Lightspeed Magazine #2
“The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball” by Genevieve Valentine
“No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller
Reviewed by Robert E. Waters
Lightspeed is a new on-line magazine of speculative fiction, edited by the well-known and highly respected John Joseph Adams. There have only been two issues so far (June and July), and the content runs from new to reprint fiction, non-fiction articles, and interviews. For a small fee, you can download an entire issue via Kindle, iBook, etc., but you can also read the fiction on-line for free. You can also listen to each story as a podcast. I find this interesting and very useful and wonder if this idea will be tried by other on-line magazines. I can certainly see myself popping on their website often to check out what this month’s podcasts contain; it’s relatively easy for me to “listen” to a story while I toil away at my day job. It’s a good idea and I wish the magazine great success in the future.
There are four stories in the July 2010 issue: two reprints and two originals. The reprints are Tobias S Buckell’s “Manumission” (Jim Baen’s Universe, 2008), and George R. R. Martin’s “…for a single yesterday” (Epoch, 1975). We will skip these two, of course, and focus on the two originals.
Genevieve Valentine’s “The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball” is a great concept that falls short of being a really great story. Here we have a steampunk society at the beginning of the last century. A rather strange and frightening sub-culture has evolved among the conductors of the mighty airships that travel the globe: long exposure to the ships’ helium has warped the conductors both physically and mentally. This transformation makes them scary in the eyes of the common man, and thus they find it difficult to function normally. The first part of the story is excellent: it sets up an interesting back-and-forth between the narrator and these little set-piece advertisements and quotes that read like snippets from old Sears & Roebuck’s catalogs. The advertisements not only add a little humor to the situation, but they also give a glimpse into the public’s perception of these conductor beasts. But then the story ends rather abruptly on an attempted rape by a gang of these conductors, which kind of works in the context of their nefarious existence, but also puts a damper on the “sense of wonder” from the previous sections. I think this story would have worked much better in longer form (novella length, perhaps), where the concepts could be fleshed out more richly and given a stronger foundation to the darker aspects of the culture.
“No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller is a time-travel story, but ever so slightly. The narrator is a kid whose neighborhood is suddenly (and for no apparent reason) invaded by a number of rich families whose children are all blonde and beautiful and mysterious. Where these people came from and who they are is unknown, but it seems clear that they are from a future that’s gone haywire and have come back to try to live a more peaceful life (for the children’s sake). Time moves on and our main character befriends some of these new kids; they have a few adventures and eventually their strangeness gets them in trouble with the law. Some get hurt, others are incarcerated. And then they up and vanish, gone back to where they came from or perhaps to another place in time to try again. As suggested, the time-travel elements are handled rather limply; there’s discussion about not upsetting the time-continuum (not stepping on the butterfly as it were), but the very presence of so many people, so strange and so out of kilter with the current timeline, seems to violate that principle right away. Plus, the narration of our young character is so dry and so monotone as to illicit no emotion whatsoever from the reader. Perhaps a child would narrate a story like this, but it doesn’t make for very exciting prose.