Friday, October 14, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 09/2016

Happy Beerthday! With this installment The Monthly Round is officially two years old! That both doesn't seem like that much and seems like a hell of a lot. That means that I've looked at 216 pieces of short SFF and paired them with booze and reviews. That's…well, that's something, I guess. Anyway, thanks to all of those who've enjoyed the Round!

September is a strange time where I live. A mix of autumn and summer. And when I say a mix I mean that one day will be over eighty degrees (F) and the next day will get downright cold. Storms abound as farmers scramble to try and string enough dry days together to harvest. In town the river threatened to overrun its banks with all the rain we got. And always in the back of everything there is the whispering figure of winter smiling from the distance. Won't be long now, its smile says. Best get ready.

So maybe it's no surprise that the fiction I've selected for this month's Round are a bit on the dark side. About death and injustice, resistance and revolution. About ghosts and about corruption. Maybe it's no surprise that this time of year sees me reaching for the darker beers and the lighter wines. The contrast speaks to me, and is reflected in my picks this month. Because there might be a crispness in the air that promises the cold isn't far off, but that doesn't mean a strong drink and an excellent SFF story can't help me forget, at least for a little while, and focus on what's here and now.

So kick back and don't worry about the dirt on your boots. Or the blood. Instead, let your trusty storytender pour you something to take the edge off. Cheers!

Tasting Flight: September 2016

Art by Reiko Murakami
"Unauthorized Access" by An Owomoyela (Lightspeed #76)
Threading together activism and corruption, whistle-blowing and hacking, An Owomoyela's "Unauthorized Access" tastes like a Red IPA to me, fun and brash and up front and with the feel of something smoldering, ready to fully ignite. The story follows Aedo Lang, recently released from a stint in jail for presumably hacking but really for being poor and for pissing off the government. Now free, Aedo wonders exactly what to do next, how to get involved again but perhaps not in a way that will lead to prison. Except that she stumbles right into the thick of things when a government employee approaches her with suspicions of corruption that reach much deeper than what Aedo had uncovered before. The story is equal parts ethics and espionage with a little education thrown in about hacking and how people are supposed to be protected for whistle-blowing and often are not. And I love Aedo as a character, practical in her desire for food, protection, and an income, and yet also idealistic, believing that justice should be applied to all, even when it seems so often to favor those with means. It's a story that opens up a complex and interesting future where renewable resources aren't the only green energy the government uses. Money pushes the story along. The lack of it for some and the super-abundance of it for others. It creates a landscape where Aedo is never truly safe trying to walk the line between revolutionary and upstanding citizen. And like a Red IPA the story shows that revolution can have a bit of sweetness to go with the bitter truth, but that in order to get to a just system sometimes the old one has to burn. 

Art by Julie Dillon
"Toward the Luminous Towers" by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld #120)
"Toward the Luminous Towers" by Bogi Takács is a story about conflict and war, soldiers and soldiering and damage of many different kinds, and to me it comes across slow and deep, surprisingly dark and dense but with a glow to it of hope and action. Which feels like an Amber Bock, a drink that pours a deep brown and tastes like forgotten war songs. The story reveals a neuroatypical soldier who is valuable for the very reasons that in civilian life they were marginalized. Who can network into computer systems and organize troops, coordinate attacks and defense. They are paired with a handler in a war that is slowly being lost, a war that is slowly devouring everything in its path. And the trajectory of the main character is that of a weapon being used by their government, no different than a bomb being dropped on an enemy encampment. They are used. They are pushed into something dark and draining towards an inky bottom of total dissolution. And like a bomb or a gun dropped in surrender, there is no care for the character after the conflict subsides. They are used and in many ways deliberately broken, and despite the fact that they could be fixed, that they could at least be brought closer to whole, instead they are forgotten and shelved. It is a wrenching and difficult read, heartbreaking in its tragedy. And yet even so there is a warmth to it, a movement toward something that isn't war, that is beyond war and violence. That can't be reached by war and violence, which is the problem that the main character realizes too late. And yet even so there is a hope that will not die, a strength that is never crushed despite how much the main character suffers. Like an Amber Bock there is the feeling of something rising out of the darkness, a will and a power that the darkness cannot erase. 

"Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera (Strange Horizons)
Despite it being solidly autumn, "Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera feels like a Winter Ale to me, a story of layers and masks that mirror the spiced and hopped subtlety that makes winter ales memorable. The story unfolds as a conversation of sorts, archived at this point with references interspersed through the text to create a more interactive experience. Which is fitting, as the voice of the story is a questionably-sentient computer program that exists to be interacted with, to be questioned. It's a mix of a game and a history lesson and art and more, this person captured but not really. There is a distilling of the person that was but guided by an author, by intent, curated and manicured and crafted to exist as art and person both. The effect is interesting, a story that blends art theory with a history of revolution with the technology that allows people to create "smart" masks. I love how the character of the narrator, of Satka, emerges in an absence, emerges in the face of Satka-the-art, Satka-the-program, and yet through both the viewer (and the reader) have a chance to touch an aspect of the person who was Satka, and the new entity that is also Satka. There is commentary on continuity and interface and the role of the audience to observe. And I feel that the story led me to thinking about art and about stories, about the urge to write about history as a way to preserve it. Not the events, not the facts of what happened, but to crystallize a feeling that can be passed down, that can be remembered. And by creating a mask the story seems to acknowledge the construction, the illusion that art gives, while also saying that it might not matter. That the representation is important, and that art can be uplifting and transformational even if it's fiction, even if it can't actually reproduce a human mind. Like a Winter Ale I feel the story slows things down, layers spices and flavors to create a mosaic of experience that is beautiful and meaningful. 

Art by Jenna Whyte
"The Life and Times of Angel Evans" by Meredith Debonnaire (The Book Smugglers)
I have a thing with white wines where sometimes they taste a little…hollow. Light. Except that sometimes I find a white that is anything but, that is bold and dry and bracing. And so, for me, Meredith Debonnaire's "The Life and Times of Angel Evans" is a good Chardonnay, one that defies expectations by challenging the conventions of the superhero story, of the Chosen One trope. Because in the story Angel is a survivor. Of a disaster, yes, but more of fate. Because it was fate that cast her in the role of Chosen One, of savior of every world. Except the world she grew up in. The choice that she had to make was something that broke her spirit, that set her fleeing from the gratitude of a universe that suddenly was in her debt. And I love the way the story teases out the pain and the quest for healing. How the story shows Angel trying to move on, unsure if she can, knowing that for her the story always ends at the choice and the choice has been made. She's been vomited back out by fate and has no endgame now, no rapidly-approaching crisis. What she has left is the weight of the world that she lost, that she chose to lose, and the magic and power that seems almost pointless without a destiny to match it. The world-building of the story is rich and vibrant and the character work is amazing. Angel and her ghost-girlfriend make for an incredible couple and I love the how much is put into conveying the feeling of loss and isolation that Angel feels. The pressure and also the freedom. The power and the responsibility. It's a fun story but also a difficult one, one where the reader can be almost seduced by the way that Angel buries the pain, pushes through it in various forms of self-destruction. And yet the story doesn't give up on her, and there is a sense of slow recovery, of getting to a place where she can be comfortable with what's happened and begin to move on, to heal. It's a gripping story and, like a Chardonnay, comes in a big container (nearly a novella) that begs to be passed around among friends, dry and full and crisp and full of life in all its complexities. 

Art by Richie Pope
"The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin (Tor dot com)
With a taste of the streets of New York and a breath of new life and lurking dangers, "The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin feels like a Double Black IPA to me, rebellious and unwilling to compromise on what's important, and strong enough to beat the shit out of anyone or anything looking to start trouble. The main character is black, queer, and homeless, living in a New York that's always on the verge of killing him. And yet for perhaps that very reason he becomes the avatar of New York, the midwife for a city that's just being born. Or that hopes to be born, because without protection and guidance the city might easily slip into catastrophe, might be devoured and lost in disaster. And it's up to the main character to stop that from happening. The world that is set is basically our own, only it's populated by cities that are stealthily sentient, and beings even more vast and ancient looking for any opportunity to feed. And it's a story, to me, about visibility. About this main character who can embody an entire city not because he is the loudest and most obvious champion, but because he is unseen, as the city is unseen. I mean, people see the buildings and the parks, the streets and the rivers, but the living part of the city is concealed, ignored. Invisible. Like the main character, the city is vulnerable and there are those who would exploit that, who would victimize it because it's unseen. And yet the main character and the city show their strength, the strength that has had to grow in adversity, that has had to develop on its own, solitary and hard. It's a story about breaking out, about finding a power within and using it to do some righteous damage to those predatory forces hoping to get away with murder. It's an affirming and lifting story with a serious kick, and like a Double Black IPA is bitter but triumphant, dark but beautifully so. 

Art by Vincent Chong
"Some Breakable Things" by Cassandra Khaw (The Dark #16)
 Cassandra Khaw captures a slow kind of horror and pain in "Some Breakable Things," a story of family and death and damage that tastes to me like a Vanilla Porter, smoky and deep with a lingering darkness that subverts the sweet vanilla overtures. The main character is being haunted by their father. Their father who abused them, physically and emotionally. Who forced his child to justify his existence, to be a reason not to die, not to commit suicide. The story is in some ways about how damage can be passed along, how it doesn't end when an abuser dies. Something remains, some ghost of them that lives in the mind of the victim. A ghost that can't seem to be exorcised, at least not always, and especially not without help. A ghost that becomes more and more demanding, more and more disruptive. I love t he way the story ecokes this desperation to escape, the main character trapped between familial responsibility and their own need to be away from it, to have moved away from it. It's a beautiful picture of grief and guilt. Of hurt. It is horrifying and heartbreaking in how the ghost is able to move with impunity, how the main character is powerless in the face of it, how there is such love mixed with such pain. The story plays with the boundaries of ghost and living person, the ghost of the father more real the more wraith-like the main character becomes, the more isolated and tormented. It's a powerful story that and like a Vanilla Porter takes a relationship and love that is supposed to be sweet and twists it, drowns the hope of relief under a tide of darkness.

Shots

Art by Dario Bijelac
"Muse" by Nicola Belte (Flash Fiction Online)
 Examining the idea and disease of consumption, this story feels like a Ghost Girl to me, a layering of equal parts dark rum, Irish cream, and grenadine, the sweetness hiding something dark underneath. It paints a picture, rather literally, of children gripped with disease. Being slowly killed on purpose to emphasize their frailty, to reveal the beauty that only arises from the proximity to death. It is a deeply uncomfortable read, one that shows ghosts lingering at the place of their death, unable to flee even then in the face of what has happened to them. It shows a system that values class and wealth and power and men. That sees these girls as objects only and ones that can be given a disease expressly to make them seem more beautiful. So they can be painted. So they can become objects in truth, their flesh and blood discarded, their ghosts chained to this grim reminder of their exploitation. It's chilling and visceral, the children stripped of their voices, erased, the history of art the history of consumption, the history of women consumed by powerful men who never even thought of them as human. It's tragic and it's disturbing, but I feel it's also important to see, to watch the mechanisms by which lives are consumed. Like a Ghost Girl, it seems pretty and sweet, and yet under that there is the red of blood and a strong and stirring darkness. 

"The Exemption Packet" by Rose Eveleth (Terraform)
This story, framed as a packet of information explaining why one person doesn't have neural augmentations, tastes like a Head Rush, a mix of one part rum, two parts sour apple vodka, and a splash of lemon juice, an experience that is nearly overwhelming and quite memorable. The story reveals a world where mental augmentation is the norm in education, allowing students to go beyond their baseline senses so that they can see different spectra of color, can interact with computers, can have access to so much additional information. The main character is applying for a job and the company she applies to wants to check out why she isn't augmented. They get her file, which builds her situation and the world, the pressures to conform and adopt this technology and the way that it assumes that everyone will react the same way to it. And yet the piece also shows how there is no such thing as a universal educational system. What works for some can't work for others and this is especially true with a person is neuroatypical and doesn't experience the world the way other people do. The character has to defend this constantly, is used to the judgments that people have of her. And yet she spells it out in clear, moving language why she doesn't want augmentation. Why she would risk the scorn and the institutional bias. I love the way that it confronts the reader with the limits of technology, not only within a science fictional future but right now, how it shows that we need to rethink education to get away from standardization and toward something that can actually benefit everyone. And like a Head Rush, the story shows how the world can be an overload of information at times, and there's a lot to be learned in slowing down and trying to draw out each unique flavor. 

Art by Mélanie Delon
"The Old Man and the Phoenix" by Alexandria Baisden (Apex #88)
A touching story exploring friendship and mortality, pain and celebration, this one seems like a Phoenix to me, a mix of equal parts Rumchata and cinnamon whiskey, creating a burst of fire and flavor, a joyous song of life. The story takes place as an old man is dying, a magician who has lived a life of adventure, who has built a lifelong friendship with a phoenix, who has died many times but, of course, always comes back. There is no such comfort in this death, though, no coming back, and the story explores how that makes it different, how this friendship has meant so much to both man and phoenix. There's a touch of melancholy running throughout the piece, that this is an ending and also a beginning, but an ending all the same. That for the man it might mean rejoining other loves who have gone on ahead but that there will be no reconnecting with the phoenix, that there will always be the wall of mortality between them, always the question of what comes next that the phoenix cannot know because it never is allowed to go far enough. The story is quiet and moving, the characters tired after long lives and in some ways ready and in other ways not ready at all. Like life in general, this new chapter is one they can't map out, that they can't see, and they won't have each other to lean on. It's a beautiful piece, a beautiful friendship, and like a Phoenix somewhat bittersweet, a fire of remembrance and grief and hope.

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POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

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