Monday, February 24, 2020

Kaleidotrope Winter 2020

Kaleidotrope, ed. Fred Coppersmith. Winter 2020 issue. Online at or in e-book.

Reviewed by N. A. Jackson

This issue of science fiction and fantasy zine Kaleidotrope is headed with a quote from the editors of Weight of the World: “Every little piece of your life will mean something to someone.” It’s the kind of statement that defies argument without really conveying anything. Certainly the fragments of fiction and poetry here are going to be more or less meaningful to each reader.

“Tasting menu” by Kristen Koopmann opens this collection of 7 stories and 5 poems. It’s a beautifully written piece that operates by a slow accumulation of hints and allusions. A chef visits an old school friend’s award-winning restaurant and is entertained by a series of dishes whose preparation and taste are minutely described. But there’s something horrific in the enumeration of kitchen implements, the cuts of meat hanging on the walls and the lingering analysis of taste sensations on the human psyche. A sense of threat permeates the piece and there’s something very odd about those cuts of meat that “looked nothing like the bodies they must once have inhabited.”

“Miss Karami’s Academy for Time-Warping Ladies” by Kat Otis didn’t grab me either on initial reading or on subsequent perusal. It’s light on description, so light that the characters seem to function in limbo. A pair of identical twins is required to pit their wits and time-warping skills against the men from the Chronology Protection Agency, time warping being a forbidden skill in the Hapsburg Empire. The story plays with concepts of time and alternative histories quite successfully but the plot seems to turn on too flimsy a premise to really convince.

Kelly Washington, on the other hand, in her beautifully-crafted story “Dissonance,” evokes a world in which an alien race captures and keeps alive a female human. The inhumanising effects of their probing and experimentation are horrific but fascinating in a lurid, visceral way. We see her transformed and transfigured but the piteous detail of a cup and saucer clinched it for me. “The Narrow Lands of Truth” by Daniel Rosen is no less innovative than Washington in his depiction of a fantastic world in which truth and lies acquire a palpable significance. A young man sets off on a quest to rescue and bring home his father and brother but finds himself battling his own prejudices and family loyalties. Rosen has produced a thought-provoking piece of science fiction.

I love Mary E. Lowd’s simply plotted but highly involving stories. “Necessary as a Rose” posits the idea of a rose bush aboard a spaceship. Why is it there, why is it necessary? The genius of this piece is the central character’s own confusion. He is clearly out of his depth but gains our sympathy by his ham-fisted approach as he tries to understand how the rose bush interacts with the ship’s hardware. Lowd uses a second person narrative to great effect. With a lesser writer this story could have been confusing but it succeeds brilliantly with an exquisitely poignant final flourish.

With a title like “Magenta and Indigo and Rust and Blackish Green,” one might expect Matt Weber to be exploring some form of synaesthesia. And perhaps he is. I find it difficult to know what Weber is aiming for. The story switches back and forth, half-illuminating, half-obscuring the facts of a terrorist attack in a nightclub. The story plays cleverly with concepts of space, time and sexual identity. The narrator seems to be working out some deeply disturbing episode in his past involving a child’s crib, but there’s no resolution. I felt uncomfortable and mildly disturbed as if there was something that I’d just failed to grasp.

I felt on much surer ground with Phoebe Barton’s “Last Ship out of Exville.” It’s a, somehow really lovely, brief fable of a band of misfit musicians and artists holding out in the face of an expansionist fascist regime wanting to take over the small imaginatively fertile space station they have collectively carved out on a previously uninhabited planet. Barton has a wicked sense for an apt simile, “The Callistonian commander looked like an origami man folded out of pages from Mein Kampf and the Turner Diaries.”

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s poem “Fishing” has echoes of water sprites or mermaids tempting men to their doom but is tethered by details to a more mundane world. Clarke creates a world in which male/female power relations are open to question: tempter or tempted, victim or predator? The lines are blurred in this fine piece of speculative poetry. “Afterglow” by Karolina Fedyk is a brilliant piece of prose poetry, part parable, part speculation. It could be a premonition of the Big Bang or a meditation on the death of a star. Spells cast and the price paid for knowledge are beautifully evoked in strong imagery.

“Mattress World” by Shannon Connor Winward is one of my favourite pieces in the collection. It features an unemployed man who follows a sign offering a job but finds himself absorbed into a fantasy world where his comic ramblings turn into a wry exploration of life’s meaninglessness tinged with darkness. Marie Vibbert’s “The Hot One” is a miniature speculation on planetary anthropomorphism, nicely turned out, but I had trouble with the image of a knitting Venus. However, Earth’s “modest mantilla of ocean” evaporating into “photodisassociated hydrogen / (with dirty specs of us)” is wonderful. Nin Harris explores human-spirit relations in “Archipelagic Constellations,” which is full of enticing imagery, but for me there was an accumulation of confusing pronouns from I to you to we to they which left me unsure who was doing what to whom. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to know.

So, a diverse collection of pieces, all with merit and some outstandingly original and beautifully crafted but not all satisfying or even meaningful to me. Every piece, however, “will mean something to someone” and I guess, weak as it is, that’s a fitting quote to conclude this review. I can’t pretend to have been without bias and tip my hat to the all the authors who’ve sweated blood over their creations. Long live indie zines in which the author of the Otters in Space trilogy rubs shoulders with a former soldier and trips the light fantastic with a post-colonial Gothic scholar!

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