Charlotte is dead, sacrificed on the word of a powerful man to buy the safety of her community. Her bones lie uneasily at the bottom of the garden by the river, its quiet lullaby doing nothing to reconcile her to her fate. Lullaby for a Lost World is another haunting short story from Aliette de Bodard.
There are many stories of people sacrificing themselves for their loved ones. Stories of ghosts finding peace through the understanding or intervention of a later generation. Stories of unexpected grace as an awful act leads to a greater redemption.
This is not one of those stories.
Part of the sucker punch of this tale is the choice of second person present to tell it in. I’m not a big believer in messing with perspective and tense, but here it was so well done I almost lost sight of it. I never lost sight of the fact that this was about Charlotte, but the second person made her decisions oddly personal. I could feel myself struggling with her point of view, both accepting it – it is hers, it is valid – and rejecting it – it was framed as mine, but was not mine.
It’s an odd feeling, which made the ending feel both inevitable and righteous and like a massive betrayal.
I think it might just be brilliant, forcing me to confront the difficult central question: what price is too high to buy the safety of a community? This is a question we should ask ourselves daily in our comfortable world where our governments frequently ask us to make trade offs in the name of safety. I don’t think this story is meant to be bluntly political, but I’m a bit sensitive at the moment.
However, there’s a secondary question here which is just as sharp-edged: one of informed consent. Does the Master lie? Do the girls lie to themselves? Can they truly consent when they don’t truly understand what will happen to them?
Even taken strictly at face value these are strong themes, and they’re well-executed here – this story is a challenge to think about what makes your world comfortable.
Honestly, just go read it. It’s a haunting tale of a lonely, bitter ghost, a sick little girl and a man who believes in the greater good. Just don’t read it on public transport whilst listening to really emotional music (yes, I cried on the train again).
Lullaby for a Lost World can be read online at Tor.com.
Illustration by Alyssa Winans.
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