Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 07/29/2019

Well it turns out that Strange Horizons wasn't quite done with July despite already putting out five issues. This latest one contains what the publication is calling three poems, though the later two are graphic as well as text. Mixing art and poetry is always an interesting experience, and the two works on display (by the same author with different artists) do a fine job of showing how the two mediums can synergize, building off each other to be more than either of them would have been separate. It's a great way to close out the month and celebrate what Strange Horizons has managed to do with its Fund Drive, and what it always does with its mix of strange, speculative art. To the reviews!


"Borrower" by Cislyn Smith

This is a great poetic take on superheroes and especially one superhero who isn't like the others. On the one hand, the piece is a sharp critique of depictions of superheroes, pointing out the safety of their lives, the ways that they value their brands more than actually making a difference. They are commercial because of the nature of the medium, because they are there to sell comic books, which always infects their stories, which require conflicts that don't end, that recycle and loop. And so the heroes become trapped in that mentality, saving the day but only because it was easy enough, familiar enough. And behind the scenes there is a new kind of hero who is doing the heavy lifting, who is acting not in a commercial sense, not for a brand identity, but because she knows that the heroes can't be trusted, that someone has to be looking out for people from all kinds of threats. And her power, to be able to borrow other people's knowledge and powers, gives her the perfect vehicle to do just that. It's a neat poem because it works as a superhero story and as a critique of them. Because really it does work as far as superhero narratives go, with her powers allowing her to save the day, but also with an insight to know that she's only a hero so long as she lives by the idea to do no harm, to work not for the fame but because it needs doing. And in that, the poem gives the role of hero to all the people in the background of the larger stories, the cleaners and servers, the workers who are invisible otherwise. And it's a piece that comes together nicely, playing with the tropes of the genre and ending on a sort of reminder that without the people in the background, the world is a very empty place. A wonderful read!

"Visit the Bottomless Pit" by John Philip Johnson, art by Bob Hall

This is a rather haunting mix of dark and sweet. It features a bottomless pit, as the title suggest, a kind of tourist attraction that doesn't really rate too highly on anyone's radar. It's something to see, not really something to do, because it's just a hole in the earth. But the comic builds up a nice mystery surrounding it. It doesn't seem to be managed, doesn't seem to be overseen by anyone. There's no admission mentioned, and the place has no guard rail. There seems almost to be a magic to it, because while there's no organization to it there are signs and presumably people selling souvenirs. But there also seems to be a hunger to it, an inevitable tragedy that plays out again and again, distracted parents not seeing as their And I'm fascinated by the narrator of the piece, too, a watcher who sees one such fall. They never really get a face, just a voice that seems to know a bit too much about the pit and what it is. And what it must be like to tumble endlessly down. There's a part of me that wonders if the person isn't more than just a watcher, if they have some part of play in the falls, but that doesn't seem to have any support in the text. Rather maybe it is just another visitor who is haunted by this vision of a child falling endlessly, wanting to wrap that darkness, that terror (that the comic captures very well) in something that is happier. Brighter. That eases some of the darkness and imagines for the child an ending that isn't either endless falling or the suddenness of impact. That leaves room for the magic of the pit to not be evil but rather an entrance to a place laced with magic. The art captures this well with colors and visuals, the darkness of the second page giving way to a much brighter third. Whatever the case, though, the piece pulls back from tragedy and at least imagines an ending that holds to hope. A great read!

"The Stars My Destination" by John Philip Johnson, art by Adam Martin

This comic is longer, five pages rather than three, and features an entirely different scope and scale and setting. It features a more definite narrator, what seems to be a robotic entity, though their nature isn't exactly fully explained. They exist in a sort of graveyard, a scrapyard of broken ships and shattered hulls. A fragile environment that is still vast and cold, where the narrator is very much a being that fits in there. And yet as the words of the piece seem to evoke this enormous cosmic indifference, and a person who defies and rejects conventional description and definition, there's a different narrative playing out. The visuals paint the picture of the narrator finding a tiny bit of organic life, a plant kept in a vial, floating in the cold dark of space. Again, the words seem to speak to this desire to be beyond the stories that people will tell, free of the meanings that people heap onto actions, seeking metaphor and allegory and the like. So that this act of planting, of finding new life in the barren landscape, something that could be rich in literary meaning, becomes instead perhaps something different. Something that doesn't conform to the familiar structures, to the organic triumphing in a hostile environment. I feel that the work encourages people to reach past the easiest of interpretations and instead simply inhabit this moment and this act. Not to seek to give it a moralized valuing that places the plant as more beautiful than the empty hulls, the distances and the silences. Not that we can't find it beautiful, but that like the birth of a star it's not necessarily meant to be witnessed, isn't itself a work of art. Which makes the fact that this is a work of art so interesting, and I love that meta twist. It's a wonderful work, and one definitely worth spending some time with. It's stark, and dark, and lovely, and a great way to close out the issue!


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