by Gillian Daniels
“The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Mythic Delirium Books; July 2015) Bone Swans
Deeply creepy and extravagantly lyrical, Cooney sutures sweetened-up nursery fairy tales to the darker undertones of their classic counterparts. The result is something like “Ring Around the Rosey” played on a broken harpsichord.
Much like its main character, the rat-human shapeshifter Maurice, “The Bone Swans of Amandale” is as charming as it is unnerving. Maurice’s narration is filled with both unembarrassed self-deprecation and glorious innuendo. He saves Dora Rose, a swan princess, from the same fate as her family at the hands of children Swan Hunters, but he does it mainly because he’s nursing a crush on her. He certainly doesn’t interfere on behalf of the rest of her family. Perhaps this is wise as the death of these swans is due to nothing more than the machinations of a greedy mayor, Ulia Gol, who prefers turning enchanted birds into self-playing instruments rather than hire human musicians for the town’s orchestra.
Both Maurice and Dora Rose decide the best course of action is well-planned vengeance. They enlist the help of Nicholas, a man with a gift for playing the pipe. The plot they hatch folds in the Juniper Tree and other fairy tale figures (if you squint) to create a textured and curious world. Cooney bravely and happily marries grisly plot to candy-coated jokes. It’s a wonderful journey and the fact the author succeeds at balancing disparate tones so effortlessly implies nothing short of witchcraft.
“Sounding the Fall” by Jei D. Marcade (Published July 20, 2015), EscapePod
I’m a hard sell on cyberpunk. The genre often flies in the face of Golden Age SF optimism, which can be very nice. The “what has science done, surely advanced technology will hurt our living souls” story, though, can wear thin as well. What’s the point of looking toward the future if it’s never a future in which we’re interested in living?
In order to grab me, cyberpunk has to have a frantic pace, sumptuous detail, and a view of technology that doesn’t completely demonize it. Narae, who uses the pronouns ey/em/eir, lives in such a future, separate from the tech that surrounds em but not particularly bitter toward it. Instead, ey is weary. Ey lives in a beautiful, dangerous world and, within it, has spent a great deal of time as an “aux,” a humane punishment for criminals in which one’s consciousness is ported into an artificial intelligence.
In the darkness, wavering threads of ten, twenty, a hundred unremitting tones plaited together, forming a dissonant electric hum: a terrible Voice that ratcheted up to a distorted screamsong in which Narae could swear ey heard eir name.
Now Narae is a monk, living a simple life in a monastery, but one that isn’t entirely devoid of worldly delights. For example, ey meets and ends up splitting a joint with Domabaem, a young woman contemplating either a monastic life or the same punishment ey underwent. Narae tries to advise her as best ey can. Their discussion leads em to question eir assumptions about this colorful world and eir years spent apart from it. An interesting yarn with unexpected but satisfying directions.
“20/20” by Arie Coleman (Published August 17, 2015), Strange Horizons
Time travel is often treated as an action adventure cure-all. In a podcast I listen to about medical history misfortunes, Sawbones, the hosts have a wonderful saying about particular forms of alternate medicine, tonics, or charlatan treatments: “Cure-alls cure nothing.” If someone would say just about anything to sell you snake oil, that physician probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart. This story does.
Here, Arie Coleman problematizes the nature of the time travel plot device. Think about the last few minutes of Galaxy Quest (1999) in which the bad ending of an entire film is righted. It’s a moment of relief, but Coleman gives us a far more sobering take. In a world where time travel is utilized as a way to catch misdiagnoses or medical mishaps, our heroine, Loren, has utilized the technology a few too many times. She sees alternate timelines splinter around her, chairs that are present in other timelines but not in her own. The price is steep, but it’s in the name of medicine.
But Loren has also become tired. Her time travel missions to the not-so-distant past are heroic but thankless. Worse yet, she’s discovered that no matter how many times she fixes medical mistakes, there are some problems that no miracles can touch.
“Request for an Extension on the Clarity” by Sofia Samatar (Published July 2015), Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #33
June’s issue of LCRW contains a moving story by Jade Sylvan, “Sun Circles.” In it, a man who likely has autism is traveling by himself in a spaceship to discover an inhabitable planet. Once he gets there, there are no plans for a return mission. He’s unable to receive messages from Earth as frequently. The dispatchers he’s used to are, throughout the years, replaced by strangers. He’s not saddened by these changes, however. For him, the constant loneliness pales to his work. He has an aging parrot by his side and the whole of human civilization to save. Why should he mind being alone for the rest of his life?
The main character of Samatar’s offering for the July issue is similarly isolated. Her astronaut is on an outpost far from home. Unlike Sylvan’s piece, however, the main character in “Request for an Extension on the Clarity” isn’t bound to loneliness by duty. Anyone could be in her space station outpost, feeding her cats (animals are apparently a must when far from terra firma) and receiving deliveries from Earth. No, she’s out there because her culture has already alienated her, a black woman in a society where white professors who study Africa have more say on her background than she does. She’s opted to rebel against this world by leaving it entirely.
In my May column, I wrote about another Samatar story that has to do with alienation and colonialism, “Those.” The heroine there also had to overcome a very Western, very male perspective on education to understand herself. “Extension”’s main character has far less patience, however, instead choosing decades-long solitude. In many ways, this decision is colder. A self-imposed exile is an extreme move. The note with which this story left me, though, was hopeful. Here’s a woman who’s decided to take control of her destiny. There’s heroism in accepting one’s own limits and fate, yes, but there’s also heroism in forging ahead on a path shaped by one’s own will.
“Ghost Champagne” by Charlie Jane Anders (Published July/August 2015), Uncanny Magazine
Comedy is built around pain. Slapstick is literally people hurting themselves for laughs and stand-up comedians make observations over the things they just can’t change. It makes sense that Gloria aspires to be a professional comedian. She’s been haunted by the ghost of her future self all her life. She needs to create something to laugh at, especially with her moody, sometimes exquisitely-dressed older self haunting every move she makes.
Anders’ has a deft hand for both sentiment and goofiness. Here, she’s able to balance both with a great deal of wit. Ghost or not, Gloria’s life is far from the worst thing in the world, but it’s certainly a work in progress. Raj, her comedian boyfriend, is in a career that’s advancing more quickly than her own. Her previously conservative mother has come out as a lesbian, bridging the gap between her and Gloria only to widen it again by marrying a girl her daughter’s age.
Though Gloria sees a therapist regarding the ghost, whether this continual visitation is a metaphor for depression is more ambiguous. Instead, her sighing phantasm seems to be a personification of her self-doubt. It’s grim but fantastic imagery. Particularly funny is the opening scene in which Gloria metaphorically dies on stage as her ghost watches from the audience, sipping an Old Fashioned. What really carries the story, however, is Gloria’s voice. As a narrator, she peppers the story with jokes. Much of her life is having to accept all the little things she can’t change. She might as well take the opportunity to work on her material.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.