Strange Horizons bring one short story and two poems out for our reading enjoyment. The story is heavy, and mind the content warnings on this one, but it’s also a lovely mix of mystery and horror as a young woman looks for clues about her brother’s disappearance. The poetry brings…not exactly a lighter mood to the issues, as it’s some challenging and sometimes grim work. But it does tie into the themes of hope in the story, hard as they might be to reach for. That while many wounds cannot be erased, the situations can be revised, the outcomes turned away from solely tragedy and given new life. To the reviews!
“Bitter Soil” by Cat Aquino (4177 words)
No Spoilers: Juana’s brother, Manuel, has gone missing. Which is more than just a mystery, it’s a very real threat. He was working at the local hacienda, owned by colonizers, and he mostly supported the family. Now it’s on Juana to do likewise, working in the kitchens and trying just to have enough to eat. Survival is a loaded thing in a colonized place, though, especially one simmering with tensions. Juana might not intend to get in the middle of it all, but to find out what happened to her brother, and maybe to avenge her, there’s a lot she would do. The piece is tinged with tragedy and violence, and people should be aware the content warnings here, but it’s also a quietly magical piece about justice, a subtle historical fantasy that packs quite the punch.
Keywords: Family, Employment, CW- Lynching, CW- Abuse/Beatings, CW- Rape (attempted), Resistance, Fruit
Review: This is a rather unsettling read about loss and injustice. About colonization and the wounds it leaves, the corruption it allows to sprout and grow, bearing fruit that smell and taste (and cause) death. Juana’s situation is fragile, and yet for most of her life she’s happy. It’s a happiness informed by circumstance, though, where there is abundance all around her and yet despite it being the fruit of the land, it belongs to another. Has been stolen from the local people by a foreign invader. Her family works and works and yet there is never quite enough, and the system is like that by design, to not even allow them to survive but for some of them killing themselves to provide for the rest. The beneficiaries are the colonizers, who exploit that labor to enrich themselves, and who severely punish any who step out of line. Juana enters that world, enters the hacienda, in order to try and provide for her family and find out what happened to her brother, but both things are caught up in the messy and violent realities of the place and the system. That can’t allow for the locals to be safe, or secure, or satisfied. That only works so long as they are starving, beaten, abused. Such systems, though, that operate by violence, can only ever end in violence. It’s a lesson that in many ways Juana doesn’t want to be true, because violence touches people, changes them. But in her world violence seems unavoidable, and it makes victims of everyone. The piece is haunting, defined around the loss, the absence of Manuel, around the potential he had, the potential that all these people who fought and died for their freedom had. Potential stolen by invaders. So when Juana finds a way to take it back, to take back her own potential and that of the rest of those being killed by the hacienda, she does just that, and while it’s not something to be happy about, exactly, it is a triumph, and a revolution. A great read!
“Plump Rat” by Michael Chang
This piece definitely has a lot of energy, at least to my reading, the lines coming out in quick jabs and sharp turns, stream of consciousness mainly but perhaps, given the media and idea evoked, it’s something a little different than that. Stream of consciousness takes the idea that these things are just...associated in the mid, that one leads to the other in some way and I feel that yeah, that’s at work here, but there’s also elements I feel of, like, scrolling through social media. Seeing the things that are being grouped by topic or by time, grouped probably by an AI trying to game your preferences, the preferences of the narrator, in order to create something that seems like stream of consciousness, that seems like random leaps, but actually is a bit more designed in nature, streamlined, not leading toward a destination exactly but endless onramps and off ramps, trying to keep the narrator as engaged as possible, at turns amused and outraged, tired and offended, excited and salty, all of these things new provocations, new reasons to engage, to dive back into the swirling mass that is the social media doomscroll, engaging with other people, with celebrities, with political figures, all of it right there before the narrator’s eyes, all of it within reach, at the touch of a like, an @, all of it building together into this poem which feels to me part map, part rant, part series of observations. And I wish I could figure out where the title fits into that, because it’s such a striking thing. Is it slang? A meme? Just a spot of nonsense, an image that occurred? Even without that context, though, I like the feeling of the work, the flow of it, the way it moves and the way it sounds. It’s a fun read, one that provides a lot to look into, to see, to draw connections between and conclusions from. And it’s great read that’s definitely worth spending some time with!
“The Revisionist” by Michael Bazzett
This work speaks to me of damage, of...not healing, exactly. But a kind of magic. The magic of revision. And I love the way this speaks to art, speaks to the physical act of marking a document, a text, a story. The act of altering a bit of art, making it into something else. Like a tattoo artist tasks with turning Mickey Mouse into a dragon. A name into flames. The piece speaks to the fact that the original isn’t erased. It’s not that the first thing goes away. In this case, it means that the people still remember being shot. Might remember dying. And there’s no way for the narrator to “fix” that. At the same time, I’m not sure exactly if it would be fixing it. Because...because in a revision, there is a certain amount of power in the full map of what has happened. Yes, it’s better for these people to live. To undo the death that the bullets cause. To take away the wounds. The trauma, though, that remains, and there’s still a punctuation at that moment. Just one that’s transformed from the end point to a pause. I love the way the narrator thinks of it, taking the period and transforming it into a comma. changing so much in so seemingly small an action. And I am just caught on how the piece captures the power and the limitations that the narrator has. The ability to alter so very much but at the same time unable to pretend that it’s not an alteration. It’s a mark, a...correction. The result is better, but there is a record of what happened. A memory. A sense that something profound has happened. In many ways that’s the power of revision, that it gives a second chance to a situation, to a piece of art. Allows it to grow out from the first draft. To become something different. Hopefully something more meaningful, more powerful, more moving. But even if not, even if the result is somehow lesser, it’s a new text. A new life that’s been given, and the poem captures that well, holds it, and leaves it with the reader to carry on. A wonderful read!