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Many years from now, in a land far from here, two men will fall in love. Their names will be Sammeth and John. One of them will be tall and rail-thin, with dark skin and darker eyes. The other will be short and pale and curvy, covered with piercings and tattoos. They will marry in the winter, in bright sunlight on white snow, underneath an oak tree that one of them adores and the other tolerates.

It will end well, as all things must.

In their land, in their time, there will be too much reality for everyone to share the same story. Yet there will not be enough for each to have a story of their own.

There are mechanisms for dealing with this particular tragedy.

The bookbinder who weds Sammeth and John will wear a pair of worn, thin leather gloves, so that her fingers won’t shiver while she stitches the spines of their books into one.


Sammeth loved all the creatures of the world. He chained himself to the fences of factory farms. One night, after John drove him home from jail, he wrote five paragraphs in their marriage book describing cramped pens, force-feeding and the scent of shit and offal from the perspective of a hog. He carved one long, painful sentence of the hot ring of the gun pressed against the forehead and the absolute void that followed. Ink bled through three pages.

Bacon was John's favorite food. Until his favorite diner served him four slices the next Saturday (crispy at the edges, but still soft and oily in the middle, just how he liked it) and he bit into his husband’s vivid imagination. He became a murderer for one long moment, a callous, uncaring brute, salivating over the misery of a helpless creature. His soul began to crisp at the edges. He rushed home to the book, chained to the wall of their bedroom with links of stainless steel, as is traditional. He tore out the page. Sammeth, already at his next protest, suddenly felt the ache of his tired arms and lowered his sign, wondering why, exactly, he bothered.

John loved his God. He wondered why others couldn’t (didn’t? wouldn’t?) understand the necessity of surrendering oneself to the purest possible embodiment of glory and goodness. In the book, he wrote a three-page prose poem of the centuries stretching into infinity he and Sammeth would have at God’s side. He wrote out the notes of the first song they would sing and drew a sketch of them making love in a palace made of clouds.

Sammeth, for a while, did not fear the emptiness waiting for him at the end of his life. His work suffered. He grew listless and despondent. He felt the loving eyes of a stranger watching him, judging him. He felt another’s hand guiding his own. In the middle of the night he took out his lighter and burned all three pages and the music and the erotic sketch and squeezed the ashes until his palm was black and sooty.

John awoke immediately to an empty universe, devoid of his Lord and the meaning He brought. John stared into the oblivion that awaited him and Sammeth within a few short decades. John wept.

The smoke alarm went off.


There are other ways to distribute reality.

I have seen kingdoms with a single story. I have seen robed bureaucrats translating the ramblings of their monarch into leather tomes of gilt-edged calligraphy. They assist with the details, the subtexts, the illustrations around their leader's half-constructed legend of heroism and leadership in the face of adversity. The result serves well enough.


It is a hard thing, to decide whether to share another’s story.

Sammeth loved John’s body, the tattoo of a leaping dolphin on the left bicep, the titanium spike through the left ear. He loved the love poetry John wrote for him with its grand, theatrical rhythms, but, even more, he loved how John dropped most of his punctuation and any sense of rhythm when he was excited. Most of all, he loved that John had a special smile, a unique one, that he only ever used when looking at Sammeth. He could draw it, the left corner of the mouth slightly higher, the eyes wide and eyebrows raised, lips slightly parted. Sloppy and surprised.

John loved Sammeth’s silences and the way he danced at raves, arms and glowing bracelets jerking perfectly in time with the explosions of sound that shook their world. He loved the way Sammeth couldn’t help but do exactly what he thought was the most important thing, right now, whatever else might be happening. John remembered Sammeth driving two hours on John’s birthday to buy a collector’s edition of John’s favorite board game. When the seller didn’t show, he found a new lead and drove four hours in the other direction. Sammeth arrived home after midnight, after the party, but they stayed up playing until the sun rose.


I have seen reality sliced and rationed into individual serving sizes, each loyal citizen receiving a cramped pamphlet to wedge their life inside. I have seen the over-passionate and the young with their stories too large for their page, words spilling into the margins, off the edges, overwriting themselves into desperate, messy palimpsests. I have seen a woman who drove herself to an empty corn field in her red Cadillac so that she might gulp down lungfuls of fresh air to scream with as she suffocates. This also serves, well enough.


Every month, as is traditional, Sammeth and John revised their story. They found commonalities and redundancies to compress. They outlined future chapters and debated the finer points of plot, character and setting. They edited down the unimportant parts and tied up loose ends. They freed up room within the spine, between the two covers, for more life. In theory.

By their fourth year, the problems were too obvious to ignore. They could both see the weasel words and vaguenesses, the various literary crimes they’d committed while trying to paper over the seams (cracks? canyons?) between their worldviews. Their styles did not mesh well. Sammeth’s minimalism was crowded out by John’s bombastic prose and in-line doodles. John’s wild wanderings were crushed into dream sequences and stories within the story by short, snippy post scripts by Sammeth. Sheets were dog-eared and torn. Both covers were stained and the spine cracked under the weight of the overstuffed pages.

It was John’s turn to hold the pen this month to carry out the revisions they decided on, but he dropped it to the desk within the first ten minutes.

“Do what you will.”

Sammeth heard the door slam and the car rumble to life. It did not peel out of the driveway (but it may as well have).

He stared at the unholy mess in front of him.

Sammeth knew the problem, knew what collaboration required. He knew the paths in front of him. They could separate, of course. Undergo the painful book surgery. He would lose what he loved of John and the pieces of himself that could not be extracted safely. They would each be wounded and alone. Their lives would be simple and brutal, cramped into whatever remained of their separated spines. He knew that he would find no one else.

Or they could compromise. Fully. He could fit them into a new mold, slice off pieces of their souls until they slotted into one another’s. They could sacrifice themselves on the altar of their marriage.

Or …

For over an hour, he played with the idea. Designed how he would do it. Decided the exact portions of John to keep and leave behind. Crafted the story he would write over the night, over the entire first four years. It could work. All of it. Right now.

In his mind’s eye he stared at the other John. The better John. The one who loved Sammeth for who he actually was.

Then Sammeth cried for a little while. Maybe five minutes or so. Onto the book. Not the first time for either of them.

He went to bed.

John returned shortly after midnight. He stayed up writing until the sun rose, ripping Sammeth out of existence.


Many years from now, in a land far from here, two men named John and Sammeth will renew their vows under an oak tree they both adore. They will both write sweet love sonnets in their marriage book, vivid and purple and bleeding, twin poems that sound like they were written by a single author.

Many years from now, in a land far from here, a man named Sammeth will not exist, will have never existed. His doppelganger will sing and screw forever in a realm that Sammeth never believed in.

Many years from now, in a land far from here, a man named John will live forever, gloriously happy. He will not remember what he did. His God will not remind him. He will not be punished.

This will serve. Well enough.



Mitchell Shanklin lives in Seattle, writing stories with magic and/or made-up science. He also writes code, plays video, board and mind games, reads, runs, and has rambling philosophical arguments. He is a proud member of Team Arsenic, The Dreamcrashers, and Write of Passage. He is visibly bisexual.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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?
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By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
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