Lightspeed kicks off the year with a collection of stories that certain lean toward the dark. These are stories that brush against some large issues and human tendencies, and chief among everything the desire to love and be loved and how that desire can be twisted. How it can be used as a weapon and as a salvation. How it can transform us into better people or into monsters. These are stories that all recognize the human desire for love, for companionship and family, and show how difficult it can be to make connections in situations that seem hopeless, surrounded by people who seem hostile. The stories vary greatly in tone, from fairly horrifying to full of an aching longing, and each are interesting in their own ways. Which means, of course, that it's time to review!
|Art by Galen Dara
"The Whole Crew Hates Me" by Adam-Troy Castro (3500 words)
This is a rather interesting but dark piece about a long-term colonizing mission where the crew has to spend over ten years together in relative isolation. Where everyone has to work together and get along…except that one person, the main character, Morgan, is universally hated. [SPOILERS] And I like the way the story works, looking at how groups operate and how Morgan represents something that can unify the rest of the crew. It's something like Omelas, really, with the crew all happy and content so long as there's this one person to suffer. The story does a good job of examining Morgan's feelings about his persecution, and it's something of an interesting thought experiment, to wonder what kind of person would get selected to be hated. To be the one to suffer. And what that would do to them, because Morgan is someone who wants to be liked, who is desperate to be liked, and yet has been chosen to play this vital role in the mission. It's a bit difficult to read, really, because of just how terrible everyone is to Morgan, and it speaks to the terror not just of the situation but of the whole mission and organizations that condoned it. It shows a complexity when it comes to looking at who the victim is. Morgan, certainly, but the rest of the crew just as much, all of them being manipulated from afar. I don't really buy it as something that would work, as something that humans would really do, but I do like how the story challenges and provokes. It prompts the reader, or prompted me at least, to imagine how it would feel to be in Morgan's situation, how it would twist everything, how it would consume everything. A fascinating read!
"Nine Tenths of the Law" by Molly Tanzer (6640 words)
This story has a lot to do with marriage and trust. And alien possession. Because of course. It features Donna, a woman rather unsatisfied in her marriage to Jared, who works a demanding job that he never talks about. Who, it turns out, has been keeping a lot from Donna. Who has been lying to her for a long time. [SPOILERS] And then one of those lies, that he's agreed to participate in an alien mind-exchange, sort of announces itself when it turns out said alien hitching a ride in his mind can actually take control of Jared's body and leave him out of the equation. Which…isn't supposed to happen, but does in part because said alien really wants to experience sex with Donna. Which is where we get into the thorny parts of the story, where it grapples with some pretty heavy consent issues, because not only has Jared invited another party into their bed, but it turns out said partner can take over and ends up telling Donna many of Jared's secrets (as well as uses his body for sex). It turns the tables here, as Donna wants the sex with Jared's body but not really Jared, but that turning isn't without its own problems and really just compound the ways these characters have violated each other. Of course, the story is about that violation, about the uncomfortable web that these characters have weaved, everyone lying to each other, everyone hiding things. The title plays into that, suggesting something almost legal in nature, because the question does sort of become who's cheating on who? Who violated who? And the answer ends up being they've all violated one another. Which is an interesting choice, presenting no real innocent party, just a situation built like a house of cards that kinda comes crashing down, leaving everything a mess. It's a neat story, and nicely sensual, and certainly worth checking out!
"Seven Salt Tears" by Kat Howard (2480 words)
This is a story of oceans and storms, mothers and daughters. A story of Mara, a girl and then a young woman with a fascination for the sea. And more than a fascination, really. A pull toward. A…destiny of sorts. Certainly a legacy from her mother, who is revealed by the story as a strange, magical figure who knows the secrets of the storms and what seems like every story of the sea. And I love how the story feels, the flow of it, revealing Mara more and more from the stories she loved, from the grief she feels and the loneliness and always this pull outward. The story is about loss as much as it is about anything, about struggling against the tides. Mara's mother is caught in something as well, staying with Mara but part of something larger, older. Something that perhaps she hoped Mara could avoid but is never really revealed. The story is mysterious in this, vague but in a beautiful way. There is this reaching that persists throughout, with the storms and the ocean, with the methods for summoning and the songs that pull people to their doom. The stories that people make about the sea are often the stories that cover up the people who never come back from sailing those vast waters. There is a grief that embeds itself in those stories and a stubborn hope that Mara seems to reject. For her, the story is not complete with the mermaid becoming a person. Her mother says that some loves are transformative, but Mara seems to offer up an alternative, asking why a person has to leave the sea. Always the stories seem to be about leaving the sea for land but she seems to want the opposite, and in her yearning there is something strong and wrenching, an understanding that there is something sublime about the ocean, something bitter, yes, but still magical and alluring. It's a great story!
"The West Topeka Triangle" by Jeremiah Tolbert (8780 words)
This is an almost nostalgic story about growing up and about people disappearing and about a young boy named Jason dealing with poverty and a less-than-functional family situation and bullying and the unknown. The story unfolds at a time that many would point to as the golden days of modern America. Reagan's America. And for Jason, growing up at that time means mostly absent parents and a neighborhood and world that seems poised to swallow him up. He's not exactly popular, and as part of his social isolation he is obsessed with a theory that his town has a triangle like the Bermuda Triangle that explains a string of disappearances. And I like how the story builds this world, full of people who don't really fit in, on guard and defensive and sometimes violent but also wanting a place to belong. It's also a world that's full of danger, not just because people are disappearing though that comes to dominate the story, the mystery of what's happening. For Jason it's a diversion, a way to escape a stifling home life that seems to defy any attempt to change it. The triangle goes deeper than just disappearances, after all—it seems to reinforce itself, to blind people to it and erase any attempt to expose it. It's the things that people brush over and don't talk about, the inconvenient and uncomfortable truths that surround everything. And I like that this is a mystery the story really doesn't answer, that it only hints at. The story is moving and dense, Jason's journey one filled with doubt and an uncertain world. But also, ultimately, a freedom that is both terrifying and rewarding, a vulnerability that he never really knew before that comes from making connections, from caring about people. It's a weird but also haunting story that lingers for me, that remains like a weight on my chest. A great read!