This month’s Lightspeed stories move from a longer novelette to a shorter one and then to a short story and a shorter one. The last two avoid direct narrative and the first and last (arguably) avoid genre commitments. Coincidentally or not, the issue’s best tale is the second, which is a science fiction narrative, though even it doesn’t stick the landing.
- “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim (science fiction novelette)
- “Gundark Island, or, Tars Tarkas Needs Your Help” by Matthew Corradi (science fiction short story)
- “The Seeds of War” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy short story)
- “A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam (fantasy short story)
After five consecutive installments, the flood of novel out-takes apparently ends with “Seeds.” The other fantasy is a short fable in which a “Conch-Shell” allows people to choose their own adventures (including a man who slays a dragon but loses a girl, another who becomes a mayor and gets a girl, and a girl who won’t speak for herself or take responsibility for her own (in)actions) with the baldly stated theme of complaint that the shell “sang of the men’s work, their sacrifices, but not of the women’s” and a selfish and simplistic ending.
The science fiction is much more interesting, but still problematic. “Archronology” is a story about romance and loss along with a dash of epistemology and stuff about a gizmo. When a colony dies, taking a woman’s beloved with it, she and others must use the gizmo (a sort of VR pseudo-time machine) and other methods to find out what went wrong. While the general concept of the gizmo is clear enough, details about it seem gratuitously nonsensical. The hyper-advanced tech is on a 1920s level, recording “light but not sound,” people can rematerialize into walls without further catastrophic effects, there’s no gravity (despite it being in a gravity field), “[t]hings you brought with you were solid, but everything else was basically a projection” and yet, despite bringing your heart and lungs with you, there is “no ambient noise, or even [your] own breathing and heartbeat.” Further, there are cases of purely logical incoherence. The main character was informed in messages that a parakeet on this colony world had died and that crops died and that more crops died and for some reason this didn’t concern her until people started dying. And it is only when reviewing the messages that she makes a connection between the non-human and human deaths. And, presumably, all the other people who have lost all their loved ones got similar messages and no one made this connection. Everyone just assumes the order of things they were told was reversed. “Yes, well, we were told a bird died and then crops failed and then more crops failed and then everyone died but we ‘assumed that the crops and animals had died because the people of the colony had gotten too sick to tend them.'” Further, it’s presented as a mystery but what happened is obvious from nearly the beginning. So, basically, things of this sort constantly took me out of the story which, despite an excess of crying, might have had a workable human-interest core and even some interesting stuff about aliens and knowledge.
Finally, “Gundark” is a sort of bildungsroman and meta-sfnal story about a strange kid’s effect on another kid’s life in the 1980s and the nature of science fiction, imagination, and life. I’m not sure how to evaluate this as a story because it punches too many buttons. It initially seemed topically interesting but fictionally weak as it wandered through a sort of slipstreamish pseudo-SF phase but it began to come together and reach a new level at the end (though I wasn’t happy with how it reassigned credit for some of our imaginative achievements). All I can say is that, for whatever reasons, it seems notable to me.
(Also, on an ideological rather than aesthetic level, I loved the ironic analysis in the section on the “college experience.” I think moving beyond this would benefit a great many people and the field.)
- “On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (science fiction short story)
- “My Children’s Home” by Woody Dismukes (science fiction short story)
- “Self-Storage Starts with the Heart” by Maria Romasco Moore (fantasy short story)
- “A Hundred Thousand Arrows” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)
As a notice, rather than a review, “Arrows” is the fourth of at least five consecutive out-takes from a “Burnt Empire” novel and takes 40% of this issue’s “original” word count. Also, “Ligeia” is a reprint of a 2018 story originally published in a Chinese magazine, leaving just over 10,000 words of indisputably original fiction in the other two stories.
“Home” has steampunk robots and adults, who were once vat-grown children, raising other vat-grown children. There are no females anywhere but D-13 is considered an attractive boy by D-6 and the adult of the house as well as a strange bureaucrat who intervenes to take D-13 away, after which the adult and D-6 react. I could find no real logic in this story and the ending, such as it is, seems like an unwarranted assertion rather than a natural result of events.
“Self-Storage” starts poorly with an unappealing protagonist (James) bemoaning the loss of his only friend who’s gotten married, had a kid, and stopped wargaming with him. (The homoerotic element which is brought into the open near the end is obvious from the start.) The fantasy gimmick is that emotions can be stored so that they won’t affect those who store them but it’s expensive. With a little effort and some chewing gum and baling wire, James creates a low-cost DIY version and, with the help of a new business partner, makes the lower-cost service available to others. In this middle, the story became more interesting. But repression is bad and, after an encounter with the old friend (which leaves us wondering why James loves such a jerk, albeit a partially correct jerk) things get worse before an all-too-easy ending which is arguably worse than the beginning.
Finally, I’m not sure whether to review “Ligeia” (the reprint which was billed as an original) because it falls in the cracks in an odd way. On the one hand, it’s a reprint and from a translation and from 2018 but, on the other, this was presumably how it was originally written and it appears in English for the first time in 2019. However, I did read it and the review is simple. On a literary level, almost any propaganda so obvious (or a story so warped for publication) is a failure. In this, an American has gotten a job at the ESA and is exploring Titan via semi-AI robot. The US is scheduled to launch a manned mission to Mars. The US mission fails, the ESA robot gets stuck, and it’s Chinese drones, which have secretly made their way to Titan, to the rescue! I could also complain about how the protagonist initially “sounded like a blithering fanboy, he knew” until he encounters a sign of what may be life and then he “put on his best professional voice” or how the robot was supposedly designed to exhibit curiosity after the fashion of a human but “lurched forward, resuming its biology program, untroubled by the appearance of little flying machines where none should be” (machinery is evidence of biology!)
(As far as the propaganda, it prompted a digression which really doesn’t belong in a review, as such, so I cut it, but I should write another post devoted to the subject soon.)
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.