Friday, January 5, 2018

Quick Sips - Lightspeed #92

It’s officially 2018! Yes, I know that might be a little late, technically, but I’m kicking off the year with a look at Lightspeed Magazine, with four stories that explore, well, exploration. That look at place and the roles that people play. In most, these roles are pushed onto characters against their wills. Expectations or absences that the characters struggle to make sense of, even as they also have to find ways to stay true to themselves. It’s also something of a strange month of stories, with sentient cities, post-disaster flood plains, a plethora of reincarnated memories, and a magic word that solves problems, as long as they’re the right problems. I’m changing my reviewing format up a bit, too, so my apologies on any adjustment oddness. Please bear with me and let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Alan Bao

“The Streets of Babel” by Adam-Troy Castro (6700 words)

No spoilers: A man is hunted by a city and experiences a very strange couple of months. The piece seems to explore automation and meaning of work and life in a setting where freedom is illusory at best. Weird science fiction(-ish).
Keywords: sentient city, automation, CW-forced mating, employment
Review: I feel in some ways like this story is familiar to me, in that it reminds of stories about industrialization and the rise of computers. For me, the main character’s being hunted by the city, being taken by it and used by it, seems to strike at fears about being divorced from the real meaning of labor. He works in a cubicle doing things he doesn’t understand for no perceivable reason, and yet is made to do it all day and if he doesn’t he’s made an example of by the city, made homeless so that people can see him and feel more like doing the tasks they are assigned. And I think that the story does an interesting job with approaching how labor is becoming more and more of what people do with their lives, everything bending to the pursuit of money for the betterment of other people, the worker themself really just exploited to a slow death. It captures for me an older style of sci fi, one that was freer with the use of this kind of extended metaphor, and one that was much more fixated on certain things like breeding, which is where much of my hesitation about the story comes from, because...well, because for me there were a great many very uncomfortable moments that...that I just wanted to know why. The story acts as a sort of tour through this totalitarian city, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of direction or hope, which perhaps puts this more in the cautionary sci fi tale category, but I just had some issues with some of the choices the story made. I certainly recommend people check this one out for themselves to see how it might strike them.

“The Eyes of the Flood” by Susan Jane Bigelow (1830 words)

No spoilers: A person navigates a long-ruined world in a canoe as the flood season brings new opportunities and experiences. Isolation and change are front and center, as are distrust and healing. The effect is slightly chilling, but also intriguing and lovely.
Keywords: post apocalypse, mutation, isolation, water
Review: There is a stark beauty to this piece, in the way that the landscape is described, in the mystery that the setting reveals. Questions of what happened are put aside in favor of focusing on the main character and their movement through this world, the way that they explore, looking for something that they might not recognize, moving to move but also perhaps unconsciously hoping to find something specific. I like the way that it builds the elements, making the main character seem at first impression wholly human before complicating that. I like the feel of this world, as one that humanity no longer has sway over, if humanity exists at all any more. The true nature of the main character, as well as the world, as well as the larger setting (the stars, the implication that there are Big Things changing), are not really revealed, but that’s part of what gives the story such a weight and momentum, because we find in the main character someone who seems most interested in enduring. In surviving. But the more the story goes on I feel the more they feel the lack of something more. Of some other reason to exist. The more, really, they feel the desire to be doing something, to be with people, to be part of something again and not entirely cut off. And I like how slow and subtle that grows, the fear mingling with something else, with excitement and anticipation. With hope. A hope that life can truly go on after everything and a hope that despite what has been lost, there’s still a path forward. It’s a short but elegant story that you all should definitely check it out!

“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (7540 words)

No spoilers: A young person, Jamie, who remembers many of their previous lives has a huge piece of unfinished business move in literally next door and realizes that an injustice has been let to fester for far too long. The story does a lot to center being open and not hiding, as the main character is non-binary and finding their way through a world that is often hostile while still holding to their convictions.
Keywords: reincarnation, non-binary MC, justice, light romance
Review: There’s a lot I like in this story, especially the ways that Jamie seeks to be themself and get over their fears about presenting, about maybe thinking about a romantic relationship with their friend, about dealing directly with the injustices from their past. There’s a strong theme in the piece about change and the weight of the past. Jamie’s weight comes not just from the lives that they’ve lived and remembered, but from the perceptions other people carry around with them because of how they first met them. To many, Jamie will never be anything else than what they first thought, and Jamie has to face what that means and how that might effect their live. At the same time, there are a few instances where the descriptions of Jamie’s gender were just a bit uncomfortable. There’s the implication that being non-binary has something to do with them remembering their past lives, and tying their gender to a “reason” and especially a speculative element like that can be a bit fraught. The story also features some discussion on hiding versus being out and...that’s something I have some conflicted feelings about personally so it made that aspect of the story somewhat difficult for me. But I do think that the story does a good job with Jamie and the plot is rather interesting, a mystery that Jamie has stumbled across and even solved, and the question becomes whether to just let it be or dig up the past. In some ways this is a “nothing is done if it isn’t done right” story that for me works quite well. The character work is solid and the prose runs smoothly with a resilient voice and fine pacing. It’s a great read!

“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (3160 words)

No spoilers: The story follows a young boy who is brought into a system because he wants to learn magic. The piece is at turns brutal and tender, showing him age into a role he doesn’t fully understand, and what it costs him.
Keywords: illusion, magic, sacrifice, loss
Review: It’s rather chilling how the story follows the main character, a boy who isn’t cruel but who has a burning desire to know how things work. And, driven by this desire to know how, finds himself pulled into a game that he doesn’t know the rules of, where he agrees because he hopes to learn them well enough to win and doesn’t see until it’s far too late that the rules are something of a cheat, and the how might not be as important as the why. And that’s a lot of what I love about the story, that it shows what even a not-cruel person will do and be apart of when they let the how become the only thing they think about. That curiosity that pushes him forward is a vital tool for progress, and yet it’s also a tool for a lot of tragedy, pain, and loss. It’s almost shocking how much I as a reader wanted to root for this character, to see him as a victim, because in many ways he is the victim, and the story does an amazing job of gaze. It keeps the entire focus on this character, and doesn’t look elsewhere. We get to see what he loses every time he uses his power, and in seeing that he becomes a tragic figure. Only we’re not really seeing the true tragedy, which has much more to do with what he’s using his power for. The problems that he solves and has to pay for are huge, and though he’s curious about what his power is doing, he doesn’t examine it. He could be killing hundreds, thousands, or millions of people, and he doesn’t care, doesn’t stop. Because he wants to understand what’s happening. And it’s like watching a train wreck. He can’t pull himself away and I as a reader can’t look away, until all that is left are the unanswered questions, which really weren’t all that important. It’s not “how does it work?” that haunts me, at least. It’s “what has he done?” And I feel the story does a great job of being about mysteries and the different ways people can approach them, and how dangerous it is to pursue only some answers while ignoring other pressing questions. But yeah, it’s an excellent story!


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