|Art by grandfailure / fotolia
February brings the normal amount of fiction to Lightspeed Magazine, without too much of a unifying theme. The stories are stark, often featuring people or beings dealing with complex systems that have been built. The main characters tend to be those set outside of these systems, not centered, their desires and needs expected to be suppressed for the good of the dominant. How they handle that, and how their struggle ends up impacting those systems, varies by piece but gives an overall feeling of defiance even in the face of certain defeat and death. Not the brightest of issues, but some provocative works. To the reviews!
“How We Burn” by Brenda Peynado (10400 words)
No Spoilers: Sequoia is growing up in a world where overpopulation is being pushed back against by strict one-child laws and an emphasis on recycling and an awareness of the damage done to the planet by humans. But Sequoia and her friends, her siblings in spirit, are rebelling against the strict reality of this future, because while it might seem noble in its intentions, in practice it is a place where the older generations are living more and more through their children and grandchildren. Everyone has the eyes of so many grands and greats trained only on them, and are constantly being monitored to prevent the same mistakes from happening again, that those same grands and greats don’t realize that they’re making different mistakes in the same old ways. That with each generation the pressure is growing more and more, and something’s going to break. The piece is fast and loose, Sequoia and her friends fed up and just wanting some freedom, pushed to further and further lengths until there might be nothing less. It’s an intense, complex read.
Keywords: CW- Population Control, CW- Sterilization, CW- Police, School, Family, Rebellion
Review: In some ways I feel the story is about the rebellions of youth. The rejection of past generations. But I don’t quite think that’s right. I don’t feel the story exactly is making the case that even in a “good” world, teens would rebel and get themselves killed. There is certainly space for that reading, which is an uncomfortable one for me, because it would mean seeing this setting as reasonable. But I think the story does enough to show that’s not the case, that however the society might be decent at trying to live more responsibly, it’s still terribly authoritarian, corrupt, and untrustworthy. Which I think is huge, that this isn’t about rebellion for the hell of it, but pushing back against a system that cannot be trusted, that does not actually care what these young people want and doesn’t trust them at all to learn or mature. Perhaps people would say that here humanity shouldn’t be trusted. But without trust there can’t be a healthy society. Only a kind of cage, where someone is holding the key. And if that person is corrupt, well... things don’t go well. And here we see the intense tragedy that plays out when everything is designed to be authoritarian and restrictive. It leaves no better outlets for frustration or desire, making it so that any breaking of the rules is as bad as breaking much more dangerous ones. And I’m not quite sure how to read the ending, how to interpret Sequoia’s seeming...regret and desire to return home. For me it’s a complication I’m not sure I like, because for me it reads too much like an acknowledgment that she might have been wrong. But I’d like to think instead that the piece is commenting not on remorse, really, but on a grief and sadness that it couldn’t have been different. Not that she wants to return home but that she wishes she did, wishes she had been the type to go along, because it would have spared such pain now. Only she’s not. The grief might make it tempting, the gaslighting and shaming might make her doubt herself, but that’s what it’s designed to do, and it doesn’t change the loss, the tragedy, and the likely trajectory of her own brief flight. A powerful, complex read that is very much worth spending some time with!
“The Gamecocks” by JT Petty (6499 words)
No Spoilers: This piece finds Leslie Anne and Hardy slowly getting acquainted with each other and eventually getting into a relationship. He’s a veteran by the time they start really seeing each other, though they’ve known each other since second grade. But the piece really seems to follow the almost storybook way that their lives go, the pattern they fall into, which seems pulled from the playbook of the American Dream. They finds jobs, get a house, and maybe start to heal. But then things Go Wrong. And really the piece is about the how of that, and the aftermaths, and it’s not an easy read. It’s as tragic as it also seems inevitable, and in that it might be giving a warning about things to come, or trying to open eyes about how bad things have already become. Either way, it’s a complex and messy piece, and I strongly advise people to go in ready for a rather unpleasant ride.
Keywords: Automation, CW- Suicide, CW- Pregnancy, CW- Terrorism, Marriage
Review: So there’s a lot here about automation and about exploitation and about the frustration and hurt that comes when people have their dreams and expectations stripped from them. Unfortunately, tucked into that are some perhaps conscious, perhaps unfortunate parallels that for me made for a conflicting reading experience. The story does distance Hardy and the movement he’s a part of from violent white supremacist terrorism, though in some ways I’m not sure that it does it enough. But it’s clear in the text that they aren’t the same as the Risen Again/Confederate people who have been blowing up buildings. It’s just that...so, there’s a clear line for Hardy. He’s fighting against automation, not against people of different colors or religions. But the movement also doesn’t have a statement, doesn’t have a guiding ethos. It might not have been formed for the same reason, but it seems to be doing similar work, and it’s almost certainly formed of about the same people. It’s complicated, though, and I feel that the story is more focused on showing how automation and corruption/capitalism here are working to rob people of their dreams, are being used as tools of exploitation. How once people allow corporations new ways to exploit, it’s very hard to stop or turn that back. At the same time, I’m a little uncomfortable with how the story focuses on that, on working class white people in the American South. Because, well, because this isn’t exactly new. This kind of exploitation is used and has been used against non-white populations for a long time. The disillusionment that Hardy has still seems...well, rather like white entitlement when he is so shattered that his American Dream has been stolen. But unless it was a conscious choice in order to show how white people only care about this when it’s happening to them and even then only care about it as it effects themselves, it seems just a little too much like excusing white pain and violence. Again, though, it’s complicated, and the story does seem to be trying to be uncomfortable, to be provocative. But being provocative carries with it an added responsibility in my opinion, and one the story doesn’t seem to be living up to. There’s the closing image, after all, of a pregnant white woman walking out into traffic, that might be calling out those who would only care once such a “pure victim” suffers in that way, or might be leaning into that very way of thinking to provoke an emotional response. I’m just unsure, in the end, whether to read into the messy way gender and skin color intersect with this kind of system, and if so, how. To me it’s a messy story exploring a messy idea, but it never quite worked for me. But certainly check it out for yourself and see what you think!
“Noah’s Raven” by Kij Johnson (3086 words)
No Spoilers: This is a rather dark take on the story of Noah’s Ark, as told by a raven known partially as Bessary, who is caught and brought aboard. The explores the ignorances of Noah in this version of the story, his arrogance and violence, his deceit and his frustrations. And it paints a very different picture of the man than the one who was chosen by God to start a new kind of humanity. The perspective of the ravens is refreshing here, re framing the narrative so that it de-centers humans from everything and provides an interesting commentary on the tragedy and taste of extinction.
Keywords: Floods, Animals, Ravens, Extinctions, Cages
Review: I love the voice that the story gives to Bessary, the curiosity at it all and the resolve and the way that she, as all ravens apparently can, taste death on a small and large scale. And really that seems to be the real focus of the piece. The loss of life, the loss of biodiversity, all of it...well, all of it because of humans. And that’s something the story deals with in a complex way, with Bessary not exactly convinced that the flood is divine and about humanity. But that doesn’t mean that Noah doesn’t make it about humans, doesn’t center humans, placing animals around only as they’re useful to humanity. Only as they can be used. And this desire for utility means that there is a definite priority put on animals that humans will exploit. The rest are crammed into cages and if one of them dies, then the both are put into the soup to feed everyone else. And the ravens taste it, taste that for many of these creatures it is the last of them. But the ravens can taste something else, as well. That however much humanity likes to place itself in the center of everything, they are just one more species out of many, and the time will come when humans, too, will go extinct. They might take a great many other species with them (already have, really), but eventually there will be something new, something different. It places even human religion on a finite scale, making the main character of the flood myth not Noah’s, to give lie to the title, but her own bird. Her own person. Just as much a part of the natural world and certainly not willing to place herself only in context to humanity. It’s a story about the ways that viewing ourselves as the center of the natural world leads to extinctions, leads to viewing animals as worth surviving only as far as they are useful or easy for us to save. As I said, it’s a dark piece, but also a great read!
“Toxic Destinations” by Alexander Weinstein (2310 words)
No Spoilers: Expanding on the fictional The Lost Traveler’s Tour Guide, this story shows a much different face than the last examination of Triol. Here we find locations that visitors might find themselves in for various reasons. A town that used to be full of light and warmth. A hotel that seems too good to be true. A city where the nightlife is a thing of terrible beauty. A whole country of broken people. The work shows how a person might end up in these places, and why a person should probably steer clear. It’s not that the locations are all vile and unpleasant. Often quiet the opposite. But they are, as the title implies, toxic. Infectious in some ways. Hungry, and able to unlock the more damaging parts of human behavior. It’s another strange, magical travelogue, tinged with regret and surrender.
Keywords: Tour Guides, Tourism, Hotels, Temptations, Warnings
Review: It’s interesting to me to note how closely these locations pair with those of “Destinations of Joy” from last month. By which I mean how similar they are despite being (presumably) opposites. The previous story was about places where people could go to experience joy, and theses are ones that are toxic, poisonous, dangerous. And I think that it stems from the ways these toxic locations are essentially the other side of the coin. They are using joy, using pleasure, as a weapon. Many of them, at least, are places where people don’t want to leave, all the while something is being done to them. They are being fed on, devoured, and all willingly, because of the call and allure that the places hold. So that it’s not joy so much as it is the satiation of hunger, where people are hungry for this kind of feeling because for so long they’ve been starved of it, not given the luxury, not given the delights and revelry. These places offer the promise of release and satiation, but the fine print is that they come at a price. The rest of the locations here are toxic for similar reasons that at first seem very different. But they are places robed of kindness, robbed of joy, dominated by those who feel in being sad a kind of validation, a kind of permission to do less. Again, people deal with shortage in different ways, some wanting to over-indulge as a result, others falling down the opposite slope into depression and self harm. It’s another interesting exploration of place, tucked away one the mysterious Eighth Continent, where still anything is possible. A fine read!