|Art by Grandfailure / Fotolia|
The February issue of Lightspeed Magazine runs a little long with two novelettes and two short stories that look at confinement in a lot of different ways. That look at freedom and what happens when people’s freedoms are taken away, by an outside force, by nature, or by fate. Each piece finds people struggling with systems that limit them. That might mean man-made systems of criminal justice, or social convention, or something a bit more divine, like fate or death itself. The stories show how characters either try and fight back against these systems (where they are corrupt) or learn how to accept or embrace them (where they are just). It’s an interesting bunch of stories with a slower, more ponderous feel to the issue, and I’ll get right to the reviews!
“Life Sentence” by Matthew Baker (9240 words)
No Spoilers: Wash (short for Washington) is a felon who has been released back to the world...minus his memories. In the future the story introduces, criminals are sentenced not to time in prison, but to time taken from their episodic memories. And for Wash, it was a life sentence, taking everything from him. He still has his skills, but he’s suddenly a stranger in his own home, to his own family, and it’s rather jarring. The piece follows him and he seeks to recover from what’s happened, torn between not remembering the man he was and trying to figure out what kind of man he wants to be. It’s a rather quiet, complex piece, and one that looks critically at what justice looks like, and what it might not look like. It’s strange but for Wash at least it seems to be about fresh starts.
Keywords: Memories, Justice Systems, Marriage, Family, CW- Pregnancy, Memory Loss
Review: Okay so this is a very complicated story for me because the idea of wiping someone’s memory is here portrayed rather...romantically. It’s presented inside the story as a more humane way of dealing with criminals than prisons. Because of how awful prisons are. And the company line that the system works...well, it’s a bit challenged by Wash and his frustrations with the system, with the loss that he can’t really properly grieve because he doesn’t have the memories for it. But at the same time the story shows Wash essentially become a better person because his memory was taken away. And...that’s a deeply complex thing for me. It brings Wash to a place where he has the chance to learn more about his past or to basically ignore it in favor of his new life, and...like, it’s a moment where in some ways he’s retroactively giving his consent for this. It’s asking in some ways who has more rights, and who deserves to live, the Wash who existed before the wipe, or the one afterward. And there’s the answer that the law gives, that the old Wash is effectively dead and the new one is the better citizen, husband, father, etc. But for me it really doesn’t get at the heart of what makes this terrifying. And maybe it’s just rather understated, that it’s treated as humane rather than cruel or unusual. Rather than effectively murder. If so, it uses a very light touch to convey that level of complexity. And though I find the text compelling and the character work solid and tender and powerful, I’m not sure with where I feel the story takes me. Other readers might find themselves in a very different place though. For me, I’m not comfortable with the way this process is romanticized, but I definitely encourage people to check it out for themselves and see where that leads them. It’s certainly an interesting and vividly written piece.
“Marlowe and Harry and the Disinclined Laboratory” by Carrie Vaughn (5600 words)
No Spoilers: Lieutenant James Marlowe has temporarily given up the front for a stint on an Aetherian research team (though sadly he’s not really allowed to do much research, relegated to mechanic in absence of men willing to get their hands dirty). The piece opens as the Crown Prince is set to inspect the operation. Little do they know that the true brains for Aetherian technology in the royal family is the Prince’s younger sister, Maud (though friends call her by a different name). The piece follows not the first meeting of Marlowe and the princess, but rather when their relationship takes a bit of a turn. It’s entirely set away from the action, away from the front lines, but the battle here is no less real, and it’s one that Marlowe, given his rank and status, can’t win. At least, not without help. Which means that it’s a bit of a reverse of the situation he last found himself in with the princess, where they must help each other in order to stay one step ahead of the Germans in a war that is threatening to tear the world apart.
Keywords: Alternate History, War, Technology, Aristocracy, Research
Review: This piece is something of an interlude, laying some groundwork with Marlowe and Harry’s larger story and putting them in a new place but in many ways it feels mostly like a stepping stone. The chief conflict here is that Marlowe has been stuck in a research institution where...well, where nothing much new is being developed. He has big ideas and knows that in order to win the day there needs to be actual innovation, and yet no one will take him seriously because he’s a common soldier. Just as they won’t take the princess seriously because she’s a woman. And so, just as before, the two decide to help each other to reach toward their mutual goals—pushing forward Aetherian technology and winning the war against the Germans. I do like how it the piece frames the real stakes of this encounter, though, and the challenge facing the UK. Not one of just technology, but one of sensibilities and class divides. Where they cannot really reach for the key to victory while they are being held back by the discrimination at the heart of their institutions. That they can’t look for the tried and true methods to work, because to date they have failed miserably. And that it might take people flying in the face of convention to fly high enough to give them an edge in the war. And it’s a fun and rather brisk piece, with a great flow and dialogue that helps to further build the setting and establish the characters. And for that it’s definitely worth checking out! A fine read!
“Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as Told to Raccoon” by KT Bryski (2440 words)
No Spoilers: This is a neatly nested story told about Ti-Jean and his last adventure, when he is old but still wily and trying to outfox Death herself for a shot to avoid going with her to the beyond. The piece follows a fairly standard fairy tale structure, following Ti-Jean and his exploits, but also unfolds a layer up from there, where the story is being told by the narrator to Raccoon, and it’s there that the piece really starts to challenge itself, revealing a dense complexity that the simpler, seemingly-wholesome bit of Canadiana covers over. Because while it’s the story of stories, and legends, and folktales, it’s also very much a story about Death, and settlement, and languages, and a lot else.
Keywords: Folklore, Stories, Death, Canada, Tricksters
Review: Oh Canada this is a layered experience, and I love the way that the layers exist in conversation with each other, where Raccoon interrupts the story at times with observations, with comments, with suggestions, with a desire to tell his own stories, and where Raccoon is interrupted in turn by the narrator, who makes this about their story, about their will, about them. It’s a recreation in some ways of the folklore of Canada, where the settlers created stories for themselves, to help them through the harsh winters and the feeling of disconnect from the land that they had come to. And yet that folklore was written and told over the stories that already existed. That were told long before anyone came to colonize the area. It’s fitting then that the narrator of the piece is Death, speaking to a being who isn’t really what he seems at first. Who knows much more than he’s given credit for. And I do like that the piece brings the narrator to a place where they aren’t just speaking over Raccoon (who turns out to not be Raccoon exactly). To a place where the story of Ti-Jean can be told, yes, and even appreciated, but where there’s also a recognition and a willingness to step back from being the one in control of the story every time. To not have to be the narrator of every story. To listen, and to let different stories that have been suppressed and ignored be heard. It’s a complex piece that recognizes the troubled history of folklore even as it seeks to define what is Canadian. And it makes for a great read!
“The Terrible Oath” by Ashok K. Banker (13620 words)
No Spoilers: The story of Vrath and Sha’ant continues here as father and son get to spend a bit of time together and start to work toward protecting their empire and maybe, for Sha’ant, healing is heart. The piece certainly plays up the strengths of Vrath, and seeing just how good he is at everything. He’s wise and strong, unbeatable both in combat and as a statesman. And while that might make it seem like there’s little enough conflict, the piece is more exploring how these people go about acting morally in a world where it’s often perilous to do so. And it’s a longer piece that looks at the exchange between father and son, the inheritance that it seems can work in both directions.
Keywords: Governance, Gods, Marriage, Love, Inheritance, Bargains
Review: Part of what makes this story so interesting is that it seems to be coming from a very different tradition than most Western tales. At least, thinking of the Greek stories that it might be compared to in terms of mythology and demigods, with the Greeks the characters, even the gods, were always ruled by their base desires. They weren’t exactly wise, but were very powerful. And so their stories tended to be violent, and tragic, and dominated by violations. Here though we find a story that relies on no less robust a mythology, but the characters are set up as wise. Gods are set up as beings with the time to be patient, with the wisdom to rule their emotions and desires. And that puts them in a somewhat tragic trajectory. Because so often there is some condition that must be met in a given situation that the characters cannot just wave away. Here, just as Sha’ant seems poised to find love again, he’s put in the impossible position of having to choose between his own potential happiness and doing right by Vrath. And of course he cannot act selfishly, so he doesn’t. And of course Vrath, when he finds out about it, cannot act less than selflessly in order to do right by his father. Here I find that the idea of predetermination is weaving into the fabric of the story. The actions of the characters are consistent and decisive. They know what they have to do in a given situation. Which doesn’t make those situations less fraught or emotional, but they do make an interesting statement on knowledge, and wisdom. Where the conflict comes from knowing what is right and doing it even when it’s difficult or goes against your desires. It’s about accepting fate and embracing it, and trying to do right by it, rather than pushing back against it or trying to flee it. And while it’s not the kind of story I’m used to, and while it goes against a lot of my sensibilities as a reader, I do think it’s a very interesting read, and worth spending some time with.