|Art by Pascal Blanché|
December brings a whole lot of fiction to Clarkesworld Magazine, with well over forty thousand words spread over three novelettes and two short stories. A lot of the stories focus on corruption and pollution and people trying to find happiness and freedom in situations where great harm has been done both to the planet and to human rights. Where people have become cogs in the machine of human exploitation. It’s not exactly a cheery issue, but some of the stories at least reach through the fog and smog of pain and isolation to show the strength and necessity of human connection to push back against the tide of crushing corruption at work in the world. Let’s get right to the reviews!
“Marshmallows” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (3394 words)
No Spoilers: Chunfei is walking in a bad part of town, protected from the unpleasantness of the poverty, filth, and decay around her thanks to augmented reality programs that replace the undesirable elements with something else. With December arrived, she’s chosen a Christmas theme, where buildings are turned into gingerbread, where homeless veterans are replaced with marshmallows. As she moves through this space, though, a lack of funds threaten to push her into an unaugmented reality, one where she is subject to withdrawal as well as a confrontation with the things she’d rather not see, rather not acknowledge. It’s a story that takes place in a limited space and time, focusing very closely on how Chunfei deals with this single crisis, and what it says about the world at large that she is far from uncommon.
Keywords: Augmented Reality, Christmas, War, Money
Review: I like what the story does with the idea of augmented reality, taking it to the point where people not only can adjust their perceptions of the world around them to be more pleasant, but can become addicted to that power. Not because it’s a huge power. Yes, it can effect sight and smell and sound, but really that’s not the biggest of alterations. It’s not like Chunfei can just check out and live in this space forever, like a cartoon. It costs money, and Chunfei still has to work in order to finance it. Rather, the addiction comes because the world is so unpleasant, so painful, that having to deal with it directly is traumatic. And in that situation, being able to mask away that pain, that horror, is indeed something that becomes necessary. Otherwise the shock of confrontation is too great. And I like how Chunfei realizes this on most levels, that she knows that the situation is so bad that it requires this mask just to deal with it. She knows what’s been lost, and how much the war and everything with it are draining everything. And yet she also knows that she doesn’t care so long as she doesn’t have to live with it. As long as she can have her filters, the situation is bearable. And I love that because of how real it seems, because it speaks to privilege and power, and how addictive it is, and how resistant people with that privilege are to giving it up, even to deal with the very real and immediate situation at hand. A great read!
“Bringing Down the Sky” by Alan Bao (11692 words)
No Spoilers: Told across multiple viewpoints in a future where pollution has left clean air a commodity to be captured and sold to those wealthy enough to afford it, this story looks at the ways that profits corrupt ideals, and money destroys even as it promises relief. The piece opens in China, where a boy works as a sky-runner, someone who collects clean air to sell to cities or onward to foreign countries. Though it is a marginal living, it’s still fairly sustainable and offers some hope. It’s not free of corruption, either, but the corruption is local and in that it does care a bit more for the place and people, knowing that if it shits in its own backyard, it has to smell it, too. And the piece is a wrenching and rather relentless look at how profits benefit the already-wealthy, even when it seems like they might help everyone. Because what is lost is something that money cannot buy back.
Keywords: Pollution, Air, Poverty, Wealth, Capitalism, Imports
Review: This story cycles around, showing a world that has been twisted by capitalism and greed so that pollution has made clean air a valuable commodity. Instead of teaching people that this needs to be fixed, though, and that the system that created this situation is broken, what ends up happening is a sort of doubling down on the system. When foreign investors find a way to exploit a resource in a way to make them incredibly wealthy, the train of events starts moving that will lead to further exploitation, futher human misery, and further ecological destruction. Always with money as the primary mover. And in some ways the story seems to act who is innocent and who is damned. Who is more sympathetic, and who is so corrupt as to be actively evil. The story seems to ask where people will draw the line. Is it forgivable for Stephen, who values charity and wants to make the world a better place? It is Zhang, who can see the corruption that he’s being asked to participate in? Is it Dhampa, who who okay by some of his workers even as he’s very ready to cheat the wealthy? Or are all of them part of the same problem? What about the boy of the first and last sections, who is a victim regardless, hungry and hoping for a better life, a hope that might move within reach, and only finds loss and loss and loss? I love the way that the story builds up each character, each moral position, and complicates them. It’s an intricate and complex story, compelling and heartbreaking and sharp as hell. A wonderful read!
“When We Find Our Voices” by Eleanna Castroianni (10382 words)
No Spoilers: Keredi and Nyalu are Adapted, people with feathers and the ability to form three-person relationships for purposes of reproduction. Which makes them necessary to the Sons of Man, whose pregnancy-capable people all died. Now there is a tense and not-exactly-consensual arrangement where the Adapted live on an island that must provide “wives” (who are in truth one neutral-gender person and one either man or woman) to the all-man Sons in order to carry on the population. Only that’s not all of what the Adapted must give up. They are controlled, and their Voices taken from them when they’re hatched. It’s a chilling situation, and one that Keredi and Nyalu experience in different ways, always linked by their love for each other but diverging in what that love provokes them to do. It’s an emotionally devastating read, full of oppression and the soft whisper of freedom finally finding its Voice.
Keywords: Marriage, Revolution, Magic, Eggs, CW- Forced Marriage/Pregnancy, Power
Review: So this story first off plays with gender in some interesting ways, and I don’t personally think it does a bad job of it, but be warned that there are no clear parallels of the Adapted genders and human genders. Though there seems to be some echoing of non-binary genders and the Adapted etu, it’s not one to one and it’s still linked to reproduction. It’s interesting to see how the story handles Nyalu, and I love his character, but given how the story takes him, I’m just going to advise people to proceed with caution on this one. Because at its heart I feel the story is about freedom and choice. Which are not afforded the Adapted, who are used solely for breeding purposes, kept under control through violence and through control. It’s their power that gives light and energy to the Sons of Man, that gives them their technological and militaristic advantage. And the story explores how the Adapted can still fight back. Rebel. How Nyalu in particular finds a way that they might be able to break free. But not without cost. And in some ways I feel like it asks what price is too high for freedom, and that’s just an incredibly...unfair and devastating question, because in the face of so much wrong and abuse, there seems to be no price too high. It hurts, though, and the story doesn’t try to hide that. That in this situation even finding power doesn’t mean an easy transition, doesn’t mean that the Sons of Man will just listen to reason. The emphasis is on forcing an even footing, or even one where the Adapted can have the advantage, where they can have the power to say no and not be forced. Where they can choose what happens to their bodies, and their children. And okay, for me I’m curious then at how far that extends, because to me it seems like the Sons of Man are superfluous then and probably can die out, but the story doesn’t quite get that far. But it sets up a richly imagined and complex and difficult world with characters that will shatter your feels. Definitely make time for this one, but be prepared going in.
“The Names and Motions” by Sheldon J. Pacotti (7317 words)
No Spoilers: Cassandra begins the story as a young girl. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the story opens with the memories of Cassandra as a young girl, someone who has some damage because of her mother’s drug use. Or maybe for some other reason, but that’s the one that gets picked up on and used to mark her as different. As other. And through her life it leads her to taking steps to fit in, including altering her brain in order to be able to feel and think like everyone else. Except there are limits to that, and a point at which that’s no longer what Cassie wants, when what she wants is to not change herself to fit into society, but the other way around. It’s a strange, difficult, and rather tragic story about love and hate and loss and peace.
Keywords: Growing Up, Augmentation, Empathy, Uploaded Consciousness, Relationships, Hate
Review: I like how the story takes Cassandra and her difference and shows how everyone treats her as a failure to mold herself to the rest of society. When, really, that’s never what would have worked for her. Because every mistake is severely punished. And that, more than anything, is the heart of the tragedy of the story. That for as hard as Cassandra tries, there is no sympathy or empathy for her and her difference. And her transgressions are punished with extreme censure. Everyone wants to see her as different, to have that outlet for their own hate and jealousy and frustration. It’s something she can’t understand because she never really wanted to hurt anyone until she was hurt. Until finally she came to the understanding that she was never the problem. And I like that because it rings true to me, that the problem was never her, but from everyone wanting her to change, everyone enjoying the power that society gave them over her. And how she sees this and finds a way to try and “fix” it. Using the technology that was supposed to be the tool to “fix” her and basically turning it against those who originally designed it. So that she can change the world instead of being changed by it. So she can reject the idea that hate is necessary for love. And it’s a gripping and gutting read as it moves into its climax, but beautifully built around Cassandra and her memories and what it is she becomes. A terrific read!
“Master Zhao: The Tale of an Ordinary Time Traveler” by Zhang Ran, translated by Andy Dudak (12833 words)
No Spoilers: Master Zhang is unemployed and rather driftless, watching after a friend’s flat and dog and computer but otherwise just playing video games and ordering food. It’s this last that brings him into contact with a deliveryman named Master Zhao, who after a strange circumstance is invited into Zhang’s flat to drink and talk. About life. About time travel. About death. The story builds around this conversation as Zhou confesses his lives and Zhang wonders at the implications and whether or not to believe everything that he’s told. It’s a strange and quiet story, told with an appropriate exhaustion and almost surrender to the circumstances of life while holding on not to dignity or even hope really but rather human contact and compassion. It’s a portrait of a strange (but also mundane) life and the value of choice and persistence.
Keywords: Time Travel, CW- Terminal Illness, Marriage, Deliveries, Money, Confessions
Review: This is such a strange story, building up around Zhao’s supposed time travel. The way that he can live his life until a certain point and then gets rocketed back to before he made some large decision. Over and over it happens, with increasing urgency, until it seems like all of his paths are converging and maybe ending. And Zhang, a mirror of Zhao in some ways, listens and becomes mesmerized by the idea that’s revealed. And I like it too because it sort of takes Zhao through a life that’s difficult, that full of a kind of bad luck. His wife’s sickness. Which relapses and relapses, and which pushes him in his alternate lives to desperate and extreme actions. And it doesn’t make a difference. Again and again he struggles, maybe becoming wealthy and maybe not, but always his wife sickens and dies. And he’s pushed back into the past, into the present, to try again. And when he’s younger the futures can be long, but as he’s moved to the point where he’s talking to Zhang everything seems to have shrunk. And while at first it might seem like he’s been defeated, I like that the story also still makes his concern his wife and her happiness, which in turn makes him happy. Which for me speaks to the importance in this not the money that he earns, or the lifestyle he might provide, but rather the happiness and bond that they share, and how it shines. And I feel that it challenges Zhang’s inertia. How it pushes him to get moving again. Not because it will turn out great. Not because he’ll end up rich. But because he’s still relatively young and there are all sorts of options out there for him. Whole futures to explore. And even if he lives a more mundane life, if he remains isolated and hopeless then that’s how he’ll end, which is a tragedy far greater than what’s happening to Zhao, who at least is still motivated by love. And it’s a weird but wonderful story very much worth checking out!