Thursday, May 3, 2018

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 04/16/2018, 04/23/2018, & 04/30/2018

I'm looking at three weeks of Strange Horizons' fiction and poetry today, and there's quite a lot to get to. The first week was pretty normal with one story and one poem, but the second week was a nonfiction week, so only one poem for me to look at (though the nonfiction is of course always worth checking out. And the last week of the month saw the release of a special issue looking at SFF in English coming out of India. So in total I'm looking at three stories and two poems, and it's an eclectic bunch. From strange houses with tiny cities to time skipping fighter pilots, there's a lot of fresh ideas and luminous styles. So let's get to the reviews!


“Old Fighter Pilots” by Samuel Jensen (1914 words)

No Spoilers: Alexis is a former Air Force mechanic now raising two sons in a quiet New Mexico home. The piece connects Alexis and her daily life both forward and backward in time, her interacting both with the distant past and the not-so-distant future. It evokes the feeling of running in place, of moving to stand still, the world changed but always with a certain feel to it, a certain stillness. The story is rendered almost pastorally, revealing this place where Alexis lives and moves through and what it has been and what it might be, and how those things get invited in for dinner. Lightly strange with a bit of a literary bend, imo, and a nice meta twist at the end.
Keywords: Time, Family, Change, Quiet, Writing 
Review: For me, so much of this story comes down to its ending, so be warned for spoilers here. But Alexis is writing a novel. A novel that she shows to someone at the end (a future-version of a neighbor), who then comments on it. And the comments seem to be part of what binds the story into a cohesive whole, part of the rationale behind why time seems to be looping back on itself, so that people can have dinner together while decades displaced, and how Alexis can step through nests of birds who haven’t been around for much longer than that. The effect is strange but also captivating, growing this larger context for Alexis and her family and her world. It’s quiet, even in the moments where a fighter jet is being shot from the air, and everyone seems to have time. Time being the rather central idea. That things don’t change too much. That there is no immediacy to what’s happening with Alexis, with what’s happening anywhere. Only paying attention to that future that gets discussed and it becomes clear that the quiet might be false. Nostalgic. That it might be painting over this much more pressing and needful moment where things need to happen, where people have to take actions. And they aren’t. So they seem inevitable, the way the world goes to hell, the way that things all fall apart. Which can be beautiful, but also doesn’t change anything, doesn’t prevent anything. It’s a way of becoming a passive part of a system that’s cycling toward ruin, and it makes for a complex and interesting read.

“Things That Happened While We Waited For Our Magical Grandmother to Die—No. 39” by Kuzhali Manickavel (2551 words)

No Spoilers: Three people wait in a strange house. A house with servants and a dying grandmother. A house that at times seems to be a different place entirely, where the three get lost only to reappear hours later as if nothing has happened. For the narrator and Kumar, the house is their home, the place where they spend their time. For Mythili, the third of them, it is more like a prison. Desperate to leave, to escape, she makes plans that always seem thwarted, if not by Kumar then by the house itself. Strange and vaguely haunted, the piece builds up a sort of dream-like past that they all remember, and yet their present seems almost childlike, like they’re all stuck waiting to grow up. The result is a story where the true nature of the house never seems fully revealed, but where the more important thing might be the dynamic between the three characters, and their individual relationships with the house.
Keywords: Architecture, Escape, Houses, Lost, Cities, Money
Review: I love how the story builds up so much around the three main characters and how they relate to each other and to the house. Mythili is obviously miserable, wanting desperately to go, and at the same time she is the one who has to put up with the most shit. For me, it seems that because she is a woman she has to deal with more bullshit from everyone around her as well as people actively trying to stop her from leaving. She’s called gendered insults and casually (if indirectly) threatened with violence, rape, and death. Most of this comes from Kumar, who seems if anything equally miserable about the house. Or perhaps, he could be if not for Mythili. It’s like so much of his enjoyment of the house is having her there, being able to antagonize her, perhaps secure in the knowledge that if they stayed there long enough she might develop feelings for him. He uses the misogynist system to try and make her stay with him, and it’s difficult to read at times because of how blatant he is, how blatant her can be without it really seeming unbelievable. Meanwhile the narrator seems to take another angle, not so much wanting to prevent Mythili’s escape as lacking any real drive at all. They’re passive, observing but rarely doing anything. They stand aside, let things happen, and because of it everything stays the same. I think what strikes me most about the situation is how much power they would have to change the situation for the better by siding with Mythili, by agreeing to go with her, but instead they just stand there doing nothing. It shows how progress is thwarted, by attacking those who push for change so that they either give up or leave. And those left behind are either actively awful or passively complicit. It’s a complex story told in a nicely weird house that feels almost like a closed program, an illusion that the narrator and Kumar are careful not to disrupt but that Mythili will do anything to break free from. A great read!

“The Right Way To Be Sad” by Shankar Gopalakrishnan (4831 words)

No Spoilers: Sheru is a street dog taken by some scientists to take part in an experiment about developing neural networks to create coherent stories from biologically produced stimuli. Essentially trying to encourage machine empathy using Sheru’s perception. Only something might have gotten crossed somewhere because it’s Sheru’s perceptions that seem altered, more acute, and when his dreams begin to linger on a rather unfortunate local family, the experiment takes an interesting turn. Sweet and wrenching at the same time, the piece looks at the value of scientific progress in the face of human need and sadness.
Keywords: Science!, Dogs, Experimentation, Dreams, Sadness, Injustice
Review: Who doesn’t like a good dog story? What strikes me most about this piece is how it twists the traditional “dog narrative” (if there can be said to be a thing) away from the active, playful, joyous one and toward something a bit darker and more melancholy. Dogs are often perceived as very happy and oblivious, and yet this story asks what might happen if a dog were allowed to be more observant and more contemplative. By combining dog and machine, Sheru gains access to a sort of empathy that allows him to recognize emotions in other people. Along with that, though, comes the ability to recognize his own emotions. And when he sees a family being pushed out, being punished for being poor and sick, he becomes sad because of the sadness he sees, because of the injustice he sees. And I love how the story seems to linger on the different reactions to this. That the scientists, warm and fed and comfortable, see only the research. See only what this might mean for science. But the dog, being in the middle of it, sees the emotion of the story. Sees the need to try and do something. And for me that sort of guides some of my reading, that it seems to be saying that this study is great for theories, but that the real power of empathy isn’t in creating a story, it’s in prompting action. That it’s not enough to observe and report sadness, when taking steps to alleviate that sadness in others also tends to reduce it in oneself. It’s a story about taking that step, moving theory into practice, and finding meaning there beyond the lab, beyond the theory. And it’s a rather wonderful read!


“What If We Could Photosynthesize?” by Jinna Lei

For me, this poem takes the concept as questioned by its title, and looks at some of the different ways we might be different if we could take in energy from the sun. What might have taken us longer (to push into the sunless stretches) and what might technology mean for us (freedom of movement and, basically, no restrictions on where we could live). For me, then, the poem becomes about the way that people push against the constraints the natural world imposes. How we use technology not just to make things easy for ourselves, but to do what, by our design and bodies, it might seem unwise to do. That we go out into places that are hostile, trusting our tech to keep us safe, so that we can enjoy the feeling of escaping some part of our mortality. At least, I see it link to the human impulse to want to push beyond our physical limitations, which is sort of ultimately embodied by our mortality. In as far as we can defy the parts of us that shouldn’t be able to live in places we couldn’t live unassisted by our inventions, we can perhaps feel that death itself is just a hostile territory that we can move into. I feel there’s a bit more to the poem, though. Because at the same time that it might be identifying this part of humanity that wants to push beyond our boundaries, so too might it imply that we also need to embrace our limitations and our bodies. That we have to, instead of rejecting the natural world as the terrifying realm of our deaths, see it as this very real network that we’re a part of. That having the means to do something artificially doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take pleasure or joy or sustenance from the sun. That in many ways as we push the planet past where it might safely sustain us, we should be looking at more ways to integrate with the world and use our natural abilities instead of relying more and more heavily on artificial means to provide ourselves an environment. At least, that’s how I come away from what is a lovely and fun poem!

“Curiosity” by Andrew Crabtree

This poem (I think) explores a bit alongside the Mars rover Curiosity. And in following the intrepid robot, the piece seems to me to examine humanity’s desire to explore the great beyond, to anthropomorphize non-sentient and even inorganic constructs, and to reach for each other when the cold dark of space seems to press all around. The piece consists of shorter lines and smaller stanzas, the effect for me leaving a lot of space on the page, giving the words a lonelier feel and also a smaller feel. It’s as if the poem itself is giving the reader perspective, that here is Curiosity, this small robot, on a big world in a bigger galaxy, all alone but for its connection back to Earth. And for me there’s this push and pull about the poem. That on the one hand Curiosity itself doesn’t really get a choice in this, can’t have a choice in this, is just an extension of humanity’s, well, curiosity. That it is expected to be all the things that humanity would be in Mars—confident and bold and daring. And on the other hand it is also doomed, doomed because it will run out of power, or suffer some sort of accident. And despite everything it will end up breaking down, and it’s grave will be so far away. To me it’s the two sides of curiosity as an idea, too, that it drives us to explore and to push but that it also comes with this price built into it. That there’s a danger in embracing our curiosity, and it might lead us to an early, cold grave. But that there is something wondrous and awesome about still embracing the unknown and going for it. And the poem is fun and refreshing and definitely worth spending some time with, so go check it out!


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