There might not quite be as many 10K+ word stories in this month's Clarkesworld Magazine as last month, but it doesn't mean it skimps on quantity or quality. Five original stories, all but one over 6K (all but two over 8K), means that this is still a dense brick of an issue, with stories that build expansive worlds and meticulously chip away at the safety of the reader. Once again all five original stories are science fiction (which for this publication isn't exactly a surprise), and showcase some stunning trips through space and time. Visions of humanity reaching out and touching something. In some, the act is constructive. In some, naïve. But in all of them the stories show how space shapes humanity, and how humanity shapes space. How we fit ourselves in to that vast emptiness and find something about ourselves. So time to review!
|Art by Peter Mohrbacher|
"Left Behind" by Cat Rambo (6173 words)
This is a rather interesting story about a future where minds are needed to become the processors for spaceships, and how one woman working in a dying field reacts to another woman faced with being shot into the stars alone. The story is cerebral, taking place mostly in the mind of Cianna, the old woman whose family has had her deemed mentally unfit so they can send her away. Only Cianna is about as far from unfit as can be and despite the main character's attempts to make the prospect of becoming a ship seem pleasant, Cianna resists. The story revolves around age and use and money. Cianna has become a drain and her family looks to get rid of her. Meanwhile the technology that will be used is on the decline, work becoming more scarce for the main character as it requires minds that haven't been altered by modern tech, which means the only minds capable of becoming ships are quite old. Like Cianna. I love the way the story unfolds in Cianna's mind, how she sees with such clarity what is happening to her and refuses to make it easy. Not because she hates her family but because her own body is about all she has left, the last bit of capital and that is being stripped from her. It's a great moment when the story explains [SPOILERS] that people have freedom over their bodies, their genders, but only those who can pay. Which is an illusion of freedom. Which is only better for people who have funds. Oppression is still very real if not worse because those without funds can be wholly cannibalized. The character work has depth and the ending represents a sort of imperfect solution that I quite enjoyed. A fine read!
"The Universal Museum of Sagacity" by Robert Reed (8700 words)
This is a story that examines art and distance and human achievement, that focuses on a boyhood infatuation and a question that ends up spanning worlds and universes. The vision of the future is one not so far-fetched, a near-Earth where technology has progressed and where a man inadvertently stubbles across a huge mystery. The voice of the story is serious, driven by data and puzzles, and nearly haunted by the image of a woman from the past. Things move almost like a Dick novel, big concepts butting up against a protagonist who seems ready for it all and yet unprepared for what he might find. Confident when dealing with social situations, when pursuing his goals, and yet insecure about himself, about family, about actually making connections. And in with all of that is a statement on the value of art and the value of science and technology. The idea that human knowledge is constrained in many ways, constantly chasing advances that, given a expansive universe, are likely not actually unique. That what makes humans special is, in effect, the art that we produce. Things that have no parallel anywhere, that they reflect something that is intrinsically human. Not that science doesn't help, doesn't open humans up to new horizons, but that even in a universe where we are technologically inferior, there is still value. Still something irreplaceable. At least, as I read the story. And it's a nice message and a complex, strange story. I rather liked the ending, too, [SPOILERS] the ways in which it reveals the main character, driven by the mystery, the puzzle, and not really the resolution. Another good story!
"Breathe" by Cassandra Khaw (2659 words)
Give me a moment to collect myself here (notgonnacrynotgonnacrynotgonna—fuck never mind okay crying now). This story features isolation as a living thing, darkness and light, religion and humanity, sacrifice and love. It features a woman in an alien sea, waiting for an algae to mature enough to cultivate. Waiting in the dark, alone but for a voice in her ear from her ship, the one lifeline in the story, which uses breathing and breath to great effect, to create a rhythm for the prose, for the action, to slow things down and speed things up with the hyperventilating terror of human fragility. The need for air. The need for something. Religious imagery infuses the work with a great contrast. Alice, the main character, has walked away from religion, and yet when faced with the unknown it creeps back in and I love the way the story seems to posit the divine as one answer to the dark and humanity as another. Love. Connection. That staring into the abyss does not require a god. But it might require more than just one human. And that there is something dangerous lurking in the light of faith, a shadow that threatens to tear away everything good and joyous. And fuck does this story get heartbreaking, get wrenching. I…there are moments in the story where the small breaks, the reminders to breathe, were all that was reminding me to do likewise as I read, as I watched the action unfold, as the story sells so hard the second person "you," bringing the reader into that situation and leaving them to feel what Alice feels, to be left between wanting to pray for some miracle or to instead do something about the situation. To breathe, to act. Humans helping humans. Humans loving humans. The story is beautiful and aching and I am working through the tears on this one. Go read it!
"Jonas and the Fox" by Rich Larson (8593 words)
This is a nice story about reversals, about resistance, and about family. In it, Fox was a part of a revolution until it turned on him for his aristocratic ties. On the run, he hides with extended family and, after a tragedy strikes there, puts his mind into the brain-dead body of a young boy. Not everything goes quite to plan, though, and the story explores this new turning, Fox in a boy's body, in the dead boy's family, with the dead boy's face. Sharing the lead in the story is Jonas as well, the dead boy's older brother, and it's a rather complex situation that the prose handles easily, with layers of guilt and power and powerlessness. There is also an examination of how situations can shift, how ideals can be perverted and how violence is its own sort of momentum. The relationship between Fox and Jonas is well built and compelling, the two falling in line like brothers, Fox at the same time younger and older, both in some ways responsible for what happened, for the death that followed, for the change that has occurred. And there is a wound that the tale revolves around, the one in the country that takes the shape of the revolution and the one in the family that takes the shape of a dead boy. There's a lot to digest, and the I quite like the way the story handles the turns, the twists, the characters trying to take control but always having it wrested away, having to deal with new and ever-worse situations. The goal is resistance, is justice, and yet as the violence continues there is no chance for it. The characters, and the story, seem to recognize that sometimes there is no perfect answer, and the ending is a great moment of that, the characters all losing, all gaining, doing what they can to live, to outlast the moment of violence to find a time when better methods might prevail. Another nice read!
"Away from Home" by Luo Longxiang, translated by Nick Stember (10239 words)
In some ways it's hard to imagine a future like the one visited in this story, full of technological wonders, a humanity capable of creating planet-ships to sail through the expanse of space. Not without risk or accident, but with an eye ever forward, ever pushing the boundaries of what is accepted, what is conventional. And yet this story brought me there, showed me the sights in ways that made it seem not only real but plausible, possible. Because what good is convention but to those who already have it good? What good is a system unless it's always improving itself and looking for ways to improve, questioning itself and looking for new questions to ask. The action follows Weihan and a mysterious woman named Han Dan, who meets him right before a catastrophe rips apart their world. But what the story does best is show humanity at its best. Dealing with loss and adversity, yes, and never losing hope. Never losing the drive to go farther, to do more. It's a vast story, where people have harnessed the power of the stars to swim through the universe, to go wherever they want. To unlock more secrets and allow for more safety, more stability, and more opportunity to learn and explore. And that's the tying together that I love so much about this piece, that it shows how exploration is the key to humanity. Evolving at least as far as we can. Pushing forward. Without losing our history. Without losing ourselves to the black. Because the only way to survive is in motion. Stagnant, corruption spreads fasted. So yes, it is a great piece, sweeping and epic and lots of fun, with some great characters and a sense of hopeful enterprise. Definitely give this one some time!