Friday, October 4, 2019

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 09/30/2019

Well this is certainly a wonderful way to close out September, with five short stories and three poems of Brazilian SFF in a special issue from Strange Horizons. The works are varied and vibrant, alive with rebellion and beauty and despair and loss and resilience. That find characters struggling against oppressive worlds and situations, trying to find ways to survive and, more than that, to thrive and grow and heal. I will admit that reviewing poetry is always something that I kind of have to grapple with, and especially with work that comes out of situations very different from mine, where I might not know the context intended. But I am all for owning my opinion and I love the feeling of the poems, the call for resistance against corruption and the need to act. It’s a wonderful issue, all told, and I’ll get right to my reviews!


“Replacement” by Isa Prospero (1891 words)

No Spoilers: Jô is a young man in a future São Paulo where earning money isn’t exactly easy. Or, at least, it’s not without its own cost. For Jô and people like him, it comes down to selling parts of themselves. Their arms and legs. Their eyes. Their organs. Replaced by metal parts that make them something of social pariahs, but when they need the money that’s not quite so much a thing. And the story follows Jô as he’s set to sell off one more piece of himself to get something for the boy he loves, Marcos, an artist and the one bright point in all the gritty grimness Jô lives in.
Keywords: Transplants, Trade, Flowers, Queer MC, Grief
Review: Well if this story is anything to go by than my feels are in trouble going into this issue. Because this is a beautifully shattering story about grief and loss, hope and hopelessness. One that frames so well the pervasive and oppressive atmosphere of this city, this situation, and yet carries forward this sliver of hope and beauty in the form of the love that Jô and Marcos have. And like a surgeon the story doesn’t detail how Jô has his heart removed but reaches out and performs the same surgery on the reader, or at least me, taking my heart out so that I can watch it bleed in front of me. And ahh, I wanted to bad for this to be about Jô going to buy a ring for Marcos, or something special to sort of solidify their relationship and bring it into the open, no matter the trouble it would bring. But it’s not, and it sort of makes the reader confront why it’s not. Because the situation wouldn’t allow it. because in this place beautiful things are plucked, are ground down, are traded away to the rich because the poor are seen as undeserving. And it’s a quiet story that really just fucking _hurts_. And it hurts in such an intimate way, building toward the revelation of what happened, the reveal that there is no happy ending, and that Jô is doing this not out of some hope for the future but to express just how much this has wrecked him, so that he wishes to give away his heart, to make literal the physical and emotional damage that has been done to him. To trade it for a different symbol, the flower that he had never before experienced, that Marcos lost his hands and by extension his life for, and that brings a bit of fleeting beauty into a harsh and impossible world. And fuck. Just fuck. It’s so very, very good, and you should all go and read it immediately!

“Progression” by Heitor Zen (1881 words)

No Spoilers: Pedro is a bit of a bisexual mess who wants rather desperately to escape the Angel who is living in his apartment. Well, in Helena’s apartment. Pedro and Helena share a wonderfully messy relationship, one that doesn’t really work for either of them but they both care about for their own reasons, and the Angel pushes things a bit too far so that Pedro decides he’s going to run away. Problem is, that’s as far as he thinks, and the piece explores in a strange way what happens to him after that, where he’s been and where he’s going to. The structure is strange, beginning rather straight-forward but then jumping around after Pedro’s departure, the story adopting much of his own lack of direction outside of Helena’s place, outside his role as caretaker of the Angel.
Keywords: Angels, Responsibilities, Travel, Queer MC, Structure
Review: This is a weird story, but one that I deeply appreciate because it captures a sense of fractured intentions, Pedro’s mess sort of infecting the story once he’s out from the structure of his life with Helena. And I love that relationship, the way that it works and it doesn’t, because for all that they like each other and gel, they don’t, and they have different wants and needs and expectations, and Pedro stays because he likes the stability she offers and Helena doesn’t force the issue because she wants him to be what she needs and knows that pushing too hard will make him go. As it does. And the result is this almost magical adventure, Pedro finding a world that doesn’t quite meet the one he envisioned. He falls into a new life (one I suspect he will also leave dramatically at some point) and a new situation that is very closely linked to the first, a sort of mirror of it, not better exactly but pretty much the same. The title of the piece gives me some guidance in all this, to pay attention to the progression, to the flow, to how it all moves and fits together. And the progression here is from point to point, the parts all jumbled, but there are ways that it’s all the same as well. That it all runs together in a sort of circle, a cycle that Pedro replays over and over again. And by following it, all the sections can be rearranged and they add up to basically the same story. Event leads to event leads to event, but as Pedro himself notes, the other side is just like this side. His journey is one that continues because he takes himself with, and his issues that he doesn’t really want to examine. And it’s a fascinating look at a man and the strange road he walks and the people he meets. A wonderful read!

“Spider” by Sérgio Motta (3768 words)

No Spoilers: Heitor is a young boy with an insatiable appetite for stories. His curiosity drives him, when his mother is at work or school, and when he’s not looking after his younger sister, out into the city, with all its dangers and wonders, where he listens and watches. Where he gets his stories, either from the people he observes or from those that he speaks with and tell him tales from around the world. And it’s one of those, an old man named Aranha, that Heitor gets the most stories from. But one is still tucked away, and to get it Heitor must take some risks to take back from the city, something it doesn’t want to give up.
Keywords: Stories, Spiders, Family, Fairies, Cities
Review: This is a rather heartwarming story, though it’s run through by tragedy and stress and a sense of fragility. For me, at least, Heitor’s situation is one almost waiting for sorrow. He’s a boy without protection of his own from the leopards of the world, and so most of the time he tries to stay safe as he goes about his quest for stories. It’s only when he learns that the man who is also a spider has a secret that only something drastic will reveal that he decides to take chances. And I do love how the story comes together, how in some ways it’s obvious, almost foregone. The clues are there from the start what the relationship between Heitor and this storyteller might be. But in a story that is so focused on storytelling, I definitely like how it structures itself, unfolding in a more contemporary setting but giving narrator this power, this magic. And that’s where I feel so much of the speculative element enters in, as well. Not just that the man in question is a spider, a mythical storyteller, but that the story embraces the power and magic of storytelling. That by putting the elements together, they create a sort of gravity, a momentum that cannot be denied. The old spider knows it and Heitor feels his way through it, knows in some unconscious way that in order to see the story through he needs to put himself in a place to be in danger. Without planning it, he gives himself to the city’s story, and it can’t help but write him a happy ending. Or at least one that comes together, that closes the lingering holes and loops and makes whole something that has been broken apart. What happens next is perhaps anyone’s guess, but the narrative pull for me is towards something more joyous, more complete, and more harmonious. A great read!

“Ajé” by H. Pueyo (4248 words)

No Spoilers: Eliseu has been dragged along by his father to do something “for the community.” Which in this case means tracking down one of the father’s old friends to diffuse a dangerous magical situation (quite literally). For Eliseu, it’s hardly the summer he wanted, and he’s dealing with the recent loss of his mother, as well. A year on and it’s obviously hit his dad pretty hard, though he doesn’t show it. Still, there are some unexpected twists to the reunion with this old friend, especially when they are introduced to her daughter, a no-nonsence tsundere named Berenice. The piece is charming and fun but still packs a strong emotional punch. The interactions between the characters are wonderful, and there’s enough messy pain going on below the surface to make for a rich and complex experience.
Keywords: Magic, Bureaucracy, Family, CW- Abuse, Grief
Review: Okay so the instant chemistry between Eliseu and Berenice is just delightful. They play off each other so well, so effortlessly, that it’s just a joy to read about them, to see them interact and move through the world. That the story ends with them maybe being able to work with each other more closely, I am suddenly filled with the desire to know more about what happens with them, about the adventures and misadventures they will no doubt go on. Beneath that ease, though, there is a much thornier and more grim relationship, that between Hilário and Piedade. In many ways it seems to mirror the one that their children fall into so easily. But the difference is time and tragedy. Back in the day they seem to have been on a similar path, happy and joyous and doing something with their magic. As adults, though... Well, Hilário is trying to do something again and Piedade...has lost most of her magic in an abusive relationship, keeping herself down for a number of reasons. And seeing her pass on the chance to reclaim her magic is just wrenching. Because it speaks to the things that are lost, that can’t be reclaimed. It speaks in contrast to the hope that seems to spring from the children, from their enthusiasm and energy. What’s left for the parents is grief and longing and not being able really to capture what’s been lost. The dead are gone. And sometimes magic does not return, or is rejected again. And I love how the story captures all that, paralleling the two generations and giving use the readers a chance to compare and contrast. To see what might have been and wonder now the roads in front of Eliseu and Berenice, how their lives might be able to find somewhere brighter or might retread the same sad paths that their parents took before them. The hope they have is fragile, but no less wondrous for it. An amazing read!

“High Hopes” by Kali de los Santos (678 words)

No Spoilers: The piece unfolds as a sort of history in summary, a progression of summers that led to a revolution, even if it wasn’t an entirely successful one. And the beginning seems innocent enough, with the invention and proliferation of flying cars. I mean, what could go wrong? Turns out, quite a bit, as the story delves into the nature of income inequality and corruption and how systems work by bleeding the poor to further feed the wealthy, and where that invariably leads to.
Keywords: Flying Cars, Vouchers, Revolutions, Streets
Review: This story uses its space very efficiently, building up a whole trajectory of increasing corruption and income inequality, looking at the ways that economics can be use to build up the rich while gutting the poor. And it starts small, with something that might be a convenience for many but is made into a necessity because infrastructure is taken away to make room for the flying cars. So those who can’t afford to use them are not just left out, they are actively punished. They don’t just not get a good thing, but end up getting a bad thing on top of it, while those who can afford it find that they can afford more. The problem only deepens from there, the companies intentionally pushing it in that direction until more and more people are pushed out, more and more services are reserved for those who can pay. The whole country becomes a place where value is only decided based on money, on how much parents can spend on their children, on how all of that is funneled up and up with no hope of ever coming back down. Until action is taken. And I like that the piece does show that revolution is not polite. It’s drastic and it’s violent and it doesn’t always work. But it’s also necessary at times when there is no other way to level the playing field. Because there is always hope that maybe this time people will try to maintain a fairness, to work together so that no one is hungry, no one is without what they need. It’s a complex work but one that does a great job of building and maintaining its clarity and direction. The ending finds hope, even as it admits that this same direction often leads right back into ruin. The only other option, though, is accepting these systems as inevitable, which is just not something that should be done. A fine read!

“The Color of the Mule” & “A Conversation Between the Embalmed Heads of Lampião and Maria Bonita on Public Display at the Baiano State Forensic Institute, Circa Mid-20th Century” by Woody Dismukes

In the first piece, “The Color of the Mule,” I get a sense of colors and questioning. Of seeking in some ways to subvert the accepted values of colors and through that the foundations upon which people separate people and ideas. There is a repetition not only of the equine but of reversals. Of people sitting backwards, of black becoming white. I wish i knew more about the context of the piece, not just the accurate meanings of the non-English portions but the significance of them, if they point outward to things I’m not getting. For me, though, I feel that the piece engages with light and dark, with the way people see beauty, see meaning, and challenges it. For the narrator, there is a kind of refusal or rejection of the traditional way of viewing the world. They are engaged in seeing beyond the colors that they are told to expect. There is a push toward the gray, or at least in seeing gray in things, in experiencing black, for instance, as a lack of color. The night sky not some object of beauty and mystery but something almost dull and uninteresting. And for me it speaks to looking toward convention and not being inspired. Of seeing in the established only worn paths that offer no thrill or temptation. I might be completely off of what was intended, but I do get a sense of rebellion from the piece, and I quite like the way that it is framed and delivered. A fine read!

The second poem, on the other hand, is a conversation between two heads, of two outlaws, kept on public display. The two argue over their fate, and their memories, and the power of their lives and death. Their is an almost musical quality to it, evoking singing, drama, the haunting image of these two heads, taken from their bodies, made into a kind of warning. And I feel the poem asks who that warning is for and what it’s really saying. For the people who made it, it was probably meant to humiliate the dead, to show what happened to those who went against the authority of the government. That seems to be what the head of Lampião thinks, that this is a great insult, made to perform in the same way over and over again. That it strengthens the system that he was fighting against, that put him into the situation where becoming a bandit and outlaw seemed like the only option. It’s the other head that places his fears and angers into context. Who reminds him that their power is not that they were killed. It’s that they still have appeal. A romance about them but also a sense of justice. That their heads continue to speak to the kind of resistance and rebellion that might lead someone to push back against the corruption of a time and place. Violently. Not always justly, but at least with a sense of having been wronged. That frustration with power is one that speaks loudly, and Maria Bonita gives that voice a rather clear vision. She sees, even with marbles for eyes, that they have accomplished something even through their deaths, made legends out of their conviction not to bend to the corrupt, to reject an authority that would demand their destruction. And it’s a striking and powerful piece, very much worth checking out!

“Movement” by Jarid Arraes

This is a strange and airy piece, full of space, of possibility. Full of prophecy, and a sense of waiting under an uncaring expanse. For me, at least, the piece speaks to the way the sky watches all the same, uncaring of reason, what goes on in the world below it. It watches history progress and doesn’t judge or comment just sort of stands silent vigil over it. And yet there are things that those on the ground can learn from the sky. Signs that can be interpreted. Warnings. There is the feeling for me of a growing tension and resolution on the part of the narrator. To act. To do something probably dangerous, and violent. To capture a piece of storm, to demand of the sky answers to question of what will happen. What will happen if people stand up. If they start a movement. To me, at least, the title seems to evoke not just moving, but an organized movement. Of people standing. Rebelling. There is smoke in the sky, a sense of things going bad, getting worse. But there is resolution in heart of the narrator, and I feel that this is something that can spread. But it’s not a certain thing. As the sky answers, there are no answers to the questions that need to be asked. Because they have to be asked with power and with dedication, with a fearless drive against something huge and hungry. And I like that the piece seems to lean into that uncertainty. No, it cannot say if it will work, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. It’s an interesting piece, one that works with the space of the page. That really captures that sense of space and expanse. And that brings it back to the individual, to the narrator, to the person getting ready to put themself on the line. A great way to close out the issue!


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