A new year is upon us, bringing a chance for a fresh start. The year behind us was a grim one in many ways, and we're not out of the dark yet, but these five stories speak to different ways of looking at power, fighting back within in imperfect world, and carry within them notes of hope and change.
Standing on the Floodbanks by Bogi Takács from November's GigaNotoSaurus examines various expressions of power and its uses. Aniyé is a living weapon built for war. She has incredible power, but very little means to control it. All her life, she's been surrounded by handlers, literally leashed, until one day in the aftermath of a battle, she finds herself alone. It is in this state that High Mage Oresuy finds her, and promises to help her learn to channel her power. As Aniyé trains with Oresuy, the machinery of politics grinds around them, with various players vying for control. All this takes place against the backdrop of a river threatening to overflow its banks and flood the land. The story builds slowly, using layers and contrast to explore the nature of power — who has it, who doesn't, how they use it, and how they respond to it. Aniyé has power, too much of it, and wishes she could shed it. She's learned to fear herself and sees power only as the potential for destruction. Oresuy doesn't have the raw power Aniyé does, yet she is unafraid, self-possessed, and commands respect. She sees power as a tool to stop the flood, to build up defenses and strengthen the land — a dam rather than a sword. The king is powerless and uses manipulation and politics as his chosen weapon. Guildsman Leitan tries to use others, including Aniyé and the river itself, to gain power. Contrasted with the struggles of the human characters, the rising waters are the thread carrying through the entire story — the raw, untamed power of nature that doesn't care for politics, borders, or boundaries. Takács' examination of power is skillful and thoughtful, ultimately favoring restraint and patience over brute force. Aniyé is more powerful bound and restrained. Oresuy wraps her in magic ribbons which give her confidence, allow her to find her center, and bind the river in turn. There's almost a BDSM element to the magical binding, though Aniyé and Oresuy's relationship isn't sexual. What emerges is the idea of consent, trust, Aniyé's power increasing as she's restrained because it is her choice, becoming a tool that wields herself, rather than a weapon in someone else's hand.
Screamers by Tochi Onyebuchi from November's Omenana is a story about the power of rage. As a child, the protagonist tags along on his father's detective cases and witnesses the aftermath of the first of a wave of bizarre crimes, bodies torn apart and obliterated with extreme violence.
Body parts littered the alley floor like a bomb had gone off. In the flashing light from the cruisers, the fingers and pant legs shone blue and purple in their sanguine coat. Chunks of scalp hung from the fire escape, strands of silver clinging to the rails like spider webbing.
He watches his father take notes and try to solve the case, and when he grows up, he follows in his father's footsteps, joining the police force. Themes of racial tension, racial hierarchy, and police brutality run through the story. The protagonist's father is part of a group of police officers from Africa who police "just-blacks", men and women born in America whose ancestors were slaves on plantations. As the protagonist works to solve the same cases his father was never able to solve, a woman comes into the police station claiming to have information on the crimes. When they question her, she tears the station apart with a scream. Letters begin to arrive that can deliver the screams at a distance, acting as a voice for the voiceless, power for the powerless.
Entire souls encased in folded paper. Lived existences laced with every weaving of emotions so that when the encasement was opened, the entirety of someone else’s anguish and joy and hope and fear and hatred assaulted the victim, resonated with the swirling emotions within them so that the matched frequency overrode the physical confines of flesh and bone and sinew and the human body came apart.
Oyenbuchi offers no ultimate solution within the story, acknowledging the complicated nature of entrenched violence and power inequalities. The story does offer a ray of hope however. The protagonist comes to a kind of understanding and acceptance of the violence through finally reading the notebook his father scribbled in at every crime scene. Rather than notes about the case, he finds elaborate and poetic metaphors about the taste of sunset, the architecture of the city, and an idyllic world without any one group policing another. It brings him closer to his father, and gives him a way to move forward, even in a broken world.
The Orangery by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in December is another a story, like Takács' "Standing on the Floodbanks," which touches on the power of choice. Stufflebeam takes the myth of Daphne and Apollo and explores their relationship along with Apollo's relationship with other women, all of whom chose to become trees to escape him. The story is divided into sections between the Guardian and the Guide. The Guardian has sworn her life to protect the Orangery and its trees that were once women. When Apollo returns for Daphne, the Guardian offers up another tree/woman in Daphne's place. Apollo, she thinks, is self-absorbed enough not to be able to tell the difference between women. When Apollo forces the decoy tree to turn back into a woman, the Guardian realizes she's endangered someone innocent, and she must put things right. Throughout the story, Stufflebeam explores the imbalance of power between men and women, and mortals and gods. Apollo doesn't love Daphne, but she's the one he comes back for because he couldn't control her; he only wants her because she's independent and uninterested. In the end, the women in the story regain a measure of the power taken from them in the original myths that form the story's source material. Again, it comes down to choice — their choice to become trees or stay human, the choice of the stories they tell, the choice to stay in the Orangery, or leave. The story doesn't deny the limitations put on them by their sex, or their experiences, but it gives them freedom within those circumstances, making their stories more hopeful than tragic.
Every Day is the Full Moon by Carlie St. George in the December issue of Lightspeed takes place in a world where everyone has some kind of special power. B's father is a werewolf, her mother is a Valkyrie, her best friend Lea is a faerie, and her best friend's girlfriend Riley is an oracle. B doesn't know what she is yet, but she knows she had a destiny waiting for her. In this world of supernatural creatures, St. George flips the script to show the limits of power, and the very human problems that continue to plague B and those around her. B's father is abusive, B fantasizes about suicide. She's watched her mother make excuses for her father all her life, she's seen how love fails to protect people, and she feels trapped. The only real power B has is in endlessly making lists of the things she knows and doesn't know about life as a means of exerting some small measure of control over her life. During the school dance, Riley becomes possessed by a demon. Lea believes in the power of love to save her, but B is more jaded. She's seen love fail before. Even so, that doesn't stop her from trying to save her friend, which ultimately gets B is killed, leading her to discover what she is — a revenant. One of the recurring themes St. George plays with is the idea that you can't control other people's lives. This plays out both in the relationship between B's parents, and in a more hopeful way between Lea and Riley. Over the course of the story, B's own relationship to love shifts, and she comes to understand the powers love and does not have. For her, love is what keeps her trying to do the best she can for other people, not giving up on them, and being there for them as they make their own choices. The story also explores the idea of the public self vs. private self, and touches on victim blaming, but as with the other stories there is hope in it as well. Love might not be a magic cure-all, but it does matter, as does friendship, and living to fight another day.
Painter of Stars by Wang Yuan (translated by Andy Dudak) in December's Clarkesworld tells the story of a cleaning robot with aspirations to become something greater than the sum of its programming. One day it discovers art, arranging dust particles in unique patterns too small for the human eye to perceive. From there, it moves to painting on its human owner while he sleeps. When the robot's owner, Paul, awakes, rather being upset, he's overjoyed. He asks the robot to paint him something special to help him win his girlfriend back. The plan works, they marry, and eventually have a daughter, Angel, who the robot comes to care for very much. The robot paints on her skin as well, and eventually conceives of a plan to spread art across all of humanity.
My original wish had been to paint the whole cosmos, including every galaxy and solar system, but this was as unrealistic a fantasy as the Arabian Nights. Two hundred billion galaxies had already been discovered, each containing some two hundred billion stars. All of that probably represented four percent of the universe, a fact that threatened to crash my processor. So I revised my mission. Earth’s eight billion people—subject to all manner of unnatural death, including warfare—would each receive one star. This was my new mission.
The robot moves through a war-torn world, offering stars to anyone who wants them, becoming an ambassador of peace — resisting violence with art. Fighting begins to diminish around the world, beauty uniting humanity. Unfortunately, a plague ushers in a new era of scarcity, death, and distrust, and all the robot's work is undone. Like the other stories, however, Painter of Stars ends on a note of hope. The robot finds its way back to Angel, an old woman now. Perhaps humanity as a whole can't be saved, but if just one human can be cared for, it might be enough. The imagery in the story is stunning and poetic, and the author does an excellent job or conveying the human experience through the lens of the inhuman.