Strange Horizons kicks off July with two short stories and two poems, on top of their normal bounty of nonfiction (which I’m not covering here). The works are fairly different, one story looking at a conflict, a war, a destruction, while the other looks at portal fantasies and the weight and burden carried by those who go elsewhere and have to return. They are linked, however, in that they both approach the idea of willful ignorance. In the first, for people who don’t want to face that doing the same thing that has consistently failed is…going to fail. And in the other, that doing the same thing that has consistently failed is…going to fail. The stakes are completely different, and the situations are different, but both find people trying to push not the truth but a narrative that will maybe allow people to live “normally” rather than dealing with the messy situations they’re all is. It makes for some fine reading, and I’ll get to the reviews!
“Last Orders in the Green Lane” by Stephen O’Donnell (978 words)
No Spoilers: This story begins in a bar, where people drink and rail about...something. Something terrible and approaching, the mood of the moment a mix of resolve and fear and despair. The bar is in a village near a city, and the people of the village can see something destroying the city, the lights all going out. But they have their own defenses, their own hope that things in their village will be different than the other villages. Because. Because. And the piece is a strange and somewhat grim read for me, the focus on the way these people watch destruction coming and, though they do what they can, they also might know it’s not going to be enough.
Keywords: Bars, Farmers, Destruction, Forests
Review: For me, so much of this story is about willful ignorance, about the illusion of control and safety that people have, and the ways that it breaks apart. And for me it’s difficult not to draw this story to current events because in many ways it’s about a rural community watching something devastate an urban center and...just sort of not doing much about it. Hoping that they will be spared, that they will be passed over. Not doing anything to either help the city nor really doing anything other than the same things that other villages have done. Villages that have then been destroyed. In all of that there is this clinging to the idea that they are safe, that they are doing enough. That no one can hurt them. That the destruction will pass them by because they have Done Enough when there isn’t really enough in the way they are thinking about it. Enough might have been stopping the horror and destruction while it was still relatively isolated. Might have been doing anything to help the city while it was slowly going out. But the village decided it would hide, that it would erect a barrier, would try and police its people, silencing those who fear the coming destruction. It means that the only voices that are allowed to speak are the confident ones. Despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything to be confident about. People can see the shapes moving in the woods, know that whatever destruction hit the city is not passing over the village. It’s not fear or hysteria that the village should be doing more in case the destruction gets past its defense. People are soothed and calmed like that’s better in and of itself, even if it just makes the people complacent and allows them to fall in silence, continuing the cycle that is tearing apart village after village, all of them doing the same things, judging the cities for being cities and assuming rural communities are better because of where the destruction rages, finding too late that they are no different, that sometimes it’s just a matter of time. A wonderful read!
“The LEAP Test” by Alex Jennings (2414 words)
No Spoilers: Lamont is the proctor for a special test to be administered for Scander, who is something of a special case. More than that, though, Lamont is Scander’s integrator, a role that’s supposed to help Scander get used to life on Earth. What that means, though, isn’t at first entirely clear. As the two interact, though, and explore their similarities, and their differences, the work dives into what it means to integrate, what scars are left behind for children who have lived other lives and then found themselves “back” in bodies and places they’ve long outgrown. It’s a wrenching and emotional piece, for all the tone of the character’s themselves is fairly restrained.
Keywords: Portal Fantasies, Tests, Integrations, Bureaucracies, Loss
Review: I am all for interesting takes on portal fantasies, and especially the stories that look at what happens when these people come back. Where they’ve lived an entire life in this portal world and then wake up and it’s like they’ve never been. Only maybe they still have the memories. Maybe they still have the mental scars and traumas, too. And both Scander and Lamont know what that is, have both been through so much and are back now. Only Lamont is older, has been back longer, and is in a place now where he’s trying to help others integrate. It doesn’t always go well. Sometimes the strain is too great. And sometimes the strain has some help. I really like how the story looks at the way that integration is delicate because the system is not exactly just. Because it requires people to essentially kill the part of themselves that really believes that a return to those mirror worlds is possible. Though it might be possible. Because with that possibility an alive thing, that would be all that consumed the people forced back. Not just because of the lives they lived over there, but the nature of those lives, that seem more vivid, more significant than being a person on the mundane Earth, taking tests that have little to do with anything, just sort of getting through. For many it means leaving loved ones on “the other side” and not knowing if any of it still existed. It’s a heartbreaking and shattering thing that Lamont needs to do, basically lying and betraying the people who are supposed to trust him, because he wants them to survive, to adapt, to integrate. Which he sees as good because he has mostly given up, because he has built up a new life, even if he doesn’t seem able to assure himself that it’s for the best. That other world still pulls at time, still whispers, still promises. But he can’t listen to it. And it’s all so wrenching that he turns that into “helping” those like him, where that “help” might just be a new form of abuse, one more interested in forcing conformity rather than offering true hope. It’s a complex, difficult, and amazing read, and I definitely recommend checking it out and spending some time with it!
“After” by Thomas White
This piece speaks to me of change, and change in many ways. Part of it is the idea of being changed by going somewhere. Specifically it seems to be about the idea that maybe astronauts would be altered by time in space, by time on the Moon. That maybe there’s something about being there that would make a person unable to return, or unsafe to return. Which isn’t exactly an impossible thing. But for the Moon it didn’t seem to happen, at least not with bacteria or viruses or anything like that. There’s a bigger chance, indeed, that the astronauts would be changed in bone density and things like that because they aren’t really built to live without gravity. But the piece goes deeper than that, for me, becomes about the less tangible, less physical reasons why a person might not be able to fully return for somewhere like that. For me at least the piece seems to look at the ways a person might be changed by such a journey, which in some ways could be any journey from home to somewhere else. Any journey where you touch the face of something different, something wholly unlike what you’re used. Especially when you find that it resonates, that it draws you, that there’s a part of you that wants to stay, that wants to go further even. The return is difficult, jarring, finding that you’ve adapted to that new difference in a way you don’t realize until you’re back and you don’t quite fit the same. Everything has shifted, not in the place you return to but in yourself. The traveler has brought the Moon back with them as sand in their joint, a reminder of how they’re not quite comfortable but in the lighter embrace of the moon. There’s a sense of coming down for me, of missing the weightlessness, of always looking up at the night sky. Maybe knowing you can’t go back. But changed for having been there. And it’s a beautiful poem about exploration and the ways that it can change a person. A great read!
“Did You Know Ghosts Are Made of Shattered Carbon?” by Kimberly Kaufman
This poem speaks to me of a sense of home that goes deep, that goes beyond the questions of “where are you from” or “where did you grow up.” For the narrator, those questions can be answered, sure, but those locations, those houses, don’t really speak of home. No, the kinda falling apart house they live in now is where they feel like they belong, and I love how it’s conveyed, how the house is described. As dirty and warped, dingy and probably going to be torn down sooner than later. But still much more profoundly a home to the narrator than anywhere else. And I love that, because for me the idea of home is a complicated one. For many, home does mean where they grew up, and even years and years later they’ll refer to visiting it as going home. But not everyone has those connections to a place, or even to the people who are in those places. And the narrator has mixed feelings of those houses, of those situations. Like they never really belonged there. But this house, with its mold and its worn carpet and its stains and its little quirks. This house is where they will come back to, where they will haunt. And as kinda creepy as that is it’s also a lovely way to think about home, as this connection that would go past death. Other people might be drawn back to a place for different reasons, but for me the narrator is speaking to this feeling that they’d never really belong anywhere else. That this would be the only place of rest and safety for them, and that they’d come back to stay, to inhabit, to haunt. It’s a fun and resonating poem, and a fantastic read!