, is concerned with. Which means she might have to take more...drastic actions. Claustrophobic and all-too-real, the story shows just how constricting injustice can be when you can never recover from even minor traumas.
Keywords: Employment, Transgender MC, Loans, AI, Theft, Resistance
Review: Oh glob does this story hit at some deep issues that are only getting worse. As technology advances, as efficiency advances, so too does the possibility of enormous profit. As long as you give as little as possible to employees. As long as people can’t help but take awful jobs. As long as you wring every penny out of people by punishing them for being sick, for being different. Still trying to dig her way out of a hole debt put her in when she was young, Lupita still hopes that she’s done enough to make things right, paying off everything that was required of her. Except that the last thing she’s being made to pay is time, lost time that she can never get back, and that will put her forever out of reach of the things she wants most. What I love about this story is that it shows just how fucked the situation is, where employees are constantly harassed and punished for perceived slights but then are slammed again for lack of “loyalty” to the very employer exploiting the fuck out of them. And I love how the story allows Lupita another option. Not a clean one, no. Not even a safe one. Certainly not a bloodless one. But that’s the point, really—that capitalism has never been bloodless. And that taking the fight to those in power, those complicit in this broken system, is not really unjust. Because fighting within the system can only do so much, especially if you’ve already fallen into the gears, already lost your future. The story is about the illusion of hope that these systems give, and what happens when you find you have nothing left to lose. It’s powerful and free, revealing the sickness, the fire at the heart of this society, that no one sees and few acknowledge, but that’s devouring so, so many. A fantastic read!


“Woodwork” by Damien Schuyler

This is a very short piece that acts as a riddle, describing an object without naming it. The language of the piece is evocative, mysterious. The item in question seems to me to be a tool, worn by the work of creating, by the act of cutting away. In that and from the title I would guess that it’s a tool for carving, and yet I am filled with self-doubt about “getting it wrong.” Because maybe it’s a pencil as well, graphic that is worn in the act of creation and destruction. In either case, though, the poem is about how a lot of art is bound to a push and pull of destruction and creation, a tool (a brush, a pencil, a chisel, a blade) used up in the end, leaving behind only the artifacts that they had a part in creating. And it lends to the artists a sense of immortality, because the art lasts. The words remain. The carving. The statue. The painting. To take it out further still, the piece can be about artists as tools as well, being worn by their lives, by their art, by the act of creation. In this, the artists are like the tools they use, all of them using themselves up until all that remains is the art. Which then evokes memories in others. That reminds people of something in their own lives. That gets people to introspect. At least, that’s my...”guess” for what the poem is about. Because, really, that what all art can be, a riddle that the reader, that the interpreter, is trying to figure out. Only the meaning they arrive at might be different than the one the artist intended. It becomes personal, inspired by the art by in an unpredictable way, which is its own sort of magic. In any event, it’s a fascinating piece that you should definitely sit down with and try to “solve.” A great read!

“Burying Ghosts” by Hana Brouse

This poem speaks to me of the neat lines that graveyards and headstones can represent—the lines between not only the living and the dead, but the dead and the dead. With long lines that give the piece a bit of a prose feel, the poem blurs the lines between forms, resists the urge to be told in neat, digestible bits. Instead it lingers and elongates, pushes past the end of the line, crafting something that reaches toward a messier, more complicated experience. And what I like about this poem is the way that defies the urge to find in death some static order. It’s fairly common, after all, to consider death a final rest. And that sense of finality is something that the poem seems to go against, pushing back against this intrusion of unwanted neatness that is often given to the dead. Instead, it seems to me to assert its own mess, it’s own particular organization, which doesn’t meet with what people expect. It’s an organization of change, of complexity, of nuance, of consent. In life so often we find that the ways things are organized erases people, hurt people, mis-categorizes people. So too with death, and I like the move to reject that, to be defiant even in death, to reach for community and growth even after life is gone. Because the stories remain, and who controls those stories remain, and if we seek to silence them, to get them to conform and fit neatly to benefit our own sense of propriety and not the spirit by which they lived, then we have trespassed against the dead, and that’s a really terrible way to honor those who have lived and fought. It’s a wonderful read!

“Dead Names” by Evelyn Deshane

For me this poem speaks of names and naming, about what is left behind of a past that bears the mark of a name that is wrong. In a single long stanza, the piece unfolds as a tour of a person who is in some ways a haunted house, who has buried the names they were assigned and taken on those that fit them better. Who still in many ways carries the scars and the marks and the weight of those names, those experiences. Who still has the memories of being that person, the hurts that came along with that, everything touched by something as foundational as a name. The piece looks at numerology as well, at the power of names and naming, birth and consent. And in that it’s told by a person to I guess the “main character” of the poem, to Jonathan Michael, who is the one experiencing the name change, the hormones injections, all of that. But they aren’t alone. And in many ways I read the poem as this narrator dealing with their own part in this haunting, facing the frame that _they_ put onto their relationship with Jonathan. It’s an incredibly intimate piece, and for me becomes about the ways the narrator is seeking to accept, understand, and celebrate Jonathan and their place in his life. Their ghost to his haunted house, both of them fascinated by the occult, the supernatural—both of them together, most importantly, as they push forward against those who don’t understand, who in turn haunt them, the ignorant living who do not respect or comprehend what this haunted house means. But who might be reminded as house and ghost work in tandem to carve out a space for themselves, where those who don’t understand aren’t welcome. For me, at least, it seems about security and support and, well, love. And it’s a great read that you should definitely spend some time with!


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