Strange Horizons and the Big Questions in Life

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of monthly reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, The Fix is no longer around so I'm reprinting these reviews on my website.

It sometimes appears that humanity is fated to eternally ask deep questions while receiving few deep answers in return. Perhaps this is because we humans are very good at posing the big questions—What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of good and evil? Is there a God?—but not so good at finding equivalent answers.

That said, from the point of view of anyone who loves science fiction and fantasy, it’s probably a good thing that humanity doesn’t have too many deep answers. After all, one of the strengths of the speculative fiction genres is that genre stories can easily plumb the big questions and mysteries we all ponder. If humanity truly possessed all the answers to life, there wouldn’t be a need for fantasy or science fiction in the first place.

And so it is we turn to the July 2008 fiction offerings from Strange Horizons, where each story explores life’s big questions in its own unique way. The first tale, “Called Out to Snow Crease Farm” by Constance Cooper, is set on a distant world colonized by humans. Unfortunately, the world is extremely hostile to Earth based life-forms, so the settlers have been forced to do without cattle and other familiar farm animals. To survive, the settlers domesticated the planet’s alien life-forms for their own uses, even though without proper preparation, these animals are poisonous to consume.

Into this scenario steps Margit Gazaway, a newly minted veterinarian assigned to serve on this planet. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been trained in the biology of the planet’s strange animals, making her less knowledgeable in this area than the very farmers she is called on to help. So the big question for Margit is this: Is it better to admit to ignorance or pretend to knowledge one doesn’t have? By the end, Margit makes her choice as she discovers that the first step to true knowledge is admitting one’s ignorance. “Called Out to Snow Crease Farm” is nicely written, with lots of creative worldbuilding. Unfortunately, there is so much exposition needed to set up the story that the tale is heavily weighted down in its first half, creating a slow start from which the remaining half never quite recovers.

The next story, “The Magician’s House” by Meghan McCarron (published in two parts in Strange Horizons), takes a different approach to exploring the big questions of life, in this case by examining the process by which we learn to ask the right questions in our lives. McCarron starts the tale off as if desiring to create a hormonally charged teenage version of the novel Holes, as a nameless teenage girl digs holes in a magician’s backyard in an attempt to learn about the earth based power which exists in all magic. McCarron’s lush writing is on display in these opening sections, as she describes hole after hole in an extremely sensual, sexy manner. If this feels like an obvious play off the Freudian theories of dark caves and holes and such, then yes, that is exactly what McCarron is doing. This truth is seen again when the protagonist discovers her magic is wedded to the earth itself, leading her to create dark tunnels and climb into caves and rip just about every page out of Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual playbook.

This story is extremely tied up with teenage angst and hormones and dreams of growing up. But it is also about the protagonist’s search for the meaning to her life. The magician, with his tacky ’80s clothes and his orange and lime green furniture, is an unlikely mentor. But even as the reader is disturbed by the sexual relationship which develops between this teacher and pupil, we also realize the magician is correct when he says that awakening to our own lives and power is sometimes slow and safe, and sometimes fast and demanding. Either way, we have to choose how we awaken to life. And no matter our choice, the life we awaken to may not be the life we expected to find. So it is with the protagonist in this story.

Few writers could have pulled off this story without falling prey to the very sexual stereotypes which make up its meat and blood. But just like the scene where the nameless girl dances with other magicians around a raging fire—trying to stay on that fine line between being burned by the fire’s heat and frozen by the winter’s cold—McCarron’s lyrical prose enables the tale to dance close enough to these stereotypes to share their power and truths while also refusing to be singed by cliché. “The Magician’s House” will likely make many of the year’s best lists and is highly recommended.

The final July story from Strange Horizons is “Marsh Gods” by Ann Leckie. Set in an ancient marsh village, Voud is a ten-year-old girl whose family controls valuable local fishing rights. The story opens with Voud frightened because the men of her family are suffering mysterious deaths. When her last brother, the ne’er-do-well Irris, is killed, Voud suspects that a fellow villager is consorting with dark powers in an attempt to take her family’s wealth.

Anxious to learn what to do, Voud consults with the local marsh gods—brown cranes who have a compact to protect the village. Unfortunately, the gods are very limited in what they can do. If they lie, they lose their power, and the gods these days don’t have a lot of power to go around. But then Irris shows back up in the village, impossibly alive and showcasing a new and improved personality for all to see. Before long, Voud learns that not all gods lack for power.

This is a fun read centered around extremely believable characters—both human and gods—who are merely trying to survive in an ever-changing world. What takes the story beyond most fantasies is its central question: What is the difference between a lie which can never be true and a lie which is only a lie until the world itself is reshaped to turn lie into truth? This story is recommended for anyone who enjoys a good fantasy.

The common thread among these stories is that they function both as good fiction—with the engaging characterization, plot, and prose that are the hallmark of all top-notch short stories—and as philosophical laboratories where writer and reader can explore the big questions we all face. But don’t come to these stories expecting simple answers. Because good science fiction and fantasy stories are like a skilled magician, one who keeps the truth hidden even as her sleight of hand distracts the audience. You can so easily obsess over what happened to that rabbit, or where the cards in her hands disappeared to, that you only later realize how much more was going on than you could ever possibly understand.

Just like a great magician, science fiction and fantasy stories succeed when they trick the reader into seeing beyond the tale to the bigger questions in life. And in these three stories from Strange Horizons, this trickery is in full bloom. So sit back and enjoy. And don’t be disturbed if you leave these tales pondering questions to which we’ll never have any satisfactory answers.