Friday, December 27, 2019

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 12/16/2019 & 12/23/2019

I'm not actually sure if Strange Horizons is done for the year with this short story and two poems, or if there's a surprise waiting for me on Monday (*puts head in hands, weeps*). Maybe there will be a new Samovar! Or a special issue! Or maybe this is it. Whatever the case, the works are wonderful and focus on conflict and division, at governments and change and devastation. The works find characters dealing with their worlds being torn apart and (maybe) put back together again. But always with a price, a cost in human lives. These are some bleak-at-times works, but they reveal the beauty of the human spirit, and hope, in the face of even the worst situations. To the reviews!


“Flags Flying Before a Fall” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (5230 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story considers themself good at just about one thing—dying. And every time they die, their brother, who competes in a sport that involves rolling down hills, has to sacrifice some of his points/standing/trees in order to revive them. The piece is strange, the world a bit dystopian as the narrator deals with the petty corruptions of their home and family amid the growing danger they are in from their government. More than anything, though, the piece laments an estrangement enforced for the sake of family politics and power to the loss of two siblings who could have and wanted a closer relationship and instead were left chasing shadows.
Keywords: Family, Expectations, Death, Sports, Skins, Money, Rebirth
Review: In some ways this was a difficult story for me to completely make sense of. The setting is strange, defined both by a cut-throat home life where this family is trying by any means available to claw their way away from poverty, which means taking money from the brother playing his dangerous sport, one that becomes outlawed as the story progresses. And it’s a bit heartbreaking watching just how much the family’s quest to gain financial security tips them all into corruption, into competition of another sort, and how it poisons the relationships of everyone involved. The eldest child is sacrificed to a dangerous sport, talked up to his face but down to everyone else. The younger child is put into a prestigious job that doesn’t pay enough to live well, that’s part of a larger web of political corruption, and has to deal with the fact that the family must disavow their brother while still taking his money just so that they can escape the poverty they seem not only to want to avoid, but that they despise as being a mark of moral failing. All the while the siblings are missing each other, denied the chance to have a relationship, and the tragedy there is that it’s all basically for nothing. The respectability that the family is after is illusory, is a carrot they can never catch, and they sacrifice more and more chasing it. Both brothers lose something that could have been a huge support and source of joy. They lose each other, and are left in that same no-win race toward a future that has already been crushed, a dream that all the same is their only reason any more for continuing to run. It’s a wrenching, challenging piece, but so very worth spending some time with. A great read!


“Pillage, Thundersnow” by Liu Chengyu

This is a strange poem following a sort of war between the gods around Athens, and the carnage of it, the devastation. The title of the piece gives some clues perhaps of what is happening in a literal sense, through mostly to inform the kind of storm that has been whipped up—one with snow and thunder, one where everything seems to be breaking, and the people of the city are transfixed by it, caught in the majesty and power of it, even as it seems to mark a sort of end, a sort of wild and terrible moment of destruction. The other half of the title ties into the last images of the poem that follow a man, a soldier, as he steals from the dead, as he takes the offerings meant to ferry the dead into the next world, claiming that his actions are justified because in the chaos and devastation of the storm, the dead have been abandoned by the gods. For me the story speaks to a kind of stunned surrender. The snow here might be literal but it might also be ash from an erupted volcano. Pompeii is the more famous site of such an occurrence that I know of but it's quite possible there were others, and it certainly fits with the imagery, with the sense of dread and death and something huge and unstoppable happening that might cause most people to lie down and others to abandon the gods entirely assuming that they had turned away. It's a haunting piece, one that doesn't give a clear image of what's happening I feel because for the people there is no clear picture, only this sudden storm and all the uncertainty and fear that goes with it. The theft at the end then feels a bit like desecration, a bit like freedom, and I love all the complexity of that moment, that blasphemy that might be something redemptive at the same time. A fine read!

"The City That Changed Hands" by Maya Chhabra

I love the way this poem treats with the idea of a city being taken by an invading power and frames it as the literal changing of hands, so that what was right now must be left. It speaks to me of the great changes that come with a change in government, a change in language and culture and so much more, especially in times of empire and invasion, when authoritarian and patriotic ideals lead certain groups to be purged or hurt. And the piece follows this change many times, the city either of great importance or very near a border, which might speak to how there are those in the city for whom the transition isn't that hard. Some are already left handed, and they have an easier time at first, except that when the right takes back there are new purges, new rules. And on it goes, and on. And the piece really gets that cyclical change, the way that it goes back and forth and back again, each time slightly different, each time still awful. And that through it all there is learning, yes, but mostly there is exhaustion. There is anger, not necessarily at the people getting blamed, but at the situation as a whole. At the pain and uncertainty and sense of lost progress. And for the people of this city, it means not having much of an identity anymore, of trying to build that out of conflict and strife and finding that such an identity is exclusionary and not all that satisfying. The piece for me gets through this frustration, that with each iteration there is just a sense of loss. That what has been shattered is not being put back together. That each time there are pieces missing, and with each attempt some of those pieces might be lost forever, leaving behind a visibly cracked surface. One that cannot heal as long as people still hold onto hatred, as long as people try to forge identity and power out of something like what hand is dominant. That without seeking something new, without actually trying to heal all parts of the city, there can be no true unity, and only division and conflict will follow. It's a complex and wrenching piece, sharp and just a fantastic read!


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