|Art by Andis Reinbergs|
Science fantasy month continues at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and I’m once again breaking up the issue into two passes so I can not drown under the weight of all this genre bending fiction. The three stories released first lean a bit more science fiction than the stories from the previous issue, but most of them still carry within them a fantasy core. And the works look at non-human entities struggling in hostile environments. War zones and galaxies where death itself has been twisted into profit. The works are often strange, often haunting, and occasionally gritty, and before I give too much away, let’s get to the reviews!
“The Sniper and I” by Rich Larson (3439 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story’s cover is being a spotter to a sniper in a war zone in a city on a planet that hasn’t known peace for a while. The city has become only fighting, a war of meters that has taken its toll on both sides. The sniper is the best around, though, racking up confirmed kills and barely eating or sleeping. They’re also not entirely human, and as the piece moves what exactly that means becomes clear, as does the narrator’s real reasons for coming to this city, to this particular front. It’s a tense piece and one that I’m not actually sure I see the fantasy aspects in. For me, it’s much more military science fiction, about the boundaries between human and machine, soldier and civilian, that make for some thorny ethical issues when combined with war.
Keywords: War, Snipers, Modifications, Experiments, AIs
Review: For me this story deals with trauma, with soldiers, and with making people into weapons, and people out of weapons. The piece features this sniper who lives to kill, whose entire purpose is to kill, because they’ve literally been created and/or modified to be this machine, or part machine. Something inhuman that would allow those behind the war to wash their hands of having to consider their own soldiers people. To wash their hands of things like war crimes because the blame would be on a non-human intelligence. The sniper calls them on that, and yet it changes very little. The action of the story is on killing and on stalking a supposed enemy counter-sniper. But that’s a specter that never shows itself, a bogey that remains all doubt and shadow. And I like that the hypothetical sniper never arrives, that it always might just be a bit of paranoia that these people want to be the retroactive justification for doing what they’ve done, for crossing this line in making a weapon/person hybrid. And I like that the strain becomes too much, that the sniper is happy and terrified and disgusted, that they live to kill even as part of them knows that isn’t a life. Despite the use of neutral they pronouns in the story, I’m not quite comfortable linking this to the sniper being a non-binary person. First because they never use pronouns for themself, so it’s unsure if they are assigned by the narrator in an attempt to emphasize the remove from humanity. Further, because they refers to a gun/person hybrid, it might be referring to a plural rather than singular. Lacking the knowledge if the human part of the hybrid used different pronouns, and lacking a sort of declaration from the AI portion, my reading of the use of the they pronoun is more that the character(s) are unknown in gender, rather than explicitly or even implicitly non-binary, though of course that’s just my reading. It’s a visceral and claustrophobic read, and for fans of gritty military science fiction, certainly worth checking out!
“Only the Messenger” by Emily C. Skaftun (10103 words)
No Spoilers: Astrill is a kind of octopus as well as the mechanic/engineer aboard a ship running contraband over the galaxy. And they’ve just been dumped long distance by their partner back on their homeworld. Or, this life’s homeworld. Because this is a setting where people are reborn again and again, randomly across the entire galaxy. And Astrill has never been reborn and met back up with old lovers, old friends. Soul mates don’t exist. Or that’s what they think until they meet a kind of stellar hitch-hiker and discover that not all the rules of the universe are written in stone. It’s a touching and strange story, one with a lot of heart and a wrenching set of decisions to be confronted and made.
Keywords: Space, Reincarnation, Messages, CW- Slavery, Shape-shifting, Breakups
Review: The world building here is fascinating, and I rather like the way that the fantasy aspect of the piece, the reincarnation, informs so much of the universe. Where these characters are aware of their past lives in many ways, and carry forward a sense of time and person, though with that comes a certain kind of...bitterness? At least for Astrill, there’s this semi-romantic, semi-toxic mentality that there both is and is not a soul mate out there. It means they’re always looking, always hoping, and always rather disappointed when things don’t work out. At the same time, my reading is that they also push things more than they could. That in some ways they might be testing their relationships to see if it’s “true” enough to overcome distance, to overcome time and space. And it ends up pushing people away, because they’re not around, because they put this somewhat artificial strain on things because it would be too painful to actually find a soul mate and then find out, next life, you are so far apart you’ll never see each other. And you might be lost from each other forever. It’s so much, and so as much as Astrill bemoans that love is not something for them ever eternal, they also protect themself from the kind of loss that might bring. And the piece is a lot of fun, weird but kinda sexy as well, and all sorts of messed up as Astrill discovers that an economic and communication bedrock of the entire galaxy is actually built on something unspeakable. And they might just have a hand in jump-starting a resistance to it. And then the ground is pulled out from under them and yeah, there’s a lot of neat twists and turns in this story, enough to make me want to know what happens next. Not that it’s not complete and satisfying, just that it’s a charming setup and some great character work and I want more. More! Ahem. In any event, it’s a carefully built world and just a wonderful story! Go check it out!
“Song of the Water Bear” by Laine Bell (3432 words)
No Spoilers: This story opens as a group of people come out of dehydration-linked hibernation or dormancy along with water bears that they cohabitate with. The narrator, Cel, isn’t the oldest of the group, but following the news that their former leader perished in the dry season, they assume command of the colony. What should be business as usual, though, turns out to be anything but as new creatures as seen approaching their home. New creatures who pose a new and unprecedented threat. The piece is full of the grim realities of life in harsh areas, and for me seems to be taking place at a micro level, everything strange and alien but maybe just much smaller than we’re used to thinking about.
Keywords: Water, Invasion, Partnerships, Bears, Micro
Review: This is such a strange piece, and yet if carries with it might be a lot closer to home than the alien setting might seem. For me at least it feels like it’s a story that gets down to an entirely different scale to visit creatures and settings that are all around us but rendered in frightening and graphic detail. It’s a fairly gritty story, after all, of an extreme environment where this group of people lives alongside these water bears, these tardigrades, and things just sort of cycle through the dry and wet, the sleeping and the alive. Only some new threats almost destroy everything, proving to be mostly immune to the group’s normal way of thinking and fighting. And I do love how the group starts to change, spurred by Cel, who is close to despair when they realize that there is still hope. That they want to fight. And I love how the answer lies in this teamwork, this closer integration between the group and the bears, so that they can really act cooperatively to counter this new threat that seems so powerful, so unstoppable. The details in it really do bring the piece to life and give it a fantasy feel, for all that it’s not necessarily a story that takes place in the past. And I just really like that it looks at this kind of cooperation, each group helping the other to do something that alone they wouldn’t have been able to. Together fighting back and winning their home from invasion. It’s triumphant, promising that the group will continue and, more than that, continue to change and evolve their tactics to meet what new threats arise. A great read!