“The Transition of Osoosi” by Ozzie M. Gartrell (2021 Ignyte Awards)


Published in Fiyah #13, “The Transition of Osoosi” takes place in an apartheid United States of America where the population is divided into the elite True Americans and the second-class Citizen Americans. Being in the latter category is dangerous indeed, as CAs are not even protected by laws against murder. The protagonist, Mal, is a CA with the gadgets to help him get by – although, as his augments are not officially registered, they raise the stakes should he get caught:

Despite the dark, the officer wears mirror shades. I narrow my eyes a fraction and specs flood my interface. Recording sunglasses. Standard law enforcement issue. Filters sunlight, but enhances night vision. Adds to the loom factor and faux badassery. My reflection, distorted by his mirror lenses, sneers at me. Coily hair, streaked with purple and emerald, sweeps back from an unremarkable face with narrow black eyes and a broad nose. My dark skin looks mottled in the lengthening evening shadows.
The officer is careful to keep his patrol car between us. Smart. He’ll later claim it was because he’d “feared” for his life.

In this society, virtual reality is a popular form of escapism – and it is permitted to exist so long as its content is sanctioned by the True Americans. However, Mal’s closest friend Machine develops a new media technology, augmented immersion, that offers broader potential – including the capability to tell the stories of the underclass. Machine sees the opportunity for disseminating peaceful protest, but Mal is unconvinced by his ambitions:

Machine eyes the simdisc as if I cradle pure magic between my fingers. “I needed to mark that moment, y’know? As i coded it, I wanted to fuse virtual reality with art and history–our history. I want it so they know, so they feel what our people felt. To be unable to turn away.
Unable to turn away. I like the sound of that. I toll Machine’s peaceful protest between my index finger and thumb. It’s a quaint ideal, but peaceful protests didn’t stop the water hoses, it doesn’t stop the beatings and homicides.

And so Mal turns to a notorious hacktivist group that is working to bring about social reform –no matter high the price — and who might have a use for this new technology…

“The Transition of Osoosi” is a story oozing in unadulterated cyberpunk chic. It creates the kind of world where being a rebel inevitably involves looking cool, a fact signified here by the hacktivist group == members of which base themselves upon figures from African myth, each one with an eye-catching avatar. The story aims for rather more than just superhero-costume escapism, however, and provides the necessary bite of social commentary,

The story is well-paced and works a good degree of tension into its short length. Like any successful thriller, the stakes are not confined to immediate material concerns – in this case, whether or not Mal will be apprehended by the police – and instead reach into something less tangible. Mal’s very ethical principles are at stake: will he follow the agenda of the hackers to its conclusion, even though doing so will irreparably damage his present relationships? It is surely no coincidence that the hacker he admires the most, Ogun, is named after a deity associated with sacrifice.

Quieter moments are used to articulate the everyday cruelties and inequalities that are part of this dystopia. When Mal’s twin sister Mar, who is transgender, uses the ladies’ restroom, she is surrounded by hostile whispers – like trans woman today, albeit exacerbated by a biochip that amplifies every murmur:

I killed the feed and elbowed past gawking TAs. Mar didn’t protest when I lowered her shades to hide her tears, tucked her against me and headed for the dining area. The crowd parted like sticky-sweet soy sauce. I tugged on Mar’s right earlobe so that her biochip would filter out their hateful whispers. Their susurrations – freak, pervert, he shoulda called the cops – rolled off Mar and stuck to me.

Elsewhere, an intimate encounter between Mal and his lover Vee is undercut by the fact that Vee’s very body is being used as advertising space – an example of the story’s social commentary manifesting in the strikingly visual manner of political cartoon:

The advertisement swells over Vee’s brown breast, plunges into her cleavage, and swoons over the other. Problems with your most important Member? Use Viagrix to set the Mood! I’d wondered what it felt like, having advertising scripts crawling over your skin eight hours each day, but Vee only shrugged and said the money was good and she rarely noticed anymore.

All too easily reduced to a commodified aesthetic, cyberpunk is a genre that has seen something of an identity crisis in recent decades. “The Transition of Osoosi” is simultaneously a story about rebellion, a meditation on the uses of media in the face of oppression, and a ripping story; and on top of this, it is a plea for the continued vitality and relevance of cits genre.

“The Night Sun” by Zin E. Rocklyn (2021 Ignyte Awards)

“The Night Sun” can be read online at Tor.com.

Avery is trapped in a relationship with her abusive husband Jonas. Their marriage at breaking point, they make a last-ditch attempt to repair things with a vacation to a remote cabin situated at an idyllic lakeside locale, with seemingly nobody but state trooper Bruce Hayword and ambulance technician Casimiro in the vicinity. In theory, the cabin offers a chance to escape the stresses, strains and anxieties of the couple’s daily life; in practice, however, Jonas’ violent tendencies flare up even as he and Avery are driving to their destination.

Moreover, spending time in the cabin does little to help Avery to forget her troubled past. She is still haunted by recollections of her mother, and guilt over the latter’s death by aneurism. Her sister Kaya is another lingering presence. When Kaya makes a phonecall, Avery is unable to tell the little white lie that the retreat is working, and still more bad memories are dredged up:

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“Love Hangover” by Sheree Renée Thomas (2021 Ignyte Awards)

SlayNoireRecently republished in The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), “Love Hangover” originally appeared in SLAY: Stories of the Vampire Noire, an anthology devoted to stories about black vampires and vampire hunters. Sheree Renée Thomas sets her story in seventies New York, where lovers of the disco scene spend their nights in search of transcendence. Into this setting is born Delilah Divine, a singer who performs at club after club and causes other stars of the era to pale in comparison: “Bianca Jagger rode by on a white horse, her black locks shining ebony waves, but all eyes returned to Delilah.”

The story is narrated by Frankie, one of many to fall under Delilah’s spell – but one of the few to get close to her. Frankie notes that, while Delilah appears to be around twenty, she speaks as though she is much older, even sharing memories of Berlin in the 1920s. As it happens, Delilah is a supernatural entity who drains life to fuel her songs:

“Where did you learn to sing like that?” I asked. She looked at me with dead fisheyes that should have run me away, but I was already hers before the first time we even touched or danced.
“From the throats of a thousand, thousand men and women. But the children,” she said, closing her eyes as if the memory pained her, “their voices are too sweet. I cannot bear the taste of their songs.”
I thought she was high. I’d seen her with blow and biscuits, poppers and whippets–whatever made the music and lights, the dance and the tempo last longer.

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“You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark (2021 Ignyte Awards)

Wrapping up my reviews of the 2021 Ignyte Award for Best Story finalists (see also “My Country is a Ghost”, “Express to Beijing West Railway Station”, “Body, Remember”, “Rat and Finch are Friends”). “You Perfect, Broken Thing” can be read here.

The world has been hit by a deadly pandemic and the cure for the illness is in short supply. One way of obtaining it is by succeeding in an athletic tournament held each year; training for this event is a gruelling process that accelerates the disease, but is necessary for any athlete who hopes to gain an edge. The story’s protagonist, Coach, is determined to place in the top three and thereby earn two shots of the cure: one for herself, and one for her lover Honey.

The team has three other members besides Coach and Honey. One is Shell, who gives support to Coach, showing concern that the latter may be pushing herself too hard. Another is Rowboat, who is similarly pushing himself, albeit through the less rigorous method of devouring protein-heavy food, “hoping another protein shake or spoonful of peanut butter will grow new myofibrils out of nowhere.” Then there is seven-year-old Little, a pint-sized troublemaker who provides both comic relief and a poignant remainder that even children have been forced into this brutality.

But it is Coach and Honey who remain the focal points of the story. Coach is the physical centre, the figure whose every movement is related to the reader with up-close tactility; Honey is presented in more abstract terms as a goal to be attained, a chance for a happily-ever-after, but she is no less important: a sprinter needs a finish line, after all.

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“My Country is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (2021 Ignyte Awards)

“My Country is a Ghost” can be read online at Uncanny Magazine.

Eugenia Triantafyllou’s story takes place in a world where people are typically accompanied by the ghosts of departed loved ones, a phenomenon that is accepted as entirely natural. There are, however, boundaries that prevent ghosts from travelling out of the country where they died. Whether these boundaries are spiritual or merely bureaucratic is unclear, but either way, protagonist Niovi runs into trouble when trying to cross the border with her mother’s spirit:

When Niovi tried to smuggle her mother’s ghost into the new country, she found herself being passed from one security officer to another, detailing her mother’s place and date of death over and over again.
“Are you carrying a ghost with you, ma’am?” asked the woman in the security vest. Her nametag read Stella. Her lips were pressed in a tight line as she pointed at the ghost during the screening, tucked inside a necklace. She took away Niovi’s necklace and left only her phone.
“If she didn’t die here, I am afraid she cannot follow you,” the woman said. Her voice was even, a sign she had done this many times before. Niovi resented the woman at that moment. She still had a ghost waiting for her to come home, comforting her when she felt sad, giving advice when needed. But she was still taking Niovi’s ghost away.

Faced with the prospect of going back to her homeland to continue her dreary existence on unemployment benefits, and separating from her mother’s ghost so that she can emigrate, Niovi reluctantly chooses the latter. She successfully arrives in her new homeland but immediately finds herself a misfit: she is one of the few citizens not to be accompanied by a single ghost, “an oddity among people cloaked in spirits that followed their every step.”

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“Express to Beijing West Railway Station” by Congyun Mu Ming Gu (2021 Ignyte Awards)

Kiera Johnson’s English translation of “Express to Beijing West Railway Station” by Congyun Mu Ming Gu can be read online at Strange Horizons.

A train passenger is viisted by an attendant in a knitted vest, who asks him for a ticket. To his surprise, his standard ticket is not accepted: it turns out that passengers are expected to show something rather more personal before they can be allowed to continue. One man presents a diary as a ticket; another has a photo album; still another shows a telephone bearing blog posts. With nothing on his person to fit the bill, the protagonist is forced to step off into the station.

This is, ostensibly, a station that he has visited before: Beijing West. Yet something has changed, the regular exits now replaced with revolving doors attended by staff members who – like the ticket-collector on the train – wear knitted vests and demand a special sort of ticket. Things get even stranger when the protagonist tries to see the square outside the station, and witnesses nothing more than an expanse of grey mist. The traveller finally receives an explanation from the “auntie” who sits knitting in the late fares office:

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“Body, Remember” by Nicasio Andres Reed (2021 Ignyte Awards)

“Body, Remember” can be read online at Fireside Magazine.

Archaeologist Jun Meyers is staying in Italy to examine the ruins of a city buried Pompeii-like beneath a layer of volcanic debris. Jun is, in more than one way, a misfit. He struggles with Italian, despite having been in the country for three years; he also has trouble getting on with his colleagues, who find some of his attitudes towards his chosen discipline to be unorthodox:

Jun’s desire for modern urban amenities is the source of some disdain from his colleagues. He’s heard Liz warning the newest intern not to engage him on his grand theory of history: that these things are the point of their work, that the present is the point of the past. That the people whose bones they treasure so selfishly would mean less were it not for the things that separate us from them. That it isn’t the ancient in itself that is sublime, but rather the act of wiping the dust of the ancient from your hands, walking into a halogen-lit 24-hour 7-11 for an energy drink, and later ridding yourself of it down a flush toilet.

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“Rat and Finch Are Friends” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (2021 Ignyte Awards)

Beginning a series on the short-fiction finalists at this year’s Ignyte Awards, here is my look at Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s story “Rat and Finch Are Friends”.

At an all-boys boarding school, protagonist Izuchukwu becomes attracted to a fellow pupil named Okwudili. The two boys — who lend each other the nicknames of Finch and Rat — eventually kiss, an event that becomes public knowledge. Mr. Okeke, the dorm master, forbids the pair from speaking to each other. Pastor Emega visits Finch in the evenings, preaching hellfire and brimstone about the sins of Sodom and forcing the boy to drink anointed oil. Prejudice engulfs Finch’s family: “just the other day,” says his mother, “that nonsense salesgirl at the grocery store mocked me with her eyes the whole time she was attending to me. All because I am the mother of the boy who kissed another boy.”

The fantasy thread that runs through this narrative of young love and cultural prejudice is largely symbolic. The two title characters are Amusus — an Igbo term typically translated as “witches”, although as is typically the case with attempts to translate folklore between cultures, this obscures a number of complexities. The story portrays Amusus as existing in an ambiguous state between human and animal, between waking and dreaming. Finch describes how he started flying at the age of six, initially believing that his nocturnal flights were no more than dreams until an incident in which he grazed his wing at night and woke up with a bleeding arm. While he became a finch, he met other children who became other flying animals:

The children who were falcons, eagles, hawks, and albatrosses made fun of how little I was. They would fling me into the wind and catch me just before I hit the ground. So I always stuck with the smaller Amusus: the bats, the hummingbirds, the swallows, the pigeons, and the crows.

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