|Art by Reiko Murakami|
“The Law of Conservation of Data” by John Grant (9870 words)
This story is something of an intellectual exercise as much as it is also follows Rehan through a future much, much different from our own. It is a future where humanity has moved beyond its need for physical bodies, where people can go where they want, when they want, pairing or tripling or, in the case of the story, forming a contracted pentagon of people in relationships complicated and interestingly sexual. Rehan and his four companions are getting to know each other and decide to go on some honeytime after officially joining to a strange galactic anomaly, an old gambling asteroid that is observable inside the event horizon of a black hole. And the trip turns out to be one that becomes something very different for Rehan. Now, the story does a lot of work to make this future seem rather strange but also full of sensual pleasure and a lack of fear. These people are essentially immortal and go about their lives fighting off boredom, but there’s little else that is revealed. How people make money, how they might find employment, is not revealed, and that seems a rather calculated omission. Because, for me, slowly the story becomes not so much about the ways that this future has freed humanity to find its potential, but about how this future has distanced humanity from what made it valuable. It’s a story that makes a number of interesting moral moves, showing the past as obsessed with sin and full of atrocities, and this new future as one beyond that, but also beyond a real sense of purpose. It’s not really a new fear, that left to their own humans will sink into a sort of sensual gluttony. [SPOILERS] Slowly Rehan starts to see the shallowness of his existence, and in some ways it’s implied this shallowness extends to most of those living in this future. Which slightly rubs me the wrong way, because I feel that when looking at motivation and feeling and purpose, some might find freedom paralyzing, and distracting. Some might feel that limitation pushes them harder. But then, all we see of this future is Rehan and his pentagon and few other locations, and I feel personally that I wasn’t comfortable with the ending of the piece, especially how it moves Rehan from a m/m/m/f/f pentagon toward an m/f pairing and...well, I just didn’t feel like the story hit for me. It’s certainly interesting, though, and I encourage people to check it out so that you can make up your own minds on this one.
“Mix Tapes From Dead Boys” By E. Catherine Tobler (4980 words)
This is a darkly strange story about traps and about space and about a woman named Hadley trying to parse a series of glitches that might not be glitches, that might be something deep and dangerous and very close. The story follows Hadley as she explores a derelict ship. Well, kind of. The action of the story, the feel of it, is a bit confused. The framing of the story as a mix tape, every section preceded by a title and band/composer/performer/etc., gives it a bit of a jumbled feel, and this fits with what Hadley begins to uncover, the faces of dead boys staring out from these glitches that she keeps finding and putting away. And the jumble conceals something else going on, an invasion where Hadley isn’t fully aware of her situation even as the horror of it deepens, even as she struggles to not only figure out what’s going on but has to navigate violence, pain, and cognitive dissonance. The piece unfolds in the space near Neptune, near a space station there, and Hadley lives both in this world where she’s on a mission inside the derelict and in her own mind, and the boundaries between the two blurring and disappearing. And I like how the story conveys the alien nature of what’s happening, the way that it’s attacking and the way that Hadley is fighting back. The prose is haunting and visceral and difficult and I like how it sets the scene, everything just a bit confusing and uncertain and utterly terrifying. The ending addresses the confusion and the danger, reveals what might be going on and gives Hadley a chance to pierce the fog she has been struggling with. The story is a mystery and a dark one, but also one that leaves room for hope and the possibility of triumph in a truly oppressive situation. A difficult but rewarding read!
“A Touch of Heart” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Adam-Troy Castro (4740 words)
This is a rather sweet story about a farmer named Dou and his simmering rage and resentment at his situation. To me, the story is a lot about dissatisfaction and the idea of what is fair in life and what isn’t. Dou works hard, toiling on his land, and yet for all that he doesn’t really see the benefits of his labor. His crops are sad and his rewards small. Which might not have been the worst thing except that his neighbor, Gan, seems to have things so much easier, his land yielding up lush vegetables and fruits without Gan having to try all that hard (according to Dou, at least). This leads Dou out to change something in his life, and that in turn leads to him meeting a very special kind of assassin, and having his life changed forever. The piece plays out like a fairy tale in the way it looks at virtue and reward, casting a lot of Dou’s problems on not his circumstances but his outlook on life. His fixation on Gan blinds him to the ways that he can make his own life easier, and prevents him from asking for aide when he needs it, and I like how the story shows that it’s through cooperation that Dou is able to better his situation, but putting away his resentment and jealousy. Of course, it’s not exactly his choice to do so, but I like that the story also plays out a bit like a “be careful what you wish for” lesson, with Dou learning the error of his ways and coming to lead a more fulfilling, harmonious life. Of course, as a fairy tale the story does keep things rather simple. It rewards Dou for his “conversion” and there’s still some question of what would happen if he was still unable to find success even after having his mind altered. The story edges a bit close to implying that as long as he keeps his mood a certain way, he is bound to succeed, but that’s a narrative that can easily be used against people who do face systemic unfairness and don’t have the same pathways that Dou does when he “decides” to be happier about his life. It’s a fun and cute story, though, with some clever twists, and I still think it’s a fine read!
“How to Find a Portal” by Debbie Urbanski (6780 words)
Well okay. This is a rather devastating story about wanting to be elsewhere, about being stuck in a life that doesn’t seem to fix, and making decisions hoping that it will help and finding that it doesn’t. It’s a story about being different, and feeling broken, and just wanting relief from the constant pain that life can be. The main character of the story has been hoping to find a portal since she was a young child and other children would be taken away. And yet she’s never been allowed to leave, never been called away to some place that would better fit her. Instead she is pushed through a series of attempts to be normal and fit in. She gets in a relationship. She adopts children. She buys a house. But these things cannot fill the want in her to be elsewhere, and it’s something that other people can pick up on. I love the way that part of the experience is described, the constant pressure and pain she feels having to pretend to fit, because if she doesn’t people treat her worse. They are disappointed in her, treating the fact that she is different like a failing, and punishing her for it. And really it’s heartbreaking to see that play out, when what she needs is another world, one where the rules feel right instead of the one she’s in where she can’t be right, where any authentic part of her is despised. And the solutions people offer are to just fit in better. Fake ir or fix it. [SPOILERS!!!] Meanwhile the story might have been better called “How Not to Find a Portal,” and the tragedy of the piece is that the main character suffers on and on, unable to be who the people around her want but unable to find a place to be herself either. She’s trapped, locked in this cycle, and it’s beautiful and gutting all at the same time. It’s a wonderful complication of the idea of Portals in fantasy, and how the dreams can sometimes crash and burn against the rocks of conventions. And it’s a fantastic story that you should definitely check out!