Monday, April 11, 2016

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #115

Well with just four original short stories one could almost think this was a light month for Clarkesworld, but with three of them tipping the scales at over ten thousand words, you'd be a bit premature. These are stories that have some legs and that take their time. Most of them are focused on journeys and distance. Most of them are also focused on people learning to empathize with people on the surface very different from themselves. And finding there a commonality. A bond. The stories show sweeping views of strange lands and sights. Virtual realities and alien worlds and the heart of America and the depths of space. There's a lot to see and as long as you don't mind taking a bit of time to get there, these stories will not disappoint. To the reviews! 

Art by Rudy Faber


"Touring with the Alien" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (11,819 words)

This is a rather interesting story about loss and about exploration and invasion and consciousness. The story follows Avery, a woman with a great sense of movement. Of listening to her gut and going where it guides her. When aliens arrive on the planet, mysterious and impenetrable, Avery is among the first to get the chance to meet with them, or at least with a human "translator." What follows is part road trip and part cultural exchange. Avery learns about the aliens and the aliens, and their translator, learn a bit about humanity. The result is at turns hopeful and tragic, questioning the roll of consciousness, the value of it. Because the aliens and their human adopted translators have a difference of opinion on that, on what good consciousness is. Does it give us control or only worry over control? Is it worth a life lived with increased stress and earlier death? And ultimately the story makes a rather subtle point about it, about the fleeting nature of life and strength of grief and the possibility for learning and teaching. That there are things that you just need to trust your gut about and there are other things you have to be conscious about. I think the story does a beautiful job with building the relationship between Avery and the Translator, between Avery and the aliens, between Avery and herself. And the "invasion" aspect of the story is very well handled, interesting and original and with deep implications. The imagery is pastoral as they drive through the country, stopping to witness humanity. And there are moments of shocking brutality and alienness that are well rendered and complex. It's a neat twist on the alien invasion idea, and it's definitely worth checking out.

"Balin" by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu (10,955 words)

This is a rather difficult story, in part because of the vivid depiction of racism and dehumanization and how it challenges not only motion and volition but also empathy. The story follows Peng, a young man from a wealthy family whose father has meticulously planned out his life. As a gift, Peng is given Balin, a boy from an island in the South China Sea, a boy who is viewed as a sort of pet, able to almost perfectly mimic human motion but, more than that, also human feeling. And wow this is a story that pulls no punching in showing how Balin is treated, how he he can empathize so perfectly and yet those around him view him as an animal, as an alien. Peng is the main character of the story but the title tips its hand as to the real focus. Balin becomes a mirror, not only for Peng but for everyone, offering a perspective through which to more clearly see the world. There's a great parallelism between Peng and Balin, controlled and controlling, puppet and master. Peng and basically everyone else sees Balin as inferior because of his tendency to mimic, because they see this as inferior. And Peng comes to wonder if it's merely an illustration to some truth about motion, about thought. Are people, no matter how complex, just mimicking what they see, how they are raised. But in trying to figure out how to test that idea, Peng runs into implications even deeper and more revolutionary. About empathy and about parents and children. About trying to control someone and finding that things aren't as simple as they seemed. It's a rich story and uncomfortable in how unflinching it is, in showing how empathy can grow but also how lacking it can be. And it draws in science fiction and it's power to complicate human empathy in a great way. A great read!

"The Bridge of Dreams" by Gregory Feeley (10,723 words)

This is a story that captures an interesting scope while exploring a far-future with a kind-of-human-kind-robot taking on shades of the Norse guardian of the Bifrost, Heimdallr. The story does an excellent job of capturing the feel of distance and space and awe. This is a future where humanity isn't what it was, is spread out and changed, where myth has infused itself in with the actions people are taking, tasks that involve altering worlds and really the entire solar system. There is a strong sense of post-Earth tragedy to it, too, and the threat of decline, not because humans lack skill or power but because, cut off from a habitat that we were designed to live in, disaster and circumstance lead to diminishing numbers, more chances for failure. There is a sense of great works but also of age, futility, and the old Norse idea of meeting your end nobly. There's hope here, yes, but it's a slow sort of thing, an almost inhuman sort of thing, inspired by the knowledge that it might not be enough and that there is no safety net or margin for error. There is a lot of interesting things going on in the story, and the style keeps things a bit strange, surreal, and opaque. The context for what has happened isn't locked away or inaccessible so much as the main character doesn't want to remember because it's too painful. So the story takes on a rather somber, fatalistic tone. Which fits the subject and the style, though it makes things just a little slow at times, the story requiring a bit of patience, a bit of endurance to get through. But it's a neat piece with some great ideas and images and settings and a fun aesthetic. Indeed!

"The Cedar Grid" by Sara Saab (4916 words)

This is a rather devastating story about conflict and about grief and about care. It starts and ends with life and death and love and hate, all of these things mingling in the moments depicting, a chase through the streets following an attack, a very different and more intimate scene later on. But the story does an amazing and careful job building up an conflict that spans worlds, solar systems, that is about place and about homes and about families and about love. The story features Majd, son of a politician, whose younger brother is killed in a political attack on Earth. And the story is about Majd reaching back for his brother, trying to make sense of all the ways that they are different and that he is alive. That though he is older he didn't have his brother's potential and now it is up to him to try and make sense of it, try to do something about it. And it's beautiful in how it shows his grief, how he tries to reconnect to home and family and yet is filled withi conflict, with draws that seem to make him traitor. There is an absolutely amazing line in the story, that there are "Many things that are forbidden, but not wrong." And it gets at the heart of what the story is playing with, the moral complexity it's revolving around, about place and culture but also about the nature of oppression, how it can link and how it unites people. The story is sensual and sad and uplifting and very, very good. It might be a bit overshadowed in terms of word count this issue, but it packs the biggest emotional punch by far, a raw wound that will take some time in healing if it heals at all. But it's transformational and an excellent way to close out the original fiction!

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