|Art by Galen Dara|
"Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands" by Seanan McGuire (5674 words)
This story knows exactly where to hit. Just how much force it needs to use, just how sharp it needs to be in order to leave me an emotional wreck. It takes a classic sort of sci fi story—full of scientific progress, first contact, easy misunderstandings, and human hubris. It's a story of consequences, as the story constantly reminds the reader, one where a rather simple oversight leads to…well, things aren't exactly going well for the main character as she waits with her children to see what happens. And that's where the heart of the story comes in, not just in taking on an almost-punch-line "twist" but in showing the humanity behind the old joke. There is such a great contrast between the rawness of the main character and her situation and the nearly comical background that's built up. In some ways the story is taking aim at the very idea of those old "funnies" and showing just how horrifying they would be in practice. Just what making the destruction of Earth a punchline can look like from the ground, from the epicenter of human suffering. There is no real moment when the reader—when I—was allowed to see the mistake made as funny. There was no "haha, stupid scientists" moment. Just the sinking realization that yes, things have consequences, and those consequences don't always make sense. They don't always fit the action. A simple oversight, and one that should have been easy to clear up, becomes something that completely gets out of control. In some ways then, this is a story about respecting language. Because meaning is something you can't always predict. And it can devastate. It's about having to examine how you make jokes, because for all that they might seem harmless to you, they can become very harmful to those living under their threat. It's a complex story and beautifully done and definitely check it out!
"The Sound of Salt and Sea" by Kat Howard (4035 words)
This story seems to me to be about debts and rituals, about service and selfishness. The plot revolves around Rowan, who lives on an island touched by the dead, where ghosts return every year for three days and where a living person is required to ride the bone horses that collect the unwilling dead back under the sea. It's a setting that is touched by darkness, slightly creepy but also with a beauty to it, like the bone horses themselves, strange and powerful and unsettling. The story settles on Rowan's relationship to the dead, their nature of being marked, of being promised, and how that promise is subverted by Conor, who wants to take Rowan's place, who a year previous did just that, only to [SPOILERS] come back in this story a ghost. A ghost but not without the power to mess things up for others. The contrast between Conor and Rowan, and their linked draw to the bone horses, is what sells the story for me, the different ways they are drawn in, Rowan out of respect and duty and Conor out of greed, lust, and a desire to master. That there is a cost for these things, the red of blood, is very well handled and overall there is just a feeling of balance that the setting and the characters maintain. That they are all caught in the wake of the dead, all pulled toward the sea, and that it's Rowan's job to try and do what they can, and to pay the price eventually. It's a story with a compelling world and a strong and conflicted character in Rowan, and it's a great read!
"The Blood that Pulses in the Veins of One" by JY Yang (2885 words)
Well okay then. Completing the trifecta of rather dark stories this month, this one revolves around consumption, memory, and torture, as the main character, a member of a race very different from humanity, is slowly dissected by scientists hoping to gain its secrets. The story does an excellent job of slowly building up the background of the character, a person who lives off consuming memories of others of its kind. [SPOILERS] Which, since an accident stranded them in a time after their people died out, is only one other. The pair are locked in a cycle where they grow flesh and then eventually are consumed by the other and reborn, live until it's their turn to eat the other. The situation at hand, the main character being tortured, beautifully parallels the act of eating, the cutting away of flesh, of memory, but without the actual meaning being transferred. The humans (or terrestrians) of the story unwittingly mirror the actions that to the main character have a deep and personal meaning. This idea of mimicry is interestingly layered, the aliens as well mimicking humanity, experiencing it in certain ways, but always through a lens, always with the intention of devouring it. It's that cycle that most interests me about the piece, that humanity and the aliens of the story both feed off each other and among their groups. Humans feed on humans figuratively as they feed on the aliens figuratively, looking to exploit. But the aliens consume in a different way, and through the consumption understand more about what they have consumed. It's a strange story and a jarring one, filled with rather uncomfortable moments and images of cannibalism. So yes, very dark, and with not a small amount of violence, but it doesn't hide that consuming another person, another culture, is a violent act, and the story is ultimately bracing and unapologetic and very good. Go read it!
"Deeper Than Pie" by Beth Cato
Aww. Readers of my reviews know that I'm a sucker for an awesome grandma stories. So an awesome grandma poem? Yes please. To me it captures a magic and a fear, a desperation and a loss on two sides. The grandma in question is losing her memory, is slipping away. She is aware of it, and in many ways that makes it more heartbreaking for all. For the narrator of the piece, the grandchild, it means having to watch someone they love slip away, and for the grandma it means watching herself go. Both are terrifying, reminders of age and mortality, time and loss. [SPOILERS] And so the grandchild casts spells into pies and the two of them eat, and I love that sense that the spell works regardless, that its magic is in part creating a memory for them both, one that might fade but all spells might fade. For the two of them, in that moment, there is hope, there is wonder, there is love. And there is the shadow of loss, of death, of disintegration. But also of living on. Through teaching, through that love that they share, that the grandma will pass on something. It's heartbreaking because it's obvious the grandchild isn't ready, but there is more the sense that the grandma is. That this is something that happens and that's natural, but not without pain. Which makes this a rather wrenching, sweet, and layered piece. The imagery is sense-heavy, evoking a feel of a place, a person, and the structure is short stanzas, fleeting but powerful, that hit and then linger. A very nice poem!
"Diversity: More Than White Women" by Foz Meadows
So this is a piece about mostly television and movies. The "biggest" of the big popular culture institutions and the one that involves the greatest monetary investment. Which, I am sure, is why there is so little of either really…good. Good as in more than just token diversity, more than just the same few plots and tropes pushed out time and again. And the article goes into some of the recent examples of…well, not what I would precisely call good, but some instances where the texts in question are better than normal. Where there are diverse character (this is a landscape where female character of any sort are diverse and so, yeah, this is a sort of low bar) and where there are storylines that don't only support white heteronormative superiority (still mostly, but maybe not only). This is a slightly frustrating thing when talking about movies and television as opposed to fiction and especially short fiction. Because movies and television are Big Business and dominated by a relatively small number of people, it's rather difficult to get anything approaching decent. The barrier for entry, the gatekeeping, is just too institutional and pervasive most of the time (bordering on all of the time). For stories at least there is the feeling that people are writing stories that I want to read, that others want to read. They aren't being as promoted, they aren't being paid or paid as well, but they exist. There is no secret SFF television show or movie franchise that exists that is…well, great. There are many I like or love because of what they mean to me, but none I would consider actually great. The shifting sands of expectations make some seem good, but…well, I like that the piece is pushing for looking at that, looking at how even "good" representations of queer characters are…not often that good, and that there's so much more room for improvement. The piece mentions fanfiction a number of times, which is great because it's about the only way to take in mainstream media much of the time, but seeing as how vilified fanfiction is even by the media that benefits most from it…well…But I really like everything that the article has to say and its call to keep pushing. Indeed!