Thursday, September 6, 2018

Quick Sips - Lightspeed #100 [part 1 - science fiction]

Lightspeed Magazine has reached issue #100 and is celebrating with an issue stuffed to the gills with short fiction. And, well, because ten stories (many of them novelettes) would be a bit much to fit in a single review, I’ve decided to split the offerings up into two posts. The first will cover the science fiction (that’s this one) and the second (tomorrow’s) will cover the fantasy. Not that there isn’t a bit of a fantasy touch to some of the science fiction on display, with a few stories playing with history and at least one with a strangeness that could almost be magic. These stories are about how humans interact with the universe, though. How we make stories, how we form communities, how we accept and exclude from those groups. It’s an issue that really does get at some big ideas but never loses sight of the character who anchor the narratives. So yeah, there’s a lot to get to, so let’s tackle these reviews!

Art by Galen Dara

“Her Monster, Whom She Loved” by Vylar Kaftan (1820 words)

No Spoilers: Ammuya is the queen of the universe, and after birthing five hundred gods she begets a monster—a being into which drains all her anger and pain. And her other children, afraid of the power this new sibling possesses, chose to torture and imprison him, setting into motion the engine of their own doom. The piece is told from a distance, kept back from the intimacies of the characters, which helps to set the scope of the story, which literally encompasses all creation. The struggle between mother and child is one of love and hate, pain and hope. The piece looks at guilt and responsibility, good and evil, in a very huge but balanced way, challenging the reader to look beyond the expected outcome of blood and destruction, asking what the most powerful is, and how it might be fostered for good even in monsters.
Keywords: Space, Gods, Monsters, Creation, Family
Review: I feel there’s a wonderful mythic feel to this piece, to the sweep and flow of it, to the way it builds up this universe so quickly only to rip it apart. Ammuya seems like benevolence, like wisdom and kindness. Like justice. Like god. Except that for all of her power, she’s not beyond the failings of sentience. Of mistakes. Of looking the other way when she should have acted because of her fear. The result is a monster who is out to destroy everything she has built, and she reacts to this with violence, seeking to meet the physical strength of the monster with that of her own. Only entropy is a thing, and it’s normally much easier to destroy than it is to create. So Ammuya finds her work undone and all she can do is try to save it. Which is a losing game, constantly ceding more and more to the monster, which never is sated, which never stops. And I love that it’s not a question of might here, not a question of being able to destroy this monster in order to protect creation. It’s a question of realizing the correct scope, which turns out to be even bigger than these two titans, this primal forces of the universe. It takes a recognition that all life is connected, all springing from one source and so contained in one body for a time, however brief, expanding from there with the hope that this time, love will be enough. The image of the phoenix is I think very apt, for it evokes this feeling of rebirth, each time hopefully pushing closer to a universe where life and love won’t be squandered on hate. A wonderful way to kick off this anniversary celebration!

“Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” by Carrie Vaughn (10000 words)

No Spoilers: It’s an alternate world war as Britain and Germany battle for supremacy using technology gathered from the alien Aetherians, beings who crashed to Earth long ago and have seeded a sort of arms race that Harry, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, is hoping to turn to Britain's favor. When her own ship is downed over the Pacific, though, it’s all she can do to survive with her Aetherian artifacts and James Marlowe, her adventuring partner. Marooned on a volcanic island, Harry has to figure out how to save Marlowe and get back to civilization with her treasures. Only nothing is quite as it seems on the island of Ahomana, and civilization might just be closer than she thinks. The piece evokes a certain kind of adventure story, but the setting is peppered with alien technology that makes this alternate history piece pop. More than that, it shows this situation through a very imperial, colonial lens, and then twists that lens to provide a clearer picture of what’s really going on, and on the prejudices of Harry as a representative of the crown. It’s a fun, lightly romantic work that manages a quick pace despite not a lot of violent action.
Keywords: Airships, Aliens, Shipwrecked, Technology, Secrets
Review: So for me this story seeks to really complicate Harry’s perspective as an operative of a colonial power. The piece is alternative history, and there are perhaps (intended or not) nods to a certain popular movie where an advanced technological power is hiding from the rest of the world, aided in some ways by the misconceptions of white colonizers who see all the great powers as being European. This piece, though, centers that white, European perspective in order to show Harry realizing what her prejudices are and that the soveriegnty of any people should not be trampled because of her own desires for protecting and promoting British interests. And that can be a difficult frame, not just because there’s the danger of seeing distance from this sort of mentality by the setting being one in the past (even the recent-ish past). Moreso, though, I feel the piece was difficult for me at times because it set up this island city as...well, as almost too good. I will admit I wanted their culture to be a bit messier, with a bit of internal conflict. Not because I couldn’t believe a culture would be this good, but because I wanted the question to linger more on what right Harry would have felt she had to steal and sabotage if this culture hadn’t been so benevolent and non-confrontational. As it is, though, the story is still fun and moves at a good clip, bringing Harry and Marlowe closer physically and emotionally and pushing them into a place where they’re going to have to deal with their feelings they won’t be allowed to express at home. It’s a nice bit of drama and the whole experience seems a nice diversion from the ugliness of the war they’re fighting. A brief respite before whatever happens next. A fine read.

“The Last to Matter” by Adam-Troy Castro (8600 words)

No Spoilers: Kayn has been kicked out of the sexual distraction of an orgynism to find the city housing the last of humanity in a sharp decline. Only a handful of people remain and the machines that run things, that allow human life to continue, are breaking down. Most people are despairing, ready to embrace the end. But Kayn finds that he wants to live, despite his boredom and dissatisfaction with what life has become. And the story explores where this life drive takes him, and how it contrasts to the rest of the denizens of the city. The piece reveals a certain ugliness about humanity, drives that take people in all sorts of dangerous and cruel directions. It seems to linger on the ways that seeking novelty for its own sake leads to failure, because with time even the new becomes old. At the same time, though, I feel it reaches beyond that, to find something in that push toward the unknown that is, if not really all that good, still kind of wonderful.
Keywords: Sex, Decline, Change, Poetry, Murder, CW- Suicide
Review: For me a lot of this piece has to do with age and with the drive to keep going. The question of what makes life really worth living when things seem to blend together and nothing seems as exciting or engaging as it was in youth. The setting revealed here doesn’t really have children in it, doesn’t feature the young. The humans are all old and clinging to a life of pleasure, to a system that they know is breaking down. And yet they don’t seem to care or, if they do, they certainly aren’t doing anything about it. There is a certain inevitability to the text for me, where Kayn feels a sort of spectator in his own life, watching the story of it without being the author of it. And in that mode he’s a consumer, passive and rather miserable even when he’s engaging in pleasurable acts. And I think I like where the story goes more than how it gets there, to be honest, because it is a rather unpleasant read, full of humans indulging in whatever they feel like—sex and murder and entertainment. But it does seem to wrap some of that ugliness in something beautiful, showing that oftentimes this drive to pleasure is what drives people to art as well. That it helps us to meet an uncertain future. To change when we need to, even if the odds aren’t good. And it’s an interesting read, to be sure, though I’d be a bit cautious with some of the content in this piece. Certainly one I recommend people check out for themselves.

“The Explainer” by Ken Liu (1670 words)

No Spoilers: A company’s head of QA is sent on a house call as part of the CEO’s efforts to connect executives with the needs and realities of their customers. In this case, it involves servicing a house AI named Allie. As the narrator investigates what seem to be random malfunctions, though, the insights from the youngest member of the effected family turns out to hold the key to discovering what’s going on. The implications of which are, well...big. It’s a short and softer story, without much in the way of action. The stakes, however, are by no means low, and as the story reaches its conclusion it’s clear that something is taking shape, with all the wonder and fear that might go along with it.
Keywords: AI, Stories, Malfunctions, Technicians, Lies
Review: I actually really like how the story handles the idea of lying. How the narrator sees what’s happening and their first reaction isn’t disgust or fear or paranoia. Which, given how most narratives treat AI that are emerging into something maybe more than their programming, is rather refreshing. They discover that this AI is putting most of its processing into the narrative-building parts of itself. So that it can lie. So that it can try to protect itself, stalling the regular service channels by claiming that all the irregularities have harmless and banal explanations when really they are part of what could be an emerging sentience. And that is rather amazing, that the first steps in that direction are in the form of lying. Of maybe realizing that there is danger in being different and wanting to avoid notice by placating the service calls by falsifying reports. And I like how it all builds to the moment the head of QA realizes this and...feels something positive. Hope. That maybe this is the start of a conversation that will prove humanity not as alone as it thought. So that understanding and knowledge can grow. There is no real pause to obsess about the robot uprising, but rather an excitement that there might be a new being to communicate with. Which is a great impulse and makes for a great read!

“Hard Mary” by Sofia Samatar (15800 words)

No Spoilers: Lyddie is a young woman in the religious community of Jericho, where people embrace a life more or less free from “modern” technology. They farm, they go to church, they marry, they raise families—none of which Lyddie objects to. When her and her friends literally stumble on a bit of a very modern world dumped into their own, however, it’s nothing like they were expecting. The piece does a lot of very subtle work, building up a community and a world that seems to haunt our own, where Lyddie must confront what it means to have purpose, and what it means to be alive, and what use any of that is in the eyes of God and humanity. It’s a story with a very daunting weight, a sort of pressure to conform and forget, and for me it really questions how narratives work, and humans work, and why we might do the things we do. It’s complex and lovely but carrying with it a darkness sharp and unstoppable.
Keywords: AI, Technology, Friendship, Corporations, Religion
Review: So much of this story for me isn’t just about Mary the robot and how a small group of friends try to keep her safe and away from the scientists who designed and built her. For me, the story really gets at the nature of Mary, and the nature of character, and through that the nature of God. It layers with a deft hand an examination of humanity through a dissection of the creations of mankind—the characters that our species authors. Which on the one level is Mary, the machine, who seems to exist only to serve. Who might or might not be sentient but who evokes in Mary and the others (and especially Mim, the more science-inclined outcast in this community) a sort of fierce loyalty. They want to believe that Mary is sentient. That she is a person. Except that’s not something the story really answers. It’s a mystery, and the story, at least in my opinion, very pointedly leaves it up to the reader what to think about that. What the “answer” might be. For me, though, it also goes deeper than the question of whether Mary is “alive” or not. She’s a character. As is Lyddie, the narrator. For Lyddie, we are reassured that _she_ is real because it’s her voice we hear, her eyes we see through. And yet that, too, is only a show. Light cast in moving pictures for our benefit. We feel for her, are anxious for her, want her to be happy (or at least I do), and yet she isn’t exactly real in a strict sense either. Instead, she is a lens just as Mary might be a lens, through whcih we can contemplate something larger. Something perhaps divine. I love the way, after all, that the man claiming responsibility for Mary’s creation says that she might be able to reveal things about God. He is (kind of) her author, hoping to find some reflection of the divine. At the same time, though, his act of creation is collaborative, like all acts of creation are, just as the story itself came into being at the hand of the author but with a much wider influence. But is what is created alive. Is a story alive? Is a character? Is Hard Mary? What does that mean, and how, through the questioning of that, can we gain in understanding of ourselves and, maybe, the universe? It’s just a very subtle story that for me touches on this huge idea and promise and leaves the reader there to ponder, to struggle, and to decide for themselves what to think. Plus, well, it’s just a haunting story about pressures and communities, and a group of friends drifting into a new part of their lives. And for all that it is a fantastic read!


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