Friday, August 17, 2018

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 08/06/2018 & 08/13/2018

Two short stories and two poems flesh out the first two weeks of Strange Horizons' August offerings. And, to be honest, the pieces would have to be really trying to be more thematically different from one another. The fiction starts off with something lighter and fun and then veers sharply into the bloody and horrific. The poetry is a bit more linked, circling around relationships, the first blush and long contentions and the hope and the way that society sometimes gets in the way and fucks things up. It's a varied and interesting collection of short SFF, showing how such disparate works can be united by the speculative and the strange, in every shape that takes. To the reviews!

Art by Shel Kahn

"Copy Cat” by Alex Shvartsman and K. A. Teryna (2204 words)

No Spoilers: A Leningrad cat must deal with a rather delicate situation following the death of the old woman he was living with in this strange and rather adorable story. Fun and funny and making overt and subtle fun of the most popular of Russian literature, the piece follows this cat as he tries to navigate the world of humans armed with little more than a tape player. manicure scissors, vinegar, and a whole lot of recordings. The piece is charming in the extreme, and the plight of the cat is simple and understandable, his reactions revealing what it might mean to be of Leningrad, of Russia, perhaps more than sitting by the water reciting poetry.
Keywords: Cats, Recordings, Death, Fraud, Russia
Review: Okay, on the one level this is just a really cute story about a cat whose human dies and who does not want to be evicted the shit out of. So he hatches a scheme. But the story also reminds readers whenever it can that it’s not like one of those Russian stories where cats are taking over trams or speaking sagely to people on their way to funerals or anything like that. This cat is not supernatural, just honest and hardworking. And well, okay, maybe not all that honest, given how he responds to his human’s passing, but he’s resourceful, clever, and becomes very good at doing what he needs to do in order to be left in peace and comfort. And there’s where I feel the story reaches down to another, somewhat deeper level, speaking what it means for literature to be Russian. And not just from Russia, but actually perhaps reflecting its people and its attitudes. While the “great” works of Russian literature are told with skill and grace, the story seems to imply that there’s something a little lacking in how they really capture what’s it’s really like to be of a place. That maybe those stories lack some of the humor, and the down-to-Earth reality of the people and what their drives are. For peace, and for comfort, and for a bit of the easy life. And really, what’s not to love about a story about a rather clever cat who is able to keep one step ahead of the humans around him in order to keep his home. A funny, fantastic story that you should definitely check out!

“Orphan Tsunami Heathens” by Tiera Greene (4624 words)

No Spoilers: Klein is a young woman come back to her hometown following a recent loss, enrolling in the local university and trying to get a handle on her life. A life made more complicated because, like many people in her hometown, water causes her to transform into a sort of mer-person with webbed fingers and toes and gills on her ribcage. Oh, and something of a need to feed. Her transition back home, being around others like herself, is jarring, bringing back all sort of memories and feelings that she doesn’t want to have. And yet tucked in there is a desire to find a place to belong, and thanks to two new friends, Isla and Paisley, it’s possible that she’s found just that. The story definitely leans horror or dark contemporary fantasy to me, focusing on the pressure Klein feels to give in to her feeding urges, to embrace something that has always been something she’s run from. The social situation at this new school, however, doesn’t seem to leave much room for abstinence, and there’s a complex look at hunger, consent, and growing up.
Keywords: Transformation, Water, Shapeshifter, Feeding, College, Peer Pressure
Review: Poised as the story is over the college years, those when young people are supposed to move fully into adulthood, it’s incredibly fitting that the more Klein “grows up” the more she realizes that she’s not really comfortable with what that means or what that looks like. Her friends, those people who are making her feel like maybe she can finally have a place to belong, are also predatory and manipulative, trying to move her into a place where she will embrace her hungers. And maybe so that they can have more company, and more of a feeling of connection, but also maybe to have someone who they have compromised in that way. Someone who, once past that initial hesitation about feeding, can be further used to do some very dark things. The story for me is uncomfortable in the extreme because of how it attacks Klein’s resolve, giving her no real safe haven where she can sort through her feelings. Instead it saddles her with a hunger and surrounds her with people who think they know what’s best for her. Who are willing to hurt her “for her own good.” It’s super fucked up and the story does such a good job of capturing how that kind of abuse and manipulation works, and how it breaks Klein down to the point where she doesn’t want to hold back anymore, where she’s reacting to her own hurt and betrayal. It’s not really a happy story, not about Klein making her own peace with what’s happened to her. Instead it shows how everything is pushing her into a role she doesn’t want, one that will probably destroy her. The ending is terrifying and bloody, a promise fulfilled. That corruption without compassion breeds predators and cycles of abuse and pain and death. And yeah, wow, it’s a visceral and unsettling story that you should definitely check out. A difficult but wonderful read!


"Scenes from a Marriage” by Gwynne Garfinkle

This poem follows a couple arguing, or perhaps to be more specific I feel it follows a couple watching a couple arguing, both pairs inhabiting the same space, a museum of the dead, of mummies. The couple arguing is deep into it and there doesn’t look like there’s going to be a smoothing over, a coming back together. Not here and now, at least. For me, the piece is about death and about life, about relationships and time. The couple arguing are contrasted with the couple talking, enamored with each other. The narrator doesn’t want to stop talking, doesn’t want to end the conversation, knows that life is too short for the kind of anger and grief that the other couple is displaying. Silently, the dead agree, forming this crowd who can understand very intimately how wasteful it is to argue like this, to rage and to accuse, to poke people in the chest with a finger and consider that decent. No, what the dead and the narrator both seem to understand is that every moment matters, and is a gift. But the presence of death does this wonderful job of bringing out different aspects in people. Different fears. For the couple, the proximity of the dead seems to have reminded them that they are afraid, afraid of dying and yet also afraid that they’ve wasted their time on each other. Trapped in a state of feeling invested but looking for escape. While the narrator is in a situation where they are afraid to lose what they have with this other person. This conversation, this connection. They are afraid of never again having this joy. And the fear for both is that there’s not enough time left to really enjoy it as much as possible. But difference is that arguing couple lets that fear make them never try to find that joy, while the other couple embraces despite the fear, knowing how fragile and momentary it might be. And it makes for a wonderful read! 

“The Sea Change” by Evelyn Deshane 

For me, this poem speaks of bodies and promises, relationships and transformations. It features a narrator whose partner is going through a surgery, and probably one that would be described as gender-affirming. But that term, especially with procedures and the commercial nature of some medical practices, makes for a very fraught path that the narrator and their partner must walk. Because there can seem to be a lot of promises out there for people dealing with dysphoria, and for people who want relief from the pain that brings. But it’s also very much the case that a lot of the medical world is not only undereducated when it comes to treated trans patients, but incorrectly educated. And a lot of binary thinking still clings to and permeates the atmosphere and landscape around getting treatment for dysphoria. Because it’s often not as simple as one thing or even a slew of things. And there’s often an sense that medical treatment for trans people is either a series of gates that must be opened at great personal and financial cost (therapy, doctor notes, waiting periods, lack of insurance coverage, etc etc) or is a sluice where people are directed only toward the resources that promise some large “fix.” And the reality as the poem reveals it is not that there is a simple fix, even through surgery. And those who treat it like there is are often those who benefit financially from trans people opting to pursue certain procedures. Procedures that might indeed be life saving for some, but that does not constitute a cure-all for all trans people. And the poem for me explores desperation and gender, the way that things can build so that it seems like something large _has to work_ because things feel so bad that if it’s not the case that there is a fix, the alternatives are grim. And it’s a poem that really gets into that complexity and those feelings, showing that for many gender and bodies are complicated and boiling things down to surgeries and treatments is missing part of a larger picture. There’s some language in the poem that made me pause a time or two, because I also feel that one has to be careful about calling surgeries unnecessary and doctors con-men, because while some surgeries aren’t necessary for some people, that doesn’t make them always wrong. Not that I think the poem really engages in that. Just that I want to say. Anyway, it is a gripping and tender poem and a very good read!


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