It's another full month for Clarkesworld with six original stories and a nice array of nonfiction that I don't have time to talk about but which I recommend to everyone. The stories here are, by and large, about the ways that humans destroy. Corrupt. Harm. Make war. The stories largely take place in the aftermaths of devastation. Science fiction and science fantasy stories about characters making do (or not) About characters finding hope despite the destruction, despite the harm, even if that hope is only for escape and release. More, though, the story is about people finding each other in the desolation, reaching out when they could pull away, and being richer for it. It's a fine bunch of stories and it's time to review them!
|Art by Julie Dillon|
"The Despoilers" by Jack Skillingstead (3194 words)
This is a nice story about family and about exploration and about science and reactionary philosophy and so much more. The plot focuses on a young woman, Allegra, trapped on a strange, distant world because her father wanted to get away from humanity. From the despoilers. It's a nice touch because it shows that he distances himself from humans at the same time that he basically does the same thing, seeking out something pristine and then plunking down to exploit it for his own gains. And maybe because it's just him he doesn't see it as harmful but it's certainly not in keeping with conservation and it's definitely not in keeping with not spoiling anything. For his daughter it is a prison and Allegra struggles with her feelings about that and her love of her father. When another ship appears Allegra is pushed into acting and making a choice between the delusions of her father or seeking her own way. It's a nice piece, rather short but exploring some interesting themes. The world that is built is strong and the character work with Allegra moves the story along crisply. The ending seems just a bit foregone because of how the story is built and framed but it's still compelling to watch, to watch Allegra grapple with her fears and obligations. Her father is just understandable enough for it to work, his plan familiar, to flee instead of facing the problem, to hide away (especially with his daughter the idea of purity becomes a nicely layered idea that stands in contrast to his misogyny and conservatism) instead of having to work to clean up the mess. A fine story!
"Aphrodite's Blood, Decanted" by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks (2472 words)
This is a rather cute story about a sentient wine factory living in the aftermath of disaster, the aftermath of a nuclear accident that has left the entire region uninhabitable. And the factory yearns for companionship, the bustle of industry that humanity brought and without which he feels rather hopeless. It's a story that to me revels in this older understanding of robots, which here are definitely gendered, the factory male and a nearby warehouse, who exists largely to make biting comments at the factory's expense, female. I will admit that for me the gender roles inherent in these depictions were a bit...old fashioned? But at it's heart I feel the story does a good job of showing how the factory tries to reconnect with function, how it feels directionless. In some ways the story speaks to me of retirement, and how people trained to only value themselves as workers, as employees, can have trouble transitioning to being past that. To being retired. It's an interesting piece and while for me I was left wanting a little more [SPOILERS] (as if the factory can clean the river with nanobots it seems like humanity should have been able to effect similar changes to the entire area if they were still around but then maybe they were gone and maybe I'm just reading too much into that) I still think the story is a rather cute tale about robots finding each other despite not really being prepared for it. Indeed!
"The Green Man Cometh" by Rich Larson (12,658 words)
This is a rather thrilling story about technology and damage, about ideology and fanaticism. It's also the second story to use Gaia as the name some rather terrible people use to try and justify some rather terrible actions. So it pairs nicely with the first story of the issue, but I feel it goes a bit deeper, shows a nicely cyberpunk vision of Earth post-Calamity (which sounds familiar and I can't remember if I've read a story or stories set in this world before), where most of the population has concentrated into one megacity. And in that megacity Eris is a cab driver with prosthetic arms and a bit of a chip on her shoulder because she was born on a neoprimitive colony and then sent away because of her disability. The story does a very nice job of growing Eris as a character, as someone who has trouble just getting along, both financially and with regards to the government and law, that she's drawn to act out in part because the City seeks to strip her of her individuality. Which is something that the weird cult in the story plays with, believing that the City is just the worst of humanity concentrated and distilled and that it needs to be wiped away. The action is fierce and the characters are fun. I quite liked the play between Eris and Kit, the government agent that gets assigned to her. The tech and the setting are richly explored and it's a fun story with some nice points to be made, especially when seen in parallel with that earlier story, where this cult doesn't want to clean up, doesn't want to have to work with people to make things better, just wants the easy reset button regardless of the cost. And Eris has to grapple with her own frustrations with the system against the terror that is what the cult plans. And yeah, it's fun and it's fast and it hits a lot of nice beats with its twists and turns. For an edge-of-your-seat thrilling science fiction, look no further. Very fun and very worth checking out!
"The Opposite and the Adjacent" by Liu Yang, translated by Nick Stember (2015 words)
This story is kinda sorta an elaborate math joke and I love it a bit for that. Seriously, it's a story about an alien growing up in a place where math is just…a little off. Where the constants that we take for granted with whole numbers are off just a bit. So that things don't quite meet. And it's a story about this character growing, seeing this weirdness, and not really being able to do much about it. Taking as a given, as a constant of the universe, because it works as far as they can test. Because their planet is influenced by celestial bodies in such a way as to render their theories…well, to us at least, wrong. And that's great, looking at how perspective really can effect things on a foundational level, right down to those things which we assume are constants, which we assume are universal. Math is supposed to be that and yet perspective is a tricky thing, and I just love how the story so simply and elegantly explores that facet of our world and understanding through this alien who was flying through space, who loved math until it got to tiresome because of the constants being skewed so slightly away from what we know. It's a fun story and nice reminder not to judge the science and the math of other peoples, not to judge their knowledge as inferior because it is not our own or because they lack the necessary scope. The story is about that silence in the end, the knowledge that [SPOILERS] we might be just as blind, just as mistaken, and that we should strive to approach our data, even our constants, with a dose of skepticism. A good read!
"Toward the Luminous Towers" by Bogi Takács (3922 words)
Okay wow. This is a story about war and ability, and sacrifice and being used up. It's about a character who has magic, who can channel energy and information, who is neuroatypical and being used by the military to organize troops. To fuel a losing war effort. And it is war that dominates the story because it war that destroys everything that the character has. It starts with an offer, with the main character volunteering for something, and from that first give they are taken from. They are taken from because people have decided it is important, because people have decided that conflict is a good beyond which there is even more noble conflict. That the towers of peace and progress, those luminous towers of the title, are unreachable and therefore unworthy of being striven toward. The main character's progress throughout the story is a sort of fall away from themself. A fall away from humanity. Into something different, something weaponized. [SPOILERS] The story does an excellent job in my opinion of exploring how war changes people. Not just in the personal sense, the horrors that the main character participates in, but in how it changes how governments view people. Especially in a losing battle, it's about how people become commodities, become war materials. They are all dragged in to the war machine and people like the main character are ground up, used and used and used and used until there's hardly anything left and even that they attempt to use, to bring back, until the main character takes matters into their own hands. And it is a heartbreaking story about loss and ability and wanting something so humble as to be a librarian and not being allowed to. Because circumstance. Because war. It's a beautiful and moving piece and you should all go read it immediately. Go on!
"The House of Half Mirrors" by Thoraiya Dyer (6716 words)
This story speaks to me of transformations and breaks, and features a strong running theme of being cut in half. In some ways I read this as the main character dealing with the loss of her mother and, more broadly, the decline of the world. The pollution and the damage caused. Also a little bit the way that she finds herself attracted to the aos si, fae creatures of supernatural beauty, while also hating them for it. The way that she goes through life both angry and guilty. The way that she is made up of different sides, her mother and her father, her good and her bad. And the story takes all these halves and begins to heal them. Not just bring them together but to blend them into something that is neither of the two halves and more. And it's a story about names, as well, with the aos si all named after their functions, all named to fit to something. And this makes a certain kind of sense because the main character isn't exactly named (at least, not really that I could see). The main character acts with the first person perspective but also in some ways speaking to the reader. It's a story where the reader gets to be actor and audience and I like that because it holds back the meaning there, makes the reader fill it in, try to guess at what might fit. And it's a story with a nice feel of a world that has been defiled in many ways, polluted, so that there's not much magic left. And to find some the main character has to first come to terms with herself, has to first reach out in kindness, has to first believe, because without that belief the magic isn't possible, which fits wonderfully and makes for a great read and wonderful way to end the issue!