|Art by Colie Wertz|
February is often seen as a month devoted to love and romance, but at Clarkesworld things are a bit more...bitterly tragic than that. And okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the stories here are not easy, are not exactly light, and tend to focus on violence, survival, and oppression. Sometimes that means highlighting resilience and hope in the face of an overwhelming force. And sometimes it means speaking the language of the oppressors and embracing violence and murder, at least in part in self defense. So go into this issue fully ready to confront some difficult things, and let’s get to the reviews!
“Outer” by Hollis Joel Henry (4294 words)
No Spoilers: Toozen is a September, from a group of people descended from those who were effected by some sort of contamination. It’s never exactly stated what it is, but given the descriptions it’s probably something radioactive. The original group was shunned, put aside, but precisely because of that people in the group made families and had kids and now two more generations on the people being born look mostly “normal.” Not that things are great for them, and certainly not that they see widespread acceptance, but there seems to be some progress, and despite the violence that they face, the bullying and the aggression, times seem good. It’s only after one of them develops powers that things change, and what had before only been confined and isolated suddenly faces much harsher realities. It’s a piece that looks at violence and fear and generational intolerance, and finds one person in the midst of that with a great power and a lot of anger.
Keywords: Mutation, Discrimination, Family, Light, Killing, Superpowers
Review: At its core I feel the story is about hate and about cycles of violence. Toozen has survived but the joy of him has been largely killed away with every friend murdered, every part of his family taken. So that despite his desire for peace, all that’s left to him are the people sent to kill him, are the grinding wheels of discrimination and fear that are trying to, as people put it, mash him. And the only thing for it is to mash everyone who would try to hurt him instead. The piece doesn’t exactly revel in the violence, though neither does Toozen shrink from it. To me, it’s more that this is the situation that has been forced onto him, the game that he’s being made to play rather than the one he tried to choose. And most of what he can do in the game is make the people who set the rules regret their decisions. It’s not much, perhaps, in the grand scheme. But it’s what he has power to do, and it means that it’s what he does. And it’s a familiar enough situation, one where a certain kind of people are scapegoated and blamed and seen as evil not because of what they’ve done but because the dominant group fears that they have an advantage. Because the dominant group doesn’t like the prospect of having to share, and likes the prospect of a system that doesn’t corruptly favor them even less. The world building is great, the character conflicted but resilient, and the language flows with a conversational flare that hits. A great read!
“Eyes of the Crocodile” by Malena Salazar Maciá, translated by Toshiya Kamei (2455 words)
No Spoilers: Mandisa is the wife of Chioke, a man seemingly chosen to be a crocodile man, marked by scars that carry part of their history. That history is entrusted to nanobots who keep it alive and in turn give it back to the humans who have settled on this distant world. But on this world in particular, something has done wrong. The nanobots, which also modify the humans to be able to survive on this world, have malfunctioned, and instead of helping have killed most of the population. Mandisa and a small group have survived, but face quarantine so that the problem doesn’t spread. Luckily, they’ve been working on a solution. Unluckily, Chioke’s ritual doesn’t go as planned, and the fallout is rather drastic. The piece is strange and haunting, mixing these older myths and practices and future science for an experience that is layered, complex, and haunting.
Keywords: Colonization, Nanobots, Infection, Crocodiles, Transformation
Review: The nanobots here are fascinating, in that they handle both keeping humans protected from disease and able to live on other worlds, but are also guardians of the past, of human culture, preserving cultural beliefs and practices over the generations. For me it layers so well what the nanobots do, and how they fail here. Because for me, the nanobots aren’t just weaponizing the health mechanisms they were built with, but the spiritual ones as well, turning them violent, focusing them on sacrifice. The nanobots become like gods, reminding humanity that they might be losing the context of their beliefs is just allows the bots to hold them in storage. Mandisa ultimately fights back, shows that humans are still resilient, that they haven’t lost their connection back, that they can indeed return to their roots. Without killing. Without harm or destruction. Breaking the link that these beliefs have to be violent, have to be about pain and sacrifice. And worked into that is this quest that she’s on, this need to deliver a special chip with the heart of the bot territory, to where it can fix the problem and truly reconnect the people to their history and their past. Which plays out with a nice bit of action and danger, allowing her to confront the bots and herself, allowing her to be transformed through this ritual, so that in the end she has a greater connection to that past, actively shaping it and living it rather than passively being reminded of it. And it makes for a weird but striking and lovely read! Go check it out!
“Mandorla” by Cooper Shrivastava (6205 words)
No Spoilers: Old Plant is, well, a really old plant, on a planet that is pretty much all plants. But it’s one of the oldest, if not the oldest being on the planet. And it’s just learned how to communicate with Kelp, or rather with a series of kelp. Kelp, who are so much shorter lived. Who seem to rush through the world, and court conflict, and take interest in science and astronomy. And the story plays out over a long, long time, as Old Plant lives and tries to look over the plants on the dry land, occasionally interacting with newer generations of kelp. It’s a strange, ponderous story, methodically paced and with a feeling of deep breaths. And the story twists nicely at the end, too, offering something unexpected in a piece that was very much about careful consideration and far seeing.
Keywords: Plants, Life Cycles, Extinction, War, Dormancy
Review: This story certainly takes its time, and I appreciate that, because it does build up this sense of time, contrasting the more impatient lives of the kelp with the careful and nearly-eternal inclinations of Old Plant. And in doing so it builds to a moment when the reader (and Old Plant itself) sort of have to confront which is actually the more far-sighted planner. Which, I mean, isn’t entirely fair, because one can’t exactly predict something like an asteroid and one certainly can’t predict so far in advance where it will strike, and that is one thing that the story doesn’t really address, because if the impact was going to be on land then the kelp would have been pretty out of luck. But that aside, the piece gets to the point of how the Old Plant, for all that it sees kelp as irresponsible and foolish, is guilty of making quite judgments as well, and getting stuck in its estimation of kelp so that it can’t really see that the kelp are much more than just warring factions that constantly shift. They are also curious and reaching, and possess a sense of scale that goes beyond the planet. Which doesn’t make them good stewards of their oceans. Which doesn’t make them responsible guardians of the natural world. But which might make them more successful in the long run in surviving. Of course, I’m not sure, given the rest of that, how good a thing that is. Because for all that they might survive, and carry on, and outlive Old Plant, Old Plant is ready to go, and did do a good job of being there for the beings it cared about. So it’s a bit of a conflicting story for me, and that’s a little surprising to me because on the surface it’s just a piece about plants. But the ending muddies things a bit for me. Still, it’s an interesting read with a really effective feel of time and slow movement, and it’s certainly worth checking out!
“The Host”’ by Neal Asher (8486 words)
No Spoilers: Ivebek Cloon is a criminal of the worst sort—a killer and slaver who revels in his power over other people. Or, at least, he was. Until a confrontation on a distant world. Now he’s...somewhat reformed, and being driven by forces he doesn’t understand. He’s been granted a kind of deal, to do what he’s told and travel to an unknown world to meet with an unknown alien, or to die for his crimes. Not much of a choice, really. The piece explores the implications of his change and the reasons he’s different, as well as providing a good amount of action and a rather strange twist. It’s another rather weird story, and one that looks at morality and reproduction through a science fictional lens.
Keywords: Space, Personality Alteration, Crime, Reproduction, AIs
Review: The story is an interesting mystery, effectively paced and with enough bouts of action and almost-dying that it moves quickly. The question from the start is what happened to Ivebek that caused him to stop being a killer, what it means for him as a person, and why someone would have done it. The first question the story does eventually reveal, and it’s certainly a rather terrifying thing that happens. As for the second question, that’s it’s own sort of terrifying. Because the story sets this up that he’s...”reformed.” He’s a different person than he was, forcibly altered to not be a killer any longer even as his body has been modified to be more durable. But then who is he? Because he doesn’t seem to be the man he was? Does he still bear responsibility for his past actions, or has he essentially been executed for the crimes while still being allowed to live? Is this kind of rehabilitation moral? For me, the story only brushes against some of these questions, and I’m not really sure how much I like the trope of the criminal who has been “made” better and then cast as protagonist. In some ways it might make what happens to him seem just, but I’m still just not super comfortable with it. Add into that the story dips into some areas of reproduction that I found myself bouncing off of for maybe personal reasons. But that the justification for what happens was procreation, was basically alien sex, and that it was a way of dealing with people finding it moral to not reproduce because of the biological immorality of it...well, I’m not sure for me that the story quite explored that enough to really get around my hesitation. Not when for me the underlying moral question is still very much open, not solved, and when, despite these beings being very technologically advanced, they couldn’t have just...found other ways to get around the need for sentient hosts in their breeding. So while I think it’s a rather fun action science fiction piece at its surface, I have some reservations about it. Still, if it sounds like your thing, definitely check it out for yourself!
“Jigsaw Children” by Grace Chan (13088 words)
No Spoilers: Lian is among the first generations of children raised outside of the nuclear family model. Thanks to gene splicing and genetic engineering, children all have large “families” of donors, though they are made up of individuals who don’t necessarily even know each other. The children themselves are raised in Children Centers by professionals, and are made infertile either through hormone maintenance or through surgical alteration. Lian grows up to become a biologist, a person who works with altering genetics to try and make “better” offspring. But around her are people who don’t want to give up their ability to produce traditionally birthed children. It’s a story of protest and intense questioning, and brings up some complex moral issues.
Keywords: CW- Reproduction, Genetic Manipulative/Splicing, Regulations, Protests, Science!
Review: For me, despite the story being very much about a future take on reproduction, the story really doesn’t strike me as being about the morality of the science being portrayed. Because, for me, the piece is so much more about the morality of government control of reproduction. The genetic splicing really seems to exist in the story-logic more because it might seem like a Reason Enough to give up individual control of reproduction. After all, don’t we all agree that some laws must be in place surrounding reproduction? To protect the health of those being born and those giving birth. To protect children from abuses that they are vulnerable to because they are powerless. And the reasoning here, that this kind of genetic splicing will get rid of the traditional diseases, isn’t just a straw man. It’s a tempting prize, that we could end such devastating illnesses. But obviously when made into a governmental and societal policy, it makes illegal any choice to not participate. So again, I don’t feel like the story really cares if the tech is moral, but if this decision to let it influence law is moral. Or, more broadly, who has the right to choose for the future generations? The government, or individual parents. And what constitutes a “risk” to a child? A risk factor for cancer? Or is low intelligence a risk? Is not being competitive in the work environment a risk? It’s a messy question and a messy answer the story finds, one where Lian rejects the constraints her government placed on her, and seeks to escape to a place where she can make decisions without the rigid laws to influence her. For me, the piece comes down against government overreach, though it leaves a lot of the deeper implications of the story and premise open, without a solid answer. And it makes for an interesting read, though one I’m not sure how I feel about.
“Generation Gap” by Thoraiya Dyer (9996 words)
No Spoileres: The families that live at Greenhill and Oyster Flats are enemies. Rivals. Neighbors with some deep animosity. And they are defined by their generations. Those at Greenhill are tall, but that means that they wait longer to birth (which stops their growing). Those at Oyster Flats are shorter, and there are more of them. But the overall structure is the same. There is a Tower, who is in charge. And there is a Child, who is the one who still grows, and who carry the full weight of keeping the family alive because if a Child dies, that’s it. The Children are supposed to grow to hate the other family, but instead the narrator, Wipwai, from Greenhill, and Feə, the Child from Oyster Flats, meet and become friends, and it changes the trajectories of both their families. The piece is strange and heavy, the generational escalation and hatred countered only by the affection of the narrator, their dislike of being a killer. But it’s also a tragic read, about the ways that this kind of cyclical hatred can’t’ just be turned off, and sometimes despite best intentions, Bad Shit still happens.
Keywords: Families, Legacies, CW- Childbirth, Enemies, Friendship, CW- Abuse
Review: The deep weird of this story does have something of a learning curve in my opinion, but I really like the feel of it, this sense of roles being so rigidly defined that they maintain this hatred long since people remember what it was actually about. And it creates such hurt, such wounds, that things can’t really be made right just through kindness, just through friendship. And it looks at abuse and at how terribly Wipwai is treated, and how people try to turn them into a killer, into a monster. How they are molded, how they are conditioned. It’s a difficult read because it’s happening on so many levels and because they’re so miserable, so alone, where they want so much just to throw down the old ways and try something new, try actually cooperating instead of fighting. But their efforts are sabotaged and that, that is why the tragedy of the story takes place. Not because friendship wouldn’t have won out. Not because conflict and death are necessary. But because they were mandated by those who didn’t want to change. And instead of embracing what would have been better for everyone, they demanded blood, demanded violence, and wouldn’t let things resolve any other way. Which is heartbreaking, because it wrecks so much. Because everyone loses, and continues losing, and the only way to actually go forward is to cut off so much potential. Not all of it. Not everything. But like amputating a limb it requires this huge act and it comes and it’s painful and there’s still a feeling of not being whole and fuck, this is a hard story. It’s not fun, though it’s beautiful and powerfully told, with a world building that really grew on me and a mood of terrible inertia. A great way to close out the issue!