|Art by Ekaterina Zagustina|
"Child, Funeral, Thief, Death" by Tade Thompson (4000 words)
This story follows a sensitive, a man who has the ability to find things, to locate valuable and know when people lwill be away from them, who can use his gift for any number of things. The first time it manifests, he finds an abandoned girl in a trash bin. From there, he doesn't really use the gift again until later, when he finds that he is not alone as a sensitive, and that he can use his gift to steal. And so he does. It's quite interesting that, as far as I can see, the main character is not named, is left to be a sort of everyman, like his actions cannot be made personal as to be made by an individual but that he's taken on the characteristics that he absorbs. Of course, it's also about the complete opposite of that, about how he tries to live without personal responsibility, how he takes and knows that he causes pain and does not stop. It's like from the start being a sensitive has caused him a desire to possess, to find and take. Frustrated in that as a child, it festers as he ages, becomes the hunger that keeps him going, that pushes him to the life of excess that he enjoys. Except that I'm ultimately not sure how much he enjoys it. He goes through life not really caring, like he feels that his gift, his nature, puts him beyond people, like he is a spirit feeding off life. There does seem to be something there, buried, but it does not rise, does not surface. As he says himself, he does not learn his lessons. And it makes the story sad and compelling, this character playing a game and finding little fulfillment in it but playing anyway, because the alternatives are equally unsatisfying and, whatever happens, he has his sensitivity to fall back on. An interesting story, with a strong tragedy and a lingering power.
"Six Things We Found During the Autopsy" by Kuzhali Manickavel (860 words)
And I'm reviewing this one despite it being a reprint, mostly because it's short and also I didn't realize it was a reprint so here I am. It follows the work of a group autopsying a woman who has died, though they never really say what she died from. What they find are traces from her, traces of her, a bent Playboy and a more pristine Playgirl and ants and angels and Typhoid and the story is a collection of things that obviously don't really belong in an autopsy but make sense nonetheless, that reveal a woman conflicted with her sexuality, her religion, her self. The group that works on her learns from her but without her, without the actual person to talk to, all they can do is guess at the meanings of her parts, and in the end, though they believe they know her, their conclusions reveal as much or more about themselves as they do about the dead woman. Because they are the ones interpreting the text of her body, still voiceless as it might have been in life, and though perhaps they are closer than others would have been, they are still no closer to really finding the truth of the woman. They have dissected and analyzed and a part of the woman has even gotten into them, all of which might give them insights, but it's insights into their own lives, into the feeling that they need to live, that they need to see to their own conflicts, or else they too might end up, voiceless, on the table. A fine and richly dark tale.
"Find Me" by Isabel Yap (4500 words)
This is a story about a woman and her imaginary friend. Kind of. Chas is in high school, is finally getting on all right with her schooling and her family after six years without a visit from Roger, her imaginary friend. Her imaginary friend who arrived after the death of her father when she was young, her one companion who always made things easier, who actually played with her and kept her sane. And kept her alone, because of her anger at other people not believing him real. Older than she was when last she saw him, Chas doesn't know why Roger has reappeared, why he has arrived at Christmas when her entire family is gathering like nothing has happened. At the same time, she does seem to need him. Or want him. To anchor her to something, to protect her from the way life changes, from the new expectations that people are heaping on her. It's a sort of nostalgic story, slow and sad and moving, filled with a deep and complex family structure and some great characterization for Chas, who wants something simple, who wants to find shapes out of the random, meaning out of the seemingly meaningless universe. Whether Roger is actually real or not is left rather ambiguous, a question that lingers, a question that might not, in the end, matter because to Chas he exists and provides something he's lacking. It's a sweet story, and one to check out.
"Frozen Planet" by Marian Womack (2900 words)
This is a snow story, which I am quite fond of (living in Wisconsin gives one a certain appreciation for the snow). Here an expedition to a new world is stranded in a section that is a state of perpetual blizzard. Stuck and chasing after a lost team member, the group begins to hear...something out in the snow. A beast. A presence. And Lawrence, one of the men on the expedition, finds a door. A door to his childhood, to his trauma. It's an interesting story, a barren landscape that plays tricks on the mind btu also an actual presence, something that goes beyond mere hallucination and fear and deprivation. The setting is striking, the isolation of the storm, the danger of it, the growing unease of chasing after their lost fellow, the growing realization that he's gone, and more than gone that he's gone out to give himself to whatever force is stalking them, that what's out there is not just dangerous but is their past, is their darkest fears. It's an effective piece, creepy and moody and dark and worth getting lost in. Indeed!
"Mountain" by Liu Cixin, translated by Holger Nahm (15000 words)
And okay, that's a long story to tuck in at the end of the fiction, but it's also a fascinating one, one that examines an alien people and also one man who lives to climb mountains. This man, living on a ship as a way of atoning for saving himself at the expense of four other on a climb of Mount Everest, has lived to climb mountains. His time at sea is supposed to cut him off from the mountains that made his life, but a visit from a ship as large as the moon creates a sort of mountain of water that he can't resist "climbing." If taken as a series of events, the story is a little dry, about the arrival of this ship which wrecks havoc on Earth and then this man's conversation with an alien people, a people so alien in fact that their development is almost incomprehensible to someone who has lived forever in the air of Earth. The story does an excellent job of showing the development of this people, the hardships, the way their environment shaped their understanding of the universe, how they saw everything as a mountain to be climbed, a challenge to be overcome. The idea of the mountain here is the unknown, that seeing something like a mountain, some are drawn to climb it, to find out what exists beyond. Ahead of theory there is testing, and from the testing the universe is know. But that takes risk, and that risk sometimes is awesome in its scope. And yet there continue to be people who climb the mountains, the physical ones but, more importantly, the metaphoric ones, the boundaries of the universe and of understanding. It might not really deal with the lingering question of how much damage the alien ship does and what the moral responsibility such explorers have for protecting what they are investigating, but the story does make a good argument for pushing forward. It's that final push that I'm unsure of, because I cannot really see climbing a mountain, even a metaphoric one, as necessarily good. Sure, having a better understanding of the universe is important, essential, but when the climber would sacrifice anything ahead of themself, then I get a little hesitant. Still, a very interesting story worth spending some time with.
"Dysmorphia" by Anne Carly Abad
This poem seems to be about body image, about the way that people, mostly women, are taught to view and value their bodies, to hold them in contempt for any perceived fault. Here the narrator of the poem cannot separate the pressures of society from their actual reflection, sees there a large and misshapen person that people could not help but see, hate. They are hospitalized and drugged, but they can still feel the difference, can still feel the wrongness, the lack of value. They harm themselves in an attempt to mirror what they might see in a mirror, and the whole poem is a rather stark look at how body image can become more than just feeling not pretty enough, not just about getting people to buy product and not even just about the eating disorders that it nurtures. Of course, the poem might be trying to convey just what it's like to have body dysmorphia, but I think it goes beyond that. Because the disorder mirrors the values of the society it comes out of. The disorder grows because people are taught to hate their bodies, to view themselves as flawed in order to get them to buy things. The true disorder is at the societal level, and the narrator of the poem is its victim, unable to separate the message from the meaning. About the harm that messages in advertising and texts of all sort use and promote, the story does a nice job of showing just how damaging internalizing such messages can be, even as it shows that some have no choice in the matter. Tragic and strong, the poem hits and hits strong, holding up a mirror of its own by which we can all examine ourselves and see if we like what we see. Indeed!
"The Dissection" by Christina Sng
There is always a moment in poems like this where I feel like a child, clapping and pointing and saying "I get it! I get it!" Which is always a slightly embarrassing moment for me because it probably shouldn't make me like a poem more. Like that moment in Avengers when Captain America gets the Wizard of Oz reference. All of this to say that this poem seems to be using War of the Worlds to tell a wickedly dark tale that reverses the meaning of that work. And, if that's the case, the poem works beautifully. Even without that extra layer of context, I think the idea of aliens invading earth and succumbing to Earth sickness is common enough that it doesn't need a specific reference. The idea here being [SPOILERS?] the aliens that die from human sickness were meant to do just that, were meant to die and be left behind, with the knowledge that humans would not just leave them. It's a great moment when the original message, which is that Earth is protected by God, is turned on its head, making the human tendency to poke and prod and revel in this unearned victory unleashes the true attack. It's a great twist, one that makes the original story not about human resilience but human foolishness. That believing too much in that superiority, that invincibility, in the end causes the fall, causes the loss of Earth, the loss of everything. From bright gain to crushing loss, the poem is short, three line stanzas that offer short ideas, clear images that provide the great moment where everything goes to hell, that lingers on the final lines which are powerful and dark and so good.