Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lightspeed Short Fiction

A few weeks ago I received the anthology Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams, as a reward for supporting one of their Kickstarter projects. It is a volume that collects the stories published in 2010, the first year of the magazine's existence. The magazine is still around but this is the only anthology to be published in what was intended to be an annual anthology. The book itself is a 575 page monster, containing 48 pieces of short fiction. It's a mix of reprints and originals. I have read quite a few in other publications already so I don't intend to read the whole thing any time soon. I have been reading a few stories new to me over the past couple of weeks though. Those I am going to review this week.

" . . . For a Single Yesterday" - George R. R. Martin

Last year I wrote a twenty-five thousand word piece on George R. R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs (in Dutch). Between that collection and various other collections and anthologies I must have read most of Martin's short stories by now. This one has escaped me until so far however. It was originally published in a 1975 anthology and has only appeared in long out of print Marin collections until Lightspeed dug it up. It is fairly typical 1970s Martin stuff really so I'm not surprised it didn't attract much attention. He has written better stories in that period.

The plot deals with the aftermath of a nuclear war. Central government has collapsed and groups of people are trying to form something resembling a stable society again. The main character is a semi-official leader in one such community. Tension in the group rises with a new arrival. He is a military man and his ideas and background clash with the liberal attitude of the community up to that point.

Martin, who had been a few years out of college when he wrote this, is clearly influenced by the early 1970s counter culture. Drug use is accepted, music plays a very important part in the story. Martin would reach back to that music in his novel The Armageddon Rag later. The drug is the most science fictional element of the story. It allows the user to relive the past more vividly than ordinary memory allows. A serious temptation for those who have lost loved ones. But would it not be better to use the drug to regain lost knowledge?

The characterization is the strongest element of this story. Although it is a fairly short piece he manages to develop three characters enough to make the drama that unfolds work. As a science fiction story it is a bit thin. As usual Martin is interested in his characters, all the other elements are in service of that.

The story can be read for free here.

Amaryllis - Carrie Vaughn

This story is a Lightspeed original. It was also the first one to be nominated for the Hugo Awards in 2011. The award would eventually go to Mary Robinette Kowal's story For Want of a Nail. The story also has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, but more in line with 21st century science fiction, the collapse is an ecological crisis rather than a nuclear one. It's been reprinted a number of times in various best of and post-apocalyptic anthologies.

The main character is the captain of a fishing boat, run by a small group of people she considers family. Their catch is very strictly regulated to prevent overfishing and having children requires permission to prevent unsustainable population growth. She gets into trouble when one of the officials fixes his scales to repeatedly put her over the limit.

I'm not entirely sure why this story has gotten as much attention as it has. The background is good, although regulating catch is much harder than the story makes it out to be  - ask anyone fishing in the North Sea these days - but the plot is just weak. The main character struggles with the selfishness of her mother, who conceived her without permission and ruined her family in the process. She doesn't really dare take action. 

The resolution of the conflict relies on one of her crew members doing the obvious. The motivation of this character to do so is not entirely clear, one could say she just can't stand the unfairness of it, but the cynic would say it is because she really wants to have a baby. All of this is followed by a happy ending. I liked Vaughn's vision of the future but the story itself is just mediocre and the main character passive. Not the best story in this batch for sure.

The story can be read for free here.

More Than the Sum of His Parts - Joe Haldeman

This one is another reprint. The story originally appeared in Playboy in May 1985. It was nominated for a Nebula Award. I have never read anything by Haldeman before, but from what I have read a lot of his fiction is influenced by his experiences during the Vietnam War. This influence is not all that obvious in this particular story however. At least not to me. Maybe someone who has read more of his work will see it differently.

The story is set in a far future when humanity has colonized the moon. The main character is very seriously burnt in an industrial accident. His skills are valuable however, so much so that his employer decides to pay for very far reaching treatment. He is in effect turned into a cyborg.

This story is very creepy. You can tell right away the character is completely unhinged. He talks about his accident and the changes made to his body in a mechanical way. There doesn't appear to be any feeling left in him. Apparently tossing some artificial limbs and organs together with bits and pieces of organic matter does not make a human. The question the reader is left with is whether or not the main character was a psychopath to begin with and the accident made it more prominent, or if it was the alterations to his body that turned him into one. Probably the strongest story in the batch.

The story can be read for free here.

Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters - Alice Sola Kim

I know absolutely nothing about Alice Sola Kim other than that she has about half a dozen short stories to her name. This one is a Lightspeed original and deals with time travel. Each time the main character wakes anything from a few days to many decades have passed. The only consistent factor in his life is the fact that he keeps running into his descendants in the female line.

This is a story that is more about style and form than about plot. The main character remains distant to the reader, in fact he becomes even more so the further he travels into the future. The author jumps back and forth in time to show us the motivation of the main character to start his time travels, giving us very brief glimpses of what a particular future would be like. They are shown to the reader in very brief paragraphs that seem to contain enough hints for an entire story.

The non-chronological, stop-start style of the writing may not appeal to all readers but personally I thought it is a beautiful bit of writing. It is one of those stories that would never work in the novel format. Probably the most love-it-or-hate-it story of the bunch but it fell the right way for me.

The story can be read for free here.

Four stories of the first year of Lightspeed. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are plenty more in the anthology. I may come back to it later in the year.

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