|Art by Matt Davis|
"The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon (14000 words)
Okay so the character work in this story is delightful. The setting, the same as used in "Jackalope Wives," is a bit of a weird Western mixed with magic realism elements, all spun into something strange and wonderful. But yeah, it's the characters that sell this for me, from Grandma Harken to the coyote to the mule to Anna to everyone. Each person (and animal) has its own voice, sometimes figuratively and (perhaps more often) literally. And they are charming, selling the idea of the place, the various strange elements harmonized in their banter, in their wit and their wry stubbornness. The story is in some ways about an old woman defending her home and setting right a number of wrongs, but it's also about aging and changing roles. About having been someone to rope the moon and stamp the hills and trick the winds and having to learn to do something else. Not to be someone else, but to accept that there are physical limitations. To perhaps pass on some knowledge. There is a great vein in the story about teaching, about resisting becoming old and then slowly (and then suddenly) having to make peace with it. Because some things are for the young, and Grandma Harken is no fool. Just stubborn and a little prideful, but with good reason. The villain here is a bit unexplained but that didn't bother me too much because the action is always understandable, the motivations solid. The setting is full of mysteries and shadows, but here the light shines on a little bit more of it, and it's a tantalizing look that promises more to come. A very good read.
"The Open-Hearted" by Lettie Prell (5300 words)
This is a nicely creepy story about body modification and, more than that, about opening oneself. It's also a nicely fast-paced walk through trend culture, to the way that trends happen, fully conscious and planned and executed. The main character of the story, Palmer, is in charge of making things happen, trend forecasting and then making money off of those forecasts, and he thinks he's found a winner with body modification, specifically giving humans stomata, or at least artificial ones, unable to respire but capable of giving the illusion of respiration. The creepiness comes in after the trend takes off, in how people with the stomata act. Which is, true to how it was pitched, calmer. More connected. But there's something vaguely sinister about it, about the way that people seem to change, the way they seem to look at things that aren't there. I felt there was a nice layering surrounding the idea of opening up, that these stomata opened the people with them to something…other. Opened their perceptions to be able to see things that would otherwise be invisible. And open as well for, perhaps, something to enter. The mystery of the story is what, what is it that is happening, and how, and I thought the story did a nice job of building up the tension, the horror of the situation as Palmer grows more and more uneasy at this thing he himself has facilitated. The ending doesn't offer up many answers but it does give some hints that open the story even more, that increase the unease of what is happening. Another good story!
"Soursop" by Chikodili Emelumadu (1900 words)
I am sold on the idea of cooking shows in the future being nightmarish tools of oppression. Sold I tell you! Really, I am always a sucker for a good food story and this one does an amazing job with the idea of food and taste. With senses that are being slowly robbed from the poor, from the oppressed. In this world the rich live above the Earth and have stolen its soil so that they can grow things. What remains below are those that weren't wealthy or valuable enough to ascend. Who were punished for the actions of their ancestors. And the main character of this story is reliving the moment that doomed those left behind on Earth to rot. Reliving it to capture that moment, to compare the brevity of those actions with the immensity that followed. There is a ritual to the story as it plays out, to this person experiencing this moment. The taste of the fruit, which in some ways feels like the taste of freedom, a taste that can never really be experienced again, that leaves a sort of scar that is passed down generation to generation. It's a moment of remembering and defiance, a moment where the main character cherishes the taste of the soursop while remembering the weight of the system, the price for resistance. And the ending opens that up a bit more, reveals a bit more about the main character that adds nuance to their actions. It's a sensory story, one that revels in taste and sight and feeling, that draws the reader into that situation, confronts them with the inequality of it. And it's definitely a story to check out!
"Bones of the World" by Jennifer Hykes (4900 words)
Ah yes, a tale of a seriously creepy child, and this one done with a devilish tone of mischief and wonder. I love the voice of this story, the voice of the main character, Maggie, a changeling girl filled with magic. The story follows her as she comes into her power, as she exists as both human and not. In some ways it's about her final transformation away from being human, a reversal of that deception that was caused when she was placed. Because while she has always tried to fit in, to be normal, to learn human ways, it hasn't always suited her, and I liked how the story started her transition back with a loss, with the death of her father. Because through this very human grief she rejects humanity, becomes something else in order to perhaps feel less, to escape that pain. And so causes so much more. It is a well crafted and well paced story, one that builds her deeds, her magic, at first things that, while not innocent, could be seen as just in a childish way. But as things go on…the real creepiness and horror of the story comes out of her not being human, operating on a different morality (or just a lack of morality) while appearing human, while appearing like an innocent. That dissonance is played to great effect, and the story as a whole is fun at the same time it is rather shockingly dark. That it blends childishness with power, and power so absolute that nothing can really stand against it, was something I quite enjoyed. Another fine read!
"That Lucky Old Sun" by Carrie Cuinn (5200 words)
………….okay then. Yeah, this story is a bit dark, a bit…well, a bit very dark, about a child, Melanie, and her mother as they sort-of wait for the end of the world. The setting is vaguely futuristic and also rather dystopian, a place where people are judged based on their skin but not exactly the way that they are now. Here it's not exactly race it seems but something in the blood that changes the skin's color and might do other things to it. Whatever the case, it means that there are vast systems in place to try and "contain" it, mostly by reporting on neighbors and living in a police state and it's an all around not-good scene. And yet the "problem" persists and so the government decided to just bomb everything. Bomb it all and then return to reclaim the wiped slate. And that the story follows a mother and her daughter on this day is bleak as fuck, but also I rather enjoyed it. There is something to be said about this, that this is where fascism leads, that this is where intolerance and bigotry lead. That there are "understanding" people who are just part of the problem and that everything is built on hate without reason, hate because that's all it is, and in the end it tears everything apart, tears families apart and lets the central lie of the story fester and burn like the fires of the bombs being dropped. Because a large part of the story is the absence of the father, who is "pure" and who has the chance to survive. It's a wrenching story and a sad one, very much worth reading but maybe prepare some cat videos for the aftermath. Indeed.
"Razorback" by Ursula Vernon (5800 words)
There are perhaps some unavoidable comparisons between this story and "The Tomato Thief," but mainly because they appear in the same issue. Both features older female protagonists wise to the ways of magic and not friendly toward those who would hurt others. Both feature a spot of shapeshifting. Both are quite good. In this story, a witch named Sal and a boar named Rawhead become friends. I thought the style of the story interesting, not exactly told from their perspectives but rather narrated by someone afterward, told in an oral tradition as well as a written one, which gives it a bit more of a passed-down feel. A mix of authenticity with tall-tale magic. At it's core the story seems to be about friendship. And I guess a little bit about revenge, but it's mostly in the name of friendship. A friendship between two people who are very different but who find in each other a kinship that they had missed everywhere else. And the story looks at how special that is, how magical in its own way by what Sal is willing to do when her friend is taken from her. The ending is sweet and rather tragic, all told, and it's quite sad to think of a woman like Sal, a pair like her and Rawhead, ending up in that situation. But the story does not flinch from human ugliness, just is sure to also show human (and hog) beauty. A great way to bring the original fiction in the issue full circle.
"RX-200 Series: It's Everything You Need" by Samson Stormcrow Hayes
This is a wry little poem about the advance of technology, perhaps bordering on a "kids these days" feel but more aimed more at the mindless drive to produce things that rather obviously shouldn't be used by humans. Things that cost too much in ways that are not advertised, that end up compounding human misery instead of offering anything worth experiencing. It's not like soap wasn't working out, so yes, having soap that is actually harmful is rather crazy (and with some of the deodorants and stuff out there, not farfetched). It's an interesting read because it comes close to being the old refrain, the "what ridiculous thing will they come up with next" except that it focuses its attention on the side effects, and more than that on the idea of treating the side effects of one thing with another thing (which again, does not seem like a stretch here) to the point that you have things to battle problems caused by things that were supposed to make things easier but don't. Basically saying that usefulness is now something that is manufactured, that is illusory, that people believe without examining. In any case, it's also good for a chuckle and is rather fun, sarcastic, and worth reading.
"The Upside of the Cataclysmic Meteor" by Zebulon Huset
This is a rather bittersweet poem that circles around impending doom and loss. About the hope of drawing together because something terrible has happened, something earth-shattering. More than that, though, it's about the loneliness of the narrator, that hope for the end of the world to come because that might be the only way to be reunited with the person they are missing, that they are hoping returns with the meteor. And in that it is a sad poem, one where that sweet moment at the end of cocoa and marshmallows is one person's cry against the inevitable draw of death. That silver lining that never really seems enough. It's a dream, a lie, and the poem does an excellent job of selling it, of setting it in a place of lies and dreams, in LA with its glamour and its movies, where everything is a happy ending. It plays on the Hollywood idea of what the end of the world would look like, something heartwarming and kind but in reality there is a thinness to the illusion, a shallowness to it. The poem makes a nice scene and a fine hope, but it's strength is in the trembling resolve of the narrator, in the desperation and the human tragedy that not even the end of the world will be enough to bring this person back. At least, that's how I read it, and whatever the case it's still quite a nice poem.
"The Doctor's Assistant" by Anton Rose
This is a nicely poignant poem about the horrors of war and the desire to do something about it. To make something out of war. In this case, to make a person out of it, a man. To stitch together pieces to make a whole. To recover something from war. The poem focuses and to me is greatly served by its use of sewing, to show it used as a craft and activity and then in the battlefield as a medic or assistant trying to stop death, trying to turn tragedy away only to have it compounded, healed soldiers being sent back out to die. It's a common enough thing that the resolution, that the plan to cheat death back, is powerful and works well, this talent that has been perverted by war twisted around to make something whole again. I love the way it draws things together in the end, the idea that war breaks people in different ways, that it tears on even those who have no physical wounds to mend and that the narrator is hoping that this act of creation will allow them to find healing as well, to find a person that can sew as easily emotions and mental trauma as the narrator can sew flesh. It's a great idea and an amazing image and it stitches everything together quite well. Definitely give this one a read!
"In the Far Future, Billy Experiences the Most Powerful Drug Known to Man" by Greg Leunig
Okay, poem, you got me. You got me with your cuteness (seriously, too, the picture on the next page seems super smug about it, too). This poem is about drugs, yes, the chemical calling cards of human pleasure, and the title of the poem sets it all up quite nicely. The imagery in the poem is rather perfect, the idea that here is this young person sitting on his bed and experiencing these highs and lows, peaks and valleys, that yearning and that wanting and that single-mindedness that is very much a drug, yes, but not the kind that one would guess at first. It's a clever poem, too, one that bides it time and then hits with a bit of sap, yes, but also that growing realization of what's going on. For me it works. It works because experiences are drugs and because the brain is a messed up place where emotions trigger hormones trigger all sorts of weird things and the poem takes that idea and harnesses it. And through all that the poem is…well, not subtle exactly, but definitely doesn't bask too long in its own cleverness. It gets to the point where everything is in place and then backs away, leaves the reader with that lingering thought. And for me it works. There, poem, I admitted it. Happy now?
"Automaton" by Bianca Spriggs
This poem focuses on the idea of rebuilding and the line between what is artificial and what is human. The title ties into the action of the poem, which seems to me about a man finding the remains of a body in a river and bringing it to his workshop to repair. Only here the act of repair seems to be perverted, giving the narrator of the poem no real voice or agency in how they will be reconstituted. They are made into a shinning object that the mechanic can look at, that the mechanic can (presumably) fuck, but there is no real care for what happened, no attempt to find out what actually happened to the person that they ended up torn apart and in a river. The wounds don't remain on the surface but they certain remain underneath, and whatever happened has left some deep marks on the narrator, ones that are completely overlooked by the mechanic. It's a rather unsettling poem, one where the narrator doesn't have much of a voice, speaks only twice and both times the words are processed by the mechanic on only the shallowest of levels, probably confirming for him that the shallowness he's attributed to the narrator is correct and so there's no need to consider their perspective, their desires, their anything. That idea of the automaton comes back here, not for me to indicate the "true" nature of the narrator but to show how they have been stripped and rebuilt into something artificial, while beneath the surface things are much more complex. It's helped by the face that the lines are short, clipped, shallow, while the poem itself is long, deep as a well. It's a fine read, and worth spending some time with.
"Maxwell's Demon" by Annie Neugebauer
Finally, a poem that takes on thermodynamics in a way that I can fully embrace! It's a poem about entropy, perhaps, and loss, about a person finding themself cut off from the person they were just with, the person they care about. Finding suddenly that, because they didn't pay enough attention, because they didn't argue as they were sorted into categories, they have lost something very important. And that's the other part of this poem that I like, that it works on the micro and macro scale, for small things but also as a call not to be sorted, not to be categorized easily by anyone just wanting to run a thought experiment because no, fuck that, that's how Bad Things start. As in the poem, things don't seem so bad because why not go where someone says, only things don't really stop there, and in some drive to fight against entropy you let tiny demons in where they shouldn't be. It's a rather subtle point here, but present I think, present in the way that realization slowly settles, the dawning understanding that the demon shouldn't be in charge. And the realization that it might be too late. The poem is short and relies a bit on knowing what the original reference is to (thanks, Wikipedia!). But it works, and the more I think about it the richer it gets, because there's a lot to think of in these deceptively simple lines, the sorting and the loss and the regret and the everything working together and it's just a lot of fun and almost heartbreaking and you should read it.
"Various Kinds of Wolves" by J.J. Hunter
Any poem that makes a Star Trek/red shirt joke in its opening lines is pretty amazing in my book. Especially when it's also working with the Red Riding Hood story and the idea of blame and the idea of stories and all of that. Because to me it is about stories, about more than just the Red Riding Hood one but more about all stories like that, where there is a person doomed because they trust. Doomed because, as the last line suggests, no one is safe. Of course there is something of a difference between a red shirt (who must know there is the possibility of danger) and Red, who is more "innocent," but I think the poem challenges that idea, asks what makes the soldier who has zero idea of what could kill them less innocent, especially when their victimization is for the benefit of others. Like Red, they become cautionary tales but also vehicles for story, ways to show just how bad something else is but only by being eaten or eaten by a sentient gas cloud. And in some ways to blame the dead for their deaths, the victims for their victimizations, because only then is the spectator absolved. "Yes, well, don't do that" I can hear someone say over the top of the narration, "see how that person acted? Act better." And the only way to act better is to not be the victim, which really isn't in anyone's control. So yes, this is a nice poem that tackles some big issues in a small way and does it all quite well. You had me at Star Trek joke, poem.