Thursday, May 28, 2020

Questing in Shorts: May 2020

Well, I promised May would be a magazine-heavy month, and I've met my targets on that front, catching up with some of the 2019 issues I wanted to from my favourite publications and starting in on some 2020 backlog. With big resolutions, however, comes the pressure of living up to them, and I'm realising there's a point where I may have to shelve back issues in order to read the new stuff as it comes out instead. It's hard to give myself permission to just not read things which, in many cases, I've paid for, or otherwise feel I've made a commitment to by putting it on the e-reader, but accepting that one cannot read all the things, not even all of the things one is subscribed to, is a necessary part of being a reader stuck in linear time. Besides, it's not about what you don't have time to stuff into your eyeballs, but about the great things you do, and oh boy were there some awesome things this month:

Uncanny Magazine Issue 33

There's a running theme of memory, both ancestral and personal, and of self-actualisation in the face of overwhelming forces trying to drag the various protagonists down, in this issue of Uncanny Magazine. For one thing, the reprint is "Harvest", the Rebecca Roanhorse story about the Deer Woman myth originally published in the New Suns anthology, and just as powerful and raw the second time in its treatment of a dangerous, angry mythological creature whose complexity isn't addressed in stories that focus only on her role as a temptress. There's also the astonishingly good "The Sycamore and the Sybil", by Alix E. Harrow, a story told by a tree who used to be a woman and who is forced to watch as another young woman attempts to escape a predatory man in the woods. The story's reversal is, on one level, delightfully simple, but on another it turns every patriarchy and mythology driven assumption about who holds power on its head, and it ends with a powerful moment of hope and sisterhood which barely felt possible at the start of the story.

The rest of the story's issues are similarly strong, from the beautiful prose and worldbuilding of Christopher Caldwell's "If Salt Lose Its Savor" to the intriguing, increasingly weird breakdown of "Georgie in the Sun", Natalia Theodoridou's story of Dracula and his bride on a far future generation ship mission which starts to go bizarrely wrong. L. Tu's "If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough" annoyed me during its midpoint for its notes of sexual exploitation, as a younger protagonist in a school run by her colonised deals with the ghost of one of her people out in the forbidden woods of her home. But when the extent of the atrocities perpetrated on her people become clear, protagonist Aida is offered - and takes - her own choices in retaliation for what is done, and it becomes something more powerful and bigger than any of its individual characters. I happened to read The Best of Uncanny Magazine collection this month and I could imagine any story in this particular issue within that collection - testament to the quality this publication brings to each and every edition.

The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler

Tobler's latest Apex publication is a collection continuing the world explored in the novella The Kraken Sea - although, full disclosure, I have read but don't particularly remember the plot of that origin story, so this review is not going to provide any insight on that front. The stories exploring the various destinations and characters of Jackson's Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade - a carnival which appears to travel through both space and time, appearing to pick up some who benefit from its protection and others who certainly don't, and changing the lives of all who encounter it.

It may have been a quirk of my mood at the time of reading, but I found that the more hopeful stories landed more successfully with me than the forays into horror. "Blow the Moon Out", the collection's lengthy centrepiece, was a particularly enjoyable story for me, telling the weird journey of four girls to the circus, their meeting with a strange dog along the way, and the ways each finds what they need from their experiences at the circus. While each girl's self actualisation feels very much bound to that particular moment in time - their escapes from various forms of patriarchy, in particular, feel like they won't last beyond their return home - there's a feeling of timelessness within its conclusion that makes everything feel right in a brief, almost nostalgia-tinged sort of way. Homegoing is also the theme of the collection's first story, "Vanishing Act", in which a girl finds herself on the tracks in front of the train, is taken in by the circus, and attempts to find her way back to her distant home with the help of a man who can make things vanish, but not reappear.

I found less in the collection's more unpleasant and brutal stories, like the owned children of Maman Floss in "Artificial Nocturne" or the visceral, dark horrors of "We, As One, Trailing Embers", the story of conjoined cannibal twins who find ways to meet their needs while travelling in the circus - but the fact these stories come earlier in the collection, and others, like the tale of the circus' Marmalade maker Beth ("Lady Marmalade") are later - is a clever stroke, forcing us to accept the circus and the world around it in all its flaws before being invited to see more of its human angles and what it might offer. And the stories that go to truly strange places - like "Ebb Stung by the Flow", the body hopping narration of a disaster which seems to offer answers to how the circus gets to its many destinations, while also making things so much weirder - underscore what an interesting setting this is on multiple levels, with a feeling that there are so many more stories waiting with Jackson and the crew somewhere on the tracks. Fall collection

This set of Tor stories seems to be cliffhanger themed, with a ton of stories that set up and explore their idea but fade to black just as a narrative emerges. Regular readers of this column may have established that this is not my favourite story structure, no matter how effective it can be in driving home its message - and this is a bindup, so you can be assured that all the stories land very effectively - so it did colour my overall enjoyment of the collection.

Included in this group is newly-minted Hugo finalist "As the Last I May Know" by S.L. Huang, a secondary world story set during a war which could be ended at any point using  weapons of mass destruction; however, following previous wars, the culture at the centre of the story has set it up so that the only method for the president to use these weapons is by murdering a ten-year-old girl, Nysa, who becomes part of his staff at inauguration. Huang explores that concept from multiple angles, juxtaposing the man from the Order which brought up Nysa and the president himself and their different methods of attempting to protect and/or own her, and Nysa's own complex self-realisation and articulation of her desires. Its a story that fits well into the canon of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and other sacrifice stories, twisting the slightly-too-convenient setup into something that's very believable in how it deals with public opinion and the uncertainties of conflict. Even if you're not reading for the Hugos this year, this is one that's well worth checking out.

Firmly in the "I wish you hadn't ended it there but otherwise that was great" category, Greg Egan's novelette "Zeitgeber" involves a world where many of the young people (and some adults) become "free riders" in time, with an internal clock that moves differently to actual times of day, sending them out of sync with the world around them and with each other. It's a weird idea that becomes increasing compelling as Emma, the main child of the story, and her father, deal with well meaning but ultimately ignorant pressure from the rest of society about what is "best" for these children, and the passion and talent we are willing to sacrifice to achieve conformity. Brenda Peynado's post-apocalyptic pandemic story "The Touches", in which a woman living in a world that's been rendered uninhabitable outside of designated "clean" spaces and humans live completely isolated from each other in their own microbiomes rediscovers the concept of human touch in its terrifying, messy and comforting forms, is another delight. And while I haven't yet read Adrian Tchaikovsky's Made Things, the prequel story "Precious Little Things" in here makes me even more intrigued about this world of homonculi and their unknowable magical creator.

Clarkesworld Issue 159 (December 2019)

I'm still reading Clarkesworld at significantly less than the "one magazine per month" rate which would stop the backlog from growing in my unread magazines folder, and if anyone on the internet wants to give me permission to move some of the older issues out of my to-read-soon list and into my giant unread folder of death, that would be much appreciated. But anyway, here's December 2019's issue, as read by Adri in May 2020. We kick off with the haunting "Such Thoughts are Unproductive", a dystopian future America, where surveillance is used to push people into totalitarian conformity with anti-scientific opinions; the plot revolves around the video conversations the protagonist has with her mother in a rehabilitation camp, which she knows aren't real but can never fully disprove. "Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet" is a story about musicians on a generation ship, which is a premise I'd be happy to read an entire anthology of someday. The story switches between the five members of the quintet (though it appears to be narrated by an "us" who is all of the members at once, which is an intriguing conceit) as it tells the story of their final performances, before their respective lives take them in different directions.

"Eclipse our Sins" by Tloto Tsamaase is another challenging story, whose take on a post-climate crisis earth and the wrathful-earth-worshipping religious society which evolves within it feels very quintessentially Clarkesworld,  Then there's this month's translated Korean story, "Symbiosis Theory", which is a bit of an odd one, going through an intriguing initial vignette into a story of scientists working on infant communication who discover the strange presence of an additional voice within young childrens' neurological patterns. It transpires that young humans may play host to another consciousness which in turn has uplifted the human species. it's a concept that could end up being pretty damn creepy, but author Cheoyop Kim plays it softer than that, turning it into a story about togetherness and connection which hit me particularly in the feels at current circumstances.

 Anathema Magazine Issue 10

This issue of Anathema contains plenty of gods and superpowers brushing up against mortal lives, in ways that are traumatic and transformative. S. Qiouyi Lu's "This House is Full of Faith" deals with a widow whose husband was killed when his body was taken over by an angel during the war they have been fighting, who is deeply sceptical of the new angel who turns up her doorstep claiming to have answered her daughter's prayers but who ends up letting this new woman into her family and beginning, slowly, to heal. In "Thunder Only Happens When It's Raining", a girl and her sister try to survive a viscerally sticky, bug-ridden summer alongside her older brother, who has returned from the school for "gifted" children he spends his year at; but he keeps bringing rain and lightning indoors and won't speak to his sisters and keeps stealing beer from the fridge, and its clear that his experiences at the school have been traumatic beyond anything the narrator can really comprehend. The claustrophobia of the story - embodied with a literal "itchiness" as the protagonist narrates her mosquito bites and the pain and pleasure of scratching, or not scratching, at various points - makes the silence of its central character even more excruciating, and it all adds up to something which, while not a pleasant read, is certainly an accomplished and atmospheric one. "The Future in Saltwater", by Tamara Jerée, also has Gods at its heart - this time, saltwater creatures which latch on and make a request of their bearers at a coming of age ceremony. Luo's God has asked them to take it to the ocean, despite their fears that their sick parent, Cheypa, wouldn't be looked after if they made such a long and treacherous journey. When Luo decides to defy their God, it leads to consequences and to an eventual reaffirmation of faith that causes loss and heartbreak but also a new role and a departure that, we hope, will not be as challenging as those which Luo and Cheypa have weathered before.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.