Strange Horizons, April 2-16, 2012
Reviewed by Aaron Bradford Starr
It is difficult, at times, to commit to writing that doesn’t suit your current mood. Sometimes the lassitude a piece brings on is not the result of the plot, or voice, or that there was some indefinable element that didn’t grab you. Sometimes, the very vibrancy of the writing is enough to trigger a reflexive urge to put it down. But sometimes the writing is of a quality that burns right through any previous ennui, energizing you not only enough to keep reading, but to create genuine and enduring interest. Both of the stories in the April Strange Horizons are of this caliber, and if you sometimes feel that you just need a break from it all, take a look at these wonderful offerings, and feel revitalized.
Both “Area 54” and “Beneath Impossible Circumstances” present voices, viewpoints, and visions of a future that feel strangely attuned, but without any strained literary experimentalism. These tales are told with absolute clarity, but in the way the best crystal is clear: refraction still bends what is seen through it, and the edges of things are granted a rainbow of shifted light. Creating this sort of vision is not a feat for amateurs.
“Area 54” opens simply enough, with the nameless girl who is the protagonist relating her childhood under the threat from the Skylings, an unseen alien menace, tracked by dedicated humans over years. So compelling is Hunter Liguore’s prose that it is not until somewhere in the second half that the reader begins to wonder at the veracity of it all. The narrator has no peer group, and, what seemed official and accepted when she was a girl is slowly revealed to be the preoccupation of loners, perhaps with serious emotional issues.
The distortion of the narrator’s perspective is shown by her continual use of pet names for her parents, and her lack of any other theories about her life, which is so different than those around her. Even the date comes into question. While the opening makes the alien presence seem real, an accepted part of the social order, the narrator seems oblivious to the disconnect between her and the rest of the world.
Only with the intervention of others does she begin to see her life the way others must. The strange memories from her youth, the disappearances of loved ones, the perpetual wandering of her father –complete with aliases– these take on a different sort of sinister quality. A masterful tale, from beginning to end.
While “Beneath Impossible Circumstances” by Andrea Kneeland seems to take an opposite tack, the slow reveal of detail makes it intriguing and engaging. The focus of the story is always hyper-sharp, almost myopic in the narrowness of its viewpoint. The glimpses of the wider world are disturbing and bleak, and the view of the protagonist’s inner life hollow and sad.
The world of the story is dominated by ecological collapse, which in some quarters is seen as job security. The need to collect and analyze dead wildlife is never ending, and any fleeting thought given to finding and reversing the causes of these mass die-offs has no time to gain purchase. The ecosystem is merely treading water before the final collapse, and, as is so believably the case, humanity is more concerned with alleviating the symptoms than addressing causes. Humans, we see, can adapt as the environment erodes, and thus are almost certain to do nothing, even while they still could. Perhaps especially while they could.
The narrator, one of the nameless government workers involved in this doomed effort, sees his relationship with his or her wife similarly sloughing off to die, and feels an intense powerlessness. The gender-neutral narrator, whose exact makeup of human and synthetic parts is never fully addressed, is everything that human civilization has become: outwardly virile, yet powerless, outwardly healthy, yet doomed to lassitude and death.
Andrea Kneeland has delivered a story of amazing skill, balancing social critique and a well-realized vision of the future on the narrowest of pinnacles. With most, the level of ambiguity with which she imbues her protagonist would be a death sentence for any sort of story telling, or any connection with the reader. But somehow her effort has provided us with a fully-realized “everyone”, a person whose emotions ring true, whose feelings come across as genuinely touching.
This sort of technical expertise is what makes the April 2012 issue of Strange Horizons such a pleasure to read. Both of these stories swam in treacherous waters, and both authors made it look easy.