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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Lightspeed #81, February 2017

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Lightspeed #81, February 2017

"Probably Still the Chosen One" by Kelly Barnhill

"Later, Let's Tear Up The Inner Sanctum" by A. Merc Rustad
"Six-Gun Vixen and the Dead Coon Trashgang" by Ashok Banker
"The Last Garden" by Jack Skillingstead

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

This is Lightspeed's piss-take issue (to borrow a phrase from my Commonwealth cousins). All the stories take a very clear subgenre or trope (the postmodern fairytale, the comic book/superhero story, the Weird Western, and the End of the World story) and ironically undercut them first gently, then roughly, and then with unhinged venom until, having no place further to go, the End of the World tale seems to be genuinely melancholic.

"Probably Still the Chosen One" by Kelly Barnhill

This postmodern fantasy opens with eleven-year-old Corrina and the High Priest of a magical realm talking in her grimy kitchen. After going through the magic portal under the sink, she'd been in fantasyland for a year and a day, where she was the Chosen One, but is being returned for "a week at the most" while the priest's realm and the barbarian horde are readying for a dangerous battle. So then the priest takes his leave, getting Cheerios stuck in his beard when he bows to her. But Corrina soon realizes no time has passed since she's been gone and, when the priest doesn't return, Corrina eventually realizes that time must generally run differently between the two realms. She spends her life rooted to the spot and pining for her lost realm while she goes about her restricted daily business. For instance, after having been trained to fight in fantasyland she meets a guy in this realm.

Corrina taught him how to box and how to spar and how to flip a man onto the floor when he wasn't looking. And then he flipped her onto her bed when she wasn't looking, and taught her something else entirely.

But, after having several kids, he leaves and she raises them alone. More time goes by. And then one day, while she's at work, she has an interesting meeting with her boss who tells her some beardy whacko with a sword was looking for her before being arrested. The closing sequence follows from there.

It is arguable that the theme of childhood fantasy giving way to adult concerns (and the need to nurture a spark of fantasy anyway) is a bit too "easy" but, if that is going to be part of the point (the other being the heavy-handed symbolism of the patriarchal priests), it is necessary for the story to provide a feel for her quotidian life. But it would be hard not to argue that this details it too minutely and for too long and that not even the story's charming softly wry tone can entirely carry it over that hump. Had it been streamlined I would have recommended it but, as is, this falls more in the honorable mention category. Still quite good and likable in many ways, though.

"Later, Let's Tear Up The Inner Sanctum" by A. Merc Rustad

For our superhero/comic book story, we open with a netjournal of a girl who's been radiation-poisoned from being in proximity to supercombat.Then, through a collage of multimedia (rendered in print, of course), we learn of the Excaliburs, or the highest team of superheroes and of Sin-Master, the leader of a team of supervillains. We get lots of combat (and lots of speeches) between them, partly filtered through the "OMG!" lens of the story's social media, and we learn of the soap operatic backstory of most of them. Over the course of the soap opera, we learn that all is not as it seems.

The Turkey City Lexicon has an entry for "the Rembrandt comic book," which is a term for a trivial theme having incredible craftsmanship lavished on it which basically crushes that theme. This is reminiscent of that but partially inverted. The theme (which undercuts its generic tradition) is presented as some kind of great revelation when it is basically simple and obvious but is fairly serious. So it might well be worth a story treatment, but the story exemplifies the theme through superhero comic book characters, plotting, and tone. The plot elements are reasonably well connected in a rote way and the story mostly avoids full tilt Pompous Stentorian Supertone (though it gets very close to it), but the story is generally a silly melodrama and soap opera. Having gone this questionable route, it is all then packaged with a multimedia collage "literary" technique. So, in a slightly different sense, it's basically a Dos Passos comic book. In sum, it is probably too gunked up with theme to actually be fun for most folks but some may enjoy its surface. But it's way too gunked up with silliness to have much appeal otherwise.

"Six-Gun Vixen and the Dead Coon Trashgang" by Ashok Banker

The titular character of this Weird Western rides into town on her mount (a mix of wolf and horse) and enters the local bar. The owner and the sheriff (and eventually his two deputies) give her a hard time.

My eyes swept the room quickly. I gauged the mood of the place and figured that about half or more didn’t really give a hoot if I drank there, and all of those were curious to see if I put out. The rest were indifferent. They didn’t give a shit whether I got fucked or killed. I was just a colored foreign cunt to them. Not human.
She shoots the cops and the owner, revealing herself to be a "Halfie": half wolf and half Indian ("Not the kind from around here, the other kind. From India, you know. The country that Columbus first set out to find when he accidentally tripped over this floating pile o’ crap.") who, for some reason, has six arms (hence the play on "six-guns"). Then she tells the piano player to start playing again.
He saluted, almost knocking [his] hat off, and began to play some redneck shit. I didn’t care. All this whiteskin crap sounded the same anyway.
One of the folks comes up to her and she detects that he's got an extra limb himself. So she tells him what's supposed to be (but isn't) the moral of our story.
Time’s coming, old man. When our kind won’t have to hide or pretend anymore. Not just half-breeds. But all manner of folk that happen to be different. Including Indians, both the kind over here and the ones in my country, Chinamen, and every other color in this world. Finally, beneath the paraphernalia, we’re all the same, aren’t we? Flesh and blood, bone and soul.”

When she's told she's killed all the lawmen who had an arrangement with the "Dead Coon Trashgang" which will leave the townsfolk at their mercy, she extorts an exorbitant fee from them and goes off to deal with the gang. However, not everything is as it seems. There follows much violence, narrated with vengeful glee, concluding with some unintentionally comically hypocritical words from the protagonist.

I let this story mostly speak for itself because I sure don't want to speak for it. If any of the above appeals to you, perhaps the story will. But if you don't like a repugnant tone conveying a repugnant message and you don't like that message weighing down a fantasy of the thinnest sorts and you don't like that bolted on to a Western of the most hackneyed kind and you don't like your fantasy or your Western to have a repugnant protagonist who has super-senses and even claims a sort of sixth sense and yet has those senses go off and on at the author's convenience and if you don't like having action sequences described in which something is claimed to have happened that was never narrated (the "whistle ex machina") then this story will not appeal to you.

"The Last Garden" by Jack Skillingstead

In this post-apocalypse/extinction event/Eve and No Adam sort of story which is strangely reminiscent of Philip K. Dick (automated destruction) and Nancy Kress (familial dynamics), Casey Stillman is the last woman on Earth after a plague is taken to be an act of biological warfare, resulting in the unleashing of other plagues and automatic weapons systems, causing the extinction of life on Earth. Casey was in orbit with some people but was the only one to survive re-entry. There is hope that the moonbase, which has fallen silent, may still hold living humans but the story focuses on Casey and the robot who has taken charge of her and at her insistence to go to the Doomsday Vault where human embryos (including clones of her mother) could possibly resurrect the human race. The robot insists they've been destroyed but Casey insists on going, despite the still-active weapons systems.

There's something too contrived yet familiar about this for it to be a resounding success but it is competently done, does have emotional effect in general and, particularly, nearly has a "Today I Am Paul" moment near the end (in similarity of effect; not in similarity of event). This is akin to "Probably Still the Chosen One" in the sense that there is something attractive about it even if I can't entirely recommend it. Many readers may enjoy it.


More of Jason McGregor's reviews can be found on his Featured Futures blog.