Rich and Strange

Rich and Strange: “Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg and “Bonsaiships of Venus” by Kate Heartfield

A new issue of Lackington’s magazine, edited by Ranylt Richildis, went up this week, book-ended by two searingly beautiful meditations on the relationship between aesthetics and utility. This week on Rich and Strange, I want to talk about Rose Lemberg’s “Stalemate” and Kate Heartfield’s “Bonsaiships of Venus,” both far-future science fiction stories told in awe-inducing language. They’re also two stories that fit together in a way that delighted me into much-needed catharsis after a hard week of reading very upsetting fiction.

This week in Full Disclosure: Ranylt Richildis and Rose Lemberg are good friends and have both published me in their respective zines in the past (Lemberg edits Stone Telling), and I’m friendlily acquainted with Kate Heartfield.

Before talking about how well these stories succeed in their own right, communicate with each other, and represent Lackington’s mandate and editorial hand, I want to quote Richildis on Lackington’s goal in supporting stylized prose (emphasis mine):

Stylized prose can be sparse and simple, diamond-cut like the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. It can be sumptuous like the writing of Oscar Wilde. It can be epic, archaic, experimental, mythic, rhythmic, and it can be quiet and subtle, too. Story and character are indispensable, but so is wordcraft. We trade in aesthetics, so make us gasp with unexpected words and give us inventive voices, structures, and narratives. Many editors reject heavily stylized prose out of hand. We welcome it.

That trade in aesthetics is at the narrative heart of both “Stalemate” and “Bonsaiships of Venus,” in literal and figurative ways. Both stories are difficult to discuss without reference to things that happen throughout the narratives, so consider this a spoiler warning; you may want to just stop here, read the stories, and come back.

In “Stalemate,” Lemberg imagines a war-plagued world where certain individuals become Boundless—functionally immortal—through no choice of their own: the nameless narrator tells us that “only geniuses become Boundless, only geniuses are punished for their competence with this unending pain.” The implication is that people who can be of service to the universe have Boundlessness conferred on them through mysterious means by other Boundless, without the recipients’ knowledge or consent. Within this world, two Boundless—our narrator and his dear friend Kabede—argue about how best to protect the people of Gebe from the horrors of war.

How they’d cursed the architect who slapped a utilitarian concrete rectangle in the middle of blown-glass dreams, but the Engineering school is the only one left standing….His friend is at the bottom level, pacing in front of a huge black surface covered densely with blueprints and reading-screen files. Their eyes lock—Kabede’s pupils dilate, and their gaunt dark face splits into a grin. They embrace fiercely, then push away from each other. Kabede speaks, their words disjointed in a way of dreams and scientists. I must take them away from this war, from all wars, I must hide them away in a world without riches, a world undesirable to conquerors, a world stripped of all decoration with only what’s necessary to survive, like the Engineering building survived… Help me, my friend. Help me.

He frowns back at Kabede. “You’d strip them of beautiful things just because other people would strip them of beautiful things?” It is, after all, what they are. The people of Gebe are artists, scientists, poets, craftsmen, yes, artisans, makers—it is because of this beauty that they are now hunted.

It’s a rich, dense story, replete with details indicating thorough, layered world-building. This, and the non-linear narration, make it a sometimes difficult, but very rewarding read; no sooner had I finished it than I went back to the beginning, to read it again by the light of what I’d learned about the characters.  The story opens with our narrator suffering memory loss, unable to remember his own name, but able to remember Kabede’s; over the course of the narrative we learn that Kabede and our narrator are both Boundless, both trying to act ethically in the world so far as they can reason. For our narrator this means rescuing Kabede, whom he loves, and seeking the society of the Boundless; for Kabede this means sacrificing themselves for the (dubious, undemocratically decided) good of the people of Gebe.

This is the kind of intricate, sophisticated fiction one writes academic essays about, placing it in conversation with a few centuries’ worth of philosophical inquiry and debate. Such an essay’s beyond both my knowledge and remit here—but suffice it to say that “Stalemate” is a balancing act, musing on responsibility and its limits, the role of art in society, and giving the ages-old argument between individualism and collectivism cosmic scope. There is no vilification of either in the story, which is refreshing: the stalemate of the title is genuine, earnest, and heartfelt throughout. There is, too, a helplessness and a sometimes crushing sorrow that I desperately wanted to see alleviated, but which the narrative—entirely fitting in so even-handed an examination of utility v. aesthetics—refused me. I wanted to see Kabede speak to the people they were so unilaterally protecting in such extreme and disruptive ways; I wanted to know what people thought, how they experienced those tumults of transition. There were glimpses of small-scale social interaction between the narrator and other engineers, a brilliant demonstration of what game-playing would look like in a society entirely stripped of ornament, and these were lovely—but they didn’t demonstrate the agency on behalf of the governed that I craved.

That craving was satisfied by reading Kate Heartfield’s story.

Where Lemberg’s story places aesthetics and utility in opposition, Heartfield’s story unites them: “Bonsaiships of Venus” opens with a quote declaring “The work of aesthetics is the aesthetics of work.” Where Lemberg’s story featured two powerful, loving characters on opposite sides of a chessboard, Heartfield’s features two small, loving characters who are each other’s alternates, Reuven and Makoto, both artists practicing a literally life-saving craft:

The catalyst coating on the airship’s skin kept the ship and its inhabitants alive. It also fed and constrained Makoto’s art.

He could never cease making his cuts, because the catalyst would never cease drawing carbon out of Venus’s atmosphere to grow it into layers of atom-thin honeycomb. The airship’s protective skin must renew itself; not even graphene could stand up to Venus forever. It was Makoto’s task, as ship’s artist, to draw small amounts of graphene off over the course of years, to create tears on the airship where new carbon atoms could find their places.

Makoto draws the graphene off the ship and into a representation of the ship. It’s a wonderful metaphor: art as something that makes holes through which light and life come in. It touches on the nature of catharsis—art as the means by which we slough off skins and selves in order to grow and renew ourselves. It’s immense—and the crux of Heartfield’s story is where failure, imperfection, and the nature of representation come into it. The fact that the story is punctuated with invented quotes from philosophers and artists musing on different facets of Makoto’s art lends the story further depth and texture, and the story’s loving acceptance and forgiveness of failure made me feel buoyed and warm and wanting to share it with every friend I know hitting their NaNoWriMo slump.

It brings my editing heart keen delight to appreciate how Richildis paired these stories: that an issue opening with an impasse should end with a resolution, and that a concluding story about art representing life to save it should feel like a Bonsaiship itself—the mirror image of the introductory story in which art is stripped from life in order to protect it.


Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. Her work has most recently appeared in Lightspeed magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, and in Uncanny. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter.

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