“The Carnival of Human Nature” by Dennis Mombauer (4905 words)
No Spoilers: Helfeind has led an expedition to a city that is also something of a riddle, that is something of an abstraction, but that is also very real and very dangerous. His mission is to get the answer to a question, and perhaps the answer to The Question. But the city has its own rules and it’s up to him and his fellow travelers to find what they’re looking for and then make it out alive. The piece is strange and almost delightfully so. I say almost because it walks a line between fun and terrifying, slipping gradually and then very quickly into more of a horror atmosphere, and from there it leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions about the implications of the ending. It’s surreal and haunting but with a beauty that can’t be denied.
Keywords: Carnivals, Cities, Riddles, Perception, Expeditions
Review: I really like the feel of this story, the way that it just throws the characters and readers into this city that is a carnival, this liminal space where the expedition is trying to discover something Important. Going by the title it’s something about human nature, about either what the meaning of humanity is or something similarly profound (I swear to fluff if Helfeind is going to ask like what the best cookie recipe is I’d feel maybe a bit let down). But that’s why I like the way that the story is structured and that it doesn’t really give an answer to what he ultimately decides to do. For me, I can’t really imagine that he’s just going to leave his expedition behind, but at the same time there is maybe a bit of doubt there. Will he or won’t he? And if that’s the question, ultimately, then is the quest to figure out the nature of humanity one that is answered in the asking, in the ways that we ask the question. At least, by answering this question isn’t he in some ways on trial as a representative of humanity. And will he act to save the people who trusted him, or will he leave them to be tortured forever just so that he can get the answer he thinks he wants? And what I like about that is that it embraces the way that the answer can’t be known. If he answers, and saves his people, maybe we will find a way to negate that being an answer. He’s biased, or he was trying to influence the results by acting noble when if the question were “pure” somehow he’d act differently. But so much of this is that people don’t exist outside of their perceptions, their cognition, their agency. You cannot separate us out into our parts for the purpose of science! The search is messy and the answer is never For Sure. But certainly it speaks well of us if we aren’t going to sacrifice people just so that we can get an answer we’d equally not be able to prove. It’s a fascinating story with a unique feel and some great visuals, and it’s definitely worth checking out!
“Sonya, Josephine, and the Tragic Re-Invention of the Telephone” by I. S. Heynen (14029 words)
No Spoilers: Sonya is a recruiter in the city of the Egg, a 50-square-mile structure meant to protect Earth’s survivors following an unknown cataclysm that left most of the rest of the planet unlivable. Slightly tech-averse, it’s morphed into a quasi roaring 20s mashup of gangsters, corrupt politicians, dirty cops, and a whole lot of assassins, thanks to the profession being made legal. Which is what makes Sonya’s job a bit different, because she’a recruiter for professional killers. Given the system is corrupt and most assassins are also desperate people in need of work, her position isn’t one that typically makes her friends. And not being friends with assassins can be...hazardous, as she learns The piece is well paced and built, the character work solid and the action intense. Most of all, the setting is one that is both familiar, strikingly different, and kinda terrifying, a place where humanity hoped to leave it’s problems behind and instead brought them all with and then some.
Keywords: Assassinations, Recruiting, Debt, Uploaded Consciousnesses
Review: I really like the way this story builds the Egg, a city that was supposed to be this great hope for humanity’s survival, and has instead become a place where death stalks every corner—and legally, too! Sonya is caught in a system that grinds up people like her. She has no leverage, completely at the whims of the wealthy people who want to use her to insulate themselves. They play her off the assassins, the assassins off each other, all basically seeking to make it so that no one can work together to seize back power because there’s so much blood flowing, and none of it at the top. Sonya’s bosses don’t actually care if she lives or dies, if she succeeds or fails. She’s not there really to make them money, nor to organize their operations. She’s there to absorb violence when it starts creeping at them, when they’ve done something that cries out for a kind of justice. At least for me, the story is about how that cycle keeps turning, how Sonya ends up getting blamed for something she didn’t actually have control over, and that it takes everything from her she wasn’t supposed to have. The boyfriend, the job, the security, the Egg itself. All of it ends up being lost to her because of one thing completely beyond her control, something she was supposed to have wrapped up but that, for no understandable reason, was changed. And from that single event, so many people die, so many dreams are shattered. Because in this setting, in the Egg, dreams are fragile. The slightest tap at times can destroy them. And what’s left is only mess, is only blood, is only the broken pieces of the lives that these people tried to build, the loves they tried to hold onto, that were then used against them. For me, the piece builds all of that up so nicely, on this foundation that the project of the Egg was doomed from the start, that by its corrupt practices in starting it’s locked people in a tight pattern of death and exploitation, everyone forgetting that it’s exactly what caused the problems with the outside world. And it’s still fun, still carries a neat aesthetic and has plenty of spills and chills. A wonderful read!
“Vestiges of You” by Z.M. Quỳnh
This is a strange poem for me, one that seems to build a magical situation, a city of refugees people in part by a parent and child. The parent who is the narrator, who speaks of the child, who is theirs but also of another. Of the person the narrator is speaking to, the “you” of the piece who is a shadow across them, a memory and a threat. Dangerous because this “you,” this second parent, seems to be part of an invading force. a fact that makes their child caught between. Caught between and vulnerable because of it, a target. But determined, as well, to stand up to the absent parent and their attempts to take what this band of refugees have built. I love the storytelling of the poem, the way that it unfolds over years but also acts as a sort of summary and accusation from the narrator placed at the feet of the other parents. The exact nature of that relationship isn’t wholly clear but given the dynamic it’s probably full of pain. And I like how the narrators builds a picture of the world, the situation, and most importantly of the child. Seeing in her this fire, this hope, this protective drive. And the pride the narrator takes in their child is intense, moving, something that the other parent, regardless of their magic or their power or their poison, cannot kill away. The piece grows more and more about the power and strength of the child, to fight back, to refuse the parts of their legacy that don’t suit them, and to embrace the ones that they want to be. To prove that she is both her parent’s child. In ways that the absent one never foresaw, because that parent, that you, never was there to help nurture her growth. It’s a beautiful piece, inspiring and impacting and just really good. Definitely check this one out!
“The Satyr’s Acolyte” by Aber O. Grand
This is another rather odd poem, and another one that really succeeds at telling a story, this time of a satyr who was place in a world of sin, and who came down on it with a stroke of justice, seeking to rid it of that taint. The poem centers the struggle particularly between the satyr and a snake who is seeking to devour an egg of humanity, which seems to be an egg that contains one human. The world building here is strange and mythic to me, the character of the satyr rather far removed from the more Classical depictions where they were much more likely to be on the sin side of things rather than the Divine Justicar. And there’s a feeling I got at least that this isn’t the entire story for him. That this is part of an ongoing adventure, a mission that there always seems to be more of. Only this moment seems important because it shows a paradigm shift. Or, I guess to be more specific, the events leading up to the shift. For me, it places so much importance not on the satyr himself, but on the human who emerges only in the very last line, and then only partly. But she’s present in the title and present (or at least it’s implied that it’s her) at the end. By giving her the prominence in the story, it contextualizes the whole thing in a kind of mythic tradition where we’re learning about the satyr more learn about the apprentice. So the moment she breaks through her egg is the real crux of the narrative, The Moment When Something Happens. Which is interesting because a lot happens in the story, from the glimpse into the satyr’s back story to his fight with the serpent. And I’m interesting in what happens next, in why the apprentice is important, and what they both go on to do. It’s a hook, vividly rendered and temptingly baited, and I only wish there was some more to sink my teeth into. As it is, though, it’s still a great read!
“Electrocologies” by Logan Thrasher Collins
This poem steps back a bit from the overt storytelling that were going on in the previous two but doesn’t skimp on the world building. The poem grows around a body electric, a new way of being, a new kind of biology of cybernetics and synapse. There’s a kind of cyberpunk feel to it, a sense that the narrator, speaking in a plural “we,” is perhaps not exactly human. At least, for the the language seems to speak to a kind of electric native, a being who came to life inside technology, in the electricity and rendered environments of cycberspace. These beings represent something new and beautiful, a kind of culmination of the human desire to escape into the web, into the virtual. It’s like part of that yearning has led to this life blooming, becoming out of the energy and emotion and weight that humans put into their virtual spaces and their virtual hopes. For me, the piece is a rather beautiful rendering of that space, a celebration by these beings of their life, of their essence, of what makes them who they are. It’s a newness that carries doesn’t carry any of the fear that often goes along with depictions of life emerging from electricity, from out tech. It’s a singularity that is shows to be a sort of dance, a storm—both insectoid and floral, and all while still holding that declaration of sentience. It really is a poem that embraces that life in electricity would be _different_. Not necessarily dangerous or diabolical. Eerie, perhaps, in the beauty that isn’t really about human aesthetics or practicality. But still lovely, still alive, and still powerfully captured here with a great flow, heavy consonance and rhythm. Like the previous poem, there is a sense of emergence that runs through, and I am here for it. A wonderful poem!
“Super Mario; Or, Everything I Needed to Learn About Relationships” by Michael T. Smith
This piece takes the, uh...wisdom of Super Mario and ties it to relationships, revealing some parallels that the narrator has noticed, that they feel. And it’s a cute piece, basically imagining the Mario games like extended metaphors for seeking and being in relationship—from the growth and constriction brought on by mushrooms or troopas, to the way some levels move forward only at a set pace, to the terror of having to make jumps you’re not sure about, to the seemingly endless string of castles that don’t, in the end, contain what you’re looking for. The piece also looks in some ways at how relationship can be and are game-ified, and contrasting that with how the narrator is frustrated because the rewards that seemed promised are constantly being moved, the goal posts shifted to something further and further away. It’s not exactly the cheeriest take on relationships, as it does sort of make the prospect this never ending series of quests and adventures, confrontations and death-defying plunges into the unknown. And game-ifying something like relationships does come with some drawbacks, a sense that maybe a person is owed a person, a relationship, for completing a level, for reaching the end of the castle. Though I don’t think that’s really the intent here (it feels more to me like the castles represent the relationships themselves, the struggles to connect in a meaningful way that just never fully happens), I do get the feeling that there’s a bit of a lament here that relationships aren’t easier, that they aren’t straightforward like a video game. Though it’s also possible that the narrator really likes Mario, in which case the comparison isn’t meant to be mean but with a sense of excitement, that they’re always eager to get back in, to seek out the next castle, and the next, open to the possibility that it will be the “right one” but maybe also just a bit wary because then it would mean the game would be over. Certainly a piece to spend some time with!