Friday, January 17, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 01/06/2020 & 01/13/2020

Strange Horizons opens with two issues with some strange and stunning fiction and poetry. The works are challenging in that they imagine futures or alternate worlds where things...aren't the way we're used to. Marriage is a book with sometimes-competing authors. The future is a museum plucked from the rubble of humanity as if at random. The poetry explores themes of identity and transgression, choice and fear. It's a new reminder of what to expect from Strange Horizons—stories that take risks while still being careful. To the reviews!


“The Marriage Book” by Mitchell Shanklin (1529 words)

No Spoilers: This story follows the union of Sammeth and John, who get married and stitch their books together. And the story that they write in the book of their lives reflects them, reflects what they think and believe. The two men are very different, one an activist, the other religious, and while those things aren’t opposite, they create a definite tension between the two, a tension that grows and grows until the book of their lives seems impossible to salvage. It’s a dark piece about relationships and the harm that can be done in them, the struggle and the erasure and the sacrifice. It’s a piece that doesn’t really offer much int he way of comfort, just an unsettling couched a bit like fairy tale, a reminder of the darkness of the world.
Keywords: Marriage, Relationships, Queer MCs, Histories, Reality
Review: This is a rather gutting piece, so hopeful at first with the two men getting married, with the strange magic that is the books of their lives that gets stitched together, so that whatever is written inside it becomes a part of their story, a part of their lives. But from the beginning the differences between the two men seem like they might be insurmountable. Sammeth writes about his moral objections to meat, which John can’t stand. John writes about his religious beliefs, which stifle Sammeth. They both don’t ask before adding these things to the book, and neither do they ask when they damage the book to remove the other person’s parts. The thing throughout is that this book is supposed to be cooperative. Is supposed to be collaborative. More than that, though, I feel the story also sets up that it’s not just that they can’t get along. It’s also that they don’t get enough space. They have to fit all of themselves into this book, and there’s a limited number of pages. Given that finite nature, their decisions carry more weight, and their transgressions become much more damaging, more hurtful. It’s not that the two are different that does them in, but that when it comes to doing some heavy lifting in the relationship, really digging into their issues, neither man really commits to it. There’s perhaps not enough infrastructure to push them into counseling or therapy, and there’s certainly a reward for one of them just taking over, essentially overwriting the other person, forcing them into the place that makes the relationship “work.” Only here that’s rendered with a rather horrifying and unsettling impact, where Sammeth resists making such changes but John doesn’t, and John’s revisions are so complete, so huge, that Sammeth effectively stops existing. He becomes an echo of John, a puppet, and it’s something that John never has to really feel uncomfortable about, because it works for him. And the story remains a kind of reminder to that, the only punishment that John might ever face, not physical or tangible but that he ultimately doesn’t completely own the story. That someone remembers Sammeth, and makes sure that we do, too. A difficult but beautiful read!

“The Orientation” by Julianna Baggott (3466 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story seems to be someone who has just woken from suspended animation with a group of relative strangers. The past they were escaping from was chaotic and it seems that they can’t remember all of it, and the new world they’ve entered into it strange, jarring, a strange mix of elements from the past without any connective tissue. They seem to be in a kind of museum but one that treats most of Earth history as occupying the same space. The narrator, in the middle of this, is facing the strangeness of their awakening, the loss of everything they knew, and their arousal at being alive and aware again. It’s a bit surreal, to be honest, but I feel the surreality of the piece says something about time and history, about people and what might have been saved in this case.
Keywords: Suspended Animation, Revival, Tours, Amenities, Time Capsules, Post Disaster
Review: This wasn’t the easiest story for me to read, because I feel like a lot of it feels like a mystery to be pieced together, and I certainly do get distracted at times when there’s something shiny to unwrap. Perhaps not a coincidence, then, that the story deals very directly with the idea of wrapping, with the idea of obscurity and revelation. The characters here have been plucked out of some sort of troubles. They have arrived in a future of who knows how much remove from their own and given a mish-mash of maybe-familiar things. But it’s all jumbled, like people didn’t have much to go on when trying to recreate a feeling for what the past was like. As if, in this future, they were left with just bits and pieces, ash to sift through, and came up with something that just seems fucking odd. But I don’t think that the point is to figure out “what really happened.” It’s not exactly historical authenticity that the story seems more concerned with. Yes, these people place the other artifacts from the past in context, but only imperfectly. There is no reconstructing what has been lost. The details will always been like an etch-a-sketch that’s been dropped and jostled. Instead, the story seems to me to focus on authentic humanity. With the people. Whatever museum they are in, it’s possible they are terrible exhibits. But they are still human, and they express that in different ways. For the narrator, it’s through a kind of sensual rebellion. It’s not through the artifacts, but through their own body, and the ways that it can fit and collide with another body. It’s a different kind of memory, not about the things but about the feelings and the embodiment of the narrator, and through them, what deeper statement they might make about not just humanity’s past, but their present and future. And it’s a fun take on a weird future that I don’t mind at all isn’t fully explained or explored. It’s a complete work, and a great read!


“ode to an asexual” by Nikoline Kaiser

This piece speaks to me about the pervasive narratives about sex in our society. That the drive for sex is a human universal, is the mark of a “real” relationship when coupled with romantic interest because it implies a kind of commitment to procreation. And more than that, that it’s empowering, that it’s fun, that’s it needs to be reclaimed in a feminist way or else embraced as the only thing a man could want from a partner. There are so many things swirling around sex, so many layered issues, that often the idea that sex can be something someone has no interest in can be shoved away and ignored. Worse, it can be mistaken as some sort of ploy or plot, a careful lie that is waiting to be reversed, that is waiting to be undermined. And oh boy, that’s a large and loaded thing, because for many allosexual people, that is actually the case, that sex is something of a negotiation, and clever negotiators might open with saying they don’t like sex at all in order to make the terms of the eventual act more to their liking. And I love how the poem kind of captures that tug of war, that complexity, by having these almost different voices all talking at once, being pulled from one side of the screen to the other, having to find a way to navigate it all, to find that center in the end where the narrator is allowed to be, where they can fully inhabit the space where they know themself in the face of all the gaslighting and manipulation and coercion around them. Where they can be accepted at least by someone who understands them. And it’s a lovely, often very familiar poem that resonates and lingers. A fantastic read!

“A New Face” by Terese Mason Pierre

This is a rather gripping piece that speaks of loss and grief, life and rebirth. It features a narrator who is a parent, a child who has died (or was in a coma and unresponsive?) and, through science and technology it seems, come back. In a new body, but with the same mind. Or that’s the intent. In reality things seem a bit messier, and though the narrator finds a way to bring their child...mostly back, the result isn’t exactly perfect. And I love the ways the poem complicates the idea of doing something like that. The ways that explores that it’s not exactly as simple as helping someone to live. That there’s going to be a sense of...violation, I guess, because the child in that instance, who seems to have been in a severe auto accident, doesn’t get to make the choice. They can’t. And so it falls to the parent, the narrator, who (it seems only natural) makes the call to “save them.” Only it’s not so simple. This isn’t a more traditional surgery. So really there’s nothing exactly “natural” about what happens with the procedure, with the narrator solving the mind-body problem. Especially because the implications aren’t as small as the child then just getting to live out the rest of their life. They seem to have been uploaded, their mind now in a place where it might have passed beyond traditional mortality. And that choice was a huge, huge one, one that the child doesn’t have a say in. And the narrator is left both the knowledge that the process doesn’t seem to be perfect and the presence of the question they’re asked in their dream. Why not accept mortality? The poem doesn’t really offer an answer to that, rather choosing to end the piece with that question, with the narrator struggling under that weight, that possible guilt. And guilt that goes beyond their own life and into what they have decided for another person, another generation. Something that was supposed to be a gift, and might instead be a kind of prison. It’s a wonderful poem, one that offers up a strong speculative premise and explores it with all its complexity and emotional depth. Definitely check it out!


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