Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Quick Sips - Lightspeed #98

It’s a rather dark collection of SFF stories in this July’s Lightspeed Magazine, with four short stories that flit between exploitation, extinction, war, and guilt. In most of the stories there’s a focus on a relationship amidst the harsh realities of the world (or possible worlds). In most, a character must face the pain of being at the mercy of others—being considered not a full person, or judged guilty be virtue of species, or conscripted into a war full of horrors. They must navigate the pain and death around them and try to find a way toward something better. Whether or not they succeed depends on the character and the story, but each is an interesting exploration of people stuck in awful circumstances. To the reviews!

Art by Saleha Chowdhury

“Waterbirds” by G. V. Anderson (5920 words)

No Spoilers: Celia is a MxMill companion, an artificial person living in service to her employer, Mrs. Lawson. For twenty years the two have rented a summer cottage in a small village where they can watch the birds and find a bit of peace, but now Mrs. Lawson has disappeared and Celia has some explaining to do with a constable that she has some history with. The piece flows beautifully between Celia’s present and her past, building up all the years that she’s spent in this place, and all the people she’s met. Especially Irene, a painter who lives just nearby. The story is pastoral and yet contains a fair amount of darkness as it explores what it means to be artificial, to have programming that makes consent in so many ways next to impossible. And yet even with that, the focus of the piece seems to be on connections, and love, and what that means. And it’s a beautiful and moving story about living, regardless of age or circumstance.
Keywords: AI, Contracts, Police, CW- Rape, Painting, Birds, Queer MC
Review: This story takes such a complex look at consent when it intersects with robotic AI and especially those who have been programmed in certain ways. Celia is someone who is required by how she was built to be accommodating. Which means putting the wants of others ahead of her own. Which means putting what she thinks are the wants of others over her own autonomy and self. For most of her life that means she’s been used for sex, without ever feeling anything from it, because she is forced to please. And more insidiously, is forced to _want_ to please. And in this very twisted web it then becomes a question of how can she make genuine connections? How can she love? And yet she finds a way, through honesty and through patience. The story unfolds over twenty years, and that’s how long it takes for her to finally want to do something for herself, and even then it takes someone else making her do it for her to finally break through everything and take that risk. Over the history of abuse that she has faced. Over her own doubts and the limitations of her code. It’s a freeing, wonderful story, and you should definitely go out and read it!

“Greetings, Humanity! Welcome To Your Choice of Species!” by Adam-Troy Castro (2550 words)

No Spoilers: A telepathic multiple choice question is sent out to all humans, who have been judged as lacking by an organization set to, well, judge the worthiness of species to exist. Destruction is not the sentence, though, or at least not exactly. Instead, humans will be given the choice of what other species they want to become. The options are somewhat limited, as humanity’s reputation has gotten around. The piece uses a humorous tone and collection of ridiculous options to show that often, choice isn’t free if all the outcomes are bad. It also seems to imply, though, that this is just what humanity deserves, as even the best of us are just awful.
Keywords: Judgment, Extinction, Transformation, Choice, Telepathy
Review: I’ve noticed a trend recently of “destroy all humans” being explored via SFF. This story certainly falls into that category, seeing as how even though no human will immediately die from the transformation, humanity as a group will cease to exist. And the story does collect a nice amount of funny and fitting species that could welcome the judgment refugees that humans have become. And it’s an interesting power fantasy to sort through, because it imagines a lot of things. And it’s an interesting punishment, to be sure. I just... Okay, so my general problem with the premise, and with most of the “destroy all humans” style stories is that they tend to rest on there being an organization or thing with so much power that it can do this, can actually transform all humans. But instead of suddenly ending the oppressive systems that are allowing corruption and exploitation to flourish and, for instance, making it so that no one is hungry and everyone has a place to live, the answer is always punishment. Humans did bad things and must be punished. Which implies that all humans deserve to be punished and that punishment, even if it ends in death, is somehow good or just. And I’m just not into that. The story has some fun moments, and I too would never trust a dolphin, but I’m going to let people make up their own minds about this one, as I think I am biased against the premise.

“A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon (6000 words)

No Spoilers: Oz was a young homeless boy until he was conscripted into the Sultan’s army to serve the Ottoman Empire in a war against the Russians in Crimea. And while that might sound historically familiar, it’s been given a speculative update with the help of steamships and monkeys that can been trained to attack on the command of music. Oz is the assistant to the ogan grinder, a man whose role is as much magic and performance as science, and together they go into battle aboard a steamship at the head of a host of trained furry terrors. The piece takes what might have been an almost silly premise and makes it terrifying as fuck, reminding you that monkeys are not to be trifled with and that war brings out some truly horrible things. Amidst that, it’s a story about growing up and about homes, about war and violence and loss and belief.
Keywords: War, Steampunk, Monkeys, Music, Historical
Review: Okay so I’m both delighted and terrified by monkeys. And this story does an excellent job of showing just why that it, revealing a war that is reaching toward a full immersion of science. By that I mean that here is the beginning of taking science as more than just a “how to make things blow up or kill people” way and turn it into “how to use ALL science, be it psychology, electricity, propulsion, etc. in order to turn a state into a vast war machine.” That means conscripting all of the homeless in the cities and using them, as well, not just as soldiers but in parts of the larger engine of war churning out death and destruction. This is the start of the turn that almost surprises people in how inventively people can kill each other and transform the very landscape in a way that lasts long after the blood has dried and faded. And for Oz, and the forefront of that, he can’t help but be effected. To have to see that and live with it, cannot help but be changed. Altered. Truly made into this weapon, this monster. For him, it’s a place where the war becomes his home, in all the worst ways. And it’s much to the credit of the story and it’s writing that there’s something beautiful about it, even as it’s just devastating. Even as it’s a loss of all that he might have been. He’s found belonging and purpose in this conflict, in this role that will kill him if he doesn’t embrace all that it means, and even then will probably kill him anyway. It’s a tightly-paced, action packed story about the horrors of war, and momentum of destruction. A fantastic read!

“Wild Bill’s Last Stand” by Kyle Muntz (2740 words)

No Spoilers: An unnamed “pretty boy” chronicles the last stand of Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams, a duelist. The setting mixes Wild West aesthetics with both an alien landscape and swords instead of six-shooters. The main character seems to be a sex worker employed at the local inn/hotel where Wild Bill is staying, and ends up sleeping with the duelist each night. The plot focuses on Wild Bill’s encounter with another duelist, Wyatt Yarbury “Pink Lightning” Elton McHugh. As men the two are similar and yet very different. What binds them is that they have been brought out into this wild country, where the Burning Men walk and punish those that need punishing. What separates them is how open they are with themselves—how much they engage with their own guilt. The two fight, and the result is both quiet and visceral. It’s a story of endings, and speaking, and silence.
Keywords: Queer MC, Duels, Swords, Guilt, Sex
Review: I love the mood of this story, which takes on a Western feel but with touches of something much different, a mix of genres and ideas. Of those, the Burning Men are probably the most striking, huge creatures that move through this world, mysterious and capable of judging people, of punishing them. The story is told from the point of view of a man who sees in them an eerie but pulling beauty, who is drawn to this land like so many, like Wild Bill. And yet Wild Bill’s journey is marked by death, by a more direct ride toward death. The story seems to imply to me that Bill wants death, wants to be punished for what he might have done back in “proper” civilization, and only out here can he have some measure of freedom, and some expectation of justice. He contrasts nicely with McHugh, who is almost philosophical in his killing where Bill is grim and silent. Bill is looking for something out in the wilds, and I think that it’s peace. Which is something he can’t reach without first facing what he’s done and who he is, which is what McHugh seems to have done, to reached the other side of. Which does give McHugh a kind of peace, even as it doesn’t release him from either the weight of what he’s done or the knowledge that his punishment will come as well. So it’s a bit of a haunting story, especially because the narrator, for all he narrates, doesn’t speak. It’s an interesting choice and makes his presence more ethereal, stranger. But it’s a lovely and moving story!


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