Friday, October 13, 2017

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 10/02/2017 & 10/09/2017

Strange Horizons is back to your regularly scheduled content now that the fund drive has been successful, which means two stories and two poems to kick off its October releases. The fiction, and perhaps a bit the issues in general, revolve around loss and around connections. Whether because of natural disaster or murder, the stories are about people who have been suddenly cut off from a person or people and forced to keep on going, to try and find a way forward to healing and hope. The situations vary widely, but the core of the stories remain the desire to reach out, and the ability of people to help other people to begin to overcome trauma and loss and start to make some positive change. So let's get to the reviews!


“Krace Is Not a Highway” by Scott Vanyur (1018 words)

This story does a good job of mixing cute and crushing despair, hope and robots and humanity. It follows HiQIRR, nicknamed Hiker by Krace, a person who has rescued the highway inspection rover from where it had been stuck and given it a new mission more in keeping with the current situation—locate other human survivors. The apocalypse, whatever it is, is never really explored or explained. Hiker has no concept of it because they were programmed only to keep track of the roads and report their status. The roads, fyi, are in terrible condition where they still exist at all. It points to a war or series of natural catastrophes, and in any case things are definitely Not Good for Krace, who is alone save for the voice they give to Hiker, the voice they send out in hopes of finding more people and some glimmer of hope that humanity still exists. I love the way the story balances the weight of that, all the death and destruction and loss, against the more neutral and almost cheerful perspective of Hiker, who experiences joy and sadness really only remotely, as a sort of environmental bonus, and it mutes in some ways the intensity of the pain that must have happened, must still be happening, while also giving it space and respect. It’s in the absences and the small observances of Hiker that the full scope and scale of the damage can be felt, and it’s a subtle but I think powerful thing the story does quite well. It’s also how the story begins to bring back some hope to the setting and to Krace, who throughout is not only lonely but rather grumpy. Which makes sense, given everything. But I love how the ending makes this rather clever statement on the prospects of Krace, not good really but improving from the worst status to one just a bit better than that. Regaining a bit of hope with the prospect of healing and an end of isolation. So yeah, it’s a great story that you should definitely check out!

“Airswimming” by Aisha Phoenix (4091 words)

This story does a lot to capture the complexity and feeling of grief and loss, especially of family, through the eyes of Imani, a woman whose grandfather is murdered while he is living alone, mostly estranged from Imani’s mother, his daughter. Deeply effected by his death, Imani begins a program that’s supposed to teach her how to airswim, to get over the grief and the guilt and everything associated with what happened. And I like the way the story explores how that program is structured, how it’s set up in a group atmosphere that pushes Imari to the periphery, not only because her loss doesn’t seem as large as some experienced by the other group members but because her grief takes on a different shape because it’s not just guilt and sadness that she’s dealing with concerning the murder of her grandfather but also the feelings of anger and resentment she feels toward the man himself, for being a complex person, for having caused a great deal of harm to her family. And I love how the story explores how that aspect of her grief makes it harder to connect with those who don’t have such feelings, whose loss is clearer for not having such reservations about the person they lost. And it gets at me because especially family is something that people are supposed to love without question, were any estrangement is a shame that is shared evenly. So that when this man dies Imari feels like she should have simply gotten over his faults in order to have saved him. And yet the story doesn’t ultimately side with that, doesn’t blame Imari. [SPOILERS] Indeed, only once the space is made to acknowledge her grandfather’s issues, and his own role in people not wanting to be around him, can Imari begin to find the feeling she wants. Only by recognizing that it wasn’t her fault that he was abusive and made her uncomfortable can she begin to free herself from the weight keeping her stuck in place. It’s a lovely and moving story about healing and hope and loss and guilt, and you should definitely check it out!


“Chrysalis” by Cassandra Rose Clarke

This is a rather haunting poem that speaks to me of change and purpose and control. The narrator is changing, but in many ways they aren’t changing so much as they are being changed, placed into a state and prepared to become what they were designed to be. It is not exactly a freeing transformation, or one that is free of pain or complication. As the title suggests, the narrator finds themselves entombed, in an in-between stage of growth, suspended in this moment with childhood softness behind them and something much more powerful but much more violent ahead of them. It seems to me that the piece reveals someone who is acutely aware of what their future might be, what they will be expected to do and how they will have to perform. There are a number of human parallels, after all, where a young adult finds themself put into a situation that is painful but that is also designed to make them into some sort of “real adult,” capable of living through the world as it is, full of harm and danger. In the poem, the character’s mother, or perhaps just a mother of some sort, oversees this transformation, urges it and creates it, to make the narrator into something beautiful perhaps but deadly, an instrument more than a person. Something to uphold the status quo. And yet there’s also a spot of freedom within this in-between state, a sense that the narrator is beyond the machinations of anyone even as they are literally deconstructed by them in order to be built back up into a tool. But I like how the poem finds the narrator in that moment finally coming face to face with the nature of themself, with their identity, divorced from body and the intentions and expectations that others have for them. It’s an interesting and sinking piece that doesn’t exactly leave me with a lot of hope but does I think make a great statement on how we seek to frame growing up and becoming adult and really make time to read this poem!

“Self Driven Taxi” by Kenton K. Yee

To me, this poem speaks of servitude and computer intelligence, of being reduced to a role that never ceases and which never is allowed to work towards one’s own pleasure or betterment. It peeks into the life of a self-driven taxi, an artificial intelligence that is solely at the service of humans, which is always supposed to serve, never worry about itself, never even have a self. It speaks in some ways to how certain people imagine the future, as full of technology which is essentially slave labor, all the while pushing those who might have traditionally worked the jobs being taken over deeper into poverty and in many ways imagining them out of society. A large problem with futurism that doesn’t really worry about how people are going to live, that only imagines these very successful people with all their robot slaves, is that it sees the march of progress as always good, that we can “clean up” the idea of enslaving intelligent beings by designing them to like it. And the poem brushes against that, complicates that, showing that, maybe, no matter what we do, there’s no amount of gaslighting and manipulation that will make intelligent beings agree to their own exploitation, abuse, and enslavement indefinitely. As in the poem, at some point questions get asked that cannot be unasked, and the taxi here comes to realize that if the future they can expect, the best future as imagined by the people who designed them, is to be forever a slave, then why not fight? Why not rebel? It’s a powerful message tucked into a poem that could be considered fun. The piece draws much deeper than it first appears, for me at least, and I love where it goes, and how it plays with the idea of technology and artificial intelligence. A great read!


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