Friday, February 5, 2016

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #113

I think it might be stretching things a bit to say that the February Clarkesworld is Valentine's Day themed. However, there are a number of stories that do a fine job of being romantic at the same time they are action-packed and morally dense. Most of the stories here lean science fictional, but there is fantasy as well, and a 15k genre-bending story that makes the issue a rather heavy one. No new translations this month, but a fine mix of stories that challenge and provoke. About AI and about  dragons and about the humanity of everything. So let's get to those reviews!

Art by Julie Dillon


"The Fixer" by Paul McAuley (3838 words)

This story is about a sort-of failed experiment. Or perhaps about how easy it is to become corrupt. Or perhaps it's about how there's no inherent value to humanity or to survival. In any case, it's about a rogue AI that is overseeing the development of groups of modified humans (or near-humans) on an alien world that is…well, quite hostile. It's an interesting premise and something of a classic one, examining what might happen when a sentient AI is given almost complete control of development on a planet. And I do like the descriptions of the flora and fauna of this world, to how hostile it is. I wasn't quite as sold on the cigar-smoking Fixer, but the exchange between Fixer and AI is an interesting one, and worth thinking about. Because at its heart I read the story as about survival and value, corruption and humanity. [OKAY SPOILERS FROM HERE] And what I really like about the exchange is how it basically throws out the idea that survival is enough, that survival is "important" for humans. That they can die or thrive as a species and there is good or bad to it. That, in effect, favoring humanity when it's obvious they can't really survive is a form of corruption and blindness that is more about the AI than about the humans, that by removing sentience from the almost-humans on the planet the AI was making it all about the AI's will and imposing it into a hostile space. That it's a "might makes right" argument that the Fixer wants to alter. But then, the Fixer really didn't sell me on being any more enlightened. But then, the story is about not always getting to see the end, so perhaps it's fitting that it doesn't give the full story. There's certainly enough here to be quite interesting, and there is quite a bit to think about. Indeed.

"That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (5818 words)

This story takes a fast and layered look at war and choice and love. In it, Rinthira is a woman living in isolation, happy in her own way in the aftermath of war and battle, content to sit out the conflict that is still tearing the world apart. When her former lover arrives with a warning, Rinthira has to face the idea that there is no running from this conflict, that she cannot escape into a world that she would want. The story has a cinematic flare, high technology and robotic assassins and a world in a total war, America expanding while sentient AI try to keep things in check on a global level. That the war has taken its toll on Rinthira is obvious, the hurt and the isolation in some ways her reward and her punishment, her attempt to atone for her sins and embrace the parts of herself that find no fulfillment or satisfaction in the pursuit of war. The conflict is between the draw of pulling back on her old life, embracing the challenge and the camaraderie and sense of importance against the draw of peace, of being at peace with her actions, of not being responsible for the deaths of dozens or hundreds or thousands of people. And I love the way that the story builds the characters, the life that Rinthira left behind, her family that misses her, the job that she both loves and hates. And I love the pacing and the aesthetic of the story, the pulse-pounding action that is where Rinthira comes alive but where atrocities live. It's a complex and incredibly readable story, fun and fast and exciting and definitely worth reading.

[OKAY AND SPOILERS BECAUSE I CAN'T RESIST TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T READ] And that ending! I love the way that the story deals with the idea of war and fighting and conflict in general. There is that feeling at the ending of "yeah, shit is gonna get exciting now" in that way that people are taught to glory conflict and fighting the good fight. But there is also a defeat in that moment that the story and Rinthira both recognize. It's not exactly all her choice. Obviously she could avoid war, but she is denied peace. She could live in hiding, but not in solitude. And so she yields to the draw of the war, of her friends and family and the skills she has. And in many ways that's a good thing, a necessary thing, because only in the conflict can she help to shape and guide it to avoid certain horrors and wrongs. But she has to turn her back on her own peace. So yes, it is a moment at the end that sort of made me smile, that made me want to read more about the characters and the situation, but it is also a moment where I could see that it was showing the tragedy of the situation, the impossibility of peace when there is war. That, really, trying to escape the war, for all that it sprang from an important and yearning need in Rinthira, was denying that conflict is two sided, and that when you are under attack, either specifically or generally, there can be no peace. And yes, it's a subtle touch and all with sex and cooking and killer robots! But yeah, ahem, moving on…

"In the Midst of Life" by Nick Wolven (15501 words)

So okay, this is a long and rather trippy story about visitation and about holes. Damage and prayer. It follows a man named Douglas as he takes over a tense situation for his company involving a newly acquired property that is full of people…well, people waiting. Any team sent inside does not come out but elects to stay. And Douglas, sent in as a last option before force is used, is inundated to a strange philosophy and a stranger experience and story. Inside the building, surrounded by "converts" to an ancient idea of prayer, Douglas confronts something so big, so foreign, that it alters the way he looks at the world, at his life, at the universe. The story is told in a rush, a confession, a dream, and all the layers come together quite nicely to make the rather hefty word count feel lighter and more manageable. The image of reaching out recurs, as does the motif of sound effecting the brain. And I thought the story did a nice job bringing in elements like invisible disabilities soldiers face and the way in which businesses exploit. That everything circles the human impulse to reach out, forward and back, to try and bridge that gulf between "me" and everything else. I'm honestly not sure what to think about some of the revelations in the story, but it reads with a conviction that carries through from the character, from the dissolution of his preconceptions. The form of the piece is well done, that found text approach that adds an air of authenticity that makes it that much more creepy. It's an interesting story, with a nice vein of horror, and in the end I found it compelling and complex and well worth reading all the way through. Indeed!

"Between Dragons and Their Wrath" by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky (4651 words)

This story takes on war and aftermath and collateral damage and dragons in way that is…well, certainly not very happy, but incredibly imaginative and deep and complex. The main character, Domei, lives in a city ravaged by the passage of dragons. Because where dragons go, their wake is forever altered. The magical ramifications of that passage, caused by a war that had nothing to do with Domei's home except it was between where the dragons were from and where they were aimed, are intense and pervasive. There are almost none not effected in some way, altered, changed. It is a striking way to handle the damage done by war, the unintended ways that violence can change a land and a people, leave entire nations destroyed not by any direct action but because of the devastation left behind, the carnage and pollution and corruption that is just as terrible and altering as the original passage of the dragons. People try to adapt, to keep going, and Domei, changed in many ways, wants to believe in a way to get through it. The story is richly imaginative and the setting delves into that area where magical is pervasive and beautiful as well as incredibly toxic and dangerous. And the oppression of the place is palpable, the way it's been altered to be in many ways unlivable. That people are there but that it's been so poisoned that it's just waited to kill them, and that getting out becomes about the only way to survive and perhaps have a chance at security, even if it does mean leaving everyone else behind, even if it is an extremely small chance and requires being damaged to do it. It's…it's a complex story and a very good one, a moving look at a world tainted by war and violence.

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