Welcome to another Words for Thought! I’m writing this next to a cozy fireplace in the wake of the latest snow storm with more snow on the way. By the time this publishes however, hopefully there will be sprouting grass and blooming flowers. It’s been a rough winter for a lot of people, but it does feel like there’s warmth and hope on the horizon. As such, this month’s stories are all about finding hope in dark times, forging connections, and believing things will get better.
Let All the Children Boogie by Sam J. Miller published at Tor.com in January is a story of finding hope through music. The first time Laurie hears Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” during late-night DJ Ms. Jackson’s show, it changes her life. The music fires her imagination, and at the tail-end of the song, a strange voice breaks through, crackling with static, asking, “Are you out there?” The next day, at the Salvation Army, Laurie overhears someone singing “The Passenger,” which leads her to Fell, with whom she feels an immediate connection.
Radio was where we met. Our bodies first occupied the same space on a Friday afternoon, but our minds had already connected Thursday night. Coming up on twelve o’clock, awake when we shouldn’t be, both of us in our separate narrow beds, miles and miles apart, tuning in to Ms. Jackson’s Graveyard Shift, spirits linked up in the gruff cigarette-damaged sound of her voice.
Set in a time before the internet made it easy to find people who share your taste in music—or anything else for that matter—this chance meeting is a moment of fate. Laurie and Fell strike up a friendship, which quickly turns into a budding romance. They set out to track down the source of the mysterious voice on the radio, which continues to break into Ms. Jackson’s show with cryptic messages, one of which mentions a plane crash, and others which increasingly make it seem as though the voice may be coming from the future. Even as their relationship grows, Laurie and Fell must contend with Fell’s abusive mother, who constantly misgenders them and refuses to accept them for who they are.
Music and the mysterious voice continue to bring them hope, however, offering a bridge to a time—or a place outside of time—when things do indeed get better. Miller takes a light touch with the speculative elements in the story, which at its heart, is a love letter to music. It celebrates the power of song to bring people together, and to give them a cause for joy in the darkest of times. In particular, it recognizes the artists whose songs and personal styles brought queerness into the mainstream, creating a haven for those who felt like they didn’t belong, and helping them to feel validated and seen.
Delete Your First Memory for Free by Kel Coleman in the Winter 2021 issue of Fiyah is a painfully relatable story about feeling socially awkward. Devin constantly second guesses themself, questioning every word, thought, and action in relation to how it will make them appear to others. They’re terrified of saying the wrong thing, leaving them feeling isolated even on the rare occasions they do meet up with their friends.
During one such gathering, the subject of targeted ads comes up. Devin mentions they keep receiving one for a memory deletion service, and the group decides to give it a try. Devin has a host of moments to choose from, memories that feel earth-shattering to them—awkward jokes, things they wish they hadn’t said, moments they wish hasn’t occurred. Even the act of choosing one memory to delete elicits doubt and panic. Despite Devin’s stress and anxiety, this is ultimately a hopeful story. There are hints of a sweet, budding romance, and Devin realizes they aren’t truly as alone as they feel.
The screen built into the dome lid comes to life and a pleasant voice runs through the rules with accompanying animations: Stay relaxed. You’ll be asked twice before anything is deleted. It’s basically impossible to delete anything vital but if you’re worried you might have, call for assistance. Brains are tricky, so we can’t promise results will last forever. If you know what’s fucking good for you, you’ll stay relaxed.
SF has plenty of stories to offer where technology allows a character to forget a tragic loss, or where a character has memory loss forced upon them to hide a vast conspiracy. Coleman explores the trope of memory manipulation on a smaller scale. Who among us hasn’t found themselves playing over and over in their minds that one time ten years ago when we’re certain we said something stupid that the people we said it in front of have never forgotten? Would you erase that memory if you could? Are moments like that really as impactful as they feel, and would your life really be that different if you could edit those memories away? The fact that the stakes are so small is exactly what makes this story work. It is at once intensely personal, and also universal, as Coleman takes an established SF trope and makes it wholly their own.
Shark Girls by Caroline Diorio in issue 13 of Apparition Lit puts a fresh spin on the animal bride trope. Una works as a waitress, and one of her regular customers happens to be a shark lady who reminds Una of the mother who abandoned her as a child. All Una has to remember her mother is a wooden box—a time capsule they buried together—sitting in the yard of a house she doesn’t even live in anymore.
Shark women worship the moon, or if not worship, then something like it. There’s no exact word in our language for what it is to them. Mama used to sing to the moon when it was full, when Dad wasn’t home to hear it.
Her mother always promised she would come back when it was safe, but she never returned, leaving Una feeling unloved. She longs for a connection with her absent mother, but at the same time, her family history isn’t exactly stellar. Her mother murdered her father before running away, an act Una assumes was in retaliation for her father burning her mother’s shark skin to keep her trapped in human form.
Animal bride stories often explore cruelty and conflict—the belief of one person that they have the right to own another, or the choice between giving up a piece of yourself for someone you love, or staying true to your nature. These stories often ask whether love is even possible in such a scenario when the power balance is so unequal. Diorio offers up a more hopeful tale, where love is indeed possible, and where Una discovers there is more to her mother’s story, and her own, than she previously imagined. It’s a beautifully written, full of evocative imagery, and a very worthy entry to the animal bride genre.
Deep Music by Elly Bangs published in the January issue of Clarkesworld is a story about humans living side-by-side with an intelligent form of sea life known as aquids. Many people view aquids as no better than vermin, fit only to be exterminated. Quinn, however, runs a business that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating aquids and giving them a safe home. She has a particular way with them and even when their attempts to communicate come off as nonsense, she still feels like she has a better chance of understanding and connecting with them than with some humans, in particular her ex-girlfriend Jasmine.
Quinn stared up at her. As if the question needed to be asked. As if Jasmine didn’t know Quinn wanted her back. If all attempts at language thus far had failed her, it was doubly pointless now, so without another word she kick-started the engine and watched her ex-girlfriend (balling her fists and visibly stifling a frustrated scream) shrink in the mirrors.
When the group of aquids in Quinn’s care seemingly escapes to cause havoc, Quinn is blamed. She sets out to prove her innocence, and more importantly to rescue Digby, the aquid with whom she shares a special bond. Bangs simultaneously shows us the best and worst of humanity through the various characters’ reactions to the aquids—whether they reach out with kindness, like Quinn, lash out in suspicion, or try to exploit them. The story also explores the challenges in communication that exist between members of the same species, as well as different species, but how those challenges can also be overcome, leading to a more hopeful future.
The Taste of Your Name by Amal Singh in February’s Translunar Traveler’s Lounge centers on Prashant, whose mother does not approve of his girlfriend. She’s continually trying to push him toward a match she views as more suitable, and telling him he should be ashamed of his choices.
“Sharam nahi aati tumhe?” Have you got no shame?
I caught the word before it even escaped my mother’s mouth. Sharam tasted bitter like dandelion greens with a hint of unsalted cucumber. Three letters of the Hindi alphabet, swaddled together, to form a feeling.
Prashant’s mother begs him to forget the woman he loves, asking him to promise, and even though he makes no such promise, the request itself acts as a kind of curse. He finds himself unable to speak his lover’s name, and soon her features begin to disappear as well. He’s afraid to tell her what’s happening to him, but eventually he admits to the loss and she helps him find his way back to her.
In addition to complicated family relationships, and the pull between obligations to one’s family and one’s own desires, which Diorio’s story also explores, Singh’s story highlights the connection between food and memory. Prashant experiences much of the world as a series of strong sense impressions, words leaving a literal taste in his mouth as he hears them or speaks them. He associates certain people and moments in his life with scents and flavors, and ultimately it becomes the key to regaining what he’s lost. The sensory descriptions are delightful and immersive, and Singh does a fantastic job of evoking emotion through various flavors. Like Miller’s story, which shows the power of song to connect people, Singh also explores the idea that there are more ways to form bridges of understanding than through words alone—in this case, the shared experience of food. There are some truly eerie moments as Prashant first begins to lose his lover’s face, but in the end, it is ultimately a hopeful story. As Bangs’ story does, Singh shows people learning to understand each other and overcoming the barriers between them by opening up and honestly communicating.