Thursday, February 13, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 02/03/2020 & 02/10/2020

A flash, a novelette, and two poems round out the first half of Strange Horizons' February releases. And the works look closely at homes and at cages, and how the two can overlap, and how the two can seem similar but be worlds apart. The stories here are very different, one contemporary fantasy, the other off-world science fiction, but both feature narrators who don't really fit in to larger society. Who struggle at times to be understood, and who want to live by their own values. The poem reinforce themes of intent, cages, and damage, and all together it's another great two issues of the publication. To the reviews!


“Across the Ice” by Ada Hoffmann (999 words)

No Spoilers: Neela is part of a research team coming home after an exciting day of work. Which might not seem as awesome as it is because I didn’t mention that the research station is on a distant moon and Neela isn’t doing something as cliche as walking. They’re skating! And as they skate, as they spin and leap, as they think about the news that they are so eager to share with their partner, they also real the implications of their news, and their own reasons for being so far from Earth. It’s a bright and happy story, full of joy and eagerness, and it’s infectious, the thrill the narrator feels, the freedom that they suddenly feel.
Keywords: Space, Aliens, Queer MC, Autistic MC, Movement
Review: Well this is just absolutely delightful. The story is short, but in that space it manages a charming, exciting introduction to so much. A research station on Europa studying an alien pyramid. A queer couple being a part of the effort, including the narrator, who is also (though it is never directly said, it’s seems very heavily implied to me, an admittedly allistic person) autistic. Who has come to Europa in part to study, yes, but also in part to escape the stigma that exists on Earth. The disgust and the need to mask all the time, to still their hands, to quiet their movements and force them into alignment with society as a whole. I love that on Europa that’s different. At least somewhat. It carves out a space where they are allowed to be different, to be unapologetically them, at least some of the time. It’s not perfect, obviously, but I love the sense of freedom that it gives the text, this sense of someone finally being able to spread their wings and flap them. To not feel that everything is always pushing in and about ready to punish them. The story handles that so well, the ways that the narrator expects censure, expects punishment, because autism is often treated like a problem that must be fixed through conditioning, as if it’s all a choice the person is making. When it’s not. And when the narrative of autism being something that prevents people from being talented, from Getting Things Done, is shown to be so much a lie. Here in the story there is even a kind of undeniable proof (that I am sure would get denied and wrapped up in some sort of allistic nonsense but whatever), the form of the alien structure and it’s design that doesn’t match human utility but rather seems to spring from the narrator’s secret desires. And it’s a beautifully realized story that gets across so much this feel of skating on a distant moon, while making some deeper points as well. A fantastic read!

“Company” by Shannon Sanders (8308 words)

No Spoilers: Fay lives alone in the house she grew up. Well, alone save for the ghosts. It’s a house that was once full of noise, the bustle of four sisters and their parents as they nurtured their dreams of better lives. Now, it’s just Fay, the others having moved away, having made families of their own. One of whom, one of Fay’s nieces, turns up at the house one day. For Fay, who’s much more used to and comfortable with the quiet and the familiar confines of the house, it’s an intrusion. But maybe it’s also an opportunity for something more. A connection. A re-connection. Or maybe not. The piece is quiet and careful, unfolding slowly to show the complicated web of the family, the roles and the griefs, the angers and the pains. It’s not exactly a tragic piece, though neither is it very happy. It’s a contemplative read, and one that carries an emotional depth and subtlety.
Keywords: Ghosts, Houses, Painting, Family
Review: This is a complex story, one full of a kind of nostalgia, a kind of hurt, that is difficult to exactly quantify. Fay lives with the dead, with the ghosts of those who lived in the house. Her grandparents, her parents, a neighbor who did a lot to raise her, and more besides. But in many ways it feels like she misses being a part of a vibrant dynamic like she had with her sisters. Full of pettiness at times but also closeness. Except that as they grew they became more distant, in part because Fay was never as interested as her sisters in finding a husband, in having children. And she carries the hurt of being judged for that, of being pitied for that, when really she just wants to be accepted for it, her desires not relegated to sadness because she never wanted what they wanted. And it’s still going in ways that it’s hard to get around, that keep her isolated not because she’s bitter that she doesn’t have what her sisters have, but because they think of her as sad, as lesser, and that hurts. It creates this complicated mess of emotions where she doesn’t exactly take pleasure in their misfortunes but she still carries her own hurt and isn’t about to let it go. Partly because that would be too devastating, would open her up too much to people who don’t understand her and don’t care all that much to be careful, and because it’s what she has left. The ghosts. The house. She’s the caretaker of it even though she never asked for it. So she paints, and when family shows up on her doorstep she doesn’t offer much, because she’s tired of people taking and never giving. Because if she gives too much they’ll be nothing left for herself, and she’s likes the life she lives. Again, it doesn’t read to me as an overly happy story, focusing on the distance between Fay and her family, but neither is it entirely tragedy. More an exploration of the architecture she’s maintained to be her own person, crowded and yet largely devoid of the living. A powerful read!


“A Time Traveler’s Field Notes” by S.R. Tombran

I really like what this poem does with perspective, showing a beautifully rendered painting of what is a horrible and violent end of the world. And it’s put into context by the title, by making it seem like the narrator here is a time traveler, probably gone forward to see how the world ends. To be a sort of tourist there, to capture it in words that might make sense. And it turns into something lovely, something almost tender. There is...a distance that the poem manages that is necessary to look at something as terrible and devastating as the end of the world and then to put it in metaphor and simile, to wrap them in colors and to find the beautiful moments there, the silver linings, when there are none left. It’s not a series of observations from people who might be going through it in real time (which I imagine would just be AHHHHHHHHH!). These observations could only be made by someone with an out. With an escape hatch. With the ability to pop backwards. And...for me at least it sort of shows what happens when you’re not the one directly suffering. When it’s not really your world that’s the one being destroyed (even when it totally is). The tragedy, the horror, the cataclysm...becomes poetic. In an attempt to capture the power of it, in a way to make it more relatable and easy to consume. It’s like war correspondents who would look out at a battlefield and notice the small beautiful things. It’s only something that can be done with distance. Or a soldier, going through the stink and terror of it, can’t write a poem about it then. Only later, away from the trauma, can they wrap it in words that find some measure of beauty and grace in something that in practice, in the here-and-now, has none. For the time traveler, they are detached, merely observing the end of the world. And it’s haunting and it’s beautiful and it’s lovely. And it’s a great way of capturing how a person could look at the end of all things and casually jot down notes. It’s a gorgeous piece, with a depth and power that demand some time and attention. So definitely go check this one out!

“Abstraction” by Gabriel Ascencio Morales

This piece takes a rather deft touch to, for me, make a statement about poetry itself as well as about authorial voice and meaning. It begins with instructions on how to read the poem, and for me that gets at a piece that is engaging in how people read poetry. Here the stage is set in the opening where the author/narrator/narrator-as-author is speaking directly to the reader, is telling the reader how to read the piece, is giving them this rigid way of reading, presumably so that the reader won’t “misinterpret” the piece. But as the poem moves it’s revealed that this is something of a trap. An attempt to control something that is by its form and general purpose not able to be controlled. Poetry, even more so than prose fiction, exists by and large outside of the specific context the author created it in and for. As a reviewer who tries to examine my own reactions to poetry it’s something I come up against a lot, the ways that poetry can mean vastly different things from reader to reader. Because there’s just less structure and context to convey a precise message. Poetry is more about feeling, more about implication, more about impressions and imagery rather than typically about either telling a story or recording history. Like with this poem, poetry can be a mix of elements, some visual, some text, some holding a specific meaning, some of it entirely abstract. Attempts to flatten that, to find “accepted” and “objective” readings of poetry to try and define “what they mean” becomes a way of limiting what exactly poetry can be and all the unexpected ways it can be wonderful and inspiring. And the poem seems to play with the tension between author and reader, blurring the lines between them. Is it the author/narrator who is screaming? Is it the reader/narrator who is screaming? The pictures seem to make it so that the poem acts as a sort of trap, pulling readers in and seeking to control how they think, how they read, convincing them that they are free while they are being manipulated. In some ways it seems to me to speak to a necessary divide between reader and authorial intent, though I think for me it’s not so much accusing authors of controlling readers (after all, the poem is...well, a poem with an author, and could hardly make the case for authors to not exist without, well, and so on). Rather it seems to be complicating the relationship between author, reader, and narrator. What should that relationship be? And how toxic and troubling can it be when one of those roles becomes unbalanced, when a poem is also a trap rather than a text that each person brings their own baggage to, and takes away their own meaning from? It’s a fascinating piece, and I love the inclusion of the visuals and the overall creepy feel. Go check it out, because it’s an amazing read!


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