Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #114

Spring might be in the air, but at Clarkesworld this month things aren't quite jubilantly hopeful. Not that the stories are incredibly gloomy, but there is a certain loneliness to the stories this month. A longing and a loss and an isolation that is cut a bit by family and care, but often the losses in these stories are not ones that are recovered or recovered from. The characters in these stories are all alone and trying to figure out what to do with that, trying to figure out how to go on. Their answers are all different, all interesting, and all worth checking out. To the reviews!
Art by Waldemar Kazak


"Salvage Opportunity" by Jack Skillingstead (3420 words)

This is a rather stark story about a man and the voices in his head. About damage and loneliness and fear of abandonment. In the story, Badar has been assigned to live on a barren world in order to hold a salvage claim for a company, an assignment that leaves him alone except for the voice in his head, a gender-swapped Companion. It's a four year mission which, for Badar, doesn't seem like much. He's used to being alone, to wanting to be alone, have some deep hurts that the story does a solid job exploring. And when some unexpected circumstances on the planet lead Badar to have to deal with a new sort of company, he's prompted to a bit of uncomfortable introspection. I quite like the lonely feel of the story, the isolation and the shock of interaction. I also quite like how the story takes on both introversion and introspection, showing how one does not necessarily require the other. It's a story of one person, really, because each instance of Badar (human male, female voice, and ungendered android) takes on a person in conversation with themself. That alone, no one is exactly alone, and that by trying to deny parts, aspects of himself, Badar becomes dysfunctional, at odds. Only by actually examining the source of the insecurities and working together with the aspects of himself can Badar find a way to live in complete isolation. It's a layered story and an interesting one, a touching look at self and distance and fear and harmony. Indeed!

"Seven Cups of Coffee" by A.C. Wise (3979 words)

This is a rather sweet but also incredibly dark story about time travel, about love, about fate and determination. The story follows a lesbian woman as she is drawn into a strange sort of arrangement involving time travel manipulation in order to prevent a certain person from being born. And it layers quite nicely with love and guilt and shame and grief. The main character trying desperately to undo an act she commits in the past. Causing the death of the woman that she will come to love. It's a rather complex story (as many time travel stories are, but especially ones, like this one, that deal with the fate and loop aspects of time travel), and one steeped in longing, in sadness. The story takes a look at the pressures of time, a love that isn't really allowed to be open, to be accepted, and how that frustrated love can turn, can twist, can rot. The story is about fighting against time and trying to reclaim the past, about fighting against something that seems impossible. And yet the story does leave a door open, a hope that things might yet turn out all right. [AND SOME SPOILERS FROM HERE] Because, after all, the timeline is altered originally. It's interesting to think about why, in many ways, that perhaps the reason that she is sent back is an attempt to undo some other action taken in the past by the woman who sent her back, that this might be part of a larger pattern and that, if true, maybe there is a way out yet. That there is hope, even if the face of everything. At the very least, the story captures determination in the face of the unknown, defiance in the face of supposed fate. And so despite being a rather difficult and dark story, it's not one that focuses on despair. A great read!

"The Governess with a Mechanical Womb" by Leena Likitalo (6742 words)

Well this is a rather bleak story about humans on the edge of extinction and a young woman and her sister facing it under the care of a governess, under the care of something that used to be human but…isn't quite any longer. The story excels at building an isolated and strange atmosphere, which seems to be a theme in this month's issue, here rendered in a post-apocalypse where aliens have come to Earth and destroyed everything for reasons unknown, then started guarding them from themselves. It's an unsettling story, and one with a heavy sense of mystery. Part of it is that the characters are children, unsure of what has happened except that they have lost so much, and part of it is because the aliens never explained themselves, nor is it entirely clear why the aliens care about those that remain. The characters, though, live under the shadow of the blade of their destruction, know they have to live by rules but aren't told what the rules are. It's tense and it's effectively done, a story about sisters and about guardians and about control and love. It is incredibly dark, as well, and I will admit that the ending was rather difficult, a mix of love and change that left me a bit unsure what to think. But it's a neat piece with a great weirdness to it, and it's worth checking out.

"Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead" by Kij Johnson (5937 words)

Yup. Officially calling the original fiction of this issue of Clarkesworld all about longing and loneliness. Isolation and comfort. Here we have four sister-gods all standing at the end of a cliff that will take them down to where the dead go. And where perhaps they might never return from. But Dee, a Coyote, is determined to find her dead mate. She goes, and some of her sisters follow her, and in the place beneath the cliff they find a fate of sorts. The structure and tone of the story takes just a little getting used to but is beautifully done, a story means to be read aloud and nicely strange, with a strong sense of movement and purpose. Dee is stubborn-strong and refuses to give up, and it is her pull and her pride that get the story going, that always push forward, even when what's forward is unknown. The characters are all distinct and interesting with their own reasons for entering the place the dead go, and the action of the story is compelling. The story has the feel of a modern myth, and the setting is striking but torn away from time, with an older feel but more modern language and references. It's a creation story but not in the normal way, a story of family and friendship and darkness. And there's the sense of a mythology that is just barely revealed, that feels deeper than what's show here but works as just this, a glimpse at hope and tragedy and loss and reaching for something that might not exist. It's not an easy story, and there's a price for Dee and her sisters to pay, a price that in many ways Dee is the least willing to pay, despite that it's her that began the whole adventure. The language is interesting and poetic, though, and the work as a whole captures a certain magic and majesty and power that certainly makes it stand out. Another fascinating read!

"Chimera" by Gu Shi, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu and Ken Liu (17890 words)

Despite coming from the translations project that Clarkesworld is participating in, this story too falls in rather nicely with the themes of loneliness and abandonment and comfort and family. It follows a family, a woman and her ex-husband and their child, all brought together through mutual tragedy to break the rules of science and ethics in order to push forward the bounds of human understanding. The story unfolds across time, taking place mostly on a ship dedicated to research where a mystery surrounding chimeric organs draws a police officer into a strange, strange situation. Meanwhile, in the past, the science behind the organ technology expands and explodes, giving a complex look at the woman at the heart of it, the scientist unhampered by the chains of convention, willing to go to great lengths to see her dream become a reality, to try and help people and also create something. The story itself moves nicely with plenty of reveals great and small, twists that show just how formidable the woman is behind it all. There's a great mix of the grotesque and the strange, playing with the ideas of revulsion at the near-human, the imposter, the chimera. And yet the story is, ultimately, about love. A woman's love for her child, and the way that radical love is necessary in some ways for progress. [SPOILERS] I love the way that Tony, the child, is used to be a sort lens through which to view his mother. He sees her as incapable of love, but I don't think the story supports that. Instead, it ends on the idea that she was incapable of living within the constraints of society. That she was powerful because she didn't see the walls fencing her in. And so her love, too, was without conventional borders. She loved her child, and her ex-husband, and her lovers, but was capable of loving beyond the familiar, comfortable way, which is how she was able to pursue the chimera program, able to love this new idea of life without the prejudices of revulsion and disgust. It's a great story with an elegant flow and a solid construction. It's long, but it's also expansive in idea and theme and character. Another great story in translation!

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