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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

The Portal Archive: Lightspeed #6, November 2010

Lightspeed #6

Lightspeed is a rather new publication with a run of six issues, but, if I am to trust my first impressions, then it will grow a sizable following. It is marketed as an online magazine. The reader has the option to sample every single article of the issue for free on the website and then buy it as either Kindle or E-Pub format. Lightspeed shows incredible versatility by offering their fiction as podcasts as well. Published by World Fantasy Award-winner Sean Wallace and with John Joseph Adams as editor, Lightspeed is a professional market, interested in original fiction as well as reprints.

Genre-wise, Lightspeed focuses on all aspects of science fiction from near-future to hard SF with intergalactic travel. In Issue 6, I got a glimpse of what science fiction has to offer with stories discussing emotional outsourcing, genetic body modifications, time travel and intergalactic CDC. However, between all four stories featured, there was a mutual theme of how technology impacts human life, but also the personal choice of the characters and whether they choose to allow technology to completely alter their existence.

Issue 6 opens with “Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu, a near-future story centering on outsourcing of a different variety. Set in India, “Standard Loneliness Package” is a slice-of-life story without a set structure. The narrator is a worker in an outsourcing company. His job is to live through all the bad parts of the company clients’ lives, be they humiliation, grief or pain. Yu starts with a regular day of the narrator and closes with an open end, which doesn’t give the sense of completion.

I enjoyed how Yu recreates the continuation of life, which can be sensed in the deviation from the standard story structure. Yu explores the human condition. This is particularly interesting in a world, where life can be loaned, outsourced, cut, compressed, sold and mortgaged. If now the gap is between the rich, who are becoming richer, and the poor, who are becoming even poorer, this is the gap between people, who are rich and can allow themselves to buy happiness by selling their grief, and those that can live, only if they agree to take on heartache.

Throughout the story I kept asking, “What is the value of all the pleasant emotions, if people are willing to sell the contrasting negative ones?” Yu does not answer this question, but shows the emotional numbness of the narrator. He can’t even function in a normal relationship, and the only way he connects with his love interest is through his work. “Standard Loneliness Package” is highly depressing, but a very realistic look into a plausible future.

Next is “Faces in Revolving Souls” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which isn’t any more positive than Yu’s story. Kiernan has created a world in which humans can undergo genetic modification and transform into animal-human chimeras.

Again as with “Standard Loneliness Package,” this story is not about the technology so much as it is about the people. Kiernan has used the ultimate body modification, the alteration of one’s genes, to create a perfect environment to examine tolerance, acceptance, the risk, and the consequences such people are willing to undertake in order to be truthful to themselves.

“Faces in Revolving Souls” is powerful, because the protagonist, Sylvia, is transitioning from a human to parahuman and because she fears leaving her old self as well as embracing her new one. She has to deal with her inhibitions in order to be accepted as a parahuman. The story takes place during a parahuman convention, the perfect environment to juxtapose Sylvia’s bravery to abandon the dissatisfaction with her human life and the hesitance of letting her humanity go by still wearing clothes, when parahumans go around in the nude.

Sylvia searches for her place and does not exactly find it. On one hand, she lives with her mother, a Christian drunkard  and the embodiment of humanity’s intolerance of minorities. Reading Sylvia’s mother is reading about the hate gays and transgendered people endure in our own world. It is through this character and bias that Kiernan parallels the current state of our society with that in her world.

However, if you think that intolerance is a one-way street, Kiernan will persuade you otherwise in the scene where Sylvia meets the first parahumans in the world. It becomes clear that parahumans judge all the same based on whether an individual has skin rather than fur or scales.

While “Faces in Revolving Souls” discusses social group dynamics, its essence is about honesty towards oneself and society. It’s a story about discovering one’s true identity and expressing it. What Kiernan does is show that a person needs the guts to do it.

“Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim is my least favorite story from this issue. Kim’s story is about a time machine, a trope in science fiction I never thought of as interesting. Modern culture has milked time traveling enough for me to enjoy it as much, but this is hardly an objective argument.

In fact, Kim puts a small spin on the trope, making her character Hwang travel through time only when he sleeps. Every time he wakes, he is in a different time [supposedly in a different reality as well] where he meets one of his daughters. The reason why when he jumps through time he always finds his daughters is explained and remains as an unusual element in the world, but I won’t give that much away.

What kept me from enjoying “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” has to be nonlinear story structure. The plot frequently jumps from the present, Hwang’s trips through time, to the past, where Hwang’s life and motives for using a time machine are laid out. While it makes sense to structure the story to mimic its content, constant motion through time, I found it disorienting.

Then there is a narrator, who happens to be Hwang’s daughter. She somehow remembers the story of her father when earlier it’s said that the story has been forgotten by the daughters. I didn’t understand her purpose and role in the story. It somehow shifted the focus from Hwang and his penance. To me “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” is a cautionary tale, a lesson in why fixing the past is not a good idea. Yet this mysterious narrator has me perplexed.

The last short story is “Ej-Es” by Nancy Kress. When I think of science fiction, I think of space ships, missions, colonies and people in heavy suits with their own mission. “Ej-Es” features all these elements and a dilemma of medical and ethical nature to keep things interesting. Mia is an about-to-retire senior member of the Corps, an intergalactic incarnation of the CDC. Along with her unit she visits a dead colony. Their mission: to determine the cause for the epidemic and develop a cure.

Nobody counts on finding survivors or a mutated version of the virus with disturbing, yet interesting, side effects on the human body and psyche. Mia befriends Esefeb, a young girl with a hallucination called Ej-Es, and gathers data on the behavior and culture of the survivors after the virus’ mutation.

This is where a decision has to be [and is] made. Should these people be considered a culture and be left alone to exist as they are, happy but also primal? Or should they be cured and given the chance to gain back everything they have lost as humans? It’s an incredibly tough dilemma to consider.

What worked for me here is Kress’ ability to transport the reader into her fictional world. There is a solid sense of setting and clarity to it, which I couldn’t ignore. The contrast between the abandoned colony and the survivor’s village only enhanced the reading experience. Kress writes with honesty in her portrayal of Mia and Esefeb. I was genuinely interested in what would happen to both characters. Last, but not least the dilemma meets a solution, but without the cookie cutter obviousness. The Corps don’t exactly save the day and that is the actual story’s actual strength. There are no easy solutions to such complicated problems and good intentions don’t always lead to happy resolutions.

As a whole Issue 6 of Lightspeed is strong and makes its readers think. At least it made me think. The featured stories are concept pieces with strong theme exploration, but at the same time they never forget about the characters that inhabit these strange worlds.

Then there are non-fiction posts. In the November issue includes an interview with game designer Chris Avellone and an article by Lori St. Leone on “The Art and History of Body Modification”. Genevieve Valentine speaks about alternative futures in “Five Freaky Futures Your Kids Might Face” and The Evil Monkey talks science where faith is in “God Spots.” Fun all around.

December 22, 2010 - Posted by | November 2010 |

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