|Art by Grandfailure / Fotolia|
It’s a rather weighty issue of Lightspeed Magazine this June, with four stories all over 5000 words. The pieces are eclectic, following far future bureaucracies and fables full of gods and jinn. All the stories feature women dealing with situations they didn’t really chose, though. Systems that are not exactly built for justice. The worlds they grow in are touched in profound ways by darkness and corruption, and yet they all seek in different ways to bring in some light, some hope that people can do better, and find happiness. To the reviews!
“Between the Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun (12648 words)
No Spoilers: This story unfolds from two points of view. Mafokeng is a steward, one of the select few chosen to watch after one of the 200 human ships launched from Earth in the hope of saving the human species from a planet made tectonically unstable. She’s retained her position despite her ship exploding, and when the prospect is raised that a different ship has engaged in cannibalism, the greatest crime in their society, and one that carries with it a death sentence for the entire ship. Rory is a member of that ship, a promising young man committed to his ship and its ways, caught in a circumstance where he must participate in a ritual surrounding the ship’s aquaponics—one that requires occasional human sacrifice. It’s a piece that looks at anthropology and space and the cultures that might developed as people drift away from Earth, and how those new cultures are viewed by those left behind, still very much of Earth and its moralities. It’s a story about patience, and the resolve to really examine a situation fully rather than passing summary judgment (and “justice”).
Keywords: Space, Colonization, Post-Disaster, CW- Eating of Human Flesh, Anthropology, Fish, Rituals
Review: I really like how this story approaches difference and developing cultures. How Mafokeng is able to see this picture that is supposed to provoke this visceral disgust and instead wonders at the context. And while everyone else is frothing for a chance to wipe out this “barbarous” culture, she wants to give it a closer look, to see if what she’s seeing is an ethical kind of eating human flesh, and not the cannibalism that has everyone so bothered. And I appreciate what the story does with Rory, who truly believes in the system of the ship, the necessity of this system that’s in place. It’s one that is possible because of the aquaponics, and the system needs the input of a human ingredient in order to stay viable. The story takes great pains to show his role in all of this, his place in the ritual and in the culture. Where it’s not really that he wants to die, but he’s _willing_ to die in order for the system to be maintained. Even if it’s his life on the line, he still believes, and gives it his all. So that even as it becomes more clear that he’ll die, he doesn’t turn back. And so the flesh eating, though it seems repellent, is actually entirely consensual. It operates in this space of ritual and tradition and necessity, giving into this fragile system that requires human life to continue. As Mafokeng points out, it’s a system that works, though that’s not enough to suggest that it should continue. Rather ,the full ethical implications of the ship have to be examined, and placed into context, and really poured over. The simple answer, however easy, has to be measured against the stakes—humanity itself. It’s a richly imagined and complex piece, one that really provokes the reader to look at how we judge cultures, and rituals not our own. And it shows the need to be careful, and thorough, and compassionate. A great read!
“The Harvest of a Half-Known Life” by G.V. Anderson (6569 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is the daughter of a deaf woman and so was raised primarily with sign, though she does speak. The world she lives in is Ruined, a society where nothing goes to waste, where there is a supreme importance placed on harvesting everything possible from the dead. The world is harsh, after all, the heat and sun brutal and though most people are able to live relatively securely in settlements, the narrator’s mother chose to live in the ruins of the previous civilization. Except she’s dead now, and her last words seem to contradict the future she had planned out for her daughter. It’s a story full of loss and hope and an oppressive world. And it’s messy and complex in a way I appreciate, where what a person wants can’t be easily broken down or explained. It’s about risk, and choice, and reclaiming what has been lost.
Keywords: Post-disaster, Family, Death, Waste, CW- Eating Human Flesh
Review: I really like the way the story looks at the narrator’s situation and her place outside of the settlement, the village that her mother seemed to want her to settle. She’s a bit of an outsider not just because she’s more comfortable signing than speaking. Her true name is one that doesn’t have verbal words, yes, but she’s more of an outsider because she feels the draw toward the past and the ruins left behind. Because she can see a central contradiction in how people live, in how they treat the dead. Everyone is supposed to be harvested and shared, nothing going to waste. But they treat the Ruined as somehow infected, best avoided. They stripped away the taboos about eating human flesh, but have come up with new ones, avoiding the linger technology and calling it ghosts. Which it might be. But if there are ghosts then they, too, are a piece of the dead that can be harvested, that can be used. And the narrator pushes past the idea that this older past is something that should be shunned. She presses forward, hoping to complete the work that her mother started, knowing that there is something to take from this, something that might so many people. Because for all the Ruined destroyed so much, they also had knowledge and skills that people have now lost. That, if reclaimed, has the potential to do a lot of good. And I just love the way the story draws that all together, putting the narrator in a place where she might be happy enough, but where she’d never be satisfied. Because she wants to know more, wants to explore more, wants to puzzle out some of the mysteries left in the world. And by embracing that she can not only honor her mother but help her community and maybe bring some valuable knowledge back from across disaster. A wonderful story!
“The Weight of a Thousand Needles” by Isabel Cañas (6075 words)
No Spoilers: Soraya is a poor girl who has lost her mother and home, forced out into the desert. She follows a crow, who leads her to a strange garden where a panther sprawls, pierced by a thousand needles. The needles are edged, sharp, but a jinn appears and makes her a sort of deal—pull out all the needles in either days and be greatly rewarded. The piece has the feel of a fable, of a fairy tale—full of darkness and magic but also at its core about the power of stories, and love. It’s got an edge of sizzling romance to it, and a rich directness, where it’s not exactly a surprise how the story plays out so much as there’s a loveliness in the getting there.
Keywords: Gods, Magic, Stories, Jinn, Bargains
Review: I love how the story doesn’t apologize or shy away from the sort of...familiarity of the plot? It’s a story I’ve never heard before but the structure is classic, is warm and inviting, and I love the feel of it, the mood and the tone and the language. It’s about gods and stories and falling in love, about voice and overcoming deception. Soraya is pure of heart and diligent, is passionate and honest. Parviz is patient and kind and absolutely delicious-sounding. The jinn is a trickster, cruel, and unrepentant. But as easy as it is to spot the good guys and the bad, the story shines. The emotionality of it, the efficiency of the prose, the evocativeness of it is just so strong. It weaves the magic into a sort of spell on the reader, drawing me at least into this world, into this story, this fantasy, that couldn’t possible happen and yet feels true. Like the stories that Soraya tells to Parviz, this story carries with it its own magic and, more importantly, the ability to relieve some of the pain that exists in the world. For me at least the story is about that, about pulling out some of the needles that weigh us all down, offering some much needed relief at a time when it feels like we might be voiceless, like evil will always triumph and romance and love will be crushed under an iron boot. The story pushes back against that, telling a beautiful story that doesn’t need to be more than a bit of fluff but is more, is actually a rather brilliant statement, that stories have power and can keep us moving forward, and that compassion is often a more important trait than cleverness. A fantastic read!
“Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir” by Caspian Gray (5359 words)
No Spoilers: Sydney is a young woman and cancer survivor dealing with some big issues when her ex calls her up out of the blue. It’s a small thing, but it draws her into the middle of something that seems almost too good to be true, and might be enough to shake her out of her current funk. The piece uses a lighter, more casual tone and sets it against some very heavy, very dark material. Sydney is fun but also deeply tired, caught in a place where she’s mostly given up hope, and the story does a great job of interrogating that without shaming or making it about how Sydney isn’t trying hard enough. It’s careful and strange, darkly funny and a wrenching picture of survival.
Keywords: CW- Cancer, College, CW- Drug Use, Queer MC
Review: This story does some excellent things with grief and loss and survival, finding Sydney in a place where most of what she’s doing is medicating using drugs so that she can get through life. Because she’s found that the narrative she was taught to expect, the shape her life was supposed to take, isn’t going to. She was told to expect one thing and instead got hit with hardship after hardship, with cancer and with rejection and with a sense that nothing she can do matters. So she smokes and gets by. And then Edik enters her life and things start getting a little better. She starts feeling more like doing things, though mostly she just smokes and avoids. Still, she starts to feel like she can interact more, like she can be seen. Which is, of course, when things get weird. I like how the story doesn’t really shame Sydney about what happens, about her desire for something easy, for this magic gaze that Edik has. Not that she needs it, but the promise of it is something that is seductive, especially for someone who has had to struggle so much for so little. There’s an edge to the story, where at the same time that yes Sydney deserves help and deserves to feel good about herself, it almost feels like this is too good to be true, that she might slip into the same trap that others have in wanting to exploit Edik for this power. And maybe not. The story doesn’t really answer that and I think it’s telling that it might just be she needs a second chance. That if what she decides to pursue pays off, then probably she won’t need more. The problem is that it’s out of her control, really. That despite people saying you just need to be positive there’s only so much a person can take before they are broken. It’s what having a safety net is supposed to help prevent but in our moment that’s been taken away and what’s left is the knowledge that sometimes second chances are enough. And sometimes they aren’t. And it’s really not about how good a person is that separates the two. And it’s a fine read that is very much worth spending some time with!