|Art by Florent Llamas|
“Penitents” by Rich Larson (6354 words)
No Spoilers: Mara is a young woman from a more well-to-do area of a blasted planet and has hired Scout, from one of the less well-off areas, to guide her in a rescue attempt of Mara’s friend Io. The story moves through this ruined world that has been touched by an alien presence, and examines Mara’s space and her guilt and the possibility that maybe things aren’t entirely fucked forever. It’s a bit of a weird read, jumping between Mara’s head and Scout’s, and builds up what’s happened, a vision of despair and yet also of hope. For Mara, it’s definitely not what she was thinking she’d find when she went looking for her friend, but it’s an interesting examination of vision and motivation and privilege.
Keywords: Aliens, Post Disaster, Rescue, Friendship, Habitats, Guilt
Review: This story makes a great use of setting, slowly building up a world that has been torn apart, where things like birds and fish seem fairy tales. Where everything is so far gone that people really only live in sealed habitats or at the mercy of the radiation and environment. And yet there’s something else going on, abductions of people who then are made to walk across a ruined landscape. Which, it turns out, isn’t quite the horror that Mara was expecting. It’s a nicely paced story, and one that finds Mara having to question so much about her life, which has been spent to this point in isolation, in a controlled space that’s supposed to keep her safe. At the same time, though, it creates this false sense that things are Okay, that the world is working and it is most certainly not. I like what the story does with the aliens, and how it tries to bring Mara to a point where she might do something about what’s going on. That she might reject that false security to actually push for change and making things better. But it’s a little disappointing to me personally that the story then doesn’t imagine what she might do, because to me it doesn’t really seem like the story ends with a sense of hope and clear action, but given the setting any progress probably seems so huge that deciding where to start is difficult. But resolving to start is something, and I think the story does an interesting job of it. So yeah, a fine read.
“Red Dreams” by R. Z. Held (6785 words)
No Spoilers: Two women, Tarnish and Sol, run the mail on a lonely stretch through a world that’s lost most of its tech. There’s something that remains, though, that has gotten into Tarnish’s head, given her dreams. Red dreams. Dreams that people have reported in other places, right before succumbing to extremely violent impulses. Tarnish thinks she has to leave, to spare Sol from what might be coming. Sol has different ideas. The story for me features distance and the threat of violence very well, showing how intrusive violent thoughts can work, and showing that what Tarnish might need most is someone who won’t jump to conclusions, won’t condemn her for how she’s changing. Dark, difficult at times, the story still holds a warmth and caring to it that made it a sometimes uncomfortable but also fantastic read.
Keywords: Rust, Blood, Obsession, Dreams, Friendship, Mail
Review: I love the way that this story handles stigma and difference. Because of the stories around, the “conventional wisdom” surrounding the red dreams, Tarnish believes herself to be lost the moment she realizes what she’s experiencing. She’s ready to die, and not only that but ready for people to want her to die. And yet Sol, in her solid way of doing things, refuses to be that, refuses to give in to that voice that whispers to Tarnish that she’s better off dead. And from there, for me, the story becomes about the weight of that stigma, about what’s happening, about Tarnish being different, seeing the world different, having different needs and hungers. She’s infected in many ways and assumes that mean she’s done. But Sol doesn’t give up on her. And it shows the power of just that one connection, that all Tarnish needs to overcome the gravity of all those other people having already told her what they think about the red dreams and what they mean, all she needs is one person to care about her and believe that there’s a way forward. Not that it’s not impacted by Tarnish’s new reality, but that it means a change, not necessarily an end. And that Tarnish reacts to that by realizing that other people might need that two is gratifying and heartwarming, even as the story itself is a little disturbing at times with intense imagery and the hunger for rust, for iron, even if it’s in blood. But it’s a lovely and tightly paced story that doesn’t let up once Tarnish’s hunger really sets in. But for all that it seems that it must end in tragedy, that it must end in innocent blood being spilled, I very much appreciate that it doesn’t really indulge in that, that it allows Tarnish a path forward where she not only isn’t doomed, but isn’t alone. A wonderful story!
“The Last Human Child” by Milo James Fowler (7625 words)
No Spoilers: Dahlia, the last human child in a world torn by war between humans and humans spliced with animal DNA, is on the run after murdering a group of spliced people who had been planning on killing her as a message to the final holdouts of rebel humans. The planet is toxic and non-spliced humans are a dying breed, sterile thanks to the pollution. Dahlia is a symbol, but also an unwitting killing machine and victim. Along with Brawnstone, a spliced trollgre, she flees from pursuit, unsure of her future but knowing she wants no part of the conflict everyone seems intent on dragging her into.
Keywords: War, Spliced DNA, Animal People, Science-as-Magic, Chimeras
Review: This story jumps around a bit, moving from perspective to perspective to give a nicely detailed account of this world and its many problems. It’s a setting that is deeply wounded by violation and slavery and death. And perhaps in that, for me, it’s about the inertia of war and conflict, the way that atrocities feed into each other. There is no “good side” of this war, no clean side. And it corrupts everything that it touches, treating people like things, like worse than animals. It takes people deciding to break the cycle, to step outside their prescribed roles, in order for even the glimmer of hope to shine. For this story, that hope seems to reside in Dahlia. Who already by the time the story opens is not clean, not exactly innocent. But who has decided to break with what people wanted of her, to defy her programming. And from that defiance it sparks defiance in others, pushes them to rethink the conflict and their part of it. It’s a viral sort of rebellion, and one that centers on finding a way to capture small victories in order to start to foster a cooperation and a peace. Not that it’s perfect, or the most secure, but that it marks a shift in what people are willing to do, willing to think possible. It’s a story that’s not exactly fun, seeing as it deals with genetic manipulation, slavery, and a lot death, but at the same time it does manage to maintain a quick pace and an entertaining style, full of interesting characters and solid interactions. People are trying to find a way forward that doesn’t just involve more killing, and it is refreshing to see them manage something of a victory in that, even if it’s one tinged with sadness and fragility. It’s still beautiful, and still worth chasing that dream of peace. A great read!
“Such Were the Faces of the Living Creatures” by Josh Pearce (6686 words)
No Spoilers: A man seeks healing for his offspring across a bizarre and dangerous world full of mutants, religions, and death. The piece follows the main character, who is older and damaged, as he seeks to do right by his child, only things don’t really go well as planned (not that there’s much of a plan). For me, the story comes to life thanks to the weirdness of it, the way that it seems always on the verge of settling into something recognizable only to veer away, revealing more wrongness, more strangeness. It wasn’t the easiest piece to follow for me, highly stylized and dark, but it makes for an interesting puzzle, and a rather unique narrative.
Keywords: Western, Post Apocalypse, Bizarre, Parenting, Sickness
Review: This story goes all in with its style and voice, revealing a world that is not really in a good place. There are hurts and there are open wounds and there is the main character, who seems to want to do something right by his child. Not that it really works out in tha way, but it’s an interesting adult-and-child-explore-a-blighted-hellscape sort of story, one that revels in the dry heat of the desert, the long emptiness of this new world, and the ugliness of the people who make this place their home, who survive despite everything. It’s not really what I would call a pleasant read, for all that the voice moves quickly and rather smoothly, treating the really messed up shit of this setting as rather ho-hum and seen-it-all-before. It’s a dirty, twisted place, and the story acts as a sort of tour through it, detailing the rot that has crept up, the corruption. It seems to ask if something so simple as parental care has a place in this grim setting. The answer, to me, is...well, perhaps not. Because ultimately the story seems to be about survival, and what gets sacrificed on the altar of just staying alive by any means. It’s difficult, it’s visceral, and it’s rather bleak (to me). But it certainly makes for an interesting read, so I recommend people check this one out for yourselves and see what you think. Indeed!