|Art by Derek Stenning|
The December Clarkesworld closes out the year with some rather long short SFF (the shortest piece being over 6500 words). And the stories are rather melancholy, are rather full of longing and loss. Not that there aren’t moments of joy, moments of victory over despair and oppression. But that the moods of the story are decidedly dense, thick, at times like walking through a fog of difficulty. It’s a fitting feel for where I live, where the month is already cold and snowy and heavy. And there’s a glimmer of something like hope to reach for, however dim it might seem. Some future where maybe things won’t be as harsh, even if it’s a future that requires a lot of work to get to. To the reviews!
“Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” by Rebecca Campbell (6584 words)
No Spoilers: Mar is living in an America of advanced climate change, gas and food shortages, rising ocean levels, and natural disasters. But for all that, her focus, and the focus of the story, is on the political ways that country has changed. The constant monitoring of communications by the government and, most important of all, the disappearing of people who hold “unproductive” opinions. Like Mar’s mother, who was taken away to be reeducated. Who now can stay in contact with Mar but maybe not. Maybe it’s not really Mar’s mother on the other end of the video call. The piece is steeped in paranoia but only because the situation and the setting demand it, making for a somewhat surreal story where reality itself is trying to be controlled by a government desperate to hold its power and corruption even as the world at large declines and degrades.
Keywords: Surveillance, Family, Camps, Illusion, Lies, Dystopia
iI really love how this story builds around the ways that lies are used in this setting. The pressure that is Mar to accept the narrative that is being fed to her and...and I think that’s a big part of it, for me. That it’s not even about an ultimate truth. One might think, oh, the government is looking for dissidents. Is looking for some sort of resistance movement, and assumes that Mar is a part of it. So they’re going hard at Mar so that she’ll lead them to others. When really it seems like under the pretense of surveillance and control all the government really wants is for Mar to participate in the lie. To pretend that there is a resistance so that it can justify its methods. To sell out...someone, anyone, because that’s what’s desired. But if there is a resistance, Mar doesn’t know about it. She just wants her mother, wants her family, whole, and wants to live. And it’s heartbreaking that such a thing can’t be allowed in this system. That loyalty to family without any larger motive is enough of a threat to a government that demands everyone’s first loyalty be to the lie. The lie, ultimately, that any government will be able to survive the continued decline of the country. The lie that it was never any better, the past a painting that those with power can alter at their whim, to solidify their arguments and directives. And some people get stuck having to live that lie, while others find that they can’t. It’s an almost terrifying story because it gets this deep tired that Mar has because of her efforts just to find her mother, just to know if she’s alive. A question she never gets fully answered. Because when a lie has been pasted over reality, it’s hard to tell what’s truth and what’s fiction. And it makes for a haunting and emotionally resonating story. A great read!
“Witch of the Weave” by Henry Szabranski (7298 words)
No Spoilers: Percher and Skink seem to be the only survivors of the Motherman, a giant construct that housed a number of tribes before it caught fire and Skink, awakening some of its ancient technology, got it to move far enough through the poison mists to find safe, solid ground. Just because they survived doesn’t make them safe, though, and the two wander through this new, strange land without much of a purpose. Until they come across a group of people who have a story to tell that gives Skink direction. It’s a strange world that the story introduces, fallen and dangerous and all broken down, but with an abandoned power waiting for those who know how to tap into it. And through the fallen feeling of the setting, the relationship between the two characters, between Percher and Skink, remains a source of hope and strength, warmth and possibility.
Keywords: Sacrifice, Betrayal, Family, Survival, Spiders, Weaves
Review: This story picks up with the characters as they’ve come out of one harrowing experience to find themselves without a lot of direction. It’s not that they don’t have wants and needs, but rather that they’ve just left behind everything that was familiar, just lost everyone else in their lives, and there’s a certain amount of feeling I get that they’re lost. At the same time, though, being lost gives them the chance to sort of free themselves of the baggage of their old lives. For Percher and Skink, it means sort of redefining their roles, finding what works for them in this new world. Being trapped by convention seems to have almost killed them, and only by embracing something different, only by going against societal restrictions and ignorance, were they able to survive. And Percher especially seems ready to slip back. To call it a good thing but to retreat back into a situation that really no different than the life she had before. Whereas for Skink that’s not even an option. And I love that she’s not wrong, that Percher’s inclination to slide back into the situation where she’s more comfortable is one that immediately betrays them. Not that, like, Skink’s path is...safe. But I feel that in some ways Percher is chafing at Skink being special, and there’s a part of her that wants to be The Main Character because some kinda messed up shit. And I love that she’s able to get over herself and be there for her friend, to recognize that Skink is amazing and that she can do things that need to explored. And that Percher wants to be there, wants to stand by her friend because she has a lot to offer, too. Because Skink does need someone to watch her back, and the two are great together. And it’s a fun read, a weird but fascinating setting, and an increasing action-filled romp! Definitely go check it out!
“Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet” by Catherine George (6764 words)
No Spoilers: This story introduces a blues quintet who form and who play and who dream of making a name for themselves. There’s Art, the oldest, who has a saxophone from actual Earth. There’s Mikaela, the jazz scholar who knows all the technical data, who knows very intimately the history of the form. There’s Fe, the drummer, and Romy, the bassist, and Jae-Jin, the hobbyist trumpet player who’s more interested in trying to make alcohol. They are certainly an unlikely group, but they are all bound together because of their enjoyment of the music, of jazz, and because they are all on the same enormous generation ship. And they are all still processing something that’s happened with regards to the generation ship, something that for them might only be able to be explored through this music, and together. It’s a lovely, quiet, rather heartbreaking read. Sort of like Behind the Music, but in the future and in space.
Keywords: Music, Bands, Generation Ships, Space, Jazz, Queer Characters
Review: There’s something of a mystery in this story. For me, at least, I’m fascinated by the voice of the narrator, who speaks as a plural “we” but who doesn’t seem to be any one member of the band. Each of the five members are referred to by name and by pronouns throughout, never as I, and yet the story is constructed as if to come from all of them at once. So the question is there of who exactly the narrator is. Is this an amalgam voice, something that’s like their music, a part of that magic that music is that lingers even after the band breaks up. For me that seems the most likely, that it’s something lasting that captures what they had, the beauty and the wonder that existed for perhaps far too short a time. Time enough for only a handful of songs and one great performance recorded for history. Though what a fragile thing that can seem, given the history of the ship and it’s new future. I really like how the piece sort of revolves around what’s happened, to this deep wound that has killed, actually killed so many people. Because they lost their home. Because this generation ship found that the planet they were headed toward wasn’t suitable. It is a rather wrenching and haunting read, one that’s not exactly nostalgic, but one that embraces the legacy of jazz, and the expression of it, a sort of woundedness mixed with celebration, a hurt and joy that needs to be let out through music. And translated here into words, the effect isn’t the same as if it were melody and sound, but it’s still expressing that same hurt, that same open wound that the characters pretty much all share. And it does capture what the characters were all able to do through their time in the band. The things they were able to process, and their own messy legacy for the future. Even if they never really “made it.” Even if most of what they have is a single song recorded. It still meant so much to the people in the band, and that seems to live on, to have a voice even years later, in memory and in honor of what they did. A fantastic read!
“Eclipse Our Sins” by Tlotlo Tsamaase (7953 words)
No Spoilers: This is a rather strange story where physical illnesses can be caused by violent thoughts and actions. Where Mother Earth has gotten so polluted that she’s turned back on humanity, able to punish them for their own corruptions, their own sins. It’s a piece that was a bit difficult for me to follow completely linearly or literally because of how it treats with illness, because of the haunting and polluted world that it evokes, one where the narrator is desperate to try and survive, to fill the emptiness that her mother’s death leaves, even though trying to fill in means being exposed to some awful things. It looks at sickness, and the line between believing in a sort of divine justice and blaming people for having bad things happen to them.
Keywords: Sin, Illness, Nature, Xenophobia, Family, CW- Rape(?)
Review: There is a lot to unpack here, and I sort of love the idea that there could be a world that was so polluted that it basically decided that in order to protect itself further it would go after sin, would punish those who further pollute the world with their xenophobia. People who target foreign businesses. Who target queer people. Who are racist. Who are rapists. It plays with the idea of justice, asking in some ways if it isn’t just that Mother Earth punish these people who have done wrong. That, in a time when pollution has wrecked so much, shouldn’t people care about moral and ethical pollution? In the form of bigotry, hate, and violence? But that doesn’t really a utopia make, as the narrator finds out. Because the corruption goes so deep. Like suddenly adopting clean energy doesn’t un-damage the environment, having some level of “justice” for moral pollution doesn’t mean that the systems that exist aren’t still built on corruption. The narrator finds again and again that the people closest to her, her sister, her uncle, all seem to be guilty of things she can’t fathom. That she’s shocked by. And for me it begins to question what then is her place in all of this. In trying to save or at least help her sister. In not helping people she sees who are being hurt. The story is surreal and challenging, In some ways I feel like it is a direct challenge to the reader. A sort of wake up call to see the damage being done to the planet. Not just the physical damage, but the moral damage at the heart of that physical damage. A disregard for abuse, a valuing of exploitation, the thought that might makes right. These are the true sicknesses at work on our planet, and if we don’t do more about it, then climate change is the reward for that, is the end that we have brought on ourselves. And any rebirth, for the planet or for ourselves, will reflect what we do and how we seek to treat the sickness driving us toward a grim future indeed. Definite a story to spend some time with!
“Appointment in Vienna” by Gabriel Murray (10114 words)
No Spoilers: This story unfolds a bit like a confession framed as notes from a photographer to his editor. It’s actually rather more complicated than that, though, because the narrator, Leslie, isn’t just a photographer. That’s just his cover. He’s been in the intelligence game for some time, starting around the start of the Second World War and lasting to the present of the story, which is still in our past. Of course, even that is something of a cover, too, and the piece follows Leslie through his confession, through his career, through his art and his lies and his integrity and his hope. It’s a story of masks and layers, and it mixes in a subtle speculative angle through the inner most layer of Leslie’s nesting doll existence.
Keywords: Photography, Spies, Confessions, Masks, Queer MC
Review: I love the voice of the story, charming and disarming and honest all at the same time, and all while wearing not just one mask, but layers of them. Leslie is a spy but also a photographer, his cover having the benefit of being true. And even his second cover is true, as he never betrays his handlers, never defects, really. But he does seem to get caught up in something larger than he lets on. And indeed, I love that the full truth of what’s going on in this story is never exactly revealed. It could be a huge time travel conspiracy that he’s taking part in, like Richard Bowes’ Time Ranger stories, or this could be something much more limited, one person who’s gone back in time to try and ensure that events play out to reach a better future. Maybe one person who messed something up and is trying to make it right. That part of it isn’t really Leslie’s part. His part is to play his role. To help what he can. To be a double agent, a triple agent, whatever it takes so long as he stays loyal to that better future. And I love that tucked into all of that is this idea that he has that his time is almost up. If he’s confessing, that sort of implies that it’s the end. That he’s going to die. The whole piece has something of a fatalist attitude about it. The appointment with death. The idea that being a spy is defined by sacrifice. At the same time, though, it’s about hope. Not necessarily that he’s going to live. But that he’s helping to bring about that better future. And it’s a beautiful story, Leslie a wonderfully messy character caught in some huge and terrible things and just trying to make his way forward. He should perhaps be cynical, seeing what he has, but he carries with him something sincere, despite the masks. Because the masks are all true, in their own way, still reflecting his romantic heart, his artist’s view of the world as one full of beauty, waiting to be captured. It’s a wonderful read!
“Symbiosis Theory” by Choyeop Kim, translated by Joungmin Lee Comfort (8918 words)
No Spoilers: This story breaks down into two main sections. The first covers an artist named Ludmila, who from a young age created pictures of a world that she seemed to have a connection to. A world that made her a huge artistic success as she rendered it over time in more and more complex ways and medias. The work resonates with people, though the reason why doesn’t become clear until the second part, where a group of scientists working on a sort of universal “decoder” or “translator” stumble across something strange and potentially alarming in the language patterns of babies and very young children. It’s a strange story, a sort of bizarre “what if” that puts a new spin on humanity itself and our origins and intelligence.
Keywords: Language, Art, Aliens, Symbiosis, Development
Review: Okay so this is sort of a Weird Science story that basically looks at...an alternate reason why humans might have developed as the dominant species on the planet. Not because of a natural process like evolution that allowed us to use sentience to create complex networks and communities, but rather because there are aliens who enter our brains when we’re babies and who essentially teach us how to be human. The implication being basically that without that help humans would resemble other mammals. Which makes a case not that humans are socialized to be humans, but that there are alien creatures in...our blood, I guess, or our normal flora, that get into babies after birth and who do the part of parents, essentially, in getting them ready to be good people. And the reason Ludmila’s art resonates, then, is because it’s these aliens’ homeworld, now lost, that she was depicting, and that she was perhaps the only human to convince these aliens not to vacate her body upon turning seven. And wow. Now, no, I don’t think the story is actually trying to make a case of this. Rather I think it’s exploring aspects of what might be considered a human condition. Not just the relative miracle of our brains, but things that might link us. Reasons why certain art might speak to very large groups of people. Why certain kinds of stories are so moving. For me, what the story is actually looking at isn’t the science, because the science is obviously made up. For me, at least, it’s much more about the feelings of the scientists looking at their data and having to make sense of it. Having to essentially come into contact with a divine. Perhaps not the God of religions, but a force that is active in all humans after whom we are kind of designed, at least on a moral and mental level. And there it falls into the kind of science fiction that imagines what it might be like for humanity to have this kind of religious moment, for all that it’s agnostic within the text. But it really does show these scientists having this reaction of grace and awe when the full implications of their research hits. And that’s a fascinating thing to imagine, and to navigate, and it’s certainly an interesting idea that’s pulled off well. Go check it out!