Thursday, April 9, 2020

Quick Sips - Lightspeed #119

Art by grandfailure / fotolia
Only short stories means April's Lightpseed Magazine is a little lighter than normal, but the stories certainly hit above their weight class in many ways. The works tackle choices of all sorts, mostly by characters who are facing either accepting the dominant lean of society or rejected it. And in rejected it taking a chance of being crushed. The works show different outcomes for this, from standing in defiance to giving in to learning how to dance in the face of expectations and pressures to be small and quiet. It's an eclectic issue, and one with a lot of different speculative visions, to let's get to the reviews!


“The Least of These” by Veronica Roth (4256 words)

No Spoilers: Two women, who become known as Best and Least, are chosen by a pair of alien Beings to choose the criteria by which sliver of the human population might be “saved” by being taken and rehomed on the Beings’ homeworld. Best and Least are so named because they represent an outlook closest to these Beings (Best) and most distant from their personalities (Least). But it’s only together that the two women are able to look through what is really being asked of them, and find out how to answer the challenge posed to them. What with the various ways that humans seem to be destroying the planet, it’s a rather topical piece that manages a nice middle finger to those whose answer to global calamity is to try to find who needs to die.
Keywords: Aliens, Bargains, Extinction, Choices
Review: I really like where the story goes with this sort of SFF trope of a group of benevolent aliens come to Earth to save...some people. And indeed it’s the heart of authoritarian appeal. And it’s done in this subtle way, because at first the story seems to set these aliens up as basically space communists, living this idealized, Star Trek vision of the future. They see humanity and recognize that they won’t make it, that they Need Help in the form of intervention and basically plucking out a breeding population to keep them viable in a zoo/reserve situation on another planet. And given how hard things have gotten on Earth, it does almost seem like a good thing. Who wouldn’t want to be saved, to be cared for, to have Enough after being so long without? And certainly Best is tempted by it, in part because she was chosen for being a person who would think it could be fair. Now, she probably also a boat-load of trauma, and I’m not sure I like that the character with the harder childhood has turned out the more entitled, while the person with more affluence has become more sensitive to prejudice. But overall I think the piece does a good job of exploring not how to make that choice of how lives and who dies in an ethical fashion but that any attempt to do so is shit. That there is no way to make that choice “well” and that if the cost for “salvation” is that people are going to die, and probably a lot of people, then it’s not worth making. And that’s where I feel it works into our current moment. If someone is making promises of safety but the catch is that it’s only for some, then that is choice that will ultimately lead to extinction. That there can be no justice where people are separated in who will live and who will die based on any set of values. It’s a complex and difficult story in that way, elegantly and entertainingly told, and I love the ending, the implication that our hope in survival rests in refusing those authoritarian options and instead working to help each other, all of us, as best we can. A wonderful read!

“Voice of Their Generation” by Andrew Dana Hudson (2140 words)

No Spoilers: Thicket is a writer working on Detective Pikachu vs. Predator at a time when all movies seem to be mash-ups of existing properties designed to make the most money. Humans have become largely secondary in the creative process at this time, but still necessary for submitting work to the algorithms for review. But Thicket can’t seem to make it past the AI that is governing what gets approved and what gets rejected. It grates their belief that they are the voice of their generation, a talent just waiting to Go Big. The realities of this creative process, though, and the values of the AI and the corporations behind them, though, twist that voice until it’s much different from how it set out to be. Sharply funny, the piece manages to be solidly fun and crushingly heavy.
Keywords: Screenplays, Writing, Non-binary MC, Creativity, Algorithms
Review: This is a rather bleak story, for all that it looks at creating a project that is almost entirely fan service. I mean, I love how the piece looks at a future where everything isn’t just a sequel, but a mash-up. A crossover Event. And I love how it takes on creativity and the corporate nature of these projects, revealing how the system doesn’t just value derivative crap, but rather has a much more insidious push hidden within it. Because Thicket begins the story packing hope into the piece, making it mean something about fighting back against despair and cynicism. The piece weaves the themes of the source material together very well (and to hilarious effect) to create something that does sound like it would work and be amazing. Like, I want to see most of these movies. But every time they think they’ve made something that is brilliant enough, that is what the world needs, it is rejected. And the result of that is that they become increasingly upset and disillusioned by the whole thing. But it’s not about just turning in something completely AI-driven. It’s about giving into the “right” impulses and messages. The story is made into a grim and cynical statement on how the system can’t really be fought against, because for Thicket that’s exactly the case. They are stuck chasing after the approval of an AI designed not for the betterment of humanity but for the enrichment of its corporate masters. A system that Thicket not only participates in, but aspires to. And ouch. And for me it speaks to the ways that artistic voice is twisted by the greed of the system, the corruption of it, the gatekeeping and barriers to entrance, and the ways that genuine hope can be crushed beneath the need to sell the “right” kind of story. A great read!

“Glass Bottle Dancer” by Celeste Rita Baker (5703 words)

No Spoilers: Mabel is a woman who hears about glass bottle dancing and gets an image stuck in her head about it. Despite being fifty and over two hundred pounds, it’s something she wants to try. Just...not where anyone can see. So she steals away at night to practice. And practice. All the while the mahogany birds (winged cockroaches) in the yard watch and become interested in her progress. And what starts as a whim becomes something more. More empowering, more dangerous, more rewarding. For Mabel and for the roaches, it’s a way of being seen in a way that shrugs off the shame and fear of reprisal, and it has a lot of fun along the way.
Keywords: Dancing, Bottles, Roaches, Performance, Practice
Review: I love the energy and the joy of this story, the way that Mabel starts off having to hide what she’s doing and them comes to embrace it openly. The way that everyone around her reacts, where many don’t want her to do it because it’s risky, because they’re Concerned. And other think she’ll make a fool of herself. And mostly they don’t think that she can do it. And they’re nearly right, because it all almost ends in a kind of tragedy. But for me the story is about not letting someone else trample your joy. She doesn’t let the people dissuade her from doing this thing she wanted to do, and she gets better and better, and despite the pressure and the doubt she manages to tap something downright magical. And I just love the voice of the story and the interactions between the characters, the way the characters flirt and fuck and dance. The way they live, and find ways to do so without shame, bringing into that some magic that makes people recognize joy and beauty. Like with the roaches, who yearn to have a freedom from shoes, so does Mabel want a freedom to just do what she’s doing, to just be, and to celebrate that. Like with the argument the roaches have, part of it is that expressions of joy and art are necessary to fight stigma and prejudice, are necessary to carve out a space free from shoes. But it’s also just because it’s fun, because the doing is full of pleasure and release and that shouldn’t have to be hidden away or censured. It’s a beautiful piece, vibrant and fun, with a wonderful rhythm and hilarious and affirming ending. If you need a smile, then sit yourself down with this story and enjoy. Fantastic work!

“The Witch Speaks” by Rati Mehrotra (2597 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a witch, a person who can see death, can know the moment of it. It doesn’t really bring any comfort, and at this point in her life mostly she’s looking for a way out of the world she’s in, an entrance into a different, better place. Which makes Varanasi a good place to be, it seems, because the belief goes that people who die there are washed clean and basically guaranteed salvation. But for the narrator that aspect of the city has been tarnished by the tragedy that she’s endured, the heartache that has left her staring down the length of a well. The piece is heavy and full of shadows cast by religious intolerance and violence and the grief of loss. The narrator is one now attuned to death, and that gives the story something of a trajectory, one that might have escaped the gravity of tragedy, or tradition, if not for hate and violence. It’s wrenching and raw, and a powerful read.
Keywords: Witches, Religion, Family, Death, CW- Suicide, CW- Murder
Review: In some ways this is a rather classic story of starcrossed lovers. The story references the standards, the tragedies of the two people who fall in love despite everything and yet find their love punished by both of their families. The reasons differ, but here it’s because of religion, because she’s from a Hindu family, he from a Muslim one. Now, I am making assumptions about gender, because that really doesn’t get brought up, but the fact that their families seem only concerned with the faith of their partners seems to point that that’s the main issue at work here, but I do admit that I’m making assumptions that could be wrong. That the narrator is aware of those stories, the shape of intolerance when it comes across two young people trying to love despite a system built on intolerance, doesn’t save her from living through the same cycle. Violence finds her partner, and what she is left with is only the weight of that, so that bloodshed is like a boulder rolling down hill. Of course, as a witch, she does get to maybe steer it a little. But it’s a wrenching and beautifully rendered portrait of love and loss and grief. And for me it shows two people who thought that those stories were too old, that they could live their love because what is the point of tragedy if not to refute it. With the pervasiveness of those stories, surely everyone has learned that love should be let to flourish. Instead, the same mistakes are made, the same family-destroying series of deaths that leave nothing but ashes and tears and shaken heads. It’s not a happy story, though it takes some solace it seems in the idea that like those tragedies, there might be some peace for the characters beyond the mortal reach of those who condemned them. That maybe, if not here, there is a door to somewhere love is still possible. A great way to close out the issue!


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