These two weeks of content from Strange Horizons are a little light on nonfiction, but definitely plenty heavy when it comes to stories and poems with depth, grace, and stunning SFF elements. From self-destructing sentient starships that die across fields of stars to quieter pieces about love, loss, and transformation, these pieces definitely had me on the brink of tears more than once. These are pieces that show the heart of SFF, and the loneliness of it as well, the vast spaces between worlds that mirrors the vast spaces between people, everyone reaching out and only a precious few finding some connection to withstand the forces of creation and destruction. So let's get to the reviews!
|Art by Mahendra Singh|
"The Thanatos Mode" by Tom Hadrava (2744 words)
This is an interesting story about the death drive in ships. Not arising out of some innate drive toward destruction but manufactured directly into the ship's coding, left there like a beacon, always calling in case the ship needs a way out. And the story is told from the perspective of this code, from the mind that is really only a purpose, to kill ships that want to die. The action of the piece is rather trippy and cerebral but it surrounds a very interesting and vast world building surrounding the ships and what they're doing. IN many ways, to me, the story is about the generational shift, or the epoch shift, from humans to AI, from humans to ships, where humanity was seeking to create something better and yet also something that they could control. And I like how this story can be drawn out from that, then, how the story becomes about parents and children, about the ways in which people try to program a future. Through culture and through religion and through things like that, imagining this being that exists to end us and so creating it, making it real. The narrator here never really questions the purpose of their existence. Instead, they leave that to us and to the ships that they destroy, the ships that seem more and more to be engaged in killing humanity. Like having this death inside of them poisoned the well, made them unable to move forward into something better, because they were always tethered back to humanity by this twist of their code, by this pull into self destruction which was a human invention forced onto them and which, ultimately, dooms them. It's a dark story and a heavy one, with a very fascinating premise and a breathtaking structure and execution. A great story!
"Das Steingeschöp" by G. V. Anderson (6388 words)
This is an emotionally resonating story about restoration, change, memory, and loss set against the backdrop of a more magical Germany leading up toward World War II. The story focuses on Hertzel, a man who is on his first assignment to do a restoration of a piece of magical engineering, a work of art that's part sculpture but also a sentient being who carries within themself a collection of memories from those who have worked on them. Of course, the assignment turns out to be much more elaborate than advertised, and the main character has to make a call on what to do. It's a call that's more complicated by the fact that despite being an orphan raised Catholic, he looks Jewish enough to face bald hostility wherever he goes. The story unfolds slowly, with Hertzel as a compelling character filled with griefs both old and new. And he faces persecution not only because of his perceived ethnicity but because he's also attracted to other men, or at least one other man. What follows is a beautiful examination of Hertzel as a character and Germany as a nation full of people dealing with the fear and the threat that fascism posed. In that it's a rather topical piece today, read in a time when fascist and racist nationalist movements are gaining in popularity. And yet in the face of the ugliness of humanity there is also a great beauty to the piece, to the relationships that it depicts. To how Hertzel attempts to carry out his task and do so in defiance of those who taught him and hold him in contempt. To fight back in his own way and leave something of himself and his love in his work. The magic is strange and moving and the story is full of small moments of quiet strength and power. It's a powerful piece and an excellent read!
"Jacob's Ladder" by Evelyn Deshane
Aww. This is an intensely sweet poem about love and about change, about not being bound to the past or other people's preconceptions about your body. The poems narrator is the partner of a trans man, watches him sleep through fitful dreams, and the poem is short but fucking devastating in its hope and its power. In its beauty. In the way that it asserts the right to throw off the past and climb a ladder into the future. Over all the memories and the doubt, the way that the past nags at people, tries to erase not only the future but the present as well, this quiet moment between the narrator and Jacob. And the story is also about the narrator, about them dealing with this moment, seeing their partner as who he is and not with all the baggage of time and family, not having lived Jacob's life and not really able to wipe away the past. Not able to undo the harm that was done, the harm that is still done by family that doesn't understand. Able only to hold Jacob in their arms and whisper his name against the nightmares, against the memories, against the abuse and gaslighting and misgendering. And fuck, okay, it's a really emotional poem and you should definitely just go, go and read it.
"the princess of blue roses" by Steffi Lang
To me this poem speaks of transformations and family, colors and skies and flowers. It speaks to me of history, of the traditions that get passed down, festivals of colors and power, and the absence left behind after death. After violence. It's a bit of a strange poem for me personally, because I feel like the narrator here is looking back at their heritage, at the old photos and old ways that their family lived and yet they, perhaps, do not. There is a feeling of exile here and so to me it feels like the narrator senses a disconnect between themselves and these people, aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents. That they are looking at artifacts that represent everything that remains. Everything that is left because times have changed and the world has changed. And the only thing that seems quite constant are the colors of the sky and the colors of the flowers, as vibrant as ever, as powerful as ever. And the narrator is having something of a return, is witnessing something that they hadn't before or is witnessing something they have seen before with new eyes. Aware of the significance of what is happening and awed by it, enchanted by it. That it's suddenly magical and alive and important in ways that might not have been so obvious before, and they can actually feel it now, the weight of it all and the joy and the tragedy of it. For me, at least, it's a poem that speaks to the power of linking hands with the past and learning from it, taking some of its magic forward into the future. A great read!