Tag Archives: sf

the diamond-dusted edge of 2017

This is the point in our conversation where the humble blogger once again begs the pardon of you, the reader, for their negligence of this venue, most likely in some kind of neo-Regency turn of phrase. I’m kind of shit at the faux Regency stuff, though, so I’ll drop the pretense for the most part. As ever, real life and mental health got in the way, as they are wont to do, leading me to believe I didn’t have anything longform worth saying, didn’t have the ability to get it out onto the digital page, didn’t have the energy to write it.

This mostly isn’t actually the case, but brainweasels are feisty and persistent, and they’re now being reinforced by the global sociopolitical precipice we find ourselves on. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to explain to you how or why this is the case–I just would like to note that the fascists and trolls and other people who want marginalised people to shut up or be dead use the same, if somewhat more violent and disgusting, kinds of tactics as the self-sabotaging brain, for a reason.

I resolve, going forward, to push the fuck past that. I did some creative stuff myself this year (I put down original fiction words! I did some drawing for the first time in ages!), though nothing that has yet panned out into completion. It seems to me that my best bet for next year is to DO MORE OF THAT, push past the pathological hate, as much as is possible. So that’s my goal, for what little it’s worth. We’ll see if I find that hopelessly naive on coming back to this later.

For those keen on my reviews, I did see/hear/watch some awesome media this year, and I would like to make particular note of a few things that come to mind off the top of my head:
– The People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror collections, all of which raised the bar for the Destroy series to huge heights. For example, I’d not read the work of Isha Karki, Gabriela Santiago, Terence Taylor, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson before, and I am very glad to have been introduced to their writing. Huge kudos to the editors and staff as well as all the content creators.
– The podcast Alice Isn’t Dead (Fink & Nicole et al) which is the diverse weird Americana horror story I needed in this world.  By the way, Night Vale itself continues to be first rate.
– The Glasgow SF Writers Circle collection Thirty Years of Rain, some of whose contributors I’m fortunate to know physically or virtually and some that I’ve not met. There’s something about knowing a place and recognising it in fiction that is a bit like representation of the self, a lightbulb moment.
– Two new published stories by Rose Lemberg in their Birdverse, which I know I have mentioned here before, but they just keep getting better. I’m so pleased Rose now has an agent for their Birdverse novel too.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (North & Henderson et al), which improves my mood every time I think about it.
Hild by Nicola Griffith, which came out in the UK two years ago but I have only just finished it today because I was trying to savour every last paragraph. I now need to go back and reread it all.
– The reviews of Charles Payseur, who inevitably finds gems of spec fic that I’d otherwise be unaware of entirely. Also he’s from Wisconsin.
– A damn awesome Springsteen show, part of The River Tour, here in Glasgow. I’m also looking forward to reading Born to Run, which I got for Christmas.

Also, late last year I decided to start supporting a little on Patreon, and it’s been really good. Here are a few folks who I can personally say are producing great content that you can support on there:
Tanya D
– Rose Lemberg (as above)
Bogi Takács
Captain Awkward
Also, Flavia Dzodan doesn’t use Patreon (contribute to her via PayPal linked here) but her independent reporting on white nationalism and extremism and the links between Europe and the US is becoming even more vital.

I hope to be able to afford to support more folks a little bit in the future, but Brexit’s been a setback for money in dollars (student loans now cost me $40-$50 more a month due to exchange rates). Still, hoping.

Please note that I liked so much more stuff, and this is just what comes to mind off the top of my head. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I am Our Lord/Lady of Perpetual Nope, but I do really think we need to raise each other up when there’s good to be had. And I’m planning to do more of THAT in 2017, as supporting and recognising each other is critical for people to be able to continue to do awesome work.

So hey, friends? Don’t let the bastards get to you. At least one person out there–me–thinks you are fucking amazing.

(…incidentally, the B on my laptop keyboard got royally borked a year ago today thanks to an incident with eating an exploding liqueur chocolate which watching a bad film and chatting with old friends, and it still tends to stick. If there are any Bs missing in this post, I sincerely apologise. I have learned my lesson regarding where it is safe to eat such things.)

diamond dust: the process of unmonstering, part two

(part one here)

While I’m on the topic of monsters…if someone asked me if I’m a horror fan, I’d probably say ‘no’.  Admittedly, I’ve made my way through a bunch of Stephen King’s work, stopping after Bag of Bones ((Incidentally, there’s a good essay by Sigrid Ellis in the print/ebook edition of QDH on problematic stuff in King.)) and I’m hardly into Happiness And Light from a tonal perspective in my reading. But generally I don’t seek out horror unless it’s recommended to me specifically, due to anxiety and overempathy, combined with a neuroatypical brain that has huge difficulty setting aside horrifying imagery.

I was therefore a little bit wary when I opened the Queers Destroy Horror (QDH) issue of Nightmare that I received for supporting Queers Destroy Science Fiction. I’d not been that keen on the Women Destroy Horror issue, if we’re being honest (I believe I googled the Joyce Carol Oates reprint to try and figure out what the fuck I was reading), so that didn’t help either.

Reader, I was mistaken, because QDH was a lightbulb moment–there’s a lot in the issue about what it is that resonates between horror and queerness, so I won’t go into detail here, or perhaps it was just that the story selection was more my thing. Either way, I’d like to flag a couple of stories that were particularly YES, THIS for me.

Alyssa Wong’s Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers (TW: references to rape and violence against women) has so very much to say and packs so much meaning into just under 7000 words: about disavowing your mother to find yourself, about diaspora; about violence against and among women; and about what we consume of each other as emotional labour and feelings and love. Among other things, really.

Jen is a vampire who feeds on souls, relishing the dark thoughts that we have in all of us. She loathes this in herself, hates that her mother passed it on to her, and hates that at the same time it makes her feel good. Her mother’s been trying to live among humans as quietly as possible, taking only what she needs while always remaining isolated and hungry.

It’s a tiring, frustrating life lived at arm’s length from others, and Jen’s fed up with it, fed up with not being able to love like a human, fed up with her mother’s nagging, fed up with being selfless. A couple of encounters (and here I’ve got to sketch very vaguely because otherwise the whole thing’s ruined) send her away from middling, from just getting by, spiraling into what her hunger demands. However, maybe that’s not what she, what Jen, wants.

I read this on the train, finishing it in a late autumn evening gone nighttime too soon, and while it’s disturbing as hell, I couldn’t help but resonate with a lot of what Wong says. Perhaps it’s disturbing of me that in the end, I found the story oddly hopeful. But it reassured me, to remember that some truths are shared, that sometimes we overcome what we are born with and overcome what we are taught throughout our lives. More than anything else, it was a damn good and incredibly clever reminder that sometimes it takes more than one try and a hell of a lot of mistakes to become who we really are.

On the surface, Sunny Moraine’s Dispatches from a Hole in the World (TW: suicide) is even bleaker than Wong’s story. Moraine gives us the narrative of an unnamed academic, who’s doing research for their dissertation at an isolated archive containing the records of hundreds of thousands of young people’s suicides, each one calmly actioned and impossibly posted on the internet, all triggered by a plague that remains unclear even years later.

Our protagonist lived through this, and while they’re very self-aware about what happens to those who go through trauma and their survivor’s guilt, they don’t remain unaffected by what they see. They’re processing, but a bit unhealthily–alone in the only remaining archive of the suicides, trying to make meaning for something that is appalling and  inexplicable. Above all, Dispatches is a descent into hell of mythical proportions, in the trappings of the age of social media. There may be something supernatural at hand, it may be a zeitgeist, it may even be partially the protagonist’s loosening grip on reality.

Defining tragedy, giving it logic, isn’t the point, even as necessary as it may be to maintaining our sanity. What got to me were the descriptions of how the rest of the young people made networks and checked up on each other, they didn’t just let things slide. They had to, because authority was unable (or perhaps, in some way, unwilling) to make the right decisions to save lives.

This is a love letter to the works of survival that was/is done by so many marginalised communities online. It’s not a pretty love letter, though it’s certainly lyric, but it’s entirely truth. Someday, perhaps the importance of this work will be appreciated: We are saving ourselves, though certainly sometimes we fail.

The protagonist knows this, even at the end, in a maelstrom of despair. That gives me hope, too, because it’s something that can’t be taken away. It sounds trite, perhaps, to boil it down to ‘all that actually matters in the face of horrors and evils is that we don’t give up on each other’, but it’s not about sticking together without any thought, or not questioning each other.

Instead, we need to remember not to disappear others’ humanity, even when we bleed, even when shit gets really, really real, even when people are terrible. These days, on the internet, it’s a damn important thing to remember, and Moraine’s success lies in communicating this not via moral tale but visceral feeling.

Both Wong and Moraine, and Rose Lemberg in Geometries of Belonging get to the crux of the well-written monster trope: the monster is more human than those it’s set against. For marginalised folks, this something that cuts particularly close to home–and it’s heartening to see these ideas more and more across genre.

diamond dust: the process of unmonstering, part one

In revitalising my blog and thinking about what kind of theme I could pick up through these Stories What I Liked ((I apologise to everyone for all the stories I liked for most of this year but didn’t write about because of brainweasels. I’m really sorry.)), it didn’t take long at all to pick up on the topic of othering–monstering, if you will.  Appropriate,  I suppose, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to the blogging table to write about this until this particular time of year, but there you go.

These stories, these October stories about monstering, all resonated with me a lot on a personal level, spoke to different identity aspects for me. Hence, obviously, while these rang true as a bell for me, they might not be your tales; even so, it’s damn important to read stories that aren’t our own too, and I think these all have value for readers regardless of identity politics.

To start, I’ve been following Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse for some time now, and have to start by saying they have been building a really unique and fascinating world that deserves more attention and acclaim. The world is realistically made up of some very different nations and cultures, and Rose has written stories across a number of these. Finding the links to the rest of the verse is always a treat for me, but each story does stand alone. Also effective is that none of these cultures is perfect–there is no holy grail of utopian bliss, though some are more open than others, and again in vastly different ways.

And the magic based on language and names and…I’ll let you read for yourself. It ticks all my boxes.

Geometries of Belonging (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) is set in a milieu that reminds me a bit of Kushner’s Tremontaine and Flewelling’s Rhiminee, though I’m not sure if I’m projecting my metanarrative of queer class-and-nation-crossing relationships onto the story that’s actually happening. Possibly that, and possibly the fact that the characters in the story (as is a theme in Rose’s work) are very bound to very codified cultural constraints that harm and chafe them.

Parét is a healer, but uniquely, he is a mind-healer–basically a magical psychiatrist–which ticks my boxes immediately. He’s a rare breed, and he’s in a rather complex social situation in that he has a patron/lover who’s nobility with high status but also an outsider. He’s also in a city that needs mental healthcare desperately, both for the every day and for the scars of war,  a number of years past but still linger as trauma and political repercussions.

And Parét isn’t well himself, to be honest; he has what we’d think of as PTSD due to the war and what happened to his wife and son, which he doesn’t want to heal in himself for reasons that we’ll eventually understand. Despite his problems, he’s committed to the work he does, and has a deep and unshakeable code of ethics regarding his patients. The young person Dedéi comes into Parét’s life through a combination of all these aspects–the professional and the personal and the political–and he must negotiate very thin lines of ethics, personal safety, and compassion in trying to help them.

How he traverses this path makes for a tense and compelling story, one that doesn’t really let up even after things come to a head. I found that despite the very clear ideological goals of the work, I honestly wasn’t certain where things were going to end up for our protagonist and for Dedéi, as I’m conscious from some of their other work that Rose doesn’t pull punches. For me, finding a suspenseful tale that doesn’t throw my anxiety to a head is rare, so aside from the conceptual affinity I had for the story, I took pleasure in it from a readership perspective as craft. (Admittedly, this is personal preference. I have particular problems getting through stories where we know Something Terrible Will Happen–it took me ages to get through the first half of Ancillary Justice.)

Thinking about that actually brings me back to the ideology, of Parét’s healing ethics and refusal to treat anyone without consent, but above all Dedéi’s haunting refrain: I do not wish to be remade.

It’s made clear that Dedéi would, in our world, be considered to be on the autistic spectrum, and that their gender identity is non-binary. It’s also made clear that their extremely powerful family would rather they were neither–that they were made normative, particularly as the culture they live in has literally no room for these identities. As someone who’s neuroatypical and non-binary, the word that Dedéi uses, again and again, haunted me. Remade.

Because Lemberg has it here in one–forcing normativity is an undoing, a squishing up of the identity like clay until it can be remolded to someone else’s liking, leaving little of the original form.  Like a lot of folks, I’ve spent more than a little time pondering and deciding fiercely against any hypothetical ‘fix’ for my brain chemistry, and in the end, despite the pain and difficulties, I know I would rather be me as I am than someone completely unknown and tidy.

As for non-binary gender…it ain’t broke, and it’s certainly not something that’s a part of my brain being slightly askew, that would be fixed were I fully ‘well’. This is something Dedéi and Parét know as well.

Of course, aside from my personal identification with it all, Rose is also in conversation here with the Miracle Cure narrative in SFF, the remaking of disabled characters to fit into the normal box.  But the truth of it, their own knowledge of this experience and their own feelings that are simpatico with mine and so many others’…that is what really makes ‘Geometries’ sing (like bird song, perhaps) for me.

Rose had another Birdverse story in BCS this year, Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds, which is moving and powerful in very different ways. It resonated a lot with me from the perspective of gender and societal expectations, but also that of the complexities of family: disappointment and love and misunderstanding. Do give it a read too!

In part 2: I take a look at the fantastic Queers Destroy Horror special issue of Nightmare, particularly Alyssa Wong on navigating being a monster/daughter and Sunny Moraine on the fierce reality (both agony and hope) of online life.

diamond dust: outsider art

Right, getting back in the saddle with regards to reviewing–I read a bunch of stories in December that I promptly failed to mention to anyone due to falling ill, so please bear with the fact that these were out in November/December 2014. If you missed them, then they’re new to you, and they’re all definitely worthwhile to revisit, even so.

Despite not intentionally looking for a theme across my reviews, I found that what I read and really loved from this period were stories about people on the fringes of society or isolated from the mainstream somehow. Admittedly, SFF sometimes leans to that kind of protagonist and perhaps I, as someone who’s a bit of a weirdo (‘pleasantly quirky’ was a colleague’s description), tend to self-select, but even so, the concept was close to my heart when reading over the past couple of months.

Just to note, as I revisited the stories in this post, I was reading Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Sister Mine, which is also very much worth your time and engaged me in some of the same ways emotionally that I got from these stories. Sister Mine is an outsider story of serious proportions–in fact, Makeda is an outsider among outsiders, and how she finds herself is epic and wonderful. It also has a really engaging (and enraging) pantheon and magic system, which, like Little Badger and Vourvoulias below, smashes the crap out of the tired ‘urban fantasy’ genre.

Please note that these aren’t exactly redemption narratives or fixes for people, as I long ago got past the idea that everyone liking someone and respecting them would solve all of their problems. The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ending actually makes for a tiresome read, in my mind, like eating too much sickly sweet candy; life and people are far too complicated to change quickly and irrevocably.

It’s not only more real when things are harder than that, it’s far more interesting.

Darcie Little Badger, Nkásht íí (Strange Horizons)

I’m really, really liking a lot of the works reclaiming of what’s simplistically called ‘urban fantasy’ as a subgenre, but should be called something more like ‘fantastic elements intersecting with people in a world that’s fairly close to our own reality and this is a crap subgenre name’. The genre, whatever you want to call it, has been white and Eurocentric for far too long, ((I will admit I am one of those people who bounced off de Lint several times and gave up.)) and works like Little Badger’s (and later in this post, Vourvoulias’), among many others, are far more engaging to me. They feel far more true to life, more lived in and possibly-real (which for me is the appeal of this genre) than those tread down paths that have been worn to shreds in genre fiction. Anyway.

Nkásht íí is the story of Annie and Josie, two young Native women in the US Southwest who are effectively street buskers working for karma–while they don’t appear to be mystics, they offer to listen to people’s troubles, and in the process can sometimes help them out supernaturally. (It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t presented as normative in the diagesis of the story. Their work seems as odd to many folks as it would in our reality, which adds to the realistic feel.)  Josie and Annie have both burned some bridges when it comes to their families, and not all that long ago either. When they offer to help a grieving white father, the issues of past and family end up being far closer to the surface than Josie would like them to be.

While the overall plot of Nkásht íí is pretty straightforward, I found that the story stood out to me in other, very particular ways. Little Badger’s sense of place, for a start, is absolutely fantastic; she brings the Southwest to life, and as someone who knows enough of small-town and suburban America, the way she evokes those locales resonated with me. What also got to me were Josie’s memories and flashbacks to a not-that-long-ago teenage life, which Little Badger conveys with honesty and compassion. Josie’s problems and isolation are shown as real things, rather than portrayed through the wry lens of adulthood as melodrama, and her experience is critical to how she finds some (if not complete) resolution to her feelings about family.

Because of that–real places, real people–while I’d not read any of Little Badger’s work before,  I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more. Her blog indicates she’s working on a comic, which is super exciting, among other projects.

Sabrina Vourvoulias, Skin in the Game (Tor.com)

While Little Badger doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the ‘ffs must find better term than urban fantasy’ genre, Sabrina Vourvoulias takes the reader to a far grimmer place ((I’d advise readers to mind the warning in the editorial note at the top of the story.)) in her Philadelphia. Part of what makes the protagonist, police officer Jimena, and her world so engaging is the fact that it’s hard for the reader to distinguish the fantastical from what we know as our reality. For starters, when Jimena refers to zombies, does she mean the undead or does she mean drug addicts?

In Zombie City, a part of Philadelphia forsaken by most official bodies, it’s hard to say, and because of that, the ‘actual’ monsters are hard to identify. Jimena’s half monster herself, and is trying to make up for that fact by protecting Zombie City and hunting down the monsters that lurk there. It doesn’t help her cause that she’s a Latina beat officer in the land of white guy cops, including her partner. Nor does it help that she’s got an unabating hunger for violence and mayhem she’s got to tamp down.

What I really admired about Skin in the Game was that Vourvoulias does some seriously brilliant work in twisting the reader’s preconceptions, concepts that mainstream white culture’s internalized. In the inner city and among marginalized people, who are the monsters? What actually defines a ‘real’ monster, and could we know one if we saw one? Who is really alive and who is not? Is violence inherent to people’s situation, or is it the result of a greater evil?

Jimena’s not always the most likeable person, but that just makes her a better character. I still wanted her to triumph over all the fuckers in her way, and over her nature, because at least someone out there needed to be doing the right thing. Her attempts build a very smart story that’s more than necessary in spec fic right now, as police brutality and the racialization of violence become the mainstream focus they should have been for a long time.

Ann Leckie, She Commands Me and I Obey [pt 1, pt 2] (Strange Horizons)

I will now admit that I have been slower than I should have been to get reading Leckie’s work alongside everyone recently, as the quarter-finished paperback of Ancillary Justice sitting in my room and the unread copy of Ancillary Sword I got for Christmas indicate. In my defence I present the difficulties I’ve had with novels that I’ve mentioned previously (I only recently finished the first novel I’ve read in its entirety in some time)–and partially because of this guilt, I nearly gave She Commands Me… a pass, hearing it takes place in Ancillary-verse.

There are two important things to note about this story, if you’re wavering on whether you should read it yourself:
– You don’t need to have to know the Imperial Radch books to enjoy it.
– You don’t need to like sports writing to enjoy it. ((This was nearly a pointless anecdote about my brother and the book Favre For The Record and nostalgia about passing up Matt Christopher books in my elementary school library. Be glad you missed it.))
I would say that you probably will get good things out of this story if you DO have either of the above preferences, but they’re certainly not prerequisites.

In fact, the ballgame in She Commands Me is a means to an end, and that end is very explicitly politics and religion. Noage Itray, which culturally struck me as somewhere between Mesoamerican and Tibetan Buddhist (this is not self-limiting, and your mileage may vary) elects its governor based on the result of the Game and deifies the players, who are all members of religious orders. The main issue at stake–that is, outwith the power and glory involved–is that the losing captain will be killed by the winning one at the end of the match. I don’t feel it’s necessary to elaborate on some of the permutations this causes politically and religiously, save that it can be pretty easy, in some situations, to predict an outcome.

So when underdog side/party White Lily Monastery sends an unknown female captain instead of someone known and expendable against the heavily favoured Blue Lily, who back up the incumbent governor Qefahl Brend, everyone is pretty damn confused. This includes young and somewhat lonely novice Her-Breath-Contains, trainee of Blue Lily abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. There’s more to this captain than meets the eye, of course; but there’s also more to Her-Breath-Contains, and to Brend, and to Shall-I-Alone-Escape Death. It’s up to Her-Breath-Contains to work all of it out before someone gets killed, with skills and understanding he never knew he had.

What’s striking to me about She Commands Me is that it’s a delightful sci-fi political thriller and bildungsroman–somehow it takes the best of that kind of ‘old school’ SF and puts it into a world and context that are far more interesting and palatable to those of us who prefer ‘soft’ SF and less problematic aspects. Leckie’s excellent at worldbuilding (particularly politics and faiths), and it shows in how evocative this story is. It conjures up real tension for the reader, and despite the relatively short length, serious investment in the characters and outcome…

…and frankly, she made a narrative that involves long sports sequences interesting to me, which is in and of itself magic. She Commands Me gives sheer reader pleasure without giving way to pure id-fic, and if you need an enjoyable yet thought-provoking break from anything too emotionally painful, it’s very worth your time.

Rachel Acks, They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain (Lightspeed)

Speaking of painful, I was torn apart by They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain, which was originally in Women Destroy Science Fiction (and I missed it, as I’ve not gotten off my ass and bought it yet), and as such I don’t have a ton to say about it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead and read it.

Charlie’s mustering out of the military, we find out early on, in the midst of a War Against Terror–a young woman who was going nowhere in a society without anything to offer until her sister was killed in a terrorist attack that incites a massive conflict. Partially out of patriotism, partially out of pain, she signs up, and gets a drone/bot guidance system implanted in her brain, providing augmented senses, and in an odd way, companionship.

Unfortunately, when Charlie’s conscience catches up with her during the war, when she’s no longer able to handle fighting anymore, she’s no longer entitled to her augmentation. Because of this, she has to adjust not only to the end of being a warrior, not only to the pain of memories she’d put on ice, but to the silence that’s to enter her head.

But while the loss is there, wide and vast, the silence doesn’t come.

While the greater metaphor of They Tell Me is entirely familiar to those of us who came of age in the US in the last fifteen years, I feel Acks provides enough difference and insight into the experience of trying to come back to civilian life to make this anything but the same old story. The fact that it’s told in a combination of first and second person does help–instead of being difficult to read and jarring, I found it was far easier to identify with Charlie than I might have usually. She’s not necessarily likeable, from what we know of her, but her problems, even when hard to comprehend, feel utterly realistic and heartwrenching.

I was also reminded, in reading this story, of some of the things Sunny Moraine and others have had to say about telepresence and drone warfare recently. There’s probably a lot more to unpack in They Tell Me from a sociological perspective–about personhood, the body, the military…but I’ll leave those to those better skilled in those areas. Even if you’re not, if you’re up for this gutpunch of Acks’, it’s an important place to go, to put on the character-as-drone of Charlie for a while.


I seem to have run out of words, so soon to come–January reads! Possible grumping about Dominic Sandbrook and about Alex Garland! Likely grumping about other things!

As ever, do stay tuned, and if you have any recommendations for reads, please feel free to drop a comment or tweet at me.

diamond dust: the twilight of other worlds

It was a pretty damn good week for releases of shortform spec fic. While these three stories aren’t all of the good stuff I’ve read, they’re ones where I had far more than 140 characters ((Less! When you count the hashtag and the link and the author’s at-username…)) of comment. (More on what these reviews are/aren’t here.)

All of the stories deal in a way with alien worlds and alien cultures, and with the difficulty of comprehension due to that alien-ness. That conflict drives these stories, but to very different conclusions, all meaningful.

Ur, by Iona Sharma (Expanded Horizons)

Ur itself is an alien world, but not the homeworld of the people of Xi Lyr who live there. Instead, it’s a planet whose civilisation is long dead or departed; the people of Xi Lyr are colonising it and have offered to make the colony a shared venture with humanity. The humans who live on Ur are of mixed feelings about their trial stay there, but not nearly as much as those back on the slowly-dying Earth, who are more than a little sceptical of the other people’s reasoning and motives…and a vote of whether to continue the project or not is imminent.

The protagonist, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, is the wife of one of the human government ministers on Ur, and the larger plot is driven by her and her household’s transition in understanding what Ur is, what it could become, and what humanity’s place is in the universe. This is Sharma’s beautifully nuanced way of analysing the much larger sociopolitical issue at stake in the narrative.  Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, her household help and their friends/family, her alien neighbours, and her husband (in this sphere, outwith his professional capacity) are all working to navigate the intersection of two species, and all in different yet equally valid ways.

‘Ur’ is sketched out in neat spare descriptive lines, with skill and initial reserve that blooms into deep emotional resonance like the flowers of the madi’s garden. (I almost cried at the last few paragraphs, right there at my desk, which is pretty damn uncharacteristic of me.) While I did have a question or two unanswered, Sharma clearly understands the structure and impacts of politics, culture clash, language shifts, and social transition, but with a difference. She reveals the big picture subtly and with great skill, never forgetting the personal element to make her tale seem entirely, palpably, real.

Stalemate, by Rose Lemberg (Lackington’s)

Our protagonist has awoken with no memory, in an oceanic habitat on a world that’s effectively inhospitable to life. He knows how to work the computers, he has excellent engineering skills, and he knows something is very wrong with the highly regimented people with whom he’s ended up. What that is, or perhaps if something is wrong with him instead, will eventually come back to him, and the truth is far bigger and more complicated than it seems.

Lemberg proves to be a master of the slow build with this piece which inspired the ‘Institutions’ theme of this issue of Lackington’s.  Perhaps almost in an institution way itself, ‘Stalemate’ takes a relatively traditional present day vs. dream/flashback narrative sequence, but it’s a mystery and there’s enough tantalising detail revealed, bit by bit, in both threads of the story, to keep the reader engaged. While you can see where Lemberg is going before the climax, all of the pieces don’t come together until the very end, and it’s a harrowing irresistible journey through immersive writing until then.

And in that end, we find that this mystery, as all good mysteries, is devastating in more ways than one. The stakes here are extraordinarily high, and while ‘Stalemate’ does have a touch of the morality play style to it, it’s a morality play where there are no absolute correct answers. (Would that, perhaps, be the inverse of a morality play?)

On that, I highly recommend reading Lemberg’s story notes after reading the piece. I’m trying desperately not to lead to spoilers, but very generally speaking, they provide a take on the completed narrative that I didn’t initially see. In fact, I ended up kicking myself for not seeing it due to some ideological tunnel vision–and ‘Stalemate’ has given me even more to chew on now than it had prior to the insight.

A Moon for the Unborn, by Indrapramit Das (Strange Horizons)

Vir and his partner Teresa have returned to Earth after some time doing research on the extraplanetary body Akir’s World. They’re  still haunted by what happened to them there, how all of the babies conceived on Akir’s World were stillborn. And, worse yet, how phantom children then roamed the near-airless camp at night, seen with eye and camera but disappearing whenever one tried to encounter them in the flesh. Vir keeps dreaming of them, even home in Kolkata, and we find he’s unable to entirely put the past away.

I’ve read a bunch of ‘ghost stories’ lately, or rather, stories of the dead being made manifest–probably because it’s that time of year.  ‘A Moon for the Unborn’ has all the opening characteristics of a ghost story, with spooky dreams, eerie imagery, and relationship discord, but eventually reveals itself to be far more than that. We, and Vir, begin to understand this to be about belief, and faith, and one’s own personal mythos. In other words, ‘A Moon’ ends up being about how we make our own ghosts–ideas, dreams, stories–flesh, and what weight they should have in the real world.

From a writing perspective, I found Das to be particularly good at providing a sense of place; all of the locations in ‘A Moon’ are incredibly evocative and meaningful to the story. While I had a few quibbles on the interactions of Teresa and Vir (this could just be because I’m not terribly romantic, good job me), I found he portrayed Vir’s trans identity with dignity and respect. Not gonna lie, I get excited every time I see a character who is trans in SFF, whose narrative is shaped by their identity but not driven by it alone, who are more than a plot piece or tragedy. It’s a pleasure to experience characters such as Vir who aren’t tragic but whose identity is, as it is for all of us, part of their lives.

I’m hoping like hell to have remotely as good a selection in the next few weeks coming up. Stay tuned, and check out my Twitter feed for more short thoughts about shortform in the meantime. Among the wide-ranging variety of other stuff I talk (rant) about, that is.

By the way, you can buy from or donate to to all three of the venues I mentioned above. Please consider doing so if you’re able to, so that they can publish more diverse, thoughtful spec fic. I particularly want to flag up Strange Horizons’ 2014 fund drive, which is on for the next several days from the date of this posting; check it out.