Thursday, March 16, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #126

It's a pretty standard month from Clarkesworld Magazine for March, with five original stories including a great novelette in translation. Indeed, the four short stories all come in within about 500 words of each other and all of them are science fiction pieces. More connective than length, though, these pieces are concerned with new forms of intelligence and with the end of the world. Or maybe just with the end of certain aspects of it. But at least two of the stories are more specifically apocalyptic, and many besides are about doubt and depression, anxiety and seclusion. These stories show people closing themselves off from the rest of the world—out of fear or hurt—and then having to decide whether to open up again. It's a wonderful issue and it's time to review!

Art by Sergei Sarichev

"Two Ways of Living" by Robert Reed (3614 words)

To me, this story speaks to the conflict between reality and dreams. Hope and escape. The main character, Artemus Tenor, is a man seeking the future the only way that seems open to him—by hibernating away the present. He goes into this state and awakes, starving, and eats all that he can. Then he goes back in. Over and again, each time hoping that technology will catch up with his ambitions, that humanity will take to the stars and that he can live to see it, to be a part of it. Only as he spends his periods of waking time in the world, he is kind-of stalked by a woman and her intelligent dog. And they begin to intrude upon his dreams. His goals. His life. What results is a story very much concerned with living, with how a life is spent and how people view the future. Artemus has the funds to hibernate away his life and yet in doing so he is refusing to deal with the world around him. He doesn’t care for politics, but only because he’s rich. Only because it benefits him to remain ignorant. His push and reaching toward a future with interstellar travel is understandable, but his ability to actually pull himself out of the world in pursuit of it becomes a lingering moral question that the story circles. What _are_ his obligations to the world? What kind of a life is it where he doesn’t interact with anyone else? And I just sort of love the voice of the talking dog here, the way that Artemus is secure only in his isolation. He avoids looking at anything else and tells himself, convinces himself, that it’s because he has this noble goal, this dream he’s not willing to let die. But there’s a whole lot more going on than just one man frittering away his life on eating and dreaming. It’s a complicated story that still feels quite accessible and even fun at times, the future opening up by degrees, and we as readers along for the ride. A fine story!

"Real Ghosts" by J.B. Park (3696 words)

This story does a great job of summoning ghosts, of evoking a feeling of age and neglect and loneliness while still maintaining a warmth and a certain kind of hope. The tale centers Maury, an old man who is getting ready to be imaged, to be recorded so that he can become a ghost, a recreation of himself that family members and anyone else he consents to can pull up his holo to talk with. And the story builds around the relationships that Maury has with holos, with his sister, Maureen and his brother, Maurice. It looks at the nature of these ghosts and how they seem almost more real than people, and certainly kinder and more generous. It’s a piece that is subtly haunted, by doubts and fears that swirl around Maury’s coming death but also by this strange hope that a part of him will survive. And that these ghosts might be something more than human. At least, they seem to have no problem conversing with each other. And they do seem to capture something from the people they are recorded from. It’s so strange but also quite beautiful to be faced by the nature of these ghosts, just recordings and just maybe in that capturing some negative of the person stripped of their mortal worries. Able to be kind for once, and happy, or truly express themselves. To me the piece becomes an examination of what people leave behind, the versions of people that we carry forward, trapped in our memories of them, and what might happen if those versions were able to move and speak and linger. Maury’s worry seems to be how much of himself will really be left, and throughout he can’t seem to make up his mind how much these ghosts are real. The end, though, does a lovely and powerful job of showing just what he suspects to be true, which opens the door for hope and, maybe, reconciliation. With his siblings and with his future. A great and touching story!

"Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty's Place Cafe" by Naomi Kritzer (4137 words)

This story is a little bit about the end of the world. And, to me, also about the ends of the world. Indeed, there’s a character in the story that talks about the many apocalypses that happen. The personal ones and the larger ones. The things that make people consider what they have left undone and what they might regret not having gotten to. The story is set as an asteroid is predicted to, if not hit Earth, then pass very damn close to it. Lorien, the main character, is making for Pierre (the city) but runs out of gas and gathers herself at one of the few places open, a diner. There she meets a pair of people also out of gas and going the opposite direction, and they talk a bit about where they’re going and why. For Lorien, she’s heading to her parents, not really out of any strong desire to see them (she hasn’t for quite some time), but because it feels like unfinished business. Because she believes in the need to reconcile. As she thinks about it, though, and gets over the initial shock that the impending possible end of the world brought on, she begins to examine why she wants to reconcile and what she can hope to gain from it. I do like that this story doesn’t put the greatest weight on birth families and reconciliation, how it allows people space to create their own families that are just as (if not moreso) valid because they are built on love and, more importantly, consent. For me the story looks at what makes a family, not an accident of birth but a trust and a love that doesn’t demand that someone change. This is something that Lorien has always acutely felt because of how she was different, but it takes something as drastic as an apocalypse to really question why she would want to see her parents again. What she would want from them. And it’s just a nicely quiet story about self-acceptance and about finding people to bond with, to form connections with. It’s a moving, softer kind of story that is told at a loud, abrupt sort of moment in time, and the result is a story that’s well worth checking out!

"Crown of Thorns" by Octavia Cade (4125 words)

This is another slower story about the end of the world, though a much different one than imagined in the last piece. Here the end comes in form of an all-consuming plague, and a group of scientists in Australia, studying ways of keeping Crown of Thorns starfish from destroying coral reefs, is spared by their isolation. Spared in some ways, at least. For Andy, whose daughter died in the plague, the pain and the trauma of it have left him without much hope. Have left him numb in many ways. He’s in a small group of survivors who have to make the call of what to do next. Andy himself keeps doing what he had been doing, trying to keep the Crown of Thorns at bay and failing. Killing scores of them. Hundreds of them. And it not making a difference. The story seems to me to be about futility and hope. Pain and loss. And also what’s left after something so shattering as an apocalypse. For Andy it seems almost good, that he has survived with his wife, with someone left. And yet their shared grief and loss only serves to push them apart as they take different tracks. As Andy decides that healing isn’t something that interests him. It’s a bit of a bleak story, to be honest, but one that paints the picture of despair and scale quite well. In this insulated community, the full scope of the end of the world isn’t really apparent. For Andy, who has lost so much, he feels incapable of really facing it, and so he retreats into something more familiar. The story does a great job really exploring the despair he feels, the futility of it, his wondering what the point is when anything he can do seems to make no forward progress. It’s about, really, the doomed nature of conservation, that if all a person hopes to do is prevent something, then they are fighting a losing battle. Maybe a slowly losing one, but that true hope takes more than conservation, takes more than conservatism for that matter. Another fine read!

"Goodnight, Melancholy" by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu (11,932 words)

This is a wrenching and beautiful story about despair and about loneliness. About machines and machine intelligence and people in need of a voice and presence. The story breaks itself between two storylines, between parts that involve Alan Turing, which are semi-historical and reveal a man desperate for connections but deeply worried about make thing, and parts that involve a young woman who is using machines as part of therapy to help her through depression and anxiety. The parts with Turing reveal his situation as a gay man in a world where being gay was a crime, where every conversation he had might lead him to ruin. To embarrassment and worse. To what did ultimately happen to him. The story looks at these events with compassion and imagination, showing how machines can be used by people who are vulnerable. People who need someone to talk to. People who feel alone and who cannot interact with “real” people. The parts of the story that unfold in the future are gripping and at the same time mundane. They reveal a character dealing with the same troubles that face people today. Feeling worthless and scared. Dealing with the traumas from childhood, with being different. And showing that machines are in some ways like people. That they need to learn and that they need care and compassion. And while machines can ultimately be programmed and erased, it doesn’t make them less valuable, less important to those who are conversing with them. The story does a great job of showing just how “real” these machine are to the people who need them, to the people who love them. And it asks if that isn’t a sort of test in itself. That maybe we should be judging machines not by how they deceive us but by how they might help us. How they might save us. It’s an amazing story that is deep and lyrical even as it captures something of a biographical tone. Basically, I love this story and you should definitely read it!


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