Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Quick Sips - Mithila Review #10 [fiction]

It’s been a while since the last issue of Mithila Review, and I’m happy to say there’s a new huge issue with tons of short SFF to read and enjoy. Because there’s so much, I’m once again breaking my review of the issue into two parts. And today I’m looking at the first part, covering the fiction! There are eight different stories presented here, covering a nice range of genres, though leaning a bit toward the weird and on stories that unfold in strange cities and desolate wastes. There are pieces that look at escape, at legends, and at food. And overall this is a very visceral issue, one that doesn’t hesitate to unsettle or confront the reader with themes and formats that are difficult. And overall I think there’s a great deal to take away from this issue’s many hungers and truths and warnings. So without further delay, to the reviews!


“Tigerflies or The City of the Night” by Alexandra Seidel (2577 words)

No Spoilers: This stories is split in two parts. The first follows the heir of a trading family which has fled the big city to a smaller one to escape the scandal caused when she started a relationship with a centaur, an act forbidden by both humans and centaurs. The second follows a creature ancient and powerful who seems to be at the heart of a phenomenon around the city that heir’s family moves to. The phenomenon of the tigerflies, which seek to devour anyone caught out without extensive protection during the daytime. It’s a bit of a strange tale, moving between old hurts and a much more recent frustration. Mostly, it seems to explore the space around this city, pushing the narrator toward a knowledge and judgement that seems infectious and persistent.
Keywords: Flies, Centaurs, Cities, Voices, Love
Review: For me, a lot of this story comes back to the idea of trespass and ignorance. The narrator’s, in starting a relationship with a centaur for their own reasons, creating this situation which to them was something of a game or adventure but for the centaur meant much more, and landed them with a much harsher punishment than just having to move away. But then, that follows how humans are portrayed here, as rash and near-sighted, unable to really understand how their actions impact the world around them. It mirrors what happened with this older creature, who seems to have originaed the scourge of the tigerflies that now keep people from moving freely through the day. This creature died because of humans, and so left behind the flies as a sort of punishment, but also as a memory. As a magic that doesn’t fade. A magic that gets inside the narrator’s head and pushes them to face not what they’ve done specifically but the patterns of humanity that they’ve participated in, feeling the intense (and really creepy) desire to go out to the tigerflies and let it happen. Because that would strip away all the pretense and lies. It’s a rather exponential read, growing more and more desperate and visceral as it goes, leading to a place that is full of hurt and anger and a need for something that tastes like justice, even if it’s only revenge after all. A fine read!

“I, Lilli Man” by Rahad Abir (1994 words)

No Spoilers: This story imagines the Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels and brings them to life, imagining what it would be like if they were uncovered and, well, turned into livestock. The piece looks at a rather absurb but also chilling idea—that people would have no problem eating what are essentially little people, because that’s just the way the world works. The piece is told from the point of view of a Lilli “farmer,” a person who raises Lilli for slaughter and consumption. And the piece explores the ways that animals, even pretty obviously sentient ones, are exploited to the fullest extent, in ways that rather make the skin crawl.
Keywords: CW- Cannibalism(?), Food, Corruption, Business, Bribes
Review: This is a visceral read, deeply uncomfortable because the way in which the Lilliputians are described, the way that they are stripped of any shred of dignity or respect. The piece looks at how they become just another commodity, and a lucrative one at that, part of this larger system of corruption designed to funnel money to those already wealthy and keep the wheels of this political machine well greased. The language is exactly that of someone discussing meat, and yet at the same time I very much feel that the point the story is aiming at is to show how these sorts of systems treat people. How those without much power, the “little” people in the meaphoric sense, are devoured. Here the meaning for me is clear—in corrupt systems, unless you’re big, you’re food. And even if you are big, as the narrator of the piece can attest to, it’s always a danger of falling down yourself, stripped by the same corruption that has allowed you to prosper. When everything is teeth, then everyone is food, only waiting to be sized up and butchered. And I do like the complete monstrosity of the narrator, the way that they seek to avoid being called a butcher despite the fact that it’s basically their job. They’re in the meat business, and yet they know that it goes beyond that, that they are guilty of so much. And their attempt to “class up” their operation by getting away from food and into “trained Lilli” is just the next step, hiding their abuses behind the idea that what they’re doing is clean, when it’s all part of the same hurt, the same horror. It’s a story that hits with a blunt and terrifying force, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

“The Glass-Toothed Wolf” by Dennis Mombauer (2439 words)

No Spoilers: Baladrick is in a city that has changed. Small, preformed people battle in the streets. The heat has become unbearable. And there doesn’t seem to be an escape, a way out. The trains just go on and on in circles. The borders are closed, or circular, or otherwise impossible. But Baladrick must get out. That he knows. And even as he bakes in the heat, dehydrating and nearing death, he meets a wolf with glass teeth who tells him of a way out, and the ways he might achieve it. The piece is strange and filled with a fallen decay, an impending final doom. And Baladrick is willing to do just about anything to escape, though that might be just the thing that seals his own fate.
Keywords: Cities, Escape, Wolves, Maps, Death
Review: I love how this story has such a drive to it, this desperation in Baladrick to escape from a city that is growing and shrinking at the same time. Growing becuase it seems without end, shrinking in that it seems so empty of people. And he has this want, this visceral want to get out, to get away, that it’s possible he doesn’t really see that he’s falling into the traps that created this situation in the first place. Seeking the easy and violent way out instead of striving for something more peaceful, more careful. And yes, part of that decision seems to be based on the feeling that he’s out of time. But if we imagine the world as this city, and the rising temperatires like rising global temps, the Baladrick becomes a man who wants to just run the fuck away from what’s happening. To not face the problem that seems too big, too pervasive. And in his reach to escape he doesn’t really care who he hurts or kills. The little people, just as in the last story, are those who can be killed and used to pave the way for those more powerful. And yet, at the same time, the little people cannot be forever ignored, and as Baladrick seeks his escape, he must face the gravity and violence of his actions reflected back at him. It’s a dark and powerful read!

“Sita’s Descent” by Indrapramit Das (2987 words)

No Spoilers: Lakshmi is a scientist and a reluctant part of a team of Indian minds responsible for creating a recreation of the Ramayana using artificial beings created to travel through space and collect dust and solar energy to travel and create and live. Lakshmi’s role was largely to do with Sita, the lone goddess created, who was supposed to burn in the sun and travel to Earth to dazzle and astonish as part of a sort of reenactment—a play. Only for this Sita it stops being a play, and her drive to “fix” some of the inequalities of the original story take a rather dangerous turn as Lakshmi must try to negotiate with a goddess, who is also a reflection of herself. It’s a strange but moving story about frustration and the power of narratives, as well as humanity and the power of what humans create.
Keywords: AI, Space, Deities, Legends, Destruction, Exile
Review: I really like how this story looks at the links between what humans create. How it makes blatant and quite literal the danger of the stories that humans create, that they don’t necessarily understand the power of. Here, of course, it’s something scientific that people make and that gets out of control, that has the potential to destroy so much and yet this group of scientists pursues it in part because of their hubris, their confidence that it couldn’t go wrong. But it taps into this older tradition, this older truth. That some of the most powerful creations that humans have made have been stories. The stories of creation, and belief. The stories that those participating in the creation of never probably thought would become what they have been. Used to justify war, and death, and destruction. A face that was human made into something divine and terrible. And here it is, hurtling toward Earth, this time with a voice and a will of its own. Instead of giving birth to a story that takes on a life that cannot be predicted or stopped, it’s creating an actual sentient being and then expecting it to play along with something that could harm it, all for the sake of a play. It points to a certain lack of care that people have about creation, a wanton rush to give life without wondering if it’s a good idea first. And, I think at least, the story finds both a beauty and a darkness there, that it leads to some amazing and terrifying things, and that it’s hard to separate out those two sides of human creation. A wonderful read!

“A Time Called L’apatia” by Sarah M. Prindle (2093 words)

No Spoilers: A young girl waits to watch a movie when her grandmother, who seems to have some form of dementia or memory disorder, begins to tell a story, of the time of L’apatia. The girl listens rapt as cycle after cycle of the same story is told, detailing rapes and murders, wars and abuses, again and again in all parts of the world, while those with the most power to do something about it, to either ease the suffering or take action to prevent it from happening in the first place, put off that responsibility and choose instead of just not care. The piece explores how tragedies are allowed to continue, the grinding wheel of injustice turning people into blood and dust. It’s definitely a story that carries with it an oral weight, the style that of spoken world, emphasizing again and again the pattern that makes these horrors posisble. Though not exactly a speculative piece, it carries with it a speculative flare, a story of a foreign land that turns out to be much closer to home.
Keywords: Family, Politics, Death, CW- Rape, Apathy
Review: There’s a part of me that isn’t sure exactly how speculative the story is (not that it really matters), more because if could easily be speaking of events in the future, depicting what our world will look like if trends continue, or it can be looking squarely at our present, at what is going on all around us and about which we’re not doing enough. And for me what the story is getting at is how we’re living in a time that is also a place. Which might seem weird, but I love the idea that we are living in the country of the present, of the now, and it is one defined by a deep apathy. Because it gets beyond geography, and that’s something I think the story does quite well, looking into how this trend is not localized to any one place. The abuses, the atrocities, are happening everywhere. In even the most powerful and privileged of places, this mentality reigns. And so the world is defined not by a million separate nations all facing the same problem but rather one place, with one leadership all failing in the same way. The planet, united, but in a rather terrible way, unable to see that we should be united in a differe way, one people, all helping each other to overcome corruption, greed, and apathy. And yeah, it’s a great read!

“Crisis” by Damien Krsteski (7203 words)

No Spoilers: Nick has come to the Balkans because the area is roiling with political unrest. Protests against authoritarianism, against corruption, against a government that seems on a tipping point. He comes as a tourist, not an idealist—as a man who, well, gets off on being in the middle of a political movement, when he can feel a part of something larger. Except that, he finds, he’s mostly just really fucking privileged, walking into situations where people are fighting for their rights and lives and treating it like it’s the same as mountain climbing or skydiving. It’s a complex and vivid story, stripping Nick of his illusions and the romance of his “adventure” and really grounding the piece in how his actions grow out of his apathy and lack of empathy, which builds beautifully on the themes of the last story.
Keywords: Tourism, Unrest, Protests, Lies, Police, Politics
Review: This provides such a fitting follow up to the last story, because Nicholas really is a complete failure at empathizing with the people that he’s using to satisfy his fantasy. He wants to feel a part of something and yet that drive takes him not to acting for change in his own country but to play crisis tourist, seeking out places of unrest and going there specifically to enjoy the danger of the moment. And in doing so ignoring completely the reasons that these people are in a crisis, the idealogies at work. He meets Lea, a woman fighting hard for her country, and it all works into the romance of it for him, the image in his head where he’s basically a hero in a story and all of this is just and fitting. By pretending to care, he’s let into a community that drives toward justice, and yet it’s not that part of it he’s after. It’s the violence, the danger, the risk of it all. He gets to leave at the end of this, even if he does end up being brought into the story more personally than he wanted. But even being arrested is part of his fantasy, and it’s not one that really breaks at any point. Yes, he gets hints that he’s an asshole. He gets frustrated when the people he thought accepted him into their movement react with disgust at how he was using them. But he doesn’t really grow. He doesn’t change. He proves that they are right about him because he’s able to just go, to take off, to fly above it all. It’s a powerful moment, and one that points an accusing finger at those who would glorify the heroism of movements without caring what they’re about. Those who want to be the great person taking part in history without seeing that history is all around us, and is about caring about others. And yeah, it’s a piece that really captures how profound Nick’s ignorance and arrogance are, and pull no punches in exposing the monstrosity of his actions. It’s a wrenching story and very much worth checking out!

“Lopamudra’s Wedding” by Bhushita Vasistha (4191 words)

No Spoilers: Agastya is a bit of a rebel, seeking out scientific knowledge and trying to invent a flying machine. Full of fire and vigor, he works until he’s successful. And then...well, it works. But instead of using this as a way to rebel against the powers that be, he lets it become his ticket to become one of the powers that be, after which his poutlook changes, becomes more conservative. And when his ancestors tell him to take a wife, he sets out to do just that. Of course, that does not go how he expects it to. This is a very staunchly meta-fictional experience, showing how people fall into the trap of using stories to justify their actions when they know what they want doesn’t meet up with what they say they want. It’s a difficult, but I think ultimately rewarding story about truth, and fiction, and the distance in between.
Keywords: Invention, History, Logic, Marriage, CW- Incest(?), Time Travel
Review: To me this seems a rather philosophical story, framed as a sort of fable or religious text and yet explicitly challenging the idea of using texts as an authority of truth. Not that, as the story demonstrates, stories can’t be valuable for where they lead, and what they reveal, and the patterns of logic and dissent that they can help to maintain in the pursuit of curiosity and wisdom—but that they are all biased, and all loaded, and none of them at all with any hand really on Truth. And yet that’s often the first thing that gets trotted out in the defense of stories, to say that texts should be followed and obeyed. And I love how Lopamudra refuses to let Agastya off the hook because of that. Instead, she confronts him not only with how he’s failing his younger self, but how he’s bending the truth in the very story that she’s in. That she can give lie to the claim that he simply creates a child out of nature, a perfect being. That she can shatter that illusion so casually and show that stories are not about what is or is not. That they all conceal and reveal based on the desires of the author. And that the story does that inside a story is wonderful, a meta moment that allows the piece to subvert that much more, because it uses the form of truth to make a point about fiction. It’s a wonderful layering, and the action and focus of the piece feels sharp and well built to me. It’s not a piece I feel holds back, because when Agastya goes to rely on history to defned his point, Lopamudra uses a different kind of history to show he’s full of shit. It’s an inteeresting and complex read, and it’s very much worth spending some time with!

“Dessert Heads” by Rajendra Shepherd (4280 words)

No Spoilers: Jon is living with his mother, Marj, in the desolate town of Mason Wells. Their lives are defined by time and space and a generla lack of hope. Mostly they bicker, and Jon at least hopes for something to take him away from the house with his mother, from the endless days. Only there really doesn’t seem to be much in the way of prospects. At least, until the two decide they might be able to enter a cake competition. The piece is...hard to read, for me. It’s full of a rather visceral montage of disgust and what is presented as the grotesque. It’s strange and it’s disturbing and it makes some choices in how it depicts fatness that I’m not really a fan of.
Keywords: CW- Cannibalism, CW- Fat shaming, Deserts, Cakes, Eating
Review: Well, the issue saved probably its most difficult to read story (in my opinion) for the end of the fiction section. This piece is...well, to me it definitely positions fatness to represent a sort of ugliness. The characters are all stuck in their decline, in the decline of civilization writ large, and the only thing left to distract them is food. Despite seeming to be starving, Jon and Marj are described as large, as waddling and willing to eat just about anything. Which carries with it a definite creepiness, as well as what I read as a definite attempt to paint the characters as disgusting because of their size, because of their bodies. Which does seem to feed into the stigmas and prejudices out there about the morality of fat people. And the story doesn’t really let up when it comes to that, bringing Jon and his mother farther and farther down this path where they have killed someone and made her into a cake. Not just for their own consumption but for the consumption of other people as well. Which I think probably plays into a commentary on sonsumption, on how people fail to see the link between their consumption of resources and the way their world deteriorates. Like here, the water that sustained the town disappears, and no one seems to understand why, but by the story it seems obvious to me that people abused the natural world and left it unlivable, and even that hasn’t stopped people from consuming, from wrecking more and more. I just really don’t appreciate the way the story goes about getting to that point, because it seems to lean on a consensus that fat people are disgusting. And no. But still, I recommend people proceed with caution and make up their own minds about this one.


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