Monday, June 29, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons Fund Drive Issue 2020

Welcome to my review of the Strange Horizons special Fund Drive Issue! The good news is that everything was unlocked, and Strange Horizons looks to be on its way to an amazing 2021. There’s still time, too, to back the project and get yourself something nice, so if you haven’t already, do check that out. Now, I’m told that the final fiction piece that was announced is being rescheduled, so I’m covering one original story and five(!) original poems, but there’s lots more for you to check out, including lots of nonfiction in the form of reviews, interviews, and Staff Stories that are just great. It’s no secret that Strange Horizons has been one of my favorite publications for the last few years, putting out brilliant works that I can’t stop gushing about. So I’m super happy and excited to get another year of wonderful fiction, poetry, and more. To the reviews!


“The Bee Thing” by Maggie Damken (5717 words)

No Spoilers: This story centers a woman who is going through some rather intense burnout and depression following a mental health episode that has left her head a literal beehive. Which, in turn, caused her boyfriend to break up with her, and despite still managing to graduate with a perfect 4.0, she’s now back living with her parents in the middle of nowhere, barely able to function. The piece gives a piercing insight into how burnout can look, the shapes and feelings it can take, the way that it gets into everything, turning someone who has always been an overachiever and making it so that they can’t concentrate on anything. It’s a wrenching read, careful and heavy, and though not a happy story, it doesn’t end on despair or hopelessness, either.
Keywords: Bees, Burnout, College, Breakups, CW- Depression/Ideation/Self-Harm
Review: There’s a lot here that just hurts. The way the narrator is an overachiever, always trying her best to do well in the hopes that it will mean something, that it will make her actions and efforts meaningful. And how that comes falling apart because when she graduates there’s no jobs and no one to help except for parents who believe in the idea that mental health things can be fixed just by thinking about them differently. Just by feeling a bit better. When the lack of support, the lack of mental healthcare, seems a huge reason why she can’t function, why she is stuck, constantly checking her ex’s social media, caught in the trap of imagining what things might have been like if not for the bee thing. And the piece alludes to a breakdown the narrator went through, a period of such stress that it’s compared to being a soldier in war, which I think is completely fair, because school especially is designed to be terrible, especially for those who want to excel, who want to do perfect. Perfection is something that can only be lost, though, or maintained. It’s a relentless push to get every point available knowing that points can be arbitrary, that they’re never as important to even the professors giving out the points than they are to the overachiever. Teachers can make mistakes, write lazy or unclear questions--any number of things that the overachiever has to plan for, has to over prepare for. Only it’s also never enough, because then the job market is shit, or no one told you that there weren’t jobs in what you wanted to do, just that you have to “follow your passion” or some such and the result is an inability to cope, to handle the pressures and demands of life. And the piece shows the narrator struggling with everything, with the unfairness of it, with her frustration at everything. It escalates, because no one is helping her, and even at the end, when things seem like they might get better, there’s still a profound sense of loss, of fragility, because it’s not like the narrator has found a way forward. But she maybe believes that such a way exists. Which is an important step. And it’s complex and wonderful read that I definitely recommend checking out!


"Catering” by May Chong

I’m a big fan of food in SFF, so this poem appeals to me because it seems to me to be an older person giving advice to a younger one on the art of food. Not necessarily the preparation, but the proper rites and respects that must be paid in feeding the gods. Perhaps in what offerings to leave near their altars but maybe too what they will actually eat and how, though those offerings, they will grant their blessings and boons. And I like the way that it builds this rich pantheon and the sort of mentor/mentee relationship it implies between the narrator and the You of the piece. That You seems to be someone who doesn’t know what to expect and I can only imagine them staring in wonder at the scene, not quite sure what to think. The narrator then isn’t exactly there to burst their bubble but rather to ground them in the realities of the work, which doesn’t seem quite so pious as all that. It’s practical, the knowledge being imparted here, professional and to the point. It feels somewhat like working in a kitchen, and the title seems to back this up, that this You is starting out their career and have a lot to learn, both about the craft and about the mythology of it, the things that need to be done to ensure success. It’s a fun piece, and I just like the way that it flows, the narrator throwing a lot of information in all at once perhaps as a bit of a display of power, to dispel any overly romantic ideas that the You might have about the job. Things move fast in kitchens, after all, and training is often intense and punctuated by missteps that have to be fixed while everything backs up and up. So the almost brusque nature of the instruction does a lot of things, and it lands well for me. It twists together the mundane aspects of cooking and the divine ones, which can’t be separated out but must be approached together. A great read!

“The Last of Us” by Anne Carly Abad

This piece seems to be about an attempt for humans to move beyond the Earth, to send people out into space in search of a new home. And it draws a hard line between those who are going out, the Voyagers, and those who are still on Earth, who get no title, only “us.” And so the reader too is put into the position of someone on the Earth knowing that now there is no escape. That whatever happens, it will be spent on Earth, subject to whatever disasters or cataclysms or just time that might be happening. The focus isn’t really on the mission, isn’t on the Voyagers, though they form a sort of catalyst for why the narrator is doing what they’re doing, speaking to a plant, an acacia, about their life. It’s such a small, intimate thing, something that for many might be considered pointless. But it has such power, because it’s a recognition of the existence of the people on Earth. Knowing in many ways that the humanity that “survives” will likely have a much different view of the past, will draw a single line from where humans left Earth to where they went from there. The people back on Earth, then, are staring down the fact that they’ve lost their history. Or that they’ve been cut away from it. What will survive with people to understand it will be the ships, the Voyagers. But that doesn’t mean that the people still on Earth are done. They’re still alive, still living, still getting by. And maybe that will end, maybe sooner than later, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. That they shouldn’t be remembered in some way. And so the narrator tells their story so that maybe at least there will be that, some plant memory of people, and who they were and how they lived, even if no humans around to stand witness. There are still witnesses, and there is still life. A lovely and moving read!

“WARSHIP CAPTAIN APPLICATION [Section 29.2 saved as draft in SAIS]” by Tamara Jerée

This is such an interesting poem, one framed as an application to be a pilot of a warship (as the title makes clear). And while the questions are fairly straight forward, and paint a picture of a future where people have a lot less freedom and rights, the answers tell a rather different story, and the sort of friction between the questions and the answers creates a weird dissonance, one that builds something beautiful and haunting. Now the poetry contains an impressive amount of world build for me, tracing the outlines of this enormous Supreme Artificial Intelligence System that supposedly has its wires into every aspect of human life. Everything is micromanaged, everything available for the AI of the SAIS so it can guess would be make people more efficient. So in some ways this application is absurd, because the answers are basically how well a person can match the data that the SAIS already has. How well they will fit into the algorithms as have been learned by the system. But this applicant really isn’t doing that. Their answers don’t at first seem to have much to do with the questions, and to me at least they seem like a conscious effort to break with the expected. Which might be for a number of reasons, starting with maybe about trying to mess with the SAIS, give it something too human, too poetic to process, and so make a small rebellion against the system as a whole. Of course, it might be that the narrator knows that if they are being evaluated by an AI, it might not matter that the answers make sense to a human. That maybe these answers are “better” in some way to the system, where the AI can interpret them favorably. Another possibility, though one I’m not sure I find likely, is that an AI is the author of the entire thing, that the answers represent some sort of machine learning that is trying to pass its own tests. Whatever the case, the application is not turned in. Because the author is waiting? Thought better of the whole enterprise? Or for some other reason? Whatever the case, for me the piece a somewhat defiant streak to it, feeling most like the author is defying a system that requires rigid adherence to a strict system. It’s a kind of freedom, haunting because it’s unsent, with all the lingering questions and ambiguities and uncertainties of that action. A wonderful read!

“Legacy” by Brianne Kerr

This poem seems to take on the idea (the saying?) that each person dies twice--once when their body goes and again when their name is said for the last time. Which, I mean, aside from there being a lot of people who have the same name as other people, the poem complicates that, digging into what it might imply through the lens of this narrator questioning what it might mean if they remained alive. Is it only when their name is said? Is it a moment of realization that rocks a person momentarily alive and awake? What happens to a person who can’t seem to get their name said while they’re alive? Do they go through that second death first, and how does that impact their life? In many ways I feel like the poem is pushing back against the pressure to judge your life based on how much you are remembered. That valuing people based on the people speaking their name includes a lot of people who are spoken of for some terrible reasons. If fame is the only marker of immortality, what does that immortality look like? Not pretty, as the poem explores, and I think it’s a sharp point, turning what for some is a vision of power and influence and comfort and revealing it to be rather horrifying, actually. A kind of zombie existence that can’t really be satisfying, that can’t really keep a person alive. And that certainly can’t sustain a person while they’re alive chasing after this nebulous goal of having a longer second life. Not only because it places these impossible goals on people, making them feel somehow like double failures if they die without being famous for something, but also because it hinges everything on the idea that somehow a person lives on in their fame, a prospect that has some...fucked up implications. It’s a poem that reaches away from that obsession, that shows it as more of a cause of rot than of glory, and it’s a wonderful take on a complex issue. A great read!

“An Escape Encounter with Death” by Okwudili Nebeolisa

This is a strange poem framed as a story with all the feeling of a dream, the narrator relating how they had been visited by Death in the form of a cat. Which is rather adorable, but also terrifying, because cats have that mix of qualities. And really the poem is a nice horror, detailing how the narrator reacts to this Death cat speaking, to the knowledge that the cat is more than a cat, and the panic that ensues, the need to escape and the sudden inability to. And yet the beginning of the poem and the title speak of a small kind of security. The narrator is looking back on this, relating this, so there’s a sense that it must turn out all right in the end. Except (and I love that) the poem never really reveals how the narrator escapes. They flee through the house, unable to see in the dark, knocking things over, trying to get away at any cost, feeling hunted and watched by this cat who can see in the dark. That the piece is framed as a dream is interesting, creating for me at least a certain uncertainty. Is this actually Death come to call, or just the shadow, just the illusion, just the fear of death. This cat-as-Death might only be a nightmare, and that’s generally how the story of the poem is delivered, with the narrator relating this like it’s a bad dream, not exactly dismissing the message of it but neither seeming super concerned about the ending. It’s weird, and I like how that’s captured, but how buried in that weirdness might be something real and terrifying, some bit of truth that the narrator might be ignoring because it would be too hard to face. That they might have escaped Death by waking up, by getting away from the dream, but they might also not have escaped, might be being pursued still, unaware, the cat slinking closer, watching, waiting... And whatever the case it’s a fun poem, leaning into horror but with just a great dream quality and haunted vibe to it, all wrapped in a layer of someone really wanting to tell you about this nightmare they had. A great read!


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