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We found you, and you alone, in a universe that had forgotten to die.

Or rather, a universe for whom death had been set just out of reach. When my people grew aware of our universe’s impending mortality, we developed slipspace travel, to pass through the shining soap-bubble boundary of another realm without breaking it. Your people created zero-tau fields, on a scale we had never dreamed possible. Entire galaxies, even superclusters, within which time had totally ceased to exist—an impossible feat, the astrophysics committee insisted, except that you had somehow done it: hidden your universe’s own corpus from itself until, at the end of its life, it lacked the mass to return to the singularity that had birthed it. I will never get an answer from you, but I can’t help but ask: why?

And atop one of those zero-tau envelopes rested your little pod, like a blister on a boil. We detected no other such survivors; we did not know whether you were chosen to be the last of your kind, or whether you endured alone as an accident of fate. A lonely existence, in either case.

To study you, we slipped a smaller zero-tau field of our own inside your larger one and extracted your pod in a continued stasis. We could drop the field only for microseconds, long enough for our instruments to capture observational slivers, of your anatomy, your technology. You are so little like us: so few appendages, such a rigid internal support system! And yet so much like us too, with what we believe to be an intricate and interconnected sensorium. If you woke, would you hear the high-pitched hum of the slipspace drive, or perhaps even feel its vibrations through the ship’s biolaminate? Would you recognize me as another sentient being, and if you tried to communicate, how would you do it?

Unlike you, the information storage device from your pod can be woken without fear of destroying it. Not that this is a simple process! My siblings on the information processing committee and I studied it for several cycles before we could fabricate a connection that would allow transfer of your data to an isolated ganglion of our ship’s computers. Having the data, of course, does not mean understanding it. Even unencrypted, the sounds—music? speech?—are a cacophony; the written script is indecipherable. Are these ideograms? Syllabaries? Most puzzling of all are the two-dimensional images: some that show beings who might be your conspecifics, others with similar but puzzlingly different body plans. I think your sensorium must possess some cross-dimensional perception that we lack, cutting across time itself, able to open a window to your past simply by perceiving its visual representation. How wonderful, and how sad. No wonder your people, who must have lived so much in their own histories, chose to lock their universe in stasis rather than surrender it to the unknowable future.

As far as we can tell, you as an individual are unrepresented in any of these stored images. If your voice spoke to us out of these recordings, we would never recognize it. We determined quickly that you were unsuited to the conditions of life required by our universe of origin and our universe of choice alike. We cannot wake you, meet you, know you; not without destroying you. Nor do we even know for certain if anything in you remains to awaken. Whatever intent you had, in preserving these things, it is lost with you. How I wish I could ask you! I like to imagine that, if our roles were reversed, you would burn with a similar curiosity.

Ignorant as we are of your customs, the xenocultural committee decided we should restore the data storage device and its mysteries to your pod, and return you and it together to your own universe. The information processing committee objected, but we were overruled by the majority of our extended brethren. The data, they said, had been entrusted to you to bear alone, in the silent endless tomb of your universe. It was never intended for us.

As the members of the information processing committee are the only ones who understand how to access your data stick, however, its contents have been—I confess—somewhat altered. I will bear your songs and stories with me, and you in turn will bear this letter. Though it is almost certain that neither of us will ever understand exactly what it is we carry.

I lack your species’ ability to transcend time’s arrow and live in this past of yours; these things do not yet mean to me what they would have meant to you. Perhaps they never will. Yet even now, to me, they mean more than nothing. When you return to your universe in the last held breath before its death, your people are born anew in mine. Whatever else I come to understand, whatever else I do not: I see that you loved them, and I see that I will learn to do the same here. In their absence, and in yours.



Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf in the Netherlands. Her debut novella Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters was a 2021 Nebula Award finalist, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
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By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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