|Art by Thais Leiros|
Strange Horizons’ September kicks off with two new issues with two new poems, a new short story, and a novelette, on top of the usual amazing nonfiction that I don’t cover but definitely recommend. And the pieces are indeed Strange! And…horizon…y. They look at the borders of things, the sort of uncertainty that makes reality malleable, that leaves people broken, alone, their worlds shattered by a casual violence, by the presence of something hungry and stark, mechanical and merciless. The works are unsettling and yearning, and the poetry is (as usual) challenging and wonderful. Once more the publication more than lives up to its name, and I’ll try and do likewise with some reviews!
“Color, Heat, and the Wreck of the Argo” by Catherynne M. Valente (9199 words)
No Spoilers: Johanna finds an old camera at an estate sale. One that piques her interest as a collector, as a photographer and videographer. A relic. And one with perhaps a dark secret, if the first images she sees through its viewfinder are anything to go by. But it’s compelling all the same, a bit of magic that she doesn’t really know what to make of. That she doesn’t know what to do with. But that ends up taking over her life. The piece is strange and intense, punctuated by the power of the camera, the scenes it captures and reports back. The piece is creeping, sinking, with moments of light but really a kind of fatalistic take on life, and on Johanna’s power to turn away from the horror she finds.
Keywords: Cameras, Queer MC, Obsessions, Sight, Turning Points
Review: The idea of a magic camera is an interesting one, and from the first vision through it the story sort of settles into the wonder and the horror of the situation. It’s not always an easy read in that respect, as there are some very visceral and violent moment, but I think that really gets at why the camera has this draw. Because I think for me a big part is how the story shows the gravity of pain and tragedy. The camera is strange, haunted, and it shows these moments when a life seems to narrow, when it turns a corner and it’s like the other options fall away. From that moment on, it’s like there’s a track leading to something Bad, and there doesn’t seem to be a way for the people to get off, to turn away. Sometimes the moments seem entirely benign, completely random. Playing a game. Visiting an estate sale. But they hold a great deal of power, as well, and for Johanna at least it seems like that pull is too strong. Which sort of speaks to the power of negative imagery, of what is essentially doomscrolling. Johanna doesn’t want to be doing it, really. She knows intellectually that she shouldn’t, that she should turn away, that she should learn from all of this and try to live a happier, more fulfilling life. But she also gets something from it. Something thrilling, maybe, or at least a sense of power from being this witness, from being able to see these things play out. She’s stuck in the way that she can watch it all detached from herself, where she can be this voyeur of everyone else’s worst day. And in that way it seems to reinforce itself, giving itself strength because in getting hit off of each new experience, each new doom, it becomes that much more difficult to break free. Further, now that she knows she’s already passed her own moment, her own turn, breaking away would destroy her theory, her idea of how this must operate. She commits herself to a vision of the world where she’s already lost, and in doing that, she guarantees it. And it’s just a creepy story, chilling and intense and sad in some sharp ways. A great read!
“12 Worlds Interrupted by the Drone” by Fargo Tbakhi (5224 words)
No Spoilers: This story unfolds in a fractured way, revealing twelve worlds that might be the same worlds, that might be parallel worlds, that might be our world. All centering a city and a people and a Drone. A Drone who comes and destroys. And unsettles. And through the various narratives, the various worlds, what becomes clear is that this place has a history. Has a past. And that past is being broken by the Drone. Severed. So that the people have to face an uncertain future. One where the city is irrevocably changed, made different, and in some ways made inhospitable for the people. It plays out in different ways, but the constants of the cycle don’t really change. The persistence of the drone, the powerlessness of the city. The loneliness, the vulnerability, the aching lack. It’s a difficult, at times surreal, at times lyrical read, haunting and oh so good.
Keywords: Drones, Deserts, Customs, Queer MC, Cities
Review: I love the way the story has been fractured, the different worlds shards of a mirror reflecting our how, blown out by a drone strike on a desert city. The characters are all stuck in moments of confrontation, their lives interrupted by the drone, though here it is by the specter of the drone, by the shadow of it, the presence of it. It floats, it lingers, it cuts through. Characters expect a blast that doesn’t come. Whether or not the drone is carrying or guiding explosives, though, the threat it represents is the larger force it carries. The randomness, the utter devastation that it can bring. The characters and the city are all shaped by the terror the drone provokes, by the way it gets in the way of their lives, the way it takes away their comfort, their privacy, their dignity. The drone is a messenger without a message, a predator that doesn’t operate on any kind of logic that it’s easy to see. For the characters, for especially the Boy, the Drone seems to be a living nightmare. A force that is taking his world, his way of life. That is leaving him no where to go and no where to be. And it’s that sense of loneliness, of isolation even in a city, that really speaks to me and to how I see the Drone. It’s shadow covering everything, pushing people to leave their city, to pick up roots that cannot be fully picked up. To transplant to some unknown, nebulous space that might be better, that must be better because anything outside the Drone’s range must be better, only there’s a lie there as well, because what is really outside it’s range? And the sense of disconnection that happens through it all is so well done, showing that this Drone, which becomes everything to the Boy, to the story, seems so wholly removed from anyone on the other end. To a pilot. To a person. It’s just a Drone. The Drone. Which at the same time renders faceless the threat of annihilation and the Boy and the rest of the city, the Drone an intermediary between two places, one of which is never seen. So that the Drone takes on a life of its own, all the while the story pushes the reader to confront the questions of where it comes from and why it’s there. What it’s doing when all it seems to do is shatter everything. It’s a difficult and complex read, aching and raw, but also amazing, with a poetic flare and a wonderful sense of distance and weirdness. Definitely spend some time with this one!
“Trust Your Eyes” by Bethany Powell
This poem reads a bit like a warning, a bit like a promise. A spot of advice as the narrator tells their son about what he might expect growing into this world. If it’s our world or another isn’t explicitly stated, through whatever the case there is a feel of a time before most modern technology, when there was more space, when travel by horse was more common. And I really like the world building that the piece manages, painting the picture of this harsh world, this landscape that is full of death, full of danger, full of darkness that can coalesce sometimes into shapes more solid than shadows. The narrator is speaking from experience, from a life long, at least by the standards of the time and place, where people can easily be gobbled up by the things they don’t want to see. And I like the advice given, in part because it’s something that goes against a lot of advice that pops up in horror, which is what the poem seems to be bordering. In a lot of horror, the emphasis is on not trusting yourself, not trusting what you’re seeing, because it might be illusory, because it might be a lie. And that speaks to the horror of not knowing what’s real and what’s not, not being able to tell treat from safety. Here, however, the horror is less grounded in that uncertainty. To put it bluntly, the reality of the situation is horrifying enough, the creatures that the narrator is speaking about very much needing to be seen, needing to be accounted for, because missing the small variations in what you’re seeing can easily lead to your death. Just like missing the colors on a snake can lead to some not good times, here missing the ways that otherwise normal creatures...aren’t right is what will make the difference between living old enough to be old and...not. And I really just like the feel and execution of the poem, short but with a lot of weight and world building behind it. A great read!
“Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London” by Jenny Blackford
This piece reveals a natural history museum touched by magic and myth. The piece is exactly what it says it is, listing exhibits that never were, but that still capture the spirit of the enterprise, of the practice, of the idea of natural history museums, especially how they’ve boomed and sustained themselves largely through colonialism and theft and violence. Because, while on one level the poem is almost whimsical, on another it is decidedly not. Because yes, magic! Fun! But also, like, taking a moment to dig into the specifics of each exhibits finds a whole lot of grimness. Stuff that’s rather typical of museums, really, and especially popular exhibits, but also, like, that also seems to be a big part of the point to me. That really the whole practice of museums is built on a lot of messed up shit, and it’s all built out of displacing history, taking it from wherever it was from, and placing it in this new context that is aimed at people not necessarily connected to the artifacts. It becomes a kind of tourism without having to leave home, but it’s even more complex than that, because most places welcome tourism, and most places do not appreciate their history being taken and put on display elsewhere. For British museums especially there is the shadow of how those exhibits ended up in the museum, and what the responsibility is of the museum towards the history it claims to value, protect, and promote. And the poem does this through these bits of magic. Dead beasts and other bits of cryptozoology and beyond. Weaving a picture of a natural world with some deep shadows, and with some holes that humans have made by using the magic of the world to hunt and otherwise exploit...the magic of the world, creating something of a snake eating its own tail, something beautiful that has been twisted to conquest, destruction, and spectacle. The exhibits seem intended to provoke awe and wonder, an appreciation of the natural (or supernatural) forms while also sort of painting this patriotic/nationalist picture of the UK and its place as guardian and protector...even of those things who want nothing to do with the kind of guarding or protecting on offer. And even through all of that it still is a fun read, lively and with a wonderful visual element and wonderfully built from myth, legend, and lore. A fantastic way to close out the issues!