“A Look at the Rise of Jihyun “Sardonicus” Layne From Pirate to Chancellor Through the Official Communiques of Her Predecessor” by Jeff Xilon (2414 words)
This is a great way to get the issue started with a story told as a series of messages from a leader to their people as the solar system comes undone around them. In truth, though Chancellor Waite is the voice of the story, the true star is their successor, a pirate-turned-revolutionary-leader with an uplifted bear as a second-in-command. The story is rather charming, the world building slow and almost subtle while also being full of small winks like Sgt. Scruffy Snout. Waite as a character is easily recognizable, a person who came to power on the promise of making things better and battling against corruption who instead made things worse, made the corruption more ingrained. It’s something that happens all the time, people yearning for something just and finding that in embracing a person saying that’s what they’ll deliver justice “when possible” the promised justice is always just around the corner, never quite ready. And I like how the story tells of the rise of Sardonicus through the words of someone who hates her, who is trying to use public opinion against her. And yet Waite finds that public opinion is something that he’s grown out of touch with, relying on lazy tactics and the same corruption that wasn’t enough to prevent them from taking power in the last coup. It’s a Robin Hood-esque story, and one where Captain Sardonicus is never even present. Instead she is a shadow that falls over Waite and shapes his policy and his future. Without ever appearing the story manages to capture something of her personality and the differences between her and Waite—that she would make Scruffy Snout her second, that she would dance in celebration, all the small details building up this vision of Sardonicus, the myth and the person and most of all the giant-killer who topples a corrupt regime. it’s a fun and wonderful story!
“And Sneer of Cold Command” by Premee Mohamed (4252 words)
This story is about conquest, and about resistance. It finds a man named Mortin working as a metalworker following the fall of society to Them, a mysterious force that attacks in the night, that is not human or at least presumes not to be, and who use statues that come to life in order to keep the populace in check—scared, disorganized, and isolated. Mortin does what he can to earn a living, but it’s the skills he learned as a government investigator before the fall that brings him to Their attention, or at least to the attention of one of Their agents, who has been tasked with tracking down a missing sculptor. The story feels to me like noir mixed with dystopian ideals and a deep strangeness that made me want to know more. The situation is dire indeed but Mortin accepts everything it seems in part because of his previous job, because he was never a revolutionary, was indeed quite the opposite. And I like how the story uses that, twists that, to have Mortin examine his own position, getting him beyond the selfishness that has dominated his concerns since the fall, since well before the fall. Or, in other words, the setting is dark and gritty, and amidst that setting Mortin seems almost normal. But with the light of the sculptor and her movement, the shadows of Mortin’s character become all the clearer, giving lie to the idea that he has no choice, that he’s doing all he can just to get by. There’s always a choice, and regardless of how dangerous things are, fighting back is not the same as giving into despair. There is something to be done, and Mortin has to figure out if he’s going to sit back and watch, or get involved. It’s not exactly a fun story, steeped as it is in violence and fear, but is a moving and engaging story, interrogating Mortin and his preconceptions even as he thinks he’s the one doing the interrogating. A great read!
“A Day Without Gifts” by Amelia Fisher (4273 words)
This is another story that is primarily concerned with an aftermath. And again the main character is mostly a spectator, a civilian caught between the forces that had previously dominated their life, and the new power rising, taking control, changing the rules. Selime is an orphan, having lost their mother to the Citadel and their father to a gift from the Citadel. They work in a shop that the invading force to their village needs to be operating, and so they become something of a center point, a connection between those loyal to the way things were and those wanting change. Again the story stresses that the world before this invasion was by no means ideal. Marked by great inequality and corruption, the people of the villages were exploited to keep those in the Citadel in power and comfort. So that even through their parents were both lost because of the Citadel, Selime’s brother still wants to remain loyal in hopes that, if the Citadel is successful in the conflict, they will reward him. Selime is a bit more measured in her response, and as such becomes someone the new rulers look to in order to smooth the transition. And they must decide if that’s something they wants or something they should push back against. Nothing is easy in this story, nothing obvious or straight-forward. The invaders see themselves as liberators, but mainly they are motivated by gain as well, to take this world and to profit by it, though they are perhaps less invested in the extreme corruption that marked the world before. Still, there’s no good answers, no clean way forward. And I like that, like that Selime wants something to be easy, wants to not be the one to make decisions. But they come to see that perhaps they should be one to make decisions. Because otherwise it’s people like her brother who decide, and decide for everyone without caring about the well being of everyone. It’s a complex and moving story that captures the numbness of invasion and the limited options left to those who remain, who have to walk a line between freedom and hope, occupation and grief. Another great story!
“Chosen One” by Manda Vranic (1288 words)
This is a rather interesting and rather dark take on the idea of a Chosen One, written to echo a lot of kinds of stories but especially the Magic School tales that Harry Potter embodied. The main character is not really named throughout, but just so happens to be the person who killed the Chosen One, who threw everything into disorder. And the story asks, after the Chosen One is dead, what comes next? It’s a great twisting of the tropes and a question that gets to the heart of what the purpose of Chosen Ones is. And I like that the story doesn’t really erase the fact that this action the main character takes comes to dominate their world, their mind. Having killed a person. Having killed this “important” person. Having to live in the wake of that, with expectations and conflict and doubt. And I like where the story pushes this person who is now known solely not just for what they’ve done, but who they’ve killed. They come up with a solution that to them makes sense, and it’s difficult not to see the logic of it, even as nothing about these stories is ever truly just. But it’s a great complication of the Chosen One idea and it fits into the issue, being still about war and about aftermath. Here is another story that looks at a character trying to find how to live in this new reality, in a reality that they helped win, and decided that they’re not done. Like the others so far, there’s a sense of events going beyond the main character, even as they’re grounded in this one thing they’ve done. But it pulls out and looks at the nature of conflict, and what they’re willing to do for peace, or the promise of peace. It’s rather creepy and complex and an excellent read!
“The Taste of Grief” by Kelly Jennings (5783 words)
This is a story of difference and persecution, a story of humans who have been genetically engineered to be something other than human. To be better in many ways. Saurians. And Nuri is one who grew up in a camp after she was taken from her parents, taken to live as a prisoner and refugee, never safe, never full. And, finally, used by the government in hopes of tracking down more of those like her. The story moves rather quickly and doesn’t slow much to build the setting and the world of these Saurians, constantly hunted and feared and hated. The setting is dystopian but makes complete sense, America’s hatred of science leading the country down a dark path, one that might end in the destruction of all human life, and really I can’t say that makes me all that sad. It’s a story about the ways that people hurt each other and blame each other, the way that humanity is something treated like it can be rescinded, like it can be revoked. For Nuri the world is a constant struggle where all she wants to do is be left alone. To have a place. And yet she finds as she finds herself suddenly outside the cage she was in for most of her life that it’s not as simple as just having space. Because people will still come, because people are obsessed with destroying her and those like her. It’s a story, like many in the issue so far, of being forced into a bad situation, because of birth or because of where you live, because you don’t have enough or because of the color of your skin. Of not having the right kinds of choices. And so having to make the ones still available. For Nuri, that means deciding how to meet the prospect of extinction, and the prospect of open resistance. And I love how the story moves and how it focuses on resistance being communal, being collective. Nuri isn’t alone, even as she’s always felt that way. She’s a part of something, and something that might be spreading. Which is a great twist given how the story uses disease and contagion. A fantastic story!
“Drawing Dead” by Laurence Raphael Brothers (2099 words)
This story breaks from a lot of the previous works in the issue in that it’s not exactly about war or large-scale resistance. But, then, it also is very much about small rebellions, about taking risks and committing to stand against some form of corruption. It follows a dealer with no name, without much of an identity at all, presiding over a poker game where the stakes are absolute, where the losers are completely lost—their money, their memories, their very beings becoming winnings for whoever takes the pot. The story follows the dealer, who has been around for a number of these games and who was at one point a loser of the game, finding themself drawn to one of the players, one who does not really do well. And the story looks at this situation, where the dealer is supposed to be the tool of the game, a cog in this cycle of winning and losing. And while they don’t really know who they were before, don’t remember how they got into this situation, there is a part of them that still knows enough to fight back a little, to try and reach out through the anonymity of the game to something real, something human. The story is certainly a bit of a departure from the other stories in how it imagines conflict and scale. There isn’t exactly a corrupt government at work here, but there is a system that is built to value human life as numbers and data and currency, creating a distance where a person can be someone else’s winnings. The scope is not society-wide, is contained to a single person that the dealer is hoping to save, but that intimacy gives the story enough weight to stand with the others, to not really feel out of place among them. It’s a shift, a side-step, but the focus is still on the need to make these small actions, these small choices, to try and turn the tides of a larger abuse going on. And it’s certainly a story to spend some time with, with a fun aesthetic and nice impact!
"Fire Rode the Cold Wind” by Aimee Ogden (4389 words)
This is a sensual and rending story about two people brought together through fire and through circumstance, joined by a deep affection and yearning and yet also separated by their private drives. The story features Piarcu, a man living in a frozen land, a diver and survivor, and Isro is a refugee, betrayed by her people who live in floating habitats, ejected planet side to keep her silent about the growing problems in the habitats, the danger that could destroy them all. Saved by Piarcu’s people, the two become close as they tell each other about their separate worlds, and slowly overcome the cultural differences between them. There’s a great focus on names, where for Piarcu’s people true names are inscribed on a person, hidden but for those most intimate of encounters. Isro has no name to him, and perhaps on that blank canvas he imagines his own needs, what he wants her to be. A companion and partner, someone to be with him through the long cold, through the dark and the light. And Isro is drawn to this as well, but there’s another name that’s already written on her heart, and it requires her to try something else. It’s a great and fairly romantic piece and I love the relationship between Piarcu and Isro, both of them very similar and yet different, distant. And not distant just in how they were raised but that Isro feels the need to act to protect her people, even if they betrayed her. What plays out is the two characters hoping and not hoping, reaching and not taking, ultimately respecting each other’s decisions but both of them deeply disappointed about how things go. They find ways to be intimate, to bridge most of the distance, and they deeply change each other, but at the same time they cannot change what keeps them apart, can only reflect their true selves, which cannot at this time be together. Which is tragic and triumphant all at once, and makes for an excellent read!
“Man-Size” by Gwynne Garfinkle (4613 words)
This story continues to slowly inch things away from looking at larger, societal corruptions while still very much being concerned with resistance and revolution, with fighting back against oppression and injustice. The story looks at a pair of high school girls, Amy and Jill, who are best friends, at least until Amy starts going out with Ted. Ted, who is an asshole. The story does a great job of capturing how abusive men can operate, looking at gaslighting and verbal and emotional manipulation. Ted targets Amy and then tries to use her, literally growing more powerful the more she hurts, the smaller he can make her. It’s a clever play on the idea of a vampire and I love how the story uses this to explore the relationship between Amy and Jill, their friendship and the messiness that can enter in to close friendships when someone gets a romantic partner. The tone of the story is fun and flows well, though at its core I feel that it’s a very emotionally heavy story, difficult to read at times because of the way that Ted operates, because of the way he seems to infect Amy’s life, and then when that stops being enough, turns on Jill as well. I say difficult because the speculative element is so ingrained into the real world, is so easy to recognize. Teds in the world are prevalent and operate largely in the open, using people’s distrust of women, their misogyny, in order to feed and prosper. He’s a monster, but a monster that doesn’t even bother to hide, that doesn’t need to because people will willfully look away. The resistance here is to confront this force that seems so big, that has such wide support, even from his victims. Jill has to fight her way through this toxic element in her life, has to be willing to lose everything to take a hard enough stance to be free of it, to be free of Ted, and in doing so she does manage to do something bigger, though even that victory is tempered by the deeper problem, the infrastructure that allows Ted to operate. Here, though, the focus is on small victories, and joy, and friendship. And it is a fantastic story!
“In the Land of Gods and Monsters” by Edward Ashton (3379 words)
This is a rather strange story that centers itself on a father and daughter, and gods, and titans, and parables and bargains. The story is framed on the father and the parables he tells to try and keep his daughter, Tara, safe. To try and keep her out of trouble. To try and keep her. And yet as she grows and as they explore the world which is marked by conflict, by the wars between the gods and the titans, he finds that there really isn’t anything he can do. She is her own person, with her own drives, and anyway his parables are kind of shit, mapping a world that does not value merit or anything else, that is largely capricious and down to whim, down to the will of the gods, who are definitely not omnipotent or just. With this story the issue comes back to its focus on larger wrongs, but it’s balanced by being very concerned with just these two people. These two humans who might be the very last. The world is starkly drawn, and there is a sense of loneliness about the main character and his daughter. If that’s the case, it makes complete sense that she would be frustrated, that she would look for an escape. Instead she finds herself falling into a different sort of trap—the father, too, their story bent to the wills of the gods and the wills of the gods rather impossible to guess or decipher. What results is...weird, but in a rather interesting way, the gods and the main characters all players in this larger game where the rules are uncertain, and where the goal seems to have been lost somewhere along the way anyway. The tone is fresh and fun, contrasting the more mythological or religious overtones with a language that is more casual, more vulgar, and I like the effect, the main character’s situation that of a man trying to navigate this cruel world, trying to do right by his daughter, knowing that there’s no safety regardless, that no amount of parables will really change things. And yet he tells them still, until he runs out, until he needs to act without any sort of map or safety net. A fascinating read!
“New Lamps for Old” by Alter S. Reiss (2292 words)
This is a story that looks at deals and power, magic and rulership. Specifically it follows Othintet, the king of Avelar, a small nation whose existence seems rather fortunate, stuck as it is between larger powers. But then, as the story moves and Othintet finds a bottle on the beach that continues some sort of jinn or genie, things start making a bit more sense. And I love the way the story looks at deals, and specifically at the scheme that Othintet is presented with. It’s almost refreshing to find a situation where this man who has power and prestige and money is offered more and the prospect of it isn’t something he immediately pursues. There’s obviously a lot going on here and the story does a rather wonderful job of slowly building up Othintet as a character. He comes across for me as somewhat thick at first, slow and largely-useless, around mostly for ceremonial purposes and otherwise just a wealthy older monarch. But soon enough he’s revealed to be something more than that, and I like how he elected to go into the role of king not exactly out of king but out of a certain acceptance of what would happen. That he was already vetted in many ways by just choosing to take the role available. It’s something that’s a bit subtle in the story in how it’s passed down, so that it seems that the ruler is always someone who is going to make the choice that Othintet makes here, not exactly putting the good of his people first but rather knowing that accepting a new deal opens all sorts of new dangers. It’s not that he thinks he’s being tricked, exactly, but rather that because of the nature of his rule he’s already aware of the game and how it’s played, and he knows the value of what he has. Yes, it comes at a price, but it’s a price he’s chosen to pay and people thinking that he secretly wants out of it just because the time to pay is approaching underestimate how at peace he is with everything. It’s a fun piece and one that I find rather touching, actually, fitting into the issue not because of a great corruption but because of Othintet’s refusal to reach for more power, his stand against this temptation that could easily lead him and his nation into a very dangerous situation. It is a resistance of sorts, though one that leans a bit more humorous than most of the stories so far. It lightens the mood a bit, though, especially coming on the heels of the last piece, and it’s a very enjoyable experience!
"We Came Here to Make Friends” by Martha A. Hood (4847 words)
This story, told as an interview between an official and Timma, a member of a research and diplomatic mission to a planet inhabited by the Kateed, a species that resemble butterflies. The interview examines not only what the humans did while on the planet, but the steps they took to conceal what they were doing from the organization that was supposed to offer oversight. Things...went a bit wrong with the mission, and the scientists (which acts a lot like a colonizing force) didn’t want to be stopped. And what I appreciate about the story is how it deals with unintended damage, and how it shows the need for oversight and for scientific rigor when dealing with situations like this, when dealing with the meeting of new species. The humans think that they’re there to make friends, and yet in that they are rather selfish, putting their own desires above even their own protocols. They falsify information because they are desperate for something to work, and what they do instead is this great harm. It’s not the kind of violence that is expected, and yet it completely changes the Kateed, and leads to the humans having to make an increasingly dire series of choices. There’s a discussion here about beauty and what the humans value and how that impacts their study. They make some very large moral mistakes in all of this, basically showing what kind of a threat they are to the Kateed, who don’t need or even want humanity there. But still, there’s a sense that even as the humans are doing something harmful, even as they’re changing everything, there is a chance for them to grow, to change how they view other species, other people. A chance to get beyond their own values of beauty and difference. It’s a rather wrenching and often uncomfortable read, because of how the humans treet the Kateed, how their science leads them to want to prevent what’s happening, to stop the harm they’re obviously responsible for, and how they are denied that, have to live with it and deal with it. It’s a difficult and deep story, and it’s an interesting way to close out the issue, showing here how resisting protocol and systems can also lead to harm, even as it might also lead to some good. It’s a story that I personally have a hard time making my mind up about, but I definitely think people should give it some time and attention!