|Art by Francesco Giani
Four stories and a poem make August's Fireside Magazine a hearty helping of short SFF. Of course, I've made a bit less work for myself as the poem, "How to Spend Your Free Time," is by me(!) and so I will not be reviewing it. The fiction this month is very strong, though, and moves from deserts to cities, from post-apocalyptic ruins to post-death traumas. The moods range from isolated and free to crowded and pained to all points in between. The pieces examine injustices and how people approach them, how they move on given the severity of the things they've suffered. How they retain hope, and how they reach for healing. To the reviews!
“Petals” by Joanne Rixon (357 words)
No Spoilers: This very short story details first the outside of a prison likely somewhere in the American southwest. At least, the mention of deserts gives the impression of a heat that is only a part of the oppression going on. Where the story goes from there is fairly unexpected, but it unfolds naturally and powerfully, shattered the quiet of the scene and giving the reader something much more immediate to focus on. It’s a piece full of unanswered questions, quiet mysteries, but also stands well on its own, providing a lot of interesting implications.
Keywords: Prisons, Escape, Superpowers, Deserts
Review: I do really like how the story sets up the beginning of the piece as this examination of the scenery, showing that there’s really not much here to see, just ants working in their own small way. Until an explosion of sound and movement, and a man speeding through the desert toward somewhere better. Someone who seems to have newly acquired superpowers. I like that there really isn’t an explanation about why or how. An experiment gone wrong? A bit of magic reaching out for justice? What’s more important to me is that these things are happening and seem like they will continue to happen. In many ways it feels like the teaser for something bigger, like the pre-credits scene to a movie or show where something mysterious is happening that will lead into some sort of explanation. Absent that, it’s still a really fun scene and piece, short but showing what might happen when those locked away and oppressed finally get the power to turn their walls to dust. And I like the way that it builds, how it imagines all this distance, all this heat, all the ways that isolate this prison and make it something of an island without water, a place where people are sent to be forgotten. Only someone got the power needed to overcome that distance. To make it pass in a blur. And it certainly seems like there’s going to be some big changes coming. A fine read!
“Fare” by Danny Lore (2096 words)
No Spoilers: DeShaun is a werewolf but only relatively recently so, not quite used to the precautions and timetables he needs to follow around the full moon. Which is why he’s in a cab headed toward a public kennel where he’s supposed to wait out the transformation a bit late—something becoming more and more of a problem as the talk from the cabbie ventures into some uncomfortable territory. The piece is full of hunger and a keen eye for injustice, where DeShaun must suppress so much about himself in order to not be further hurt by the system that even among werewolves penalizes him for not being white. The piece looks at social support and public institutions and the forces that deepen the divide between those with money and privilege and those without.
Keywords: Werewolves, Public Assistance, Cabs, Transformations, Hunger
Review: I really like how this story takes werewolves and makes them pervasive enough that there are rules and regulations about them, places for them to go during the full moon so they don’t hurt themselves or others. It’s a supposedly government funded operation, and yet with all things that involve systems, it’s been corrupted by wealth and power, so that these public kennels in wealthy neighborhoods are supplemented by private donations so the wealthy werewolves won’t have to experience their transformations without dignity. It gives a sense of everyone else, though, that government money is going toward werewolves, which in turn makes people loudly resentful of the “burden” of having to pay to support others. All this DeShaun has to listen to as the reality of his situation is nothing like the conditions people associate with the larger, better funded kennels. Not that even the werewolves that go there enjoy their transformations, but DeShaun has to deal with layer after layer of judgment and abuse as people berate him as if he is lucky to be a werewolf because it would give him access to places his skin color means he can’t access. Explaining things does nothing in the face of this ignorance, though, and it’s all he can do to suppress his anger and rage at the hurt people feel encouraged to visit on him. That’s the real burden, the weight of everyone’s hate and bigotry on top of a system that’s been rigged not to work for him, that’s been weighted so as not to help him. He’s left having to accept what he can get or else deal with even worse, and it’s a wrenching and visceral situation, one that DeShaun can’t do much about except survive. It’s a complex and raw read, and one very much worth checking out!
“Signal” by L. D. Lewis (2107 words)
No Spoilers: Signal is a Firefly, a mech pilot in a conflict with a Colossus, a mysterious creature who has destroyed most of human civilization and now lives in the ocean, rising only to cause more destruction. What remains of humanity isn’t exactly worth protecting, though, as Signal technically answers to an abusive authoritarian who has styled himself the last best hope for the species. He only understands violence and intimidation, though, and Signal’s had about enough of both. The piece is tense, vividly painting this awe-inspiring (and terrifying) scene, and focusing on the innovation and cooperation even at the end of the world.
Keywords: Mechs, Kaiju, CW- Child Abuse, Communication, Mint
Review: The scene the story builds is gritty and grim. The world has been nearly wiped of a human presence, and what remains is being steered by an abusive fuck. Luckily Signal’s not buying what he’s selling, seeing in the Colossus not just a destructive engine but also a force to be understood and maybe befriended. Because Signal has learned lessons that she was never meant to, namely how to cooperate and reach for peace. And okay, so she might have to reach through some more conflict to get there, but she’s still operating in the hopes not of merely reacting to the Colossus, not of slowly losing everything she cares about. So she observes, and when she thinks she has enough, she reaches out. It’s a great way to throw off the authoritarian tyranny that often walks hand in hand with this kind of post-disaster fiction, where the thinking is that humans will default to violent tribes led by the worst of the worst. Here we see an answer to that, one that looks beyond the easy prejudices and fears and finds in the face of destruction a reason to hope. A reason to think that a dialogue can be maintained, that sometimes the more unreasonable beasts are not the ones that live in the ocean and rise to visit destruction on human settlements. For me it’s a but of a cure for a lot of the tropes I dislike in post-apocalyptic fiction, and I love that it imagines a way forward where the young are able to forge their own path, and those that sacrificed their freedoms are made to live with that crime...though not for very much longer. It’s a piece that doesn’t shy away from conflict, but still values cooperation as the single biggest factor that helps people not just survive, but live. A wonderful story!
“For What Dignity Remains” by Michelle Muenzler (1465 words)
No Spoilers: The story centers a narrator who tends to the dead and prepares them for their funeral. Who, as a matter of course, tends to deglove dead men because it quiets them, gives them some rest and dignity. Only the piece finds the narrator confronting their father, a hateful man who drove them away years ago, and who they haven’t seen since. And he’s got a lot to say. The piece is difficult and grim, full of the weight of abuse and the need to escape. Balancing the dignity of the dead with the needs of the living. And ultimately wrenching and raw and real, touching on trauma and guilt and caring for the dead.
Keywords: Death, Funerals, Family, CW- Abuse, CW- Rape(?), Tongues
Review: This is a story that does not flinch away from some difficult themes, though it protects the reader from knowing the worst of what’s happened (hence my question mark in the CW above, though I think it’s heavily implied). But it builds this web of abuse, a father who hurt first wife, then children. And the narrator bears a heavy guilt about getting out, about leaving their sister behind when they struck out on their own to try and be independent. They’ve fallen into their current job because it’s mostly isolated, solitary. People don’t crowd them, don’t really seek them out, and with their trauma they can’t really handle other people very well. They need space, and yet that very space prevents them from dealing with some of their issues. And then their father dies, and while I’m a little confused how they would have been estranged from a controlling father while living in the same town, he ends up on their table. It’s a heavy moment, heavier still because he’s not done abusing them. Not done being a complete shit and trying to make them feel bad because of what he’s done. It’s not a story about how the narrator is able to overcome that abuse in order to forgive and forget, for which I appreciate. And it doesn’t condemn the narrator for putting their needs first when they left. They carry the sadness about it with them, the guilt, but ultimately knows that the blame doesn’t sit with them but rather with the author of their misery—their father. And so it’s him who should pay for it, and face the enormity of what he’s done, in a way that takes away his power to help others. A great read!