Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #112

The first Clarkesworld issue of 2016 certainly doesn't pull it's punches. Weighing in at over 40k of original fiction, it's on the heavy side, both length-wise and message-wise. The stories are dense, rather subtle, and not overly cheery. But inside these entirely science fictional stories are examinations of inequality and value. Questions of what makes life worth living, and what humanity requires. Stories of love and challenge and pushing the boundaries of human experience while still grasping at what makes us human. So yeah, let the reviews begin!

Art by Julie Dillon


"The Algorithms of Value" by Robert Reed (5677 words)

It's interesting to see a vision of the future that is full of...well, of plenty. That is free of physical want. The idea is compelling, that there is a world where everyone has their basic needs and even most of their advanced needs met. They have smart rooms that can provide food and any scene, any music, almost any sensation. Even the poorest can live hundreds of years. Things are not equal, no, and everyone is able to be their own weird selves. The story follows one of the architects of this world, a woman named Parchment, as she goes out into the world and encounters some of its denizens. People who live in this plenty. It's a world run on a set of rules, the Algorithms, the way of valuing what each person needs. Safety first, then food and water, individuality, stimulation, etc. Things are provided, and for most this is a sort of utopia. For many, but not all. Some refuse to believe that the world offers them any sort of challenge, that it doesn't allow them to fulfill their ambitions. It's an idea that is fairly compelling for how wrong-minded it is, for how terrible it can be. Because I don't believe that the story argues, in the end, that humanity needs more than this vision. Not really. I believe that the story warns of looking too much beyond, toward conquest and survival as romantic and necessary. Instead the story settles on the idea that it's challenge, that it's humanity that has to look inward, that finds in itself, in other humans. The boy, Ink, that Parchment meets, that wants an escape, I feel has lost sight of seeing that the greatest challenge is not expansion but living and understanding other people. Turning ambition toward, of all things, empathy. It's an interesting story, a striking vision, and definitely one to spend some time with.

"The Abduction of Europa" by E. Catherine Tobler (5965 words)

This is a rather strange, rather surreal story of life on Europa. Human life, yes, as three people stranded on the ice find themselves faced with...something else. But also that something else, the life that has emerged deep under the waters and the life that has also been stranded there, longer than human memory. The story is split between three perspectives, three people who have gone out foolishly onto the ice. Their experiences are vastly different and yet converging, all three of them learning about life and transforming into something other than they were. Through the three perspectives three pictures of space emerge, a place without warmth or light, a place unsuited for humans. The story seems to me to be about adaptation, about life itself finding a way in a hostile situation. It explores the way in which humans are changed by their forays into the unknown. For all that I don't read this as a hopeless story, as one that argues that humans have no place out among the stars. Indeed, this is a first contact story in many ways, a story about humanity brushing against something wholly alien and unknown. And not being destroyed by it, not really. But having to change because of it. Finding in that contact a way to dispel the cold and find a bit of warmth. That idea that warmth grows out of contact echoes in the story, returns again and again, the need for humans to stand together and the possibility that we are not alone, are not alone and will find new ways of exploring by cooperation. It's a story that, for me, blends and blurs madness and reality, but at its core seems to be about the quest for discovery and an end to loneliness, layered with a story of loss of control and violent change. It's a complex story, and a quite good one. Indeed!

"Extraction Request" by Rich Larson (8870 words)

Well fuck. I'm not always the hugest fan of military science fiction, but this story captures a lot of things that I love. Love and pain and general fucked-upness and a strange, horrible situation that just sort of gets worse. A squad of convicts is waylaid en route to their deployment in a messy war to find themselves in the middle of...something. The mystery of the situation, of what is attacking them and why, takes a back seat to the human drama playing out, the damage that all the men and women of the squad have suffered. Elliot, the leader, a morphine-addict, finds that those he leads are just as hurt as him, just as vulnerable, all of them fighting because they have to, all of them clinging to dreams about what comes next, all of them doomed because there is no escaping the situation they're in. I love the way the conflict outside mirrors the conflict within, the dead used as weapons, the living trapped and slowly digested. In that it almost doesn't matter what the creature is attacked them, because it is the war. It is their pain and their damage and all the human ugliness that they have participated in, that finally circles back around to them. It is almost just except that no one deserves that. And it's a love story as much as it's a story about carnage and death, a story of two men finding in each other not absolution or escape but, perhaps, a way to escape the loneliness and pain. And sometimes that's all that you can do in the face of loss and misery. Sometimes the best that can be done is to face the end with someone else. Yes, this is a tragic queer love story, but it is an effective one and a complex one and an unflinching one. And a bit of an emotionally devastating one. So go read it.

"Everybody Loves Charles" by Baoshu, translated by Ken Liu (20705 words)

This is a quite long story but a compelling one that is split between two men, Charles and Naoto. Charles is a celebrity who allows people into his body via a neural connection so that they can experience his life. He believes in sharing, in being honest, in the power of himself. And he has a ridiculous following, including Naoto, who spends basically his entire life plugged in to Charles' head. And the story does a very nice job of showing the motivation of not just Charles but the people who follow Charles, who spend their time in Charles' head. For some he is an inspiration, and for many he is the goal, the person that they desire to be. Certainly Naoto believes himself to almost be Charles, something that his neighbor and would-be romantic interest Minami advises. Charles' life, too, is thrown into turmoil when he meets a woman who teaches him to cherish a bit of his privacy. The story explores the limits of self, and where true self comes from. Does it only appear in isolation, without influence, or is self something that cannot exist without others, that is formed by being seen and affirming yourself through others. That [OKAY SOME SPOILERS BECAUSE SHIT, MAN, THAT ENDING] the story basically becomes one where others are seeking to actively subvert self is a bit telling which direction the story leans, towards the belief that true self is personal and private and that genuine actions are more or less impossible when done for an audience. It's an interesting look at privilege, really, when you get down to it, because it looks at the way Charles believes that his success is the result of his hard work. And yet it's revealed that it's rather because of a conspiracy helping him to succeed. But I don't think it's a mistake or fluke that he's a straight white cis-male here, that there is a conspiracy helping him basically all the time (his privilege) and that in some ways he cannot claim his own accomplishes because he is blind to the advantages and help he has simply taken for granted. That he wants to succeed on his own is admirable, but he hasn't bothered to examine that success and look at why maybe it was easier. It's a subtle work in that way, in the way it calls to question how people succeed and how success and celebrity works. Yes, okay, he must have had some skill, but the victory came from the advantages he had, not his skill, and the advantages came because of who he was and what he represented. If he had been a woman or non-white would he have been so successful? And that success, insisting on that privilege, is what traps him, is what prevents him from doing any good because even as he tries to his life puts others on the path to ruin. What ultimately happens with Naoto is the conclusion to this, the affirmation of Charles' life and motto and blindness. It's not a very happy story for all of that, but a very interesting one. Certainly a strong story and one I quite recommend checking out despite it not being the most pleasant, despite Charles not really being...sympathetic at all. A fine way to close out the original fiction of the issue!

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