Bogi Takács’s latest short story collection, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation, features a succession of non-traditional protagonists who appear in stories where deep physical sensation is often linked to magic use, and where power often hinges on a character’s willingness to give up control. Along the way, Takács blends genres, muses on the misuses of technology, questions whether we can encounter others who are different and not be changed ourselves, and examines the overlap of the religious and the secular.
Seven of the twenty-three stories in this collection center on subservient characters, many of whom are gender-neutral or non-binary. Their submissiveness is almost always voluntary, a key component in their emotional or physical relationships by mutual agreement. The dominant characters in these relationships show their submissive partners the utmost respect (and, if the relationship is romantic, love); other characters, who would abuse or take advantage of the subservient partners, are usually the stories’ antagonists and are shown the error of their ways or otherwise done away with. In “Towards the Luminous Towers,” for instance, it is the government itself that looks to abuse the protagonist, using them up physically and emotionally to get the most out of their psionic ability—a mirror held up to how modern companies push talented employees to the point of burnout without regard to the personal cost. In “Standing on the Flood Banks,” on the other hand, it is a political rival of the main character’s master/trainer who tries—against her will—to bend the main character to his own use; he eventually meets a bad end.
In the context of these stories, these dom/sub relationships are either the societal norm or close enough to not be glanced askance at or denigrated—a place of acceptance which, in our own world, I don’t think we’ve yet fully reached. “This Will Serve as a Demarcation,” “Recordings of a More Personal Nature,” “To Rebalance the Body,” “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation,” and “Standing on the Floodbanks,” for example, all celebrate positive, healthy, dom/sub relationships. In most of these same stories, the submissive character is also the one able to tap into and focus magical energy. That magic is used to power starships (in “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation”), preserve cultural knowledge (“Recordings of a More Personal Nature”), save a loved one’s life (“To Rebalance the Body”), protect a community (“Spirit Forms of the Sea”), and shore up failing flood prevention measures (“Standing at the Floodbanks”). In several cases, the magic can only be accessed through great physical pain (as in “Overwhelming Sensation”), in others after emotional distress (parts of “Floodbanks”). The portrayal of the BDSM parts of these relationships is nuanced. What all the characters have in common is a willingness to undergo that pain in order to perform a valued function or a good deed—and more importantly, that they are never forced into it against that will. In only one story, “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation,” does the antagonist fundamentally misunderstand the main characters’ master/submissive relationship and attempt to fix something that is in no need of repair—tellingly, in so doing they put everyone in the story in danger.
It’s not always individuals who are subservient in these stories. Two stories focus on societal change, sudden or incremental, in the face of inequality and subjugation. In “Given Sufficient Desperation,” it is humanity under the yoke of conquering aliens: enslaved humans labor to help the aliens understand the functions of commonplace items like cookware, while those not captured work to send the aliens away. The story ends up exploring our ability, should we get desperate enough, to use anything, no matter how mundane, as a weapon—a fact that should scare any would-be conquerors. In “Changing Body Temperatures,” meanwhile, the Nag-Hegi are a race subordinate to the Orosi. A Nag-Hegi scientist invents something that could be used to free her race from Orosi control but only at great personal cost; she’s ready to go through with it anyway. The story is brutal in its portrayal of political machinations and expediency overwhelming individual accomplishments, and raises questions about whether incremental gains in societal change are more effective than sudden upheaval—even if it comes at a greater cost of individual lives. In this way, “Temperatures” is one of the more uncomfortable and thought-provoking reads in a collection full of such stories.
“Changing Body Temperatures” is not the only story, though, in which new technology has the potential to be misused. “Increasing Police Visibility,” which takes place in a near-future Hungary trying to control the influx of literal aliens, examines xenophobia and national pride through the introduction of tech that can identify the comingling of extra-terrestrials with humans. Fear that the same tech could be used to sort an “undesirable” ethnic group from another permeates the story. In “Forestspirit, Forestspirit,” an AI that manifests as, well, a forest spirit is approached by a young boy for help protecting the forest—and the boy’s rural foraging community—from being razed by new tech aimed at removing anyone and anything still connected to nature. The question becomes whether the Forest Spirit can encounter this new tech and itself survive.
Several other stories address that question: can we encounter something or someone new and remain unchanged? When a technological glitch strands travelers on the Moon, the characters of “Good People in a Small Space” deal with anxiety, claustrophobia, and other stresses by bartering to arrange a way off the station. Each, including the narrator, eventually contributes something necessary to this effort, through a series of mutually beneficial trades—ultimately fostering renewed understandings of each others’ cultures that might not have come about had the travellers not been stranded together. Humans switch roles in “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategies of the Common Octopus,” taking on the mantle of the perceived antagonist. The story is narrated by the collection’s titular sentient octopus, which encounters a human long after humanity had been supposed to have undergone extinction. Similarly, in “A Superordinate Set of Principles,” a living ship’s armor maintenance specialist is eyewitness to an encounter with humans—in this story the enemy although we don’t know why—in a sector of space where they shouldn’t be present. The tension in the story builds over whether this encounter will play out as every other exchange between the narrator’s society and humanity has, or whether the relationship will finally take a different path.
For a more intimate take on the idea of encounters forcing change, there’s “Shovelware,” in which two new neighbors attempt to find common ground. Slightly more harrowing is “This Secular Technology,” in which the religious studies of two women are interrupted by an attack that traps them in access tunnels. The idea that self-understanding changes due to trauma or sacrifice is central here as the girls find that bonding with aliens awakens pyrokinetic abilities key to their survival. This story also focuses on Kabalistic tradition, making one of several in the collection that builds on some aspect of Jewish life or tradition. In “Unifications,” for example, the main character senses something unusual about a passageway that was part of a Jewish ghetto with a dark legend and legacy. In “Three Partitions,” meanwhile, an orthodox Jewish colony on a far-off world faces extinction if they cannot accept necessary changes to the way they live and the way they understand gender.
Not every story focuses so squarely on social commentary. There are two science fiction sports stories in the volume: “For Your Optimal Hookboaring Experience” introduces us to a new outdoor extreme sport I’d love to know more about, while “Wind-Lashed Vehicles of Bone” gives us an interesting take on the invention of the bicycle. But even these stories focus on human emotion, on our ability to hope for the best in the most extreme circumstances and to work together to solve problems. At their core, that’s what all of these stories are about: finding our way through difficulties through mutual respect, a willingness to collaborate, and acceptance that different does not equal bad. Takács shows us the depth and breadth of humanity, sometimes through alien or fantastical cultures, and is not afraid to shy away from addressing aspects of contemporary society that need to change.