I rather like issues of publications that can manage to build some thematic synergy, and January's Clarkesworld does just that, presenting five stories that fit quite well together. Three of them, indeed, play with many of the same ideas. Human nature, loss, and artificial intelligence. These stories examine the ways that people live, the way that they hurt each other. Even one of the stories that doesn't feature AI looks at the systems that humans build to hurt each other, and imagine ways of possibly breaking free of the cycle of pain and abuse. These stories are difficult and complex and don't always give the most definitive of answers, don't necessarily succeed in imagining systems free of violence and pain. But then, they seem to do so pointedly. And of course, there is one story that is just fun, that gives a much needed break from the heavier ideas and themes and revels in something charming, witty, and light. All in all it makes for a fine issue that I will review presently!
|Art by Gabriel Björk Stiernström
"The Ghost Ship Anastasia" by Rich Larson (8267 words)
This is a rather interesting if also intensely dark story about loss and space, about family and holding on. The story unfolds among of group of people sent to go run salvage on a bioship that supposedly stopped working. Silas is the main character and begins the story bereft following the accidental death of his sister in cryo on the way to the bioship. There's some hope that her mind will still be salvageable, and Silas holds to that even if he fears it won't be enough. But work is work. They arrive at the bioship. They board. And that's where the story does an excellent job of becoming disturbing as fuck. The story uses a fast style and mysterious situation to good effect, Silas still shaken from what happened to his sister to be anywhere close to ready to dealing with a suddenly terrifying situation. Desperate to save the only family he has, he makes some rather…drastic decisions and ends up getting drawn into the story of what happened to the bioship and what might still happen. [SPOILERS] And I love the way the story treats with family on multiple levels, with Silas and his obsession with saving his sister, to the point that he puts everyone in danger. And also with the ship which has become aware and which wants to become one with the other members of the original crew. That obsession, too, endangers everyone, and I think the story does a nice job of showing just how much harm can come from this obsession with family, but also how something good can come from it as well. It's a dark story but not nearly as sad or disturbing as it could have been. The ending turns things around almost completely, which is nice considering just how twisted things had become with a ship determined to eat its crew. I like the horror aspects of the story and I like the ways in which it treats with family and need. It's a neat story and a fine read!
"A Series of Steaks" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (7943 words)
This is such a cute story about forged beef, budding friendship, running from the past, and thwarting the machinations of a not-so-master blackmailer. The story centers Helena, a woman running from the mistakes of her past and trying to raise enough money to run farther still. She's fallen into forging beef, printing it in such a way that fools consumers into thinking the meat actually came from a cow. Business is good, though a little hectic, a little lonely, and, when a mysterious person approaches her demanding she take on an impossible task or risk exposure of her past, a little dangerous. Luckily for Helena she's just taken on a new assistant, Lily, who is not exactly as she seems. She's like 1000% more badass and awesome. Helena's past is handled with an appropriate weight that shows the injustice of what's happened to her and really, this is an utterly charming story that sets the…steaks quite high (sorry not sorry! On one level the story keeps things simple, the plot a classic one where our determined main characters are beset by a morally bankrupt bastard who wants to use them to pull off a scheme that they're not comfortable with. It's a great example of telling a fun story that is humorous, compelling, and satisfying, and with characters and situations complex enough, ideas and images delightfully speculative enough to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It's not exactly the most surprising of arcs, but it is certainly new and different enough that I was never bored (and did laugh out loud once or twice). It's just so damn fun. The characters pop and the premise is…weirdly captivating. It's triumphant and brash and really you should just go read it. I now want all the stories of the adventures in beef forgery. An amazing read!
"Justice Systems in Quantum-Parallel Probabilities" by Lettie Prell (2858 words)
This is an interesting and rather philosophical story about a man being held in jail awaiting justice. And the central question of the story, as he visits different worlds in his mind, becomes: What is Justice? He dreams, or hallucinates, or mentally visits different worlds, each of which has a different justice system than our own. Each of which have different values, and those values are reflected in their systems, in the way that the main character, Cole, is treated. It's a fascinating tour through possible worlds and it's a great deconstruction of our justice system, looking at who it serves and how it punishes. That Cole is guilty of something isn't really in doubt, though the full scope of what he has done is never really revealed. And yet the story doesn't really allow Cole to be viewed as solely a criminal. Very often in our system, what is done to people is justified because of who they are what they seem. This is influenced by a deep vein of victim-blaming that exists in our system. And the story asks who that serves. Is punishment about the victims of the crime? Is it about reform? Is it about forgiveness? Is it about the art of justice? [SPOILERS] It's a fairly weird story but one that builds nicely, that creates such an uncertain view of justice that the question at the end echoes on and on. Which one is this? And I think that the story asks this question to get us to question the way that justice works. Too often I think that people just take the system for granted, assuming that it just works or just needs to be the way it is. When, really, justice is what we make it, and right now is very much in need of reform. We have to ask ourselves what we want justice to look like so that we can contrast that to what we have. It's an interesting and layered story that lingers on that final, powerful question. A great read!
"Interchange" by Gary Kloster (11,954 words)
This is a longer story that walks a line between horror and hope, between hurt and healing. I reveals Lucy, a woman who has been put in the situation where she was forced to kill someone she loved in self defense and hasn't exactly recovered from it. Who has fled into a time-limbo construction project to try and be alone but who finds there something much more unexpected, and much more momentous. The story looks closely at this almost gothic premise, the isolation of people being stuck, not only together in a small space but out of time. And the story complicates things as a hiccup in their limbo field…lets something in. All this while Lucy deals with her own grief and the…less than savory personalities of some of the other people she works with. She's see as unhinged and yet when things start happening that are…weird, she's among the most level. The calmest. For a variety of reasons. The story plays with horror conventions in an interesting and explicit way, calling them out specifically so that it can complicate them. On one level the story reads as a sort of The Thing analogy, but on another it's looking beyond that, looking at humans and wondering if a change might be a good thing. The story isn't exactly the most optimistic to me, or at least it is but it isn't. [SPOILERS] To me, at least, it looks at humans as needing to change because we've evolved into very dangerous creatures who hurt ourselves and hurt the world around us and never really learn from our mistakes. Which isn't an argument without merit. And the story does confront the human tendency to meet any change as hostile, as bad. However, the story also sees a single individual making a decision for a group that seem to expressly not consent to that decision. Which…isn't the best way to kickstart change, perhaps. Still, it's a very interesting and yearning story that looks at humanity and interactions and hope in a rather complex way, and the ending is beautifully pulled off. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!
"Milla" by Lorenzo Crescentini and Emanuela Valentini, translated by Rich Larson (2818 words)
This story does an interesting job of expanding on some of the themes of the last story. Here we have a rather haunting piece about beauty and about worlds, about destruction and humanity. In many of the stories in this issue we see artificial intelligences. Well, the one in this piece is named Milla, and to Marek, a planet surveyor, Milla must be a remnant from a previous civilization. To Milla, the world seems so different. Green and blue instead of gray. And Marek represents here the possible return of civilization to Shiva, the planet that Marek is exploring. Only things aren't really what they seem to be at first and the story does a very nice job of twisting midway, of taking the story it had been telling and expanding it, drawing bigger and bigger. What results is fascinating and beautiful and yet another piece that's not all the optimistic. Again, it's hard to fault the story. Here we have a future where humanity has largely decimated Earth, and is looking outward in hopes of finding someplace new, someplace easier. Because there is this tendency to want what is easy and exploitable rather than live with the results of that kind of living. And the relationship between Milla and Marek is interesting and linked. [SPOILERS!!!] Because, essentially, they have the same memories. The same hopes. And yet very different reactions to them. Milla sees the beauty of Shiva and sees a place to protect while Marek sees something to exploit, a new place for humans to maybe have another chance. But even he doesn't really seem to believe that change will happen. And that's where he and Milla agree. They disagree, however, on what to do about it. What follows is a wrenching and slightly terrifying look at what might happen were a more objective conscience be forced onto a person. It's slightly tragic but also slightly hopeful, that maybe because of what happens this place will be allowed to develop free and might produce something different. Something better. Something that deserves its own chance to evolve instead of being spoiled so that humanity can have it's third or fifth or hundredth. A great way to close out the issue!