OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
LACKINGTON’S magazine, Voyages – issue #19, Spring 2019.
Publisher: Lackington Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Editor: Ranylt Richildis
Cover Art: Carrion House. Interior Art: Sharon J. Gochenour, Diana M. Chien, P. Emerson Williams, Carol Wellart, Pear Nuallak, and Kat Weaver.
With God as Our Witness – by AJ Fitzwater
A Dragon egg rests in a cave on a sacred mountain. Priests attend it, awaiting a band of pilgrims consisting of twelve knights and twelve squires. As prophesised, the mother Dragon returns to aid the hatching and then guide her hatchling in a flight to the Moon. The knights, eager to meet God, tie themselves to the scales on the Dragon’s back. The squires make do by piling into a basket they have suspended beneath its belly. The Dragon is rather put out by these petty annoyances, but the chants of the priests force it to comply. All is ordained. All is ritual.
What’s unusual on this particular sacred flight is that one of the Knights is a woman, a descendent of the original prophet, and for that reason alone her presence is tolerated. Her squire is also a woman, another unheard of sin, but a darn good blacksmith and weapon-maker, so barely acceptable as a female servant of a female warrior. Only men, of course, are truly worthy of meeting God face-to-face. Since the weaker sex will undoubtedly die during the flight, from fear and panic if nothing else, the male knights grudgingly permit Ser Sereena and her squire Wilma to complete their band so that the number of voyagers equals what prophecy and ritual demands. Their steeds, giant, ferocious snails, are left behind.
Pretty weird fantasy in some respects, but then it was written on a dare. The author, in conversation with editor Richildis, happened to mention a medieval tapestry depicting “knights riding snails to meet God with their dicks hanging out.” Richildis “immediately challenged AJ to write it.” The result, you’ll be glad to know, is a literary interpretation of the image. There are no dicks hanging out (or, if there are, they’re not mentioned) but the dick-like level of sexism and misogyny in the attitude of the knights, justified by their religious fanaticism, is plain for all to see.
The story is full of nifty details about what Ser Sereena has to put up with in order to disarm the other knights’ suspicions she and Wilma might be witches. Every night on their journey to the mountain when they make camp, for instance, she is the one assigned to feed the snails and dig the latrines.
Ah, yes, the snails. They add an element of whimsey. Ser Sereena’s is named Prudence. (My dad always named his automobiles Prudence!) Sereena gathers Prudence’s mucus as it’s good to drink and makes an excellent glue. Because of the snails you might assume the story has a Monthy Pythonesque flavour to it. Not really. It’s actually a serious-minded fable about the survival tactics of women in a severely male-dominated society, and as such, timely and relevant. Chock full of fascinating details credible to the fantasy premise, this is an entertaining read.
A Cream-Broker’s Courtship – by Nin Harris
The Vivek family are tasked with looking after the sacred cows. The milk the cows produce are transformed into all sorts of rich and wonderful foods, so tasty and attractive that traditional cooking is no longer in vogue. Alas, the time has come for the cows to fly to the Eldest Moon. The alien intelligence residing there requires it. The Vivek family must accompany the cows, both to navigate for them on their journey and to look after them once they’ve landed.
Otherwise, life goes on as normal in the town of Rhaji on the colony planet of Sesen. Since Chatur the Cream-Broker has been spurned by Varna Vivek even though they passionately love one another (what’s the point of getting married if she has to migrate to the Eldest Moon and leave him behind?) he has become betrothed to Anjali, the daughter of the Mayor of Rhaji. Alas, his heart isn’t in it and he has run away, with all of Anjali’s relatives chasing after him seeking revenge for dishonouring their family. Poses a bit of a problem for Varna. What to do?
Very much a fairy-tale, one grounded on the mythology and folklore of the Indian community in Malaysia, apparently. There is a light dusting of science fiction elements, but essentially this fantasy is a metaphor for the difficulties women face in serving their individual needs and desires while simultaneously fending off tremendous pressure to live up to the demands of a society adhering to rigid traditions; in this case complicated by the unpredictable whims of a somewhat bi-polar alien entity. Herding sacred cows ain’t easy, it seems, especially when the pasture you’re trying to get to lies on another celestial orb, and a lynch mob just make things worse. A most interesting conundrum of a story.
Something to Light the Sunless Winter – by Sara Beitia
The protagonist is a young woman who signs up to leave Earth on the Starship Cressida. She’s not crew but, like the majority of passengers, is merely an item of cargo, presumably a colonist in transit. For some reason the Cressida is the first Starship not to place the cargo in stasis. There’s employment to provide busy work to make the time go by faster, but the woman prefers to wander the ship aimlessly, go for long jogs, and spend hours on the view deck staring into the void, all the while avoiding contact with anyone else. No one seems to mind. Then people begin dying. The woman doesn’t care. What’s more important is the growth in her womb. Could it be related to the one event that piques her interest?
The story is in the form of diary entries devoted to reflections on her distracted mood. Nothing excites her. Nothing worries her. She is an extremely passive individual uninterested in initiating human relationships. Even her boyfriend Asa is scarcely worth recording in her journal. The fact that she has become pregnant with something at least gives her a vague sense of purpose in that now she is waiting rather than drifting, but the drama remains muted, which is in keeping with the tone of the story.
Rather boring but, somewhat in the tradition of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, maybe that’s the point, to passively wait for forces beyond your control to dominate your life and serve their purpose. Given that all she does is mysteriously become pregnant, perhaps this is an allegory portraying the loss of personal freedom the nature of being female inevitably entails (a debatable concept, to put it mildly). Then again, perhaps it is about the larger issue of voluntarily surrendering your will to an outside purpose that transcends the meaning of self but in so doing grants form and function to one’s existence. Frankly, I haven’t a clue. All I can say is that the story is weirdly genuine in its depiction of a spiritual awakening to the comfort of a growth in one’s belly and the joy of converting one’s cabin into a nest or birthing place but to me it is a horror story plain and simple. Make of that what you will.
That Damned Cat – by Barbara Turney Wieland
A young man is riding a train. He was in an accident, and while lying flat on his back was visited by an orange, talking cat who told him to give up his job as a banker and spend all his time riding trains in order to meet the woman. A young woman does get on and sits opposite to him, her maternal instincts stirred by his disheveled appearance. She does think him a trifle sexy. He tells her about the cat and his mission. Doesn’t seem to bother her. In fact she is intrigued.
Okay, this is way over my head. Superficially it can be said to represent every man’s dream of meeting the woman and every woman’s dream of meeting the man above and beyond mere desire to get lucky and laid. But what the heck has the cat got to do with it? Is it a modern version of the cheshire cat? No, for that cat is the snarky voice of logic in an insane reality (Wonderland) and I don’t think that applies in a dirty, smelly railway car. I like cats but they strike me as impulsive and I don’t believe I’d trust a talking one, let alone one instructing me to go on a dull quest. Is the cat merely an irrational hallucination, the product of a damaged brain? Maybe. Certainly the young man speaks in an oddly formal manner, rather stilted, which adds to the air of unreality. On the other hand, choice bits of vivid description make the ambience of the scene feel very real, perhaps in deliberate contrast with the surreal developing relationship and peculiar conversation. One of the most awkward and ambiguous boy-meets-girl scenes I’ve ever read and for that reason alone, almost documentary-like in tone. Basically a slice-of-life story, except for the fantasy element of the talking cat. I don’t get it. I’ll just say I have my own reasons for referring to the orange, talking cat as That Damned Cat.
Sestina for Medea – by Alexandra Munck
A wealthy woman lives a life that has grown boring. A cousin comes from overseas who is in fact an imposter who murdered her cousin and took his place, but his stories of far off lands are so entrancing she goes with him when he sails away, bringing her wealth along to fund her search for the exotic.
My first impression was that this is one of those “the grass is always greener somewhere else” stories. They tend to be depressing. Then I figured it belonged to the category of “naive woman runs off with a wonderful man who promises a better life together” stories which often turn out to be tragic and horrible, if only for the sake of drama. However, the woman in this story, though continually disappointed by what she finds, is quite flexible and adaptable to the point of being survival-prone. As a result her “quest” strikes me as ultimately optimistic, a positive interpretation of the trials and tribulations of living a life.
A sestina is a specific type of repetitive poem, which this story is not, though it is divided into short sections representing episodes in her life. I suppose the reference to a sestina is a way of pointing out that life is a sequence of one unexpected thing after another. And Medea, of course, is the girl who betrayed the Golden Fleece to the Argonaut Jason and subsequently sailed away with him to escape her father’s wrath. The woman may be named Medea but she’s not that Medea. And the imposter of a cousin is no Jason. But she did betray the security of her home to run off with a con artist traveller who rescued her from a predictable life. Like the original Medea, she gave into an impulse contrary to her upbringing and family’s expectations. I suppose this is really a story about dreamers who dare to attempt their dreams, and it serves as both a warning and a validation, which is a neat trick. In sum, a story about life, like most stories.
Enchiridion of the Soltite – Restored by Xue Xihe
An enchiridion is simply a handbook or manual, and this one deals with the habits and customs of the worshippers of Solt, the god of travellers. Times are hard. Cil the Dry, lord of the land of Yon, has forbidden all trade and contact with those who dwell on the edge of the ocean and the islands it contains. Oceanic trade has ceased. The economy dependent on it has become extinct. All Soltites are persecuted, indeed put to death, their monuments smashed, their customs and rituals forbidden.
The Enchiridion of the Soltite is, of course, banned. It is death to own a copy. The only hope for the future of the cult, a virtuous cult which greatly benefits both individuals and civilization itself, is to be clandestinely copied and distributed, albeit with great caution and care. Much of humanity and culture will disappear if Cil is successful. The mind of man will become arid and lacking. Not for nothing is he known as Cil the Dry.
I would say this is obviously based on episodes of Chinese history. Too often megalomaniacal Emperors (I include Mao) have done their utmost to crush all existing culture and confine behaviour to their particular and narrow obsessions. The Emperor Chin (Qin Shi Huang), he of the amazing tomb warriors, being an egregious example. Chinese fleets of giant, multi-mast junks with multiple watertight compartments reached the East coast of Africa in the early 13th century, only to be scrapped and forbidden by an Emperor who believed the expense unjustified. Oceanic trade shrivelled to practically nothing apart from that conducted by foreign merchants of Southeast Asian and Indian origin, ultimately replaced by Europeans. This story describes a fantasy world based on and extrapolated from these historical events, I believe.
What makes this story quite wonderful is its encyclopedic description of myriad examples of Soltite custom, everything from the proper way to play a grass flute to the items of clothing one should take on a journey. That Soltite temples built by ocean dwellers are gigantic houseboats is to be expected, but the Soltite custom of fashioning miniature floating temples from leaves is quite charming, and that their land temples are gigantic towers born by teams of bearers continuously scurrying across the landscape I find hilarious. That mazes are considered the perfect metaphor for travel, emphasising the journey rather than the destination, makes perfect sense. This is a well-thought-out religion so cheerful and inviting I can easily visualize it becoming a cult. It seems both delicately beautiful and practical.
Above all, the sensibility of the story is very Chinese. By that I simply mean I have read a modest amount of classical Chinese literature and poetry in translation (courtesy of Penguin books), and the style of this story reflects traditional Chinese writing at its most exquisite and profoundly beautiful. Consequently, it feels totally authentic, as if it were a long forbidden Chinese classic restored to popular circulation. Had this been written in the time of the Emperor Chin (and suppressed), it would today be mandatory reading in any university class on the very best of ancient Chinese literature.
Safe to say I was blown away by this story. I consider it absolutely delightful. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I recommend it with maximum enthusiasm. Reading it made my day.
As always, Lackington’s presents an incredibly wide-ranging variety of well-written stories that are most interesting to read. The fact that I didn’t understand a couple of them (or all of them my critics might say) is entirely due to my personal reaction to what I read, but hey, I like to read, I’ve read constantly all my life, and the above are typical of what I come up with when deciding what I like or dislike about something I’ve read. In truth I don’t think my interpretations are entirely separate from what the rest of the human race may think. As a result, I feel quite safe in suggesting to you that each and every issue of Lackington’s is well worth checking out. Literary speculative fiction at its most readable and often quite extraordinary.
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