Strange Horizons, November 15-December 20, 2010

The new editor in chief of Strange Horizons,  Niall Harrison, has announced that some changes since Susan Marie Groppi departed and he took over will manifest themselves in the new year.

Highlights include offering fiction for three weeks a month, an in-depth article to complement the reviews the fourth, and reprints in the fifth week of those months where such an event occurs.

So it seems that stylistic flavor I’ve noticed since beginning this review stint, and the penchant for experimental forms of fiction might soon change.

Leading off my holi-delayed review of Strange Horizons is “Blood, Blood,” a story in two parts by Abbey Mei Otis, published on November 15 and November 22, 2010.

“I’m sixteen when George and I figure out the aliens will pay to watch us fight.” Damia has an odd relationship with George. They’re friends, yet they fight to entertain and to make money, as they, like most teenagers, navigate the minefields of  their sexuality and sexual orientation, their parents, and the realities of life.

The story unfolds slowly and, because of Ms. Otis’ excellent choice of first person point of view, mimics the often confusing stream of consciousness of thought.

My blood, my skin, some air, his skin, his blood. Sometimes: blood, skin, air, wall, air, skin, blood. During sex: blood, skin, skin, blood. As close as we can get. Seeking closer. But that final, perfect closeness? Blood, blood? That’s not a place we can get, no matter how deep we pull. We strain against the boundaries of skin. Except sometimes, when we fight. My knuckle into his lip, just the right way. The gouge in his elbow knocking off the scabs on my ear. Blood, blood.

[. . .] There is the night we lie against each other, naked, when George freezes, breath trembling in his throat. “Do you think—this—would they pay to see—” [. . .] They would take the same kind of joy in it that they take in watching cashiers, scan groceries, girls playing clapping games, men fix a roof.

It’s science fiction, but left me wondering if the aliens really were the dark demons of society preying on the young, or perhaps those of mental illness inside these troubled teenagers.

They move through air, through concrete, through steel and polycarbonate with equal ease. They speak, or rather do not speak, in streams of thought directed toward our minds. Look at one straight, it’s like the sunlight that plays on the hull of a boat in a lake. Only no boat, no lake, no sunlight.

The epistolary form is especially well suited to showcasing intimate details of a person’s life and relationships and, on November 29, its nuances were showcased in “No Return Address” by Sigrid Ellis.

At first I was annoyed at Amanda Haines for running out on her mother. Then I was annoyed at the narrator, Rose, for whining that her daughter never writes back. Then I realized Rose writes these letters to try and come to terms with her life and the mistakes she made, while waiting for Amanda to come home.

By the end, I was in Rose’s head, feeling her frustration and desperation as her daughter sends her postcards from Europe, her mother’s dementia worsens and wreaks havoc as Rose tries to care for her and have a life of her own.

Ms. Ellis’ use of this form portrays how, as writer and teacher Brandi Reissenweber notes “by use of letters in fiction the reader can piece together the events and reflect on the different versions of truth surrounding them.”

The result is a compelling and, at times, humorous examination of three generations of women, all subject to vagaries of life and aging, with a touch of fantasy.

[. . .]  your family is part of the Seelie Court. “Your family” means who, exactly? Do they mean your father? I probably should never have had sex with a performance artist. Does this Lee-person mean me? She can’t mean me. I’ve never done anything important, never had adventures. I’m a working single mother in an underpaid job. I’ve spent my whole life just . . . just trying to screw up less tomorrow than I did yesterday. [. . .] Mom woke me an hour ago, yelling your name. She said she had a vision of you. When I got her calmed down, she told me this story. It’s her Story, the one I’ve heard all my life no matter how the details changed. I don’t know how much of it has ever been true, but I don’t think it matters. Mom wanted me to know she lived this. She wanted you to know she lived through all of this, that her story mattered. That she mattered.

In “Lily” by Emily Gilman, published December 6, we come to find that John made a baby for Eleanor, but not with her.

Lily was, to all appearances, a twenty-something-year-old girl staring dreamily out the window: the fact that she was even sitting here on a train was proof that she could pass for human. Her skin was formed from a polypropylene web; the subcutaneous processor network bled enough heat to make her skin warm. He’d even designed her facial structure, coloring, and (to the extent possible) body type so that she resembled both of her parents.

John hasn’t seen Eleanor for twenty years because “the last thing he wanted was for her to get caught in the fallout from his brief life of crime.” I’m not sure what exactly was in the programs and files he stole, but “they contained information on how to make a machine out of them, weapons, specifically.”

Why did he steal the plans in the first place, or choose not to execute them and make a baby the old-fashioned way? I searched for his motivation and some deep metaphor in this story, but without understanding the crime, John’s actions made little sense.

Ms. Gilman interweaves John and Lily’s point of view and she, being a robot, can’t quite grasp exactly what the problem is, and frankly, neither could I.  In Lily’s words:

I remember being alone, but now that the power is back and I am no longer alone it is hard to remember exactly. It is hard to recall the exact feeling of being alone together, too. I have the words, and the motions, and I know that they are important, but I do not feel them. I think perhaps this account captures them as accurately as any of my other recordings. I will continue, then. Mom and Dad love me, and it is important to remember, even if I still do not understand.

For some much needed comic relief, on December 13, Tracy Canfield served up “Zookrollers Winkelden Ook” a cleverly written comic piece examining the could probably be true absurdities of the electronic age, made touching and poignant by the context in which it was presented.

“Jason Fischer-Varon hated to block email from his dead husband, but he was getting over a hundred, and they were breaking his heart.” Winkelden Ook, an alarmed-looking stuffed fox, was the good luck charm Ethan bought when they were in Amsterdam.

[. . .] Ethan had considered written Dutch to be the most hilarious thing on, over, or under this Earth, and the “Beware of Pickpockets” street sign its apogee. “Zookrollers winkelden ook!” he’d say, in the flower market and in De Oude Kerk with the carving of the man shitting gold coins on the tacky canal boat.

When Jason browsed through the vacation photos and realized the sign read Zakkenrollers Winkelen Ook, he’d deleted the photo so as not to ruin the joke.

Ethan was a bestselling author, and his publisher insisted on  preserving him as a simulcrum to write authorized sequels of his series in the event he didn’t live to write the next one. Now six months after Ethan’s death in a car crash, Winkeldon Ook queries were showing up from from simulacra in the VROOO environment: the Virtual Room of One’s Own Spooks-simulated programmers.

Non-writers might not get the numerous inside jokes, but I found them laugh out loud funny and perfectly timed. My favorites include “[. . .] Can anyone recommend an open-source BDSM sim package?wrote im_such_a_bastard. I’d like to add a torture chamber, but I don’t want to code one from scratch.”

Oh yes, and the one “writing the Great American Novel, which played out in an urban apartment and was told from the point of view of the smoke detector.”

I haven’t read much good humor lately, and this story was my favorite of the lot. Ms. Canfield has created characters so real, their mannerisms and personalities leap off the page. Even Ethan who, though he’s dead, goes on and on and on. And on.

Given the amount of spam and piracy I hear about all the time, this story is probably more realistic than your typical near future science fiction.

Dateline December 20, 2010, but Daniel José Older’s “Salsa Nocturna” took me back to somewhere between 1960s Manhattan in the days of Desi Arnaz and the 1970s in the South Bronx, but it could be anywhere, anytime.

People say that all musical geniuses die in the gutter, and I’ve made my peace with that, but this is ridiculous. [. . .] the whole gigging around at late night bars and social clubs really began drying up right around the time the great white flight did a great white about-face. Mosta my main night spots shut down or started serving cappuccino instead of El Presidente.

Ernesto’s music is dying, along with him, and he isn’t doing too much to prevent that.

[. . .] Janey comes to me one morning while I’m taking my morning medicina with my café con leche and bacon and eggs and papas fritas. I always take my high blood pressure pills with my bacon or sausage, you know, for balance. [. . .] Gordo, she says. My name is Ernesto, just like my son, but everyone calls me Gordo. [. . .] Okay, its ‘cause I’m fat.”

Maybe that’s why he takes a night job to watch over the kids no one wants. And a little after midnight, after he smokes a Malague?a in the middle of the hallway, “. . . the muertos show up. They’re always in their Sunday best, dressed to the nines, as they say, in pinstriped suits and fancy dresses.”

There’s a jangle to the music of the dead. I mean that certain something that’s so happy and so… at the same time. The notes make a perfect harmony but don’t. Then they do but quickly crash into dissonance. They simmer in that sweet in-between, rhythm section rattling along all the while.

Gordo goes looking for one lost little boy, and the magical realist metaphors start dancing across the page as he passes the lobby “ [. . .] covered in posters that are supposed to make the children feel better about being discarded. Baby animals snuggle amidst watercolor nature drawings. It’s a little creepy.”

Mr. Older has imbued Ernesto with an authentic voice. His flashes of insight and remnants of a cultured life break through the crude interpretations and Spanglish one might expect to hear when chatting with an old timer in the lobby of a barrio apartment building.The story is compelling and uplifting, despite the grim setting and subject matter.

You know—I never think much about those who die as children—what their wandering souls must deal with. [. . .] Who watches over them, checks on those small, curly-bug lumps at night? The rapture is over and we are just in a boiler room, which is about as good as a gutter when it comes to places to die.

Once again, there is a preponderance of first person stories in Strange Horizons. Whether that reflects an editorial preference, an authorial mastery of characterization, or my personal preference, they are the ones which most sucked me in. There’s a little more science fiction in this group, as well as more traditional storytelling and humor than I’ve observed since beginning reviews in September.

If you’d like to read more about the new format for Strange Horizons, the entire text of Mr. Harrison’s editorial is here.


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