Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #138

March brings four short stories and a new novella to Clarkesworld Magazine. Which means for the second month in a row, the publication is bringing an original novella. It certainly continues the trend of including longer works at online (primarily, for there is a print edition) venues. The stories overall are, well, rather dark. To me, they focus a lot on corrupt systems and how sometimes there’s no real fixing them all at once. How what often happens is that people live and die, are crushed and ground to powder, for a long time before a bad system starts to improve. Not that it can’t improve, but that for many vulnerable people it doesn’t improve fast enough. Which makes for a slew of often very difficult stories, but ones that do hold onto a hope that things will get better, even if we don’t all live to see it happen. To the reviews!

Art by Arthur Haas


“Tool-Using Mimics” by Kij Johnson (2171 words)

No Spoilers: This story unfolds around a picture of a little girl with octopus arms. Or that might be octopus arms. A picture for a stage act. A fake, probably. And yet the piece does a wonderful job of imagining how it might not be a fake. How it might be real. What follows is a study of possibilities, of what ifs. And each new option creates variations on a theme—of trying to protect children, and trying to stay safe in a world full of predators. Subtle and deep and dark as the sea, it’s long enough to offer a lot of possible readings and have a great impact but short enough that it knows when to bow and exit the stage, finding that balance of showing just enough to be mysterious without overselling it.
Keywords: Octopodes, Girls, CW- Sexual Assault, CW- Pregnancy, Mimicry
Review: For me, the story hits hardest with a look at the ways that the vulnerable have to adapt in order to survive, in order to bring up offspring and try to continue one. The piece studies octopodes, the way that some of them adapt by using tools, by mimicking other animals in order to scare off predators or otherwise protect themselves. And the story draws these techniques into the real world to show how women and girls often have to use similar tactics. That mothers often have to sacrifice themselves in order to try and keep their young daughters safe. That young daughters often have to learn very early how to hide, how to appear as something else, how to survive above everything else. Not that all of them do. But that’s a big point of the story to me, that this is a situation where people are living like these octopodes, in a sea cold and cruel, where they must blend in, pass as something else, in order to be safe. Which is a rather scathing critique of how society treats women and girls. As things to be devoured. As prey. Who must alter themselves, who must bargain away who they are in order to try and live, in stead of being able to embrace who they are. Instead of being able to focus on changing the world to make things better, they must concentrate on making themselves different in order to pass through that world. Which is sad and powerful and a bit bleak. Except that the story also looks at escape and at possibility, essentially asking people to imagine what might be possible if this didn’t happen. If so many people didn’t have to spend so much of themselves just surviving. The story asks what joy, what art, what wonder we might be missing out on because of it. Which is a wonderful, devastating place to end one, and the story as a whole is just a fantastic read!

“The Persistence of Blood” by Juliette Wade (26506 words)

No Spoilers: Selemei is a mother of five and the wife of a powerful politician in a setting defined by rigid class structures and a driving obsession among the upper class to breed thanks to the Decline (in birthrate). After having nearly died in her last childbirth, Selemei is resolved to stop trying, and yet the laws of her society do not allow her to refuse being bred even unto death. Fortunately, her husband does care for her, and though he has failed pretty spectacularly in the past he takes steps to try and ensure that she, and all women of her class, will have the ability to not be quite so at risk of dying from childbirth. The story explores a lot of the hope and power of legislation in the fight for reproductive justice, but also reveals how difficult and corrupt a system is where a legislative body of entirely men is making decisions about such a huge portion of the class population. The setting is well fleshed out, and the structure of everything seems designed to try and avoid a lot of the issues present at the time of our own similar historical time period (meaning mostly, there are servants but not slavery?). It’s a procedural story, one that follows Selemei through the often tense and dangerous world of politics, and though it’s not exactly a piece featuring big victories or big defeats, it does show how change can happen, in fits and spurts, at the legislative level.
Keywords: CW- Pregnancy, CW- Child Abuse, Reproductive Rights, Birth Control, Voting, Government, Family
Review: A lot goes into this story, which probably isn’t a surprise for a 26k-word novella. The political system is vaguely democratic but more aristocratic, with powerful families deciding what gets made into law. I wish in some ways that the class system was a bit more explained, because as it is there seems to be the highest class, which is very much concerned with breeding probably because inbreeding has made infertility so high. Then there is a servant class and what seems to be a more professional class and even more that don’t get a lot of time in this piece because it’s focused on what’s happening at the top. And really it’s a story that looks at the ways that societies try to interfere with bodies, with people who have uteruses. How in this world these people are really treated only as vessels, and how any attempt to make things even a little better is met with resistance and dismissal. For all that, the story does feature a woman moving into this political world and finding that she is equal to it, that her mind is just as sharp and, once she has the proper help in place, her abilities are just as sharp as the men who seek to discredit her. It’s a story tinged with loss and danger, though. Selemei loses an awful lot, and it’s a bit heartbreaking to have to see what happens to her marriage, but at the same time it’s something that opens doors for her, that allows her to gain political power for herself instead of always having to have her ideas and ambitions filtered through a man who would not understand them fully, however Good Intentioned Dude he is. This was something of an uncomfortable read for me, though, because of a number of things, because of how much it pushed Selemei to treat her pain as nothing and by extension the pain of others as nothing even when she was rather actively abusing her youngest child (by physically pinning them when she was frustrated the child would not go to sleep). The story put the focus very sharply on Selemei’s issues without really having her look across intersections. Yes, she wants to do more, but she accepts as politically expedient that she can’t fight for everyone, and then...doesn’t. And...as much as I understand that this is a setting where Selemei doesn’t have a lot of options, she also feels very invested in the system, because of her children, because of her husband. And it did lead to more of a mixed read for me because of how much she accepted a lot of the bullshit and corruption in the government, which does strike me as how these governments work, by getting people to support them even as those people are being hurt by it, but it was just a bit uncomfortable.

And for me, the story becomes about the need for legislation to include all voices, especially those who have the most to gain or lose from the laws that are being enacted...or dismissed. For me, the story does a great job of exploring corruption at the highest levels of government, how difficult it is to take power away from those who have it and have no interest in giving it up. How it becomes a sort of game to snatch what crumbs you can, all the while playing a longer game, hoping that it doesn’t all come crashing down. As it can. As it often does. But here the story remains hopeful, showing this early step toward getting a little better. Not good. If there’s one thing that struck me about the piece it’s that the proposal doesn’t go nearly far enough, and I feel that frustration coming from Selemei, that she wants more, wants to actually _do something_, and yet is told time and again that she has to be realistic, which means moving at a snail’s pace and in such a way that the ultimate victory seems ridiculously far away. Perhaps not impossibly so, though, and it’s that hope that the story holds onto, that knowledge that even if it’s hard, it’s worth fighting for. Which does make for a somewhat frustrating read, because she’s so invested in the system that it seems as though she doesn’t really want to dismantle it, when I’m not sure what good this system is. To me, the story is about progress but also about keeping a system in place that...well, doesn’t seem to be doing anyone any good. But perhaps it wants to imagine that the system can be fixed by added participation. It certainly won’t get worse by it, but I’m skeptical that it’s worth spending so much time and lives trying to improve it when a more drastic change might be well worth pushing for. But it’s still a story I think worth sitting down and grappling with. Indeed.

“Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence” by Izzy Wasserstein (1750 words)

No Spoilers: Hannah is living in a Kansas City that has been taken by some sort of fascist cult, part of a larger movement that has swept the Americas and plunged things into...well, not a good place. The piece is framed as a found text, a book about Imaginary Anthropology and Hannah’s notes inside it. It’s a chronicle of the bleak times that Hannah is living in as well as a catalog of places either fabricated, lost, or recovered the imaginary realms. Equal parts wrenching and yearning, the story slowly reveals the world that Hannah is facing even as it looks beyond that world to others more fantastic and perhaps more needed. The framing of the story gives it a lot of its haunting power, and also its lingering hope, because the frame is complicated in its presentation, delving into the literal margins of this future history.
Keywords: Imaginary Anthropology, Fascism, Loss, Hiding, Queer MC
Review: This story reveals a world plagued by fascism and wounded in other ways, battle lines drawn in some ways around the idea of imagination. Hannah was studying Imaginary Anthropology, looking into lost places, erased history, and finds themself at the center of a move to rewrite the world’s story on a large scale. The imaginary spaces that they studied become both something to yearn for, an escape just out of reach, and a warning about the cost of leaving a place. At least for me, a lot of Hannah’s conflict comes from their desire to flee weighed against the knowledge that if they go, if they leave this place, it will cease to be. The joy that they experienced, the history that they were a part of, would be overwritten by the violence of those occupying and effacing the city. That flight is often the only choice when faced with such a threat, but that Hannah more than most doesn’t want to lose what they had here, the memories and the life. And even if it can’t really be reclaimed, to be erased as if it never was is something they choose to stand against. And I love where the story goes from there, recognizing the damage and the risk but also looking for a way to move forward, to do something without retreating, without surrendering. How it sees the value of imagination, not to escape the world, but to find ways to make it better, safer, and most just. It’s a wonderful story that maps places that have been lost, but also maps a space that could be—a place that has shaken free of fascism and is able to work to recover what people tried to erase. A great read!

“Farewell, Adam” by Xiu Xinyu, translated by Blake Stone-Banks (4617 words)

No Spoilers: A nameless “Me” signs up to become a part of a larger mind, one of a hundred minds linked to Adam, an idol (singer, actor, painter, etc.) whose job is to be popular. Controlled by algorithms controlled by a corporation, Adam is a person made up of people designed to be the perfect celebrity, to feel pain and be upset for the entertainment of the masses. And the Me of the story goes into Adam and experiences the...damage that does to his individual identity, the melding, the complex web of feelings. It’s a bit of a melancholy read that explores what it means to be in the public light, and who suffers for this arrangement, and what happens from there. Strange but resonating, it’s a piece that for me lingers with the push and pull of fame, money, and personal identity.
Keywords: CW- Suicide, Celebrity, Composite Personality, Water, Dreams, Contracts
Review: There’s a lot going on in this story and I feel like so much of it is wrapped around the idea of celebrity. That Adam is a new kind, one that is intimately controlled to try and maximize his personal brand. Damaged enough that his fans will see him as flawed and yet at the same time gorgeous, talented, and...well, hollow. He’s a compilation, a gestalt, and that makes him something of a chimera and a blank canvas. He’s a shapeshifter, constantly altering in order to fit what people want. And the question starts to become who is Adam in all of that, in the mess of the hundred different minds that make him up. Is there a real Adam at the core, or is there only the echoes of all these other minds there. And what are the implications of both of those possibilities. For the Me, I feel the story becomes about his own drive for both wanting a sense of self but wanted to be fulfilled. He’s someone who deals with depression, with wanting to be valuable, and yet becoming a part of Adam does not erase his problems. It does not really make him feel valued. Not as a person. He experiences Adam and it just further breaks down his sense of self, his own desires for what he wants for himself and the future. In that it’s a rather haunting read, where he must ask if he’s any less hollow than Adam, and if he’d make the choice to go for fame and a kind of success at the expense of his own identity. And through it all the story flows with a weight of trauma and expectation and exploitation. And it makes for a rather great story!

“The No-One Girl and the Flower of the Farther Shore” by E. Lily Yu (2866 words)

No Spoilers: A young girl without a name loses the only family she has when her grandmother dies, and is put in a very vulnerable position because of it. Still she lives on, though, and tries to thrive even in the hostile soil of the town. Unfortunately, as a vulnerable person things don’t exactly get easier, and the story is in some ways bleak as she struggles against the weight of poverty, prejudice, and injustice. Through it all, though, the story holds to the beauty that the no-one girl can create, and on the transformation she can undergo because of her hurt and because of her need to escape. Strange but deeply beautiful, the story begins heavy and dark and resolves into something, well, still heavy and dark, but with a breath of something magical and wild and free.
Keywords: Flowers, Death, Beauty, Poverty, Prizes
Review: I think what I get most out of this story is the idea that chasing after prizes can be a rather fraught experience, especially for those who don’t have the right kind of support, who don’t have the right kind of background or the right look to them. That, really, a more privileged person can steal his way into a better position, into acclaim and respect and a life just like everyone seems to want. The girl here has this beautiful flower that she cultivated from her own pain, and yet it’s taken and painted and presented as authentic. And I love how the story does a few things. First, the painted flower isn’t instantly praised. In some ways (as I read it), because it still bears the mark of the girl who really grew it, some people hesitate, make sure that they aren’t too positive about it. But it still wins. At least that’s how I read the ending, that the flower still wins, but that part of why it wins is because of who turned it in. And even though the butcher’s son’s alterations to the flower are seen as inferior to the original, they are still something that the judges understand, something that isn’t as striking, isn’t as challenging. It’s been made easier to consume, and given a frame that people want to support, that this guy has grown this amazing flower. Which does seem a lot like how awards and how recognition of art often goes, that people make some amazing art often because of their vulnerabilities, their marginalizations. But then some asshole comes and steals them, the ideas and the styles and the forms, and adds his own alterations and gets much more recognition than does the people who originally did the work. It’s a challenging and sharp story, with an ending that seems to imply that the true art lasts longer, that people will remember the truly original work and not the derivative. Which is a joyous, hopeful message, even if it doesn’t exactly make the girl’s fate all that much brighter. Still, it’s a fantastic read!



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