Today I'm looking at two weeks of Strange Horizons material, which normally means a bit of everything except that I don't feel quite qualified to talk about the nonfiction (though it is quite interesting and I recommend checking it out). The fiction, though, is strange and fantastic, two stories that approach history and faith and journeys for meaning. And the poetry features departures and ghosts, of people lost and of the children we used to be. Everything works quite well and it's time to review!
"Tower of the Rosewater Goblet" by Nin Harris (5846 words)
Nice! This story strikes at the printer's heart that beats in my chest. Okay, perhaps that's a little too strong (though I do work in printing and seeing mention of printing presses is rather delightful). But I do like this story, the way that gets to the heart of storytelling and stories and theft and power. The way that it reveals Erheani's story and also her story, how she comes out from the conquered lands and is denied the rank of master storyteller despite her stories being stolen by more "respectable" people and winning award after award. But also the actual story she told, the story of time and a goblet and a slave and a tortoise. The story is expertly layered, flitting between story and story and history and history, each one about the same core truth, about the way that power works, about the way that storytellers must be silenced and consumed in order to protect what is dominant. How subversion works and how it is effective, not just because it is anti-government or anti-power but because it is at its core about compassion and empathy which are slayers of oppression. And I love the way the story follows its various threads, the way it questions and complicates, the way it makes each truth suspect because each comes like a pamphlet off a printing press, equally printed but not equally true, and each story must be examined on its own but also as a piece of the greater tapestry, revealing a truth that is completely absent and visible only by taking in the entire mosaic at once. The form is strong and the plot is uplifting, rebellious, metafictional. It's about the power of stories and is a story, about valuing authentic voices and experiences, about breaking through convention to something more useful, more necessary. And it's quite good. Go read it.
"The Godbeard" by Lavie Tidhar (3803 words)
This is a rather heart wrenching story about loss and faith and, to me, faith in the face of loss. In it, a man named Ivob loses his daughter to a random illness and in her he loses some of his belief as well. Or perhaps just some of his obedience, because in this setting God is a physical being, an actual thing that floats around the globe like an enormous floating balloon. And to be with his daughter again Ivob plans to go against the teachings of the church of this God, plans on breaking into heaven so that he can once more hold his daughter in his arms. He enlists two friends from university, lovers who must have their own curiosity and heresy etched into them. The three make the attempt to clib up the Godbeard, which is a strange and dangerous task, filled with strange and surreal sights. And yes, I kind of love the idea of God as this vast monster, basically, that you can climb, that has these enormous Cherubim that are like babies mixed with crows that eat the bodies of the dead. It's a bit creepy, all told, and quite tragic, both the gripping sense of loss that Ivob feels and also the loss the team experiences on the way (which I suppose does raise the stakes but I was a little bummed to see what happened happen). And I quite enjoyed the ending, the sort of understated way it brings up all the complexity of faith in the face of loss, in how there can be a caring Gob when there are terrible things that happen. And I quite liked that the feeling of dread never quite left me, like even the end might have been some sort of lure for this creature which might just want to eat the dead. In an event, it's a complex tale and one that I felt had both a strong sense of wonder and love. Definitely go check it out.
"The Rambutan Man" by Naru Dames Sundar
This is a dark and rather striking poem that I feel circles death and invisibility in a place of violence. The plot of the poem becomes clear only at the end, where it is revealed that a bomb has exploded, that it has left death in its wake, a gathering of ghosts that stand waiting to be seen, to be recognized. The violence of what has happened has passed, leaving these scars, these ghosts decimated by the event, but the poem speaks to me of what is emphasized in these events, what is exported as important, which is not the human cost (at least outside of numbers) but the violence itself. The Rambutan Man and the other ghosts are left behind while the bomb is given rites, while the bomb is remembered and spoken of, eclipsing the lives that were lost, the lives that most view as without value. The poem shows, or at least I feel it show, how the bomb conceptualizes people, erases both their lives but also their presence. What remains is the grief and the pain that these people experienced and the solemn waiting for some recognition, that they lived and that their deaths are a tragedy more important than any bomb, that given priority to the act that killed them diminishes them and furthers their erasure. As I said, I find it a dark poem, full of hauntings. The imagery is aptly disturbing and it all comes together quite well. Indeed!
"Departures" by Sara Polsky
Much as the title declares, this poem is about departures. Leavings. It is narrated by a woman to (presumably) her male partner or spouse (though gender here is more heavily implied than stated). But I love the idea, the resolve to not fall into traditional gender roles, to deny as a woman the place of waiting, the place of staying quiet, the place of having to watch as her partner leaves first. Because there is a tremendous pressure to adhere to these expectations, to bow out of life in order to give fulfillment to other or at least facilitate the fulfillment of others. And here the narrator is refusing that, is standing up to say no, my dreams are important too. I feel the poem shines in how it uses that idea of departures, that there is no real avoiding them, that the departure here is unavoidable but that she's supposed to be the passive party, the one left behind. The poem then is about the failure of culture and society and governance and gender to value people equally, to give people real equal opportunity. It means that there are vastly different standards, that for the narrator to leave she must be considered cruel and selfish, and yet for a man to do the same thing would make him ambitious. The use of the double meaning in the idea of departures strengthens that for me, emphasizes the double standard and makes the poem nicely dense, almost sonnet-esque, and quite interesting.