|Art by Gary Frier|
Strange Horizons closes out its November issues with a novelette and two poems, revealing settings rife with conflict and division. The pieces look at prejudice and pain, violence and intolerance. Characters are put in positions where they have been hated and hunted, where they have done their best to make lives free and fulfilling but other people keep seeking them out to take what they have. To punish them for flourishing. It’s a rather difficult pair of issues, but the works are careful and wonderful and I’ll get right to the reviews!
“Seed Vault” by Marika Bailey (9076 words)
No Spoilers: On Tiere, a planet that was meant to be terraformed and ready for human settlement, there live now two rather different populations. Those that paid a lot of money to colonize a planet that was supposed to be better than Earth...and those who were meant to be slaves in this new society. Except that the planet’s terraforming didn’t go to plan, and instead the groups settled and did the best they could. This story follows a narrator who has survived the destruction of their village. And who is now traveling the desert, surrounded by their gods, on a mission they are resolved to see to the end. It’s a somewhat desolate story, unfolding as it does in a desert and surrounded by grief and violence. But at the same time it seems a story about how what seems desolation to some is actually rich with promise to others.
Keywords: Terraforming, Raiding, Theft, Gods, Deserts
Review: This story takes a while to reveal what it is that has brought the narrator out into the desert. At first all we know is that their village, Way Back, has been all but wiped out. But on a planet like Tiere, maybe that’s common. When the landscape itself is dangerous and deadly, maybe that’s just life here. Only slowly that view of things changes, and reveals that Tiere is not the desolation it might seem at first. That word is reserved for something different. And really Way Back was a normal place, thriving, full of people who went to school and grew food and raised animals and believed in gods who walked among them, who told them stories. Gods that the narrator never really bothered with. Until their village was killed by men from the settler side of the planet who view the planet as nothing more than a waste and who just found some weapons from the original colonization effort. So they slaughtered Way back in order to steal its food. Not that the narrator is about to let them get away with that. The piece for me is part revenge story, part look into how people live on and interact with the world. How settler/colonial mentalities tend to fall apart because they’re based on exploitation, on ruination, and that when the settlers here were cut off from their ability to just retreat back “home,” they should have thought of themselves as residents instead of in a fight against the whole world. The narrator and their people know that in such a fight, people are at the disadvantage. So they change the stakes and the rules, striving for enough harmony that people can live and thrive free. And it’s a vividly rendered, incredibly original take on colonization and gods, full of science and magic in all their messy crossed borders. A fantastic read!
“The far western regions of the archipelago are where the dragons live” by Alicia Cole
This is a rather haunting piece about dragons and names, about power and control. It comes prefaced by a quote from Earthsea and I must admit to my shame that I’ve not read the book, though it seems to be an exchange between a dragon and I’m guessing a wizard who found out the dragon’s name. And with that name, had power over the dragon. Which is a rather dark form of control, for a creature as powerful as a dragon, and for me the piece plays with that, circling around this idea of names having power, of freedom clashing against death. The title of the piece is long and seems like a promise, at the same time clinical and tantalizing. Because on one level all it’s doing is giving a location, saying perhaps factually that’s where the dragons live. But there’s another layer for me, and one that’s much more complicated, because if the purpose of this knowledge is to give humans the ability to go and capture them, or control them, then this information hides a lot more than just the location to where dragons live. It’s a bit of seemingly-neutral information that hides a much more twisted truth, and glosses over a violence being done in such a way that it seems simple and straightforward and not full of coercion and threats. And otherwise there is just a sort of grimness to the piece for me, tinged with grief and with hope both. Because the narrator is speaking, giving the audience a secret only it’s not (on the surface at least) a very cheery one. But it’s one that rumbles with power and maybe it is a way toward freedom, a realization that will cause the you of this poem to reach for change. Not to resign yourself to the situation but to realize that there’s nothing left to lose. Definitely a piece to spend some time with and a fine read!
“Autologous Transplant” by Nisa Malli
This piece speaks to me of change and judgment, of prejudice and difference. And perhaps the first thing I noticed about the piece was the orientation, the whole poem right aligned, flying somewhat in the face of conventions, at least those embraced in America and most of “the West.” And for me it’s a way to immediately show that the perspective of the piece is different, that it’s coming from a very different place than one might expect, or from what is conventionally accepted. The actual content of the poem reinforces that as the narrator describes their people, this we who are called cyborgs but who don’t really fit that definition in a strict sense because they aren’t augmenting with inorganic components. Instead they are seeking to adapt my modifying themselves using adaptations from other animals. They are giving themselves an advantage any way that they can, and if that means that they’re significantly altering their bodies and physiology, then so be it. It’s something that seems to have been judged and moralized by the “you” of the poem, by “normal” people who have opted not to modify themselves, who still embrace a more conventional and traditional definition of humanity. And yet the piece seems to ask if that’s a useful definition any more. It doesn’t exactly mention climate change, but I feel it’s the specter hanging over everything, this question of how humanity is supposed to survive with everything probably past the point where it’s not going to get Real Bad. For me it’s not about giving up or embracing that the world is going to be devastated by climate change, but realizing that even doing all we can, we still might need to take drastic steps to live. And that one course is to embrace choice, and modification, to breathe that new air and keep hope for a future for humanity, whatever shape humans adopt to live and thrive. A great read!