|Art by Christopher D. Park
Three short stories and a novelette round out the November fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Things kick off with a new story in the Robot Country series, and from there things progress to soul mates and annihilation of worlds, documentaries and punchlines. And a lot of the works have what might be a particular focus on world building, on large stories that unfold even outside the constraints of the stories featured here. Especially with the Phetteplace and Lee stories, these feel more like chapters that will unfold in larger confines, where the stakes are huge but still only a taste of what will be. It's a fascinating collection of fiction, with action probably taking prominence over introspection (by and large, though not without exception) and it's certainly an issue to spend some time with. To the reviews!
“Her Appetite, His Heart” by Dominica Phetteplace (6542 words)
No Spoilers: Well, we sort of already met Javi, but only as the asshole who dumped Isla, prompting her to join up as a drone minder in Robot Country, the name of the series that this story continues. When we had last left Isla, she had helped the AI of Robot Country overcome a lot of their limitations, and here we get to see what that looks like. But from the point of view of Javi, who is...well, who is still that asshole who dumped Isla. And, like, wow, the story does an amazing job of capturing him, his character, his way of looking at the world. His...affluence and entitlement, mostly. And it’s a bit of a farce of a romp as he decides he MUST HAVE Isla back and sets out to use his considerable wealth and bro-ness to accomplish the task. It’s funny even as the events that it relates are definitely no joke.
Keywords: AI, Breakups, War, CW- Nuclear War, Visions
Review: So it’s something of a gamble to have the main character of a story be...this kind of asshole. Because he’s not the kind that seems physically abuse. And while he’s manipulative and obnoxious, he’s also doesn’t put much work into being psychologically or emotionally manipulative. What he is is incredibly entitled, and that single facet of his personality drives most of his actions in the story. Because he’s decided that he wants Isla back. That he made a mistake. And he’s willing to go through hardships, at least in the short term, in order to get her back. Not because of her personality, really, but because he has the urge and then can’t act on it. Had Isla been immediately to hand I’m sure that would have toyed with her for a while before once more growing bored and dumping her. He’s all about the next shiny thing, and that’s what Isla becomes, only she’s also pretty much outside his reach. And that, I think, is what keeps him interested throughout, that he’s so used to being able to get whatever he wants, for the universe to bend to his will. Which isn’t exactly something I _want_ in a main character, but I think the story does this with enough charm that it achieves uncomfortable without ever getting into the territory of asking readers to sympathize with a nazi. It’s easy enough for me to see that even though Javi is the main character here, it’s Isla who’s really doing something. Javi is just engaged in trying to make the story about himself, not realizing that his importance, and affluence, are about to go up in a cloud of atomic dust, leaving him rudderless, with only his fantasies to cling to. Which seems to me to make him rather dangerous, but the story doesn’t really explore that, instead detailing what happens outside and inside Robot Country and how the world will never be the same. A fine read!
“Eros Pratfalled, Or, Adrift in the Cosmos With Lasagna and Mary Steenburgen” by Adam-Troy Castro (3729 words)
No Spoilers: Ellis is a guy. That’s his character. A guy with an intense connection to and knowledge of soulmate who it seems impossible to meet. And so he sort of slips through life, just...being a guy. The piece plays with the idea of soulmates and satisfaction, relationships and contentment. It casts Ellis as something of a flake, but more of a waste. A waste because he’s so fixated on something he can’t have. In truth, the story to me has the feeling of a kind of joke, a “wouldn’t it be funny if...” scenario that got written down and expanded upon to include diversity and stuff without perhaps considering how the message changes when certain identities are used.
Keywords: Soulmates, Aliens, Relationships, Transportation, Yearning, Queer MC
Review: I’m not sure I have fully figured out my own thoughts about this story, to be honest. It’s a story that in some ways tells the reader explicitly what it “means” but does so in a way that might imply that it’s really just sort of a funny piece and we shouldn’t take it so seriously. Which is what I’m trying to do, because beneath that there’s the widening realization that it’s a story about not being satisfied, of not feeling content, and how much a moral failing that is. But...again, it insists that it’s only really “about” that in a joking sense, in a fairy tale sense, where the moral of the story is that Ellis should have just forgotten about this soulmate he could feel out there and settle down with someone terrestrial. Only the story gives him the visceral knowledge of this soulmate, a magical connection that...he’s supposed to just ignore and get over? Perhaps the story is about how it’s a sad waste that Ellis ends up a smear on an alien’s underside, but the ending certainly makes it seem like it’s such a sad waste that Ellis _deserved_ becoming a smear on an alien’s underside because couldn’t he see how good his life was. That the story is essentially about a bi man who can’t settle on a partner and then is literally transported through space and killed and shouldn’t he have just made up his mind earlier just doesn’t sit well with me. That his soulmate is a Otherly gendered alien who is so immense that ze unknowingly kills him when he magically transports through space to be with zem, is...again something that I struggle to find a positive interpretation of. So...I’m probably not the best judge of this story. I recommend people check it out for yourselves and see what you think. Indeed.
“The Second-Last Client” by Yoon Ha Lee (1785 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story and their partner (work partner, tho, I think) Rawk are agents in a strange organization that, among other things, is responsible for evacuating worlds ahead of their ends. For Seedworld 722.11.15, that end is less than an hour away in the form of an ancient tech floating through space on an intercept course for them. It’s not the humans on the planet that the two are there to collect, though, regardless of how fine a cup of coffee they make. And the answer of who they’re there to save opens a strange gateway that mixes fantasy and science fiction, fiction and...well, meta fiction. It’s strange, but compelling, and while it doesn’t go very deep into this setting, it offers a memorable flavor.
Keywords: Apocalypses, Coffee, Dragons, Evacuations, Stories, Characters
Review: It’s fascinating to me how the story combines magic and dimension hopping organizations that have a bit more of a sci fi feel. It also ends up feeling like only the tiniest glimpse at what seems a much wider setting, one where fictional characters can be saved from their media, but the humans who created them are left to their own devices, even if they really aren’t at fault in any way for their destruction. And I like that there’s the conflict there, the tension where the narrator and Rawk acknowledge that the system isn’t really fair, that the humans might should be saved if there’s power to save their fictional characters. But it’s sidestepped here as the narrator sticks to their duty, to what they _must_ do, even as the story shows that they won’t take a character against their will, that they have a job (and might be punished for their failure), but that they’re not going to just kidnap people for their own good. And the whole thing has this flare of magic and mundane, where the narrator and Rawk are obvious not human and very powerful, their exact natures mysteries but their personalities snarky, overworked, and just a bit tired. They each have their quirks which make them rather fun, and together they have a nice chemistry and banter. It all adds up to a bit of a weird story, to be honest, and one that doesn’t really feel complete, but that certainly works as an introduction to the concepts and the characters which I hope is followed up on. A great read!
“Knee Deep in the Sea” by Melissa Marr (8339 words)
No Spoilers: Isabel is the assistant to a documentary director on location in the Orkneys to do a film about the seals. Her life hasn’t exactly been cheery, but with the right attitude and a bit of booze, she’s hoping to make a go of being a writer in Hollywood. Something that could be made difficult when she comes across the body of a man she’s pretty sure she didn’t kill, but definitely did have words with recently. The piece is dark and visceral, not afraid of blood or murder. It gets back to the faerie roots of fairy tales, and follows a woman struggling under the double standards and corruptions of her situation, trying desperately to win a brutal game that’s stacked against her.
Keywords: Selkies, Seals, Documentaries, Mer-people, Seas, Queer MC
Review: I like how this story finds Isabel as a rather unreliable narrator, from the beginning unsure of her time. She leans heavily on alcohol and might be prone to blacking out, but it seems to circle around the idea that she’s a killer. A murderer. Who never gives the reader a reason for her killings other than she had a plan. And who comes to the Orkneys and finds something about it reverberates in her like her home, like the South and its bayous where she was able to dispose of three bodies. Now she uses the sea to get rid of any evidence, just in case she had something to do with these deaths, though she’s fairly certain she didn’t. But there’s certainly something bubbling inside her, coming to a boil. The reality of Hollywood is dragging at her, the need to be ruthless but in a way that also gives people power over her. She thinks of herself as willing to do anything for success but there also seems to be a weariness that sends her to drinking every day. A need to cope with her misery. Not, I’ll happily say, her guilt. I like that she’s not guilty about what she’s done, and that it doesn’t make her evil, really, or “crazy.” She’s just dealing with life as it’s been dealing with her, with no sentimentality. And it’s just that bearing that seems to attract a certain kind of supernatural attention. From a being who isn’t evil, but who isn’t exactly nice, either. And for me it’s a darkly almost romantic piece of Isabel finding a home that suits her better than the human world, a place where the rules are not only clearer, but fairer. And it makes for a story with some intense shadows and violence, but also with a kind of hope, and a kind of happily ever after. A great read!