Friday, December 18, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 12/07/2020 & 12/14/2020

I’m winding my way toward my final continuous comprehensive review of Strange Horizons. It’s…I have a lot of emotions about it, because Strange Horizons was I think the very first publication I regularly followed. The first I submitted work of my own to. I’ve reviewed every issue either here at QSR or when I reviewed at Tangent since November 2014. In that time I think it has been my favorite short SFF venue, going purely on how many of its works have ended up on my recommended reading lists. I am still definitely going to follow this publication, which has become a leader in exactly the kind of short SFF I want to read more of. It has pushed SFF in translation, has championed special issues, and has generally just been the kind of venue that embodies the work I love seeing in the field. These issues is no different, offering up a pair of stories and poems that shine with their creativity and heart. They are complex, they are beautiful, and I will with a flurry of conflicting emotions, get to my reviews!


“Renovation of a Finite Apartment” by Toby MacNutt (2678 words)

No Spoilers: This story follows a kind of inmate in a kind of prison, though it might just look like a human going out their business, renovating their living space. They used to be something else, though, something not just of flesh and blood, and this new state, with its home and its walls and its helpful AI roommate, might be something of a punishment. A way to put limits on what used to be limitless. For all the narrator’s handlers have taken pains to keep them in this way, though, there’s something in the flesh that they’re discovering that is no less limitless than their former self. And through memory and through these small acts of changing their space, they are reaching for something, for someone, they have lost. It’s a strange but moving story about bodies and space.
Keywords: Transformations, Infinite, AIs, Limitations, Punishments
Review: I love how the story shows the narrator dealing with this huge transformation, going from something basically infinite, an everything, to becoming a singular human, a person with these limitations. And slowly, though, coming to terms with that, getting through the loss of what’s happened, and finding their way back to the infinite, to an everything, perhaps not in the same fact as they were, but in a way no less profound. Through imagining. Through experience. And along the way there is this wonderful relationship they have with their AI roommate, the way the two of them are helping each other be independent and work towards something like happiness. Control, at the least, and occupation in the form of hobbies, games. Food and stories and all sorts of ways they can fit together. It’s a friendship that doesn’t seem to replace what the narrator has lost, but is important to them all the same, something that they have, that connects them, that reminds them that they are part of something bigger than themself. The story is quiet, mostly, the narrator in many ways broken by what’s happened, by how they are limited. They are raw, not really understanding how to be human, learning through their interactions with others, through their rebellions that seem be part of a pattern of rebellion that led to them getting into trouble in the first place. But they’re not done, not counted out. They might be effectively imprisoned, but despite the finite nature of their new situation, they are beginning to see the infinite in themself, and in the future. They are discovering hope, and that’s a truly powerful tool. A fantastic read!

“Alhaji Jerry” by ML Kejera (5613 words)

No Spoilers: This story, narrated by formless creatures that live in the mouseholes of a family’s apartment, follows Fatou, a refugee settled outside of her home country because of a dictator, and her family as they deal with the arrival into their home of a mouse. A mouse who is a bit different for everyone who seems them. Who is something of a trickster, something of a memory, something of a hope that might ultimately be futile. But through the mouse, the family comes together over stories, remembering something from their pasts and holding onto connections back to their home country that are slipping through their fingers. The piece is quiet, revolving in cycles, a fable as dreamed by a family and contextualized by these beings in the walls, educators, imparting a lesson of hope in part, yes, but mostly of loss.
Keywords: Stories, Mice, Diaspora, Family, Dictators
Review: I love the way the story is captured by what is almost the manifestation of magic. The magic that connections Fatou and her family to her home, the magic of the stories that she was told as a child, the magic of a culture that now has been suppressed, excised, and exiled. Fatou keeps what she can alive but it’s not enough, not against the allure of other cultures, Americanization, and the hurt that comes from memory. The stories that her children tell really underline the realities they live with, the ways the boys have lost and in many ways rejected their history because of the pain of it, because loss isn’t something they really want, and it’s most of what’s been left for them, for all there are still other things, the magic that is slowly draining from them. Magic cannot undo the damage, though, can’t give them any comfort or anything tangible in the face of the very real tragedy lurking like a shadow over their pasts, their family’s past. Even the mother and the child from the homeland can only hold to so much, can only tell the same stories over and over again in isolation before it comes to feel hollow, before the stories lose whatever original lessons they had and are wounds instead. And so the stories are put away. And while they all might remember a hint of them--while this mouse reminds them all of a kind of shared storytelling, it’s something that still ends in tragedy. It’s not enough to push back against the reality of dictators, of corruption, of tens of thousands cast out into a diaspora that might never come back together again. I love the way the story moves, the repetition and the differences, what it says about each person. It’s sharp as it is compassionate, funny as it is heartbreaking, and I definitely recommend checking it out. A wonderful read!


“Three Triolets” by Anna Cates

It’s not super often that I see formal poetry like this show up, and these three triolets are formal in their structure and all see to touch on other works, creating a kind of meta-fictional web that recur in threes, playing with the structure of the poems and drawing them into a unified whole. At least, for me, the piece is both one and three poems, most of them directly referencing a different work of poetry or prose or drama. The first takes on The Dark Tower but uses Shakespeare to hold the opening quote. The second looks at Sleeping Beauty and draws in Yeats, the last looks at a double-shot of Shakespeare’s fae, though might also look more generally at that idea and tradition. For me, the work as a whole and in its separate parts works as part homage, part complication, part subversion. The language is strange, dreamlike in places, building a feel for me of myth, of fairy tale, weaving together these touches of magic and shadow, innocence cut by something sharp and unseen. There are returns of children on quests, children imperiled, magic that seems to draw out of the natural world but is also beneath that, through that, and while there is certainly beauty to be found in the poetry, there’s a danger as well. Fae magic, that rarely intersects well with mortality. Witchcraft armed with thorn and wine. A tower with a promise of adventure that might be much more than it seems. I really like the way the poems all draw this in and then leave, their brevity setting the scene without resolving the situations. These are panes on a viewfinder, each one presenting this compelling still, begging for exploration, but leaving it to the reader to add movement and to fill out the scene into something larger. It’s a strange but compelling effect, and I think it’s definitely a work to spend some time with!

“A training session” by Brigid Nemeton

This poem is framed, as its title sets up, as a training exercise. One where at least one person is being trained in telepathy. And it’s a strange but wonderful flow of words, of thoughts, as teacher and student merge, as their minds touch, as their voices move. The poem is structured so that it might be that each layer of the piece, each tab from baseline, represents a different person inside the same experience. But it’s also possible that there’s only two people, and the different levels are in some ways the different levels of their minds merging, that the further in it goes the more they are kind of dissolving into each other, becoming a single thing, a gestalt, greater than the sum and different but made up of two formerly distinct people, minds, experiences. And I just love the way this piece explores that kind of thing, telepathy, the boundaries between people and their minds, the ways that people can sort of learn how to do this, the ways that they let the walls around themselves come down. It’s a neat piece, structurally, too, for the reasons I listed and because I love that this is a conversation in some way between...a person and themself? Two aspects of the same whole? Like, there’s a teacher and a student but how separate are they, how much do they become each other, lost in each other, and how much of that is because the student isn’t as experienced? Or...can someone doing this even be inexperienced, because they stop being distinct? It’s such a fascinating experience, and one that plays so well with the idea of telepathy as a speculative element, yes, but also the way people are separate and not, the ways that we all come to know one another, become intimate, and it all just works together in this fun, slightly flirty, entirely enjoyable way. A fantastic read!


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