I’m posting this with a gasp of relief. With this relatively light Wrap-Up, the busy year-end period and “holidays” and flood of January reviews is over and, as far as I know, in terms of zine reviews this month, there will just be another Tangent piece and a couple more of these Wrap-Ups. So, now, on with this one…
- “Refugee; or, a nine-item representative inventory of a better world” by Iona Sharma, Strange Horizons, January 8, 2018 (science fictional short story)
- “A Street but Half Made Up” by Anna Zumbro, Nature, January 10, 2018 (science fictional short story)
- “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte, Lightspeed #92, January , 2018 (fantasy novelette (officially, though I get 7482 words – either way, it’s within the category fuzz factor))
- “The River” by Tori Cárdenas, Terraform, January 11, 2018 (science fictional short story)
- “The Animator” by Adam Millard, Grievous Angel, January 11, 2018 (fantasy short story)
Except for one story which missed the memo, this was apparently Surreal Flash Week. First, as has been and will be the case with all Strange Horizons stories this month, I reviewed “Refugee” for Tangent. “The Animator” involves a guy waking up from a nightmare about a giant hand chasing him and segues into its bizarre conclusion. As Gardner Dozois said someone said: “One thing that never changes—the avant-garde.” It’s very disturbing when Grievous Angel is even a little more surreal than usual, yet the science magazine Nature tries to match it. In “A Street Half Made Up,” a robot is on “Fiction Street” where it is supposed to be shelving books at bus stops and stores but it insists on giving humans books while quoting the Mary Shelley it just read. Finally, “The River” involves the US kicking out every “foreign” person and follows one of these people “home” to an unfamiliar Amazon trickling through a city with albino crocodiles. None of these did much for me. Moving on…
I’ve read stories about past lives, complete with gender shifts from life to life, and I’ve read a few billion stories, mostly poor, about identity/orientation, but I don’t recall reading one which combines them like “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births.” Jamie is a young person who vaguely recalls having been female in some past lives and is biologically male in this lifetime. Jamie’s best friend, Alicia, is a girl who indicates she may be a lesbian and the story takes off when they are hanging out, observing a new neighbor move in. Jamie realizes s/he knows this guy and eventually figures out that he’s been released from prison for murder. Murdering her. In a past life, Janie was married to a man who was friends with the man now moving in. Understanding what happened then and deciding what to do about it now (and dealing with stray bullies, an insufficiently ferocious pet pit bull, and with feelings for Alicia) drives much of the rest of the story.
There are so many things to like about this story (even if you’re not interested in the gender issues – and more if you are) that it’s hard to know where to begin. The story is utterly mainstream except for Jamie’s awareness of past lives, but this is woven into and affects everything in the story. Jamie is a wonderfully crafted character whose mix of self-confidence and self-doubt feels very authentic. The first-person narration is superb, reading like a real individual without gimmicks. Alicia and the ex-con are also well done. Jamie’s initial impulse to “do to” is very human and natural and the later interest to “do for” rises above this. The story’s deadly serious subject matter doesn’t preclude some genuine humor. (The narration/dialog around Alicia getting Aunt Hilda’s dress for Jamie is very funny.) If I had to invent a criticism, I admit the climactic scene might conceivably be considered a little melodramatic but I actually think it works extremely well. All in all, this is one of those stories I don’t feel like I can do justice to because, along with the general soundness of concept, plot, and character, much of the excellence derives from subtle nuances from thought to thought and expression to expression. Go read it for yourself and experience all its richness.