For this special anniversary issue of Clarkesworld, it seems like there's a single question being asked. Namely, what can you trust? What can you know? It's a fundamental question that cuts to the nature of human experience and perception. Can we be sure of our surroundings? What happens when we know that something isn't real, despite not really being able to tell it with our senses? And what if we just think we know what is real, and the rabbit hole goes deeper still? It's a delightful way to frame a number of excellent speculative stories, mostly all science fiction but still good, still hitting, still interesting complications of what we take for granted and how we perceive and reach for some trace of the real in a sea of uncertainty. So yeah, to the reviews!
|Art by Peter Mohrbacher|
"The Next Scene" by Robert Reed (4976 words)
This story is, to me, about acting. About playing at being something, and in some ways about playing at being human in particular. It's a rather strange tale that sets the stage as a world where humanity has been usurped. Overthrown. Where artificial intelligences have taken over but also stepped back. Where everyone has universal basic income but that people can earn extra by providing…well, by providing entertainment. By acting in some way that gives the machines some insight into humanity. And so people strive to do just that, to act extra human. To be extra interesting. That becomes the drive of humanity, and it's an interesting thing, especially with a man character who's an actor more than capable of handling herself in almost any situation. When she runs into another professional, the story follows their exchange and it's a rather powerful one, challenging the drive that gets people to act, challenging the truth that everyone has accepted as to how the system works and why. The story weaves an interesting mystery around the premise of the world, questioning but never really revealing what's the real case. Instead the story seems to me more of an examination of how people are all actors and how when people are asked to act human people tend to overdo it. They go for melodrama instead of nuance, and I like how the story teases out this confrontation between the two actors, and how it seems to question how genuine people can be in a world that's being observed, as ours is, where everyone is performing much of the time. It's an interesting idea and the execution is well balanced, though it really offers a vision from the people who were basically already well off before the Event, showing how they have adjusted. Which is fairly limited, but still valuable I feel. So yeah, a fine read!
"One Sister, Two Sisters, Three" by James Patrick Kelly (8585 words)
This is a story that speaks to me of religion and outsiders and sisters. Of family and taboo and scale. The story takes pace on a world where two sisters, Zana and Jix, live in a sort of religious community. One that worships a goddess of math and doesn't believe in being replicated, which can be used to extend life and transfer minds of the dying or newly dead into a new body. It's a story about the life there, which is not small or unimportant, but which can seem that way when placed next to interstellar travel and ancient alien civilizations and a humanity that has stretched out among the stars. The story delves into the relationship of the sisters, twins who are in some ways night and day of one another but still close because of their shared space, because they need each other in the space left when their mother leaves to be replicated because of a degenerative condition. And I like the way their relationship is rendered, not quite friends but also more than friends. Sisters, in as complicated a manner as that is, and how that relationship changes with the introduction of an outsider, a man who is obviously interested in Zana. And everything swirls together, religion and challenging what is forbidden and wanting to act but also being constrained and it's a story with heavy notes of hopes and reaching, of showing that sometimes modern detachment can be just as religious as theist institutions. It's also a rather shocking story at times, showing how harmful it can be for people to come in from outside a belief structure acting like it's primitive, like it's stupid. How insidious that can be and how badly that can go. It's a complex and difficult story and well worth checking out!
"The Calculations of Artificials" by Chi Hui, translated by John Chu (8220 words)
This is a rather neat story about what is artificial and what is actual and what is the nature of humanity. Following two nuclear wars in thirty years, humanity became so frightened of itself that it decided to isolate itself. To surround Actual people with Artificial ones to buffer Actuals from other Actuals. To prevent war and murder. To try and instill peace into people. That's the world that Aixia thinks he lives in as one of the people tasked with maintaining the environment, the illusion. And yet the story does an excellent job of questioning what is reality. Of showing how it would be possible to manipulate a person into thinking that everyone around them was real because the number of people they interact with is limited. It's an interesting thought experiment that draws back to humanity's inability to really know truth. The limitations of perception that cannot pierce the subjective. There is no way to know that we're living in reality or some constructed illusion. This might all be deception. And for Aixia and for everyone on Earth the question becomes where is the line drawn. What if there were only a few Actual people on an entire planet of Artificials? What would that mean? I love the way that the story shows Aixia reaching out for interactions that he can't tell are real or not, that in this sea of illusion what he wants is uncertainty. What he wants is to not know, despite having the power to know, because the uncertainty is the familiar human kind, the kind that grounds him. The trouble is that isolation asserts itself. Loneliness asserts itself. The story moves well and examines what it might be like to find the veil drawn back. It's a powerful piece slightly devastating, lingering on Aixia and the implications of all that he discovers. A great story!
"Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home" by Genevieve Valentine (9267 words)
So this is a rather heartbreaking story about a place that doesn't even exist. Not exactly. It's about a woman who has been unfortunate all her life finally being a part of something that she loves, that makes her feel…okay, and then having to find out that it's been not only a lie but a cruel one, has been a plot to use her for research without her knowledge or consent because of money, because she is a prisoner and no one is supposed to care about her. It's also about a game, a game that comes to be something more than that, mired in the horror of what it did but also in the good that came of it. The story is brilliantly told through letter, at first between Marie and a mysterious other person, then drawing out to include other people. The letters are then framed inside another narrative, just as the setting of the game comes to the framed within another setting, everything drawing into this idea of a place of possibilities. Of birds singing on an alien world and things being…well, not exactly simple. But for Marie I feel like it was a second chance. It was a chance to recreate herself, to be someone at peace with what she was doing. Not always at risk, afraid, and exploited. The story does a terrific job of selling the idea of the game and then exploring how the game abused its test subject. How a corporation teamed with a prison to use people and how no one cared. The story flits from person to person but only through letters, so that the story is in some ways the evidence being gathered by the main character, by Benjamina, to turn over to expose what has happened. And it's completely believable that such treatment of inmates would happen. It points to how we treat the incarcerated, how we treat those we've deemed criminal. How powerless they become and how easy they are to use, even when it leaves permanent damage. It's a wrenching story and I love how it plays out, the guilt and the pain and the yearning. It uses form to great effect and you should definitely read this one. Go!
"Rusties" by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu (5461 words)
This is a story about technology, about our reliance on it, but also of our distrust of it, the uncanny valley that exists as technology grows more and more like us, more and more human. The story is set in a Nairobi that has implemented mechanical traffic robots called Rusties. These helpful artificial intelligences direct traffic and flow and have been widely lauded, widely accepted. Accept that some don't trust them and don't like them, start attacking them. And this leads to an escalating problem. The story is told as a sort of history lesson but it's also the story of one woman in the middle of this, a woman with a Rusty friend and a cheating boyfriend and who inadvertently does something to kick off a period of extreme unrest. The story delves into how we treat those that serve us, especially those we don't view as human. For machines are seen as less than people in this story despite the fact that they can think, that seem fully capable of feeling. And once they fear for their lives, once they see that people hate them the more human they are, shit starts going down. It's a story about how that fear can create a sort of funnel toward violence, toward destruction, because no one is willing to stop the escalation, because people let their fear get in the way, and it ruins everything, ruins the relative peace that the Rusties had ushered in, when the real problem, the real threat, was always human greed and exploitation. Human capitalism. The story does a wonderful job of building this world and making this problem both huge in scope and scale and very intimate at the same time, personalized by this one relationship, by this one betrayal. It's an excellent story and a great way to close out the issue!