Expanded Horizons (“speculative fiction for the rest of us”) is a webzine that aims to represent and foster greater diversity in the sf field. The six stories in its November issue certainly achieve that, as well as showcasing a range of approaches and styles. Malon Edwards brings a touch of magic to his short tale of a college football star. Zen Cho tells of a “smell magician” who takes a stray cat home—even though she doesn’t like cats. Eliza Victoria contributes a poignant and very human take on the notion of parallel universes. Silvia Moreno-Garcia shows how humans can be just as mysterious as we might expect aliens to be. Omar Zakaria’s tale of fantasy adventure takes a serious turn and ends up interrogating itself. And perhaps best of all is Csilla Kleinheincz’s tale of two lovers driven apart by magic that may or may not be real. Rounding out the issue is “The Key Keeper,” an excellent piece of artwork by James Ng.
“Cornrows and Dill Pickles” by Malon Edwards is a short piece in which an African-American college footballer learns that his lover Nee-Nee (who does the cornrows which, it is implied, lend him his footballing skill) is shortly to leave him. Edwards weaves magic into his tale in a low-key fashion at the beginning, such that a sense of the fantastical creeps up effectively on the reader. But I find that the latter stages of the story don’t live up to that early promise. The ending places too much weight on the simple fact of something magical going on; and, whilst the use of dialogue for the bulk of the piece foregrounds the emotional relationship of the two characters, the full impact of that doesn’t comes across in the space of the story. To me, Edwards’ tale starts well, but for me it stops before it has chance to hit its stride.
In “The Guest,” Zen Cho introduces us to Yiling, a “smell magician” in Kuala Lumpur, able to create things (and people) from the smell of them. She’s approached by a girl who wants Yiling to make her boyfriend fall in love with her again—but that’s not quite as simple to do as it sounds. There are several layers to this story that make it interesting. The whole idea of a smell magician is intriguing (and one that I’m sure could support a series of tales), and there’s a nagging mystery which helps propel us through the plot: why does Yiling, who doesn’t like cats, take a stray cat home with her at the beginning of the story? The answer is one that Cho manages to keep under wraps until just the right moment. There is also an elegant parallel between Yiling’s personal circumstances and the restrictions of her magic; to be more specific would be to spoil the story, but it makes “The Guest” satisfying on a thematic level as well as at the level of plot. I think the tale falters a little at the end, when too much is revealed too quickly, disrupting the balance of the whole; but, otherwise, it is neatly done.
“Parallel” by Eliza Victoria (originally published last year in the fourth volume ofPhilippine Speculative Fiction) announces its parallel-universe theme brilliantly, as Christopher’s friend Ben draws up in a car he stole from himself (“’He didn’t see me,’ Ben insisted. ‘And besides, I left a note. Wormholes do work! High five Einstein!’”). But what might at first seem as though it’s going to be a romp proves to be rather more serious, as it becomes clear why these two have visited a parallel universe: Christopher’s younger sister Olivia died in a road accident in his world; he’s there to find another version of her, and take her back through the wormhole with him. Strikingly, the technology for travelling between universes is barely examined; the focus here is firmly on character and emotion, and Victoria explores those wonderfully. The universe to which Ben and Christopher have travelled isn’t quite of the kind they anticipated, and it leads Christopher to ask himself some tough ethical questions. And the poignancy of the ending lifts the story to another level.
“Driving with Aliens in Tijuana” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an enigmatic piece set in a future where aliens are regular visitors to (indeed, tourists of) Earth. The narrator works in a gift shop in Tijuana; as the story begins, a man walks in with an alien. The man’s name is Rollo, and he lives offworld, working for the alien as translator and general assistant. The alien and Rollo invite the narrator to hang out for a few days; during that time, they only become stranger in her eyes. Perhaps the central theme of the story is how the true nature of something can be obscured: Schrödinger’s cat is mentioned early on, and the protagonist expresses uncertainty over her place in life (“Some days I feel I’m the cat and I’m not sure if I’ve been gassed with poison”); Tijuana is depicted as a place whose flaws are hidden from casual view. And this is reflected in the relationship between Rollo and the alien, which remains largely opaque. If one of the central impulses of science fiction is to explain, then Moreno-Garcia’s story moves in the opposite direction; the result is a work that’s distinctive and stays in the mind for some time afterwards.
“Shaken” by Omar Zakaria starts off looking like a fun fantasy adventure story—and, though it remains so, it also asks some searching questions before its end. Black “the Blackbanded” (an epithet he’s acquired with reluctance, because it’s a custom of the land he’s currently in for people to have some distinguishing feature) is an ex-slave and Wiswer, with an extraordinary ability to locate things. He has been hired by a Cirlaran named Imeel to be his guide in finding a set of tablets hidden in some catacombs – but Black has a sense that there’s something Imeel is not telling him.
Zakaria’s bio says he is working on a novel set in the same world as this story, and “Shaken” has the tantalising sense of being part of a larger canvas that I wish I could see, to appreciate it properly. But the slice of that world we have here is fine in itself. The brio of the interplay (not necessarily spoken) between Black and Imeel (the latter keeps asking inane questions, much to the former’s annoyance) carries the reader along to begin with, until that fascinating moment when the story tale turns on itself (and, to an extent, the concept of the fantasy quest) to ask what it means to play a role or to aim for something different. I’ll look forward to seeing where Zakaria goes next with this world.
“Rabbits” by Csilla Kleinheincz (translated from its original Hungarian by the author) is a hazy story that takes some thinking over before it sinks in; I’m still not sure that I have grasped it fully, but I’ll lay out my thoughts all the same. “Rabbits” is the tale of Amanda and Vera, who were a couple—and still are, just about, though between them is the figure of Juzstin, a circus magician who has (metaphorically and, perhaps, literally) enchanted Vera. Visions of him and others flit in and out of the narrative, as Amanda tries to get through to Vera. The mood of Kleinheincz’s tale is striking, as so much seems distanced from the reader—understandably so, as we view events through Amanda’s eyes, and she doesn’t comprehend the person Vera has become; Jusztin is an even more inscrutable figure, coming across more as a supernatural trickster than a human being. Magic and the paranormal could be seen to serve in the story as metaphors for the way in which the lovers have grown apart: the ghosts Amanda sees reify the issues between her and Vera; and it’s only by confronting Jusztin’s magic that Amanda may be able to reach her girlfriend again. Top all this off with a good turn of phrase (for example, when driving in the first scene, Vera is described as “lean[ing] on the wheel almost as if she was afraid that without holding on, the car would leave her behind”) and you have a very fine story indeed.