|Art by Galen Dara|
Two new issues of Strange Horizons means two new short stories and two new poems. And the publication continues to just belt them out of the park, as it were, with two stories about care and about teachers being put into some impossible situations paired with poems that definitely capture the "strange" mandate of the venue. And yeah, the stories here are philosophical and wrenching, placing characters into a place where they have to make hard decisions, where they doubt themselves and their abilities but ultimately are able to stand behind their work, in the face of injustice and extinction. It's a wonderful pair of issues that I'll get to reviewing...now!
“The Pride of Salinkari” by Elizabeth Crowe (6745 words)
No Spoilers: Ekeithan is a teacher of ethics whose former student, a promising poet, has earned perhaps the highest honor in the realm, and so claimed his pinnacle. Meaning, thrown himself from a bridge. The setting of the story considers this claiming of a pinnacle to be the right of every person, for it’s just and right for someone to die at the height of their happiness, not grasping greedily for more. But this poet’s parents are very much convinced that the boy claimed his pinnacle too early, and that, what’s more, it’s Ekeithan’s fault. It’s an unprecedented claim, but one backed up with money and influence, things that Ekeithan doesn’t have. What he has are his principles, and he will find what kind of armor those are against the demands of the bereaved. It’s a complex and powerful piece, dealing with some very tricky ethical questions and, what’s more, a setting built to be challenging to most people’s ideas about life, death, and happiness.
Keywords: Ethics, Teaching, CW- Suicide, Happiness, Trials, Choices, CW- Parents
Review: This is a story that hit me rather hard, not just because it’s one that treats suicide in this manner, but because how the parents act here is just so real and so damning. Because there are those parents who treat suicide like a personal affront, not because they care about the child necessarily, but because they care about their own legacy and appearance. That the parents of this poet are so enraged that they have to lash out, that they have to ruin an innocent, that they have to pervert justice in such a way...it really does strike what is at the heart of this story’s setting. Which...isn’t as different perhaps than it seems from our world. Because what we value pretty much above everything is freedom. And so it might not seem too strange to have a system where people are kind of expected to die when they feel they’ve reached their life’s peak. They aren’t forced to. But we certainly have ideas about what it means to be happy, and whose life and death are more meaningful and just. We claim to value freedom, and so does this society, and in that we are fairly closely linked. But the parents here are asserting their rights over that of their son. Declaring that he’s not fit to decide his pinnacle, just because they feel their own pinnacles can’t be reached without grandchildren. It’s rather familiar, only here it’s been made a crisis, an ethical stalemate, much more than it would be for our society (that blames all suicides as immoral). And I love the way that this story complicates that, the way that Ekeithan must navigate the impossible questions he’s being asked. The way he’s not allowed to point out that what they’re doing goes against the most fundamental of their beliefs. All because one person did what is supposed to be every person’s right. It holds up this vivid mirror to how suicide is treated in our world, how parents often get to own their children’s deaths, and how sick that is. And just wow, it is an emotionally charged piece for being a story that is very careful about its tone, about maintaining a narrative distance from emotion. It’s masterfully built and executed, and the ending doesn’t offer any easy ways out, rather makes the reader sit with the ethical implications of everything, and how they escape the screen and reach through into the “real” world. A fantastic read!
“The Longest Season in the Garden of the Tea-Fish” by Jo Miles (5181 words)
No Spoilers: The story opens just as the grove of tree/plant/people are about to undergo the Rejuvenation, where their tea-fish, strange animals that live in their core and give them locomotion and consciousness, are to be replaced. It’s especially needed for Elja, the presumptive leader and eldest of the grove, who is running out of steam sooner rather than later. But when an accident leads to a massive die-off of the tea-fish, the Rejuvenation is on hold and a huge responsibility is laid at Elja’s feet. Trunk? In either case, the piece explores responsibility and care, family and loneliness, as Elja bears the burden of ensuring her grove’s survival. But for all the rather harrowing details, it’s a story that seems ultimately about the value of care, and the warmth of family.
Keywords: Trees, Fish, Rituals, Dormancy, Care, Family
Review: I really like the strange setup for the story, where the characters are sentient tree-people who live actively thanks to fish they keep inside of them. Their entire social structure is bent around tending to the tea-fish, preparing for the rituals that keep them ordered around just that. It’s a life that Elja has dedicated herself to, and it’s not an easy one. And I think that comes through the most in the story, the extreme effort of care. Elja is chosen for this and knows that it’s the right call but it’s never breezy. Being in charge, being the only one who is awake and aware and needed to bear the weight of all of that, needing to maintain an order that can’t be maintained because one person can only do so much, can only check so much and work so much. And even then there are mistakes, there are oversights. Even then there are times when she wants to give up, when she desperately wants to wake up others so she doesn’t have to be the only one there. I think in many ways for me the story shows just how hard leadership is supposed to be. Especially in times of crisis, leadership isn’t something that entitles a person to luxury. It’s something that needs to be handled carefully and respectfully or else everyone might die. Obvious in our own current crisis there is an element of that as well, seeing that where leaders make hard decisions and put in the work of care, the best outcomes can be reached. The best, which might not ultimately be all that great. Which might not save everyone, which might not even save the people the leader wants to save the most. Because they made the decision to act fairly and in the best interests of all. And it’s wrenching, emotionally resonating work. The feelings of Elja bleed from the page, her tired and her hope and ultimately the mixture of sorrow and joy when it’s all done, even though it’s not really done, just starting over again, because care and love never stop. A fantastic read!
“Growing Chair” by Shuyi Yin
This is a strange poem told mostly in couplets, about a narrator and a chair. A chair made of metal rods elegantly built according to their designs. A chair that they take with them ever after, that they never sit on. And for me this is a poem that I struggle really to “figure out,” that I wonder if I’m missing some context that would make some of the elements feel more in conversation with something specific. For me, I’m left with the imagery, the feeling I get from the piece, the narrator despairing the furniture, the chairs they see in homes all over, the mass produced and the impersonal. The chair they design is twisted but not to me chaotic. It seems more like a vine, something natural made almost industrial, a strange and heavy object that the narrator seems to cherish in a way that almost feels to me...strange because it’s a large metal chair that they don’t sit on. It’s art, but I’m not sure exactly what that means. It’s mathematical (the poem has a lot of numbers that crop up), but it doesn’t really seem functional. And it’s not really seen by anyone but the narrator, who takes it with them and puts in their home but never mentions other people admiring it. In some ways it feels like an object that the narrator has placed a lot of meaning in but only in the hypothetical, as all they have really done is reproduce the same chairs other people don’t sit on but in a more personal way. The piece evokes dandelions and their delicate seeds but that clashes with the solidness of the chair, though maybe the seeds are ideas, are inspiration...And I mean I like the way the poem moves, the structure and the imagery. It’s a strange story of a poem, and I’m curious about the chair. But I’m also a bit bewildered by it. And perhaps that’s part of the point, too, that the things people end up attaching meaning to, their art, sometimes is untranslatable. But whatever the case, I very much encourage you to check it out and sit with it. I might just need to return to this later. Indeed!
“A Spirit Friend” by Jasmeet Dosanjh
This piece unfolds as the narrator swims, as they move through a pond that their mother would tell them about, a place full of magic, where the spirits of the dead came out to play and mingle with the world of the living. And there’s a feeling of almost childlike innocence that surrounds the piece for me even as the action of the poem gets kinda pretty fucked up. But the diction, the word choice (flabbergasted, slimy, took a liking to me) to me really gets at this feeling that nothing is entirely dire. It’s not horrific even as it’s kind of horrific, because if I pulled by feel out of the water and there was something made of teeth attached to it I would freak right the fuck out. And in some ways so too does the narrator, acting to get this thing off of them and then leaving. But for me there isn’t the same sort of immediate terror at the situation, not the same kind of fear and oh shit! to it. I mean, it could be that what’s being described is something as relatively mundane as someone pulling their feet out of water and finding a leech has attached to them. Which is not a fun situation but is something that happens. But there’s also this sense of communion for me that comes through from it, and almost dream logic. The narrator is swimming through their mother’s memories, through her childhood in this pond. It might not be a physical space at all. But if it is or isn’t it brings them back to their beliefs of their mother, to the way she believed in spirits who would visit. And it seems to be caught up in maybe processing the death of their mother, which might have been recent or might have been a while ago, but this moment brings it back, because it links the narrator to their mother and her memories, her beliefs that the narrator never really shared. But that, now, maybe there is a connection there, a comfort and a way of making something that could have been fairly frightening into something that’s almost nostalgic, that is actually infused with a sense of warmth and wonder. It’s a poem that walks a lot of lines but I think shines with those final lines, a child who is no longer young capturing something that bridges time and distance, life and death. A fantastic read!