Beneath Ceaseless Skies #350, February 24, 2022
“At the Foot of the Dragon Stair” by Aliette de Bodard
“A Record of Our Meeting with the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised” by A.T. Greenblatt
“It Never Was” by R.Z. Held
“Empty Appendages” by William Broom
“To People Who’d Never Known Good” by Thomas Ha
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
This extra-large issue, part of the magazine’s special Science Fantasy month, offers five stories instead of the usual two. As the theme indicates, the works combine concepts from both science fiction and fantasy.
In “At the Foot of the Dragon Stair” by Aliette de Bodard, the protagonist carries an ageless child, who changes shape constantly, away from a monastery of historians that has been destroyed by an invading army. Their quest takes them to the source of the marauders, as well as the origin of the strange child. The protagonist, faced with unsuspected revelations, must choose whether to follow the path that seems fated for the child, or to turn away from it.
This is a dramatic story, almost cinematic in its depiction of awe-inspiring events, such as the transformation of a living stone dragon into the lifeless staircase mentioned in the title. The circular nature of the plot, in which the child and the invaders are locked in an endless cycle, may confuse some readers. They may also wonder how such a situation came about, even in a fantasy world.
The title of “A Record of Our Meeting with the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised” by A.T. Greenblatt is an accurate description of its content. The narrative consists of a heavily rewritten chronicler’s report on the encounter between a supernatural being of vast power and the crew of a starship. The vessel is stuck in a sort of Sargasso Sea of time, unable to return home. The Faerie Lord has the ability to control time, but does not help the starship escape until it has several enigmatic meetings with the chronicler.
The story’s structure, with notes from the present added to descriptions of past events, aptly reflects the plot, in which time is manipulated in multiple ways. The Faerie Lord is a fascinating character, unlike the typical fey creatures of fantasy fiction. Like its title, the story may be a little too long for its own good.
“It Never Was” by R.Z. Held takes place at a time in the future when magic exists, and technology is falling apart. The protagonist encounters the ghosts of people who took their own lives, riding on spectral motorcycles. Forced to join in their hunt, she must use her own weak magic, as well as her unsuspected courage and strength of mind, to defeat a monster.
The author creates an interesting setting and an intriguing kind of magic that requires the loss of blood. The plot can be read as an allegory for facing one’s fears, and using them to become a stronger person. Seen as an adversary in a fantasy adventure rather than as a metaphor, the monster may seem an arbitrary creation, without explanation for its existence.
“Empty Appendages” by William Broom combines science fiction with body horror. On a distant planet, mindless creatures that are little more than lumps of flesh use humans as their servants. The people think of the alien organisms as their real selves, and their human bodies as mere devices. The plot follows the captain of a starship as he is rescued from his zombified state by a crewmember who managed to escape that fate. The pair then struggle to free the rest of the crew and flee the planet, with mixed results.
The author creates a chilling sense of visceral horror in the story’s descriptions of the brainless aliens, their dehumanized victims, and the many different kinds of organisms that act as go-betweens for both. Beyond this, however, there is a genuinely disturbing consideration of the loss of identity, that gives the bittersweet climax a powerful effect.
Aliens that prey on humans also appear in “To People Who’d Never Known Good” by Thomas Ha. In this case, however, they are fully sentient, and able to converse and make deals with people.
A mother and son team make their living by seeking out and destroying these beings on colony worlds. The entity they meet in this story offers desperate colonists advanced technology in exchange for feeding on portions of their brains. At first, this does little damage, but after repeated trade sessions the humans become barely sentient servants of the alien.
Mother and son approach the alien, pretending to be supplicants. The creature, aware from the start of their true identities, offers the son a deal that he finds difficult to resist.
The alien is much more interesting than the human characters. Speaking to the mother and son in informal language, it manages to be both menacing and engaging, seeming almost benign and reasonable at times. The theme of zombification of human beings lacks the philosophical profundity found in the previous story.
Victoria Silverwolf likes both science fiction and fantasy.