Thursday, April 13, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #127

It’s another month of Clarkesworld Magazine that focuses (at least in the original fiction) entirely on science fiction. But more than that, this issue looks at what makes people human, and what makes people not human, and how all of that ties together into something shocking, beautiful, and complex. The stories focus on different people who either have drifted from humanity or never were human. For some, that not being human is a lack that they feel, and for some it is a source of strength and identity. For all the stories, though, there is a focus on how people can bridge the gap between where they are and humanity, and reach for something like justice, like compassion, like cooperation. These are some great stories, including a surprise novella and another interesting (and really weird) translated piece, so let’s get right to the reviews!

Art by Eddie Mendoza


"Conglomerate" by Robert Brice (4722 words)

This is a strange and rather haunting story about intelligence and connectivity, about being a part of a larger group and being an individual. About empathy and destiny and decency. The story unfolds aboard a ship where a group of minds, captured as consciousnesses in the ship’s computer, pass the time as they wait for the ship to reach it’s destination, a planet they hope to help humanity settle in the increasingly-likely chance that Earth is destroyed. The minds can exist as one, as a Conglomerate, and yet often times the various people, the various individuals, branch off. The main character is one of those individuals and the story does a good job capturing what it might be like to be in that situation, partitioned and not, alone and not, and with the vast sprawl of the cosmos, the Conglomerate has its priorities. Of course, when things at the planet don’t go to plan, those priorities are rather shot to shit, and soon the Conglomerate, and the main character, have new and very different choices to make. At the heart of the story, for me, is the idea that people acting together are better than people acting individually or alone. Which is a very tricky situation, because inside so many groups it’s not necessarily everyone’s best qualities that are brought to the front. Or, rather, while each person contributes their “best” qualities, how “good” those qualities are, morally, depends on what guides the formation of the group. Here, the Conglomerate is designed for colonization, for conquest, and as such what it brings out of the individuals inside it isn’t exactly what’s going to lead to empathy or understanding or striving to do the right thing. Indeed, as the story shows, the opposite is more often to come out of such a group. And so in these situations, the story examines what might be the “right thing” to do, especially when the goal that the group was originally formed to do is no longer possible. It’s a fascinating and rather uncomfortable story at times, showing how people can use a group to hide their individual responsibility, how being in a group can make atrocities easier to commit. It’s a stark and rather startling story, but complex in its scope and rather beautifully imagined. A great read!

"Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus" by Bogi Takács (3364 words)

This is a story about harm and about healing, about distrust and about exploitation and about colonialism. And, charmingly, it’s a story about octopuses (octopods?). It’s a story about a group of sentient octopuses finding a human, and in finding that human finding a remnant of the people who took away the octopuses ability to consent or not to being altered fundamentally to be “more human.” To be “more civilized.” To be made into a tool that humans could use do something for them. And yet the humans have pretty much all disappeared, and those that remain were exploited as well, creating this web of injury and violation that acts as the backdrop for the story as much as the sea and the alien world the humans brought these octopuses to. I love the character work here, love that the story takes these people who are so different from humans and yet victims of human superiority and arrogance. Victims of human imperialism. In that the story pairs very well with the previous one, as both look at the ways that humans try to “do good” when really they’re out for their own interests, and the people they hurt often have no recourse. Here, though, the octopuses find themselves in this post-human world only to rediscover humanity and enter into an entirely new relationship with humans. [SPOILERS] And I really love how the story approaches that, not throwing out the old wrongs regardless of how old they are, regardless of how these new humans were also victims. None of that erases or makes better what happened, but it does leave room for the humans and the octopuses to find their way forward. To make a better relationship between them. One based on respect and consent. And maybe there will come a time when they can trust each other fully, but that has to be earned, and it requires that the abuses of the past remain in the past. It’s a wonderful story with a great voice and dazzling setting. The octopuses are strong and curious and great. And really, you should read this story. It is amazing!

"Left of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems" by Vajra Chandrasekera (997 words)

To me, this is a story of responsibility and training, of ideals and corruption. The story focuses on a…robot, I guess, who is being designed, presumably to be a police officer, but really to be anything that is required. The story is about the baby steps that the project takes, that the main character, the robot, takes toward an end obscured in a fog of blood. Each section of the story shows a new exercise that the main character is put through, and there’s a great progression through the piece, an unstoppable momentum that it builds. It starts off with such high hopes, with this ideal in place. The main character is preventing assassinations, is protecting civilians. There is the sense that for all there is blood and explosions and some suspicion that this could all go wrong, this could also all go right. The main character acts and acts decisively when they have to. The problem is, of course, that the ideals that seem so bright in the beginning start to erode as the missions keep going, as the stakes keep being raised. The minute that the main character admits they know they are bound for mass production…well, the story is not exactly a happy one, and not exactly a clear one. [SPOILERS] And I love how the main character faces this, how it starts to break them, eroding their confidence and their will. They know what they are being made into and they can’t really fight it, not exactly. They’ve been made to do this and made with weakness and it’s that aspect of the story that I find most interesting, that the main character is so concerned about their fragile wrists when they can jump out of fifth-floor windows and take very little damage. When they can kill with impunity. Indeed, that it’s only when their allowed to punish those who created them and created them broken like that is something I think the story handles quite well. For all that it’s a piece soaked in blood it’s the quieter, emotional damage that really comes through, the trauma that the main character has been subjected to and will be subjected to. It’s an intense, excellent story!

Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth" by Juliette Wade (21736 words)

This is a deep and lovely novella about difference and about similarity, about peace and war and schemes of all sorts. It features Rulii, who lives on a planet made up of three peoples—the Hnnwan, who are seen as barbarians among Rulii’s people, the Aurrel, and the Ice Hunters, who dominate the Aurrel and use them to wage war against their enemies. Thrown into this as well, though, are humans, who are on the planet in a Star Trek-like first contact to learn from the people of the planet. The plot moves well, drawing Rulii away from his home and the relative safety of it in an attempt to save a friend and atone for something that he’s done. In many ways, though, the story is about a deeper atonement. Rulii has bee a soldier and a general, and risen so high in rank that he stands as a leader of his people. Even still, though, he bows to the rule of the Majesty, an Ice Hunter, who maintains a firm grasp on power and who has plans of his own. I like how the story looks at peace and war and who benefits from it. It’s the Aurrel who do most of the fighting and dying on the one side of the war, and the Hnnwan on the other. Meanwhile the arrival of the humans has given everyone something else to focus on and it seems like peace might be in the offing. Only Rulii’s mission to save his friend turns out to be much more complex than he thought. There are intrigues and intrigues, betrayals and betrayals, and the story does a great job of maintaining a strong flow and momentum as it rolls along. And I like the character of Rulii, who never really worked for peace until be had to, but who has found it so much more rewarding than working for war. The language of the piece is also quite interesting, alien enough to be different and interesting and yet with a great internal logic and consistency to it. It makes sense, and it never really through me out of the story, instead added layers to my reading, which is always a great thing in fantasy/science fiction that introduces new languages/speech patterns. There’s also a lot of fun to be had in the action and drama, in the yearning for friendship and peace that Rulii has and the way that he works toward a goal where his people aren’t being sent off by the scores and hundreds and thousands to die. It’s a long and at times dense read, but it’s also a great and rewarding experience!

"The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales" by Fei Dao, translated by Ken Liu (8065 words)

This is a very strange SFF story in translation but also a very charming one, about a boy who tells tall tales, a robot on a mission, and way people run from death. And wow, yeah, there’s certainly an absurdity to the piece that is rather fun, that gives it a certain energy and spark. The main character is presumably a robot who is tasked by a ruler who everyone believes to a grand liar to…become a greater liar than him, so that people won’t think that he’s the greatest liar in the world, just second best and therefore no big deal. And it’s a wickedly funny premise that just gets curiouser and curiouser as the story progresses. Wedged into this pursuit of becoming the greatest liar, though, is also a rather philosophical discussion on the nature of death and the various strategies that people adopt to try and escape that implacable foe. The robots goes around and listens to all of these various people as they give advice, but through it all the robot keeps its own counsel and stays true to his mission. And the story then becomes about cycles and about duality, about joy and life and meaning. There’s this feeling that the story wants to explore these very serious issues through absurdity and farce because it allows people to approach the big, scary ideas in a new way, but also because it’s just fun. Because it’s just funny to have the story move from talking cats with enormous cigarettes to language trees to drunks and on and on and on. And through this bizarre landscape I think the story does a good job of maintaining a narrative flow and direction, never losing sight of what’s going on even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And I just love the ending, which is sweet and silly and yet also opens the doors to a great amount of thought and complexity. It’s by far the weirdest story of the issue, and the weirdest I’ve read in quite some time anywhere, but that just makes it a story you should definitely sit down, spend some time with, and enjoy!


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