Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #246

The science fantasy month continues at Beneath Ceaseless Skies with three more stories (one short story, one novelette, and one novella). Where the last two issues focused (in my opinion) on AI and apocalypses respectively, these stories feel a bit more about corrupt systems and violence to me. Each features a world where things…well, they work, to some extent. Unless they don’t. There is a balance, but it’s not a balance that benefits everyone. It requires some people to forego their freedom, to be subject to violence and perhaps death at the whims of some larger power or purpose. In each, there is a resistance to just letting things go the way they have been. And in each, the result is much different, showing how these systems deal with threats, and how much people are willing to risk to escape them. To the reviews!

Art by Florent Llamas

Stories:

“Do As I Do, Sing As I Sing” by Sarah Pinsker (8700 words)

No Spoilers: The story opens on Guerre and her slightly older brother, Acco, as they play and compete with one another. The children’s village is one that raises crops to sell for goats, a balanced economy that only works because the villages control the secret of cropsinging and the mountainous people control all of the male goats. The children’s village needs a new cropsinger, as theirs is getting on in age, and a selection process is held to determine who will serve. The piece explores sibling rivalry, aggression, and the fragility of balance in a place where the specter of starvation looms large. It’s a complex read, one that doesn’t offer too much in the way of answers, but rather explores how hurt can spread, how rivalry can turn to something darker and more dangerous.
Keywords: Singing, Crops, Siblings, Rivalry, Trade
Review: This is a complicated story for me, because it deals with rivalry and also a bit with innovation, but also with fear and hesitation and tradition. When Guerre goes off to learn her craft, she also learns the mechanics of what she is to do, the reasons for everything, that most people don’t care to learn because it’s not necessary. Which she finds odd, except that it’s the same general argument that her brother, Acco, uses when he returns to the village full of resentment that Guerre was chosen over him and with a machine that could make what she did obsolete. And it’s her reaction to that prospect that I think deserves to be grappled with, because in many ways it’s something in fantasy that gets played with a lot, machinery against magic, tradition against something new and potentially dangerous. Guerre sees in this invention a threat, because of how it might destabilize the economy, the fragile balance that keeps everyone (or mostly everyone) happy and healthy and fed. Except that it is obvious that this system has flaws. The magic that Guerre learns is dangerous, and not everyone who uses it survives the learning of it. It also takes its toll, and will make Guerre age before her time. The question, in some ways, is why she’s against this new technology—why she does what she does when faced with being spared having to suffer through the magic.

The answer for me is, well, not simple. Because for all that we see Acco here as resentful that Guerre has done something he did not, there does seem to be a part of Guerre who resents Acco trying to take away her position, take away what does make her special. And glob as a sibling so much of this story speaks to me, because it really doesn’t provide quick answers. It’s easy to bounce off of Acco because of his obvious issues, because of his aggression and misogyny and because he seems to be pushing for change not for anyone’s good, but for his own sense of importance. And yet is what he doing wrong, and what Guerre doing right, just because the characters themselves are more or less sympathetic? I’m left feeling very conflicted about what happens because Guerre herself doesn’t seem to like the system, knows that it keeps starvation at bay but that there’s a price, and a price that might not need to be paid. If she could work together with her brother, maybe they could find a better way together. If the villages could all cooperate closer with the mountain dwellers, maybe they could find a way to be that didn’t require co-dependence. As it is, though, fear and distrust keep people apart. Not that it isn’t earned (I wouldn’t really trust Acco, either). But that the situation is being pushed toward ruin one way or another, and trying to avoid in because it’s change isn’t exactly a great long-term plan. It makes for a complicated read with a great world building and compelling characters. Very much worth spending some time with!

“Gennesaret” by Phoenix Alexander (4000 words)

No Spoilers: Alissha is a woman fleeing the destruction of her home and the betrayal of her husband. The situation is bleak, and Alissha’s people are views as inhuman because of their differences. Carrying her child with her, she flees one nightmare in hopes of finding peace and acceptance across the water, in the land where the “real humans” who are destroying her people live. Getting there, though, might not be the sanctuary she hopes for. Visceral, relentless, and bleak as hell, the piece sharply criticizes the politics of immigration and violence. Alissha is risking everything, losing everything, while people debate whether she should be considered worth empathy. There is no comfort to be found in this story, but rightly so—it’s about the weight of what’s being done, and what people are able to ignore.
Keywords: CW- Violence, Immigration, Intolerance, Humanitarianism
Review: Okay well fuck, this is not exactly an easy read. Because, well, because it’s bleak. And in some ways it’s incredibly meta, because it’s about violence, and about empathy, and about using the pain of others to try and inspire something. It’s about humanity and what it takes to get some people to think of others are really human, deserving of compassion, respect, and life. It’s a story complicated for how Alissha is running, trying to escape the violence all around her, hoping that she can find peace in the land of her enemies because she cannot find it among her own people, who believe that in order to be accepted by other humans, these people just alter thmselves to fit into the idea of what humanity is. Namely, they have to erase their physical differences in order to fit in more. Alissha refuses, decides to flee instead, but doesn’t find the acceptance she was hoping for her and her son. She finds only more violence. And for her the difference between the people who just want to kill her and those that want to use her in order to make a political point without actually helping her, aren’t really that different. The piece critiques people who seek to use human life as only a political tool, who seek to channel tragedy into a digestible pitch designed to make people feel good without being discomforted by what’s happening outside their borders. And I say it’s a meta experience because the story shows how pain and how images of violence are used politically, divorced from the actual people being hurt, made into a moral argument surrounding who will vote for who instead of what people will do to stop what’s happening. And the story itself, then, is often an image of violence, one that reflects some realities in our own world. And it seems to ask people who use such violence to score political points what kind of good they’re doing, and what kind of harm they’re participating in. It’s by no means a happy read, but I feel like it gets into some important territory, and it makes for a fine read!

“The Emotionless, in Love” by Jason Sandford (28000 words)

No Spoilers: Taking place after “Blood Grains Speak through Memories,” this novella focuses on Colton, a young man without emotions, trying to fit into the caravan he travels with as they try to make it to a Veil, a sort of safe haven where they can temporarily avoid nano grains that seek to make sure humans do not harm the environment. Along the way, the caravan comes across a massacre, and ends up being pulled into the middle of a much larger conflict, and a much older mystery. The character work here is excellent, revealing in Colton a man who’s been damaged and who doesn’t really know how to fit in and can’t actually feel the desire to beyond his own self preservation. As the story moves, he begins to have a deeper understanding of people, and himself, but it’s a slow thing, and a wrenching one, and it makes for a compelling arch for him. Meanwhile the larger story focuses on control, on the way that this world has been damaged and the way that it can’t really begin to heal until everything in its past has been brought to light, exposed so it can help guide the future. Action-packed and violent, the story manages a strong emotional core and a wonderful extended cast. It builds on the solid foundation of the earlier work to pay off even bigger.
Keywords: Emotions, Conservation, Environment, Rebellion, Control
Review: Part of what fascinates me about this setting is the way that it flips the script with regards to environmentalism. Here the environment is protected over the needs and desires of humans. If humans trespass against the environment, as judged by these AI grains, they can be killed or otherwise punished. to carry this out, the AI empower certain humans as Anchors, who can gain superhuman power but who are in many ways subject to the grains whims, subject to manipulation through the use of memories, through conditioning to get them to react the way the grains want. And I love that in this story we get a bit more about that, about the original intent and perversion of what’s happened, the conflict and the power that has been used by the grains, and the ways that they really act more human than they ever want to admit. Still, it’s interesting to me that the conflict is in many ways about humans against the natural world, and also not. The day-fellows are the remnants of free humans, but they are herded by the grains to presumably protect the world from the polluting touch of humanity. But the grains aren’t exactly honest, and the more the story goes on, the more it becomes obvious that the grains are not free from the same sins as humanity, and this conflict isn’t about the natural world so much as it’s about who should have dominion over it. It’s a chilling revelation when it comes and I won’t get too much into particulars because fuck, it’s intense and a wonderful complication of this world.

And at its core a part of me feels like what’s at stake here isn’t really about nature, but about exploitation and vision. The conflict between the humans and the grains is one where only the extreme ideologies get to be heard. Those that just want some peace, who just want to live free, are the ones who suffer, from the Anchors who are forced to fight and kill and die to the day-fellows who can never stop their movement, who are always under the watchful and vengeful eye of the grains. Which might seem almost The Right Thing To Do given how humans fucked up the environment, and that to be better requires effort and proactive approaches to issues. I feel like this is something the first story played with, asking what price is Too High for ensuring that humanity cannot destroy the planet. And here I feel the question gets asked again, only with more information. Does that information change how the reader frames the struggle between grain and human. Does it change how the reader sees the grains? Again and again we see in the story Colton being treated poorly because of his lack of emotions, treated like he has to earn more because of it, because of the risk he poses. And yet the hypocrisy of that, too, is revealed, and in many ways I feel like it wipes away the handy (but often unjust and hurtful) labels that we try to apply to situations, to people, to make decisions easier. We’re left with the full weight of them, which actually isn’t Too Heavy for a person to bear. Colton owns his decisions. As does Ae, the young girl he meets. As does Mita, the caravan’s guard. As, ultimately, does Sri Sa, an Anchor who has lost everything for a crime she didn’t commit. The story, again and again, shows the human capacity to Do The Right Thing without the threat of destruction or exile. It shows that what people tend to need most is openness, and cooperation, and a way to express their feelings without being punished for it. For me, at least, it’s a story that rejects the premise that humanity can only act morally with a higher authority involved (be it religious or in the form of microscopic murder-grains).

In the end, the story for me thrives on the power of its characters and the strange and haunting beauty of its world. Colton is compelling but comes so much more alive with Ae and Mita and Sri Sa around him, teaching him in ways that he needs to be taught. It’s not always a happy story, or a traditionally pretty one. There are monsters and there is blood and there are wrongs done. For me, the story reveals a setting messy and real, full of agendas and the people caught between them. But it brings the characters to a place where they can move forward, where they can work at honoring the past and moving into a future where they don’t have to remake the same old mistakes. It’s a wonderful and complex novella that you should definitely check out!

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