Strange Horizons, May 7, 2012

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Strange Horizons, May 7, 2012

“Bright Lights” by Robert Reed

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

Robert Reed’s “Bright Lights” is a cheerfully enigmatic story which explains very little about its setting and characters, leaving the reader guessing about a dozen elements. All we know about the setting is that it’s a school and the students have familiar gadgets like game consoles and “texting devices.” But they’re also comfortable with non-human – presumably robot – teachers, and one of the students is described as being of indeterminate gender, by a teacher who can reach into their minds and know their innermost details (perhaps this is a significant detail, or perhaps Reed is being extremely sensitive of LGBT etc. definition practices).

The fact that so little is revealed about the story is a bit maddening, but also contributes to the creepy aura of suspense and confusion permeating the tale. The enigmatic teacher is leading a class on “survival,” taking the students – those with the courage to follow their teacher’s cryptic and portentous commands and evasive explanations – on a field trip. The students are expecting to make baskets out of straw in the wilderness, perhaps, but the teacher has a much more sinister plan. Explaining the plan, of course, would be giving away the story, and I don’t feel spoilers are part of my remit as reviewer. Rest assured it’s nothing along the lines of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games.

Even the ending of the story, were I to give it away, wouldn’t necessarily explain everything. It’s up to the reader to interpret the teacher’s needs, the fates of the students on the field trip and of those who stayed behind. But, ambiguous as it is, the conclusion is also ambitious, even immense, as not only are the students who tagged along drastically endangered and changed, but so is everybody they left behind. And to what end, and why – those, too, are questions for the reader’s imagination. A bit like Childhood’s End, Reed’s story culminates in both transcendence and loss, and whether we view it as tragedy or wonder is a matter for each reader’s judgment.