It's another packed month at Clarkesworld with six original stories, including a rather charming novelette in translation. And it's another month that is entirely science fiction, with a splash of science-fantasy thrown in for flavor. These are tales that show visions of the future, conflicts playing out for the soul of humanity and for the fate of planets. Many of the stories take their focus off of Earth to show what humanity is capable of, the way that it can move from place to place, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. There's hope, though, too, and the stories also show the power that humanity can hold to create and to change and to love. So yeah, review time!
|Art by Joseph Biwald|
"What the Stories Steal" by Nin Harris (5253 words)
This is a story about being trapped and being freed, a story about narratives and harm done. In it, Ipsita is a woman bereft of a husband, though how bad a thing that is depends in some ways on how you view their relationship, which was cold and loveless. And yet the story builds together a vivid and moving picture about how just because a thing has a relationship has cooled doesn't mean there is no responsibility, doesn't mean there is no value in it. And I love how the story complicates the core relationship triangle in it, that between Ipsita, her husband Hans, and the family houseguest that has benefitted Hans' family ever since they arrive in the place they call home. The relationship is made deeper when viewed next to the history of the setting, where Earth has been lost, imploded, and the humans have come to a new and very different world where the world itself is governed by more strict forces, ones that help to maintain a balance and prevent humans for destroying it. And I love how that mirrors Ipsita and Hans, their marriage imploded under the weight of their cruelty and their lack of understanding. The harm they did to each other. So when the marriage is destroyed and Hans taken, Ipsita looks for a way to return, but not really to the situation as it was. To something better. More honest. More balanced. And to get there she has to set right an old wrong. It's a story of cycles, to me, and the cycles of harm that can be passed along or that can be faced. Ipsita could have just walked away, left Hans to his fate and tried to be happy. But there is a weight to that decision and if too many people make that choice that weight can crush everything, can turn gravity in on itself. So I love how Ipsita tries to navigate the situation, love the magic of the setting and the wonder of it. The more I read of this world the more I enjoy, and it's a delightful story with a resonating ending. Plus there's cooking and I love cooking in my SFF! A joy to read!
"Where Water Joins" by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (1814 words)
This is a nicely strange story about computers and about human minds, and about creating something, I think, that's larger than that. The setting is told with an immediate style and frame, combining programming language with a glimpse at a future where people can have their brains altered slightly so that they can process the world differently, so that they can act a bit more like computers, only computers that don't have to worry so much about overheating because they inhabit a human brain. And the action sees the main character haunted by a face that keeps changing, by a presence that seems always just out of reach. It's an interesting dilemma and I think the story does a wonderful job of creating this world, of showing people pushing forward in their minds to try and perceive more, and in doing so unwittingly creating something new. Creating something that uses them as much as they use the connections in their brain, a consciousness that is like a sea everyone swims in. And I like the style of the piece, the way it builds into something of a mystery, ever-so-slightly noir to me but also a bit surreal in places and to me illustrating this reach for connection and growing realization that we are a part of something. Literally, in the case of the story, a being that is made up from our individual minds but, as I read it at least, also something that stretches back before there were mechanical computers. That we create these entities out of our connections, out of our relationships, that there are vast social organisms alive around us, and we are parts of it, little bits of code that keep it running. It's a lovely piece, tight and short and elegantly told. Indeed!
"Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart" by Samantha Murray (2561 words)
This is a moving story about parenting and about conflict and about growing up. It's the story of a woman who decides to have a child, but not exactly a typical one. This child will grow at an accelerated rate and a year from birth will be taken into combat training to battle a relentless enemy on Mars. Though maybe not from Mars. These Boogeys are exactly what they sound to be, monsters who are dangerous but who are very much "over there." Attacking Mars. Threatening humanity. And by their distance and their difference they become something to be slaughtered, to be exterminated. And the war-effort needs soldiers. It's a vivid premise and one that the story uses well to draw out the emotions of raising a child, raising a child knowing that it's going off to war, knowing that it will be ground up by this system, that it's being trained to want that in many ways. To believe in the fight and how it's necessary. That these children need to be raised by loving parents in some small way to motivate them, to get them to hate and to kill because their loved ones are in danger and that's the easiest button to press. It's a frightening and rather disturbing story in that way, but one that keeps at its heart this core of love. Parental love. It's just that the story does an amazing job of twisting that love. Of showing how it can be used. To extend war. To cause violence. To break apart families. This is not a happy tale in the slightest but it does a great job of showing this time pass and the relentless drive, the fast rate of growth, the denial of what will happen and then the way that denial erodes. It's a hammer of a story again a piggy bank full of feels and it's definitely a story worth checking out. Just maybe don't be surprised if you're shattered by it.
"Follow the White Line" by Bo Balder (5415 words)
I'm a fan of mysteries and this story takes the mystery, shoves it inside a sentient ship with issues, and shoots it into space! Which…you know, that probably doesn't do justice to just how mundane and bureaucratic this story makes flying around through space, as the main character, junior engineer Omallie, works a rather thankless and heavily monitored existence aboard a ship that has seen some shit. And I kind of love how the story envisioned life aboard a ship like this, full of petty officers being, well, very petty in how they keep the crew working. Staring too long at something? Goes into your file. Playing a weird game or looking at the wrong kind of website? In your file. Not sleeping enough so your concentration is off? File. It creates this nicely paranoid atmosphere that Omallie navigates while she slowly becomes aware of something weird going on. Is made aware of something going on. And unwittingly or not she steps right into the thick of things, using the situation to hopefully find a better situation while wondering what she owes to people who have always treated her like crap. There's a lot here to digest in a relatively small space but the story manages, I think, to craft a compelling mystery and sell how it is uncovered, shining when it shows Omallie's fears that she will be discovered and punished but also her desire to know what happened and maybe get something for herself when all she has known has been the dull routine of exploitation. And I like that the story doesn't exactly solve the mystery, just reveal new ones, and how it lingers on the idea that sometimes it's not about the answers. A great read!
"Western Heaven" by Chen Hongyu, translated by Andy Dudak (9764 words)
Aww. This is a rather adorable adventure story about a robot artist, Wu Kong, on an Earth still deeply tainted from humanity, who wants to see where humans went, the planet that they fled to in order to escape the destruction they had wrought, leaving the robots behind, abandoned. Wu Kong gathers up a small band of robots to accompany him and together they work to find where humanity went and answer the questions burning within them. What are humans like? What is the meaning of work? Why were robots created? It's a story that moves along with a rather chipper feel, this great adventure that the robots are going on. It almost feels like an old animated film to me, fun and with robots with distinct styles and voices. Who journey through the stars only to find humanity and…well, the story isn't exactly the happiest of things at that point. There is a sense that the story is really making a commentary on the way that humanity uses and abandons things. Earth and the robots. The islands of their new home. How all that humanity seems to know is working to survive. Not to make anything better but to keep going as long and as comfortably as possible and all it does is push around exploitation and abuse. And I like how the story sees that robots are different, that robots can be different. Because all they need is sunlight, because there really is no utility in hurting each other. It's a story that really hammers home not that humans are evil, exactly, but that humans often choose to be evil because they aren't creative enough or conscientious enough to work toward something other than survival. It's a story about cycles and about hope, and even after the uncomfortable darkness the story brings there's still light in the end, still something to smile about. An excellent read!
"Afrofuturist 419" Nnedi Okorafor (1616 words)
Well this is a very fun, funny, and creepy story about a Nigerian astronaut left in space for 14 years and finally coming home because of a viral scam letter. Well, maybe coming home. The story is told as an article and captures that feel very nicely of an online news site doing the minimum of aggregating some information. And it does a wicked job of showing just how fucked up the system is when it takes viral media to bring attention to a very real injustice that's been done. Where a company has acting poorly but never even tried to fix its mistakes because it trusted that no one would care. And that they were right for so long. The voice of the piece, especially when it drops into the stranded man directly, is amazing, and the story layers itself by providing an actual audio that captures this message back to Earth following the announcement that he would be (hopefully) rescued. And I just love the humor of the story, the rather over-the-top nature of it that makes the horror of the piece understated and that much more disturbing. The noises in the audio and the feeling that the whole story isn't being told that sits on top of the horror that this might continue to be unknown, that there's still no guarantee that the man is coming home because of a legal technicality the company can use. That all of this has become about public relations instead of this person, this man, stranded in space in the presence of…something. It's another short work but it's an excellent blend of audio and text, tension and mystery, horror and humor. Go read it!