REVIEW SUMMARY: Psychosis and special government operatives; alien manipulation; alternate history; mermaids; Stygian horrors; mechanized warfare; pause buttons for children and more await discerning readers in the February 2013 issue of Lightspeed.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: This issue contains two original works of science fiction and two original works of fantasy, plus two additional reprint stories in each genre, interviews with each featured author as well as extended interviews with Steven Erikson and Lois McMaster Bujold. There is an essay on homage in science fiction, a reprint novella by Tad Williams, and a novel excerpt from Karen Lord’s recently released The Best of All Possible Worlds.
PROS: Seven out of the eight short stories are recommended; variety of selection in story styles; insightful author interviews; nice feature with the cover artist that includes full-color art gallery; well organized magazine layout.
CONS: One story was too enigmatic.
BOTTOM LINE: Issue #33 of Lightspeed is well worth picking up and is just the latest example of why this magazine is consistently strong and worth the price of a monthly subscription. There are entertaining, thought-provoking stories as well as bonus content that mirrors the type of work visitors to SF Signal expect to see on a daily basis. All four original works in this issue are solid offerings demonstrating the creativity and imagination present in contemporary SFF short fiction .
The short fiction works featured in each issue of Lightspeed are posted for free reading on the magazine’s website throughout the month, generally one work of science fiction and one work of fantasy is posted each week with the remaining stories scheduled for readers to be aware of their release dates. Subscribers, or those who purchase individual e-issues, are treated with exclusive content including a novella, novel excerpt and bonus interviews. These exclusive works will not make their way to the online site. In this week’s Short Fiction Friday I will only be offering review commentary on the works of short fiction. If a title is highlighted you may click that title to be taken directly to that story on the Lightspeed website.
“The Infill Trait” by C.C. Finlay
“Every time I fall asleep I wake up in a different body.” Jimmy wakes up to confusion and disorientation, voices surrounding him in languages he does not understand and the only thing he does know offers little clarification or comfort. As the fog clears he becomes aware that he is in the body of a young Indian boy in New York’s La Guardia airport and that the one thing he must do to survive is to get out…now! With “The Infill Trait” author C.C. Finlay offers up a thrilling tale of clandestine government-sponsored infiltration that makes the Bourne stories look tame by comparison. Or does he? Perhaps what Finlay is really showing us is the horrifyingly real moment when a man has his first psychotic break. The brilliance of Finlay’s tale is the way in which the reader is kept off-balance by the unreliability of Jimmy’s narrative. Having worked over twenty years in the mental health field I can attest to the skill with which Finlay captures the the thought/speech patterns exhibited in some persons with untreated severe mental illness. Finlay offers up the best line in this month’s offerings as well: “I love public spaces–they’re so private.”
“Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed
Reed presents the story of Invasion of a Small World, a television series that aired in 2016 but was quickly pulled from the schedule after its first five episodes failed to generate any significant public interest. Looking back it appears that the episodes that aired were of stunningly poor quality in almost every aspect of production. The primary message of the series seems to be that humanity is but a small part of a vast, incomprehensible and unconquerable universe and that our best and safest road to happiness is to take care of our planet and enjoy our run. A year and a half later the entirety of the series, including its final three unaired episodes, make their way to the DVD market and create a stir among the scientific community and later the general public. There does seem to be a message here after all. But what if the message is a lie?
“Pause Time” by Mary Son Lee
You’ve been there before: on a long flight, in the grocery store, mall, movie theater. A child starts crying, perhaps escalates to wailing and screaming, and you look at the parent and think “I wish he/she would shut that kid up!” Imagine how you would feel if you knew that the parent could quiet the child immediately and simply chose not to. Mary Son Lee’s “Pause Time” examines just such a scenario. Pauline spent much of her own childhood on pause and is determined to make better choices in her child-rearing practices. But as a single mother in a world that has come to value the adage that ‘children should be seen and not heard’, the temptation to use the pause technology may be too difficult to resist. It would be easy to be dismissive of a story that may at first sound gimmicky, but Lee’s story rises above its implausibility in conveying a tale that is subtle in its horrific implications of technology engineered for convenience.
“Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris” by Carrie Vaughn
The story is set in an alternate universe with a character loosely based on the real life Princess Maud, who was nicknamed “Harry” as a child, and the character of James Marlowe, Lieutenant of the Aerial Navy. In Vaughn’s universe the world is at war over technology pulled from the wreckage of an alien craft. Someone in the upper echelons of British rule has betrayed the Empire, for Germany is utilizing Aetherian-based designs to bring a very different mechanized war to French soil. Vaughn has written previous stories featuring Harry and Marlowe and wanted to go back and do an origin story of sorts, showing how the characters first met. I was unaware of these other stories upon my initial read through and as much as I was enjoying the turn of the century world-building combined with steampunk elements I was aware that the story felt more like the beginning of something rather than a self-contained piece of fiction. It pleases me to know that these two characters were not created for just this one story.
“Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Chílde Phoenix” by Marly Youmans
A coming of age story, a metamorphosis, the remembrances of a young boy now deemed a man wrapped in the imagery of familiar childhood folklore and fairy tales. Youman’s language is often lyrical in its beauty, conjuring up fantastic images. Blaise’s sister Vesta lays in a glass coffin inset into the floor. His loving mother is either very much present with him or absent and cannot be found. His father is an alchemist who will not allow his presence to be disturbed. His grandmother tells dark, black tales from the Old World. Without the presence of other children in his life Blaise feels very much alone, his only playmates the books in the house’s wondrous library. Blaise’s recollections are underpinned with melancholy and a miasma that takes the form of an abyss that is slowly tearing his home apart. This was my first experience with the work of Marly Youmans and I look forward to tracking down more of her work.
“Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” by Genevieve Valentine
To call Genevieve Valentine’s “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” a re-imagining or re-purposing of the Little Mermaid mythos would be to rob it of some of its tragic splendor, however, it must be mentioned as a bedrock upon which this story of obsession and longing is built. The appeal of sailor stories has always been this idea of the sea as siren, beckoning men to its seemingly endless waters. Valentine’s story takes the vastness of the sea and pares it down to something more intimate in its portrait of a mysterious but plain school teacher and the pull her presence exhibits on a young man named Matthew. “Abyssys Abyssum Invocat” is pleasing in its rhythms; in the way in which the words evoke the sounds of waves crashing on the rocks and the taste of sea salt on your tongue.
“The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest” by M. Bennardo
The account, in diary form, of an adventurous period in the life of a trapper in the early 1760’s as he makes his way across the Pacific Northwest in search of a mythical passage to the Pacific Ocean. I was riveted to the page from the start as Bennardo tells an story almost Lovecraftian in its suspense. Bennardo expertly captures the feel of the period in his descriptions and the manner in which he writes mirrors that of much older works of fiction. This combination makes for a first rate adventure.
“Exogamy” by John Crowley
“Exogamy” tells the story of a man who “had set out from his sad homeland to find love, a bride, a prize, and bring it back”. His arrival at some mysterious place nearly results in his drowning before he is rescued by a bird who then leads him on a journey to fulfill his quest. The story then twists round on itself ending in a jarring transition from a fantasy setting to a contemporary one. I will freely admit that I did not understand this story. The fault more than likely lies with me but I found the story to be confusing and unsatisfying. “Exogamy” is the type of story that I could easily see others discussing with great wonder and revelation while it merely leaves me feeling stupid, shining a light on my inadequacies as a reader. The author Q&A was equally enigmatic, giving me little insight into what I missed.
One of the things I enjoy most about Lightspeed are the brief Q&A sessions with each of the featured short story authors. Often they give a greater level of insight into the author’s inspiration and what they were trying to convey. Among other things I find it an interesting exercise to compare my own initial interpretations of the story against what the author chooses to reveal. It is a good exercise in learning to become a more discerning reader.
I do hope you will consider checking out some or all of this issue. Jamie Todd Rubin’s article “Hat Tip to the Masters: Homage in Science Fiction” is exclusive to the purchased copy and is well worth tracking down. Our own Paul Weimer is credited with having a contribution to this look at the various types of homage present in contemporary fiction and the places from which many well-known works have drawn inspiration.
I will update this post as the month continues to include the links to the stories as Lightspeed releases them online, so check back often if any of these stories peak your interest. One of the pleasures of reading short stories is sharing them with others and comparing/contrasting the interpretations and impact they have on various readers. I welcome all story discussion knowing that tastes differ and the written word affects us all in a manner that is unique to our individual selves.