|Art by Arthur Haas|
Clarkesworld hits February running with five short stories and a novelette, all taking on some big issues. From genetic manipulation to colonialism, from empathy to divinity, the stories tackle some Big Ideas, with some mixed results. The joy of reading SFF is that it can often make literal circumstances that would otherwise be purely figurative or philosophical. What if the world worked quite differently? What if people could experience an alien afterlife? It allows us to explore moral and ethical concerns without test subjects, but that’s not to say that means no harm is done. Though often careful, I find myself hesitating around many of the stories here this month, that seem to bring up some Big Ideas without fully examining how those ideas are in conversation with real world injustices and harms. But before I get too much into that, let’s get to the reviews!
“East of the Sun, West of the Stars” by Brit E. B. Hvide (4155 words)
No Spoilers: Faith is a storyteller in a community of mostly-anti-technology religious people who despite that decide the only future for themselves is in space, on a ship to another world. So many are sent to learn how, and everyone helps to construct the ship, and Faith is left to carry on the stories that help the community maintain their identity. Something strange happens to Faith on board the ship, though, something tinged with magic and myth...and betrayal and violation. And the piece explores the ways that communities survive and adapt, which is not always how they are designed to.
Keywords: Fairy Tales, Space, Post-Disaster, Family, Genetic Manipulation, CW- Pregnancy
Review: I love what the story does with myth and story, building Faith’s situation around the story of the princess and the bear, a woman going past the ends of the earth in order to be with the man she lost. Static, it’s a story that reinforces many things that are important to her community. Static, it is the tool that is used against her in order to create an origin story for her people among the stars. Static, it is a vessel of her violation and her hurt, the ways that her people betray their own principles in order to try and survive in a hostile galaxy. Which is why I love the way she fights back, the way she seeks to subvert what’s been done to her without her consent—by changing the story. And it’s something that I love about what the story says, because for all it pays homage to myth and fairy tales, it also shows that the stories are tools as well, no less able to be shifted in order to try and teach something new. That the stories have to change to keep up with the people in charge. That the stories can be tools of control but they can also be tools of resistance, showing people different ways of thinking in order to avoid tyranny and corruption. Which is why stories are so important and so dangerous. Because people who control stories can use them to deceive and to mislead and to hurt. But they can also use them to expose hypocrisy and defy injustice. To push back against the very ideas that they might be used to reinforce. And I just love how the story goes about showing the beauty and darkness of stories, of myths, and then refuses to just accept that. Refuses to use the utility of stories-as-control as justification for violating people’s consent. It’s a complex and difficult read all the way through, because of the unique dangers and demands of long-term space travel, but that complexity is necessary to do right by the weight and power of the topic. It’s a wonderful read!
“Painwise” by Robert Reed (6723 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is living through a future where an affliction called Rampant is tearing the world apart, affecting as much as half the population with periods of blinding pain. The narrator, thanks to luck and his upbringing, isn’t one of those suffering, but his wife is. And her suffering comes to define him in ways that’s difficult to fully map. The piece follows how this world takes shape and what it means for him, and his wife, as the affliction runs its course. As is probably appropriate for a story centered on pain, it’s a draining, often difficult read about care and exhaustion and wonders and hope. I’m not entirely sure what to think of it, to be honest, as the piece seems to come to rest in a strange, fragile place.
Keywords: Illness, Pain, Marriage, Falling, Wonders
Review: This is a rather odd story of the near future, where people born a few years ago grow into a time when things seem the culmination of a lot of different hopes. That climate change can be addressed, that scarcity can be pushed back against, that medical care can be available to everyone. Even where income inequality seems to be a thing of the past. And yet into this world strolls this strange pain disorder that resists all treatment and comes to afflict so so many. For the narrator, who is not among the afflicted, life becomes about those who are in pain, becomes about his wife’s pain and wanting to ease it, wanting to help, and having to eventually deal with the fact that he really can’t do anything. The story is dark, and it explores how people react to this status quo. How it grinds everything to a halt. And what freedom there is when that pain is lifted. When the afflicted reach a place beyond the pain, to someplace where they can be again without the constant drain. And as much as it’s this happy, huge even, for the narrator there is something...difficult about it, too. Because he doesn’t want to have to go through all of that pain to reach the other side, and doesn’t want to be judged for that. Because he feels like he’s paid his price, done what can be expected of everyone, and needs his own kind of freedom. And perhaps I’m not thinking about this right, but for me I’m not entirely comfortable with the ending. With the way that the pain and the place beyond the pain are portrayed. For me, it seems almost like luck and privilege are lionized in ways that imply they are victims of those who suffer. And perhaps I just need to spend more time with the piece. It’s certainly an interesting piece and one to spend some time with.
“The Final Ascent” by Ian Creasey (9865 words)
No Spoilers: Lucian is a mountain climber who, after breaking up with his partner, Katherine, climbed too dangerously and ended up dying in a hospice, wanting only to reconcile with his ex before passing on. She, however, a sort of anthropologist studying aliens called Ardissans, has a different idea. Eternal life...of a sort, thanks to an alien gland that allows their spirits to ascend into an afterlife. Lucian could be the first to ascend, if he can put his own prejudice about the “savage” Ardissans behind him and embrace the idea that humans have something rare and precious to gain from foregoing death in order to enter a different, higher plane of existence. It’s a rather complex piece because of how it looks at interference, progress, and life, but it certainly provides lots to think about and a richly imagined setting to explore.
Keywords: Afterlife, Death, Ghosts, Technology, Colonialism, Aliens
Review: Lucian is a bit of a strange choice to be the first human to ascend. Not because he’s not qualified exactly but because he actively doesn’t like the Ardissans, despite taking part of one of their bodies to allow himself to live on. The piece plays a lot with the idea of interference, and progress, never really getting Lucian beyond his idea that the Ardissans need his help. That he is a savior and that they need him in order to improve their society. Which is just a terrible way of going about scientific research, and...and I feel the story never really gets back around to interrogating whether Lucian and Katherine are...well...guilty of atrocities beyond imagining here. Though there’s supposed to be this taboo about colonialism...that’s rather exactly what they do, specifically in order to obtain something only the Ardissans possess that will benefit humans in ways that...at least Lucian is arguing is what’s wrong with the Adrissan culture. Like, they seem rather conscious that what they’re doing could have these huge ramifications and even talk about it but then...just sort of let it all happen and treat it like their responsibility about it all ended. And perhaps that’s the point, that this piece is more of a horror story because it shows just how easily some humans can make that choice to betray their ideals and what they know is right when faced with a reward that is “too tempting to pass up.” With the prospect of eternal life handing over them, how quickly Lucian and even Katherine, an anthropologist devoted to not fucking up this culture, do exactly that and set the world on course for war and genocide to spread and prosper. All for the sake of human discovery and advancement. And if that’s the case then it is a sharp commentary on colonialism and even what can be considered post-colonial colonialism, where the methods are very similar but called different things. Where natives are armed and set against other natives so that humans, so that the colonizers, can reap the rewards and resources. I’m not sure that came through as clear as it could have in the mood of the piece, but it’s another nicely developed setting and a story that I recommend people check out for themselves and grapple with.
“Give the Family My Love” by A. T. Greenblatt (5325 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story, Hazel, is on an alien world, moving toward what might be the last best hope for humanity—a library that might possess the information necessary to save the planet from the run-away climate change and worsening natural disasters. And the piece is framed as a kind of letter home, from sister to brother, as the narrator braves the unknown. Only it’s not a letter home—it’s a voicemail. And the piece begins tense and uncertain, a countdown towards...something, either life or death, and as the story reaches zero and keeps going, it becomes something of a confession, something of an internal pep-talk, the narrator reminding herself of why she’s out there, what’s at stake, and who she’s left behind.
Keywords: Aliens, Libraries, Fires, CW- Pregnancy/Miscarriage/Abortion, Siblings, Science
Review: I love the way the piece opens, the urgency and the danger that is walking on an alien world hoping to reach something just over the next hill. And the idea of a great library built by aliens to house the universe’s information and catalog it’s many mistakes is captivating and sets the stakes of what Hazel is doing. The Earth is near ruin, and she is trying to find a way to save it. Mostly through the science that has already been lost, that these aliens might have backed up. Not so that the aliens will save them all, but so that humanity can save itself. And I like the portrait of the siblings that we see here, this vaguely adversarial relationship that is still full of support and love. It sets Hazel up as the person who, despite taking such a large chance, coming so far from Earth in order to work to save it, is the one who believes in the chances of the planet the least. She’s lost so much of her faith in people that in some ways she doesn’t know that she can succeed. Certainly she doesn’t know if they should succeed. But then she thinks of her brother, and his wife, and the life they are trying to foster on Earth, and she finds reason to hope and reason to believe in people. Which, I mean, I have a complicated relationship with stories that put too much of the hope on survival, on future generations who don’t really get a say in these plans people have for them, but I do like that Hazel finds a reason to believe again, even if it means she’s never coming back. It’s an emotionally resonating piece with a great voice and it’s certainly worth checking out!
“The Face of God” by Bo Balder (4405 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story retells their history with the God, with the being who fell and landed and whose flesh, it turns out, heal wounds and make miracles. And once that is discovered, once the value of the God’s flesh is figured out, it starts a sort of Gold Rush of people looking for bits to hack off so that they can profit from it, so they can use it to make themselves wealthy. It’s a bit of a disturbing read, told with a distance that makes the strangeness a bit easier to grapple with. That gives the scale and scope of the story a bit more manageable a feel, though it doesn’t lessen the impact of what happens when the narrator is all grown, looking to prove himself on an expedition to the God’s face.
Keywords: Gods, Flesh, Healing, Expeditions, Eyes, Exploitation
Review: The rather niche subgenre of stories featuring expeditions on gods to profit from their flesh is a sparsely populated but very interesting one. And here the quest for godflesh is captured in a rather dispassionate manner. The narrator here describes what happens but things happen with such a drive that there’s very little pause when his fellow fall to their deaths off the edge of the God. Indeed, I like how the story captures that aspect of the narrator, his way of viewing this all as some sort of mundane business venture. He’s out for flesh, and yet with men dying and his own chances of survival slim to nothing, he’s more worried about the profits. About what his mother will think. It sums up the complete lack of wonder that he feels at there being this God fallen to earth. That’s more ho-hum, just something to deal with until it becomes clear that it can be exploited, and then the rush is on to get as much wealth as possible. These are people who seem to worship at the church of money, and it shows with how he treats those around him. Until the turn, of course. Until he has his religious moment and sees and feels that wonder that had been absent with the God was inert. Because seeing the true scope and scale and living force is something else, and I like how the piece explore and captures that, witnessing the narrator coming face to face with something he can’t really comprehend, except in the human ways of recognizing another sentient being, and one in pain, and feeling the shame and guilt and need to do something that comes with it. It’s a strange piece, but another fascinating read!
“The Butcher of New Tasmania” by Suo Hefu, translated by Andy Dudak (2895 words)
No Spoilers: In a distant future, following the final collapse of the Old Federation, the New Federation is ready to reach back out beyond the confines of their core worlds to the planets long abandoned in the decline and conflict. Worlds that might be brought back into cooperation and exchange. To facilitate that, independent contractors are hired to scout and make contact with these worlds. And the narrator was on one such mission that...went terribly wrong. The piece is told as a sort of verbal statement from the narrator, telling their side of an incident that has left them staring down a large prison sentence, though they remain steadfast that they did nothing wrong. And it’s a rather difficult piece that explores genetics and race and “the lesser of two evils” when it comes to death and the loss of racial identity. It’s a short and rather brazen piece that I’m not sure if I should be reading as satire or earnest commentary.
Keywords: Space, Exploration, CW- Genocide, Genetics, Trials
Review: I’m not sure entirely how to organize my thoughts about this story, because on the one hand maybe it’s a critique of the idea of thinking that genocide is okay. That what we as readers are supposed to do is see the twisted evil of the narrator’s sentiments. That we are supposed to be chilled by the casual way that they essentially support eugenics as a solution to secular violence. The certainty that is played out in the piece (or that we get no contradictory evidence for) that the horrors that the people of this planet are visiting on each other goes away when their genetic differences (read their visual racial differences) are erased. That what works is the maligned group to just be completely assimilated by the dominant group in a way where there is no evidence of “racial difference.” For me, at least, if the piece is not satire then I am disturbed deeply, because it engages in a thought experiment of questioning what genocide means. Is it genocide if no one is actually killed? And that is an incredibly dangerous question. One that leaves no doubt for me whether the narrator deserves the title of “Butcher.” But as it’s their voice that gets space in the story, and because I might be missing some background (given the piece is translated this is always a possibility), it’s something I just can’t quite make up my mind about. It’s definitely possible that it is taking aim at this idea that this genocide can ever be logic or benevolent. That it might ever be free of racism or resentment or violence. And if that’s the case, it is a sharp and unsettling look at the kind of attitudes, liberal as they might seem, that so easily slide into atrocity. What keeps me from embracing that reading, though, is that the reader is never given any indication that the Butcher’s views are wrong. That the core premise (that violence decreases with less racial diversity) is never questioned is something I feel pushes the piece into some very problematic waters, where it concentrates on the ethics of eugenics but not the validity of the ideas behind it. So it’s a hard story to recommend, because of how easy it might be to read the story as earnest and sympathetic toward “the Butcher.” So proceed with caution, I would say, but certainly make up your own mind.