"Gliders Though They Be" by Carol Emshwiller
"Gliders Though They Be" by Carol Emshwiller is a sibling story to "On Display Among the Lesser" which appeared in SCI FICTION in mid-April. While the lineage is not expressly stated in editorial or authorial commentary, there's an unmistakable overlap in ambiance and setting between the two. The society is again near-alien, but with provokingly familiar, indisputably anthropomorphic elements. The backdrop is a world with familiar Earthly terrain and fauna–eagles, owls, insects, poppies–such that it provokes the reader to contort and strain to guess what the gliding, mammalian, burrow-dwelling folk in "Gliders" might be. Wrist-winged possums? Flying squirrels? Sugar gliders? A similar conundrum was presented in "On Display," but my mental exertions in "Gliders" were exacerbated by the snippet of information, gleaned from SCI FICTION's Nightshade Books discussion board, that the dirt-dwellers from "On Display" were intended by Emshwiller to be meerkats.
Intrigued speculation aside, "Gliders Though They Be" is a love story. What starts out as a tale of sabotage and guerilla mutilation transforms into one of yearning and passion, tinged with envy. When one people have something marvelous that another can never hope to possess, what is there left for the have-nots but anger and jealousy? But jealousy can turn into admiration, even wonder, and wonder can turn to love. However, love is often rash, frequently foolhardy, even under the best of circumstances. What can a grounded lover with only wing nubs hope for in a society where one's worth is measured by how far one can coast upon the air?
There's a whimsy and a glory in Emshwiller's prose. Her characters are tangible–their hopes, their jealousies, their fears–while at the same time one is inescapably conscious that they're also fuzzy, probably with black button eyes and pink noses. It results in a story both poignant and charming. While anthropomorphized critters aren't new, "Gliders" is breezy, with enough savagery and keen fervor to ensure that there is no mistaking it for a Peter Rabbit or Winnie the Pooh children's tale.
Definitely recommended. And if you haven't, go back and read "On Display Among the Lesser" in the SCI FICTION archives.