Friday, September 4, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 08/31/2020

So there’s a special 20th anniversary issue of Strange Horizons out! Happy anniversary!!! Now, I debated with myself a while how to actually handle the issue, because it’s not a usual one. Instead of original fiction and poetry, the issue features stories pulled from Strange Horizons’ past issues, plus some brand new poetry. I’ve decided to cover the (technically reprint) fiction in this case alongside the poetry mostly because I am super curious to check out what made the cut for this extra special issue. Now, that said, I’m not looking at the Wiggins story because I reviewed it when it originally came out. The rest of the bunch were before my time as a reviewer, though, and are all super great. So is the poetry, by the way. But before I bore you to tears, let’s get right to the reviews!


“Goat Eschatologies” by Margaret Ronald (4937 words)

No Spoilers: Gert lives on her uncle’s farm, looking after the goats and waiting for her uncle to return. The problems is that the end of the world has come, though perhaps in the most meta way possible. Because the end of the world is actually a sort of intense belief in the end of the world that has afflicted a significant number of people (10% of the population). Which might not seem that bad, but has actually plunged the world into chaos, into violence. For those left out of the chaos, there’s still a feeling of fragility to the world, a new layer of danger over every interaction. And when Gert comes across a pair of women in one of her fields, it’s something that could end rather badly, or might be the start of something beautiful and rare, a new beginning during the end of the world.
Keywords: Apocalypses, Goats, Farms, Queer MC, Family, CW- Rape (attempted)
Review: For me so much of this story is about the uncertainty of making plans. On one level the piece shows the world in this chaotic mess, a plague of apocalypses where everyone seems to have their own vision of how it’s going to end. There is a real sense, even among those not afflicted by the strange delusion or belief, that the world is ending. That it’s not going to pull through this. It’s just that those not afflicted there’s no real relief in that, no comfort. Instead there’s only a dread, a fear, a paralyzing uncertainty that makes thinking about the future seem pointless. Futile. And I get that so much, given how the world is, how it’s gone. It’s hard to make plans when there are so many saying that there’s no point, that everything is already crashing down. And it might be. For Gert, it’s not that she dismisses the idea that the world is ending. It’s that she doesn’t know what to do about it, because she doesn’t have that certainty. So she bides her time, at least until she comes across a reason for wanting to think about the future. A person who makes her want a future enough that she’s willing to break through that uncertainty and take action. Despite the danger, despite being surrounded by a sense of fatalism and destruction. And I love how she’s able to push forward, to reach for that future that everyone is saying is impossible. That is only inevitable if she gives up on wanting and working for the life that calls her. Armed with that want, she’s able to deal with the present, able to do the work in front of her, able to try and protect those she cares about, and push back against the idea that there’s no point in fighting the end of the world. Because that’s a huge part of the problem. Of the...not contagion of this plague but a part of it. That apocalyptic thinking can be contagious because it sinks the narrative. Makes everything seem impossible. Collapses the future into a single path, when there are still choices to be made, when it still matters how you choose to live. And the piece is hopeful and beautiful and delightfully queer while resting on a razor’s edge. And it’s a fantastic read!

“Charms” by Shweta Narayan (1558 words)

No Spoilers: Edith runs a magic shop in a post-war Britain where women have just started to be admitted to magical universities. For Edith, it’s a fresh reopening of an old wound, made more complicated by the ways she’s lived her life, the regrets and the angers at the gatekeeping she was subjected to and now seems to be in the process of removal. And in that the piece brushes against how people handle something they always wanted, something they fought and failed at, something that was taken from them...being given to someone else. It’s a fairly short piece that unfolds in the present and past but looks to the future, to a future where Edith isn’t quite sure what her role will be. It’s complex and wrenching, highlighting a group often overlooked when “progress” leaps forward thanks to necessity or outside pressure and not because of an actual shift in opinion or support.
Keywords: Magic, Schools, Suffrage, CW- Misogyny, Charms
Review: I love how the story sets Edith up, older now and fairly bitten about the gatekeeping that kept her out of higher magical education despite being accepted for her magical innovations (and stripped because the university didn’t realize she was a woman). She’s been pushed back into a more “acceptable” role, into “woman’s magic” that includes charm making and the like. And it’s not that she’s bad at it, and not like she seems to hate it. It’s that it wasn’t her choice. What she wanted to do was go to school, to prove that she was not just good enough, but excellent. And she wasn’t able to. And now, years later, other people are able to get access to her dream. Not because they went through the same hoops as she did, proving that she was exceptional. They’re being let in because the universities need students, because a war has decimated the wizard population, and the universities need to “lower” their standards. So it’s not that people suddenly think that women are equal. It’s something different, something more twisted, and it puts Edith in this place of bitterness and anger, hurt and memory. And I really like how it sort sets up the uncertainty of what she’s going to do. She’s gathering ingredients. She’s getting ready to make some magic. And for me at least she still seems full of anger and isn’t sure where to direct it. Should she help these girls who are doing what she was denied? Should she strike out at them because they’ve taken her dreams? There are obviously “right” answers but the story does open up the absolute mess of what happens surrounding gatekeeping and loss and grief, gender roles and prejudice and pain. There’s the hope that she’ll be able to see beyond the way she’s been oppressed, held back. But that’s not a guarantee, and it’s a piece that feels real, as tragic as it might be, because in the wake of oppression there is always grief and anger, a rage that is never faced so long as there’s no attempt at true reparative justice. Not that the oppressed turning on the newly liberated is inevitable, but it’s something that is real, and yeah, fuck, a great read!

“Until Forgiveness Comes” by K. Tempest Bradford (2310 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a news article covering a ceremony/ritual following a terror attack on a transit hub, the story builds around not exactly what the event means to people, but what the ritual, the haitai, where the ghosts of the dead are invoked for the living to witness their final moments, means to the survivors and the world at large. It’s a complex and striking piece, weighing the desires of the survivors and families of the dead in honoring and remembering their loved ones against the wider implications of keeping the wound the attack represents open. Red Seteshday’s haitai is a lot of things to a lot of people, and the story takes a compassionate, complex looks at those things, at the ways that people grieve, move on, and linger following a tragedy.
Keywords: CW- Bombings, Ghosts, Rituals, Family, Grief
Review: I really like how the story sets things up in this rather removed fashion, through the supposed neutrality of a news article. And it does do a pretty good job of remaining pretty fair, I think, showing the perspectives of everyone touched by this ritual where people bring back essentially the echoes of the event, the ghosts of people, witnessing again every year how they died. I love the recognition that it’s a very loaded thing, that it’s different for different people. That for those grieving the loss of their loved ones, it’s both a comfort and a cage. A way to honor the dead but also a way of locking them into this single moment when they were made victims, in some ways erasing the rest of their lives by focusing on their deaths more than their lives. The ritual, the haitai, was never really meant to be used so many years, and yet people keep coming back to perform it for this tragedy. For some, it’s also keeping fresh the driving anger and resentment that followed the attack, the backlash against not just the specific group responsible but for anyone who falls in the same general religious/national identity. The parallels there seem aimed directly at linked this tragedy to the real life 9/11 attacks. And the ritual becomes the way that video footage and such are replayed every year. The names of the dead read, the stories told again and again. Something that isn’t just personal grieving, but part of a larger political push to stoke anger and hate, keeping violence alive, making it harder for people to reach out to reconcile and understand, to move on or heal. The piece is intense for being told in this more detached way, and I really like how it doesn’t condemn any “side” of the issue. Rather, it finds a whole lot of people who are hurt, who are broken by the violence, who aren’t really sure what they want, aside for the impossible. It shows a group brought together and kept apart because of this tragedy, and it presents it all in a vivid and evocative way, that prompts readers to examine not just what these people are doing, but why. And, for me, coming down on the idea that that, that the why, matters more than the what, and in the end the haitai might be simultaneous “right” and “wrong” and that, ultimately, there’s really no way to parse that any clearer. It’s a mess, but a beautifully human mess that I very much recommend you spend some time with. A fabulous read!


“He Should Marry the Daughter of the Angel of Death” by Sonya Taaffe

For me, so much of this poem rests on the title, on the idea and the image and the way it reads like a euphemism. Because within the poem the act of marrying the daughter of the angel of death seems to be, well...dying. Which for me speaks to the way that young men are sent off to die. In wars and conflicts, in unsafe working conditions, in all sorts of ways. Sent off to die like it was a celebration, as if they were gaining something for it, as if their reward for death is to be wed to this woman, this idea, this goddess. And she, their reward, doesn’t get a choice in the matter. There in the title as well is the way that it centers the decision of the man. He should marry her, not ask for her hand, not try and woo her. Just that he should do it, like it’s enough for him to decide it’s what he wants. Which, here, I mean, it is. If death and marriage are the same thing here, or if it’s only a certain kind of death, then similarly. And it’s hard for me to make out who the narrator might be. Not the daughter of the angel of death, who the narrator seems to be speaking to. The narrator entreats her, beckons, offers comfort perhaps, or an escape from that cycle of dead husbands, of men sent to her embrace. The narrator seems to offer something else, though, a kind of escape, outside the gaze of that angel of death, outside the need for her to marry each man who is sent to her. Outside of being a reward. The narrator seems to be someone who she can choose, who she steals time with, kisses. For me it speaks to her finding a mortal, a living person, who she wants to be with. And together they hope to live free of the death that comes along with her father, hiding from him by spending time surrounded by the dead, by burying their names and slipping free. For me it’s a piece that finds two people trying to escape the pressure to die, the expectation that they give themselves freely to the desire that they give their lives for their parents’ wishes, for a cause they don’t really care about. It’s an interesting and complex poem, and very much worth checking out! A great read!

“On Where to Find Strange Horizons, and How to Get There” by Julia Rios

This poem speaks to me of...trains? By which I mean that I love the way the trains are framed here, as vehicles and as a structure of people, as businesses and associations and tools. The piece speaks to division, to the ways that trains have been, to the pressure for trains to remain as they have been, building on the established and acceptable past, on a track forward, on and on as imagined by the architects, by those who lay down the track. Designed for the views they afford, for the places they go, but limited by the track. For those who don’t want to see what’s on the track, there’s a call to leave it all behind. For those who are invested in trains but want change, a different track, broadening horizons. For those who are invested in trains and obstinate, another track, singular, unable to be changed. The piece for me is wonderfully meta, the way that it evokes the publication in the title, the way it seems to speak to the ways that people interact and imagine SFF as a field. Dealing with gatekeeping and with conservative forces who don’t want change, who want to imagine the past as romantic, as storied, as the Good Old Days. Against those who want to recognize the forced labor of the train workers. Who want to push back against the institutional biases and injustices that have been committed. Against those who want to trash the whole system or leave it behind entirely, who see no way to reform a system that has acted so badly in the past and so advocate building something entirely new. It captures the way that any group, an field, any industry pushes forward. Weighing innovation and a reliance on the past. The work that was done and having to parse what the work really looked like, and who has been shut out of the conversation, who has been given too much space, and all of that. In the end, the piece imagines a hope coming to fruition, the engineers riding a train out into space. Still part of the same tradition, the same complicated mess that trains are, but moving in directions that are not bound to tracks. Aware of the past and not aiming to recreate it. It maintains momentum and values change by encouraging growth and new wonders, more joy. It’s a triumphant piece that seems to me to speak to the kind of work the publication can tried to do, and continues to do, thanks to people like the author and all those dedicated to pursuing strange horizons. A wonderful read!

“Stone Listening” by R.B. Lemberg

This piece speaks to me of time, of cycles, of exhaustion and transformation and time. The narrator begins as a sort of witness to the end of a world. Not in the most profound way but in the sense that everything is burning. Things are ending. There is ash, and there is loss. And in the face of that there is the sentiment that maybe nothing matters. That with that going on there’s no point to doing...basically anything. That the fire will burn it all into meaninglessness, into oblivion. Except that the fire won’t last either. And things written in the language of stones might last yet, the stones witnesses to change, able perhaps to chronicle in their fashion a story, a history--to catch a breath that will speak, however long it takes, in a future where people can once again listen and learn from it. The piece has such a great sense of time and of effort. The narrator goes through life a healer, a witness, capturing something real and growing around it, becoming a geode, the beauty of their inner world hidden away and protected in stone, waiting, waiting. Until a force opens them and they are seen. It definitely speaks to me of watching conflict, of balancing protecting the self and speaking out. Expressing something. And the piece moves in these profound and lovely cycles, touched with destruction and sinking, ascending, playing out over what feels like geological timescales, finally coming back, opening up, and always listening. Of waiting, but not necessarily never acting. Of being stone, but also alive, breathing, savoring that, surviving through the fires and the floods, the debts given and received. Carrying a record of all of it forward, a story in stone, in art. And it’s just a fantastic read that’s so worth really spending some time with!


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