Thursday, August 11, 2016

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #119

It's a month of surprises at Clarkesworld this August, as there is an extra original story plus a story in translation from German instead of the usual Chinese translation. So there's definitely a lot to see with four short stories and two longer novelettes. The good news is that it's all weird. Seriously, these are stories that push at the boundaries of the imagination. That conjure up strange worlds and uncertain realities and the vastness and power of both space and violence. Stories that set aliens next to 50's greasers and mix time travel, tragedy, and immigration. And through it all there's a sense of yearning that pervades. For a brighter future, a peaceful cooperation, and the comfort of another presence. To the reviews! 

Art by Jaroslaw Marcinek


"First Light at Mistaken Point" by Kali Wallace (6864 words)

This story speaks to me of uncertainty and moments of crisis. Inches and seconds. If things had changed just minutely, how things might have been different. The story focuses on Charlie (nice name, fyi) who finds herself drawn away from her work at NASA (and a Mars mission that's just lost contact) to attend her mother's funeral. And after the funeral when she's getting ready to help pack up her mother's old things, s he gets a call that there's a new message from the mission. One that no one can quite figure out. The story is deep and dense, layered with feelings of fear and helplessness. Charlie wasn't really there when her mother was declining, and she's not really there at work now for her team members who are out of contact. No one knows who is alive or dead. There's lots to digest in the story, which takes things slow and reveals a woman working through guilt but also the legacy of her mother, a woman who was constantly on the move, who had been at odds with her own parents about a lot of things. The story is about memory and about possibility. About the gulf between what might have happened and what did. And, in some ways, about how permeable that distance can be. It's a lovely piece with a feel of things left unresolved, about regret and about loss. There's this looming fear that everyone is dead or dying, and the real chance that they are. And yet there is also this transmission, difficult to understand, that Charlie is pinning her hopes on. With something like a mission to Mars, the entire thing is down to inches and seconds, to the narrowest of margins, where a fault in one direction can mean certain death. But it can also mean something wonderful. Something daring. The story offers up no easy answers, no real assurances, leaving me with the feeling that it's not so much about what the recording says. It's about taking each moment and making it mean something. About not letting opportunities slip away. About risking the inches and seconds. It's a beautiful piece and well worth checking out!

"Teenagers from Outer Space" by Dale Bailey (11,690 words)

This is a story about freedom and difference. About being brought up in a bad situation and searching for a way out. About being human and about trying to get beyond that. It's a story with an interesting aesthetic, 1950s greaser feel with aliens there like it's no big deal. It's almost funny, though it borders on some uncomfortable racial parallels. Mostly, though, it steers toward nostalgia, the whitewashed version of the 1950s when things were simpler. The story focuses on two friends, Nancy and Joan, who are neighbors and going to high school. Joan is from a rather abusive home and strict, religious parents. She attempts to counter this by seeking out men who are supposed to be tough, who normally turn out to be just as if not more abusive than her parents. Joan finds a real gem of an asshole and things sort of go on a trajectory toward tragedy ever after, the story to me revealing the ways in which all times fail people. Here Joan is the one being failed, or at least failed the most, trapped by an abusive family and without any legal power to do anything. Trapped by other people seeking to possess her, which is something that continues to this day. The aliens represent for Joan a way out. Something different. For Nancy there is something revolting about that freedom, a sort of slavery to it. But in that, and as this is a piece from the 1950s, there seems to be a bit of red scare going on in that. The aliens, for everything, represent something more communal, more aggregate. Everything has a song. And Nancy, full of her own individualism, turns away from that. But for Joan, who has been damaged, who has faced abuse her entire life, there is freedom in that community. She gets agency and choice. She gets power over her own body. And even if that comes with having to think more about the group, having to work for harmony instead of individual talent and desire, instead of the possibility that her choice will be taken away. And it's a rather fun story, a rather neat idea to mix Grease with aliens. Definitely worth a look!

"Now is the Hour" by Emily Devenport (4278 words)

*sniffle* Well okay then. This story…this story is about near misses. About the direction our decisions can take us. About cherishing the victories because we know how bad it might have been, and also cherishing our own smallness at times. Not smallness in the sense of unimportance, which the story does an excellent job of exploring. I love how the story shows that difference, that Maybie and her family are small in the fact that they are poor, in the fact that they have been sent to die and their deaths won't effect too many people. But they are important. To each other. To the future they might have which have always been stifled by poverty, by situation. Certainly the lives they go on to live are not small exactly, carry an importance of their own, but only because they are helped out of a bad situation. The story points to proactive help being…if not necessary then the best way for people to escape oppression and death. Not help in the form of advice and not help in the form of programs or anything like that. Help in the form of resources. In the form of medical care and relocation costs and protection from abuses from shady businesses. Without that help they die. Without that help they suffer. And yet it's within the power of someone else to help them. So they are helped. It's very simple and I love how the story frames it. That it doesn't take gods to help people. That it takes people helping people to make a difference. That while systemic problems like how the family came to be oppressed are things that require more than individual attention, it doesn't mean that individual attention doesn't do a lot. Doesn't mean that it isn't important. That are so many small things that people can do to prevent suffering and death. Typically it involves resources. It involves being proactive. It's a story that doesn't pull its punches with the consequences for not acting. For letting injustice go unchecked. It's difficult and painful but it's also a powerful read. Go check it out!

"The Engines Imperial" by Sean Bensinger (3047 words)

This is a story of spaceships and time, service and war. It's the story of two sentient beings, Stub and Rook, created to fight, to be the greatest killing machines the universe had ever known. And to obey. The story is vast in its scope and luminous in its prose, the galaxy not quite big enough for Rook's grief, for the depths of violence and revenge and tragedy that swirls around them. It's an intense story though told from a distance, Rook rather removed from the violence they create, observing it and knowing it but also born to it. These ships were all created to be weapons and the story explores what impact that has on them and how they view the world. It also looks at the adaptations that they take, the ways that they survive and become better weapons. Which for Rook seems to be to create that distance, that buffer between their actions and the reality of those actions. The people that they kill aren't really seen even as they are dismembered, even as Rook collects them. Everything is geared toward war because that is the only expression that they are allowed, but it doesn't exactly create a very positive outcome. It only leads to loss, only leads to tragedy. [SPOILERS] Stub, who acts as Rook's only real friend and the person that they wanted to spend eternity with, sees this only too late. But I love the moment when she does, when she sees the only trajectory for them, the only outcome. The violence they inflict is cyclical, and because they are programmed to obey they are trapped, forced to repeat the violence over and over. And in so doing they become to the people they fight against the embodiment of war and violence. The embodiment of human cruelty even though it's not something Rook can know. They never adapt enough to see cruelty, though they do adapt enough to know love. It's a wrenching story and one with a nice sense of the inevitable. It sets up the situation and shows that it's basically impossible to escape the gravity of war, of death, of programming. It's not a happy story but it does seem to reach for hope, if not for Rook than through them, using their story as that warning call to not follow blindly. An excellent read!

"Reclamation" by Ryan Row (4032 words)

This is a story about distance and about the shifting face of humanity when faced with space. With something so huge and open that it seems hungry. That it seems to devour everything in its path. The main character is a miner. In space. Who seems to specialize in meteors. Only she's been knocked off the one she was on and is now drifting, has become Drift. I like how the story handles that loss of identity in the void, how there's that question of whether the events unfolding are real or part of some hallucination brought on by the dark, by the distance. There is a very real sense that space itself is attacking Drift, that it is trying t consume her because without contact with something else the human mind fills in the gaps. Makes things up. So I like that nothing is for sure here, even when things seem at its bleakest. [SPOILERS] And I like how the nature of the alien ship, the alien contagion, might be fear and separation as well, that there is a sense maybe she's forgetting what it means to be human and that's the infection, that's what's really alien there. That any human in isolation begins to drift from what is normal. That without that social aspect, lost in the great blankness of space, without even really sight to ground us, we can actually become something else. It's a bit of a trippy piece, where Drift might be navigating through an alien ship or might be navigating the corridors of her own mind. It's a creepy story and an interesting one, complex and with a great eye for what it means to be truly lost, truly alone. Another fascinating read!

"Alone, on the Wind" by Karla Schmidt, translated by Lara Harmon (13,449 words)

Well this is a…weird story about two people from very different places finding each other. About divides and about history and about change. The story takes place in the remains of two worlds, or one world and a moon. Neither of which are whole. The moon is splinted and floating rocks are where a race of birds call home, though the lack of water means that they have to go to the larger planet, which is mostly barren desert, for supplies. It sets up a strange double-blind for the two groups, neither familiar with the other, going off of misinformation and myth to justify their conflict, the theft and the hatred. When Tuela, one of the birdpeople, is injured on a raid to the planet, she is taken in by Pierre, a man who falls in love with her and wants to bridge the distance between their two world. Who believes that things can improve, that the world can be healed if the two groups come together. The setting is vivid and strange, the worlds familiar and alien at the same time. The relationship between Tuela and Pierre is likewise strange but compelling, their differences not enough to drive them apart, though Pierre's people are repelled by Tuela's nature, by her not being human. And the story is filled with tragedy and death. Pain and loss. It's framed as Tuela imploring a group of bird, imploring the heart of her people, to make a change. To decide to try for something. For life. For unity. I think the story structure helps to reinforce the difference of the birds, the way that they think, their alien nature but also how they are like humans. How humans treat history, either forgetting it and losing a chance to correct it, to strive for something better, or else holding on only to the bitterness and the hatred of it. In both instances it keeps people apart, refuses to let old wounds heal, and opens new ones constantly, compounding damage, making reconciliation more difficult. And in the end I think the story has a great sense of hope, that here these people, Tuela and Pierre, fight through the bitterness and the fear and reach for something better. For hope. For unity. For peace and cooperation. It's a nice story and certainly a unique experience.