Thursday, June 8, 2017

Quick Sips - Lightspeed #85

It’s June at Lightspeed Magazine which I guess means science fiction that shows just how dangerous capitalism and technology can be and fantasy that shows the ups and downs of trying to steer a clear course in dealing with people. These are stories that show people either at the losing end of bad deals or seeing their careful plans fall apart. These are not wholly hopeless stories, though, and many of the pieces show that even though chaos seems inevitable, that preventing harm is in some ways impossible, there is still work to be done, and lessons to be learned, and a hope of healing and maybe, in time, improvement. So yeah, let’s get to those reviews!

Art by Randy Gallegos

“Marcel Proust, Incorporated” by Scott Dalrymple (4130 words)

This is a fascinating story about education and about capitalism and about people being treated like property. This is a rather deeply dystopic story that follows a journalist in education who is brought into a story that is...well, rather huge. The story slowly reveals the scope of a project to make memory, to make education, property. And not just property, but property that doesn’t really belong to the person in whose mind the knowledge of education resides. Instead, this future world imagines what it would be like if there was a drug that would allow corporations and institutions to keep people in debt indefinitely with the looming threat that if people fail to pay, their memories will literally disappear, essentially repossessing the education that they can’t afford to pay for. And fuck this wouldn’t be such a shocking idea if it was something that didn’t seem almost likely. The story examines the way that education has become about money and how it’s being treated as a way to get banks money instead of a way to benefit everyone. Education used to be considered a right. A responsibility of the government to provide to create an intelligent and effective citizenry. Now? Well, with the burgeoning business of privatized public education and the huge increased cost of college, it’s becoming something completely different. Because once the housing market had its scare, a new exploitable arena needed to be created. Enter student loans. It’s already a travesty and the story follows where it could go if technology kept up with the ambitions of banks and corporations. It’s a deeply unsettling piece that shows just how far and how bad things could go, and how in need we are of protections now more than ever to value human beings above profits and banks. Because yeah, fuck, it’s a good read!

“Love Engine Optimization” by Matthew Kressel (5300 words)

This story takes a rather creepy and popular idea—of someone manipulating stolen personal information to appear to be a “perfect” match in order to seduce a woman—and adds a few twists and turns. The story leans on the fact that we are incredibly connected to the internet, to our social media outlets, and with the proliferation of tech we are basically always being recorded, always on camera. From this is has Sam, the main character, trying to get in nice with Jane, the target of love-conquest. The story does a nice job of showing just how frightening tech can be, allowing Sam to have access to Jane’s heart rate and pupil dilation, to her confessions and her interests and all the things that are online but that Jane believes no one is actively paying attention to. But there’s a bit more going on here, and there is a twist that comes part-way into the story that complicates things a bit. [SPOILERS] Namely, the twist is that Sam is a woman. Which is definitely breaking with tradition, because every story I’ve read like this before has been about a man stalking a woman. The story seems to ask what the revelation of Sam being a woman does to our relationship to the story. Are we suddenly relieved? Is that one thing enough to make this story not creepy but...romantic? Which is a fucked up thing to ask because it’s really, really creepy and really, really wrong to try and manipulate someone into thinking stalking could be romantic. But I do think that it makes the story more complicated, because it forces the reader to confront the various power dynamics at work here. I’m still on the side of Sam is a terrible, abusive person, fwiw. But it’s an interesting piece because it recognizes that stalking and abuse and gaslighting are not just the province of men. It’s not exactly the kind of story I’m normally a big fan of, but I do think it’s an interesting piece that moves well and does a nice job of getting into the creepiness of what’s going on. At the very least, I think that it complicates a few tropes that could certainly do to be challenged. Indeed.

“World of the Three” by Shweta Narayan (9340 words)

This story features a series of nested stories, and I love how the pieces all fit together, each layer bringing the reader further and further into this mythic past where mechanical being live alongside Alabar, who might also be called humans. The original frame is a mechanical bird giving a lesson to her three new children about her first child and their experiences among the Alabar. It’s not exactly a happy story, though it is filled with adventures and misadventures, helpful Alabar and treacherous ones. That story is interrupted at turns by the children, who argue and fight and move around. The story that the bird tells their children is a lesson of sorts, and it unfolds a lot like that, with pauses to ponder the various take-aways, and I love that each time the lesson is always different to the different children, changes based on their own leanings and their own answers to the questions that are put to them. It builds this vision that this world is somewhat what these children will make of it. If they take away that trust of the Alabar is impossible, or that they need to be handled with violence, then that’s the world that they can create. There isn’t really a right and wrong here so much as the stories ask how the children want to live. The story of this first child, the eldest sibling of these children, is about betrayal and hope and disappointment. It’s about the distrust that people have for the mechanicals, and how that turns to hate, and how that turns to violence. And that cycle is too much for some people. But it doesn’t mean that hope is impossible. Nor does it mean that the mechanicals are always the ones that have to forgive and forgive. They are often victims, and I like how the story makes room for them to be agents of justice and teachers themselves, trying to show the Alabar that the world is also how they will shape it. If dominated by violence, then okay. But that the Alabar will have to live with that. It’s a vivid and wonderful bit of magic and world-building and the characters are complex and fun. And while it’s not without a stain of darkness and pain, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece that you should definitely check out!

“Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy (4180 words)

This story speaks to me of bargains and loss and chaos. It features a woman whose father has died and who has to sort through his strange and varied estate. At the same time, it’s a story about her maybe-sorta helping the devil do some mischief, and trying to help undo some of that. It’s a bit of a weird contemporary fantasy story where the speculative elements are ones that “could maybe” be explained away, but as that never bothers me I do appreciate the way it moves, the way that it sets up this picture of the world that is only slightly off, where chaos and order seem to be more palpable forces in the world. And the main character doesn’t really know where to stand. But she does know that she has her work cut out when it comes to sorting all her father’s stuff. Luckily there’s a helpful witch willing to work in exchange for some fertility idols. I like the strangeness of the piece and how the main character approaches it all, as an almost passive force, lost and a little worried but being able to act as a sort of balance between chaos and order. I like how the story sets this struggle up with this devil on the one side and this witch and cop on the other, where chaos is embodied by death and order by trades. It’s interesting to me because devils are typically creatures of bargains, and in many ways the story shows how close order and chaos come to each other, how what is important isn’t about fighting against chaos but rather seeking to find a harmony, a way forward, where as many people are served as possible. The prose and tone are both fairly light and fun, the main character a bit put off by all that’s happening around her but still wanting to do good. Or maybe just wanting to be left alone. Whatever the case, it’s a piece about deals and about grief, about making a bargain with the universe in hopes of feeling right about what has happened, even if it’s not really reflected in the greater battle of chaos and order, good and evil. And it’s a great read!


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