REVIEW SUMMARY: Lightspeed issue 34 offers up four fantasy short stories and four science fiction short stories, each category containing two original works and two reprints.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Virus-embracing post-humans, a future political activist and a group of friends playing poker rub shoulders with a dream detective and characters from more traditional fairy and folk tales in the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine.
PROS: A couple of chilling offerings good for a dark and stormy night; a few offerings exhibit structurally sound storytelling.
CONS: Fantasy offerings feel unfinished; two of the science fiction stories are short on science fiction; stories generated more feelings of apathy than engagement.
BOTTOM LINE: The weekly endeavor to feature some of the latest short fiction offerings continues to challenge me as a reader as I struggle to find balance between my personal tastes and objective reviewing. This is a struggle I am happy to embrace as it not only teaches me to be a better reader but allows for opportunities for you to read these same stories and tell me how wrong I am. This issue of Lightspeed was disappointing as I found no stories which engendered a good connection. There were a few stories that I can objectively say were well-written and internally consistent but did nothing for me on an emotional level.
“Lily Red” by Karen Joy Fowler
If you have ever been in the car on the way home and felt the urge to skip the exit towards home and keep going then you can relate to Lily. One day desire morphs into action and Lily drives on past her exit and keeps driving until flashing lights compel her to pull over. Lily has been driving so long she doesn’t know where she is or how fast she was going. In addition to the ticket, the officer gives her a piece of advice: stop at the next exit and spend the night at the local bed-and-breakfast. He then follows her to insure that his suggestion is taken to heart.
Karen Joy Fowler’s fairy tale is subtle and subdued, examining what happens when Lily gets offered a chance to be someone else, which is something she has long desired. When the chance comes will she take it? Would you? While reading “Lily Red” I was reminded of the respect for her skill that I have felt when reading Fowler previously but in the end I felt apathetic about Lily as a character. It was as if there was magic present but no spark.
“The Bolt Tightener” by Sarena Ulibarri
On the first night of his new job Chaun is told that there are one thousand eight hundred bolts to tighten. His job is to come at night and work until sunrise, tightening one bolt at a time, always in order, and to start the next night where he left off before. The old man who is retiring offers little more than the cryptic warned to “be cautious around bolt 841”, but Chaun cares little when he is given his first night’s wages and sees how much value is placed on this seemingly mundane task. The bolts are part of an enormous sea wall separating the city from the ocean beyond. Chaun is happy in his work until his first mysterious encounter with the presence at bolt 841, after which his work begins to suffer. Chaun continues to show up for work every night unaware that the choices he is making will have dire consequences, not just to him, but to the city as a whole.
This original work of fiction has some nice things going for it. Ulibarri’s is an interesting city that holds instant intrigue because of the mysterious wall and the reader’s uncertainty if it is meant to keep something out, or meant to hold something in. The ending was projected too early, marring an otherwise well-crafted story.
“Ash Minette” by Felicity Savage
Ash is plain and would never be mistaken for a beauty and her sister Lilly has just enough charms to help her earn a paltry living in the dark, so when they are mistakenly invited to Baron Helmany’s ball, they pool their resources to make dresses in order to attend. Ella is the much younger sister of Ash and Lilly who possesses all the beauty and grace that these two desire. Being familiar with the appetites of men they have striven to help Ella maintain her innocence and that desire to protect means that Ella will not be allowed to accompany them to the ball. You can see where this is going, right?
Fairy tale re-tellings are certainly nothing new, but when they are told well they can offer an interesting perspective on something familiar. Felicity Savage tells a dark, disturbing tale that is effective in large part because her writing stirs the imagination to fill in the gaps, making her story seem even more sinister. This is the perfect antidote to too many Disney princesses.
“The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle
On an impromptu blind date the story’s narrator meets Grace, a woman he assures the reader he did not find attractive. Over the course of the evening Grace reveals that she is a ‘dream detective’. Unsure of what she means and skeptical of the information she shares, he leaves the date sure he will never see Grace again, until she shows up that night in his dreams. Continued presence in his dreams combined with chance encounters in the waking world makes the narrator more and more interested in Grace and this supposed profession of hers. The mystery deepens as the narrator has a particularly dark dream that seems to have affected things beyond his night’s sleep.
Tuttle’s is an interesting concept and both her narrator and Grace are characters that you find yourself wanting to know more about, especially as the story ends rather abruptly. I was happy to read that Tuttle plans on revisiting these characters and when she does so the combination of the two stories may work more effectively.
“Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr
Kerr’s original tale is exactly what the title advertises, fragments of information about Julian Prince culled from a variety of sources. The story is set in our future, looking back on Prince’s life after his death in 2057. In Kerr’s story some cataclysmic event known as the Impact occurred sometime during Prince’s lifetime and even though he was a journalist his most well received work were his two post-Impact novels. Julian Prince’s works showcased the hopelessness and helplessness present after the Impact and were in direct opposition to the New Optimism movement.
Of particular interest in Kerr’s story is the science fictional ‘Impact’, an idea which is talked around but never spelled out. Unfortunately that did not build enough intrigue to interest me Julian Prince as a character.
“Three Days of Rain” by Holly Phillips
Phillips’ story revolves around a world in environmental crisis and the decisions the characters must make in relation to their environment. The story is full of interesting descriptions and sometimes beautiful use of language that points to Phillips’ skill as a writer but the emphasis on language to the detriment of plot and character development left little for me to connect to or, in the end, care about.
“Let’s Take This Viral” by Rich Larson
In a cyberpunk-inspired future post-humans seek the same old thrills in new and potentially devastating ways. Default is not particularly popular in and of himself, but when he pairs up Schorr and allows his immune system to be compromised with the latest designer disease, he suddenly finds himself thrust in the spotlight. As their source comes up with newer and more potent fix’s, Default and Schorr unleash potentially life-changing effects on their world.
It almost pains me to admit that I didn’t like this story, but it is important for me to lay that out and admit that it is entirely because of personal preference. I have never been enamored with the drug culture in any way and I could not relate, nor did I want to relate, to the characters. I could not help but envision Baron Harkonnen from the David Lynch adaption of Frank Herbert’s Dune, an image that does not make for comfortable reading. I give Rich Larson high marks for his structural prowess. The language and visual imagery is consistent throughout and while this story is not my thing I am certain that fans of this style of science fiction will agree that what Larson does, he does well.
“The Sense of the Circle” by Angelica Gorodischer
A group of friends sitting around a poker table are regaled with the tale of another world by one of their number, Trafalgar Medrano. The story he tells involves a group visiting this world where the inhabitants do nothing but dance. The majority of the party are fascinated and continue to watch whenever the dancing occurs while at the same time hoping to learn clues to the language they presume these people have. One member of the party is increasingly agitated by the music and her agitation, while concerning to the party at large, may be the key to their ultimate understanding. “The Sense of the Circle” moves back and forth between the conversation among the friends listening to Trafalgar Medrano and the people inhabiting the story he is telling. There are frequent acknowledgements among Medrano’s friends that they do not understand what he is relating and I am not sure that I’ve ever felt such a kinship with fictional characters.
There was a nonsensical nature to this story that surprised and confused me. I am curious about how much this story loses in translation from its original language, if anything. Another explanation is that this is an author for whom I would need more exposure to develop an appreciation.
The one bright spot in the March issue was the cover art by Matt Tkocz. You can read an interview with him by fellow artist Galen Dara and see other samples of his work here.
Fair if not wholly original fantasy tales helped this issue of Lightspeed stay above water, barely, as the science fiction selections threatened to drag it under. As I mentioned at the beginning, this issue was a struggle for me, both in the reading and in the writing. No doubt this is reflected in the fact that my personal opinion has crept into my reviews more than usual. I welcome being set straight by any who have read these stories and feel strongly about them. We all have stories that we connect with and ones that we do not, this issue happens to be one with which I failed to find a connection.