While my previous column looked at some new and changing publications, here I find things rather much the same. A number of smaller and less frequent publications reviewed this time, of which I’m most pleased with Unlikely Story.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #164-165, January 2015
The themes of the year’s first issues are very clear. #164 tells of transformation, #165 of quests. The stories in issue #164 are shorter than the norm, but it has a bonus of fiction with an excerpt from James Morrow’s new novel.
“Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
The girl who wants the name Zhou [meaning boat] was born in a fishing village on the shore of a fantasy China, to grow up dissatisfied with her condition. She wants to be a woman but without the inconvenience of a womb; she wants to love other women, but they never offer themselves to her completely; she wants the sea, which tradition prohibits to her. Uniquely, her body has the odor of a man, of the sea, and this is what expresses the truth of her. As a woman, she leaves the village and is found by the daughter of a [sea?] god, attracted to her scent. This Huan claims she will love her and give her everything she wants, but she turns Zhou into a man, which isn’t what she had wanted, and, moreover, she didn’t ask.
“What have you done to me?” I said. I did not say that it was half-good, half-bad, for I did not want to give her any sliver of hope that this was what I had wanted. If to be without womb one must also be without the rest of a woman’s form, then I was not certain that the trade was worth it.
They live together on a dragon boat until Huan’s father the god learns of their relationship, of which he disapproves.
There’s some neat mythological stuff here, with gods and dragons, although the god part is unclear. Huan’s father at first tries to drown Zhou then grants her a wish, and I’m not sure whether he’s a sea god or not. Unfortunately these fantasy elements are overwhelmed by very mundane and didactic issues of sexual identity. Zhou has gone on a quest to find herself, to find the name that will express who she really is, but the story is overly concerned instead with what she is. “Who” is a different question, which it doesn’t answer, and if Zhou doesn’t know, how can the rest of us answer her?
“The Metamorphoses of Narcissus” by Tamara Vardomskaya
The narrator is a young woman who had been studying ballet when she fell under the sway of a popular transfigurationist artist who wanted her as a model for his transgressive works.
What did it matter, the endless practicing of stag leaps and wolf spins and peacock poses to the tinkling of a grand piano, when I had been the stag and the wolf and the peacock and the grand piano, had been them at the bottom of the sea and in midden heaps and in rivers of cheese and when kissing a basilisk and an icosahedron while hanging by my ribcage from the pendulum of a clock?
Then came war to their country, and everything changed.
A story about what really matters. Although not so much as the first in the issue, there is a discernable didactic tone here, a lesson learned. The artist himself informs the audience viewing his last work that he, himself, is a narcissist, which we didn’t really need to be told.
“For Lost Time” by Therese Arkenberg
A sequel to a work appearing in an earlier issue, in which the young wizard Aniver and his companion Semira sought a way to restore the city Nurathaipolis, lost to Time. Their quest now leads them to the domain of the Queen of Death, with the aid of the most powerful wizard among the exiles of the city-that-was.
The strength of this one is the fantastically-detailed setting, the descriptions both of the city in which the exiles now dwell and the realm of the dead. This particular quest is, of course, one we have seen in many variations from many different mythoi, but the author gives us an original vision of the domain and its ruler.
The Throne’s arms ended in snarling heads, or barbaric weapons, or else only the shape of an unreal substance weathered by unimaginable forces, and on those arms rested slender gray limbs bearing delicate four-fingered hands. Above those . . . looking past Her face for the time being, Aniver stared at the spires that topped the Tenebrous Throne. The structure seemed organic, not in the sense of being alive but in the fact that it couldn’t possibly have been constructed. It had grown or perhaps formed around the shape of the Queen, who sat here at the edge of Her kingdom.
The storyline is surprisingly comprehensible considering the many references to past events, yet readers unfamiliar with them may still be wondering about the tie between Aniver and Semira, and how they came to be involved together in this quest.
“Day of the Dragonfly” by Raphael Ordoñez
Set in a weird fantasy world populated by several humanoid species and other creatures. Our hero is Keftu, whose other identity, when he puts on his special armor, is the Dragonfly, a sort of hero-errant-for-hire, who takes up the quest to save a sort-of-princess from being devoured by a giant ancient moon worm. Exactly why he does this isn’t clear, as the only reward is marriage to the princess, whom he has never seen and whose realm is impoverished. It also turns out that he will be the fifth champion to make the attempt, which means that the danger can hardly be imminent if the worm has been delaying so long for the devouring; indeed, I have to question its sincerity. The person who hires him is the girl’s rude sister, who constantly insults him on the journey while he is fighting their way out of various picaresque perils.
The chitinous spinners that lined the beast’s back whirled with angry glee. As a wing flexed and stretched he slashed at it, tearing the membrane. Now the worm began to drop. He hacked at a fourth wing. The creature managed to curl its tail around him. It latched its claws on his armor and tore him off.
It’s a good thing that all this S&S adventure is clearly intended to make no particular sense, as it doesn’t. The entire quest is mainly an excuse for the author to display the weird wonders of this imagined setting. It makes for some fun reading, but for those of us who do prefer our stories to make sense, it falls well short of the goal.
Strange Horizons, January 2015
Another month with only two stories, one serialized.
“Vacui Magia” by L S Johnson
A short list story, the entries being the steps in creating an infant golem.
Mud and bone, yes, but they are not enough. Your own fluids, clear and bloody, sticky and gelatinous, soaked into little pieces of batting from your grandmother’s fraying quilt. The seed of a man you coax one night behind the tavern, a man that reminds you of a boy you loved long ago who loved another, one of many things we cannot change your mother had said.
The story is thus: a middle-aged witch from a family of witches has never been able to conceive. Now her aged mother, confused in her dying, wishes she could see her daughter’s child. Out of love, the witch creates the golem, apparently knowing that the old woman would no longer be able to discern its true nature.
One of those stories that declares itself hard-hearted and unsentimental, while it drips with sentiment.
“The Animal Women” by Alix E Harrow
The serialized story, which for once is long enough to warrant taking up two story slots. Set in 1968, in the kind of white country community that feels threatened and defensive in the wake of all the changes going on in the wider society outside; typically, their reaction tends to be violent. Candice is a sixth-grade girl with a speech impediment who prefers to express herself through photography. One day she comes upon a house where five strange women live together; they befriend her, and tell her their stories, which are similar.
“We’ve all got stories like that, girl. About being held down too long—beaten bloody, locked away, nothing left at all but our flickering souls. Then the world bent a little, just for us.” She flexed her fingers against the wood and there was the slight snick of claws scraping. “Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”
But her father and others warn her to stay away from that “house full of Negro women”.
This piece is essentially a feminist cliché, with no original elements. It’s all here: the repressive white patriarchy; the prejudice against “Negroes” and the “strange ways” of lesbians – words they can’t even bring themselves to say or may not even know – as well as anyone who’s different, like Candice with her speech problem; the brutal rapist and the submissive women who defer to male power; the women who empower themselves by striking back and taking revenge. The animal shapeshifting is just a metaphor for power and character, with no more interesting backgrounding. Revenge here is the heart of the story, one we’ve all heard many times already, with nothing really new added.
Tor.com, January 2015
Some different approaches to military SF.
“And the Burned Moth Remains” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Part of the author’s “Hegemony” military SF series. Once, Tiansong was a wealthy imperial power holding hegemony over other worlds as its Empresses continued to renew their lives into new bodies. But one body decided she didn’t care to be used in that way and fled, bearing crucial secrets, to the sanctuary of an upstart new power. Now, many centuries later, the upstart is the unassailable ruler of worlds and Tiansong a conquered territory, while Jingfei the traitor is confined in a fortress prison along with the secret that the Hegemony’s rulers would give almost anything to possess: the ability to pass on a mind, whole and with all its memories, to a new body. Because they believe that Jingfei possesses the key to controlling the mainframe central to the process, she is allowed a kind of immortality, constant reincarnation into short-lived bodies. The fortress now holds uncounted Jingfeis, incarnated subtly different in body but identical in mind and purpose. To them comes yet another envoy of the Hegemony offering a substantial bribe [they have long since given up on torture] in exchange for her secret.
I have found some of the previous works in this series to be overwrought, with excesses of prose obscuring the story and laying confusion before the reader. Here, the author seems to have found a better balance. No one, indeed, would call the prose flat, but now it serves the story rather than itself, and the subtleties of plot resolve in a manner satisfactory.
Outside the swarm-fortress, Jingfei of Moth River has never been born, her past corroded and her name consigned to forgetting. Inside it, within the bounds of thorn-suns and briar-stars casting sequential dusks, Jingfei has been born a hundred times, a thousand, a million: a multitude of allotropic selves with a mind inviolate as it is divided from shell to shell, a flame passed from one wick to light the next.
While much of the narrative is a duel of words between Jinfei and the envoy, readers should recall that a duel is a form of combat, with an outcome that may be momentous, depending on the combatants. In short, the author is getting better at this.
“Kia and Gio” by Daniel José Older
Kia is supposed to be working this Saturday in her uncle’s botánica, but she can’t concentrate today on anything but Giovanni, who fills her mind despite the fact that he’s been missing for the last six years. At the time, she was ten years old and determined to marry him, considering it no obstacle that he was gay, but even Kia could see at last that he was in love with Jeremy. So no surprise that Gio never hesitated to defend him when Jeremy was attacked by a group of apparent revenants in the night. And was never seen again. Yet until today, Kia never gave up hope that he might be out there, somewhere, in the world, eventually to return.
YA dark fantasy/love story with a flavor of santería.
“Damage” by David D Levine
This one is a space combat story of a war between the Free Belters and Earth, told by a sentient warship that its technician calls Scraps, because it was cobbled together from the remains of two other salvaged craft. Because of this, it carries the memories of its previous deaths, which can’t be erased from its programming, resulting in anxiety and misgivings that it finds painful. The ship has wondered why it was given such human feelings.
“They’re how your consciousness perceives the priorities we’ve programmed into you. If you didn’t get hungry, you might let yourself run out of fuel. If you didn’t feel pain when you were damaged, or if you didn’t fear death, you might not work so hard to avoid it. And if you didn’t love your pilot with all your heart, you might not sacrifice yourself to bring him home, if that became necessary.”
So the ship is entirely devoted, like a lover, to its pilot, “the finest combat pilot in the entire solar system”, although the feeling is hardly reciprocated; to him, the ship is only a tool. At last, with the war effectively lost, they are given one very final mission.
Considerable combat action here, as well as the thoughts of the troops facing defeat and death for a cause most of them no longer believe in. Everyone here is facing a choice, and they do it each in their own way, including the ship. An insightful work, though I rather wish the author had omitted the moral anticlimax at the end.
Unlikely Story, November 2014
The unlikely zine returns to its entomological origins with an announced theme of loss. Which the editors also link to the likely loss of this publication, which would be a loss indeed to the field. If any zine today reliably offers tales that are weird, it’s this one.
Here are seven stories, of which I especially like the Zinos-Amaro.
“Coping with Common Garden Pests” by Will Kaufmann
Post-apocalypse, the narrator struggles to preserve his dead wife’s garden, all he has left of her. But the post-apocalyptic pests are quite a bit tougher now and he ends up coping with them badly.
Next I attempted to pour a small amount of table salt directly onto one of the slugs. When my bare hand approached within a few inches of the slug, it spat some sort of acid at me. The hose, obviously, was useless for washing the stuff off my skin. My hand is spotted with blisters, but at least there is no sign of infection.
Not a very original idea, but it’s done cleverly, resulting in a lighter take on grief.
“On Shine Wings” by Polenth Blake
Space bees. A particularly strange premise that takes a bit of sorting out, as it’s not clear at first if the narrator is ship herself or whatever else, bee or human. It seems, though, that however she began, she is now a living shipmind, wired-in to the controls, so probably holds the position of queen, while the crew/hive fills the interior and presumably keeps her fed. There has been war in the system and existence is perilous, so that mining ships in the outer reaches run dark, to be safe unobserved. The narrator’s ship serves as a fixer, repairing damage to other ships. But a shining-bright ship means danger, one so strong it fears no other.
. . . I didn’t hear again from the dark on light ship. I heard warnings to flee from light ship after light ship. I followed the calls, because when a ship didn’t flee, there were no more sounds. No pale survivors.
The shine ship broadcast a message of peace. I readied for war.
Quite original, if obscure in parts, but the heart of the story is unmistakable.
“Prism City Blues” by Naim Kabir
The longest piece in the issue. A future when immortality has been achieved by means of a retrovirus, but it has to be renewed periodically, at a cost many can’t afford. There is also a biowar underway where altered RV is producing strange mutations, which the scientist in charge of RV development ignores for her own reasons. When poor artist Noah is offered a free dose of RV, he unwisely ignores the maxim that anything too good to be true probably isn’t. He wakes to find himself, Gregor Samsa-like, transformed into a giant insect.
The world was broken into prismatic shards with the same street split ten thousand times and its white line fractured and refracted into rainbows without color. The stressed sensory overload jumped his muscles, launched him off the ground and slammed him into a wall where he leaned with hard hands on his spiky head.
A particularly cynical work which, among other things, suggests that immortality isn’t such a great idea for a society. The narrative, however, is excessively fragmented, and the devolution process doesn’t make any sense, in terms of getting to the final outcome desired by the designer.
“Meltdown in Freezer Three” by Luna Lindsey
Corinne is another aspiring future artist, a composer, but autism has kept her from having sufficient confidence in her creations, so she drives an ice cream truck to make a living, playing a song of her own composition that attracts customers. Actually, the truck drives itself and Corinne sells, with a service insectoid to help if things get too much for her. As they do when some thugs ridicule her as a “retard” and attack her truck, putting it out of commission. Before the tow truck can arrive, the freezers fail, which is potentially fatal to the tiny insectoid aliens who have built an ice city in Freezer Three. “In another hour, the whole icetropolis will be flooded, destroyed, all their beautiful architecture vanished. And the faeliens will be dead of heat stroke.”
This is a story of coping, a positive feelgood piece, but only minimally buggy. Readers may well wonder if the truck and its parts are actually sentient or if this is just Corinne’s way of projecting.
“Miranda’s Wings” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Leonard, a collector of strange specimens, has captured a unique one, a human-sized chimera of woman and butterfly that he has named Miranda.
Leonard had applied his habitual painstaking preservation technique to this specimen, just as he had to thousands of regular-sized ones during his years of collecting. First, he had “relaxed” the young woman’s body just as he would have a butterfly’s, by depriving her of oxygen and draping her unconscious, but still living, body on moistened sheets. Then, with great care, he had applied pressure to her thorax so that her wings would separate. Next, he proceeded to insert a ruler-sized stainless steel rod through her abdomen, careful not to puncture any vital organs, and allowed the entry and exit wounds to heal, suturing as needed. He slid her up and down the rod until her wings were aligned with the edge of his massive spreading board.
Well-crafted classic weird horror, twisting into a particularly satisfying conclusion. I could certainly see it appearing a century ago. Also highly entomological.
“Gemma Bugs Out” by Victorya Chase
Gemma’s mother died from a bee sting. At her funeral a pill bug bit Gemma and she turned into one, then crawled to her father’s hand.
I uncurled and crawled out of his shirt, rolled down his chest and lay on his knee. He put a hand up to his lap and I crawled onto it. I rolled around between his knuckles a bit, and then fell asleep in the palm of his hand, his fingers curled like giant pillars at the end of the world. I woke up with my head on his knee, metamorphosed as a girl without a mother.
Gemma is also now effectively without her father, who sinks into near-catatonic grief. So life goes on, while Gemma turns into various biting insects and her father fills the house with dying roses, which attract wasps. Gemma particularly likes being a wasp. But then she meets Jack, the mail carrier, and realizes she wants actual human companionship.
Neat original idea, definitely buggy.
Kaleidotrope, Winter 2015
An issue full of witches, most stories fairly long. The sole SFnal exception is my favorite, though.
“Bread of Life” by Cynthia McGean
A witch performs her spells in the form of stories told to village listeners around her hearth. The only really interesting aspect here is the way the villagers automatically distrust the witch in the tale they are told, yet never seem to notice the one right in the same room with them. Otherwise pretty moralistic and obvious.
“Atomic Visions” by Michael Andre-Driussi
The exception to the rest of the content in the issue, being an alternate science fiction piece – a What If? In this case, What If, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic weapons had become a routine conventional weapon in the rest of the century’s wars? The central figure is Buddy Dutchman, a flyer [get that?], actually a bombardier, or at least he seems to have been in WWII, bombing over Japan. He and some of his war buddies are reminiscing over a few beers when Buddy begins to have a series of visions, some of which bleed into each other, of other past and future missions in which he was/will be/ might have been engaged. There is clearly something surreal or at least fantastic about the visions, so that we see through Buddy’s eyes like a later-day Scrooge, unsure if these are events which must or might be.
No, it’s not Y-Day. Luke the Spook, my old bomber, was shot down over Korea. I thought I was going to die. Maybe I did? It’s just a memory ,brought on by being in a parachute again, revisiting that trauma. The war’s over — Korea is free.
If read as an alternate history, the point of departure would be the autumn of 1945, when US invasion forces stormed the Japanese beaches in the wake of the atomic bombardment, leading to the appalling vision of the command ordering their own troops to cross the radioactive ground.
The beach reminded Buddy of Miyazaki. He wondered what it had been like for those Japanese soldiers, guarding the beach against the landing force on the horizon. The odds had been three to two in favor of the Allies, but a successful invasion required odds of at least three to one. Buddy figured the Japanese soldiers had felt confident and ready, seeing better odds than the Germans had faced at D-Day, six months earlier. It was a classic strategic scenario, and by the numbers revealed they could see that the Allies did not have the strength left to enter the endgame on the proper footing. But then the fire had hit the beach out of the blue sky and the odds were changed in an instant.
There is, however, a lot more going on here than a straightforward AH. At one point, Buddy seems to recall dying, and there is the suggestion that he might have actually done so, at least in one version of events; could the entire story be set in his personal Hell? Readers should be alert for subtle hints, particularly those foreshadowing the conclusion.
“Necessary Evil” by Stephen J Barringer
Here’s a broad and complex setting, meant to replicate certain features of our own history in Europe of the early Middle Ages, when older religions were giving way to a surging Christianity. The immediate setting is an analog of Scotland under the control of warring clans, but there is also a hostile Scandinavia power and more distant but threatening Germanic states. The characters, however, speak a Robert Burns dialect. Our protagonist is Mycroft of the MacAlasdairs, a youngest son apprenticed to a wizard and somewhat estranged from his family while loyal to his clan. Another brother is the lover of Caitryn Kilbarron, daughter of a clan that follows the other religion, which has so far prevented their marriage; relations between the two clans are strained as a result. Now she is near death from some unknown cause and Mycroft is urgently summoned to treat her, discovering the cause to be a powerful curse. Yet when he begs help from his master, the crusty old man refuses. It seems there are greater matters behind the curse, and forces even more powerful than him. Mycroft is left on his own, with little to go on but logic and the principle cui bono.
As the plot takes on the elements of a mystery, readers are likely to fix on the protagonist’s personal name, which seems to be of English, not Scots origin. Of course, this is not our own world or history, but it’s noteworthy that most of the other names appear to be invented, or at least respelled. I can’t help wondering about the author’s choice here. I like the background of Realpolitick behind the more immediate events, and there’s a depth to this setting that it would be easy to see other tales set here, although I’m not aware of any.
“The Salt Wedding” by Gemma Files
A “Jerusalem Parry” story. In fact, the Jerusalem Parry story, as it essentially replicates What Has Gone Before, before finally [or so it seems] bringing it all to a conclusion. At which point, some readers may be expecting my traditional strictures on the evils of serializations, particularly when, as in this case, the various installments have appeared here and there, where readers might not have found them. But this time I must say that I like this version a lot better than the prior ones, and there’s one reason: the narrative voice and point of view, which here belongs to a character who played a lesser role previously, the witch Tante Ankolee. She’s a great improvement over Parry, who had an off-putting tendency to self-pity and whining.
The tale begins when Ankolee receives a visitor from the Royal Navy, begging her aid with the problem of a ghost pirate ship preying on shipping. This is the Bitch from Hell, captained by the accursed pair of Parry and Solomon Rusk, bound together beyond death in chains of mutual loathing.
These survivors told a story of their own, which their rescuers dismissed as mere raving: Said they’d been approached mid-voyage by a spectral three-master massive enough as any four ships slapped haphazardly together — the which, on closer inspection, it seemingly proved to be. Blown forth on burning sails from the darkness, this looming, lurching hulk’s ill-cobbled upper deck was back-lit by an unnatural corona blue-green as the horizon’s sunset flash, and on it stood two equal-phantom figures, a careful distance kept between ‘em: One a single-eyed rogue done up in piratical finery, so large he made the other (tall enough, by most standards) seem small by comparison, while his mate stood slim and upright with silver-pale eyes in an even paler face, clad head-to-toe in parsimonious black.
They have recently been capturing other ships in order to spawn a second Bitch from their timbers, so that they might go their separate ways at last, but the attempt fails. It’s Ankolee who realizes what the missing element of the curse must be, and the method of breaking it.
Entertaining piratical ghost/witch story, enhanced by Ankolee’s vivid narrative voice and improved by the absence of excessive angst. The conclusion wraps the whole thing up quite neatly, and I find myself hoping it is truly concluded, as further sequels would likely be anticlimactic.
Shimmer, January 2015
Four stories in this issue, with some very strange settings.
“The Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards
The setting of this horror piece has the name of Chicago but I doubt anyone from the city will recognize much about it, save for the names. Indeed, just about everything else is different, from the gas lights to the Haitian community to the tentacled child-eating monster on the streets to the fact that a kid can carry a machete to school in her backpack. Michaëlle-Isabelle, that kid, also has a mechanical heart and the ability to take off her skin and form a protective shell of it.
When all of the skin has been pulled off, I spread it open and I blow on it. It’s brown with translucence. It catches my breath, like a parachute. It dries with patience, like butterfly wings. As it hardens, I shape it around me, from head to foot.
This, she tells us, is the effect of the disease epidermolysis bullosa, but not in our world it isn’t.
There’s an optimal level of strangeness for any story. This one exceeds it. In addition to the above, the narration includes a lot of Haitian Creole [which is easier to parse if you try to read it as French]. Any one or two of these elements could add richness and interest to the setting and character, but the effect of them altogether in such a short piece is distancing and distracting from the story’s heart, which is the narrator’s pain at losing her only friend, and her determination to fight for him.
The fact is, that the streets of actual Chicago have ample real dangers for schoolchildren walking home, and the death toll is a tragedy and a disgrace to the city. [One reference in the text is, I believe, to the anti-gun pledge.] Reducing this problem to a tentacled monster seems to trivialize it.
“Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E O’Keefe
Here’s a setting with a good level of strangeness, where the elements bolster the storyline. It’s a world where the toxic strength of the sunlight is ultimately fatal to anyone who doesn’t cover the body in a wrap, but children are expected to earn their own wraps before adulthood, along with a name based on the unique personal scent with which their wraps are perfumed. Thus when we meet our apprentice perfumer, she is known only as Child. Her Naming Day is fast approaching, but she fears her employer won’t pay her enough to buy a wrap. Fortunately, a new, wealthy customer comes to the shop while her mistress is out, and Child is disturbed by the fact that she has no scent, no name, no identity. But she offers to pay well if Child can satisfy her.
An interesting society here, with children expected to be self-sufficient before adolescence. It’s good to see Child as a competent member of her profession, ready and able to advance into full adulthood and independence, knowing well the consequences of failure.
Ivy-beneath-cedar wouldn’t care; apprentices were easy enough to come by. The Justice of Bahat would see no harm done—those who failed to earn enough to purchase their own wraps before the sickness took them were considered useless. Just another mouth to feed from the scorched soil.
I like the way she has a brief moment of resentment of the dead, their wraps cremated with them while she has to go without, but not regarding this as an injustice. These few details tell us a lot about the society while keeping the focus on Child’s story.
“Be Not Unequally Yoked” by Alexis A Hunter
It’s not just that Joash keeps changing into a horse. The horse is a mare, which is clearly a metaphor for his sexual ambiguity. The story doesn’t name what he is, but he has always enjoyed the work that his Amish community considers only fit for women, and he now finds himself longing for the touch and love of another young man, which they would consider sinful. The point isn’t the name, but the fact that he can never be true to himself and fit into the place that the community insists he must – or leave it. Not unexpectedly, he realizes an epiphany of self-acceptance at the end.
The lines inside me dissolve like sugar in water. This is my powerful body. These are my strong hooves, my wild gaiety and fierce exuberance for life. Yet, there are still parts of me that are afraid. There are parts of me that still reprimand me for this sin. I am at once happy and miserable.
The pain of Joash’s desire is well-realized, but I was particularly taken by the pain suffered by his parents, who don’t share the option of a young person, to leave their strictly-governed religious community for somewhere tolerant. We can clearly see how their lives have been in large part destroyed by the attempt to live within this religious community without rejecting their only child. Joash’s sensitivity doesn’t even let his father harness their farmhorse for plowing, a real problem for an Amish farmer. If he remains, they face rejection; already the elders are suspicious. And if he leaves, they will remain as an aging, childless couple with no one to help on the farm and the pity, at best, of those around them.
“Monsters in Space” by Angela Ambroz
A sort of If This Goes On story looking at the exploitation of labor by big corporate interests. The law now holds that the debts of the parents are inherited by the next generations, and everyone has debts. Thus we find fifteen-year-old Louise working off her mother’s mortgage as an oil rigger on Titan. She takes a rather cheerful view of her lot.
When I chance to see a window, I recognize the awe-inspiring grandeur of our Valhalla views. Check that shit out. Methane. Nitrogen. Oozy orange chrome foam. We’re on Titan, bitches! We’re on a giant moon of a giant planet, orbiting a super-giant sun. Wow! I mean, I am impressed. I hope everyone is suitably impressed.
Other workers, less naïve, are less accepting of their situation, a resentment that sometimes materializes in the form of terrorism, which, as is often the case, tends to injure the innocent and miss their real targets, safely out of reach.
Louise makes an engaging narrator with her teenaged point of view, which proves her point about “how the oil companies want to gamify the means of production, and distract us from our oppression, and infantilize us, and so on and so forth, blahdy blah blah.” But despite the lightness of the narrative voice, there’s heavy stuff going on here, and Louise ends up both sadder and wiser, while still essentially herself.
Farrago’s Wainscot, January 2015
Not a new zine but the revival of an older one from long hiatus. It offers four short pieces, on the surreal and unusual side, pieces that I suspect might have not fit into more conventional publications.
“Everyone Has a Twin Except for Me” by Toiya Kristen Finley
That’s the premise: there are alternate dimensions, here called nodes, in which alternate versions of individuals exist. The sometimes-narrator, CF, is a young man tormented throughout his life by a group of bullies, particularly two named Derek and Aaron. To escape them, he flees from one node to the next, but they always find him there. Yet in none of these other nodes is there another CF.
The not-making-sense of this one is stunning. If there is no alternate CF in these other nodes, then the alternate instances of the bullies don’t have a history of tormenting their CF; why would they then pick on him in particular if they have never seen him before? And if the alternate bullies are always in the same place, why doesn’t CF move somewhere else in the world instead of from node to node? It makes no sense that the bullies would have absolutely nothing else to do but follow one favorite victim around.
Aside from being unconvincing, the story tends to be unclear as it flips from one narrative form to another.
“Sinfonia 22” by Forrest Aguirre
Told in documentary snippets, the life of a 17th century Italian composer, from which readers can piece together the story of his final days and opus.
It is a dance, a triumphal celebration, as if Livetti himself had spit a musical raspberry at the plague, the vicissitudes of war and love, authority, the social status quo, and even those who sought for and engineered his demise.
Intriguing puzzle piece with no fantastic content.
“Of Homes Gone” by Jason Heller
Long ago, say the whispers, there was Law, and people lived inside. Then the ceilings collapsed and the walls contracted and the floors became hungry and almost everyone died. All that’s left inside the buildings is death. Buildings are vindictive, unpredictable, sheltering one minute and murdering the next. Outside makes more sense. You can see things coming. You have room to run.
A surreal and distasteful future, when the underclass camps outside and ekes out survival, while a privileged class lives in a more stable sort of inside. One of these, Sarah, our narrator, is an Enforcer of the Lack of Law, a typical abusive cop who thinks nothing of casually destroying an innocent person’s livelihood to get the information she’s looking for, which, when she finds it, she wishes she hadn’t. Or maybe not.
A dark fantasy like this one isn’t meant to make literal sense. It’s meant to draw readers into an unsettling place, to evoke disturbing sensations. And in this case, to consider the situation of the homeless today and their helplessness in the face of the Enforcers of Law.
“Time is a Twisting Snake” by Richard Bowes
Another collapsing future, this one in the approaching world when the rise of the oceans is drowning the coastal cities, including the former New York, now known as Big Arena. Fitting its current status as a new Venice [I assume the old one has been submerged] the residents of the Big Arena are trying to recreate the tradition of marrying the city to the sea [apparently in hopes of appeasing it]. Our narrator has taken on the role of Doge.
We don’t yet have a proper Bucintoro, that floating gold throne room on which the Doges of Venice sailed forth each year onto the Adriatic Sea. I stand on the deck of a garishly painted barge loaded with flowers and towed by a fireboat. The regatta accompanying us includes everything from sailboats to ferries and is larger than it’s ever been before.
But time and fashion moves on while social media evolve, and the narrator is becoming passé, obsolete. There are new fashions, favoring youth, and the narrator must either join them or fade into oblivion.
Now the thing is, I like this setting and I’m anticipating the story set in it. But then comes Part Two, and the Venice-like setting almost disappears, until I realize this is actually a story of aging and the way the powerful can cope with it in this future. And it becomes clear that he may have made a devil’s bargain to pay for that golden throne. So in the end it all works, but the abrupt disconnect is a bit jarring.