There are few enough themed publications left, but Lackington's continues to put out issues of stories linked to a central idea. This issue it is governments that is being looked at. Full disclosure: I have a story in this issue, which I will of course not be looking at but which you can check out if you wish. But the stories are, by and large, deconstructions of government, of ways of governing. They examine the abuses and excesses, yes—the violence and the corruption, certainly. But they also look for hope, for ways of governing better, for fighting against tyranny, and for seeking love in the midst of turmoil. So time to review!
|Art by Likhain|
"Wax Names" by Evelyn Deshane (2857 words)
This is a story about language as much as it's about government. A story about stories and the power of stories, where the main character is a woman in love with the queen of a country whose king has decided that no one gets to have a name. Where he has eaten all the stories and believes that means he controls everything. And in some ways it's a chilling story for that vision, for a world where identity is something withheld, something that is not a given. It gets at the narrative nature of human existence, the way that people's lives are essentially just stories that they tell. That we tell. And that by erasing the old stories you erase, or try to erase, so much more. I love the way the story fights against that, with love and with wax and with memory. Becoming the stories. It's an idea that's been played with before, but I like the way it's portrayed here, that stories are those things that grow in the absences. That in trying to tear away narratives you just open room for new ones. And that people never stop knowing how to tell stories. It's a story of yearning and patience, the characters forced into a slow dance, a way of being together and learning and teaching and preparing for a day when stories are free again. It's a lovely piece and a nice way to open the issue.
"The Problem with Thunderstorms" by Dennis Mombauer (1864 words)
This story looks at government through the lens of thunderstorms and, perhaps moreso, looks at fear and how it shapes people's decisions in times of crisis. The story follows Leros, a man caught underground during a thunderstorm who emerges to…an interesting situation. In some ways the story evokes a similar feel to The Wizard of Oz, with Leros coming up into a realm of relative chaos and confusion. He's suddenly pushed into power and people want to know what to do. They want to know and want Leros to be some sort of authority so that they can be safe, so that there can be a way to be safe, to have guaranteed safety, and Laros slowly discovers that there are things that can be fought again and there are…things that can't really be stopped. I love how the story uses the thunderstorm to act as this great crisis, something that is more mundane but still frightening, something that might do random damage. That can't really be destroyed or prevented. Laros is an average man and, as the story makes him, a politician, who people look to for things he just can't deliver. Meanwhile around him corruption looms and the thunderstorms near and it all goes a bit pear shaped, to be honest. And it's a story with a fun aesthetic and weird feel, funny and subversive and nicely done!
"Tiny Guns" by Steven Earnshaw (2714 words)
To me this story speaks to the place of children and young people in politics. In government. In a situation where no one wants to listen to them, where everyone is patronizing and talking about what gets left to the next generation but never thinks to ask how that generation would like to live. Here A boy is a dog friend and a man, a stranger, comes in to declare the dogs a problem and desires them to die. The boy doesn't want this, comes up with ways for those who don't like the dogs to do something, but it doesn't actually kill the dogs. But despite this bloodless solution, despite the fact that those in power use children as an excuse, no one thinks to include young people in the conversation. It's a strange but very moving story about the powerlessness of youth and the way that people betray the young. [SPOILERS] I personally love when the young people say that they aren't idealists, they are realists, because it speaks to how fucking pessimistic and opportunistic pretty much all people involved in government are. They are running a system that kills and hates because they believe that's the only way, because they value their own comfort that highly, when young people are offering labor and solutions that those in power reject simply because they don't believe it will work. But those young people, without power, become accessories to the horror, become part of it and unable to separate themselves from that cycle. It's an unsettling story with hints of ridiculousness but, I feel, a solid core of belief that there are things a government shouldn't do, and that sometimes people should listen to the young and give them a chance to solve their own problems. Another fine read!
"On the Occasion of the Treaty of the Thousand Rivers, A Visit to the Gallery" by Wren Wallis (1787 words)
This story is told as a one-sided conversation between two sides of a conflict brought together for a chance at peace. At least, that is the feeling I get from it, the narrator the host of a foreign leader, showing them around a gallery of wonders, riches and ornaments from a great number of lands and peoples. All of them delicately wrought and impressive in their value, but valuable most of all for their stories. And that's where this story shines, in showing how, in the quest for peace, it's not often riches or soldiers that decide the day. It's the stories people tell. The narratives that shape how people perceive the world and how they relate to it. The narrator goes on about the different wonders of their collection, but it's not just to impress the general with their wealth. Instead, it is to try and find some common ground, some common framework, through stories. Through the story of a zhinn in an urn, which might remind them both to be careful with greed and with violence and even with peace. That things aren't as easy as wishing them to be and that everything is a process, that peace is a process, that can't be rushed and can't be forced but which must be worked at and reached for. I love the voice of the story and the sense of such a collection, with its magic and its strangeness and its possibilities. There's such a visual flare here that's accomplished by the framing, by having the narrator talk about each piece, so that the reader is pulled along, subtly brought further and further toward the point the narrator wants to make, about negotiations and about stories. A great read!
"The Transfigured Knight" by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (3851 words)
This story speaks to me of warriors and war, soldiers and peace. About crafting people and especially men into weapons, into swords, and then, when the immediate campaign is over, when the war is won or lost, sheathing them. The action follows a knight responsible for some terrible things during the war, both the violence that was his job and the violence that went along with it. In becoming a weapon he embraced that mentality, lost something, and as the story opens he has won only to find that he cannot strip away his armor. It's a complex look at the damage that war does to people, the depths that it sinks and the ways in which a person conditioned to think like a weapon is in a difficult place to try and recover, or even to atone for what they've done. The story is also, at times, difficult to read, showing the knight's regard for rape and killing, his need to be pulled free of his armor. In peace, there is no peace for him, and the armor makes him incapable of moving on, incapable of much of anything. He's a walking reminder of war, to those around him and to himself. He's helped along by a new squire, one who might represent an effort to reform, an effort to chance. Like a therapist trying to help a former solider, the squire tries to allow healing to begin. [SPOILERS] But when war looms again, the knight has a decision to make. To try and stay in peace, with the same problems of being cocooned, sheathed, or to embrace the conflict and the violence and the war. To strip away the cage of the armor and to join in the carnage freely. It's not the most optimistic of pieces but I don't think it's saying that the knight is inherently bad. Instead, I think the story makes the case that the war, that the violence and misogyny and loyalty and pride and everything about the war serve to shape the knight, to push them down the path to being a better weapon. Which is not the path to being a better person. And I think the story does a nice job of examining that clearly and earnestly. It's an uncomfortable read, but one worth having I think. So go check it out.
"The Automatic Prime Ministers" by Kate Heartfield (4602 words)
Aww. This is a great story about politics and information and closed systems. About two women, heads of state, having to make a very difficult situation concerning the fate of interstellar refugees. The setting for the story is compelling, a world torn apart by climate change and barely holding itself together, the last democracy's falling back on computer models to govern, to decide the best courses of action, to try and lessen the effects of corruption and influence. It's a great idea and one that is brilliantly complicated here, where each modeling program is limited to the country it's based in, with outcomes decided based on known variables for what will be best for that country. Which means that, in the case of the refugees, who seem to be hunted and seeking asylum, every nation's models show the best option is to blow them from the sky and pretend they were never there. Because the variables for cooperation are too complex, cannot be known. The alien language is difficult and the nature of the pursuers unknown. And I love that here the decision comes down to who gets a consideration in these times. When it comes to a democracy, what obligation do people have to people outside the system? And I love where the story goes with that, showing how in the face of models and projection, individual valor means little. By design, to lessen the influences of corruption. But there is more than corruption to fear in government. There is ignorance and hate and fear and violence. There is making the call to kill refugees rather than help them just because the outcome of helping them is unknown. It's possible that the benefits will vastly outweigh the costs. And I love that the story leaves room for hope and change, acknowledges that even trying to take human fallibility out of the equation isn't enough to govern properly. A great way to close out a great issue!