Strange Horizons -- March 5, 12, & 19, 2018

Thursday, 22 March 2018 15:03 Dave Truesdale
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Strange Horizons, March 5, 12, & 19, 2018

"Of Warps and Wefts" by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (March 5th)

"A Very Large Number of Moons" by Kai Stewart (March 12th)
"Princess Mine" by Darby Harn (March 19th)

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

The author of "Of Warps and Wefts," a 5,400 word fantasy, is twenty year-old Nigerian Innocent Chizaram Ilo. Set in what reads like somewhere in Africa in a relatively contemporary time period, the primary focus is cultural/social, a setup where gender transformation and dual marriage/partner swapping is the norm. In the morning a person is one gender and married to someone of the other gender. At night, the person transforms into the opposite gender and is married to someone else of the other gender (who has transformed from the gender he or she was earlier in the day). Thus, in this story, we are given four (I think) people who end up with four different spouses or (I think) lovers, for when transformed they share their time with someone else (depending on which gender they are for a specified period of time).

This story centers on one woman (as initially referred to) and her growing dissatisfaction with one of her current spouses and his seeming insensitivity to their four matchstick children (who, yes, live in a matchbox), her cooking (he leaves his dinner on the front porch for the bats to eat), and her jealousy when he comes home after having sex with another woman, whom she vows not to let steal him from her.

The storyline follows several interpersonal partner transformations, their domestic trials and tribulations given the expanded arrangements, and the effects they have on the primary character which are much like those with which any heterosexual marriage must confront, it must be said, though there are more balls one must juggle given the more complex setup. For example, one of the female spouses comes home drunk and vomits, doesn't clean the house or take care of the matchbook children, etc. A male spouse isn't the strong, handsome, muscular, alcohol-imbibing with the boys outgoing type, but has thin limbs, finely sculpted features and prefers his own quiet thoughts—while the female spouse wishes he was more like the former when she opines, “Sometimes, I need a man who is wild and untamed, but I am not complaining.”

And so it goes. At story's end, and to my mind without much justification, the main character simply ends up accepting her plight and not much is really resolved after all of her initial complaining about this or that. Due to the short length of the piece, one shouldn't expect the depth a longer piece would provide, or blame the author for any lack thereof, and so this glimpse into a more complex personal and societal construct reads more like a working guide for the interested tourist, illuminating how it might work and how it might alter the basic psychology of men and women living in such a world, or how in some ways it might not, people being people regardless of how they try to hide any true feelings they might harbor or feel guilty for having. Some of the deepest biological imperatives within us (regardless of which gender we are, or identify as) just don't change. Or do they?

The speculative/fantasy elements (aside from the central conceit of gender transformation; physical or cosmetic is irrelevant to the larger issue of the psychology and mindset involved in assuming a different gender and its expected roles) appear to be an add-on, ostensibly for whatever exotic appeal they may have in the mind of the reader, but are then dropped. One of the very young matchbox children (this is never explained, it's just the way it is) we learn is telepathic. Mentioned in passing in a sentence or two, nothing much is made of it and it then disappears from the narrative and has no relevance to the storyline. There is mention of a dragon poacher seducing someone in a field, but again, that's the end of it for all intents and purposes. These drips and drabs could be seen as pieces of a visual puzzle, the end being to worldbuild at the edges to convey something of the landscape within which the story takes place, but since they are dropped in without even a semblance of handwavium for the reader to hang his or her hat on, they seem somewhat out of place and/or unnecessary to the main theme. That said, and while this may not be a perfectly drawn story, it does deal somewhat effectively with a core issue very much in the vein of the sort that warrants at least a look by the James Tiptree, Jr. Award judges.

Under the byline of each new story, Strange Horizons has the words Content Warning followed with a box to click if you desire to view the warnings they list that (I guess) they feel certain readers might find helpful, or in case they might take offense. For this story the list is lengthy, though for a couple of them I find scant need or even a reason:

Body transformation

Child abuse

Death/dying

Needles

Scars/scarification

Sex

Sexism/gender discrimination

Shaming

Violence/combat

Vomit

Make of this what you will.

"A Very Large Number of Moons" by Kai Stewart is just shy of 1,400 words. Told from the viewpoint of a moon collector, it presents brief descriptions of all the numerous kinds of moons in his collection, both present day and historical. For instance, the collector writes: "Here’s the historical moons, my area of particular focus.  Here’s the moon over Berlin on August 12, 1961, as the first brick was laid to divide the city. This is thought to be the moon that rose the night before the signing of the Magna Carta.  It’s the right phase, anyway, though it might be off by a month or two.  I’ve compiled a fairly extensive collection of the moons of the Nihonmatsu lantern festival, and my lunonomical history of Angola, Louisiana, is authoritative.  I had family there, back when." 

The collector also has the moon the night of a famous plane crash where there was one lone survivor. After many years the survivor comes to visit, wanting to trade for the moon. It's an interesting interlude and rather touching, actually.

The story ends with the collector returning to his collection to catalog a newly acquired moon and we are given even more exotic types of moons we would never take notice of if not for the collector's hobby, as he shows us that there are, indeed, "A Very Large Number of Moons." A clever piece at just the right length, I enjoyed this one. Here are the Content Warnings for this one, and again I see no real reason for some of them (example: a werewolf moon is mentioned as one of many types of moons, that's it; which I guess accounts for the Body transformation warning. An SF/F/H genre reader has to be warned about something as innocent as this?):

Body transformation

Death/dying

Spiders/insects

Violence/combat

Darby Harn's "Princess Mine" is a 3,257 word exercise in depression and despair. Any sfnal or spec/fantastical element (in the genre sense) is minimal to non-existent, unless one counts the meta-fictional form in which the story is written. Delivered as a review of a fictional reality show whose female star committed suicide after Season Two, our reviewer now reviews a ghost episode of Season Three. The reality star's real life and the one depicted in the show (and also through the eyes of the reviewer) intermingle and melt into each other, blurring their realities—and in important respects seem to mirror the agoraphobic life of our fictional narrator, who spends all her time cloistered and alone, poring over her past and the SF shows she enjoyed watching. It's all story-within-story-within-story and each reveals character aspects more depressing than the last. It is ultimately a gray, gloomy, character study about, when you step back and think about it from a distance, A-Nerd-Without-A-Life-Gone-Bad who can't deal with Reality and is either contemplating suicide or has attempted it (or was that one of the characters from the fictional reality show?), for if the reader has trouble distinguishing between them it certainly stems from the fact that the narrator/reviewer can't either, such is her Reality blurred.

This piece is a prime examplar of Despairpunk reiterated yet again* for a new generation of those unable to cope.

*(See any of the four issues of Samuel R. Delany's short-lived Quark series of paperbacks from the 1970s, or from Michael Moorcock's The Best from New Worlds series from the 1960s when the New Wave's emphasis on inner space, inner realities, and a bleaker look at humanity and one's place in it [the meat and potatoes themes of many literary mainstream stories] prevalent in much British SF of the time took brief precedence in the SF field. See also stories of Urban alienation, one such example coming immediately to mind {published over sixty years ago} being Theodore Sturgeon's "The Other Celia" from the March 1957 issue of Galaxy.)

Here are the Content Warnings for this story:

Ableism

Cancer

Death/Dying

Drug use

Mental disorders

Sexism/gender discrimination

Suicide

*

Commentary about the Content Warnings

As odd as it may seem, I've always been of the impression that the editor of any magazine tries to publish stories he or she believes the magazine's audience, its readership, would like. Once said audience or readership has been found, half the battle (and the magazine's continued existence) has been won. Keeping that audience while trying to expand the readership is the next step, and often involves taking risks in order to see which sorts of stories will fly and which won't. Will a different type of story add more readers than it may lose? If so, publishing more of any new sort of story added to those already welcomed by the readership base will prove to be a plus, not only with the magazine's base and its new readers, but for the economic bottom line as well. This seems pretty obvious.

I mention a magazine's audience because, in this case, it strikes me as unnecessary to provide a Content Warning if such warnings are aimed at an audience that already knows what to expect from a Strange Horizon story—at least within general parameters. Magazines come to have an identity over time, some more so than others, of course, but readers have a pretty fair idea of the type of SF or F they can expect from the magazines they choose to frequent and obviously enjoy. Strange Horizons will celebrate its 18th year of publication in September of 2018, its first issue appearing in September of 2000. It has become a staple on the genre short fiction scene, having been nominated for the Hugo award more than a handful of times, a few of its stories being nominated for (or winning) major awards, as well as one of its former editors winning a World Fantasy Special Award in the Non-Professional category. It has therefore become a popular, widely recognized short fiction magazine with a loyal following. Readers know what kind of fiction they can reasonably expect from Strange Horizons and they obviously approve.

It occurs to me then to ask the question, "Then why does Strange Horizons feel it necessary to provide Content Warnings before every story if its audience already knows what to expect, that being the possible range of material, themes, and treatment of same for which it is already widely known and recognized?"

For example, in the trio of stories SH has published this month, there are a grand total of fifteen Content Warning categories. Fifteen. Because several identical warnings are listed in more than one story, there are a grand total of eighteen Content Warnings. Eighteen. All three stories have a Death/Dying warning. Two of them have Body Transformation and Violence/Combat warnings. And scattered among all stories we have one warning apiece for: Needles, Child Abuse, Scars/Scarification, Shaming, Vomit, Spiders/Insects, Ableism, Cancer, Drug Use, Mental Disorders, Suicide, and finally Sexism/Gender Discrimination. Surely regular readers of SH would not feel any symptoms presaging a micro- or macro-aggression attack, or feel so downright and thoroughly offended by anything in the warnings that would stop them from reading the actual stories. Surely not. How could any reader, a fan of SF/F in general with its broad diversity of themes and subject matter (shapeshifting werewolves transforming by the light of a full moon or any number of other creatures {or humans} able to transform from one creature or sex to another in countless genre stories over the years) feel micro-aggressed or offended by this in a fantasy story? And how any intelligent, open-minded, curious and widely read SF fan could feel offended by reading about insects or spiders in a story is beyond me. Some people don't like insects or spiders, but is even a mention of them in a story enough to send the reader running for a safe room with a can of bug repellent? And what about Vomit? Oh, heaven forbid! The very word offends my proper sensibilities, and I feel so strongly about the word that I vow never to read a story or novel with the word Vomit in it. Thank you, Strange Horizons for looking out for me with this Warning. And don't get me started on needles or drug use. The thought of them makes me physically ill, so to read about them is the last straw. Thank you, Strange Horizons for looking out for me with this Warning. And Death and Dying always make me feel so sad inside that I feel like crying when my thoughts turn to them, much less read a story that in any way has Death or Dying in it (even an evil villain getting his comeuppance has me reaching for the kleenex), so thank you Strange Horizons for looking out for me with this Warning. And your Warning about Violence and Combat in the stories was a godsend; can't stand either and it's virtually impossible to read any Science fiction, Fantasy, or god forbid Horror stories without some form of violence these days. I get to places in stories where there's a fist fight or drunken brawl in a castle hall or ale tavern in some Sword & Sorcery tale, or something worse (swords, bows and arrows, guns, or dark-magic wielding wizards) and I have to stop and make some hot tea to calm my nerves. Even two people having an argument in a story is enough to send me to the kitchen for more tea (Anji Baicha is best for the calming influence of its high l-theanine content), so thank you Strange Horizons for looking out for me with your Warning.

And on and on it goes with this or that Warning from the thoughtful, all-caring and compassionate Mental Health Professionals editors at Strange Horizons.

But think about it for a moment. If Strange Horizons caters to and runs stories it knows its long-standing readership is in tune with and is predisposed to be sympatico with in terms of its themes and subject matter, then why does it need all of its Content Warnings? If not for them then who? If such Warnings are meant for possible new readers coming to the magazine for the first time and who are unfamiliar with its particular philosophy—the editorial vision it promotes when dealing with themes and treatments of subject matter—then it tells me that the editors take a rather dim view of these newcomers, making unwarranted assumptions about SF/F readers. It says to me that the editors believe new readers aren't intellectually or emotionally capable of enjoying the stories should said stories happen to espouse any possible view different than those new readers may or may not already hold.

It has been my experience, having immersed myself in science fiction and fantasy for many decades as a reader, editor, and reviewer/critic, that while many genre readers have one or more preferences in the various SF or F sub-genres, they still read (or have read) widely and have come across pretty much every conceivable type of story one can imagine. They don't need Content Warnings. Science Fiction and Fantasy readers are some of the most curious, intelligent, widely read, and eager to expand their reading experience wherever they can find it people I know. For Strange Horizons to offer these Content Warnings as a thoughtful "public service" atop each story is not only condescending to its reader base but to any new readers it wishes to attract. Do they actually believe anyone coming to their website to read their stories is such an emotionally immature snowflake that it is incumbent upon them (not to mention self-righteous) to warn them that this or that story makes a reference to, or deals with insects? Or vomit? Or scars? Or combat or any form of violence (determined from on high by the editors, one supposes)? These Content Warnings, when taken to the extreme, are inane, silly, unnecessary, but most of all insulting. Strange Horizons ought to be ashamed of itself for underestimating its audience (unless it believes many of its readers actually are emotionally immature snowflakes to begin with—and that would say volumes about who SH thinks its audience is, and if true is a damning indictment in and of itself) and what it says about their arrogant view of SF/F readers in general. How presumptuous and elitist of them! The SF/F fan of today may not find certain types of stories to their liking. That's fine and to be expected; tastes differ, sometimes wildly, and not everything is guaranteed to be one's cup of tea. But merely not caring for, or not liking a certain kind of SF or F or anything one might run across in a story with which one may simply disagree or find distasteful or wrong, is not the same as claiming to be horribly and deeply psychologically or emotionally (gasp!) offended by reading about insects or vomit or anything else. SH would seem to think otherwise and as a result goes overboard in trying to protect its readers to the point where its Content Warnings have become ludicrous, gratuitous, and an outright embarrassment.

Diversity of thought and expression is SF's greatest strength. Regardless of who writes the stories (no one really gives a hang who writes them), the more diversity of thought and approaches to SF/F stories the better. Any theme, any subject, any treatment—bring it on. Let all voices be heard. SF/F readers as I've said above, are some of the most intelligent, curious, overall well-informed readers anywhere. They have to be to keep up with the writers, who write about subjects as wildly diverse as planetary science, physics, astrophysics, math, philosophy, biology, history, linguistics, social sciences, ecology (on and off-Earth), psychology, anthropology, crytpozoology, genetics, politics, geology, and many other subjects too numerous to list here. SF/F readers get smart real fast.

So I have a suggestion for Strange Horizons and its Content Warning box prefacing each of its stories. If deemed absolutely necessary in order to protect the precious emotional bodily fluids of some of its more "sensitive" readers, go ahead and keep the warning box. But rejigger it so that no one is able to read the story until they click on the box and read whatever warnings the editors deem applicable to any given story. Make it a "lock" that only when clicked on and warnings read will the story unlock itself and be made available to read. Making the Show Warnings box a lock would be an extra safeguard for those skipping over or otherwise not reading the Warnings for whatever reason, and would provide a further layer of protection against "sensitive" readers being potentially harmed by reading and being shocked (without Warning) by highly offensive stories containing insects, vomit, or two people (gender doesn't matter) getting it on. That is, if the SH editors really had the best interests of their readership at heart they would surely consider this, I would think. Lock the box!

And finally, wouldn't it be much more to the point and less demeaning and condescending to readers simply to have the Show Warnings box read:

For Mature Readers Only

Some stories may contain Adult Themes and Situations not suitable for younger readers.

Parental guidance is advised.

♣  ♣  ♣ 

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.