Strange Horizons, February 7-March 21, 2011

“Widows in the World” by Gavin J. Grant embodies the word strange in the ezine’s title. Told in two parts, published 7 February and 14 February 2011, this surreal rambling, which invokes Roald Dahl,  is unintelligible.

The most I could glean is that the Granny’s mind was uploaded into a “house” that contains “the husband” and a bunch of other wives who take turns being embodied while the others exist in some ether. No one dies, even when the pregnant Granny shoots her mother, leaving a bloody mess and seriously disturbing the other wives. The body, or what’s left of it, is preserved for future cloning. Short scenes, which do not seem related to each other, only lend more confusion to one of the most puzzling pieces I’ve read in a long time.

There is a snake and a dog that might be eaten since there isn’t much food in this post apocalyptic world, but the symbolism escapes me. Selkies annoy the dead/undead granny, and there are numerous references to geopolitical conflicts including hearings at the Hague and Somali pirates.

I believe Mr. Grant is trying to portray the Earth as a house full of widows, perhaps goddesses or other mythic creatures who, despite tragic events, try to care for the children, meaning all earthly beings. Or perhaps I’ve totally missed the point.

“The wives had been leaving her alone with the baby. It was nearing Lenkya’s time to reach back into a body and they all wanted to be with her. It was a time of mixed feelings. They loved embodiment but they also enjoyed disembodiment—circuitry-situationalism, as named by Gray—slipping through the house seams, gliding out to ride the farmers, looking after the children.”

[. . .] But here she was, eighty-three years old and still dealing with her mother. It wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to talk about baby names with the husband. She wanted to compare bone loss with her friends. She hadn’t kept up with the obits—who knew who might be dead? Instead it was her mother, always her mother. Dead, but not taking it. Imagining reintegrating two-hundred-plus iterations gave the Granny a headache. Maybe it would keep her mother busy for a while.”

Conversely, “The Yew’s Embrace” by Francesca Forrest, published 21 February 2011, is a tightly written parable with powerful allusions and a strong mythic element. The old king is killed and the conqueror takes the queen as his wife. A nurse is charged with killing the former king’s infant son. During her torture and execution for the crime, she is rescued by the gods and transformed into a yew near the stream where the child was murdered.

The wrath of the gods-and of the nurse wrongly accused-is directed not only toward the real murderer, but also to the new king’s son in a story with no happy ending, but rather a condemnation of war, the taking of innocent life, and the victimization of women and children.

“Who can understand the gods? [. . .] Now birds with red streaks on the men’s shields, and we hope my sister’s supporters will outnumber those of the king. [. . .] We live in a time of miracles, and yet still blood continues to be spilled, and it runs into the cracks in the flagstones.”

“The Last Sophia” by C.S.E. Cooney, published on 7 March 2011, sits thematically  between the odd, largely symbolic meanderings of “Widows of the World” and the powerful, compelling narrative of “The Yew’s Embrace.”

Written in the same elegant yet disjointed style as her “Household Spirits,” recently published in this ezine, Ms. Cooney blends traditional narrative, epistolary and poetic forms in a story of a human  female who “came under enemy enchantment at the soft age of fourteen “because “for some reason it pleased the Gentries that I should breed their changeling babes. [. . .] and breed them I have, though I had little else to do with them. Since then, it’s been fumes and nostrums, narcotics and elixirs.”

In her rare moments of lucidity, Esther Aidan rambles like a psychotic, writes, recites, and has a nightmare-like reunion with her mother and an aunt. She struggles back to her right mind when her newest daughter is born and is faced with the decision whether or not to give the baby away.

Unlike Mr. Grant’s Granny in “Widows of the World,” Ms. Cooney’s Esther Aidan never completely loses touch with reality and the symbolism, though abstract and disjointed, conveys a clear sense of parallels with the struggles and abuses faced by women.

Both “The Yew’s Embrace” and “The Last Sophia” evoke the feminist spirit of the writings of James Tiptree, Jr. In fact, Ms. Cooney’s story is thematically similar and as equally disturbing as “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light,” written by Tiptree (as Racoona Sheldon) herself, in which a mentally unstable young mother is further damaged by the treatments meant to cure her, then blamed, abandoned, and brutalized when she tries to escape.

Childlike voices and omission of question marks and other creative punctuation in “Trouble,” by David M. de Leon, published 14 March 2011, blazes a novel path for an otherwise straightforward story of young love and loss among kids from different planets, one of whom is a relocated orphan.

Though the lack of dialogue tags for characters whose speech patterns were so alike made it difficult at times to figure out who was speaking, there are very evocative portions of narrative including these excerpts:

“She was gone in a week, refugees don’t stay long when they don’t have kin, once they’re healed someone’s got to take care of them and there’s no one on Chauhan to take care of anybody. I should have known and I guess I did. [. . .] I kissed her as she left and it was short and awkward and I don’t know if she just let me because she’d never see me again. It took me hours to tell myself I’d kiss her and I did and after that I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. [. . .] Just sit with it a little. Sit with it so when its not there anymore you can remember it and you can wonder what it could have been.”

“Rising Lion—The Lion Bows” by Zen Cho, published 21 March 2011, is ostensibly about a Chinese dance troupe engaged by a hotel in Britain to exorcise a ghost in one of the rooms. The omniscient narration distracted me at first, but the performance was so well executed I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

“As the lion danced an enchantment began to fall on the room. It was as though the dance had made the years turn over on themselves all at once, so that the dust of centuries began to settle on the furniture in a matter of minutes. Outlines grew hazy and the room grew dark, matching the blue-black evening sky outside. Only the cabinet glowed golden, the figures on its doors standing out in sharp relief, so vivid that they seemed about to move. [. . .]

The lion blazed through the room. [. . .] it was not human anymore. The spirit that slumbered in the lion head had awakened. It was a single, strange, live creature, and the beat of the drum was the beat of its heart.”

Metaphors pop like Chinese fireworks in this deftly written story. I won’t give away the ending, but like other stories in this installment of Strange Horizons, it jabs at colonialism and historic geopolitical events, yet finishes on an upbeat note.


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