Yoon Ha Lee’s “Wine”, published in Clarkesworld Magazine‘s January 2014 issue, takes us to a planet where the ruling elites elongate their lives by the consumption of a wine grown in a delightfully grisly way. Faced with brutal invasion, they make a deal to acquire an army.
“Noninterference, hell. I’ve had the scanners on it and they can’t even tell what our allies are. They come from nowhere and the corpses of their units degenerate with astonishing rapidity. There’s probably a paper in it for some scientist somewhere.”
Khy brought up more photos and videos. At first Ruharn didn’t recognize what he was seeing, too busy being distracted by fractal damage, stress marks, metal sheening red-orange in response to unhealthy radiations. Familiar shapes.
Except those weren’t the only familiar shapes. Burnt into the wreckage were symbols he remembered from his childhood. The depressions of board games he had played in the dirt, or score-tallies chalked onto walls, or warding-signs around which he and his friends had danced in circles, chanting rhymes to keep the Gardeners away.
General Loi Ruharn is no stranger to distasteful decisions, but the deal is more than he can ignore.
As a military SF story (from the perspective of military leaders far from the front), it’s solid: that Ruharn would be pushed to act is inevitable, but what he chooses to do is interesting. I’ll admit to an interest in ruthless generals.
It’s also notable for having a trans protagonist. Ruharn’s history is laid out clearly: he was born “girlform”, joined a military young to escape poverty and lived a man, rose through the ranks for his skill and survival, and attracted the attention of the Falcon Councilor because she had never taken a trans lover before. Becoming the Falcon Councilor’s lover gave him the power and possibility of personal security that he wanted. Fetishisation of trans people is unpleasant, but all too real. That it happens in “Wine” points to a culture a little more accepting than ours: one where Ruharn’s transition meets with no opposition, but he is fetishised by his Councilor and his voice is commented on by her and his sister. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m a big advocate for futures where transphobia (and homophobia, etc) no longer exists (because we certainly don’t get to enjoy that possibility in the present). I’m sympathetic to writing about trans people (and issues faced by being trans) while blowing up cities and spaceships. Ruharn’s history is relevant to the story, but not central: most important is the decision he makes about the deal. I liked that. I liked the story a lot more than I “hmm”d about its future, but I did “hmm”.
(If you’re in the market for more military SF, I’d like to point you to Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Battle of Candle Arc” and “Ghostweight”. My favourites of Yoon Ha Lee’s work.)