Review of Strange Horizons, March 2009

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.

Earlier this year I immersed myself in online fiction through the annual storySouth Million Writers Award, which it’s my joy to run. The great thing about the award is it’s a fun way to keep up with online fiction trends—and the biggest trend this year was how the number of quality online short fiction venues grew massively over last year. There are almost too many great stories being published online.

Which is, I guess, my lame-butt way of segueing into an excuse for why this review is so late. The truth is there’s so much online fiction being published these day I OD’ed on it for a while. By the time I was ready to resume reviewing Strange Horizons fiction for The Fix, I was staring at such a backlog of stories my procrastination synapses kicked in. I avoided reading the magazine, dreading the work before me.

Which was a lousy thing to do, because the March 2009 Strange Horizons stories are among the best they’ve published in recent memory.

First up is “Diana Comet” by Sandra McDonald, author of the SF trilogy The Outback Stars, The Stars Down Under, and the recently released The Stars Blue Yonder, all of which update traditional military space opera by adding in a female lead and romance. The result is a series not only filled with lots of action, but one which might help create a new subgenre of romantic military SF.

With her Strange Horizons story, McDonald leads readers into a totally new universe. Diana Comet, an upper-class reporter and self-professed “champion of the underclass,” has just arrived in the city of Massasoit, where she is searching for her vanished fiancé James. For fans of McDonald’s previous novels, the story is an abrupt change—instead of far future panoramas, the city of Massasoit is set in a slipstream-influenced 19th century, where the poor live truly wretched lives, and the rich tower above the filth and stench of the actual city.

While Diana might be seeking a straight-forward answer to what happened to her betrothed love, she keeps running headlong into secrets piled onto secrets. Not, of course, that she doesn’t also have her own unspeakables to keep hidden. As with all McDonald’s writings, this story is well written and a visual treat, taking the reader into a new world which is at once familiar and, with a second glance, totally unique. Recommended.

The next story is “Nira and I” by new writer Shweta Narayan. Shaya and her friend Nira witness the honor killing of Shaya’s beloved aunt Hemal, merely for being interested in a boy from another caste. But Hemal isn’t killed only for defying tradition; she is also murdered because her family fears by going against tradition she will invite the mists into their lives.

You see, in this land mists conceal everything—roads, houses, buildings—and a person who doesn’t remember how the land is supposed to exist can easily lose both their way and their life. Shaya, Nira, and all the members of her caste are rememberers, who help others find their way safely through these dangerous mists.

But Shaya and Nira are also kids, and as with all kids, they care little for the laws and customs which the older people follow. As they flaunt their caste rules, they discover the mists aren’t what they’ve been lead to believe. It also turns out there’s a way to get rid of the mists, but most people are too fearful to follow that path. At turns surreal, metaphoric, and frighteningly real, this is one of the most exciting stories I’ve read all year. Highly recommended.

Another new writer, Sean E. Markey, fills the next spot in Strange Horizons with his second person fantasy “The Spider in You.” In this world, people worship spider gods, which live in their houses. If you survive three of their bites, they’ll grant you strength and fortune for the rest of your life. The problem, though, is surviving those three bites. When children reach a certain age, they must be bitten, causing many to die. And that’s not even taking into consideration the bites from spiders which have no intention of letting their charges live.

This story is extremely disturbing, as it’s meant to be. And like “Nira and I,” the tale plays on metaphor to an interesting degree. But where “Nira and I” wrapped its social consciousness around wonderful characterization and a deep world view, “The Spider in You” is too stand-offish with its readers, likely due to the weak second-person narration. Still, it is an interesting read.

The final story from March is also the first pure science fiction story of the month, “Turning the Apples” by Tina Connolly. On a distant world, Szo sells cell phones to newly arrived tourists, who come for the world’s famous waterfalls and parks. The trick, though, is there’s an infection on this planet, which one-half of one percent of all off-world tourists come down with. As Connolly writes, “Getting infected makes your brain rewriteable. Surviving makes you able to rewrite.”

Szo is one such rewriter, able to reprogram the brains of infected tourists so they can be sent off to do horrific jobs like hauling radioactive waste. Rewriting someone’s brain is also an incredible high which Szo keeps trying to quit, only to be dragged back into the work by the criminals who run this racket.

“Turning the Apples” is a fascinating story which I totally enjoyed, with a great character in Szo. In fact, I was so wrapped up in the story I ignored a major believability issue until after I finished (i.e., that tourists would keep coming to an alien world where there’s even a slight chance they might disappear into a horrific infected life). Despite this minor quibble, fans of unusual science fiction stories will enjoy this tale.