Lightspeed Magazine Issue 92 (January 2018)

The January issue of Lightspeed has four slightly-better-than-average original stories (reviewed here), two of them SF and the other two fantasy, as usual. I always perk up a little when I see new stuff from Adam-Troy Castro and Sarah Pinsker, but I was mildly disappointed with their offerings here. There is a good selection of reprints from Catherynne M. Valente, James Patrick Kelly, Joanna Ruocco, Roger Zelazny, and Will McIntosh (his excellent novella “A Thousand Nights Till Morning” from 2015). There is also an interview with Jade City author Fonda Lee, reviews of recent Tor novellas, and an enticing excerpt from Jonathan Moore’s new novel The Night Market.
The first of the two original SF stories, “The Streets of Babel” by Adam-Troy Castro, is a swift, surreal odyssey where an Everyman-ish protagonist is propelled through an automated city that literally engineers and enforces conformity and productivity at a hurried pace. Adding to the cacophony and confusion is the fact that none of the inhabitants seem to speak the same language. A darkly funny, up-tempo allegory for big city life, delivered in sharp and measured prose by one of science fiction’s more expert and astute writers. Written as a kind of long-form joke – complete with punchline – with a deliberately generic protagonist and anonymized setting, I was amused by it but never truly engrossed or affected. My favorite story in this issue’s crop of originals, but not by much.
The second SF tale is Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Eyes of the Flood”, which successfully maintains an eerie atmosphere from start to finish. It’s a mood piece set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where the unnamed protagonist searches for contact with fellow survivors, all the while feeling as though something uncanny is watching her every move. Character development is minimal, and in place of a plot, the story is built around the eventual reveal of the second-person narrator’s identity. That final twist is predictable, and strains the internal logic of the world Bigelow constructs. There is some effective descriptive prose here, so it is readable despite its flaws.
José Pablo Iriarte’s “The Substance of My Lives, the Accident of Our Births” has an instantly captivating story hook: Jamie is a teenager who can remember all their past lives, and discovers that the person who was convicted of murdering their previous incarnation has just been released from prison and is living nearby. Jamie is an interesting and engaging protagonist; because they have switched genders so many times, they have no use for gender distinctions – they feel like both a boy and a girl and is the only person in the story who doesn’t find this at all confusing. The suspension of disbelief required to swallow the premise – not only is Jamie coincidentally born and raised in the same city as their most recent past life, but also has a similar-sounding name (Janie) and looks almost identical to them despite having no genetic relation – is not so much the problem as where the story ends up, with Jamie resorting to some disingenuous and manipulative tactics to achieve their goal. It’s an easy way out for both the character and the author, and it left me with a sour taste for a story that had otherwise built up plenty of good will.
The final story is “The Court Magician”, by one of my favorite short fiction authors, Sarah Pinsker. A common boy is chosen to be the next court magician, an occupation that takes a precise and measurable toll on the individual selected for it. The Court Magician has a single duty: when the Regent has a problem, the Magician says the magic word and the problem disappears. However, when the problem disappears, so too does something of the Magician’s – a finger, a toe, an eye, or, more disturbingly, something or someone the Magician loves. The obvious allegory – that people who benefit from structures of power can escape the consequences of their actions while the less fortunate suffer – is effectively conveyed, if a little on the nose. One of the things that makes Pinsker such a brilliant short fiction writer is her ability to make a story feel both sweeping and intimate in compact spaces, but “The Court Magician” falters a bit on the intimate side. Our identification with the protagonist is assumed rather than earned and an emotional connection is never made. Pinkser’s stories are usually about a protagonist who is willing to fall all the way down the rabbit hole of their choosing, though in this case the consequences are dark and depressing, rather than triumphantly cathartic. It is possible this schism is responsible for my lukewarm response to the story, for the story’s failure get me invested in its tragic hero. Whatever the reason, like the other originals in this issue it just misses getting my recommendation.

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