Welcome to November’s ”Words for Thought.“ We’re at an in-between point in the seasons—not quite winter, not quite fall. During this period of change, it’s fitting that this month’s stories are all about transformation, adaptation, disguise, and finding a place for yourself in the world.
Some Personal Arguments in Support of the Better You (Based on Early Interactions), by Debbie Urbanski, was published earlier this month at Strange Horizons. The protagonist struggles to fit herself into the world as an asexual woman with depression. Her husband expects certain things of her, as do her children. Unable to fulfill those expectations, she turns to the BetterYou system, which will create an AI version of her that will be able to give her family what they want, while allowing her the freedom to be herself.
It is not really great, at my age, to be different, or to want different things, or want differently, and to realize too late to non-destructively incorporate such differences into my life choices.
The story is painful on many levels. It confronts the space between those who may have come of age at a more repressive time, and those who have always known the support of a more progressive way of thinking. The protagonist knows who she is, and knows she cannot change herself, but still doesn’t entirely feel comfortable claiming space for herself in the world. Purchasing a BetterYou seems like the best possible solution. It will allow her to replace herself with a more agreeable version of her, one who is not sex-adverse and who will have more time and patience for her children, thus freeing her from “wifely” and “motherly” duties. The story is harsh, but beautifully told. It underscores the roles women are meant to play, while exploring what an “acceptable” woman should be, and who does and does not have the freedom to be themselves. The protagonist is allowed to be unpleasant and difficult, which is refreshing, but her ultimate fate is that of many women who don’t fit a certain mold. Urbanski nods to elements of Gothic fiction, with the trope of a wife being replaced by someone more agreeable and tractable, all while keeping the story firmly within the realm of science fiction. It’s chilling, effective, and blends technology with weighty topics, all the while telling a satisfying story.
The Bodice, the Hem, the Woman, Death by Karen Osborne, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, tells the story of a wealthy family forced to adapt to a world at war. Lia isn’t particularly interested in fashion, but her mother has clear ideas about the role and comportment of a proper young lady.
“Lia, dear,” my mother said, swatting away my hand, “fashions change, but the reasons we wear them do not. A gown is a political statement. A gown is language. If you’re going to rise in society, you’re going to have to start wearing decent souls on a decent dress.”
Fashion isn’t merely decorative in Osborne’s world; the best families bind the souls of their ancestors into gems to wear, thus no one is without the guidance of those who came before them. Even in a world at war, Lia’s mother clings to the idea of status and a certain standard of appearance. One does not leave the house without the proper clothing. However, Lia’s father has gone to war and soldiers have raided their home, claiming their ancestral gems, their finest clothing, and pretty much anything they can lay their hands on. As her mother continues to live in denial, Lia struggles to find a way to survive and convince her mother to leave for somewhere safer, regardless of the state of her appearance. Ultimately, Lia must transform herself and fit into her mother’s worldview, to save what remains of her family. Osborne’s worldbuilding is gorgeous and the story is beautifully written. The struggle for dignity and keeping up appearances in the face of a harsh reality is palpable, as is the tension between Lia and her mother’s perception of the world. When the two views clash, the result is heartbreaking.
On Caterpillars by Melinda Roy, published in issue 1.3 of Augur Magazine, is a story about the search for self. The protagonist is the fourth child born to her mother and undergoes a series of transformations as she searches for her place in the world. At first, she conceives of herself as an owl, wise and trustworthy. Later in life, she thinks of herself as a fox, cunning and clever. She continues to embody different animals during different periods in her life to suit her understanding of who she is and her particular needs.
A month before my mother celebrated my fifteenth tea party, I found myself becoming a silver fox. As a red fox I had ventured far into outside territory. Now, as a silver fox, I knew the paths where only a cold winter sun could send a glimpse of my silver chameleon skin to another’s eye.
The story explores the way people, and perhaps especially women, adapt throughout their lives, finding ways to fit themselves into the spaces the world allows. Much of the language Roy uses suggests a woman finding ways to keep herself safe. A boy in the protagonist’s class is described as a posturing rooster, but she sees through him and doesn’t fall prey to the image he projects into the world. Later, she becomes a wolf—aloof but loyal to her pack. The transformations she experiences can be taken as literal or metaphorical, and the story works either way. Overall, Roy delivers a fascinating look at the way people adapt and try on different identities over the course of their lives.
Thirty-Three Percent Joe by Suzanne Palmer, published in October’s Clarkesworld, is the story of a soldier whose cybernetic parts have minds of their own. Joe never wanted to be a soldier, but his mother expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. She constantly compares Joe to his father, or at least the image of his father she carries in her mind, which may be slightly more heroic than accurate. Trying to live up to his father’s image has resulted in thirty-three percent of Joe being replaced by cybernetic parts. Caught in a cycle of injury and healing, Joe wants nothing more than to die in battle, so he can finally rest and maybe even earn his mother’s approval.
He wants to be a hero, specifically to die a damned hero, and be done with the humiliatingly ineffectual mediocrity he’s staked out in between. He wants, in this moment, to feel pumped, or feel a deeply ominous, fateful dread, anything that would tell him this time is going to be different.
His cybernetic parts, however, have a healthier sense of self-preservation than he does, and take matters into their own hands, or elbows, arms, hearts, and spleens, as the case may be. Palmer balances humor with serious subject matter, such as the search for purpose, living in a parent’s shadow, the grinding depression of war, and thoughts of suicide. The story dips into the Ship of Thesus question, the thought experiment that asks whether a ship that has had all its component parts replaced over time can still be considered the same ship. How much of Joe can be replaced without changing his essential nature? Is something buried in his subconscious causing his cybernetic parts to act on his behalf, or have they really taken over and become more Joe than Joe?
Rotkäppchen by Emily McCosh, from the final issue of Shimmer, re-imagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Instead of being a mere victim of a wolf attack, as a child, Adeline was fascinated with wolves in particular, and animals in general. On the day she and her grandmother were attacked, she encountered a second wolf, one who apologized for his kin’s behavior before slipping back into the woods. From that moment on, her life and the wolf’s were intertwined. Now she is a grandmother herself, and has just buried her son, who was the victim of a bear attack. On the same day, her wolf returns to her, dying of old age.
This one whines at her words, for however much wolves understand grief. This is an old friend, but Adeline’s son is dead, and she has no time for the worries of wolves and bears, for the quarrels that foxes start with badgers. The world doesn’t have much time for these kinds of fairy tales any more.
She cares for the old wolf as best she can, perhaps seeing in him something of herself—a bit of magic and legend the world has passed by and no longer has space for. The world is still dangerous, though, and there is a different kind of magic in the bear that killed her son, and seems un-killable itself, at least not by common means. When her wolf finally dies, Adeline takes his skin, becoming a wolf herself in order to protect her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. McCosh’s reimagining is lovely and gives Adeline a more active role than the traditional tales normally give to naive Red. As a grandmother, Adeline is still a hero, rather than being relegated to a passive wise woman or an evil crone. Adeline defies the expectations of those around her and doesn’t fall into the role proscribed for her as a helpless, grieving mother. She continues to care for those around her and teaches her grandchild to both love and respect nature. Wild animals may be cause for healthy fear, but never for prejudice and unreasoning hate.