Issue 55 is Lynne M. Thomas’s last issue of the 26 she has edited. It is a strong issue, with stories that are beautifully angry — at disease, at societal expectations, at clichés.
The first story, “What You’ve Been Missing” by Maria Dahvana Headley, is about the losses everyone suffers when a man is stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease. Joe has been caught eating Proust, dipping the pages into his tea and devouring them. His wife, Bette, is enraged, because when they were first married he had said he’d sooner walk into the snow shoeless than live without the full use of his brain. Now Joe not only doesn’t remember that, he doesn’t even remember who Bette is, except as the young woman of 60 years earlier, pictured frolicking in a polka-dotted bikini. Joe has also become interested in horses, and as the story unfolds we learn that a particular sort of horse is on his mind, the kind of horse that is oddly replicated in our brain structure. It’s a sadly lovely story of a man who leaves the earth in essence before he leaves it in fact.
“Haruspicy and Other Amatory Divinations” by Kat Howard explores many different methods of telling the future, from examining the entrails of beasts to reading palms to reading the surface of one’s own heart. The narrator examines all these methods to determine who her true love is, the one person who will love her, for the only thing she has ever wanted is to be loved. But as the narrator describes her life, the reader begins to suspect that she has overlooked love when it was offered, always looking for the next lover. The caution with which she approaches love seems wrong, too; she never allows herself to fall, but instead crafts each moment, posing, calculating, even as she gives herself the advice to “just be yourself.” The story is a giant metaphor, full of luscious and horrific prose, about knowing one’s own heart.
Ken Liu’s “Before and After” is a short story in a single sentence about the arrival of intelligent beings from outer space. It’s quite a feat of writing, but it’s more than just a gimmick: it works. The form communicates how everything can change in an instant, in no more time than it takes to speak a sentence. It’s virtually a prose poem.
Anger beams from the page in “Our Daughters” by Sandra McDonald. Mothers have taken steps to ensure their daughters’ safety from sex, beginning with the installation of automatic intrusion alarms in their daughters’ vaginas when they’re in high school. The mothers inform the world of this safety precaution in a letter to the male population that notes their own disappointment in the “boys with clean faces and sweet smiles” that they fell for in high school. But nature always finds a way, and the mothers need to work with stronger defenses for their daughters — and against their daughters’ wishes — as the years go by, and even as their daughters become independent adults entering the working world. It is an excellent satire that catches both liberals and conservatives, feminists and traditionalists, in its blazing fire.
Rachel Swirsky’s “All That Fairy Tale Crap” is the reprint story in this issue. The narrator in this metafictional tale is Cinderella, who chooses not to go to the ball, but to spend the evening in bed with one of her stepsisters. “Never listen to a fairy godmother,” she advises, as she sets out to find her next sexual conquest. It’s told crudely, but the crudeness serves a purpose here: Cinderella acts, instead of letting her fate be decided by a man who can only identify her by her shoe size.
The anger evident in this issue extends to the non-fiction piece by Daniel José Older, “Another World Waits: Towards an Anti-Oppressive SFF.” Older starts by relating the story of an editorial correction to a line in one of his novels that states that a particular kind of racism “doesn’t happen in this day and age.” Older notes that this sort of thing is a consequence of working in a mostly white industry — publishing — where the standards are mostly white as dictated by white editors and told by mostly white writers. Writers of color tread lightly because they want to be published; but they also want to be heard. It’s an important essay.
Maggie Slater interviews Maria Dahvana Headley with intriguing and original questions that elicit fascinating answers. I was particularly taken by Headley’s admission that she sometimes wears ball gowns and tiaras to inspire her writing. What a great idea!
The issue closes with a poem by Amal El-Mohtar entitled “Turning the Leaves.” The poet takes full advantage of the double meaning of the title, intermixing the leaves that fall from trees with the leaves we turn in books, making stories a force of nature.
Issue 56 of Apex Magazine is the first one edited by Sigrid Ellis, and these stories take a turn toward horror. Slater interviews Ellis right up front, in which she advises authors to “have sympathy for all your characters,” even those who do terrible things. She says that she wants “fiction that is optimistic and depressing, light and heavy, fiction that is in different points of view, fiction in different verb tenses, different structures of fiction.” It sounds like authors should be willing to experiment wildly for Ellis’s editorial eye, which should lead to some fascinating reading.
“Pale Skin, Gray Eyes” by Gene O’Neill is set in a village surrounded by an impenetrable wall; but someone has gotten in, and the village must decide what to do with this alien creature. The tale is told by Tem, who is L’Voli’s twin. They are both 12 years old, and L’Voli argues that they should be allowed to watch their father petition the Consul of Clerics about how to handle the visitor. Their mother disagrees, mostly because L’Voli is confined to a wheelchair. But their siblings attend, and they tell the others about the hearing, which causes Tem to review her history about the Great Twelve-Year War, fought between the Whiteskins of the North and the Brownskins of the South, with the minority Blueskins — to which Tem and her family belong — intervening on behalf of the Brownskins only toward the end of the war, after much destruction had been wrought upon them. The stranger looks like a Whiteskin, and Tem wonders if the Whiteskin is there seeking revenge against the Blueskins after all these years. The story is thus set up as one about race, reaching back to the history of these peoples. But instead of continuing in this direction, it shifts to an issue almost completely unrelated to the rest of the tale.
“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon is a lovely tale about a race of shapeshifters and their interaction with humans. Grandma Harken says that they are the daughters of the rain, and that driving them off would bring on a drought. Others say they don’t believe it, but living in a desert, they aren’t willing to take any chances, and so the jackalope wives are let alone. The only problem is that they dance at night to wild music in their very beautiful human forms. Most folks know to keep their sons occupied when the jackalope wives are dancing, but Grandma Harken’s grandson is determined to get himself one of these wives. He knows enough to through her rabbit skin on the fire, but she cries so that he grabs it back out again. What happens to the poor creature who now has only half of her identity left to her? Grandma Harken undertakes to solve the problem. “Jackalope Wives” has the taste of a oft-told folktale, even though it is fresh and new.
My favorite story in both these issues of Apex is “Dispatches from the Revolution” by Pat Cadigan. I wasn’t old enough to be in Chicago during the Democratic Convention in 1968, for which I should probably thank my lucky stars; but I was old enough to follow the news reports, and I remember that it felt like the world was unraveling. Cadigan plays on that perception, which was most certainly not limited to me, and makes a few key changes to the history: Bobby Kennedy wasn’t killed in California after winning that state’s primary, but at the convention in Chicago, for instance. Cadigan tells the tale through the eyes of various participants in the events of the day, including a civil rights marcher, a student in Berkeley, a fugitive involved in a bombing, and others. A few tweaks to history, and the United States looks a lot different in the present day — frighteningly so. It’s an excellent example of alternate history — or “alternative history,” as Cadigan would have it — that demonstrates how small accidents of timing can make a huge difference in a country’s history.
The non-fiction piece in this issue is “Women in Pre-1947 Chinese and Indian Horror Fiction and Film” by Jess Nevins. It’s a well-researched and accessible piece about an area of literature and film that is largely unknown to American audiences. Maggie Slater interviews Gene O’Neill, again asking imaginative questions that evoke thoughtful answers.