|Art by Peter Mohrbacher|
"Slowly Builds An Empire" by Naim Kabir (6551 words)
In a world where everything is connected digitally, telepathically, and empathetically, Shinsuke is stuck in the analog age, unable to connect, isolated and desperate. When he starts to have visions of distant worlds, though, he is put into a group with other people like himself, something that is normally strictly forbidden. He doesn't care about the illegality of it, though, and soon joins one of his compatriots in a camp of even more people like himself, and discovers he's not the only one who sees different worlds. When he is asked to take part in a sort of revolution, then, he thinks nothing of it, glad to be a part of something. But he learns that he was being used, lied to. And he learns that he doesn't have to be a victim, that he can turn the tables, that he can build something. It's an interesting story, with Shinsuke a rather flawed mind, a bit warped by his experiences. I'm not entirely sure about the ending, which seems to imply that Shinsuke has decided to take over, that if he is to be connected he must rule, must reach out toward the planets he has visions of. He becomes a machine of war, quite the turn from what he was. Perhaps the story is making some hints that extreme social isolation leads to being kind of messed up and, like Shinsuke, engaging in some shady business. Maybe it's saying that living in a world without vocal or "in-person" interaction makes a population easily led and controlled. I'm not too sure. It's a neat story, with good action and memorable images, but I'm just not sure what to make of it.
"Cassandra" by Ken Liu (5462 words)
A sort of super villain is created in this story about a woman who discovers she has the ability to see the future. At first she doesn't know what to do with this knowledge. She tries to take it to the only superhero in town, a Superman analogy, but he doesn't believe in preventing crimes, not before they're being committed. But the new "villain" can't live with the visions, with the knowledge that if she does nothing then people will die. So she starts taking steps, preventing the things that she sees, that might happen. And the superhero tries to stop her because he doesn't believe in what she's doing. It's a nice argument piece, one that shows two sides of an argument. Because obviously the "villain" here is trying to save people and does seem to have a power, just like Showboat (the superhero). But he, being powerful, being someone who doesn't believe in punishing certain things, disapproves. It's a hard argument to make, that one should act based on a possible future, but in the end it's true that they're not too different. Both are concerned with punishing the wrongdoer. Neither really try to save the day without violence. Neither consider the problems at the root, though the "villain" seems closer to it. But it does show the hypocrisy of some superheroes, and indeed of the justice system in general, which seems to be what's being poked here. It's a nice story, and great for me because I have a soft spot for superhero/villain tales. Good times.
"The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild" (part 2) by Catherynne M. Valente (9523 words)
And now, the second part! The story continues on with the surreal mix of steam of conscious narration and dream logic. It maintains it's charm, and the strange coherence that it had in the first part keeps right along with Violet traveling toward Red Country. And everything comes together in this story. Traveling through the different lands, questioning everything, talking to the ordinary emperor. Everything is tight and works and yet is sort of wavy, sort of strange. It's a surreal experience, where everything is basically an extended metaphor and literal at the same time. The way love and sorrow change from place to place. The way each country answers Violet by basically telling her to forget her mission. Because it threatens them, because it threatens anyone who thinks it's not worth it to try. The emperor's origin story and his plan. The way that Violet makes it into Red Country. My brain hurts a little from reading this, because it's such a novel experience, and there is a part of me that wants to resist this story, because in some ways it could be too obvious, or too different for different's sake, but it won me over. And then some. Violet's story just seems so real, her hurt and her stubborn and her strange companions and while I might not have completely gotten every aspect of this story I can't help but feel a bit uplifted at the end. It won me over and I found myself smiling, felt a warmth inside that I hadn't expected and it just works and I'm sorry that this is a mess and sort of a review, but it can be both. Hopefully it's allowed.
"All Original Brightness" by Mike Buckley (4479 words)
This one's a military science fiction that focuses on a pair of marines who have been severely damaged by their service. Both now live in tanks, their bodies rather damaged from seeing action. Mitchum is a bit of a loser, kind of hopelessly in love with Gonzo, who's much more cocky, sure of herself. The pair have a friendly relationship and Mitchum doesn't really want to disrupt that only his tank is being taken away. He'll be kept alive, but he'll be unable to do anything else. No communication, no visuals. He thinks to kill himself, but instead something very different happens. It's a sweetly romantic story for being about death and disability and war and a bit about how we treat soldiers like items, like things and not people. A bit how we treat, or how society treats, everyone like that, as walking dollar signs. It's a rather nice story, though, emotionally powerful and with a setting that was stark but not wholly unbelievable. Another solid effort.
"Coming of the Light" by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu (8399 words)
Mixing technology and religion, this story focuses on Zhou Chongbo as he navigates a crisis involving (perhaps) the destruction of all things. At the very least, he has to deal with the fallout from an idea he has that goes viral and takes on a life of its own. Working in marketing for dot com start-ups, Zhou accidentally comes up with the idea to incorporate some Buddhist teachings into the marketing strategy and inadvertently causes the product he was trying to sell to become mired in problems that prevent it from seeing a wide release. Only later does he discover that his seemingly conscious decision was only part of the universe's own defense mechanism to protect itself. That he was an NPC being brought in to protect the big boss from threat. It's a fascinating idea, using some ideas like karma and fate and things I probably don't understand too well because I'm lacking some knowledge but that seem to imply that Zhou was just sort of letting himself be used, that he wasn't one of the heroes, just an NPC thinking he was making his own choices when really he was adrift. I love the use of video games to explain things, that mix of technology with grander things, with philosophy and religion. I'm really liking these translations that Clarkesworld has been putting out. The difference in perspective is great and there are stylistic choices that just seem to really work. Of course, the story succeeds in kind of making me feel stupid because I'm sure I'm missing things (took me a while to get the binary section numbers...but hey, I felt like I accomplished something when I figured it out), but I like it. It's funny and it's deep and it's definitely worth a read.