Strange Horizons, as I wasn’t expecting a new Samovar. But here we are, and I’m certainly not complaining about the three stories and two poems that round out the two issues. As they come from essentially two different publications, there’s not a huge amount of thematic links between the issues, but they still all embody the kind of strange that both publications do so well. A complex and yearning weirdness that kinds people struggling to find their place in broken worlds. Clinging to rationalism or absurdity to make sense of it all or to reject that sense can exist at all. Add in some wonderful poetry and it makes for a great mix of short SFF. To the reviews!
“Ask Not What the Penguin Horde Can Do For You” by Noah Bogdonoff (4629 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a pinguino, a person who dresses up in a penguin suit and just sort of wanders the city. Alone or in hordes. A reminder, because penguins are extinct. A reminder and an inconvenience, because something should be, something should truly inconvenience people about the end of the world. Besides the weather. And the wars. The loss of resources. The rationing of energy. And the story follows the narrator through their days as a pinguino. The philosophy and the communal living, the brief moments of escape from it, the reasons that people are drawn to it. It’s a story that captures a great sense of using the absurd in the face of issues that logic has failed. The world is a dying place, and for all that some want to ignore that, others find more comfort and community in holding a kind of vigil for the world.
Keywords: Extinctions, Cities, Penguins, Queen MC, Employment, Climate Change
Review: I love how the story imagines the end of the world, a place so very very familiar, where most people just go on about their business, worker bees who look after their own needs and don’t really seem to think beyond that. Where pinguinos are there because they feel something has to be done. Not to stop what’s happening, because it can’t really be stopped. But to serve as a reminder to people of what’s been lost, of what humans have done to the planet. They spend most of their time wandering about, getting high, and otherwise living communally and with little for themselves. But it gives them...a purpose. And, perhaps most importantly, it gives them a sense of community and proximity. Something that it’s easy to lose in the world of the worker bees, where touch is taboo, where everything is distanced, remote. Both have a sense of isolation to them because both can do nothing about what’s happening to the planet. Their coping mechanisms are different, and in some ways it’s hard to tell which one seems...better. Certainly the worker bees have a better “standard of living” what with beds and pineapples. But the pinguinos have something, too, and perhaps it’s a more authentic access to the pain of what’s happening. Which, I mean, some might not view that as a good thing. But they can grieve, can express their pain and their despair and their loss and yeah, their hope too. Fragile as it is. Doomed as it is. There is a nearness that they seem to achieve that they also seem to lose at turns. But that they come back to. That allows them to feel like they’re doing something even when what they’re doing is waddling around a city at the end of the world. It’s haunting in some ways. And fucked up. But I also just love the feeling of it, the way the narrator tries and doesn’t know what to do but keeps trying, reaching out to people, being that reminder of what the world has lost. Because there should be a memorial. Something to show the wounds that everyone else is ignoring. It’s a powerful, wonderful read!
“20th Century Hotel” by Tomihiko Morimi, translated by Emily Balistrieri (3701 words)
No Spoilers: Heitaro is a rational young man, a child of the 20th Century and quite above belief in things like yokai or spirits. It gives him something of a superior attitude, one that his peers want to see him humbled for. He’s also rather unflappable, though, at least until he investigates the strange goings on in a modern (well, for 1915) hotel. The events are hard to explain from a rational viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that Heitaro doubts himself. Not, at least, until something happens that might just shake his faith. It’s an interesting story, tracing the outline of a relationship between spirituality and rationality, between the supposed progress of science and the hidden shadows of demons.
Keywords: Hotels, Yokai, Rationalism, Science, Progress, Illusions
Review: I love how Heitaro is kind of this asshole that no one likes, someone who believes so fully in the idea that the 20th Century means a Big Change which is in line with Japan’s global ambitions. The idea that the future lies with science and technology, a lot of that being military in nature. Despite all that Heitaro sees, too, he never really doubts that there’s a rational explanation to it, even in the face of overwhelming illusions. At the same time, his faith really is just that, faith in something other than a religion. Instead, his faith is in the idea of progress, in the promise of the 20th Century. And it’s an absolute faith that goes in the face of the reality that he can observe. For me, he doesn’t believe the illusions not because he knows why they aren’t real, but because he’s already decided they can’t be real. And when he meets a yokai, his reaction is the same. To deny it. To declare it can’t exist. Only...there is a line between rationalism and something more extreme. He doesn’t try to explain what’s happening, is really just observing and denying. Denial being sort of the whole point of the story for me. Because while it comes with a certain kind of power, it can’t ultimately make up for really engaging with what’s going on and being open to all possibilities, even those that might seem impossible or supernatural. And I love how the yokai drives that home, how they are able to push that doubt into Heitaro’s heart, when nothing else seemed able to. By showing him the truth. the truth of a world and time where people didn’t grapple enough with the ethics of technology. Where progress was seen as good even when it was engaged in evil. The yokai shows Heitaro the future, and Heitaro still denies it. Only that denial won’t make the future not come to be. Rather, that denial will ensure that it does, because it will be an abdication from having to deal with the ways that progress is a loaded word, that technology brings more than just more convenience and ease. And it makes for a wonderful read!
“Express to Beijing West Railway Station” by Congyn ‘Mu Ming’ Gu, translated by Kiera Johnson (4283 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story finds himself without a ticket for the train he’s on, which is a strange situation for him. Stranger still is the train station he gets out at, and growing sense that he’s a lot farther from home than he thinks. Because it turns out he somehow boarded a train to a kind of nexus of space and time, one that might allow him to switch tracks, both literally and figuratively. But the idea of changing one significant thing in your life is one that comes with a lot of baggage. On the one hand, everyone has regrets, things they might wish they had done differently. On the other hand, conventional wisdom is to be careful what you wish for. The piece explores the narrator’s decision, and where they end up in the grand train map of the possible universes.
Keywords: Trains, Tickets, Diaries, Regrets, Alternate Realities
Review: This story takes a bunch of neat SFF elements and combines them in a compelling way. Trains, for one, which have a great history in SFF and in literature in general. Time travel, of a sort at least. Accidental travel, at the very least, and finding that you’ve sort ofo blundered into a place that seems impossible. A destination that defies expectations and, a bit at least, logic. Because it’s a place you don’t seem able to get to when you want to. You don’t choose to board that train. You can only take it by accident, it seems, or else only when you’re lost. When you need it. For the narrator, it comes at a time when he’s largely unhappy with his life. His work is thankless and he’s alone. He finds that when he’s asked to sort of record his life so that the train can bring him back to his home reality, he has a lot of regrets. And he’s told that he doesn’t have to go back to the same reality. Which for me is that kind of promise of a wish that is so dangerous. Because there’s no guarantee that by changing any one thing, he’s be any happier. Something could go wrong or it might lead to wildly unforeseen things that would make the decision a new and rather intense regret. Luckily for the narrator, that’s not what happens, and he is indeed able to change his track and be happy with it. And then, much later, he gets another chance. And here’s where I think the story makes a lot of its point about change, about tracks. Because we can always basically imagine a better track for ourselves. But the ending finds the narrator interrogating his life and realizing that he doesn’t want to try, because it would risk and erase what he has now. Even if a part of him can’t escape whatever reality he’s leaving, it still means the conscious part of himself won’t be there anymore. And while that was a good deal before, the second time around it’s not. And I like that it implies that we need to be always examining if we’re happy and what we want, keeping track of that, because if we’re unhappy enough to take to switch tracks, we probably have to take it on ourselves to do that rather than hoping on a magical and time/reality-bending train. A great read!
“Marbles” by Aber O. Grand
This poem tells a rather coherent story, the narrator a person born with what would be considered severe birth defects, probably because their father was the first to enter a certain region of space, and that somehow changed him without anyone knowing. Which means the narrator is similarly changed. No arms or legs. No eyes. But with the ability to levitate, and with the ability to see through the eyes of others, or to use electronic eyes. Still, they are not treated well by their parents, at least not after their second attempt at a child, one who looked more “normal,” disappeared from their inside their mother. After that, the narrator is given to the government, who gives them less freedom, less tools to see, and subjects them to experiments. It’s not exactly a great time, though the narrator seems to live on a bit different scale as other people. Eventually they seem to hear from the sister who disappeared, who seems to be somewhere else and definitely not “normal.” And it’s a weird piece, about a character who is betrayed, who is hurt by the world. And who, through a bit of help, seems to be brought outside of the world. Brought to a place of entirely different scales, able to see the whole of the universe. And the ending is to me kind of grim, kind of creepy. I mean, at the same time it’s something of a release, the narrator brought outside, able to bit free from the restrictions put on them. And taught to play marbles with their sister. But given the imagery that game of marbles might be something other than a straightforward game. It might be played with planets. Which for me gives the piece something of a “you never know who is going to have power over your life and death” because here this person who has been discarded, abused by society, is made something of a god. And in that it’s a weird, spark read, about a being who only wanted to be accepted, who finds that, but not in the way they expected, or exactly wanted, but in a way they’ll embrace all the same. An interesting read and well worth spending some time with!
“[ my favorite tree as a child was mangrove ]” by and translated by Wenmimareba Klobah Collins
This piece speaks to me of a kind of home feeling, the narrator relating their tree growing up but also capturing in that the feeling of that growing up. The images of leaping from the mangrove into water, climbing its branches, having it as a kind of mysterious companion. A presence in the water, an oasis. A bulwark again the outside, a protective shield. The piece casts the mangroves as mobile, as something like sentient giants, ents, their bodies shifting with the tides, pulling forward and shifting back. Appearing, disappearing, but according to their own wills and whims. Protecting, among other things, a sense that the natural world still had its secrets and its mysteries, that there were things that humans hadn’t stripped from nature, that were still held in a kind of common understanding of mutual benefit. Of course, the piece also seems to imply that there’s been an erosion of that (ironic, given how mangroves protect against erosion, and perhaps doubly ironic because disturbing and removing mangroves has a tendency to release heavy metals and other contaminants into the water and environment that the trees were holding in check. And I love the way the story melds the nostalgia of youth with the more pressing and adult worries and knowledge. The recognition that time has largely estranged the narrator for the trees and what the trees represent. The mangroves seem more absent here, the loss not just of natural importance but supernatural importance as well, a magic that has faded, that kept the world a bit greener, a bit healthier. It captures a lot about the narrator’s childhood and where they’ve gone from there, now looking back with a spot of regret, a spot of loss. And it’s definitely a poem worth some time and attention. A fine read!