Strange Horizons opens September with two new short stories and poems. And the feel of these pieces very much faces the bleak and desolate for me. People who are struggling against a world that seems like a hostile waste, where they can't find connection, where those people they care about don't seem to stick around, don't seem to really understand. Where they are pulled by ghosts, of those they have lost and by the ghosts of their past selves, toward ends that mean destruction or worse. It's a rather rending month of short SFF, so let's steel ourselves and get to the reviews!
“Seedlings” by Audrey R. Hollis (2690 words)
No Spoilers: Pamela has taken a pill that has made her into something of a cactus. Spines poke out of her skin, replacing her hair, making her sharp, much harder to touch. It’s also something that makes her feel much better, that gives her comfort even as it sets her apart and makes her the target of attention. It’s also but a strain on her relationship, as her long term girlfriend doesn’t really understand why she did it. The piece really explores the ways in which people are dissuaded into making decisions that will benefit just themselves. At least, for women there’s always the pressure to be making decisions for other people. To sacrifice for a job, for a relationship, for any number of things. Pamela’s decision to do this thing for herself, one that changes her body and changes how she’s perceived, is one that’s right for her, and yet everyone seems to condemn her for it, concentrating only on how she’s no longer the soft, supplicant thing they want her to be. Though, of course, there’s a lot more to it, bringing in relationships and intimacy and partnership in ways that create this complex, beautiful experience.
Keywords: Cacti, Modifications, Relationships, Queer MC, Breakups
Review: There’s a lot going on in this story, and I love the way that it creates this sense of both joy and alienation. Pamela finds that become a cactus, or part cactus, is what fits her. She loves what it’s doing to her body, even as she doesn’t know quite what to think of it. But it makes everyone else see her differently. Despite the fact that this is legal and protected. This kind of discrimination comes mostly from social pressure. The unease with which people handle her. The way that they try to ignore her and the taboo she seems to be engaged in. In her relationship, it’s something that is causing friction because she didn’t really talk to her girlfriend before going through with her transformation. Which on the one hand is completely her right. And further, it’s something that she might have been talked out of. Basically, I feel that her reasoning for doing what she did was solid, not because it’s necessarily cool to do to a partner but because she recognized already that her relationship probably wasn’t going to last. That she wants things that she’s not getting, and needs to take action, even if it costs her a girlfriend, or a job, or anything. Because living the way she had been just wasn’t possible. And there’s a lot that this process reminds me of, though I hesitate to put labels on it. But it is a moving piece that shows that making decisions to benefit yourself isn’t necessarily selfish, even if it will seem that way to others. That it’s about survival, about feeling right, though that doesn’t make it easy, especially when they can’t find support or understanding. A great read!
“Mountaineering” by Leah Bobet (2484 words)
No Spoilers: Jamey and Eli are brothers—Jamey older, more in charge, more ambitious in the terms of wanting an adventure, an exploration, a mountain to map and conquer. Oh, and he’s dead. And now together they are climbing a mountain, making for the peak, Eli pulled by this desire of his brother’s, but his own grief and longing to be reunited with the brother who was the only one looking out for him, protecting him and affirming him. Jamey’s death, however, has put a strain on their family, and on Eli especially, feeling lost in the wake of this tragedy. The piece is heartbreaking and full of a broken child wonder. It takes the joy that the brothers shared, their hope in the adventures of the future, and shows how that has shattered, leaving desolation instead. And it’s tender and delicate, setting Eli up for the choice he’ll have to make, to continue to follow after his brother or else take a different path.
Keywords: Brothers, Loss, CW- Terminal Illness/Cancer, Exploring, Ghosts, Trans MC, Dogs
Review: Oh glob I was not ready for the feels. This is such a wrenching story, full of loss and the borders of despair. Eli has run away from a home that no longer feels safe, that no longer really feels like home without his brother. And the story maps the very complex space where Jamey’s death has dominated the family, has in some ways pushed Eli to the side even when he needs a lot, too, and waiting or being ignored is doing great harm to him. At the same time, it’s Eli’s grief that is dominating his feelings, as well, because it comes with guilt and with anger, with questions that no one is answering. And so he lets himself be led out into the cold, into the dangerous beyond and up a mountain despite the fact that it seems like it will kill him. And yeah, that drive to do this thing for Jamey, to make up for having survived, is such a real and loaded situation that the story takes great care with. There is a sense of haunted beauty here, and I love the way the brothers bonded over the idea of arctic exploration, of making it work in a completely hostile environment, where splitting up would lead not just to failure but to death. That Eli has come to a place where that rule does not work, that he has lost his brother despite the two of them being close, is a new taste of the unfairness of life. that he is already used to the flavor in some ways because of his body is another layer to how this loss has cut at his hope. At his future, which always had his brother in it. And I love how the story brings Eli back to the point where he is willing to both walk away from the mountain and keep on going, that he can recognize that he is split in two, and has to move on, even as he also needs to stay on the mountain, with his brother. You just try and read this one and not tearing up, okay? I dare you. A fantastic story!
“Wanda” by Casimir R. Finnegan
This poem takes place on a space station that seems almost besieged by a ignorance, by something like a philosophy or maybe viral belief. In some ways I could read this sort of like an Original Series Star Trek episode, where the station has come down with something and the entire population is under the spell of a voice they speak as one, where everyone is joining and concerned with boundaries and the breaking down of those boundaries. Whereas Wanda, the central character in the piece, has a few more practical concerns, namely a hole in the ship. And as I read the poem it’s about the dangers of group thinking that prevents people from actually looking at data and science. When everyone is convinced that there is no hole, or that the hole doesn’t matter, it means that everyone could die. And Wanda is the outlier there, not giving into the promise of the comfort of the message that she hears and so is able to actually get shit done. But it’s made harder by the fact that she’s not getting help, and it takes a lot to deal with something so large, and I feel the poem doesn’t really promise that she makes it better. Even at the end she’s arguing with this condensed swirling mass that there’s a problem. Even then they don’t seem to be listening, even as the problem grows more and more obvious. It’s a somewhat chilling read because it does point to how when people forego investigating problems and trusting in science and observation, if they let themselves be mesmerized by something, it can lead to disaster. And it’s a rather fun read, too, for all that it’s a bit terrifying. A nice science fiction twist on an idea that’s much much closer to home than outer space. A fine read!
“Separation Anxiety” by T.D. Walker
This is a rather strange and rather long poem that to me is about abduction and a doctor who spends late hours in a trailer removing what might be alien implants from those who have been taken and returned. And the piece circles around desire and denial and belief, where the implants are a bit of this experience those taken seem desperate to deny, because they don’t want to believe what happened to them really happened. Only there’s a part of them that feel them, that know that they’re there, and so after a while, and it varies from person to person, they go and see this doctor. And for the doctor it’s an experience too, as they don’t seem to have been taken and yet are surrounded by the evidence of what has happened, asked always to remove this thing from people that means so much or maybe nothing. It’s a weird and rather unsettling read because of the way it shows the longing and revulsion of what’s happened walking hand in hand, tracing hurts that are being deeply repressed and yet to the doctor they are interesting, fascinating, a part of his own faith in something beyond. So that he becomes almost like a priest doing this reverse communion where those faithful are so because they have no choice, and visit him not to be confirmed but rather to be released. And it’s so complex because they have to acknowledge what they’re denying in order to come, and because it has such different effects on people, all of it unfolding under the doctor’s gaze. For me at least the piece becomes about repressing trauma, and seeking absolution and meaning for the damage from the past without wanting to reopen those wounds. It’s a complex and rending read that’s quiet but loaded with this weight and fear and hope, everything mingled together and confused and, at a distance at least, beautiful. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!