Thursday, May 17, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #140

May finds Clarkesworld back down to four original releases, though the word count still tops out around 40k of new work. Two short stories, a novelette, and a novella make for a weighty issue, which to me swirls around fate, injustice, time, and struggle. In each, characters push against the frustrations of a world that doesn’t really live up to their expectations. They are let down, hurt, perhaps even nearly destroyed, and in the face of that it might be easy to embrace bitterness, despair, and violence. And yet the characters here mostly just want to be happy, to find ways to survive and maybe work to fill the holes inside themselves. It’s a wrenching, often difficult issue, and I’m going to get right to the reviews!

Art by Arthur Haas

“A Vastness” by Bo Balder (4377 words)

No Spoilers: Yoshi is a scientist researching strange creatures known as Guardians. Creatures who were present on her own home world and who had a significant impact on her when she was young, that reached out and touched her, inspiring her to devote herself to trying to solve the mystery of the Guardians. Now, on a ship chasing a group of the creatures, her and her graduate students are trying to gleen what they can before the Guardians disappear travel to the areas between galaxies. And Yoshi will have to decide how much it means to her to solve this mystery—how much she’s willing to risk to learn more about the creatures that had such a lasting impact on her. Fast and full of scientific curiousity (and very little scientific restraint), the piece is fun and bracing, revealing a scope that truly is a vastness.
Keywords: Trans MC, Space, Aliens, Science!, Recklessness
Review: Yoshi is a force of nature in this story, moving forward even when everything seems to be telling her to slow down. Slowing down might lose her the one chance to better know the Guardians, though, and everything sort of falls away at that. Which ends up making a whole lot of sense, because in some ways this moment has been a lifetime in coming, has been seeded and must come about to close the loop in causality. And really I like how the story approaches Yoshi’s recklessness, that she’s being driven by a feeling deeper than just science, that she’s caught up in something bigger than just her, and that everyone around her sort of bow to that because it doesn’t leave room for disagreement. The story does a nice job of showing just how fast these things happen, and just how much Yoshi needs to follow where these Guardians are going. And when the shift in the story happens, I like how it’s revealed and framed, how the curtains are pulled back and the universe is exposed. It reminds me in some ways of Star Trek, because there often were these scientists who would show up so obsessed about their topic that they would put the show at risk, and yet it was to push forward human understand and really follow that spirit of going out into the unknown. Your mileage may vary, but for me there’s an energy and a life to prose that is refreshing, and it makes for a great read!

“Not Now” by Chelsea Muzar (4425 words)

No Spoilers: The arm of a giant robot has fallen from the sky and destroyed part of a family’s home. The narrator of the story is the daughter whose room was destroyed, taking most of her stuff with it and leaving her parents in a bad state. Further, because of tensions surrounding the use of robots, the event has taken on a political aspect, and news reporters and other people have congregated on the house, their presence a constant harassment as people scramble to blame the family for their misfortune. There is a claustrophobic feel to the prose for me, like all the world is getting smaller. All the narrator wants to do is fix the gaping hole in her wall, to maybe be able to not have to be constantly reminded of her loss, and yet the story explores how difficult it is to do anything when bad things happen and a bad system prevents anything getting better.
Keywords: Spectacle, Robots, Media, Family, Misfortune
Review: For me, so much of this story is about what happens to people when something bad happens. Especially now, without a social safety net to speak of, families who experience bad accidents can find themselves sliding right out of their class, out of their homes, out of everything that they thought was going to go right. And for the narrator, a young girl, it becomes something that doesn’t make any sense. Because people say that something bad happened and her family deserves help. She believes that. And yet nothing seems to be done. No one arrives to fix anything. And everything is actually angry at her family, angry at her. They get blamed for having this bad thing happen to them. Like it proves that they are evil. Bad people. In league with some scary foreigners. It twists things, and even the narrator’s best friend turns on her because of the stress that radiates out from this one event. Because there’s such a pressure to be perfect, to not need help. That there is the danger of dragging down those around you when you struggle. And that there’s really nothing to be done about it, because help is being prevented in order to further the narrative that poor people are lazy. That foreigners are evil. That robots are destroying our economy. Okay, well maybe not as much that last one, but definitely in the story that’s what’s going on, and it’s wrenching and uncomfortable and sharp and very well done. The story just captures that numb exhaustion so well, depicting a girl just wanting the hole in her room covered over and finding no one either willing or able to help her. A devastating, but excellent read!

“Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan (9216 words)

No Spoilers: Senne is a woman escaping an invasion that has seen most of her country either rounded up into camps or dead. On the run with four soldiers, she struggles both with what she’s had to do to stay alive to this point, and what she might still has to do, as not all the men travelling with her mean her well. As her and the soldier push on, through blighted territory toward a hoped-for reuinion with more soldiers, Senne must face her own fears about the invasion that is sweeping her land, and how much her own people are playing in it. Tense and paranoid, the story shows how warfare can sometimes be a nightmare of lies and illusions, betrayals and promises. The enemy that she wants to fight never really shows itself, not exactly, and yet it’s destroying everything around her.
Keywords: CW- Sexual Assault, War, Invasion, Betrayal, Profit
Review: This story makes for a very difficult read at times in part because of how much it refuses to fall into the obvious traps when dealing with war and conflict. Senne is not a soldier, in part because she is a woman and her home land is not exactly great about things like that. Further, she’s a woman who has seen just how little she is valued by either side of this conflict and wants more than anything to survive. To escape. So she’s with these soldiers but she’s also not, is apart from them in a way that makes her vulnerable to them. And interestingly, the man who acts to protect her and seems to view her most as a person is also the one to most betray her and nation. I say interestingly because it shows how, through all of this, the sides has been muddied. The arena of war has been shifted. And what everyone thinks they’re fighting about is actually a distraction, a lie to keep them busy while the real war is being won elsewhere. Senne is calm and competent, though, pushing through the deceptions on both sides, protecting herself where necessary and seeing, even when everyone else does not, the real stakes of the conflict. And I love how she refuses to fit into the tradtional narrative wherein she would earn her place among the men and embrace being a soldier. Because she knows that being a soldier isn’t what’s needed to fight. That she can do more in other ways, and that for all that people seem to want there to be a solid enemy to stab, the reality is that the war is against shadows and against profit, a much harder thing to pin down with soemthing so crude as a blade. It’s a gritty story, soiled by blood and fear and violation, but it also has in my opinion a good take on how conflicts are fought and how wars are won. A great read!

“Farewell, Doraemon” by A Que, translated by Emily Jin and Ken Liu (23072 words)

No Spoilers: This rather hefty translated novella follows Hu Zhou, a young man who has rather washed out on city life and returns to his small, provincial village to try and figure things out. With his return to his childhood home comes a return of his memories surround it, his hopes and his dreams, his interested and his feelings. And his regrets. The piece is deeply nostalgic, showing Hu Zhou what has become of his home and his former friends in his absence, especially with Tang Lu, the girl who had been his best friend but whose life was beset with tragedy after hu Zhou moved away. The story is touching and slow, really getting into the ways that life and the world can pull things toward sadness and loss. Showing how childhood wonder and hope and compassion can all bleed away from the thousands of little wounds that growing up and surviving inflict. But also how a little bit of that wonder, that magic, can be used to push back, to maybe change things for the better, and allow for a bit of hope to return.
Keywords: Cartoons, Time Travel, Growing Up, Hopes, Disappointment, Fate
Review: This story hits in all the places that hurt at the cruelty of the adult world. All the disappointments and disillusionments that happen when becoming an adult and losing the feeling that life can really get better. It comes from pain, mostly, which is something that Hu Zhou has a bit to learn about as the story opens. Because, really, he’s had things okay. He’s been focused on the things that he thought made him happy. And it’s turned to dust. Shaken, when he returns to his home village, he finds that same bitterness and hurt reflect there as well, only worse. Because while he always looked back rather disdainfully on his village and on his childhood, he also knows that there is a bit of magic there. I like how the story recognizes that nostalgia isn’t really all that accurate. Even as a child Hu Zhou was dealing with some shit, and so were most of the other people he was with. It’s not like Tang Lu ever had a great life, what with a drunk father and constant money worries. But there was a sense that both of them still believed in the promise of the future then. In the lessons that hard work payed off, and that a just universe wouldn’t let them down. In some ways it’s what Doraemon taught them, that life could be an adventure and that sometimes there was help right when it was needed. That, on the edge of darkness, someone might pluck them back and give them a real chance to escape.

And I feel that the story does a good job of capturing the pull towards the darkness that life can have. The struggle to make money, to do well. How it can be frustrating and suffocating and painful. And how there really is no help for some things. How they just spiral downward, pulled under the surface of the water. Drowned. At the same time, the story doesn’t just accept fate. And it refuses to believe that there can’t be a way of changing things. Even if that way seems impossible. And that ultimately is what I like about the story, that it shows the power of a little help at the right time. How huge that can be. How life changing. The story isn’t really about Hu Zhou and Tang Lu as children. What happens to them isn’t their fault, even though they couldn’t stop the tragedy from swirling around them. As children, they had no power to stop the flow of events. But there were those who did have that power. And for me the story becomes about using that power for good. Becomes about interfering, about trying to change a life. And in changing small actions and infusing them with compassion and generocity, ordinary people can become magical, can become like Doraemon. It’s a lovely story that’s long and not exactly a fast-paced read, but delivers on the feeling of hope and nostalgia and possibilities. Definitely worth checking out!


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