Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Anathema, Lightspeed, Fantasy, and Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa
Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa, Rachel Zadok, Karina M. Szczurek & Jason Mykl Snyman, eds. (Catalyst 978-1946395573, $16.95, 260pp, tp) September 2021.
Anathema officially enters 2022 with their May issue, which opens with Choo Yi Feng’s strange and haunting “Plastic Bag Girl”. In it, said girl recycles trash along the shore and turns it into animated animals to entertain tourists. These brief and almost magical creations, however, bring her to the attention of those who wish to coopt her and translate her into something they can control. Instead of capitulating to that fate and accepting another’s translation of her, though, she resists, and takes charge of translating herself in a way that puts her beyond their reach. It’s a story that mixes beauty and something almost chilling in an effective way, leaving readers to wonder at an ending that seems both sad and profoundly hopeful. This playing with grief, hope, and ambiguity continues in “My Father Treats Merril Like All the Women in His Life” by Saswati Chatterjee. The story centers Sheila, a girl whose mother left, whose father is mostly aloof, unsure of how to relate to a child and especially to a girl. It leaves most of the child-raising to Merril, the house AI. The story explores how Merril fits into their lives – an artificial mother and wife who is ever-nurturing, never-complaining. She fills a space in both Sheila and her father’s life, one that is both warm and complicated, in some ways an open wound that can never really heal. Chatterjee does a great job of following Sheila as she works through her emotions, her bonds to her father and to an AI who is aging even more rapidly than humans do, with how quickly technology becomes obsolete. The issue closes with M. S. Dean’s “Drowning Songs”, which introduces Adeline, a young woman who from a very young age has been repeatedly drowned as a sacrifice to help her town prosper. It’s not a role she relishes – being killed every year at the behest of a goddess – but it’s something she’s mostly learned to accept so long as it allows her a certain freedom to express her attraction to other women. When the goddess begins asking more, though, and other innocents seem poised to be sacrificed as Adeline has been, she has to decide whether to accept it as matter of course, or take a stand that risks everything she has. Dean crafts a compelling and wrenching situation for Adeline, balanced on the supposed freedom she wants and the terrible price she doesn’t know how not to pay. The piece hinges not on whether the bargain is fair for the town, but for Adeline herself and anyone else who would be sacrificed.
S.G. Demciri kicks off June’s Lightspeed with a science-fantasy novelette, “The Crowning of the Lord Tazenket, Vulture God of the Eye”. A sweeping space opera, the story finds Ihuet, daughter of a god and oracle of his empire, trying to save her father from the gravity of patricide perpetrated by her ambitious brother. To that end, though, Ihuet reaches her influence outside of her family’s space, to a neighboring galactic power and a general who might be able to stand against a god. Wonderfully told and smolderingly hot, the story shifts between expansive worldbuilding and budding flirtatious romance with equal ease. Demciri’s prose sizzles, and the action pops off the page, with a style and aesthetic I’d pay cash money to see on the big screen. Arden Powell keeps with the themes of resistance to violent government and the advantages of godhood in “Zen Solaris and the God-Child”. In a post-disaster world, an authoritarian government controls everything, toward the end of continuing the human species, even or perhaps especially over the objections of people with bodies deemed valuable to the cause. Zen has such a body, but he’s also wily and willing to fight to keep himself free. And when he comes across a strange, plant-based power that could rise from the ashes of humanity, it comes down to the relative merits of each that guide Zen forward on his grim adventure. Powell maintains a rather relentless pacing in the story, with Zen jumping from disaster to disaster, pulled between the demands to submit for the good of his species and the allure of embracing instead the good of his planet.
Fantasy enters June with a focus on gods, demigods, and the power of storytelling. Fatima Taqvi lingers mostly on the latter in “Baba Nowruz Gives His Wife a Flower Only Once a Year”, which finds a young storyteller who learned all the stories “wrong,” whose fairy tales didn’t end with violence or betrayal and whose folklore wasn’t full of death and loss. Instead, they learn hopeful stories for hopeful futures, for all that they’re chastised because of it. Taqvi shows with clarity and care how, in the face of tragedy, uplifting stories can seem shallow or naïve. But through the action and hope they protect and inspire, having a happy ending to reach for can act as its own kind of spell, its own prophecy, and that is something incredibly powerful. Wen Wen Yang doesn’t exactly avoid violence in “The Magical Sow”, as the story is about a woman trying to help her sister escape an abusive marriage. But it also understands the heavy lifting required to overcome injustice and escape corrupt and broken systems. Yang fills the story with the wry and brash voice of a pig who has no time for human hypocrisies, playing her off the narrator’s desire for peace but her willingness to stand up against bullies. Ending on poetry, the issue closes with “Georgia Clay Blood” by Beatrice Winifred Iker, which finds a narrator connecting to a place, to the soil and earth on the land where their ancestors were tortured and kept prisoner. In their communing with the land, in touching the clay, they acknowledge their part of it and its part of them. Full of powerful and moving imagery, it echoes with a sense of time, and a look forward in a future that’s still a work in progress.
Closing out my coverage this month is Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Jason Mykl Snyman, Karina M. Szczurek & Rachel Zadok. The anthology is built around the theme of disruption, and more specifically around the ideas of shortage, disaster, and crisis. These recur again and again through the lens of each new story, building into a wonderfully diverse, often grim portrait of a world moving toward ruin or rebirth. The stories in general range from apocalyptic to transformative, casting the planet as moving past a point of no return and showing the effects where they will be felt first and hardest, where climate-driven disaster is already much more than a speculative conceit. The anthology opens with Alithnayn Abdulkareem’s wrenching “Static”, which finds Amira given the opportunity to leave a scorched Earth behind, thanks to her genetic diversity. What she’s leaving, though, and what she’s entering into are two very different things, and taking the lifeline means separating herself from those she loves. The story shows a stark picture of survival and inequality, where even the end of the world as we know it can’t dismantle racism or corruption. It’s a sentiment that continues in Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s blistering “Before We Die Unwritten”. Here Melifeonwe is a gay whistleblower at a huge corporation promising to change the world with its revolutions in energy production. A lack of care about safety and environmental impact, though, makes that promise a grim prophecy and Melifeonwe a doomed Cassandra. The piece is intimately about blame, about the refusal to take systemic action against systemic problems and relying instead on “personal responsibility,” which is easily manipulated and avoided.
The main character in “Five Years Next Sunday” by Idza Luhumyo is a Caller, someone whose hair seems to collect the possibility of rain. After five years of growing it out, she might break the drought that seems endless. When a white man takes an interest in her hair, though, and uses his money and influence to help just her and her family, it complicates her role, and makes her important in a way she’s not prepared for and has little defense against. Luyumyo weaves a web of desires and betrayals into a moving tapestry of love, loss, and tragedy. J.S. Louw maintains the focus on family and tragedy in “Laatlammer”, where the narrator is illegal thanks to a one-child rule, and his existence is one of constant danger and fear, even as it’s full of the love of his mother as well. The story is suffocating, though, with the need to hide, the looming threat of being reported, of not being able to trust anyone, of being used as a leverage to further exploit the most vulnerable. It finds both strength and futility in defiance, in the trap of injustice that has been laid for those who are deemed illegal through no fault of their own, just by existing. Mbozi Haimbe’s “Shelter” also finds a family in a precarious situation, but this one authored by a climate change that has unleashed acidic dust on the world, and storms that claim anyone who isn’t safely inside. For Lindi, caught out with her infant child, it’s a race against nature itself, one that she might survive this time, but that humanity in general might already have lost. The piece shows the power of small kindnesses in the face of huge ecological destruction, but lingers on the momentum of that destruction and the almost inevitable sense that, as things get worse, the power of small kindnesses won’t be enough to avoid a grim future. It’s a message that the anthology comes back to time and again. That humanity might be redeemed by our love and compassion, but only as those things are allowed to be bigger than the problems we face. And in order to push back against catastrophe, we need to fix the ways that our empathy, cooperation, and innovation have been disrupted by greed and hate. It’s a wonderful project.
“Drowning Songs”, M.S. Dean (Anathema 5/22)
This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.
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