Thursday, March 12, 2020

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298 [part 2]

Art by Andis Reinbergs
Sci-fantasy month continues at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and I’m finishing up my look today of the first issue. These two pieces have a lot to do with structures of society, with rituals both functional, religious, and damaging. Rituals that leave marks, or scars. That change people. Some are driven by corruption and a sense of “biology.” Some are driven by a need to survive a kind of attack. Both look at how some sort of invasion has changed humanity, either by altering the way they act or, more dramatically, by making them something other than human, by transforming the fundamental structures and progressions of their bodies. It’s a weird, dark issue, and I’ll get right to my reviews!

“The Spoils” by Aliya Whiteley (5525 words)

No Spoilers: The story is told around a ritual butchering of an Olme, a creature which marks so much of the life in the underground community where a small but highly regimented community lives. To the people there, the Olme are strange and increasingly rare, and what purpose the rituals play is largely unknown. But when an Olme is found dying, it’s corpse is taken and prepared according to customs that have been passed down. For each person involved there are different meanings, different significances to the event. And the story moves through the people connected to the death of the Olme, and all given a part of it as an element of the ritual. The result is a rather haunting story that blends fantasy and science fiction well, and looks at rituals and communities and what holds it all together.
Keywords: Underground, Flesh, Butchering, Rituals, Employment
Review: I like how the story moves from person to person, checking in with what this ritual means to them before drawing things out and looking at what it means to their world as a whole. Because so much has been lost, that the people underground don’t seem to understand really even why they’re there. It’s been a long time and their task has grown easier, with longer gaps, and it’s left them rather specialized, with rather rigid roles to fit into. The ritual is one that further deepens that, rewarding the people involved in dealing with the Olme--the man who found it, the woman who hauled it out of the cave it was in, the people who stored it, and the woman who stayed with it, watching it, until the ritual itself. For all of them the actual butchery is strange because it’s fallen out of common knowledge. They can all tell that something big is going on, but it feels to me that they don’t quite understand why. And at the end of the line of people is the woman who stayed with it, who has only really wanted to go above, to live in the sun. And her journey specifically complicates the preceding ones because she gets to learn the reason people live underground. Not because the surface is abandoned or inhospitable. But because there was a threat, a disaster, that had to be handled in multiple fronts. The people above remember everything. The people below...not so much. And it seems like the system might be running down, that the threat might be over, and there’s a certain hesitation about that. Because it does mean loss for many, the loss of a purpose and a sense of continuity. The loss of the feeling of being a part of something larger, with its own mysteries and power. I like the way it draws that together, though a part of me was a little disappointed the character, who had always dreamed of freedom and sunlight, was choosing to go back. For me, though, it might not be a forever thing. Freedom for her might be the ability to go back and forth, to begin to bridge a chasm that is no longer needed to protect against destruction. It’s a haunting read, quiet and full of power, and it’s definitely worth checking out!

“My Sister’s Wings Are Red” by Christine Tyler (8889 words)

No Spoilers: Olive is a lowly worker in a colony of once-humans who have been touched by the Imago, and changed so that they can molt their soft fleshy parts and become insect, with wings whose colors dictate what class the person will be. Olive’s are plain, gray, and as such she’s a menial laborer working in the royal kitchen, making food she’ll never eat for a queen and royal court she loathes. She’s full of bitterness and rage, and it only gets worse when one of her younger, unwinged “sisters” goes through her chrysalis and turns out to have red wings. A queen’s wings. And it puts Olive on a path of discovery that challenges everything she thought she knew about her world.
Keywords: Colonies, Insects, Wings, Transformations, Family, Castes
Review: This story makes a very interesting study of empathy and bitterness, fairness and corruption. The system that Olive finds herself in is deeply fatalistic, driven by what are considered instincts and very little else. There is a rigid class system reinforced by ritualized rape and murder. And there is a tight control on who gets to know what when. All with the added bonus that this is seen as an improvement over the way humanity was before, before becoming Imago, which is something inside the story that seems like this wonderful uplifting and which seems, upon closer inspection, some fucking nightmare shit. Olive’s feelings make a lot of sense, the way that she resents people who don’t have to work like she does. The attendants who get to eat food, who don’t really do much other than socialize and recreate. All because the color of their wings, which no one figures out until they’re old enough to enter chrysalis. It’s a deeply unfair system, but fair in that everyone has an equal chance of getting one of the “better” roles. The thing is that the reality of most of the roles in this society are just fucking terrible. It’s awful to be a drudge, or a drone, or a queen even. The only people who seem to enjoy themselves are the attendants and even they are only mean and shallow. And once Olive figures out that the queens have it pretty shitty, are as much if not larger victims in this situation than anyone else, she determines to do something about it. Now, tucked into this is a kinda dangerous trope/message that you shouldn’t judge how easy other people have it bc most people suffer under a corrupt system which is plenty true only it’s still true that some suffer more than others. And it’s no excuse to prop up a system that makes most people unhappy just because “biology” or some such. I don’t think the story actually dives too much into that, because Olive’s trajectory isn’t toward realizing that everyone has it bad (she still thinks the attendants are assholes), but rather the realization that the one person she thought was at the top isn’t. That she’s a victim, controlled and abused routinely by the “higher-ups” that don’t really make an appearance here but don’t have to. And it’s a tense and interesting story, one that grows this rather horrifying premise but makes it more than about the horror of bodies becoming insect-like. A fine read!


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