“The Day They Came” by Kali Wallace
“Test” by Steven Utley
“Beauty” by David Barr Kirtley
“Alarms” by S. L. Gilbow
Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones
Even though the March Lightspeed doesn’t have an explicit theme, I’m beginning to think the editors wanted to give their readers the treat of exploring new ways to carry off old plots.
Alien invasion is an extremely old and hoary trope in science fiction stories and movies. It seems like you can’t swing a dead tribble without hitting some alien sneaking into the population or dropping rocks from orbit or blowing up the White House.
The good news is that even with a plot this old, with a beard this long and white, there still is room for invention and style. A familiar tale still can be told with new panache and a different voice.
Such is the case with “The Day They Came” by Kali Wallace. Told throughout in a slightly distracting second-person, “The Day. . . ” is an interestingly different method of examining what life might be like under an unusual alien occupation.
Wallace’s protagonist is placed immediately in a situation designed to elicit sympathy for his plight, in that the day the alien invaders might have come to Earth is the same day he was notified about the death of his father at the end of a long, debilitating illness.
I say the alien invaders might have come because, really, there is no sign that they have arrived: No bright lights, no huge ships and no massed troops. Things just. . . changed.
There’s something wrong with the water. Strange green, worm-like creatures disappear under the rocks when children approach. People queue up at the local high school for weekly rations and each week there’s fewer and fewer people there to pick up their rations. And no one talks about the aliens or why the television shows only one man in a suit with a blue tie talking about how they can’t venture more than five miles away from where they live.
Our protagonist must make a decision, though. Every night there are fewer and fewer lights visible from his far-away neighbors. And one night the presenter on television starts grilling him about whether or not he is going to leave his five-mile radius. Is he crazy, or does he need to get out right now?
As I said, the story is told from a second-person point of view. For example: “You’re reading a review. Your heart beat rockets into the stratosphere as you enjoy the flowing prose more and more. You begin to think the reviewer is a genius.” Ahem. Anyway, that’s second person, for those of you who are actively trying to forget high-school English.
Second-person is somewhat rare and there’s a reason for that. It’s just too darn distracting to have the author keep putting the reader in the place of the protagonist. We want to identify with the protagonist, but it’s a bit exhausting to be continually thrust into that role.
Once I got past the point of view, the story itself was a right gripping one. Although Wallace kept repeating the “The day they came. . . ” phrase a bit too often for my taste, I thought the overall story was well-written.
The question I had while reading was just how much of what was seen and experienced was actually real? Did the aliens exist? I mean, no one else would discuss it or even seemed to know what the protagonist was talking about. To where were the people disappearing?
In the end, though, none of those questions matter. We’re thrust into the role of protagonist by the point of view and, like the protagonist, we’re cast adrift on a sea of confusion, trying to survive until we understand.
It’s a struggle worth your time.
The first relatively primitive man who cracked open the hard shells of an oyster, took a look at the gooey, slimy mess inside and said to himself, “Mmmmm. I think I’ll eat this,” was a braver man than most. The first person to think the idea that he would have fun throwing himself off a bridge while strapped to some giant rubber bands was functionally insane, but that’s another story.
What I’m trying to say is that the first people to do anything will always face unexpected challenges, unforeseen events, possibly even monsters trying to eat the souls of a spacefaring ship.
In “Test” by Steven Utley, author of several short-story collections, the crew of the starship Stephen W. Hawking are the first humans to travel through hyperspace. They are the first humans, but they might not be the first entities to do so.
According to the ship’s medical officer, the ship is being attacked and bits eaten out of it by a monster living in hyperspace, one that enjoys twisting the minds and emotions of the crew of the Hawking. The chief engineer is convinced there’s a gremlin on the loose inside the ship causing the continual malfunctions. The ship commander is slowly sliding into catatonic psychosis, with occasional side trips through violent outbursts. Meanwhile, the ship’s first officer is determined to ignore any and all problems, intent on proving to the human race that hyperspace travel can succeed.
There’s also a very good chance that something in hyperspace has driven each and every member of the crew violently, murderously, completely insane.
Utley does a very nice job of walking the balance necessary in having an unreliable narrator as our point of view. There is something wrong with the narrator, along with everyone else on the ship, and we readers know it. Utley does a great job of giving us a coherent narrative, while also letting us wonder what is actually happening.
The prose forces a disconnect between what’s happening to the ship and crew and the laconic way in which it’s described. I mean, if something were slowly crippling a ship in which I’m traveling at a very high speed through a dangerous environment, I know I’d be a bit more excited (well, loudly panicked anyway) than this. All of which adds to the overall sense of something creepy happening to the crew, more than just some ship malfunctions.
Utley’s prose grabs reader attention and pulls it along on the journey as the medical officer tries to discover what is actually happening to his fellow crew and the ship itself. I read most of the story with goosebumps on my arms, which was a good indicator that the story was as creepy as I wanted it to be.
Fables are tales handed down through generations, telling the stories of the land and the culture through bloodshed, betrayal and declarations of true love. The wonderful thing about fables is that, like alien invasions, they always are open to reinvention, rethinking and remolding.
“Beauty” by David Barr Kirtley is one such reinvention. Kirtley offers us a beast, drawing more on the Walt Disney version than the traditional beast of the fable, who is looking for a little love. Once he’s drawn us into the life of this beast, we get the best surprise of the story, one that when thought about shouldn’t be a surprise at all. Happy endings rarely are happy or endings.
Nicole is a beautiful young professional visiting the bars one night after work, looking to unwind from a stressful day at work. At the bar, she runs into the beast, complete with curling horns, gremlin ears, goat legs, the works.
As in most of the stories of this type, our beast was cursed by an “evil sorceress” to be a beast on the outside and to remain that way unless he could find a beautiful woman who would love him for who he was. On the assumption, I guess, that it would be too easy to find someone ugly to love him since we all know they’re desperate. Sorry. Sometimes the whole inherent exclusion of beauty-based stories gets me a bit angry.
Because under her beauty rests a nice person, Nicole doesn’t quickly brush the beast off, instead getting to know him, allowing herself to be won over by his pathetic line of patter. Eventually, they find they love each other and marry.
The morning after the wedding night, Nicole wakes to find a stranger in her bed. It’s Brett, the man who was the beast before being cursed. Brett is very, very good looking, but he’s no beast.
On the outside, that is.
Brett’s resumption of human form brings with it an undeniable change in his attitude toward Nicole, which also causes changes in her own feelings toward the former beast.
Kirtley does a nice job with this reinvention of the Beauty and the Beast. Although there’s a sort-of twist there at the end, it’s one that most readers will see coming from a mile away, but that’s not important. The twist isn’t there to surprise. It’s there for thematic reasons, to showcase the differences in perception between people.
The theme of Kirtley’s fable remains that beauty and ugly are only skin deep and don’t reflect the beauty – or ugliness – of a person’s soul. And that soul beauty is what should truly be important. He also makes sure we understand that how we see ourselves has a huge impact on how other people see us.
It’s a nice story, one that takes us along a familiar path, but takes the time to point out some new features along the way. I loved the conversational style Kirtley used to tell the story. The more modern sensibility in both presentation and setting really work to carry the reader along on the journey of discovery.
Fables are time-tested stories of the impossible. “Beauty” is a nice continuation of that tradition, one that’s well worth your time.
The final story, “Alarms” by retired U. S. Air Force officer S. L. Gilbow, is an interesting little tale of super powers, responsibility, and the importance of control.
Cara is a young woman with problems, a lot of problems. A diagnosed obsessive compulsive, Cara has difficulty getting out of the house or meeting new people. Her fear of chaos has led her to dropping her part-time substitute teaching job, making money even more scarce for her and her boyfriend, Jimmy.
In a very cool move, Gilbow makes sure Cara can’t leave the house for an actual physical reason. For some reason, when Cara walks by, she sets off any alarm within a 30-foot radius. Car alarms, smoke alarms, clock radio alarms, smartphone clock apps, all start beeping and wailing when she’s near.
Her obsessive and compulsive need to control her environment, along with her innate fear of being exposed as being different, forces Cara to live a withdrawn life, hardly ever leaving the self-defined safe zone around her house. She doesn’t want people finding out about the crazy girl who sets off alarms.
In a move that goes against everything she’s ever believed about herself, Cara takes a right turn away from safety and begins to drive downtown to see her former psychiatrist Dr. Zimmerman. Her very presence sets off the fire alarm in Dr. Zimmerman’s building, where he misunderstands the nature of Cara’s dilemma.
Eventually, Cara discovers she can not only turn on and off the alarms, but she can also lock and unlock doors, specifically car doors, even more specifically car doors with money-filled purses inside.
Gilbow does a very nice job of presenting us with a young woman fighting against her weaknesses and trying to regain control over her life. I really liked the physical expression of her internal problem, in that she would actually set off alarms, which, to me, represented her fear of not controlling every aspect of her life.
Written in a simple style, frequently interrupted with Cara’s lists (always five items), “Alarms” is an impressive visit into the mind of a likeable, but troubled young woman. What I found most interesting was the sureness with which Cara thought about her ability to set off alarms. She never questioned whether or not it was real. I realize that also can be a symptom of further problems, but I thought Gilbow pulled it off with panache.
While there were a few issues with the story, all minor and not really worth worrying about, I did take issue with Gilbow’s depiction of superheroes. Spider-Man is spelled with a hyphen, and that really bugs me (no pun intended) when folks forget it.*
*[Editor’s note: John Joseph Adams, editor of Lightspeed, is kind enough to send us ARCs of each month’s stories. He tells us that the “Spiderman” misspelling in this story’s ARC had already been corrected to “Spider-Man” for its official posting later this month. We thank him for bringing this correction to our attention.]
All in all, it’s been a good three months since the relaunched Lightspeed took to the stands and March continues the tradition of being stuffed full of good fiction. I’ve read every new story published by the magazine since the relaunch and I can tell you this: I’ve enjoyed just about every single one.
Normally, I’m the type to find fault with just about anything. This time, though, I think Lightspeed shot off to a great start, showcasing some great writers, giving us some fantastic prose.