“She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear (fantasy)
“Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” by S.B. Divya (science fiction)
“The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine (science fiction)
“Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” by Marissa Lingen (fantasy)
“Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” by Sunny Moraine (fantasy)
“The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw (science fiction)
“The Date” by R.K. Kalaw (fantasy)
All the stories are short except the last, which is shorter.
The one I most want to talk about is “The Hydraulic Emperor“ which is probably my favorite story of the young year and certainly one of the top two.
The Hydraulic Emperor is a short “immersive” film and there may be only one print in the universe. Mallory Iheji is a huge fan of the filmmaker, Aglaé Skemety, and is desperate to experience it. When a corporate suit offers it to her in payment for a mission, she accepts. The mission is to acquire a puzzlebox from the alien Qath who are very strange and hold bidding competitions with sacrifice as payment – whether they are psychic or through some other means, they can determine the personal cost of the sacrifice which is what they care about rather than the human monetary value. When an old flame/colleague shows up and begins bidding against her, Mallory’s task of acquiring the puzzlebox (and thus the film) gets more complicated.
Some stories are “Oh, this again,” in a bad way and some are, “Ooh, this again.” The grail motif and the art-within-art element and the weird aliens and the various other things aren’t new, obviously, but are hard to wear out and are good things to build good stories out of. This particular example does a great job of engaging both intellect and emotion. The protagonist is smart and passionate but expresses her deep emotions in an almost stoic or restrained way. The milieu and the aliens are fascinating as is the sacrificial barter concept. Thematically, the story engages several kinds of nullity in a very full way, so to speak. Along with another slight problem difficult to express without getting too much into the closing sequence, you do have to swallow the idea that there is somehow only one known copy of the movie but it’s theoretically possible and worth it to make the story go. I enjoyed this one a lot.
As far as the other stories, there is something wrong in the realms of speculative fiction when I’ve read about as many stories this month about women being burned by dragons and liking it as I have about spaceships. “She Still Loves the Dragon” would seem to be an abusive relationship of some kind but is supposed to be beautiful and empowering somehow. Between the two, I preferred “Mother’s Rules for a Burned Girl,” which is otherwise quite different.
“Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” deals with what seems to be an abortionist and her spouse (who has breasts but is not a “she,” if I understood correctly) living in a dictatorial future Arizona when the government forces kill the doctor, forcing the spouse to flee with the two children to California. It’s too overwrought, emotionally manipulative, and too simply conceived, plotted, and resolved, though some may respond to its intensity. “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor,” is a similarly intense but overwrought and simple story in which a girl walks into a bar… and walks out with another girl and they destroy the world. This “oh, this again” story, like its many companions, lacks shape, judgment, balance… art. Another, more restrained, story about two lonely people finding kindred spirits is “The Date,” a flash piece about a praying mantis lady and some other carnivore.
“The Utmost Bound” is almost a good ol’ space story and I’m a supporter of manned space exploration but it’s still inexplicable that two people would be orbiting Venus so they could run a rover over the surface and is further hurt by having one of the astronauts panic at what they find when, like a pilot who calmly tries X, then Y, then mutters “Crap” as the last word before crashing, an astronaut (and most civilians) should be able to handle what happens. Plus, its central idea is simultaneously Fortean and yet too much like a Karl Schroeder story (“Laika’s Ghost,” if I recall correctly).
Perhaps the best of the rest is “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage.” When the protagonist sorceress is stuck inside a tree by her duplicitous apprentice while on a job to find a way to cross the frost giants’ domain, she learns about walking a mile in a cherry tree’s shoes, so to speak, as well as the application of this to intercreature diplomacy. The tone is almost as annoying as it is amusing and it’s conveniently plotted, but it’s still a decent tale.