Lightspeed #7, December 2010


I enjoyed reading Lightspeed #6 enough to agree to read and review its next issue #7. I was pretty enthusiastic, because issue #7 featured reprints from Ursula LeGuin and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and, to an extent, the selected stories satisfied my expectations.

What I lacked was a certain sense of movement and pacing. Three of the four selected stories were either aimless or static or introverted. The only exclusion here is David Kosmatka’s “In-Fall,” a tale of suicidal interrogation, which makes the reader ask whether or not the convict would confess or not in time, but, even with a goal in sight, “In-Fall” focuses on the inward definition of compassion in the face of an enemy, rather on the importance of the mission.

Ursula LeGuin’s “The Silence of the Asonu” borders on an anthropological paper rather than a short with any hint of a plot. LeGuin devotes more than two thirds to exposition and cultural exploration of the Asonu, a race which exists in silence, and sketches a kernel of a story in the remaining four paragraphs. This imbalance of action and inaction – the latter can be taken as a considerable infodump – should in theory not work at all, yet LeGuin effortlessly drew me in with a cultural environment too succulent and potent to ignore or feel bored with. This made it the strongest story in the issue.

The Asonu represent an alternative community, one commanded by silence. LeGuin uses her words in an almost surgical manner, covering everything from behavior among all age groups, religion, traditions, the impact the absence of language has on writing and singing as well as family structures and interaction with the outside. LeGuin doesn’t hide her opinion that the absence of language has eliminated the soil for miscommunication, quarrels and their byproducts such as cruelty, slander and even war. This is reflected in the almost utopian social organism of the Asonu.

Then after creating this idyll, LeGuin juxtaposes humanity’s own faults, as a human kidnaps an Asonu child in order to extract the religious enlightenment attributed to the race. Yes, a lot more paragraphs could be written about this abduction, yet LeGuin’s sparring use of words is what gives the ending such an impact. While “The Silence of the Asonu” is a work with little plot, when LeGuin spares the few words to tell it – in the Asonu’s laconism – she besieges the reader.

The same can’t be said about the other stories. David Tallerman‘s “Jenny’s Sick” suffers from a case of self-censorship, which diminishes the otherwise great potential of the world. I’m more mixed about “Jenny’s Sick”, because Tallerman is a wonderful stylist. His world is one where a person doesn’t get sick – or so is to be assumed – and viruses replace drugs. He augments the presence of sickness with his prose, which evokes delicate images of fragility and decay. The depressing mood lured me in, as it permeated through the paragraphs and lingered. However, I wasn’t completely sold on “Jenny’s Sick”.

Tallerman’s idea for a virus junkie in a sterile world, which promises health and a certain sort of biological security, has potential, which remains largely that. The touch and go slice-of-life continuity, where years pass before the narrator and junkie Jenny connect again even for the duration of minutes, does a big disservice to the story. This, coupled with the fact that Jenny’s more or less estranged from the narrator right the beginning, underwhelmed me. To me it felt as if Tallerman censored himself, because the intensity lacked.

The moments where the narrator comes face-to-face with illness lack the grotesque needed to convince me. Considering how illness is uncommon, almost extinct, I’d thought that there’d be more detail or more fixation on the anomalies caused by sickness. The closest Tallerman comes to describing how alien the sickness is during the story’s opening lines. Yes, it’s implied that the narrator’s somewhat fascinated with Jenny and her lack of health, but I expected something unpredictable, disgusting and jarring. What I did get was something tame. Although well written, “Jenny’s Sick” remained obvious.

After the lackluster “Jenny’s Sick,” I was ready for something aggressive. Kristine Rusch’s “The Observer” promised such thrills. Genre-wise, “The Observer” is a military science fiction short story about interplanetary warfare with a twist. In this world, humanity has decided to boost their weapon’s potential for destruction by genetically altering their soldiers. The new weapons are human women, who after severe gene therapy, develop an uncontrollable aggression.

The story’s opening is action-packed and merciless combat, humans versus aliens. Everything is blood and gore and, after the successful mission, “The Observer,” continues with its take-no-prisoners attitude as the reader faces the collateral damage this bred aggression harvests once the mission is over. The matter-of-fact and casual description of self-mutilation and property damage jolted me. However, once the narrator, a cheated out of her dreams woman, is taken to medical evaluation the physical action transforms into an introspective monologue, so any chance of a plot flatlines on the page.

Rusch employs conscious inner disassociation as the narrator emotionally dissects herself in three women: the woman she once was, the rational machine-like soldier trapped in her own skull and the hormonal monster with full reign over her body. Although this methodological autopsy reveals humanity’s already non-existent appreciation of human life and unethical practices, the story doesn’t build anything more on this trope.

Augmented human test subjects – willing or willing – in the name of Earth’s security against a threat is far from groundbreaking. It’s a tired trope and all the less appealing, when the narrator’s immobile and does nothing else but think and ration. The depreciation of human life, symbolized with the indifference at large at whether these soldiers will die or not, caging these soldiers and then physically binding them, did nothing to augment the idea. At the same time, this robs the tale of the spunk and derailed violence it already has displayed, which, when juxtaposed with the narrator’s observations, would have worked better, if there was a more dynamic plot.

The issue’s last story, “In-Fall” by David Kosmatka, impressed and bored me at the same time. My problem with Kosmatka is his genre of choice, hard science fiction. Heavily invested in cataloging technological detail, the genre is a tedious read, one which I can’t appreciate. It’s mostly due to this personal disconnection that I have with hard science fiction that I didn’t achieve a greater satisfaction from “In-Fall.”

However, I consider “In-Fall” to be one of the more innovative stories in this issue after Ursula LeGuin’s “Silence of the Asonu.” Kosmatka ignores the largely overdone spaceship battles and concentrates on terrorist bombings in outer space. It’s a surprise that not many science fiction write about terrorism in the future, seeming as it is a current issue in the 21st century.

What Kosmatka does is keep the religious aspect and blueprints of terrorism today and just bring it to a bigger scale with whole colonies as targets instead of buildings. He also figures out how the punishment for these encapsulated genocides should be grown to the appropriate size.

“In-Fall” is an exercise in creative cruelty, in countermeasures catching up to the crimes committed. Kosmatka even circumvents death as a capital punishment turning for the one punishment, which, to religious terrorists, is more horrifying – eternity of existence. Even though, on the surface, Kosmatka discusses fiber anchors, spaceship trajectory and the science behind the oldest black hole in the Universe, Kosmatka manages to infuse every line with a few thoughts on religion, beliefs, compassion and emotion.

As a whole, I was more disappointed with Lightspeed #7 than I was with the previous issue, because all four stories carry the same thematic presentation of humanity as a heartless race, willing and joyous to hurt and torture people from other worlds [“The Silence of the Asonu” and to an extent the same is hinted in “The Observer”], destroy our own [“The Observer” and “In-Fall”] and even self-destruct [“Jenny’s Sick” and as a byproduct in “The Observer”]. Yes, humanity is a species capable of great atrocities, but we are not inherently evil. This is why I’m glad that I read “In-Fall” last, because the interrogator, who really had no reason to grant the convict his promised afterlife did exactly that, thus ending this streak of bleak stories on a positive note.


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