|Art by grand failure|
January brings the regular round of four stories (all technically short stories, though two are very nearly novelettes) to Lightspeed Magazine. The stories take a look at parallel worlds and lives, at characters caught wondering what if, and at the fallout from people pursuing lives that seem just in reach—but that might be universes away. There’s an interesting mix of moods and tones in the pieces, some focusing on a “hero” who turns out to be anything but, some that take a bit more work to decipher because of a more unconventional take on space, time, and memory. But all of them are well worth checking out, and I’ll jump right into the reviews!
“The Men Who Change the World” by Christopher East (7264 words)
No Spoilers: Adam works at Ubiquity, a data company that he doesn’t really know much about, except that it’s large and employs most of the people in his town. He’s something of a washout, someone who went to Chicago to try and make it big but who couldn’t cut the competition. Now he’s bored and dissatisfied, feeling wasted in his job. Which is what brings him to the attention of the Myriad, a group who believes that Ubiquity is part of some enormous conspiracy that is holding humanity back, that ties into something that might have to do with the ways that history seems different in this setting, and Adam becomes the centerpiece of a plan to “set things right.” Except not everything is what it seems. It’s a story that does a good job of slowly exploring Adam’s character, and showing just what he wants, and what that means.
Keywords: Employment, Alternate Reality, Espionage, Corruption, Peace
Review: I do like how the story plays with reader expectations, how easy it is to sort of draw a world that Isn’t Like Our Own and then have the characters imply that it represents a deviance that is sinister. This world is Wrong according to the Myriad, and it’s easy enough to get Adam to believe that, to get him to see that. Because he’s dissatisfied despite the fact that his needs are all met, and he really doesn’t want for much. Except that he doesn’t want to be another cog in a machine, even if that machine does work for everyone, even if it means no war, no hunger, no real disease. But it’s boring for him. It doesn’t allow him to stand out, forgetting of course that he doesn’t. That he’s not really exceptional, except in his willingness to be selfish. And the story arrives there rather sharply, with this great sense of pulling the rug out from under the reader. We’ve been told he’s the main character, and he’s standard enough, cliché enough, that there’s this expectation that he must be special in some way. That he must be the hero, and that he’s just waiting for his moment to shine. And in many ways that’s the case, only the story takes the chance to point out that the idea of heroes, that the idea of the Great Men that the title references is a toxic one. One that people eat up because they want to be one of the Great Men when really it’s so much better, so much more just and good, to try and work so that everyone can have what they need. Even if it means the “ceiling” on what a person can earn, on the glory they can achieve, is lower. The floor is higher, and no one is buried. And it’s a nice exploration of that and a fine read!
“She Never Had a Name Before” by J.R. Dawson (2113 words)
No Spoilers: Jenna is a college student who just found out she had a sister. Kind of. A sister who died really before she was born, but who had a name. And like a spell learning the name leads to her showing up at Jenna apartment. Or kind of. It’s a little complicated. But really the story doesn’t pause to ponder the scientific implications of this meeting. Rather, it’s a more tender and moving look at meeting someone from a different universe, a different timeline, and seeing both something familiar and something completely strange when you look at them. It’s a strange moment for Jenna, one that brings with it a boatload of feelings and conflicts, and the story allows those to settle, not offering a whole lot in action-y plot but rather letting the reader wrestle with the weight and the complicated contradictions of the meeting.
Keywords: Parallel Universes, Family, CW- Death of a Child, Queer MC, College
Review: I really like how this story explores the idea of alternate realities, alternate timelines, through the revelation that Jenna kinda had a sister. That she certainly _might_ have had a sister had things been only a little different. And how that sort of sends Jenna into this spiral of wondering about the different lives that might have been. The different worlds that might be. And lurking at the back of this seems to be the hurt and the insecurity and shame she feels about being queer and not really accepted by her family. Fearing that there might be a world out there where she’s not only not around, but where things are “better” because of it. It’s an incredibly loaded thing, but it does ring as true to the ways that some people get caught in depressive and destructive cycles because they are stuck wondering and wondering, thinking that maybe they are a mistake, that maybe their life wasn’t supposed to turn out as it had because of the hardships they are facing, the rejection they are feeling. Especially with family it becomes somewhat easy to imagine that everyone wanted a different child, a different sibling. And so when Jenna finds out about this possibility it intrudes into her life quite literally in the form of this alternate sister who begins to poison her relationship and make her fear and doubt. Even as she sees that in the reality that this sister comes from, Jenna has no place. And it’s a cutting reminder of the ways that she doesn’t get on with her family, that she has this messy and damaged relationship with them. It’s wrenching and it’s magical and it’s a lovely and moving read you should definitely make some time for!
“Destinations of Joy” by Alexander Weinstein (2298 words)
No Spoilers: This story is framed as an excerpt from a larger guidebook detailing the myriad locales of a strange continent discovered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. One full of nations and cities very much like our own, except maybe not. Because each place described seems to have a unique relationship with joy. With happiness. One that, for a traveler, has many different effects. In Sunra and Dunlo, in Ahuoa, in Solgläd, the inhabitants all have different ways of dealing with and attempting to build joys, and it reflects in different ways how people who visit there experience them and, perhaps most importantly, remember them after they’ve ended their vacation and had to return to wherever they came from.
Keywords: Travel Guides, Tourism, Happiness, Alternate Realities, Utopias
Review: I think in many ways for me this story deals with the allure of foreign vacations, in a place that seems different and often so much better than the place the people on vacation are coming from. It’s supposed to be a break from something, after all, and many vacations are just that, are a break from a rather crushing reality where people are stuck in jobs that don’t really allow them much freedom or express, that keep them in stress and anxiety because there never seems to be enough. The vacation takes on a rather magical quality, especially if it’s to someplace far away. Especially for people who can’t really afford to go, for whom such a trip would be incredibly rare, maybe even once in a lifetime. The piece explores what these places come to mean for the tourists, how they seem to awaken parts of them, make them suddenly more hopeful, more greatful, more excited to be alive and start new projects. But that, upon their return to work, the people find whatever benefit they got slip away. Worse, sometimes it sours, rots into a kind of resentment not of their job but of the place they long for. Because they feel that it must have been a lie, a trick, some illusion, when in reality it seems completely earnest and authentic. It’s just that the system that exists there is so different, and so much better, that the tourists come to hate it because their own is so corrupt, is so shot through with the heavy and draining exploitation that is so common. And in the face of the work that would be required (however rewarded), it seems like too much a task to undertake. And the piece seems to question how we the readers relate to our happiness. What city are we aspiring to be citizens of. Or are we just tourists, not content but unwilling to reach of a place as magical as one that doesn’t witness our constant struggle, stress, and exploitation. A fine read!
“Fortune’s Final Hand” by Adam-Troy Castro (7497 words)
No Spoilers: Told it what might be a linear narrator or might be disjointed in time, the story follows a woman named Fortune as she games in a very special casino. One that doesn’t use money exactly—it uses human memories. And as a person loses parts of themself, only to pick up parts of others, the experience becomes a bit more difficult to make sense of, to parse, and the cycle of winning and losing holds to the old idea that the house always wins in the end. But it’s a strange and haunting dive into gambling and how small decisions can snowball, small risks leading to huge losses. And tucked into that is the predatory nature of casinos, the way that they work on people, using the allure of luck and possibility to draw them deeper and deeper into loss.
Keywords: Gambling, Memories, Debt, Identity, Chance
Review: The premise of this one is a fascinating one, where people become rather addicted to gambling with memories, and the more one bets, and the more one loses or wins, the more they change from the person they were, becoming someone new, and at the same time leaving them with a more incomplete feeling that leads them back to the gambling tables again and again. It reveals Fortune again and again, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, sometimes not really playing at all. But from the beginning it’s obvious that she’s locked into a cycle of loss and annihilation. And it’s really the only cycle in the casino, which acts as a siren, as a lure, as a constant temptation. At first with the promise of something different, or change. And then, after that change, with a return to the familiar, a recouping of what’s been lost, which in this case is always a lie, always an illusion. Which is very insidious, and which the story really nails again and again, that as Fortune loses herself, regardless of how much she wins, she’s not the person she was when she began. Not the person who was only going to play a few hands and stop. Not the person with a lover, or friends, or a life outside. She is eroded by the gambling, until that’s all she is, and it’s tragic and rather horrifying. Which makes for a story with an interesting premise, and one certainly worth spending some time with!