18) ‘Valentines’ by Shira Lipkin
The waiter’s name is V. It’s a new restaurant, sci-fi themed, all of the waiters have names like Klaatu or Ripley. I point out that V is a series, not a character, and he laughs, ‘No one remembers the character names from V. But everyone remembers the show. Everyone remembers the lizards.’
I could love this story for this paragraph alone, because… so true, so true. But there’s more to love besides.
The narrator sits in a cafe, a diner, the themed restaurant described above, and makes careful notes about their surroundings and the waiter who serves them. The waiter is Valentine, Val, V. This information seems important and yet elusive, the identity of the waiter or anyone else is never static. The narrator seems on guard, watchful, determined to isolate the crucial details of their experience:
Information is sacred. I don’t remember why, or who told me. But I know that information is sacred, so I write it down, scraps of knowledge and observations. I used to write in leatherbound journals with elegant heavy pens, but the fetish for elegance has fallen by the wayside in my rush to commit everything to paper. Now I use cheap marbled composition books, purchased by the dozen.
Does the narrator have traumatic amnesia, or are they living in a condition of existential anxiety? Which of the Valentines is the real Valentine, or are they all? Are we catching glimpses of a multiverse, or are we trapped in a hall of mirrors? Later on in the story, the narrator mentions having had a seizure. Could ‘Valentines’ be a metaphorical exploration of the heightened states of consciousness experienced by some epileptics?
I couldn’t decide, and I think in the end this story could best be described as being all of these things, rather than being restricted to any one of them. I love the style of ‘Valentines’, the nouveau-romanesque obsession with quotidian detail, the narrator caught in the act of describing what they are doing even as they are doing it. If the story is a metaphor for the act of writing itself, it is a good one. I envy the deceptively simple outlines, the finely sanded surfaces of this piece. I wanted to stay with the narrator. I could have carried on listening to them for many pages more.
19) ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Hala is an Artifact, a living exhibit. A representative of the Once-people, she is sent to the planet Silhouette in order to perform the ancient rites and dances of the Once as an educational entertainment for audiences eager for an ‘experience of the exotic’. Born to the Blood, she has been taken from her own world too early for her innate psychic abilities to develop. In order for her to properly function as an Artifact, she has been fitted with augmentations that allow her access to her people’s communal wisdom and experiences as well as her own formative memories. But the augmentation process is not without risk, and soon Hala will have a terrible choice to make…
This is a story about colonialism. What it shows most powerfully is that the damage inflicted upon colonised peoples is by its nature so deep and so wide-ranging as to be incalculable, even when the colonisers – in this story they are named the Compassionate – believe their actions to be benevolent.
They came with their big ships, riding through the rifts in the Veil that protected the Once-country. We could not say if it was capture or salvation that came to us. They, who we called Compassionate, came for us and took us from the devastation left behind. Of the great number that were the Once-tribe, there were only a handful of us left. We watched as the world we knew and loved vanished in the chaos created by the rifts. And as we departed the Once-country, we wondered if we would ever see it again.
This story is moving enough on its own terms. It is also a powerful allegory, beautifully told. ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’ is a forthright and courageous indictment of the spiritual and emotional violence that is always bound to be present in any action where one people is encroached upon by another, even when physical violence is not. It is a story that deserves to be read, and read again.