I’m a little behind on my Strange Horizons reading. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.
Make sure you peruse the content warnings before diving into “The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” by Eleanna Castroianni; there are some very unsettling aspects to the story. Interstellar business dealings require an interpreter – the brain of Athuran is placed in the body of an “unwanted” human child, with all sorts of blocks and controls placed on it so it is little more than a machine that faithfully and automatically facilitates communication between species. But there is still a consciousness buried inside, screaming to get out. Sam-Sa-Ee is an interpreter who suffers horrifying abuse at the whim of her Envoy, but she soon discovers a means to rebel. That the bodies and minds of despised and discarded peoples are literal commodities to be butchered and tortured for profit is one of the milder horrors this unsparing story serves up. Castroianni covers a lot of psychological ground in a short space of time and delivers a satisfying, well-earned resolution for Sam-Sa-Ee.
Evan Marcroft’s “Chasing the Start” bears a somewhat lighter load in delivering an action-packed sports-themed narrative about an aging, legendary “strandrunner” – an athlete who races through historical periods from divergent timelines – named Sa Segokgo who still has one more thing to prove: as a young runner she witnessed her older-self vault over herself, even though the chances of her ending up in the same time strand twice are nearly impossible. She knows she must keep racing if she is ever going to witness that event from the other perspective, but she barely qualified for her most recent race and retirement is beckoning. A fascinating setting, with a wonderfully flawed and fiery protagonist.
Very few authors have the requisite skills to break the fourth wall, at least without coming off as pompous or extravagant. Kij Johnson has the writing chops to skirt that line, and she does so in “The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, in which a young girl named Ada and her talking hen, Blanche, are forced to go on the run from a horde of terrifying bird-like lizard creatures known as wastoures, who devour everyone and everything in their path. The narrator provides a dry, aloof meta-commentary throughout, mostly regarding what may or may not eventually happen to the people Ada and Blanche encounter during their flight. The story of Ada and Blanche is a hair-raising, cliffhanger-style medieval quest, while the narrator’s casual chilliness pokes the reader with the cruelty inherent, but generally camouflaged, in the act of storytelling itself. Such reflexivity may not be necessary to the story, but it is entertaining, suffusing the narrative with a lofty, apocryphal charm.
R.S.A. Garcia’s “The Anchorite Wakes” feels like a slightly spooky fantasy at first, gradually revealing itself as science fictional as it progresses. Sister Nadine is a nun at St. Nicholas’ church, whose interest in a peculiar little girl seems to unravel her sense of reality – but is she losing her mind or finding it? Idiosyncratic to say the least, it manages to spill its allegorical guts (organized religion as a tool for warmongering) without coming off as heavy-handed.
The immortal title character of Robert Reed’s “Kingfisher” long ago lost the ability to make new memories and is searches for hundreds of millions of years for his lost love amidst a massive, worlds-sized ship traveling the stars. Like the Great Ship, his true purpose has been muddied along the way, even as his trajectory remains unstoppable. Reed expertly balances the unimaginable scale of time and space with the intimate inner life of its hero. The writing is breathtaking, but it falls just short of solidifying the emotional distance its amplitude creates.
Henry Szabranski’s “The Veilonaut’s Dream” is a nicely conceptualized story of astronauts exploring a phenomenon called the Discontinuity, which opens and closes pathways to distant regions of space at random and never to the same place twice. It’s a dangerous occupation – if you are caught behind the veil when it shifts, you are lost forever. Hugo winner Hao Jingfang returns with the very short, Ken Liu translated piece “The Loneliest Ward”, where patients go when they’ve slipped into a social media coma.
This Issue of Clarkesworld also reprints “Yukui!”, from James Patrick Kelly’s brand-new collection The Promise of Space and Other Stories, and there is an excerpt from Rich Larson’s just-published debut novel Annex.
“The Unusual Customer” is a winsome culinary fantasy from Nigerian author Innocent Chizaram Ilo. Young Adaku sometimes wonders why other children have fathers and she doesn’t, but her restauranteur Mother Iyawo laughs the whole thing off. While Iyawo cooks for the hungry, rowdy workers, she regales Adaku with fanciful folk tales about the kitchenware and the food they cook, as Adaku waits the tables. One day a customer comes in wearing an invisible cloak, and only Adaku can see him. He is familiar with Iyawo’s Place and takes a keen interest in Adaku. It’s a motley, offbeat fable, told with roguish humor and delectable imagery.
The narrator of Kate Dollarhyde’s “A Taxonomy of Hurts” can see manifestations of other people’s pain, which take the form of plants and animals. She spends much of her time reflecting of the nature of such “hurts”, but she is at a loss when it comes to explaining herself, her way of seeing, and her own pain to the woman she loves. The breakthrough at the end of this calm and gentle tale is touching.
The two flashes are, well, flashy to say the least. Nibedita Sen’s “Pigeons” follows Kat and her twin sister Cil, whose mother taught them how to raise the dead before running off and leaving them with their overbearing grandfather. Sarah Goslee’s “By Stone, By Sea, By Flower, By Thorn” is about a vengeful woman who kills all the men who have wronged her, and whose weaving can prophesy her nations future. Both stories are terse to a fault, though at least Sen’s story sketches out something like a complete narrative.
The aliens invaded, were defeated, and left, but the lingering trauma remains. Compounding the usual effects of the horrors of war is an infection spread from the bodies of the dead invaders to the soldiers that encountered them. Erin’s aunt Melissa was one such soldier, and the infection is causing wild mood swings, as well as a bizarre, sticky webbing secreted from her skin. Erin needs to get Melissa from Denver to the research facility in San Diego, but when maneuvering the airport – with TSA personnel who have clearly not been trained to handle the afflicted – proves impossible, a road trip is the only option. “Chrysalis in Sunlight” is at its best when depicting the everyday effects of living with trauma, disease, and disability. Erin’s anxiety over things like mobility and access to services – things most people take for granted – are depicted with clear-eyed sympathy, and Erin’s courage in working to overcome those obstacles for the sake of a loved one is the story’s dramatic core. The handwavium of the alien invasion backstory is a problem, and while “Chrysalis in Sunlight” is thematically satisfying, the narrative leaves too many questions dangling that this reader wanted addressed.
By age sixteen Toby’s body was failing rapidly, but his brain was uniquely qualified for an experimental transfer to pilot a lunar module. The success of the program depends on his being able to prove that he can pilot a ship as well a manned mission, but even without a body he is unprepared for the coldness and isolation of space travel. “Loss of Signal” is a perfectly well-written story with a sympathetic protagonist who is easy to root for. It also panders incessantly to gross sentimentality. It’s a story without any subtlety or nuance, nor any sharp edges or ripples in the pond – everything goes straight down the middle of the road without swerving, coming to a complete stop at the intersection of Quality Road and Conventional Street.
“The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Novelette
“The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight”, Eleanna Castroianni (Strange Horizons, 7/2/2018) Short Story
“Chasing the Start”, Evan Marcroft (Strange Horizons, 7/9/2018) Novelette
“The Anchorite Wakes”, R.S.A. Garcia (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Short Story
“Kingfisher”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Novelette
“The Unusual Customer”, Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Fireside Magazine Issue 58, August 2018) Short Story