Review: Lightspeed #105, February 2019

Lightspeed #105, February 2019

ls105

Original Fiction:

  • “Life Sentence” by Matthew Baker (science fiction novelette)
  • “Marlowe and Harry and the Disinclined Laboratory” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction short story)
  • “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as Told to Raccoon” by KT Bryski (fantasy short story)
  • “Oath of a Demi-God” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)

As a notice, rather than a review, “Oath” is the third installment of “The Burnt Empire series.” These out-takes from a novel have appeared in three consecutive issues (four come March), have taken a quarter of the original fiction slots, and have taken 44% of the wordage. This issue’s other fantasy is less than 2500 words on “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure,” in which a trickster tries to outwit Death. This is a highly metafictional fairy tale and self-confessedly very Canadian (with tuques and everything) but is also universal. It doesn’t particularly stand out from the vast pack of similar tales but it’s concise and amusing.

Turning to a species of science fiction, “Disinclined Laboratory” is also an installment in a series of tales, but is the first Harry and Marlowe tale since the special 100th issue. In this, Lt. Marlowe is working at a lab run by idiots who are trying to develop weapons from alien technology to help Victorian England win a war against Germany. When the Prince and his sister, Princess Maud (aka Harry), show up for a demonstration, things don’t go well for the idiots but Marlowe’s virtue may be rewarded. This, despite any number of quibbles, is a nice set-up for later stories but, despite having a problem and a solution, it’s not a full story by itself.

Life Sentence” uses the familiar gimmick of mindwiping criminals and is a very mixed bag. Aspects of the man’s subjective experience of having been wiped and reintegrating with his family and society are effective and ring true while others do not (among the most trivial but most glaring: depicting a home-owning American family without access to the internet… in the future… with two school-age kids). Aspects of the speculative/social elements (including disinterest in questioning this society) are especially problematic. The only concern of the story is the man’s conflicting desires to find out what crime he committed and how his past and present may relate to his intrinsic nature. This makes the “lady or the tiger” ending especially unsatisfying.

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Month in Review: January 2019

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This is a slightly re-titled and graphically enhanced version of what used to be the “Monthly Summation” and marks the first month of the two-tiered review system in which eight magazines are fully reviewed and twelve are selectively reviewed. This installment looks back on 96 stories of 502K words which produced just four recommendations and seven honorable mentions. It also includes links to the thirteen relevant reviews and the seven other January articles.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Applied Linguistics” by Auston Habershaw, Analog, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

Also Mentioned

Science Fiction

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • “All the Smells in the World” by Julie Novakova, Analog, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “The City of Lost Desire” by Phyllis Eisenstein, F&SF, January/February 2019  (novella)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

Selected Stories: 2019-01-30

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

I’d figured these “Selected Stories” posts wouldn’t adhere to any rigid schedule but that there would probably be a couple a month, with one coming after I covered the early issues and the second coming after I covered the later stories but, in January, I took a break before getting to the monthly and most of the weekly stories and covering them in one post, so I wasn’t really expecting to do another one this month. However, two late-breaking stories of note require this post.

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (recommended science fiction short story)

Thoughts and Prayers” uses multiple first-person narratives to depict the fates of the surviving members of the Fort family in the wake of their daughter’s death in a mass shooting. The mother, Abigail, is a “digital memory” person while the father, Gregg, is a “meat memory” person, driven by childhood events in his own family. Emily is the second child and Aunt Sara provides technical information. When Abigail seeks to weaponize Hayley’s death to bring about gun control and a wave of trolls swamp the initially positive reaction, the family suffers through a second nightmare which prompts Sara to provide Abigail with “armor” or a sort of individualized Bayesian troll-filter. Will it save them?

This is not a perfect story, as I feel like Abigail’s case was weakly made compared to others’, despite not agreeing with her. Even the one deviation from having family members speak, when a troll is given the floor, makes a more forceful case. Sara is too obviously the incarnated infodump and the story drags in the middle with too much isolated exposition. The bulk of the story reads like recent history more than science fiction and even the SF is rarely more extrapolative than saying at 5:50 that the Six O’Clock News will be on in a few minutes. That said, it does reference some important, burgeoning technologies (the armor “algorithm had originated in the entertainment industry“), the psychology of the story is sound, the subjects are important, and the power of some of the earlier and most of the latter part is remarkable. I was worried that, as the story is partly about crafting an emotionally effective narrative to be “a battering ram to shatter the hardened shell of cynicism, spur the viewer to action, shame them for their complacency and defeatism,” it would also be just that. Perhaps it is, in a way, but gun control is not the primary target and it’s not that simple. Instead, it is part of arrays of reality, guns, trolls, and “freedom to” opposed to mediated simulacra, controls, armor, and “freedom from,” which doesn’t conclude as comfortably as many might like.

(Edit (2019-01-31): I do not recommend the companion article. Having finally read it, it may demonstrate my misunderstanding of the story, but it seems to have been written according to a script which is independent of the story and is unconscious of the ironic result.)

On a completely different note, in celebration of 150 years of the Periodic Table, Nature‘s Futures department sends us to “Elementary School” where we learn about a number of new elements with fascinating and hilarious properties. It’s no story, but it’s entertaining.

Weekly Review: 2019-01-28 (Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Tor.com, January 23, 2019

This is a tale about Trapeze Master Binu of the Majestic Oriental Circus, his jinni friend Shehzad Marid, and, eventually, the devadasi (raja’s and god’s dancing girl) Savithri. When the latter seeks Binu’s help to escape her unrewarding bondage and Binu rather rashly agrees, a god is angered, the circus is threatened, Binu and Shehzad Marid’s relationship is tested, and Binu must do what he can to try to make things right. This is all as colorful as it hopefully sounds and there is a sort of sprightliness to the somewhat goofy Binu’s narration which is appealing though the “good” and “bad” in the story isn’t very challenging and the ending is played with the net down with threats and costs and bargains coming out of nowhere. It’s a pleasant enough diversion which may find fans.

Edit (2019-02-04): Thanks to the folks at Short Fiction Monday on Fantasy Literature for pointing out that this is a sort of sequel to “The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” (Strange Horizons, July 16, 2018). I’d reviewed, but forgotten, that story. The current story is much better but some folks may prefer to read both.

Links: 2019-01-25

Science Fiction

  • Flogging Babel: A Few Words For New Writers. “You may be a very dear friend, someone to whom I owe a lot and for whom I would walk a mile barefoot through the snow if need be, but I am not going to let you read my rough drafts.”

Birthdays

  • 1958-01-25 Peter Watts
  • 1918-01-26 Philip José Farmer
  • 1943-01-26 Judy-Lynn del Rey
  • 1756-01-27 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • 1832-01-27 Lewis Carroll
  • 1955-01-27 Karl Bunker
  • 1924-01-30 Lloyd Alexander
  • 1941-01-30 Gregory Benford
  • 1941-01-30 James Benford
  • 1962-01-31 Will McIntosh

The data in this section is from the ISFDB. ISFDB entries usually have SFE and/or Wikipedia links for biographies. For free works of older authors online, try sites like FreeSFOnline, Archive.org, Gutenberg, or PoemHunter.com.

Science

Terrestrial

When Worlds Collide; Moons and More

New Horizons/Ultima Thule

Opportunity/Mars

Other Astronomical Fascinations

Other

History

Humor

Music

Inspired by that last Calvin…

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Selected Stories: 2019-01-23

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

This is the first review in a probably semi-regular series which notes stories from the “selectively reviewed magazines” (magazines which, as of 2019, I read but don’t review in full).

Noted Original Fiction:

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • What It Sounds Like When You Fall” by Natalia Theodoridou, Nightmare #76, January 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)

(The recommendation for “The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #47, January 2019, would appear here but I reviewed it for Tangent.)

Galaxy’s Edge #36 is above average. Three of the eight original tales are between four and six thousand words and all have their interesting points. “Show” sticks out for me. In it, a first-person narrator finds out that the family robot can do a lot more than would be expected, including creating atomically (though not sub-atomically) identical copies of things. This being in an SF magazine, the plot naturally involves duplicating rare pulps for fun and profit, thanks to the robot’s hedonistic programming. Meanwhile, the narrator has to deal with her(?) antagonistic father when things go well and a bunch of irate customers and the cops when things go wrong. Aside from the pulp references, this is not an overtly “retro” tale but reads like classic SF. However, I find the quantum elements of the story as problematic as they are clever and, even aside from the duo’s main difficulty, I’m not sure how they actually got away with things to the extent they did. Otherwise, this is an unusual, fun, modern robot story with some meaningful character relations.

The five tales which are about two thousand words or significantly less are generally much less interesting but “String” has fun word play and is an excellent analysis of the foibles of string theory, though the story takes it in an opposite and fantastic direction. As short as it is, it’s still a little long and maybe the protagonist could have done something more with his breakthrough, but the tale is entertaining and has some substance.

Turning to noteworthy stories from other magazines, “Skinned” shares some thematic preoccupations with the same author’s “Smear Job” in last month’s Analog and also unsurprisingly makes me think of Rjurik Davidson’s “Skins” (Cosmos, 2015) and other stories about people wearing other bodies. This particular flash piece focuses on the “wearing,” in which the body you choose can be a fashion statement and the main character thinks she’s made a daring choice by taking a man’s body off the sex offender registry and making modifications to it for her own purposes. Neither her hopes nor her fears prepare her for the actual results.

VTE” here stands for “Vicarious Trial and Error” and simultaneously discusses and is a sort of macroscopic double-slit experiment as a scientist dines with another man. I don’t think such extrapolations are plausible and, since there’s a “get out of jail free” card involved, it seems like the plot could have been more foolproof (though pravda has been as strange as this fiction), but it’s still a fun and thought-provoking tale.

In “Fall,” it’s Uncle Pete’s funeral, so he gets dressed for it and the family accompanies him to his grave. Angels have fallen and they’re a lot like birds and vermin but sometimes bring valuable trinkets with the junk they collect for people who are nice to them. Pete’s due to die because he’s lost his job helping his younger brother, the father of our young narrator. Dad is also unemployed except for shooting angels which gets him pennies a dozen. The narrator deals with family life, talks to the buried but not-yet-dead uncle, and interacts with the angels. This is a creative and powerful (though nihilistic) tale of multiple losses (or falls).

Weekly Review: 2019-01-21 (BCS/Tor.com)

bcs-tor

Original Fiction:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #269, January 17, 2019

Tor.com, January 16, 2019

El” inflicts Connor, an inert nothing of a “food crafter,” and his unbelievably repellent sister on us as he tries to recreate a recipe of his recently deceased mother’s and allows the domineering sister to abuse him yet again. This is billed as SF but other than something trivial about a handwaving server inexplicably cooking food in words 630-669 (which may simply be something I don’t understand) this is a painfully mainstream story which gave me the feeling of the famous nightmares involving running without making any progress as its nearly six thousand words of expository writing microscopically examines food such as “the decadent unctuousness of foie gras” and makes asides about Connor’s love interest, the singer Nick, and his “jazzy piece of atonality” with “Bernstein’s setting of the Ferlinghetti poem, ‘The Pennycandystore Beyond the El.'”

Despite being in a different magazine, “Deepest Notes” shares a theme of sibling troubles with “El.” The two female outlaws make me think of a sort of Thelma and Louise in a medieval forest but Jane’s killed her sister and Molly’s killed a bunch of folks before they meet each other and fall in love–also they’re not looking for “a blaze of glory.” The magic element is the fact that instruments made of animal bones can sing of the things that bother them and, when you’ve fed your sister to the pigs and someone makes instruments out of pig bones, it makes a body nervous. This isn’t a satisfying tale to me (the moral calculus eludes me), but it’s concisely told and some may appreciate it.

Carrying on the themes within the same magazine, “Orpheline” also deals with female enemies and allies and with music, in this case repeating the familiar BCS refrain of being an operatic tale set in 18th century France. The intrusively metafictional narrative (and its musical and thematic motifs) reminded me of “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” by Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons, May 14, 2018) and also of the many, many selkie tales of late, even though this uses a catwoman. A “girl” has been deprived of her catskin by a magician, so haunts an opera house as a menial and spars with the malicious Head Soprano but, when the magician’s mistress accompanies him to a performance and she offers the girl a deal which may make them both happy at the expense of the other two characters, the wheels of grrrl power and liberation begin to turn. The narrative style may appeal to some but didn’t sit right with me, seeming to intermittently shift focus as well as degree of intrusion, and the ending was too abrupt and easy but the tale was otherwise effective.