Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #108

This issue of Clarkesworld is pretty much all science fiction. Which is not a bad thing, especially with some of the stories this month, but it does strike me a little bit. The theme of the issue can definitely be seen as sorts of post disasters. The disasters take all forms, from a suicide to a global economic shift to a series of wars. There are some striking takes on this idea, and I think all the stories are worth checking out, even if I wasn't a fan of all of them. At the very least it provides a great many futures to see, to confront and struggle with. So to the reviews!


Art by J. Otto Szatmari


Stories:

"Cremulator" by Robert Reed (5828 words)

This is a rather strange story about time and chance and a great many things. It's...well, it centers on Walter, Melanie, and Gwen, three people linked in some strange ways. Mostly they're linked across spacetime, three people in an infinite number of Earths interacting with each other. In most of the Earths, the story is similar. Gwen was Walter's high school English teacher. Melanie was her girlfriend, a physicist. Only the story follows through a number of realities where the outcomes are very different, where most of the time either Melanie or Gwen are dead and Walter is linked either directly or indirectly to them. It's fascinating to see how the different realties meet, how they reflect and change and distort. It's a weird, story, as I said, all focusing on a central loss in one reality, but not just in one (because infinities and all that). But it's well crafted, the writing tight, the characters all different from reality to reality, the perspectives shifting. It's makes for a mosaic whole, a picture that comes clear when you step back and take it all in. A nice story.

"Loving Grace" by Erica L. Satifka (3781 words)

This story focuses on Chase and Marybeth (though more on Chase) a couple that has lived through the Shift, where all labor is now automated, where human toil is now not necessary. Except that people are still drafted to work, drafted as in they are taken apart and made into drones, their eyes and voice used to make the machines more personable. It's...well, it's rather terrifying, but it also is making some excellent points on how people treat automation and humans in general, how people treat labor, but as something working for the betterment of everyone but as a way to maintain a system of inequality and oppression, as a way to keep people away from being actually free. Because you'd think that in a world where work is basically unnecessary, that there would be something humanity could focus on instead. But the way it works here in the story is that people live in fear, fear of being drafted. And Chase, having lost his wife, finds some comfort with another person. Only things don't exactly work out they way he had hoped. It's a complex story, layers of guilt, of injustice, of the lingering question of what good is work if it doesn't actually make life better for people. For Chase, the world is not free and cannot be free, for no other reason than there are those that want to keep freedom from him. Definitely a story to check out.

"Perserve Her Memory" by Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu (3803 words)

In this story, a suicide in a future where memory downloads are possible prompts a huge public outcry and an additional death because of the tattered relationship of two people. Ye Lin, an actress and celebrity, jumped from a tall building out of despair and anger at her ex, Xue Kai, who cheated on her and stole all her money before leading a charge to harass her and get her banned from her work. The story is rather interesting in that premise, in the intricate nature of the crimes that were committed and is a very interesting look at how groupthink seems to work, people turning on people quickly, hating people quickly. There's definitely a lot to read into here. But...something about this story also bothers me, perhaps because it changes its narrative about what happened a number of times, and because it ultimately strips Ye Lin of her victimhood. [MASSIVE SPOILERS TURN BACK NOW!!!] Because as the story moves it turns out that Ye Lin wanted to get her ex killed or harmed by killing herself, making her into a murderer despite the fact that she was being constantly harassed, stalked, had been stolen from and lied to. The story seems to me to come down a bit on the side that she was ultimately wrong not only to kill herself but to blame her abusive ex, who happens to be actually leading a campaign to harm her. Her crimes? She wanted control of the couple's finances. She kept secrets (though it is not revealed what kind) and she used sexual favors to further her career (which, really, says much more about the industry she was working in and it's problems with women than it does about her, in my opinion). Meanwhile her ex, who stole all her money, distributed nude pictures of her on the internet, and is basically the worst kind of person, is the real victim? That part of the story makes me quite uncomfortable. But then, perhaps that's something the author is playing with. Maybe it's about how the narrative can be so easily taken by a man to erase a woman's struggle and pain. It's an interesting story, at the very least, and I don't regret reading it.

"The Algebra of Events" by Elizabeth Bourne (2177 words)

This was actually a surprisingly disturbing story to me, one that seems to investigate what intelligence is, what it means to be alien, and how difference and survival can lead to some seriously fucked up shit. The story follows a group of colonists traveling through space when their ship encounters a problem and they have to scramble to find a planet nearby that can support them. They come to what is either Earth or an Earth equivalent with humanoid creatures. The story focuses on the colonists, on their difference, building a very compelling society that they come out of, making it seem real and worlds away from humanity. For that alone the story is interesting, compelling, seeing these characters acting true to themselves and so closely parallel to how a human might act. Which I assume is the point, because once on Earth the colonists proceed to treat humans as a lesser species, cutting them apart and experimenting on them, looking for a way to use them for gain. This is a colonial story, one that shows just how casually colonists can dismiss the lives of natives, just how much it is about the story of the colonizer, their intelligence and perseverance. It's a disturbing story because it's rather spot on, and while the colonizers here are presumably the protagonists, the way it plays on humanity means that as readers we're supposed to empathize with the colonized. It's not an incredibly subtle point but a nuanced one, nicely complicated and finely accomplished. Hurrah!

"The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (6680 words)

Wow. I want to call this story funny in some ways and yet very, very serious as well. Also sweet. Also complicated (if that wasn't obvious already). It takes place in a future where the West, the Occident, has been destroyed by war. Destroyed in part because of the work of Kerrtu, a biochemist who designed weapons that are part of how the West was destroyed. The story follows Heilui, a woman who has a debt to her government and has agreed to an arranged marriage with Kerrtu in part to draw out a past associate of Kerrtu's the government really wants. However, if the story were as simple as that I don't think I'd like it as much. Because part of what the story does so well is flip tropes associated with Western depictions of the East, what many still call the Orient. This story is nearly familiar in using the foreign bride idea, this exotic beauty who is valued for being different, for being unique. It is incredibly blatant in the story and it is (to me at least) rather hilarious, because it does such an effective job of showing how depictions of Asian characters (and especially Asian brides) is about ownership and about fetishism and about so much that normally gets swept away in the face of the "love" story. And don't get me wrong, the love story here is strong and it is fun and it is soft and sweet and moving. I loved the relationship between Kerrtu and Heilui, loved the way the relationship was queered further acted to call out the problematic depictions of race in many, many stories. For all that it works very well as a "how do you like the shoe being on the other foot" story, it's neither simply about that. It's about being in a bad situation and trying to get your life back and perhaps having to hurt someone in order to do that. It's about regret and atonement and how love can overcome, in a completely unironic manner. Which is great. I love how the story doesn't try to be a parody (exactly), or at least isn't about parodying racism. It's certainly present, but to me the story is about seeing people as people, is about grief and loss and recovery. It's about Kerrtu and Heilui finding a way to be with each other, to be free of their pasts, their crimes, about forgiveness and about love. It's about hope, that even in the midst of such loss there is something that remains that is worth striving for, that is redemptive. It's an amazing story and you should go read it. Go on!

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