Thursday, August 13, 2015

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #107

Today I'm looking at the latest issue of Clarkesworld, which continues to be one of the most impressive publications month to month, especially with its commitment to translated stories. It also manages to have a fairly nice mix of stories and themes despite the original fiction being entirely science fiction. Due to some time constraints, I'm not reviewing the nonfiction, but still encourage everyone to go read, because it does provide a lot of food for thought. The fiction, though, is a nice mix of science fictional ideas and themes. Exploring virtual war crimes, collaborative AI, the nature of sentience, and the philosophy of security, the stories all show visions of the future through various lenses of intent and critique. All manage, though, to tell moving stories, fun stories, and provide a very nice picture when considered as a whole. So on to the reviews!

Art by Julie Dillon


"Today I Am Paul" by Martin L. Shoemaker (4920 words)

This is a rather sweet story about a medical android who works by emulated people known to the person they are caring for. In the story, the patient is Mildred, an old woman with memory issues, and the android becomes her family, her son and granddaughter and daughter-in-law, offering her something familiar to hold onto, all the while slowly growing as a person thanks to the emulation programming, the empathy that they are capable of. It's an aspect of the story that is revealed bit by bit, the android being the central voice of the story and a very human one, bringing up the question of where machine ends and person begins. Their personality is based around their desire to help, their care for the patient, and they are capable of being wounded, of being insulted and hurt emotionally, outside of what they mimic in their emulations. Indeed, the story sort of brings up the idea that all of use are basically people of emulation, that we all take on roles based on situations, the android here only taking a step further. That we all learn how to be ourselves, basically, by not being ourselves, by playing the roles we are expected to play while the real us, the one that is at the core of who we are, forms away from site, in those moments when there are no expectations on us to perform, but be something for someone else. It's an interesting story, if a rather tragic one, with the android a compelling character and with a surprising amount of action for a story centered on hospice care. A fine way to start the issue!

"It Was Educational" by J.B. Park (2290 words)

A fittingly disturbing story about a sort of reviewer checking out a new "historical" experience, this one manages to hit the right notes in presenting a world where atrocity is entertainment. The story takes place in a sort of game, a virtual recreation of a student uprising, civilian and soldier meeting in bloody mayhem. It does a great job of capturing the push of some "historical" video games that both want to strive toward "accuracy" while also having neat effects, making things almost more terrible by the attempts to add some sort of sought-after realism to the whole affair. Because in the midst of striving to seem real, the actual events are lost and fuzzed, become something for fun, something for entertainment. There is a beauty and disjointed strangeness to the story, to the setting, to the battle being fought around the main character, who makes notes with a dispassionate distance from the whole thing. Meanwhile the actual action of the virtual space is death and murder and blood and carnage, and instead of drawing people into the experience, instead of building empathy, the complete opposite thing happens. Which I think is rather spot on. When the violence and death becomes the part of the experience that is valued, over the actual people who died, when it becomes about taking on the role of avenger and punisher, I think that empathy is lost, that people become mere symbols that lack the power of the real thing. It's a neat story, and definitely one to read and think about. So yeah, go do that.

"Security Check" by Han Song, translated by Ken Liu (4010 words)

This is a rather trippy story about a man, Louis, who starts out living in New York, part on an America that is obsessed with security, that has taken so far that everyone must pass through security pretty much daily, often more times than that, and every time they pass through all of their possessions are destroyed and remade in order to ensure they are safe. More than that, though, the people themselves, and the country itself, are recreated daily and moment to moment, are made safer and safer through small alterations. Louis yearns for a time and place without the need for security, sees it as a form of insecurity, but for his troubles ends up getting into trouble and then leaving the country for China, where he gains perspective on the issue. And, more than that, he discovers that the driving force being the American obsession with security was not exactly American in origin. (SPOILERS, OKAY?) I thought the moment that the story pulled back and revealed that the security in America was just a test was an interesting one, that the implication that China wanted to make the universe secure was frightening, especially because one never really learns if America, which disappears entirely in a transcendence of security, was a success or failure. If success, as the story kind of implies, it means that the goal of the universe is to disappear, perhaps right out of existence. Meanwhile, Louis wants to be doing something, questions whether China is really so free of transformation, and learns perhaps that it doesn't matter, that security is insecurity and that what is required, what will really set him free, is learning to trust others, to see and be with others. The last paragraph is beauty and striking and really sells the story, though I think this one is one that might take more than one reading to fully discover. A good time all the same, though!

"The Servant" by Emily Devenport (15034 words)

The longest of the original fiction this month, this story takes place across a number of years on a generation ship that was once one of a pair before the wealthiest among the people on board had one of them destroyed. Destroyed along with the two hundred thousand people on board. The story follows Oichi, a girl and then a woman who has secret enhancements that allow her to overcome some of the limitations of being a servant among the very rich. Her parents, who gave her those enhancements, were some of the ones to die on the lost ship. They were survived, though, by more than just their daughter. Because something else managed to avoid perishing on the lost ship, something designed to make it easier for people to communicate and, more importantly, to collaborate. Something that would have destroyed the old ways of power, would have stripped away the illusion that wealth is equal to merit. The story is great fun, mixing intrigue and tense pacing with a slowly building idea of what a future might look like for the remaining people of the generation ship without the corrupt hand of the Executives, the richest who control everything, who kill with impunity. Not that there isn't killing on both sides, but there does seem to be a real moral difference, with Oichi having to kill to survive, to try and counter the worst of the actions of the Executives. Even so, she never kills when she can avoid it, and in the end doesn't have to, showing that corrupt power can't even protect itself, can't share and collaborate even to stay safe, and in the end it is greed that ends the tyranny of the ship as much as it is Oichi taking a stand for what she knows is right. It's a tight story with great character work and a real sense of accomplishment by the end, the themes optimistic and refreshing and the action satisfying. A very good story.

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