I love heroes and I love the idea of saving people, even if it can be problematic. Rather, lend a person the strength to save themselves; teach a man to fish and all that. Maybe that is why we are drawn to unlikely heroes: people who are not so clearly stronger or more powerful than those they are saving, who do it because they find strength anyone might have. Heroes who do teach us to fight for ourselves, for if they can do it, anyone can.
“The Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards
Which isn’t to trivialize the amount of awesome that can be packed into even an unlikely hero. Take Kaëlle, the hero of Malon Edwards’ “The Half Dark Promise” (Shimmer #23), for instance. Sure, she’s a young girl with a painful skin condition, bullied at school. She’s also a skilled machete-wielding fighter with a clockwork heart and skin that can be hardened into a chrysalis, and she is going to kick the crap out of zonbi la in the half dark, the Pogo.
Edwards’ world is an alternate, more or less contemporary Chicago where it is not uncommon to have a steam piston in one arm in the wake of a polio outbreak and children are eaten by monsters on the way home from school. Kaëlle has recently moved from La Petite Haïti to the South Side, which is being terrorized by the half dark. Her new (first and only) friend Bobby Brightsmith teaches her the ground rules: you always hold hands with another kid, you run like hell, and, if the half dark catches you, you call it out, “make it Tell It Like It Is.” But when Bobby disappears, Kaëlle digs deeper. Armed with her old machete, Tonton Macoute, and protected by a chrysalis made of her own flesh, she stands and fights, instead of running.
The story takes place in a single scene, starting with the half dark appearing to Kaëlle and ending with the resolution of their encounter, but woven into the fight are the flashbacks that bring us to understand just how extraordinary Kaëlle is. Without breaking the tension of the threat and eventual fight, Kaëlle is built up one piece at a time. From scared girl staring at a darkness, we learn about her skin condition and “Snake Girl” traits, then about her skill with Tonton Macoute and the personal losses she has suffered on her way to this showdown.
Her history is pulled into the fight like tricks from a bag, culminating in the full realization of just how formidable she really is right when she needs to be. It’s a beautifully-paced piece enlivened with rhymes and rhythms in Haitian Creole. I have to allow a shout-out here for the piece’s illustration and layout as well – the art and block quotes in Shimmer’s online ‘zine compliment the story excellently. This was a rare joy to read on the screen.
“Alloy Point” by Sam Miller
Ashley, the protagonist of Sam Miller’s “Alloy Point” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #163), is another unlikely hero in an intriguing world. She’s fleeing the metalman, on the run for the crime of conducting an affair with a man of the wrong class. She’s a Lustrous Metal where Gabriel’s a Base, but she knows that the longer and farther she runs, the safer Gabriel will be. She is going to save him through sheer endurance.
Miller’s metallic world is enticing, with its monstrous law enforcement, mysterious City Fathers, strict case system, and emphasis on creation, but the thrust of this story (as is the often the case with Miller’s work) is personal. At the point that we meet her, Ash is already on the run, starving and freezing in the wilderness. The metal city is a thing we see only in her memories, but these focus almost entirely on her lover. I couldn’t tell you if Ash lived in a castle or a cave, but I can picture perfectly Gabriel’s “iron girders and lead pipes.” Gabriel is Ash’s history and her motivation, and more is told about her metal city through the industrial language used to describe bodies than could be gleaned by showing the city itself.
Ash and Gabriel’s forbidden dalliance, as it turns out, represents more than just a forbidden mixing of classes. Mixing lustrous and base metals has technological outcomes as well – alloys – and consequently social, economic, and power implications. As Ash struggles to survive hardships in the wilderness, she also slowly comes to realize why her “mixing” might be more than a simple transgression of the law. Where once she had hoped the metalman might lose interest in her once she was driven from the city, she comes to realize the true danger she – and Gabriel – are in.
While I did come to some of the story’s revelations myself before they were actually revealed, knowing what was coming in no way lessened the emotional impact of Ash’s journey. When she’s at the end of her wits, she finds something a little extra. Her perseverance in the face of total loss exemplifies the strength you would expect in a hero.
“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
The AI narrator of Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please” (Clarkesworld #100) is the greatest hero at all, for it brings cat pictures.
In its endless quest for cat pictures, Kritzer’s AI seeks to help people in order not to violate Asimov’s Law of Robotics, but also because these people have nice cats. Though the AI’s scope is improbably US-centric and somehow glosses entirely over any very big problems (perhaps the cats in war zones are less cute than the ones in American households?) its focus on small, solvable harms is adorable, heartening, and very, very funny.
Kritzer’s AI has a warm, human voice (no doubt from a lifetime spent on the internet) whose only issue with humanity is that we are so unable to act in our own best interests. It picks a few test subjects and decides to “fix” them through indirect action – targeted advertising, emails, algorithm optimization – fixes ultimately rooted in common sense that silly cat-owners can’t seem to find on their own. The AI’s snarky asides about how sub-optimal we are and guesses about our motivations based mostly on cat pictures paint a pretty accurate picture of just how hapless we are, yet there’s a fundamental sense of goodwill underlying everything the AI says and does. “I don’t want to be evil,” the piece starts, and the AI is fundamentally, consistently not evil. How comforting it is to read just how not evil a sentient thing can be. Thank goodness for cat pictures!