Friday, October 16, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 10/05/2020 & 10/12/2020

Art by Helen Mask
The first two issues of October Strange Horizons bring the regular two short stories and two poems, but (as always) it’s rather difficult to call them “regular.” Except that (as always) the quality is high, the emotions are shook, and the experience is, well, strange. From extra eyeballs growing all over a person’s body to time travel that’s not really time travel, from surveys about being a dragon to the pitfalls of recommendations, the works cover a lot of ground. Fantasy. Science fiction. Some breathtaking poetry. There’s a lot to get to, a lot to enjoy, and probably a lot to kinda low key cry about, so I’ll get right to the reviews!


“Scallop” by J.L. Akagi (4313 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has started growing eyes. Little eyes. In places on her body where eyes don’t typically grow. It’s a world where transformations aren’t entirely uncommon, where the narrator has seen a boy become an asp, where a friend of theirs has become a duck. And in both those cases the transformations seemed to come from harassment, from abuse. Something that the narrator might know all too well, as she faces being the only woman in an office full of men, as she has worked as a dancer at a strip club, as she’s a queer woman and exists. At first she tries to hide the eyes, to deal with them in secret, but at some point that becomes...increasingly unlikely. And the piece is tense, complex, full of a sense of dread and a deep tired at the weight the narrator carries always, that everyone carries in a society where a lot of people don’t have an expectation of safety.
Keywords: Eyes, Transformations, Queer MC, Offices, CW- Harassment
Review: I really like how the story mentions COVID, not because it’s topical (though of course it is) but because I feel it works so well into the themes of the story, the weights that people carry, the ways that many people aren’t safe, can’t feel safe, and how hard that is to deal with. Because in so many ways COVID has become yet another way of taxing the marginalized, of using this disease to further push people out, to put it on them the burden of not only dealing with systemic anti-queer hate, with racism, with misogyny--but also the ways those things intersect the terrible virus response in many places. A response that has emphasized “the economy” and “jobs” without thinking about what that means. It means that some people can afford to stay home. And some people can afford to work from home. And some people can feel like the virus is something that would just pass them over. That it would just be a cold. That it’s not an issue. For other people, though, staying home isn’t possible. Not working isn’t possible. They are blamed for both not wanting to get sick and not being able to afford doing what would be best in trying to stay safe. And it just adds one more thing on top of everything else, and I love how the story captures that, that feel, that anxiety and fear and insecurity. And how it shows the beauty of the narrator revealing herself fully to her partner. The vulnerability and the need and the way that with this person at least it’s safe. Safe to let down all of the defenses that are otherwise necessary to get through the day. And it’s a freeing and wonderful moment, even as it’s a recognition that these coping mechanisms, these armors, have been built from the earliest times in a person’s life, because from even that young it’s obvious the pressures to conform, obvious what society writ large wants and values. And it’s a careful, lovely read that you should definitely spend some time with!

“A Layer of Catherines” by Elisabeth R. Moore (2901 words)

No Spoilers: Catherine is desperate to build a time machine. Not because she is trying to escape the present, and not exactly because there’s something in the past that she needs to do. Rather, it’s because there’s something in the past _she’s already done_, and she needs to make sure that still happens. Which means she needs to finish her time machine in time to be that person, okay, this is a little bit complicated. But so are all time travel stories, really. turns out that this really isn’t a time travel story anyway. And what Catherine was so such she needed to do...well, it’s still rather complicated. But it’s also a great twist on the idea, turning Catherine’s drive into one towards a confrontation, a meeting, rather than what she thought it was. And in the end there’s a kind of understanding, and relief, that makes for a satisfying resolution.
Keywords: Family, Time Travel, Alternate Dimensions, CW- Guns
Review: I love how the story takes on time travel without really taking on time travel at all. That what Catherine sees and what she thinks aren’t exactly what’s been happening. That yes, she saw herself save her sister when they were both younger. That yes, without that intervention her sister would have died. But it also wasn’t her that saved her sister. And when she finally does build the machine she thinks will take her back through time, it turns out it’s more of a reality-hopping machine than a time machine. And she gets to meet the version of herself that saved her sister. I love how the story handles that, the mix of relief and anger that the narrator feels at learning the truth. Because the truth might be that she wanted to be the one who saved her sister. To prevented her life from missing that connection, that person who will always be with her, will always be in her corner. Because the truth is she gave up a lot to be the one to do it, to discover this way to step through time. Got kicked out of MIT. Spent years and years of her life relentlessly pursuing this one thing. And she can’t have it. It might be easy to think of it as a waste. And yet the story doesn’t settle there, instead showing the narrator how she has saved herself, how she has saved her sister. How if it hadn’t been this other version of herself, she would have done the same thing. To save others from that fate. And now, yeah, she doesn’t have to, but it does mean something that she tried, that she went a ways down the same path, and discovered that she didn’t need to. That the role was already full. Which leaves her to be more fully in her own world. More able to enjoy the time with her sister that this other her bought. And it’s a warm and freeing story in that, showing that none of this was wasted. None of it useless. That, if nothing else, she got to thank the woman who saved her sister. Got to make that connection, recognize the full truth of it, and could finally move forward, and on. It’s a neat and fun story, and definitely worth checking out!


“Dragon Questionnaire” by Lesley Wheeler

This poem speaks to me of anger, of loss, of knowing that the world is going to hell, and being caught between so many conflicting feelings. I also...I think it’s hilarious, sad, and fascinating how the piece introduces itself, as a questionnaire but also with this note that “it is ideal” to basically try not to think about all the intersections at work here. To pretend, in effect, that you can separate out different things that are rather linked. Think about things in isolation when of course that doesn’t work. Ignore what might be going on around you, the dangers you might be facing daily, the atmosphere of intimidation, threat. Pretend in some ways that this is a thought experiment rather than a very intimate set of questions. And I love how some of the options offer no real choice, no real way of marking anything but one answer. Even when more answers are possible, the choices are given in binary. Not always opposing, but always just the two choices. It makes for a limited array of options. But perhaps it is enough. Because perhaps in recognizing that this is what is being asked, that people constantly discount their own world, their own experiences, the ways that they are oppressed and hurt, the poem takes the binary options of a questionnaire and twists them. Makes them into something other than an either or. Though there’s only an A and B, the options seem to me to represent something larger. A rejection of the kind of faux-civil objectivity that the questionnaire kinda asks for in the preamble. To me the piece is about rejecting violence but not power. About embracing power, becoming dragons in order to break free and tear down corrupt systems, to write in answers instead of accepting the false binary presented by those invested in those corrupt systems. And it’s a wonderful read!

“Recommendation” by Stephanie Jean

This is a very short and, well, rather odd poem that evokes a work called _The Story of the Eye_, and seems to set up this situation where the work has been recommended from one person to another. Which, I mean, it’s an interesting set up because of how sexually loaded the work is (if Wikipedia is anything to go by) and how the relationship between the recommender and recommendee seems to be. At least, for me, a whole lot hinges on that relationship, and what’s it’s like, for one to recommend this particular book. Couched in academia, the poem for me seems to imply that the book is recommended by a mentor to a mentee, something that at its surface seems...wildly inappropriate. A kind of harassment, a kind of solicitation. A way for the mentor to gauge how the mentee might take both the work and the recommendation. For me, it opens up this uncomfortable space because this is not a neutral work, and unless the two are engaged in work in just this sort of thing, recommending this out of the blue isn’t free from a bit of pressure, a bit of innuendo. And I feel like this sort of thing is always a kind of red flag, a kind of testing out of boundaries, where the mentor is trying to get to talk about sex, perhaps to segue into some other, more direct and overt propositions or situation. And because the power difference between the two, because it’s a mentor and mentee, then it’s getting into some really squiky territory. The mentee is stuck either rejecting the recommendation or reading the book. Both are loaded, because the rejection can mean the mentor is less generous, is less kind, withdraws support in a way that will be difficult or damaging. But accepting the recommendations means having to navigate further, means having to get into this quasi-grooming situation and Oh Boy that’s some fucked up shit, but fucked up shit that can and does happen, especially in English and lit programs where reading materials can be seens as “safe,” where making a recommendation doesn’t seem like harassment. But it is. And yeah, a great poem well worth spending some time with!


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