“The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
In the first section, “we” are “crones” and watching “Moscow burn” and one of us sets another one of our faces on fire. In the second section one of “us” is sick and “they” are wearing hazmat suits around her. And so it goes for about a dozen sections, eventually clarifying into a tale about a sort of government-sponsored paramilitary unit of initially teenaged firestarters who suffer some serious drawbacks from their modifications, their actions, and the slings and arrows of shifting public opinion when their secret comes out. This mentions and is inspired by the WWI “Radium Girls.” I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a 1:1 metaphor for all military activities and it’s certainly a very distorted picture if it is. (Not to mention being mistranslated from corporations.) I’m not sure what the point would be otherwise, unless illustrating basically any social convenience that society lies to itself about.
As with many stories of this sort, there is little plot and almost none in a “current action” sense. It takes place as the story and reader slide to and fro over a generalized lifetime. Similarly, the characters are given names and a differentiating characteristic or two but never transcend their metaphoricity to become actual people. Some people obviously like this sort of thing and maybe it will work for them, but not for me or most.
Incidentally, it’s amazing how many Strange Horizons stories sound like they were written by the same person. Not all of them, of course, but many.
We travel to places on maps we can’t even spell. Dimashq. Beirut. Ghazni. Qom. Put your finger on a globe and spin. We leave behind us irradiated neighbourhoods, post-apocalypses. Deserts where once there were no deserts. We go where we are told to go. We have not graduated high school, and already we have toppled buildings, laid waste to city blocks, upheaved countries, immolated hundreds of militants and the people around them. What our handlers call the bad guys and their peripherals. We smell of soot, always.
We avoid scientific and magical genres. Slipstreaming, we emulate the genres of the Little Magazines. We fracture our sentences. Like snippets of verse. We aim to have our style received as literary, so that our lack of plot and clarity will not be seen as shortcomings, but as artfulness. We have learned to write in a wistful, slow style with a trace of singsong. In present tense, always.
More of Jason McGregor’s reviews can be found at Featured Futures.