Thursday, June 4, 2020

Quick Sips - Lightspeed #121

Art by Reiko Murakami
I kick off my coverage of June short SFF with a look at the latest issue of Lightspeed, which contains three short stories and one novelette. And the stories seem to circle around isolation, finding characters who out of choice or circumstance are living largely on their own on in a small group. And who find, in that isolation, that the rules of the world seem to bend a bit. That stories become incredibly important, because of how they define the world, how they give shape to its nebulous shadows. And how they order and organize forces that don't have a great explanation, but through the lens of those stories have meaning. It's a great variety on display this month, and I'll get right to my reviews!


“Single Malt Spacecraft” by Marie Vibbert (3669 words)

No Spoilers: Fresia is a trader and whisky maker. Kinda. Sorta. She’s got a nice scheme going, where she sets up a run of whisky and then does a trade run to a distant space station, which takes only a few weeks but locally takes forty years. By which time the whisky is aged nicely and she can normally turn a tidy profit. Except that things aren’t always smooth skipping stones through time, and personally and professionally there are things that happen that throw a wrench in Fresia’s plans. It’s a fun piece, full of a kind of brash rush to not be tied down, to know freedom and cats and good whisky. And really, that’s not a bad life in my eyes.
Keywords: Whisky, Commerce, Time Travel(?), Trade, Cats, Spaceships
Review: I love the energy of the story and Fresia in particular, a woman who mostly knows what she wants--to travel, to be free, and to drink well. All understandable. She seems to have this picture of herself as a romantic hero, a pirate or trader, not tied to anything but her dreams and her profits. Except that might just be a bit of a front to her own fears and desires to avoid stagnating, her mild addiction to seeing the world change. To me, at least, the way she travels through time is just as much a draw as the chance for profit. It allows her to experiment with whisky by almost cheating, and it lets her watch as the worlds change, as the galaxy becomes a little smaller. It gives her this narrative of herself where no one can hide the bottle from her, try to put it outside her reach (that she’s been in some shitty relationships definitely speaks to me about her desire to be unentangled). Now she holds to power even when maybe she’s tempted at times to put it down. And even if she regrets a bit the opportunities that she turned down because she wasn’t ready for them. But regret isn’t the worst thing, and it certainly doesn’t stop her from living. It’s fun, and the plot moves quickly, the main tension an attempt by a new asshole to clip her wings, to steal her dream. And it’s delightful how she gets through it and how she decides to meet the future, always (more or less) on her terms. It’s a delightful story, and one you should definitely check out!

“Real Animals” by Em North (7700 words)

No Spoilers: It’s the end of the world, or an alien invasion, or both, as Raffi, her friend Kay, and Kay’s husband Buck live amongst a growing taxidermy garden in a chalet in Montana, surrounded by animals who are no longer just animals. And tucked into this story of survival and life and death is a deeper take on friendship, isolation, longing, and fear. Of small town life and the ways growing up often doesn’t go to plan. Of the ways that art can make beautiful even the most tragic and horrific of things. It’s a languid, almost surreal story in some ways, but told in such an earnest and straightforward matter that it carries the weight of truth. And revealed with such a fragile clarity that it’s a bit of a shattering read, bleak but lovely.
Keywords: Taxidermy, Animals, Aliens, Death, Small Towns, Relationships
Review: I do love the ways that the story ties to the taxidermy garden, that way of preserving bodies, creating the illusion of stasis. And the way that the story handles the idea that it’s beautiful, beautiful while revealing this rather horrifying and tragic thing. And that, to me at least, becomes a lot of what the story itself is doing, the prose beautiful, alluring, yearning, and yet capturing something that is rather terrifying and tragic on this awesome scale. There’s no report about the rest of the world but in Montana humans are no longer dominant. They are hunted by animals who have become infused with alien...something. The how and the why aren’t super clear, but what is clear is that people are dying. And Kay is saving what she can by making this garden, even if she doesn’t entirely know what it means or what it’s for. Which for me is an apot way of capturing many kinds of art in the world we live in, where people are dying, where there’s an air of tragedy lingering, where art might seem powerless in the face of all that, but isn’t. Like the bodies, art has a way of acting not just as warning, not just as something pretty, but as a record of what has been lost. Trying to distill the people, the feelings of what is no longer there. Which then works into the ways that Raffi holds so much pain and longing and regret, so much mourning for a life she never got to live. And what’s left is the bleak reality of her time left with Kay, the slow encroaching dread, the violence waiting to claim them. It’s a chilling but still deeply moving story, and I definitely recommend checking it out!

“The Postictal State of Divine Love” by Julianna Baggott (7322 words)

No Spoilers: A child grows up with a mother who has epilepsy...and who might be a vampire. At least, who tells the story of a vampire queen and her secret child directly after seizures. As a child, the narrator believes and is enchanted by the stories her mother tells. As an adult, it’s a lot more complicated. But the story breaks into multiple parts, into two main lines, the first being the narrator’s life with her mother, the other a much more academic text looking at the “truth” of vampires and how they differ from the standard depictions. Where the two meet is a strange place where history might be full of erased people and realities in an attempt to safeguard humanity from destruction should vampires die out. It’s strange but compelling, this new version of vampires one that makes sense, and might tie lightly in with what’s happening in the world right now.
Keywords: Vampires, Seizures, CW- Pregnancy/Child birth, History, Immunology
Review: This is a bit of strange read because it juxtaposes its sections in such an interesting way, the part told by the narrator coming to the understanding that her mother’s stories about vampires is a delusion, one that the narrator liked as a child because it made her feel special but one that she stopped truly believing as time went on. Next to that, though, is this other text, one that treats the mother’s version of history and the world as fact, a sort of covered up reality that has been done to protect humanity. And it’s quite possible that the implication of the story, the mother’s insistence that there are documents, points to that the narrator will find just this information about vampires that the “nonfiction” section of the story details. Which builds this strange reality touched by a kind of magic and a wound that no one really knows about. One that has been treated by removing vampires from the “real” world in order to protect them. Of course, they must still be rather scarce because we’re still having pandemics. Still, the story builds that liminal space where maybe, just maybe, this is all real so well, making the narrator a rational and educated person who rejects her mother’s stories but also, maybe just a bit, wants to believe them, because there is something about them that is wonderful. And I like how it all comes together, the sadness and the loss of it, and the hope that maybe there will come a time when vampires aren’t persecuted, but rather honored for the role they play as a immunological helper to humanity. A great read!

“Refuge” by Ben Peek (6573 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a letter written from one historian to another, the piece takes the shape of a correction. The writer, Laena Kae, addresses Mr. Quilas, a person who has recently put out a book of essays, including one on a famous captain of a kind of mercenary army--Aned Heast, of the army Refuge. Here mercenary doesn’t exactly mean that they’ll fight for the highest payment, though. Refuge fights to break chains, to lift up the oppressed, and to strive for right regardless of national affiliation. So maybe it’s a free army instead of a mercenary one. Except that at the point this story and the referenced essay are looking at in Heast’s life, Refuge isn’t anything. Following a shattering loss, it’s mostly just Heast himself, bearing new wounds, and come to a small desert town to try and do a bit of good...or die trying. It’s a fun piece, the world building solid and deep, the character work layered and satisfying. It manages its nested narrative very well, and the frame hits home on the themes of truth and doing what’s right, even against impossible odds.
Keywords: History, Armies, CW- Slavers, Corrections, Letters
Review: I really like the way the story layers itself, building both the story of the letter writer and Heast himself. It reveals a contrasting view of history, one from someone who knows intimately what “really happened” and another who seems to be playing to an audience, leaning on cliche in order to sanitize history and give a more monolithic picture of Heast. Because Heast would not kill a man in front of children. And Heast would not “win” because of the actions and honor of a single black woman. Heast would win through something daring, a single duel with an enemy captain. Not a plan that was hinged on desperation and cunning as much as it was on his own reputation and that of his army. Because really I think that’s what the story is about for me, the power of the truth. Not just the romantic story of Heast as a noble captain of a noble company, but the reality of Heast and Refuge as an army. Often violent, occasionally defeated, but determined to fight. To break chains. To smash cages. Even when doing so involves things that aren’t all that noble of clean. The complexity of the people in history, the messiness of them, is what makes history. Is what makes it real and meaningful and not just propaganda, not just a tool to get across a point. The story that the narrator tells isn’t less awesome for being messy. If anything it shows such a deeper and more penetrating look at Heast, and the things he was fighting for, and how he fought. And it’s a fantastic read!


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