Review: Lightspeed #105, February 2019

Lightspeed #105, February 2019

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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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Review: Lightspeed #104, January 2019

Lightspeed #104, January 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “With Teeth Unmake the Sun” by A. Merc Rustad (fantasy novelette)
  • “Midway” by Tony Ballantyne (science fiction short story)
  • “Son of Water and Fire” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)
  • “Endor House” by Meg Elison (fantasy short story)

A man traveling the galaxy has reached the “Midway” point on his life’s journey and is having second thoughts about the wisdom of his path. Then he meets a human for the first time in a long time and she helps him come to a decision. Though I think it’s the right decision, this is talky, didactic, and the milieu is not believable. “Endor” is one of two “tabloid weird” stories and delivers a double shot as it’s actually told by a time-traveling tabloid-like reporter who’s interviewing a son taking over a conservative father’s business and boldly moving to market magic to scientific worlds. “Teeth” is the more severe case of conflation and is one of two “series” novelettes in this issue (“Sun Lords of the Principality”). In this tale of lupine bondage, a wolf plays the good soldier and eats worlds to screw with the Sun Lords at the behest of Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf and texts with his/her human lover before coming to a belated understanding. “Water” is the other series tale (“Legends of the Burnt Empire”) in which Lightspeed gets rather Tor-like in using “short fiction” to advertise books. This picks up with the previous installment’s surviving son playing in the river until he’s taken to Coldheart Mountain to learn some things off-stage before being deposited near his father to be the next Super King though the long story, being just a middle, pauses before anything happens.

Review: Lightspeed #103

Lightspeed #103, December 2018

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Original Fiction:

  • “Mouths” by Lizz Huerta (fantasy short story)
  • “Under the Sea of Stars” by Seanan McGuire (fantasy short story)
  • “A Love Story Written on Water” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)
  • “Grandma Novak’s Famous Nut Roll” by Shaenon K. Garrity (fantasy short story)

I suspect people are tired of my comments on genre (I’m tired of making them) but I feel like people ought to know what they’re getting. This isn’t a special “all fantasy” issue of Lightspeed, in that the first two are billed as SF, but it’s difficult for me to call the first SF and impossible to call the second one that. Also, while the fourth is trying to be funny and thus leaves the horror deeply backgrounded and washed out, it’s actually more of a horror story than the second Nightmare story of this month which, despite its werewolves, was more of a fantasy story.

As I said, it’s difficult to call “Mouths” even “science fantasy.” It’s really a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which the apocalypse is not clearly described and the “post-” makes little sense. A woman hurts her mouth and goes to a sort of dentist who takes her on as an apprentice until the woman’s lover shows up for her. Having fallen in love with the first woman, the dentist wavers between suicide and subjugating himself to them.

Under” is a fantasy about a woman leading a 19th century expedition into a dangerous and bizarre river (which really exists, though not quite as described). The woman’s grandfather had met a strange woman there, produced our heroine’s mother with her, and vowed to explore the river but died without completing his task. Taking the baton, the granddaughter discovers things she was Not Meant to Know. Despite having a weakness for subterranean aquatic tales such as Edmond Hamilton’s “Serpent Princess” (1948) and some Lankhmar stories and so on, this didn’t really grab me (in part due to the problems of the choice of protagonist and time-period in which the woman is an anachronistic and overly gender-conscious leader but overly Victorian otherwise) but it may work for some.

Love Story” (also the Cover Story) is an elaborately contrived Hindu-flavored fairy tale about a river goddess, her mortal lover, and the strange conditions under which she must destroy their children. A couple of aspects seem unintentionally contradictory and it takes a long, though colorful, time to get to an ending which is obvious except for its low cost. The didactic romance seems to have dual themes on the proper way to love along with an element of “accept that mother knows best and that she works in mysterious ways.”

Finally, “Nut Roll” is a patented “Lightmare” combination of letter and list with the contents being a bunch of recipes (each presented in its entirety). The people sharing these recipes are not normal and the food is more than just filling. However, the story is less.

Review: Lightspeed #102

Lightspeed #102, November 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy” by Theodore McCombs (science fiction short story)
  • “Moonboys” by Stephen Graham Jones (science fiction short story)
  • “Queen Lily” by Theodora Goss (fantasy novelette)
  • “Hapthorn’s Last Case” by Matthew Hughes (fantasy novelette)

As always, Lightspeed is nominally balanced with two examples each of fantasy and science fiction but there are nearly 18,000 words of fantasy to nearly 8,000 of SF if one accepts the classifications (which is especially tricky in the case of the fantasies).

Queen Lily” will have more for fans of the Alice books and metafiction than for others and could be seen as a mainstream tale which simply juxtaposes two literary/historical figures amidst a fever/laudanum dream. Lily MacDonald is dying amidst dreams of Wonderland, trying to integrate a visiting Alice Liddell into her experiences. This focuses a lot on recent gender issues and, uh, interpretations of Carroll.

Similarly, “Hapthorn” will have more for fans of the Archonate series, of which this forms a part, than for others and could be seen as an SF tale in that this opens in the science side of a universe which cyclically transforms from a place of science to one of magic and back and is on the cusp of turning to magic (though the fundamental premise is clearly fantastic – or metaphorical of our own times – and even the “scientific” universe feels like fantasy). In this, Hapthorn is invited to a chef’s party which results in a case which results in bumping into the wrong sorts of people which results in a discovery about an element of his society before an even more significant thing occurs. Many will find this an entertaining tale though some may be put off by its sometimes flowery, epicurean style and content. Also, while it definitely has a series of (sometimes) interconnected events, those are to plot as Calvinball is to, say, football, with lots of frobnicating the “invigilator” and such.

Yet again, “Moonboys” will have more for fans of flash fiction than others. Two brothers are on the moon when disaster strikes and the psychology of the older brother is explored in a gushing instant of consciousness which, while not especially science fictional, is quite effective even if I don’t understand all of the elements, especially at the open. Oddly, this is the second time this month I’ve been reminded of a story from the recently deceased Grievous Angel, as this has things in common with “Moonshot” (April 18, 2018).

A more general story is “Jeremy,” which details an AI tutor using what is basically psychological torture on its students in order to compel them to purchase upgrades, modules, and whatnot. The possibilities that the AI is running amok, and/or the corporation is evil, and/or society and its children are broken are considered. I have mixed reactions to this story. It belabors the obvious points of the tutor’s cyberbullying advertising pressures on the tormented child and the conclusion of the main child’s story isn’t entirely convincing. Though also problematic, one of the most interesting aspects of the story is the narrator, which is an impossibly omniscient, seemingly first-person “we,” and has a marvelously pompous tone used to ironic effect. Despite the story’s darkness, it does have some sardonic humor, and even a touching scene with Aunt Sylvia, while it tackles a serious subject.

Review: Lightspeed #101

Lightspeed #101, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Horror of Party Beach” by Dale Bailey (science fantasy novelette)
  • “The Real You™” by Molly Tanzer (science fictional short story)
  • “Super-Luminous Spiral” by Cameron Van Sant (science fantasy short story)
  • “Ten Deals with The Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (fantasy short story)

Real” dragoons the reader into being the audience for a woman’s gossipy monologue about her and others’ relationships in which the SF gimmick of a magic procedure that turns people’s faces into blobs is used to touch on identity, isolation, and protective measures to say, with Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever you go, there you are.” There’s a good phrase or two and some people may enjoy this sort of thing but, if it doesn’t sound like your thing, you probably won’t.

A couple of stories touch on addictions of sorts. “Deals” deals with a woman making risky deals with a snake (which has been a common thing in this world, which is otherwise like our own, since Eve) to gain everything from good grades to the attentions of another woman which, as only part of her gambling habit, leads to worse and worse things for awhile. Among other things, the story’s a fuzzy blend of genres, it’s in present tense, it includes a revolting section (#8), and it’s in the form of a list. Just as “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” is the “perfect country and western song,” this is the perfect Lightspeed story! Even more fuzzy a blend is “Spiral,” which is in the fantasy section but could just as easily be in the SF section if you treat its “galaxy boy” as an alien indistinguishable from magic. As Juvenal said, “tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes” (“the incurable itch of writing possesses many”) and a budding author tells us all about his encounter with the magic alien transsexual virus muse who has quite an effect on quite a few college students. This isn’t in the form of a list but is in second person in addition to being in present tense.

Reversing “Spiral,” “Horror” is billed as SF but it’s not remotely, being another of the many transmutations of “1950s sci-fi movies” into “2010s retro-stories.” This one is a weird sort of coming of age tale set in the summer of ’55 on the East Coast and deals with a boy meeting a girl and having a wonderful relationship except that not all is as it seems. What makes this work is a great narrative voice and a generally reasonable sense of time (though “cancer” was not a word used in polite company). What makes this not work is its sledgehammer foreshadowing (when nothing that happens is surprising anyway – the daughter of a mad scientist parties at a beach with teens and…) and its excessive end. But, aside from those two issues (the last of which might not bother some), it’s an engaging read. I still think it, along with aspects of “Deals,” would be a better fit for Nightmare or, at least, in the case of this one, for the fantasy section.

(While I’m quibbling, when I started reviewing Analog for my old site a few years ago, I used to take detailed notes on most of the grammatical and proofreading issues that bothered me. Such problems in webzines are so overwhelming that there’s little point and I only emit random distressed noises every now and then and, to be fair, Lightspeed is not the worst offender, but I feel like complaining about the Great Disappearing Adverb again (“your [literature!] professor taught you to read slow and careful”) and other things like “you scramble to stuff you and your roommate’s laptops under your coat…”)

Review: Lightspeed #100

Lightspeed #100, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Her Monster, Whom She Loved” by Vylar Kaftan (science fiction short story)
  • “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Last to Matter” by Adam-Troy Castro (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Explainer” by Ken Liu (science fiction short story)
  • “Hard Mary” by Sofia Samatar (science fiction novelette)
  • “Abandonware” by Genevieve Valentine (fantasy short story)
  • “Jump” by Cadwell Turnbull (fantasy short story)
  • “You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, And I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You” by Maria Dahvana Headley (fantasy short story)
  • “Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller (fantasy short story)
  • “A Brief Guide to the Seeking of Ghosts” by Kat Howard (fantasy short story)

Lightspeed brings us a more-than-double special issue for its 100th number with five original SF stories, five original fantasy stories, plus extra reprints and non-fiction. (The online edition swaps two of the usual reprints for two bonus originals with the Kaftan, Vaughn, Castro, Valentine, Turnbull, and Headley being made available.)

Monster” is a cosmic fantasy with scientific phrases sprinkled about and involves a goddess creating some children, one of whom is a monster, and follows their battle of the eons. It has a lot of the feel of June’s “Silent Sun.” “Ahomana” is a “shipwrecked on an island with a secret city” story with an additional component of alternate history in which “Harry” and Marlowe wander from their Victorian England (which has been modified with relics of alien tech) and discover the wonders of Ahomana. Even for being a part of a series and granting that this episode is finished, this is a middle and a bit long for its content but entertaining enough. “Matter” is a “jaded at the end of the worlds” story with a splash of posthumanism thrown over the New Wavy core. A man is ejected from his “orgynism” of perpetual sex to discover the City is dying and decides there are two ways to go and picks one. Some of this is repellent, the rest is common, and the end isn’t as deep as it purports to be. “Explainer” is metafiction nominally involving a repairman and a little girl, in which a broken (lying) house AI is relevant to the craft of fiction and, more generally, the drive for narrative.

The (perhaps excessively) gender-edged “Hard Mary” was much too long for its content (nearly a novella) but the oddly Simakian tale was the most interesting of the SF tales. Lyddie (narrator) and Mim (misfit genius) are effectively characterized young women living in an isolated religious village in the near future who, with some others, discover an abandoned, semi-functional robot they come to call “Hard Mary.” The (mostly mild) tension comes from multiple places including within and between the characters, between that group and the village, and between all of them and the “Profane Industries” men who created Mary.

Abandonware” involves a broken narrator talking about a sort of VR game while covering her childhood and her current situation with a dead mother and a father who has replaced both of them. There’s a symbolic deer and some things that could be called hallucinations but no real fantasy or effect. “Plumage” takes us to an alternate 1950s where everyone has a fantastic talent, though the narrator’s hasn’t manifested because she first wants to learn more about the murder of her gay brother who “danced birds,” so to speak. From the street that went on forever to its questionable rock history and odd perspective on baseball to its ending, it’s unconvincing and “drops frames” at an increasing rate through the sketchy narrative. “Brief Guide” is no story but yet another ineffectual list (eleven sections on how to avoid or attract ghosts depending on season, weather, time of day, and a tip for the ghostless).

Moving up quite a way, “Pretend” is an initially darkly delightful tale of the less magical son of a magician who has to entertain at a birthday party. Naturally, he goes to a bar and hits on what turns out to be a bereaved mother whose child was killed and husband injured in a motorcycle accident. That turns out to be the high point of his day. His life hasn’t been much better, either, as we learn about his childhood, his dad, and deals with Death and/or the Devil. The sardonic tone and comical imagery (the magician’s bright yellow “lemon” of a VW Beetle accidentally ending up in a funeral procession, for instance) keep this story involving and entertaining and the only real problem is a somewhat incongruous and pat ending.

While much more understated (but consistent), “Jump” is the issue’s best story. One fine day, in an overflow of love and joy, Mike and his girlfriend Jessie teleport home. A desire to repeat the experience comes to obsess Mike while Jessie prefers to treasure the singular experience. For a time, she accedes to Mike’s efforts and, somewhere in there, they get married but this thing that cemented their relationship also tends to tear it apart. Very concise, yet well-realized and with some humor and pathos. Good stuff.

Review: Lightspeed #99

Lightspeed #99, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas” by Sarah Grey (science fiction short story)
  • “The Atonement Path” by Alex Irvine (science fiction short story)
  • “Scavenge, Rustic Hounds!” by Manuel Gonzales (fantasy short story)
  • “A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building” by Kate Elliott (fantasy short story)

All four stories deal with dystopian societies though I suspect the last isn’t supposed to be seen as such and is at least humanized by one of the Powers That Be. All four stories are readable and most have their strengths but none really stuck out for me. Each pair billed as SF and as fantasy contains a long short story (6-7K) and a shorter one (2.5K).

Bond” deals with a woman selling her semi-AI ship, which she’s named Cleo. The “middlewoman” is the Abbess who runs the Henza (whose name may be inspired by the c.1400 German “Hansa”) which is an unscrupulous, slave-driving politico-religious order whose deity is a goddess of trade. The woman is so sentimentally attached to her ship that she’s insisted on a clause against scrapping it and also insists on meeting the downstream buyer. Finally, after getting some wisdom from a barkeep, she goes back after her ship and things do not go well.

The protagonist, Jeri, is the main problem with this tale. Her sentimentality, which would be sympathy-inducing in small doses, is extreme (or the ship is not aesthetically sufficient for the story’s demands on it). She’s incredibly naive if not downright stupid as anyone can immediately see the problem with her clause to a middleman and she’s supposed to be an experienced merchant yet either has no idea who she’s dealing with or is insane for dealing with them. She’s hasty and a poor physical specimen as she’s easily and immediately incapacitated at one point. And she ultimately drags the plot down with her as it’s somewhat ridiculous that the Henza wouldn’t “indenture” Cleo with governors as well as doing a better job of restricting Jeri, making the supposed “suspense” of the ending moot. Aside from that, though, it does a good job of metamorphosing key elements of our own society into a science fantasy one.

The Atonement Path” is a relatively short Robert Browning-like monologue (though it does have a couple of inserts which break the monologue in fact, if not in feel) in which a lawyer describes his society’s juvenile justice system to a visitor. Some effect is achieved through the matter-of-fact approval of the lawyer calmly narrating awful things but I’m not sure I followed the ending line.

Also short and confusing, “Scavenge” describes a woman warning her husband that “the creatures” have arrived and are carting people away. Despite their best efforts, concentrated on saving the at-risk husband, both suffer in various ways. This is yet another “Lightmare” story in which Lightspeed‘s supposed “fantasy” is far more horrific than anything in the companion issue of Nightmare. The problem is that everything is either elliptical symbolism or doesn’t make sense at all and changes the rules of its own game once, if not again, with no (logical or discernibly aesthetic) rationale.

Finally, while “Compendium” is a hierarchical medievaloid tale in which wise old guys can build men out of boys if the boys are properly respectful, industrious, and driven, it comes as a relief from the other three tales in having a form of kindness within it. When the seemingly innocuous old architect’s fire goes out and he finds a boy hiding in a workshop, both their lives change. The architect is a sort of grand poobah and the boy is a commoner, yet a powerful cold mage. The old man adds his guidance to that of the nearby Hogwarts which has been misusing the boy. Not very dramatic or suspenseful and feels like a piece of a larger story or series, but done well enough, especially if you’re interested in exactly how many dabs of butter are alongside the porridge and other such details.