Friday, September 13, 2019

Quick Sips - Samovar 09/02/2019 & Strange Horizons 09/09/2019

September kicks off with a bang with a new issue of Samovar to enjoy before settling back into regular Strange Horizons content. The translated issue features two stories and a poem, while the "regular" issue has another short story and poem, so all told it's a rather full two weeks. It's also a rather difficult few pieces, dealing with colonization, identity loss, and some dense literary comparative theory. And for all that the fiction is strong and unsettling, chronicling people struggling and often succumbing to the violence and corruption of their systems, I also want to point specifically to the poetry in these issues, which is pretty amazing and worth checking out. So let's get to the reviews!


“The Head” by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur (4603 words)

No Spoilers: A woman is rather startled one day to discover a head poking up from her toilet. More surprised still to discover that this head considers her their mother. It’s not exactly something the woman is happy with, and what follows is part creepy, part wrenching, and definitely unsettling. It explores the ways that people experience revulsion and horror, and how these things often limit how people can reach out to help, reach out in compassion. It’s a deeply odd piece that really goes all in on its premise and confronts the reader with something that is disturbing but rings true. And while I personally struggled a bit with it, I think it’s ultimately a story about cycles of pain and rejection.
Keywords: Toilets, Heads, Family, CW- Birthing, Gratitude
Review: Okay, so...huh. This was...something. I’m actually not sure what to make of this right away because it’s such a strange piece, and the feeling I get from it is just...weird. Sad. Oppressed. But without perhaps a clear view of who is victim in this situation and who not. The woman the story spends most of the story with is put in something of an impossible situation, where this being approaches her and calls her mother, puts this burden of creation on her, something that she doesn’t want at all. While this woman doesn’t remember and never wanted to create this...toilet being. And she’s unsettled by it, refusing the claim that this being is her offspring. Only it doesn’t go away, and it needs things from her to have a life, and so the two are immediately stuck in this adversarial place where both of them lose because they can’t really deal with the ways they’ve both been hurt by this. The woman loses her job and suffers because of it, and the head delays becoming whole, and neither are happy, both trapped in their resentment and bitterness. And the ending is a bit disturbing for me because it represents this turn, this moment where the head has decided it’s going to take, at exactly the moment where the woman was willing to give something. There are layers of betrayal here, and hurt, and loss, and it’s a complicated story to parse in that way. But for me it speaks to the ways that women are often doomed. Not because they all have these creatures, but because when she goes for help no one is willing to listen to her. And so it creates this cycle of hurt where no one is capable of reaching out to help because they’re in too much pain and distress. And it’s vicious and cruel and draining, rotting those involved and leaving only pain in its wake. Definitely a story to spend some time with!

“Guests from the Sky” by Ji Yun, translated by Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum (1288 words)

No Spoilers: This is another weird piece, featuring an account of a man who is approached by strange magical beings and eventually taken to be a lover to a kind of fairy woman. It’s framed as a kind of investigation by a friend into these events, and it’s drawn through the framing of the piece, through a lengthy translator’s note after the account itself, to much more modern myths and stories. And it’s interesting that a story that begins with a note on language is itself translated, and that the translator’s notes, which becomes a part of the text, deepens this much older story and places it in a context that the original author probably wouldn’t have recognized, though they might have shared a language with the translator. It’s a short but deep experience, capped by a rather academic note, and brings up some fascinating points.
Keywords: Fairies, Aliens, Illness, Historical, Translations
Review: It’s so neat that this story takes a text that is hundreds of years old and places it into a new context. The original story is about a man investigating the death of a friend and finding that he had gotten involved with a supernatural creature. In some ways it’s a familiar story, because as the translator’s note explains, it’s rather similar to Western depictions of Fairies. More than that, though, the note places the story in a much different context, linking it to stories of alien abductions. And it is fascinating to think about the parallels, about how these accounts have so long been thought of as bits of mythology and magic, but that they do have connections and similarities to more modern stories of aliens. In that, this translation acts a bit like an academic text, pulling readers into thinking about how these different literary traditions might play with and off each other, weaving a narrative that speaks to something deep in the human psyche and recurs in the stories we tell, changing with the time to maybe ben something that is more “plausible” but maybe speaking the same truth. Perhaps that hey, there might be beings abducting folks. Or perhaps that there is something about these stories that strike at the same primal fear that humans have. Of being taken. Of finding creatures strange and alien, whether they are Fairies or literal aliens. Whatever the case, this short piece opens a lot of space to think, and does a rather lovely job of tying it all together with the opening idea of finding something that seems written in a foreign language because of how strange it is. Which in many ways is what SFF writers and readers engage in all the time, seeking to find in our translations (even if not across languages) some meaning and commonality. A great read!

“And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas (6843 words)

No Spoilers: Apa is an old doll maker, able to release the shape of jute into figures that delight. It’s a skill that’s becoming rarer with not only the march of time and children being interested in different things, but the occupation of India by the British creating devastating conditions that make passing on her knowledge largely impossible. Set during World War II, the piece explores the history often left out of the history books—the horrors visited on the people of India to help feed the war in Europe. It does not shy away from depicting in detail the reality that we don’t often see, the people who were tortured and starved so that the Allies could have food to continue the fight. More than that, it looks at how that treatment, that violence, that cruelty, becomes a kind of magic. Not one bound to jute and craft, but one bound to rage and loss and the need for revenge.
Keywords: Dolls, Colonization, CW- Starvation, CW- Suicide, Laughter
Review: Apa is pretty fucking badass. She’s an artist, and she takes her craft very seriously, going as far as to stand up to a colonizing soldier rather than sacrifice her artistic integrity. Not that it really stops the horror that the British visit on India, and the story I feel does a good job of sitting with the atrocity going on, showing just how bad things are, the starvation and the way that this is being done deliberately, celebrated by Britain as necessary for the war effort. And I feel that’s part of the point of the story, to generally complicate the way that most Western readers and writers romanticize World War II and it’s “clear good guys and bad guys.” When, for real, wars don’t tend to have good guys. And both sides are certainly guilty of war crimes, which does not make them any less awful or needing of justice. The piece shows just how toxic and evil all colonization is, where the people being occupied are seen as less than human, as mere means to an end, bled to feed a people half a world away. Apa suffers in some enormous ways, and through it all she finds that most of what kept her going falls away in the face of what’s being done to her and all of India. What remains is a need to push back, a need to not have the laughter of her enemy to be the last thing she hears. And for me, it’s about how this kind of situation, this kind of treatment, has its own kind of gravity. That draws people down into violence, so that even those who think they are above sometimes find that they cannot escape the pull. It’s not exactly a victory, or at least I feel that the story is careful not to show it as solely a victory. Apa can’t win here. She can’t bring back the dead and she can’t even expect to survive. This doesn’t stop what’s happening. All it does it visit the suffering that has been reserved for the people of India on those who have authored it. And there’s a kind of justice to it, even as it takes Apa with it. It’s a difficult piece about corruption and atrocity, and it’s a wonderful read!


“Astronaut Poets” by Carmen Lucía Alvarado, translated by Toshiya Kamei

This is a lovely piece about poetry, and about poets, and about space. It claims that all poets begin wanting to be astronauts, connected to the vastness of space, the tantalizing promise of the darkened sky. That might be hiding on any of those worlds something better. Something _needed_. And I love the way the piece speaks to that, to that yearning that seems to sit at the heart of so many poets, this desire to capture something that doesn’t quite exist in the real world. But that the poet is still drawn to, still desperate for, and so poetry becomes a kind of spell, a kind of magic, a kind of science fiction that holds them in an orbit, however distant, of that feeling that the universe is full of possibilities and wonders, and if the poet works hard, they might find the words that open the doorway, or summon a ship, or bring them back in whatever way to that source that first inspired them. That infinite possibility that still waits out there in the stars, a guiding light that doesn’t lead to a place, no, but to a kind of state of mind. And really I think it speaks to my own experiences as a poet, that longing has such a large part of it, that I feel that poetry really can come from that space, from that feeling, and that pointing to a sort of romanticized notion of being an astronaut and wanting to find a place off of earth that must be just what you’re really looking for is a great way of framing that. It’s the distance where artistic drive can happen, between the reality as we know it and the fantasy that we crave. And it’s an absolutely gorgeous poem that you should go read immediately. Go do it!

“The Joy” by Sarah Shirley

This poem explores the implications of the invention of a Doolittle Machine that allows people to communicate with animals. The popular depictions of such a feat, though, follows what other mammals say or think, and the poem quickly dismisses though because it’s not like mammals are all that subtle about what they would have to say. Instead, the focus quickly shifts toward creatures that most people don’t think about conversing with—pest insects. And what follows is an example of this idea from a children’s story (or at least an idea that is probably first encountered in childhood) coming against the rather dark implications of technology under a rather corrupt human guidance. One that decides the best use of this tech is to encourage insects to kill themselves. To send slugs marching into the ocean. To send mosquitoes flying into bug zappers. It comes down to trying to convince these creatures to self destruct, giving them ample reason why there’s no reason to be alive. When humans turn to roaches, though, something strange happens. They learn that this sudden ability to understand animals is something that the roaches must have been around for a while. Because the roaches have been listening to the humans already, and learned enough to know that even after the end of the world, they will persist. And it’s a great twist on a dark theme, showing joyous defiance in the face of human incredibly immoral aggression, a strength that comes from resilience, from the knowledge that at the human world might come to an end, but that the roaches will keep going, because they are strong, and that there is a beauty in that, and a power. It’s a fantastic read and you really should do yourself a favor and check this one out. Wickedly fun and sharply subversive!


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