February is a short month and for Clarkesworld that means this issue has slightly less than I'm used to seeing, but still provides four original stories, including a translated novelette. All four stories are science fictional, one of them near-ish future Earth sci fi but the rest either off world or so otherwisely alien that it might as well be. These are sweeping visions of the galaxy and universe that imagine humanity in a much different place than now. As still learning from past mistakes but no less in love with the feeling of discovery. With pushing the boundaries of what is known and what is possible. The stories all look at the damage that can cause, but also at the progress that can be made. In how it seems to take us farther and farther away from our roots but actually returns us closer to them. It's a nice collection of stories that lean toward action and keep things going at a fast pace. So let's get to the reviews!
|Art by Benedick T. Bana|
"Assassins" by Jack Skillingstead and Burt Courtier (2257 words)
This is an interesting story about virtual space and damage and how it can be reflected in the real world. It centers Sonia, a woman who has suffered a traumatic loss in a virtual world where people can go to idle away the hours, where they can make connections with virtual people tailored to their specific interests and speech patterns and needs. But it is a virtual space that is dominated by monetization. If a virtual person isn't popular enough, they can be cut. Can be killed. And for Sonia, when that happened, something in her died as well, her only real connection. And so, to try and feel something again she decided that how she would relate to others, how she would connect, would be by shared loss. So she became something of a virtual assassin, creating an avatar of her own to kill popular virtual characters. And I like how the story shows Sonia disillusioned by the capitalist nature of the program, that here was something she loved and loved deeply that was cut for not being popular, invalidating her love and making her feel worthless. Which will probably be a very familiar thing to people who, for example, are hungry for a certain kind of story, or show, or piece of media, and get the glimpse of it only for it to be cancelled. Or for no sequels to be announced. Meanwhile monoliths to capitalism, to the lowest common denominator, proliferate and seem to openly mock people who feel that there is nothing aimed at them, that they must bend to the popular demand instead of hoping to see something that they will find meaningful. There might also be just a whiff of "kids these days" going on with the idea of virtual spaces and relationships taking over too much but I feel that even if that's the case it's more that no one is bothering to protect "kids these days" from the rampant and predatory capitalism that has infiltrated just about every avenue of human experience. So yes, it is a fascinating story with a great bit of action and something to definitely check out!
"Prosthetic Daughter" by Nin Harris (5881 words)
This is a story about memories and about home. About identity and how it can be stolen, how it can be stripped away and lost. And how it can be rebuilt and reclaimed. The story features Zhen-Juan, who has become a very high ranking member of the Bunian Empire, an organization vast and with power that can punch holes through space and time. But Zhen-Juan is not the main character's first name. Originally they were from a small world and lived defined by a disability, by a defect in their spine that meant they could not run or jump. But their mind was always active, and attracted the kind of attention that bought them a ticket to the stars. But there they met Yun-Li, a brutal peer who decided (out of malice and twisted affection and jealousy) that it would be her mission to wipe away the person that Zhen-Juan had been. And through that all the story meditates on what identity is and how precious it can be, and how terrifying to see it stored in a place that is vulnerable, where something like this can happen and people like Zhen-Juan can be completely erased. From their own minds and from the minds of the people who knew them. Who loved them. And I like how the story becomes this journey, this quest to retrieve who Zhen-Juan used to be. To pick up the pieces that had been scattered and thought lost. And because of who she is, because she is a person who always worked hard and never surrendered, her quest has hope. In many ways the story looks at how that kind of mentality can shape a person and make them stronger. How it can never really be stolen, even if the memories of it can be. That for Zhen-Juan she is able to reclaim her station and her job, her skills and her memories. But she is left wondering what she might have lost as well. Her kindness? Her family? And I love that the story seems to end on this hope that whatever is lost can be regained. That Zhen-Juan will not let a thing like time stop them from finding their way home. Because for them, whatever the rest of the universe can offer, there will always be a string tying them back to the past, to their ancestors, to their family. It's an amazing read and excellent new chapter in the Bunian Empire universe!
"How Bees Fly" by Simone Heller (8338 words)
This story is a little light on the details but does a great job of slowly revealing a world that seems strange and touched by a lasting corruption left over from humanity. At first, at least, it's difficult to tell that Salpe, the main character, is anything other than human. The setting is indeed bleak, with chemstorms and a sort of survivalist superstition that seems to infuse everything with a fear of demons, but it doesn't seem all that different than many post-apocalyptic settings at first blush. As the story moves, though, and the setting gets more and more fleshed out, it first becomes apparent what the "demons" are as well as that Salpe and her people aren't what I had imagined. It's a nice bit of trickery, playing with expectations and working that into a tale that has a lot to do with intolerance and what makes a person a person and not a demon. That looks at how dogma and expectations shape how we perceive a give situation and how that perception might be in desperate need of some refinement and complication. And in that it's a rather classic kind of story that reimagines prejudice and asks the reader how they feel when the full weight of the situation settles on them. It's a feel-good read that focuses on the strength of kindness and respect to win out over intolerance. And that's certainly something that the world needs more of right now, even if at times it seems that people are much more willing to embrace stories that imagine different beings overcoming their intolerance of humans than they are stories that try to point toward overcoming intolerance among humans aimed at marginalized people. But really, this is a sweet story that does a great job of building a post-apocalyptic world that borders on fantasy (with its gearbeasts and bees that produce fuel). The characters are complex enough and the ending is rather beautiful, showing the power of expression, compassion, and effort. A great read!
"Rain Ship" by Chi Hui, translated by Andy Dudak (14,329 words)
This story is easily the longest of the issue and it uses that extra space to great effect, building up a fascinating science fictional universe where humanity has disappeared and in their place the Ruderans, kinda-sorta super-evolved rat people, have risen to have a large interstellar civilization that exists in many ways in the shadow of the past human-dominion. And Jin, who works as a mercenary and law enforcement officer on the outskirts of that Ruderan civilization, seems in many ways human. Running from a painful past and family situation. Throwing herself into danger, into violence, because she doesn't know much else and because it drowns out the pain. The piece tells a rather thrilling story of her assigned to protect a group of stellar archaeologists studying a vast ship left over from the human's expanse. A ship with its own weather and where things aren't exactly what they seem. The story looks at family in an interesting way, and imagines the Ruderans as practicing a form of population control where out of each litter born only one is supposed to survive. It's a practice that is central to a lot of Ruderan beliefs and it's this practice that becomes in many ways central to the story, exploring the way that such a thing impacts everyone, the knowledge that a person has lived at the expense of others. For Jin this is complicated because at a young age she had to make a decision that still haunts her.
And I like how the story moves, likes the professionalism that Jin exudes but also the way that everyone and everything seems dwarfed by the past human civilization (and I further love how that is then complicated by the framing of the story with the footnotes and with the way the story is ended). In many ways this is a space opera with mercenaries and betrayals, gunfights and lost relics. But it's also something different, looking at family and connections and hope. Looking at the way that lives sometimes flare brilliantly out and looking at the lost potential, at the inhuman and at the very human ways that the Ruderans move through the universe, seeking meaning in the monoliths left behind, finding how their scale comes to define part of their cultural understanding of life. That they are small. That they are many. And yet that each life is still worth something, is still worth trying to save. Jin is a great and engaging character the story is complex, at turns very fun and very poignant. There is a darkness lingering at the periphery of the piece, one that is dispelled by Jin's coping mechanisms and crassness, but it still slips in occasionally, and it makes the story all the weightier and more layered for it. It's an excellent story that you should certainly give some time and attention to!