Strange Horizons, May 1, 2017
Reviewed by Alexandros Zochios
In an alternative history, bird-like aliens have visited Earth and offered their gift of inspiration to humans. However, whomever receives this gift belongs to their benefactor. Akeem, the grandson of a famous painter, has stumbled upon a rumor about what the aliens do to these humans. This, along with his grandma’s mental push, gives him inspiration to create art. Until a revelation comes up.
Brandon O’Brien’s short story starts after the many deaths of famous people (mostly artists) in 2016. Our fixation on famous artists and their passing is intriguing. At the end of 2016 we noticed a wave of comments on social networks about this phenomenon. Although every year people die, it seemed that in that year more deaths occurred than usual. People were discussing it often by trying to find a reason, either speculating on superstition or on other external forces besides being a tragic coincidence. The author has added in these discussions the fact that aliens are taking over the bodies of these famous people after their deaths. Something that causes more rumors from the media.
What do these bird-men gain from assisting artists to be more creative, or from other people achieving their goals? Apart from the fellow artist that may be inspired by another artist’s success, isn’t this a question for the reader as well? Or for the people who actually give support to a creator to continue doing what they love doing? This is another sign from our current digital era. New web applications have emerged that give the ability for the fans of a specific person or creator to donate monthly a specific amount of money so these people may continue doing what they do. Why do people become patrons of other artists?
However, the author doesn’t stop there. More questions arise such as:
How much are we dependent on motivation and inspiration for creating art? Should we need a person or other outside source to motivate us?
To what extent does our muse have a say in what we create?
Does the person influencing or supporting us in the creation of our art have part ownership of our creative fruit? Although in this story the alien benefactors go further and claim the geniuses’ bodies, and not just their creations.
Another obstacle that the character faces is the overwhelming number of paintings that his grandma has sold. This reminds us of the constant struggle of artists when comparing themselves with other artists. Especially if the artist in question is the progenitor of the main character.
For technical aspects of the writing, I focus on the dialogue. There were some instances when all three members of Akeem’s family were having a conversation, or seemed like they were all talking together. It took some time for me to understand if it was the grandson or his sister who were talking with the grandmother. However, the dialogue did come across as very alive, and their family’s cultural background (originating from what appears to be in the neighborhood of the Caribbean though it is never explicitly stated) was kept authentic.