|Art by Robert Carter|
"1957" by Stephen Cox (5000 words)
There are stories sometimes that I read and it's like opening a wound. And this story, so filled with longing and love and time and confusion, is one of those. It's a story twisted around time, where a core of characters meet and love and miss each other. It's the story of Danny and Paul and Rachael, their paths entwined and unable to be fully pulled apart, bent and distorted so that only slowly does the full picture of what has happened fall into place. Danny is the lead, and in 1957 is at a boys school with Paul, his friend. His lover. It's an idyllic life for them in some ways, a boyhood fantasy brought real, only something about it isn't right. [SPOILERS of how I interpret the story] Because in 2004 Danny is married to Rachael and Paul is his never-lucky-in-love friend who works in some secret field. Somewhere in all of this time loops on itself, replaying the same few days, the same situations, the same years, caught in the designs to create a place where Danny can be free to explore a part of himself he rejects and denies. Added to that is the creepiness of what has happened, the lack of consent and the damage that has been risked to create this place. Something is wrong, but in the end part of why I love this story is that what is wrong isn't exactly Paul's feelings. At least, I cannot read Paul as the villain in this, though he does some awful things to get what he thinks he wants.
No, rather, this is a story that explores desire and what desires are allowed where. There is no doubt to me that Danny's feeling toward Paul are genuine, are romantic and sexual both, but it's something that Danny is unwilling to really face, and in doing so dooms himself and Paul to a life that isn't quite whole. Of course, where Paul wants Danny to himself there is also the fact that Danny is attracted to women as well, that he has a wife and children and perhaps is okay with the homosexual act but not with thinking of himself as bisexual or queer at all. And oh my glob this story gets at so many things that I have feelings and thoughts about and it's just…it's a great look at how desire can shape people, how power can shape people, how living in a world that demands either/or is damaging. It's a story that, essentially, offers no happy ending. Someone is left behind and someone is alone and whatever happens Danny cannot truly explore all aspects of himself. It's an amazingly crafted story that works through time and place and situation and sexuality and is creepy and romantic and moving and just read it. Go and read it right now!
"Cottage Country" by David K. Yeh (5800 words)
This is an interesting and interesting urban fantasy, in part because it doesn't really have anything urban about it. In it, a man named Pete has just bought some land only to discover it's not as empty as he would have liked. So at the same time he must find a way to figure what to do about his unwanted resident he also finds himself remembering. His grandfather. His past. It does a great job of introducing the reader to this world, to the character of Pete and what has prepared him to deal with the spirits, with the hungry presence stalking his land. It also creates some parallels between the sidhe that Pete must deal with and what happened to his grandfather. That idea of being displaced, of being alone and desperate and lashing out. And how Pete handles t hat. The action of the piece is slow and building until it unravels all at once, and I love how Pete has to deal with it all, how he has to navigate trying to avoid violence, trying to do the right thing, trying to meet each new threat and situation with only the amount of force required. It doesn't surprise me to know that there is a sequel story to this piece (over at Electric Spec for those wondering), because the character is compelling and this story only reveals a bit of him, acts as an introduction. There seems to be much more going on, more world to discover, more situations to figure out. It's wildly imaginative and fun in its world building and structure while also being a rather tragic tale. About not being able to reach someone. About not being able to get past the hurt and the pain and the anger. About having to make the hard calls in order to end the suffering. Definitely a story to check out!
"The Behemoth Beaches" by Maggie Slater (2100 words)
I was not expecting to find a story this dark to be about bureaucracy and regulation and corruption as it applies specifically to…fishing. And yet here we are, with a story as dark as the deepest blue of the ocean and brimming with pain and blood and conflict. The plot centers around a village running low on fish who agrees to give up some of their fishing and some of their oil in exchange for the help of a benemoth, who will enforce rules designed to bring the fish back. Only as time goes on the rules become harsher and the price increases even as the need for the behemoth decreases. And in the end it's a story about corruption and about fighting corruption, about exploitation and about fighting exploitation, seeing that there are always layers of harm, that sometimes entire systems are rotten and yet attacking, just meeting violence with violence, does not always or even often make things better. The story manages a nice complexity by never quite answering some of the larger mysteries it introduces, and I like that it leaves those things still up in the air, still lurking. In some ways it's the question of the necessary evil, which so often is a gateway to things much darker, much harder to control. And it does make good use of something as rather strange and mundane as fishing regulations to show how corruption works and how it can used to seem to good even as it's doing something much worse. A great read!
"Jubilee" by F.J. Bergmann
Nice. I'm probably not going to be able to write about this poem much without them, so [SPOILERS!], this poem imagines a world without humans. A world in some ways made unlivable by humans, though not, it turns out, unlivable to everything. And that's where the darkness of the piece creeps in, in how it examines the absence of humanity, through a celebration, through the joyous dance of robots glad to be free. The idea of robots as servants is explored here, but also robots as inheritors. As the next epoch. Because as humanity found itself so suited to Earth-that-was, so robots find themselves suited to the Earth-that-is after humanity melts away. As far as apocalyptic poems go, this one shines because of the joy, because of the air of festival about it. The celebration that humanity is gone and with them the hatred and the intolerance and the short-sightedness that made the world what it was. And in its place is something better. Something worth celebrating. It's a fun piece that acts as a sort of warning, a great image of a dance to the self-annihilation of our species. Check it out!
"Before the Empire Goes Inter-Galactic" by Ken Poyner
This is a rather cute poem about a vast empire looking to expand. Presumably to Earth. Not out or some desperate plot or sinister motive, but just sort of because. To be one planet, one system, larger. To have that power and to exercise it. The voice of the poem is great, too, setting up this vast difference, the failing of the local conflicts to bother this overlord civilization. And part of what's interesting is that there's no expectation that the local conflicts will end. The overlords don't want world peace or tribute or any of it. They are about the chillest overlords I've even read. But that's part of what makes it great, that their chillness comes with this implication that they just don't care about the people of Earth as anything more than a conquered people. That they just want the prestige, the rank, but that no better than being a violent conqueror. That there is no real way to be a benevolent dictator, and that not caring is just as dangerous and harmful as caring too much. The voice is fun but it conceals that darkness, that betrayal of intent, that what has happened really is that Earth, or whatever planet this is, has been doomed, and for whatever good this might seem to do, the bad it does is so much worse. A nice read!
"Mammon's Cave" by Janna Layton
I love the voice of this poem, the way it captures something both dark and subtle. In many ways it seems to me to be about the trappings of evil, of corruption, the expectations people have about what evil looks like, what evil prefers. The poem is told in Mammon's voice, is bashful and with a sort of faux humility that makes the poem easy to read, that gives it a conversational air and contrasts nice with the imagery, with is full of vanity and cruelty and violence. But in there too is this feeling that I got that Mammon isn't really out to impress. That there is no need. Out in the world his palace is filled with these things to awe and terrify, that shows in no uncertain terms what he is, but the voice shows that it doesn't spring from some inner insecurity but rather from an understanding that it's how people prefer him to appear. That it makes them comfortable, when for him what is comfortable is something simple and delicate. Something that people wouldn't think of. That there are constructions and constructions and he's the poisonous snail, the deadly nightshade hiding a luscious fruit. That his nature is complex and not nearly so simple as it appears in his palace, and it suits him more than it suits others to make everyone think that evil must announce itself so blatantly. It's a creepy poem and one that flows easily and powerfully to that last spiraling image. Indeed!
"The Perfect Planet" by Christina Sng
This poem is a nice tour of worlds unknown, worlds that, like our own, support life and could support human life, in theory at least. It's a poem that explores a popular theme in science fiction, which is to say the idea of humans leaving a dying Earth and setting out to other worlds. Only…only those others worlds that could support us are already supporting life, and the poem explores the idea that those native organisms deserve a chance to evolve more than we deserve a new place to live. It's a classic idea that's handled quite well, the decision at the end (which I will not spoil) completely in line with the rest of the images presented. I like the way it draws that parallel between desolation and lush vibrancy. I also love how it reminds me of Independence Day and, more specifically, the aliens that survive by sucking up all the natural resources they encounter. The poem makes a sort of point about that, about how we view other world and in some ways how we view our own, how we've envisioned meeting with aliens bent on taking our land. It's an interesting poem with a great sense of wonder and space and possibility, but also a weight of reality and a refusal to escape from a difficult truth. A fine way to close out the issue!