Lightspeed #117, February 2020

Lightspeed #117, February 2020

“Noah’s Raven” by Kij Johnson

“How We Burn” by Brenda Peynado

“Toxic Destinations” by Alexander Weinstein

“The Gamecocks” by JT Petty

Reviewed by Geoff Houghton

The first fantasy tale in Lightspeed #117 is “Noah’s Raven” by Kij Johnson. This is an excellently crafted retelling of the Noah myth seen from the point of view of a highly intelligent and articulate raven. The insights into her particularly Corvid way of thinking, starting even with the complexity of her real name, are reminiscent of the alien thought processes of some of C. J. Cherryh’s better non-human sentients.

The whole piece is wickedly iconoclastic with Noah appearing as a hassled and harassed individual, greatly put-upon by a God who has really not thought out his plan at all well. If this mythical event had really come to pass, then this author’s interpretation of how it would actually all work out is much more believable, as well as more entertaining, than either the original flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh or its later copy in Genesis.

The second piece is an SF novelette, “How We Burn” by Brenda Peynado. This story is set about a century into the future in a USA that is attempting to rectify generations of over-use of the planet without losing the benefits of all the technology that created the damage in the first place.

The first-person narrator is one of a group of rather over-privileged teenagers. They are the descendants of four generations of a formal and government-enforced one-child policy that has dramatically reduced the population. Thus, the damage caused by high-technology can be contained not by reducing the standard of living but by reducing the number of consumers.

One unexpected consequence of the one-child policy has been the concentration of all the wealth and all the hopes for the future of eight great-grandparents, four grandparents and two parents into one single child. The impact on society has been to massively exacerbate the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” and these spoiled kids are distinctly from the “have-plus” side of the tracks. However, even the “have-nots” who conform to the rules live in a society that is constrained but civilised and comfortable. This is far from a dystopia, except in the minds of these kids!

The most dramatic achievement of the author is that the reader may find that they alternately swing between two contrary reactions to our band of neo-hippy protagonists. There are moving passages that encourage the reader to give a rousing cheer for these New-Age rebels. A few sentences later, their reckless and egotistical behaviour creates the desire to shake these self-absorbed ingrates whilst insisting that they grow up. The final sentence of this novelette suggests that even the author remains equivocal on that point.

The second fantasy offering is “Toxic Destinations” by Alexander Weinstein. This fantasy piece has no protagonist, either hero or villain. It purports to be an excerpt from a guide book entitled the Lost Traveller’s Tour Guide. The supposed introduction from the book contains what appears to be an entirely unnecessary excursion into geology but if you speed-read this section then beware! The final two paragraphs are vitally necessary in order to understand the context of the four individual entries that describe four very undesirable locations on the mythical continent of Triol.

The author has certainly captured the typical style of a real travel guide in the four descriptions of a dismal country, two unsavoury towns and a truly scary hotel. These descriptions are entertaining, but the reader should not expect more than that momentary amusement. That is not a failing on the part of the author but an almost automatic consequence of the travel book format itself.

The last SF story is “The Gamecocks” by JT Petty. This is a well-crafted example of the purest form of SF, taking a single technological change and forecasting its impact on the people of the future.

The place is small-town USA. The time is the near future, well within most reader’s lifetimes. The scenario is depressingly believable. The author postulates that the AI that is already in use on an experimental basis for automatic self-driving vehicles is improved sufficiently that its use becomes ubiquitous. Automation has been the semi-skilled manual worker’s nightmare since the first cotton mills forced home-weavers out of their cottages and into dark satanic mills. This is the story of the consequences of the automation of the haulage industry on the lives of a young American working class couple.

This (self-admittedly European) reviewer finished reading this story in near despair that the author could have such a negative view of his own government and fellow countrymen, yet also with a sneaking belief that he may not be entirely wrong. The response of the displaced workers is also a very American one, rooted in some of the most deeply held traditions of self-sufficiency, but also self-centredness, which permeate US society.

Congratulations must be extended to the author for producing a piece that has such a visceral effect on the reader, though that impact was deeply disturbing. The most critical question that each reader can only answer for themselves is whether the actions of the “Gamecocks” of the title could ever be justified, no matter what their motives.

Geoff Houghton lives in a leafy village in rural England. He is a retired Healthcare Professional with a love of SF and a jackdaw-like appetite for gibbets of medical, scientific and historical knowledge.