Strange Horizons, August 6 & 13, 2012

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Strange Horizons, August 6, 2012

“Zero Bar” by Tom Greene

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

To me, the main purpose of science fiction is to use the outré to illuminate the mundane, to use the setting of the other in time or space to show us something about the world in which we live.

“Zero Bar” by Tom Greene is very much in that vein of science fiction, exploring the impact of genetic advancement to the battle for racial identity and against prejudice.

In the future, mere minutes from now, doctors have come up with a way to influence the manner in which our genotype is outwardly expressed in our phenotype. That is, the doctors can’t change what genes you have, but they can change the way they interact with each other to influence what we look like.

Our narrator is a young woman with a decision to make. She’s pregnant by her ex-fiancé and she needs to quickly tell her obstetrician whether she will be taking advantage of that new technology, whether she will be using science to ensure her baby turns out white, like her.

Only things aren’t as simple as the doctor assumes. The narrator isn’t white, but a Latina who had the genetic-correction procedure done on her in-utero so that she looks pale and Caucasian, even though her parents have brown hair, brown eyes and brown skin.

Told through a series of flashbacks, “Zero Bar” sets out the dilemma in which our narrator finds herself as she fights against racism, both internal and external. As her parents explained it to her, they wanted to give her every advantage and looking white is a definite advantage in her/our society.

“Zero Bar,” which refers to a candy bar that is white on the outside and brown on the inside, posits some extremely uncomfortable thoughts and conclusions. If it’s true that looking white is a distinct advantage (and I do believe it is, sadly), and you want your child to have every advantage, who would want their child to look anything but white?

Just contemplating that line of reasoning – as logical and as infuriating as it is – makes for a bumpy ride. Greene does a really nice job of laying out the dilemma and the manner in which some people have answered that dilemma without resorting to melodrama. This sort of question often brings with it a truckload of purple prose and overwrought characters wailing and weeping. The subdued manner in which Greene lays out the case both for and against makes for a much better reading experience.

Still not sure if Greene managed to stick the landing, though. While it had a feel-good sense to it, I’m not sure if it actually followed what came before it. Still, it’s worth the time just to try and wrap your head around the question Greene is asking.


Strange Horizons, August 13, 2012

“Over the Waves” by Louise Hughes

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

I have every confidence that the future will change, whether for good or ill. . . That’s still to be determined. But whatever the change, the people still around will have problems with which to deal and solutions to apply.

Despite the changes, I’m sure, there still will be people who face an uncertain, uprooted existence with a smile and the optimism born from having very little and knowing they can only make it better.

In “Over the Waves” by Louise Hughes, Sina is a young girl living in the wreckage of today’s civilization, drowned, it seems, with the rise of the coastlines. Hughes does a nice job building on our expectations, rolling out only a few concrete details, and allowing our minds to fill in the blanks. It’s an excellent job of synthesis between reader and writer.

Sina is a young girl of 16 years, who we meet along the river, as she offers to hire her boat out to a businessman to take him downriver to the city. She’s confident, upbeat and well-prepared to dodge the wreckage of drowned buildings and power poles and she loves the silence of the current in the middle of the river.

While not much actually happens in the story – Sine goes down river, she comes back, gets paid and talks to family – it still makes for an entertaining story.

Sina’s continued optimism in the face of scarcity and hardship is a wonderful thing to behold, especially because Hughes does such a good job with the character. She’s not relentlessly upbeat like a Pollyanna, but showcases a more realistic take on life, knowing only that she will make the best she can of whatever happens.

Definitely worth your time. Go give it a read.