Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Lightspeed, See the Elephant, and Future Science Fiction

Lightspeed 1/19, 2/19
See the Elephant #4
Future Science Fiction Digest #1

January’s Lightspeed opens with a mythic science fictional novelette by A. Merc Rustad, “With Teeth Unmake the Sun“. It features war between immortal godlike beings, one of whom commands a wolf who can unmake planets, stars, and solar systems. While it is an agent of destruction, it has its own yearnings (and its own very fluid physical identity and embodiment). The ending strikes an interesting tone. This is followed by “Midway” by Tony Ballantyne, a tale of a human interstellar traveler, how that might work, and how such a person might decide whether to keep moving out into the unknown or start journeying back towards Earth. The midlife crisis analogy is clear, but I definitely enjoyed the story.

In the fantasy section we get a charming fantasy story by Meg Elison, “Endor House“. A journalist uses time traveling abilities to interview the scion of the titular publishing house as he aims to take his father’s grimoire business multi-universal. It’s full of great touches, such as the magical limits on what the journalist can see and the possibilities of publishing magical texts in science fictional universes.

In January, Ashok K. Banker continues his Indian epic fantasy series with “Son of Water and Fire” where we see the infant who will grow up to be our great hero, delightfully nurtured by his mother the river and tutored by his grandfather the mountain. In February, the story continues as the hero Vrath (meaning “God’s Vow”) takes “The Terrible Oath” in response to his human father’s circumstances. I’m looking forward to seeing how the story continues to unfold with all its lush mythic characters in play.

In February, Lightspeed starts with “Life Sentence” by Matthew Baker, a classic SF extrapolation of a different criminal justice system. What if commit­ting a crime means having part of your life, your memories, wiped away? Gary has to re-integrate with a family that he doesn’t remember, and is faced with the temptation of trying to figure out what he could have done to warrant such punishment. The portrait of a character in such circumstances, and the reactions of his family, is well done, and opens a number of questions about human psychology. Then KT Bryski brings us a Canadian fable in “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, As Told to Raccoon“. The narrator has a story to tell and eventually finds Raccoon in an alley in Toronto, willing to listen as long as he doesn’t have to stop eating. Raccoon’s commentary as the story of Ti-Jean cheating death unfolds is well worth the price of admission, and the piece as a whole opens up realms of Canadian identity in the 21st century.

See the Elephant is an interesting venue that pub­lished its fourth issue at the end of 2018. It gives its theme, “Beyond Death,” a decidedly cosmopolitan and international flair, starting with “Blindness” by Dimitra Nikolaidou. Set in a European dystopia that is emerging into a post-flooding world, a man is released from police detention. In this society, all women must mutilate their faces into expression­less “bone flowers” (the author wisely leaves this to the imagination, which may fill in any number of horrific images). The man meets up with the resistance once again in pursuit of a piece of art his grandmother had made. This is a great piece of clas­sic resistance-to-dystopia fiction. Dennis Danvers then gives us an almost gonzo piece in “Welcome to the Graveyard of the Dead Lilians“, in which immortal aliens are fascinated by the art driven by our mortality – and “Lilian” is the star of a long-running episodic show aimed at the alien audience, portrayed by different actresses over time. The nar­rator is the tour guide at the titular Graveyard, which gives him a particularly interesting perspective.

The sheer variety in these pages is a wonder. Without space to do all of them justice, let me briefly summarize. “The Unreal World too Strangely Near” by Robert E. Stutts gives us a gay romance in the circumstances where changes to one man’s skin appear to be opening a portal between life and death. “Margaery the Wolf” by Maria Haskins uses a village of “wolves” and “humans” to savagely interrogate just how strong social classification is, but also how quickly it can be flipped. “Snapshots of Aleppo” by Pedro Iniguez freezes time around a photographer in that city just as a bomb goes off – the civilian population gets to speak to him themselves, and he ends up playing a part in public perception of the Syrian situation. “An Accounting, of Sorts” by Tonya Liburd gives us a man whose power is to easily be forgotten; when he starts dying and returning from a series of improbably gruesome deaths, he goes back to the family he abandoned to talk with his daughter, who might have interesting powers of her own.

My Cremation” by B.T. Lowry is a lovely little story of an ordinary man in India who wants to make peace with his niece before he moves on to the afterlife. “Headdressing” by Benjamin C. Jenkins looks at the tragic consequences of child­hood abuse and trauma in a First Nations context as a boy’s older sister dies after a school yard game of Cowboys and Indians gone wrong – the speculative element is very light but well done. “A Manual of Care for the Unliving Child” by Marc Lecard is a chilling piece centered on those parents of dead children who absolutely can never let go or move on – it combines a rather cold and cutting insight with real empathy. “Lola: A Love Story” by Ste­ven C. Schlozman gives us a biology researcher who eventually gets to talk to an AI embodiment of the Ebola virus; creepy and a little over the top. “Mulch” by Vajra Chandrasekera is the 57th “suicide note” written by a man in a hotel room; in this short story our understanding of the character and his situation evolves on a line-by-line basis in a fascinating way. Finally “Wren’s Flight” by Darja Malcolm-Clarke gives us a coming-of-age story in which orphaned Wren is able to embrace her sense of identity despite the legacy that her Aunt tries to enforce. There honestly isn’t a bad story in the bunch, and I look forward to their 2019 issue.

Future Science Fiction Digest is a brand-new magazine, edited by Alex Shvartsman, that aims to showcase science fiction from around the world. It leads with a story by Lawrence M. Schoen, “The Rule of Three“, that is a product of the same grant for SF writers to travel to Danzhai in China that inspired Kelly Robson’s excellent “A Study in Oils” in Clarkesworld last year. Schoen’s story involves an alien landing in a small mountain town of the Miao people (part of the Hmong minority in China). A man who had been working for the US State Department travels back to his grandmother’s village when he hears the news through his mother, and discovers an alien who believes our kind of technology renders a species “dark” – they chose that particular landing spot because of its rural char­acter. The alien represents both a fount of potential new thought and also an immense threat, and our hero learns from the alien and also has to bring the village together to counter the threat (non-violently). It’s an interesting story with the man as a bridge between multiple worlds.

The whole issue has a somewhat Golden Age of SF feel to it, with aliens and spaceships abundant. “Sisimumu” by Walter Dinjos gives us a man whose wife died in the service of the Nigerian Space Agency, trying to find a technology/lifeform that would make the surface of the Earth inhabitable again. In a future of strict social stratification, the man feels that he and his wife, both Ogwu Ala, are considered expendable by the commanding Ndi Elu class. He travels to the same planet where his wife died and makes contact with the Tree lifeform there, leading to a fascinating melding and opening up for the future of his world. Several of the translated pieces are particularly strong. “The Emperor of Death” by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko (trans­lated by Julia Meitov Hersey) imagines a boy born on a research spaceship who ends up as the sole survivor of the crew. Upon return to Earth he starts attending a boarding school, but teachers there begin dying in eerily similar ways to the crew. An investigator is sent to talk to the boy, who it turns out has some very interesting things to say to him. The tension ramps up smoothly and steadily as the tale unfolds. In “The Substance of Ideas” by Clelia Farris (translated by Rachel Cordasco), a young man and woman find a new lifeform as they explore the hulk of the spaceship that resides outside their kibbutz. They discover that the lifeform acts like a drug that can open up one’s mind to a millennium’s worth of thoughts, and then have to deal with the consequences as people become addicted to their discovery. I also appreciated “Wordfall” by Liang Ling (translated by Nathan Faries & Zhao Li). A spaceship has to stop on an icy planet for repairs, and find it’s inhabited by fairly harmless aliens. The captain is a single father to a young teen daughter, and that relationship is not going well. She takes a simple toy animal translator and turns it into a tool to communicate with the aliens, which (as in Schoen’s story), opens up both potential and danger for the ship and its crew. I liked how matter-of-factly the crew handles the crisis, which gives ample room for the father/daughter relationship to take center stage. It will be interesting to see how this magazine evolves as it finds its feet, but if it continues as it has begun, I suspect it will find a wide and eager audience.

Recommended Stories

“Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as Told to Raccoon”, KT Bryski (Lightspeed 2/19)
“Mulch”, Vajra Chandrasekera (See the Elephant #4)
“Sisimumu”, Walter Dinjos (Future Science Fiction Digest #1)

Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non Fiction category of the British SF Awards.

This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.

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