|Art by Galen Dara
Two novelettes and two short stories means a fairly full issue of Lightspeed Magazine this September, with a focus on history, freedom, and struggle. Often in the stories, characters find themselves being controlled or manipulated, either by another being or by their own insecurities and fears. What results is an issue that looks at people struggling with the implications of their own drives, their desire for freedom over comfort, meaning over survival. There are stories of future incarceration, science gone wrong (or right?), struggles linked by music, and even a Weird Western where magic springs from decks of special playing cards. The worlds are vividly rendered and the characters often wrenchingly portrayed, but instead of just telling you about them here, let's get to the full reviews!
“Sacrid’s Pod” by Adam-Troy Castro (8758 words)
No Spoilers: Sacrid is a young woman who finds herself at the beginning of the story completely at the mercy of an AI who introduces themself as her jailer. Because of the oppressive laws of her home, she’s been placed into custody for (presumably) the rest of her life. Her prison isn’t quite normal, though, as it’s run by AI with basically every human need seen to. It’s provisions are many. But Sacrid’s drive to escape just might be stronger than the seemingly benevolent force keeping her contained. The piece begins with a rather uncomfortable framing, but thankfully pull away from grounding the perspective only in an AI confining a woman against her will. It’s still uncomfortable at times, but as the piece moves it smooths out some of its rough edges and does provide a rather entertaining and thoughtful experience.
Keywords: Prisons, AI, Virtual Reality, Parents, CW- Abuse
Review: I must admit, the beginning of the story turned me off a lot, coming as it does from the perspective of an AI tasked by restrictive parents to imprison their daughter for the rest of her life for the crime of...wanting to be free of their control. And even though the AI is merely conveying all of this, that they’ve taken her and are holding her and modifying her against her will so that they can carry out the parents’ wishes (or near enough) is not something that sits well with me. I do appreciate that Sacrid gets to speak, and gets more of a perspective as the story moves forward, but the beginning alone would probably have been enough to make me stop reading if I wasn’t in the habit of pushing through to the end. That said, I do feel like the story has some interesting things to say, and does bring Sacrid to a much better place than where she starts. It has some Matrix vibes for me, looking at the desire for freedom even when it might be identical to a kind of artificial-ness. There are some holes I feel in the way the story explores this, not really looking at what happens if people don’t know if they’re being controlled or in an artificial setting, and I feel there’s room to explore how “artificial” bodies might not be “fake” in the ways the story vaguely posits them. But I do like how the story gives Sacrid space to find what she wants, what she needs, and doesn’t stop her from pursuing it, even if it doesn’t really make things easy for her, either. It’s a fascinating read, and certainly worth spending some time with!
“The Answer That You Are Seeking” by Jenny Rae Rappaport (2131 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a scientist with an idea, to somehow create a quantum equation for the universe in order to find a way to change it so that they can keep their children safe from mass shootings. As they work on their theory, though, they find that they might be authoring some unintended changes on the fabric of reality. The piece is heavy with the weight of its subject matter, taking a look at the terror of mass shootings and how pervasive they are, how epidemic in a way that makes so many people feel powerless and desperate. It’s not an easy read by any metric, and the space the story explores is bleak but oh so real.
Keywords: Alternate Realities, CW- Mass Shootings, Family, Science!, Queer MC
Review: At it’s heart I feel the story is about control, and the increasing realization that in America at least most people have accepted that things like mass shootings are completely outside of our control. Which in some ways is true, because we don’t have things in place that make it difficult. We don’t have protections from gun violence like people in many other parts of the world. And gun violence is such a part of our culture at this point that small children have to practice drills, and there are so many places that don’t feel safe any longer because they’ve been the site of a shooting. For the narrator, this danger, this perpetual state of fear, prompts them to try and define the universe, to capture it in a way that will allow them to in some ways control it. Tweak it. Make things better. And so they try and they try and they try to get their equation to work, all the while grappling with the implications of their actions, the ways that it changes them and their family. And I like that the story shows that this kind of control isn’t only impossible, but often counterproductive to actual change, actual control, that can be exerted through community action. And I do like that, in the end, the story shows that when big answers fail, the only answers that are left are small and reactionary, concerned only with the moment when planning falls away to the grim reality of our present situation. It’s a bleak piece in part because it focuses on how there is no prepared or cautious or afraid enough when things like mass shootings are so common, a lesson that we in the U.S. are taught daily. A fine read!
“A Bird, a Song, a Revolution” by Brooke Bolander (5224 words)
No Spoilers: Before she is Whistlecage, a woman with a gift for music, there is a girl fascinated by birdsong. Who spends an entire summer listening and finding a way to trap a bird so she can carry that sound with her. The piece is strange, stretched across time, following not only Whistlecage but a girl in the far future, after some sort of disaster has happened and left much destroyed. The strings that connect the two parts of the story are written in song and magic, and the piece finds a beauty and power even as the world seems at its ugliest. It’s strange and a bit haunting, and I very much enjoy the way it plays with memory and the lasting influence of music on time and struggle.
Keywords: Music, Birds, Queer MC, History, Post-Disaster, Revolution
Review: I really like how the story layers itself, linking past to future through song and expression. There’s a strangeness to the piece, a certain mystery that comes from the magic present, the presence of the witch, the lasting power of Whistlecage’s music, which seems to seep into the land itself and become a collective memory just waiting to be reawakened. And really I do like the way the piece contrasts the two times. For Whistlecage, the songs come at a time of peace, and inspire in her a deep and burning desire to experience the world. For the girl in the future, the song finds her in a time of scarcity, of hunger. And while Whistlecage’s story is one bookended on the other side by war, this girl in the future picks up that chord while still early in life, inspiring a kind of revolution. And driving both of them is a kind of...of wonder, I think. For me, at least, Whistlecage is driven by a hunger to experience the beauty and songs of the world. That she cannot is an injustice, and one that pushes her into a kind of immortality. Her desire to experience the music becomes a kind of magic that persists and lives on, through times of peace and war, inspiring people with the same desire to live. To experience. And to fight back against the forces trying to restrict and oppress that. For me, the piece speaks to the power of music to remind people of a larger world, a grander scope that unites people rather than tears them apart. It’s a bit of a weird piece but definitely worth spending some time with, and it builds an interesting and complex world. A great read!
“All In” by Rajan Khanna (9976 words)
No Spoilers: Quentin and Hiram are Card Shaps, people who use a special deck of cards that linked to them to cast magic that can have very large impacts on the world around them. They’ve been on a quest for some time to find others like themselves, to learn more about the cards they carry, and it’s led them to a dead end. The piece builds an interesting world, one dominated by blood and loss and good intentions. Quentin is a man who wants to do good but who has also been lured by the power he possesses, knowing his deck is dwindling and not really wanting to accept it. The piece moves quickly with plenty of action, and though it doesn’t offer a lot of closure for the characters, it opens a new chapter in their story.
Keywords: Cards, Magic, Friendship, Disguises, Western
Review: I do like the aesthetic and the idea that these Sharps have decks that they can use to cast magic. I also quite like that Quentin is a man who wants to be doing good with his cards and yet is pretty much always saving them for his own purposes. He wants to use the power he has benevolently, but he also doesn’t want to lose the power, and the nature of the cards mean he has to use them in order to do anything. It means that he’s caught in the trap of the cards, the corruption of power, and it’s poisoning the relationship he has with his mentee, Hiram. The two are friends but their relationship has been strained and now seems likely to snap. It’s not something either man is really fighting to avoid, both of them full of hurt and fear about what happens not only when their quest ends in failure, but when they look and find that their deck is nearly gone. What they learn in the story seems to be that it doesn’t really matter. That magic horded is magic that is doing nobody any good. And while it might be logical and “smart” to hold cards back against some future time, it also means that they’re not doing the good they want to be, and any reason they have to put it off is an excuse meant to cover that they’re afraid and selfish. It takes quite a bit, and a bit of blood, to finally figure that out, and the piece is appropriately blood for it. It’s a story of powerful men making mistakes, and I can’t say that’s my favorite genre, but I do think the story handles it well, and I am curious to know what’s next for Quentin and Hiram. A fine read!