So it’s been a very busy month at Strange Horizons. Not only was there already a special Fund Drive issue, but another special issue on top of it. This one focuses on Chosen Family, and features two new stories and three new poems, on top of a slew of nonfiction that I’m not covering here but that’s very worth checking out. The works explore the idea of chosen families quite well, showing where the bonds of biological families can fracture and fall apart, where they can be toxic and abrasive, and showing that even with family, consent is vital, choice paramount. The works find characters who have been hurt, who have been caged, and who don’t want to live that way any more, choosing for themselves who they spend their lives with, who they make their families with. To the reviews!
|Art by Sam Guay|
“Monsters Never Leave You” by Carlie St. George (6668 words)
No Spoilers: Esther lives in a candy house in the woods, a survivor of a lot and now a sort of custodian, for however brief a time, of lost things. Lost people who are brought to her door and who she helps find safety and security...normally enough to leave again and re-enter the rest of the world. But when Kit and Millie show up at her door, things just might be different. Because their story resonates so strongly with her own, and her brother’s, that it shakes everything to its core, to its foundation--to it roots. Through the turmoil and the fear and the guilt and the pain, though, the story really does capture the theme of this special issue, showing a wonderful chosen family that shines and endures.
Keywords: Witches, Trees, Family, CW- Abuse, Hansel and Gretel, Houses
Review: There’s so much I love about this story, from the complicated web of trauma, pain, and love that it draws around the idea of family to just the fantastic job it does of infusing the House with personality and agency. The whole piece is touched with scars left by biological family, from Kit’s literal scars to Esther and Millie’s less tangible ones. All of them have been hurt, maybe from a wicked stepmother, maybe from the biological parents, maybe from some combination of that. For Kit and Millie, they have each other, and that connection is strong, has helped them survive. But Esther knows that it’s not always enough, knows because of her own troubled history with her own parents and own brother. She knows what a trap love can be, how it can come with all kinds of conditions, when it’s supposed to be unconditional, when children need it to be unconditional. Because conditional love takes such a toll, leaves such wounds, even if they weren’t intentional. It recognizes that it’s not enough to not want to hurt someone. it recognizes that it’s not enough to love someone, if that loves is coupled with abuse or neglect. The love doesn’t make up for that. And people deserve homes that are safe, deserve places where they can be accepted without question. Where they can trust. And for Esther that’s a whole lot of complicated, because the House they live in once had a hand in her near destruction. Even as it didn’t want to. And now it’s all still rather raw, even twenty years later. Reopened by these siblings, one of whom is dead, both of whom don’t really know what they want or where they can go, but who find in Esther a love that isn’t going to violate them, that isn’t going to take from them. That, above all, believes in their right to choose. And that’s so important, and captures so powerfully, weaving fairy tale with much more contemporary elements, getting grim indeed and difficult at times but always resolving into something enduring and strong and accepting. It’s a beautiful story, careful and profound, and you should definitely go read it!
“68:Hazard:Cold” by Janelle C. Shane (6016 words)
No Spoilers: Greki is a former housekeeping droid (and before that a human who was desperate enough to sell the rights to her uploaded consciousness to be used in a housekeeping droid) who has sense broken away from their servitude. A pirate, her new line of work is rather interrupted by an attack that sends her ship down to a particularly inhospitable world where she has to basically constantly move in order to keep from freezing. Which isn’t too much an issue, and she’s not exactly alone, accompanied by too mindless robots she similarly liberate from her old job. But with storms that threaten to turn her off for good, things aren’t exactly rosy, either. And then she finds something strange on the surface, something that will change her situation dramatically. The piece is lots of fun, light and all about communication and patience, about respect and movement.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousnesses, Robots, Resistance, Language, Aliens, Communication, Cold
Review: I really love the voice of this story, Greki marvelously upbeat for all that they’ve sort of drawn a shit lot when it comes to most things. Only she can’t remember anything about her human life, and her life as a servant is one she’s not put behind her. Still, getting stuck on an ice planet isn’t exactly great. Until, that is, she makes contact with aliens. And the way that she goes about trying to communicate, building up a language with the missile she finds on the planet that communicates with the aliens in transit, is so great. The droid language in general is just hilarious, built around the ways these human minds were rewired in order to make servants. Stripped of any language but the codes that they needed to communicate on the job, they made a whole new language out of it with jokes and subtext and so much that really gives the situation and the droids that extra layer of complexity and authenticity. They’re alive in so many ways, taking what was supposed to oppress them and twisting it so that it works for them. And how that becomes the language of this first contact is amazing, because it puts that into this very complex context where the aliens are coming first to this almost second-hand language (not meant as an insult) rather than to the still-organic humans whose oppression made it necessary. Which breaks the ownership of the language even further, showing how these droids have made peaceful contact through respect and curiosity and goodwill rather than the organic humans who have always tried to attack the missiles that they’ve come across. The result is a story that’s just so much fun but also has a lot to unpack. The situation with the droids is carefully handled and certainly messy but isn’t being held back by the organic humans. They are their own people, doing their own thing, with their own language that they can control, that grows and evolves with them. It’s wonderful and humorous and just a fantastic read!
“Beasts of New France” by Millie Ho
This poem tells the story of a pack of werewolves who have lived for hundreds of years. Who have seen cities grow and change, who have hunted the nights and fed, and who, every year, still get together to talk and to eat, though not the flesh of their prey. Not for ten years, since they’ve been able to take pills that dull their hunger, their thirst for the hunt. All except the oldest of them, for whom the pills don’t work. And the piece builds the group and the gather well, gives it a sense of time and weight, showing how in some ways the edge has gone out of a lot of them as they’ve adopted jobs and personas that don’t involve stalking the night. Only here the edge comes back. For a night, maybe, or for more than that. Here they go out into the night again and they remember what it so to be wild and unsafe. And it puts things into a different perspective for them, reminds them of what they’ve had and who they’ve been, yes, and all their long history, but also connects them to something larger, something huge and terrible so that they are also small, brief, their lives not long enough even measured in centuries to contain the bright love that they can feel, that they can share, that they can spread howling under the watchful smile of the moon. It’s a joyous read to me, bounding and driving away from the seeming safety of their routine lives, their suppressing drugs, their hungers they’ve dulled. To feel fully brings a danger, maybe, but it also brings a true celebration of all of who they are and can be, and I think that’s a great complication of werewolves, and just a great read!
“A Mountain on My Back” by Niloufar-Lily Soltani
This poem is perhaps the first work in the issue to bring out some of the less savory things that can come from a chosen family. Namely, that sometimes you don’t really choose well. The other pieces are mostly about finding belonging and community and love within a chosen family, but this one is about going from a rather unknown (probably not great) biological family to a chosen family that isn’t loving, that doesn’t allow the narrator to be free or celebrate herself. She moves towards what she hopes is freedom but is only a cage, the man she meets and thinks will love her only leveraging her, exploiting her for his own gain. And for all that she tries to make it work, their relationship becomes this weight on her. The title of the piece really does a fantastic job of capturing the feeling of an oppressive relationship, the weight of it crushing, obliterating. And there’s an almost dreamlike quality to it, as well, a touch of magic, where the narrator describes the mountain and the man she’s with climbing it. And the cage she’s in crumbles, shatters, and the weight from her back disappears when she realizes she doesn’t have to stay any longer. That she can walk away. That she can fun, and for all that she made the choice to be with the man, it doesn’t have to be her only choice. It reveals something important I think about the idea of the chosen family. Namely, that it’s a family you can keep on choosing. That the choice is not just once and forever, but rather that the family values choice, and gives the opportunity to opt in or, if it’s not working out any longer, opt out. It sets up the idea that toxic people need to be escaped lest their gravity pull you down into a crash, lest their mountains crush you flat. There’s a sense of relief at the end, of potential and possibility, that I really like. A wonderful read!
“Mercy” by Robert K. Walters
This is a rather strange poem about the narrator and his father, the relationship there not exactly the strongest, strained by the father’s fatalism and willingness to accept a universe that acts as a kind of apathetic force, huge and powerful and disinterested in the goings on of people. And the narrator stands against that, sees through the words his father couches as wisdom and to a different way of organizing and seeing the universe. Not as a hungry force that people are at the whims of, but a place that is run on mercy, on wonder. For me at least the piece speaks to a way of seeing the Universe not as cold but as warm, as running on this kind of mercy that isn’t leveraged for the universe’s gain or pleasure. That it’s subject to a cruel intent. And it really does speak to this way where a lot of people are more comfortable in a sort of transaction, not with some sort of economic body but with existence itself. Where people can only really imagine life as a kind of exchange, a situation where the universe is the bank and each living person is a lender. That kind of fatalism implies that there’s nothing to be done, that people are born essentially in debt and there’s no way of paying it off, success and failure both then being drawn to a sort of cosmic luck, a capricious decision that has no sense of justice behind it. It’s a dim view, certainly, and one that doesn’t really hold much in mercy, for all it evokes it. The mercy there is the mercy of the emperor giving a thumbs up or down. But that is not mercy. Mercy is something more profound, more rewarding and transforming. And I love how the narrator sees that, embraces mercy over debt, and so dissolves the debt that biological parentage might have placed on him, instead transforming it (and his father) into something else. Something green and alive and sustaining, choosing that over the weight and drain of dealing with the fatalism he rejected. A great way to close out the issue!