I’ve been working my way through the back issues of Lightspeed Magazine–not hard to do, since there’s only been three issues so far–and I’m super excited and impressed by everything I’ve read there. I want to write about a couple of the stories in particular; I am in fact so excited about them that I think you should drop everything you’re doing and go read them NOW!
No seriously, you’d better have read them!
The first is “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente. As you might guess from the title, it’s a how-to manual for would-be despots of the Red Planet. It does, indeed, start out as a funny advice column-type piece. But it rapidly transcends this format: expanding on how every solar system, not just our own, has its own red planet fourth from the sun, and how each Mars holds the same powerful sway over human (or whatever) imaginations. It becomes an extended flight of fancy, describing not just the extrasolar equivalents of Mars but the civilizations that each inspires and the tyrants who come to rule them. Each of these is more original than your average sci fi story’s advanced alien civilization, not just on the “they just took an earth animal and made it sentient” or “they’re just little green men” scales. Take, for example, Oorm Nineteen Point Aught-One, one of the “half-butterfly giants of Mur” who “cannot help but speak in couplets”; Oorm attains world/Martian domination by producing unrhyming poetry. Valente weaves these anecdotes into the how-to manual framework at first, but eventually escapes from it entirely, and flows into a haunting ending with truly dazzling prose.
The second is the most recently published story, “Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro. This story just turns a whole lot of things on their lil’ heads. Like, for instance, the pro-life argument that life begins at conception. It sure does in this story…but it also ends at birth. Everybody who is genetically worthy is basically kept a conscious fetus. And those not worthy are vessels for them, or, as we see later, zoo specimens. The protagonist, Jennifer Axioma-Singh, has experienced about as much as a conscious fetus can via her various vessels, or “arvies” (not sure what the name is supposed to mean…is it RVs? Does this signify something important?), and decides to try something none of her peers has even thought of: giving birth. What I particularly like about the author’s treatment of this is that he makes it clear that birth is a miraculous, beautiful thing, even though in the story’s world it’s also considered inhumane…but then, for Jennifer, it’s also just another thing on the bucket list. She actually gets bored and tunes out before the baby pops out. A nice play on the sanctity of childbirth trope. There’s also a dig at celebrity “bump watches” and reality TV.
One thing that surprised me was how many of the commenters described themselves as creeped out after reading this. I didn’t actually find it all that creepy–possibly I’m a little too good at rationalizing the “hey this isn’t actually our universe in the story” thing, or my maternal instinct is broken. What I did find disturbing was how the child is kept in a sort of “nature” preserve and used by any Citizens who want the experience of child-rearing. What is to become of this kid once she’s a teen, an adult?
Also, we are perhaps learning something about our personal biases, because we were shocked when we got to the end and realized the author was a man. (First person plural signifies learning experiences, folks.)