“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali.
Novelette. Published in Strange Horizons, March 2017.

Join our discussion below, in the comments!


This one’s garnered a fair bit of attention, and a wide range of discussion! Here’s Jonathan Strahan singling the story out on Twitter:

A.C. Wise outlines some of the story’s strengths and themes:

The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. (…)
The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Charles Payseur has a lengthy and worthwhile review. Here’s one of his observations:

It’s a tense story, with a bleak landscape of encroaching desert and devastation and people living on the fringes, having to decide between living on their own terms and being able to contribute to larger solutions. I love how the story takes a complex approach to that idea, to the conflict of living free from concessions versus engaged in work that suits your skill and ability. For Bilqis it’s not that delivering children in the desert is not valuable work, but given what she might do…

Rocket Stack Rank gives “Concessions” a full five stars. They describe the story as “Sophisticated and Moving, with Good Characters,” and writes:

Every event is nicely foreshadowed. For example, we’re warned about the “catchers” long before we meet them. Bilquis moans that the hinterlands aren’t fit for good fruit (i.e. a child) and Miriama tells her the fruit doesn’t need to stay put (i.e. she could move away). (…)
The entire story is rich with metaphors. For example, Bilquis already has several “children”: Isa, most obviously, but also children of families she’s helped, like little Bilquis.
In the short space of this novella, some of the characters become very vivid. Isa, Sule, Miriama, and Bilquis herself. And the narration and dialogue are perfect.

Alexandros Zochios reviews the story for Tangent Online, describing it as “a story with deep political messages [that] provokes the reader to take sides.” Some of Zochios’s observations on the story:

The greatest asset of the story in matters of writing technique is the descriptions. Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali describes this barren world with rich similes and expressions that add energy, as well as beauty, transforming it into a less sterile and harsh land. She communicates her main character’s affection for the settlers and her husband almost seamlessly, thus making the reader care for this world and understand what is at stake when the time comes for Bilqis to make her choice.
What also got our attention was the character’s faith. Bilqis doesn’t practice her faith like the others.She has broadened it by incorporating other practices as well (such as the “aether” (…)).

The Mithila Review have interviewed Muhammad-Ali, on this story and her other work.

It was incredibly important to me to write a story about a Muslim woman. First of all, I want to write the types of stories that I would like to read. (…)
I wanted Bilqis to reflect back the same types of emotions that every other human being experiences. I wanted her humanity to be the first thing any reader recognizes about her.
As for Bilqis burying her religion, she didn’t. Not really. She buried the outward signs of her faith, much like her mother did, much like so many Muslim Americans do in order to safely interact in a society that isn’t always tolerant and welcoming. Bilqis resigned herself carrying that faith in her heart. And… in subsequent stories, that may become a problem for her.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

 

“Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner

“Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner. Translated by Julie Nováková.
Short story. Published in Strange Horizons, March 20th 2017.


It’s Charles Payseur’s review of the piece that I found particularly intriguing, right from the premise:

This is a beautiful and rather haunting story that follows a dramatic confrontation, but only along its peripheral. The story explores the vast worlds inside of alien beings, where one human is diving over and over again to try and find the key to human survival in the face of an ever-adapting enemy. It’s a story of alien invasion, and a sort of invasion that humanity cannot hold out forever against, these aliens capable of taking their experiences and creating a sort of illusory world for their next generation to adapt safe and better, to learn how better to conquer and spread.

Christos Antonaros, at Tangent Online, writes:

An original idea, which dips the reader into the bottom of a river, and even deeper into the terrifying illusions created inside of the guts of five alien behemoths. The setting and structure of the story are attention-grabbing from the very first paragraphs. (…) At some points, especially during sections of dialog, the plot becomes confusing, but the author then gives the reader a plot-twisting conclusion that resolves any questions.

A.C. Wise, in her column for Apex, writes:

Seiner offers up a truly alien mode of being, as well as learning and communication. The story calls into question the line between reality and illusion, at times echoing the unanchored feeling of exploring a new world – neither the characters nor the reader are fully grounded, drifting and making their way through the landscape together.

Rocket Stack Rank is less impressed. The full review (spoilers!) gives the story two stars, saying “The concept is pretty cool,” but “The execution of that idea is awful, and the whole story is a confused mess.”

I’ll close with a return to Payseur’s comments, this time on the themes and resonance of the story:

It’s a hitting story about trying to break this echo-chamber of conditioned abuse that just prepares people for war. (…) What happens when people are so trained and programed just for conflict, just to believe that their illusion is real? There’s a lot going on in the story and it’s nicely built to show the depth of these illusions, how it gets into everything. (…) It’s a story that really dives into illusions and isolation and how the young and conditioned by the older generations. It’s chilling and yet not without a spark of hope. An amazing read!


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“The Dancer on the Stairs,” by Sarah Tolmie

“The Dancer on the Stairs,” by Sarah Tolmie.
Novelette. Published in Tolmie’s Two Travelers, and reprinted in Strange Horizons, November 2016.

This story was recommended for discussion by Cecily Kane.


Nina Allen wrote:

Tolmie has a careful, controlled, poised style that is the epitome of elegance – a kind of literary dressage, or dancing, in fact. Her poetical investigations into human rituals, creativity and modes of belief make her fiction some of the most interesting new work around at the moment.

Charles Payseur wrote:

This is a long and intricate story that unfolds like a dance, a very fascinating portal fantasy that looks very different from what I’m used to. It features a woman taken from a world that sounds very much like our own and put into a place that is basically one huge house. One enormous building with floors connected by a very special stairway. And it’s a great reversal of what normally happens in portal fantasies, where the main character is some sort of Chosen One. Here the woman is the lowest of the low, without the currency that would make her even able to leave the stairs she finds herself on. What follows is a rough education and the slow reveal of this society. […]

It’s a great and moving story that’s enchanting and magical and elegantly layered. An excellent read! 

Rocket Stack Rank is less enthralled. Among their criticisms:

The story takes forever to get going. […] None of the characters is developed well enough for us to feel any emotions about them.


What’s your take on  “The Dancer on the Stairs”?  Read the story, and join in the discussion in the comments below!