Thursday, May 11, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #128

The stories in this May issue of Clarkesworld all seem to circle around nature and art and technology, drawing the lines of where humanity’s place in the natural world is. And it shows the ways that humans seek to reach beyond the known and comfortable, how people are constantly striving to do more and be more. For some that might mean rewriting their genetic code, and for others it might just mean chilling in a giant floating whale. Whatever floats your boat. But these are stories that mix moments of intense action and terror with softer moments of study, introspection, and thought. They’re rather contemplative stories, and as such deserve some time and consideration. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Julie Dillon

"Streams and Mountains" by Nick Wolven (8914 words)

This is a bit of a strange story about ethics and about genetics and about choice. At it’s heart it’s about Mary, a woman sent out to check on the report that a Sasquatch is pregnant, something that’s supposed to not be possible because these Sasquatches are really modified humans who have undergone many treatments, one of which was supposed to be sterilization. And the story revolves around these people who have chosen to undergo this procedure, to become Sasquatches in body and mind. The story itself is ponderous and careful, looking at how this would all work and how people would react to it. It’s a story that imagines this incredibly tricky moral situation and then seeks to complicate it further. And in that it’s an interesting piece, one that is heavy with the implications of what’s been done, looking at what point humans stop being capable of consent. Or, rather, it kind-of looks at that, because in my mind it doesn’t really get into all of consent issues involved. There’s a very heavy emphasis here, after all, on biology and bodies. And the ethics of changing bodies. And there is definitely a part of me that is rather uncomfortable with how the story treats bodies, with how the discussion surrounding these people goes forward. And unfortunately there’s not a lot of clear answers that the story offers. For instance, it’s hard to say what exactly is the nature of the organization that raises the funds and gets people transformed into Sasquatches. They have a protected habitat but it’s one provided by the government. There is no examination of how these people might have been taken advantage of and used. There’s no comparison really between this group and a cult. The problem is largely treated as a biological one—can a Sasquatch raise a human child? But there seems to be more than biology to figure out. That the story sort of waves away these concerns in the face of the biological twist the story includes is something I found rather frustrating, because it seems to imply now that the problem is mostly solved. But...well, for me I’m just not comfortable with how the story frames the issue and how it executes its premise. Perhaps that’s part of the point, that here is this government person trying to find a neat answer to something very complex, but I still feel that it’s too focused on bodies and biology and not what else is implied by the science of the piece. So it’s a conflicting read for me, but certainly one I encourage those interested to check out and make up your own minds about.

"We Who Live in the Heart" 'by Kelly Robson (14860 words)

This is a story with a definite sense of scope and distant, a tale of humanity and what makes us tick, what makes us the same and, perhaps most importantly, what makes us different. The story centers a character who has fled from human civilization belowground, a place where cooperation is king and time is heavily monitored and monitzed. The alternative, though, is to go up to the surface and try to live inside the body of whale-like creatures that seem about the only thing that can handle the extreme conditions. It’s a decision that the narrator was one of the first to make, to go out and try to create something in this waste, to survive where people didn’t think possible. And it’s a decision that Ricci is just making as the story opens, escaping a string of bad situations and the specter of burning out. And really a huge part of what fascinates me about the story is how it handles humans dealing with stress, dealing with their own internal drives and those of society. Because in a world where everything is monetized, where so much emphasis is put on being productive constantly, for those that fall into a sort of obsessive trap regarding that, it’s a system that chews them out and spits out the mass of what’s left. And that’s something I love about the story, that it sees human value as more than the money they can create. That it recognizes that even as we approach a situation where we can be more connected, more interdependent, more socially cohesive, there is a part of us that will always be an individual, and no amount of coaching or moderating or incentivising will make some people like living certain ways. We as humans are all different and the story does a lovely job of showing what that can mean, how people can still find value in each other and in their relative seclusion, forming loose bonds that perhaps don’t offer as much cohesion but don’t bind, either. That exist to be supportive and caring without suffocating. And I like how the story establishes that with the crew of Mama, how the main character comes to stand for this voice of freedom even as they do yearn for relationships and company. And I just love how the piece builds up the bond between the main character and Ricci, how it reveals the potential that people have to build each other up, even as it never loses sight of how people can also tear each other down and apart. It’s a story with a great sense of wonder and fun, and it’s an amazing read!

"Baroness" by E. Catherine Tobler (5105 words)

This story seems to me to be about conditioning and refuge and injury. It focuses on two character, both of them a long way from their homes, both with no ways back. Bishop is a person who has been augmented to become a tool, a weapon. A refugee, she was turned away again and again and finally given a choice of whether to lose herself or go back to wandering, hoping someone would give her better terms. She accepted, and after a while was able to meet up with others like her and do some work. They’re on a distant moon in order to check on the status of one of their own that has gone quiet, and find when they look a strange ship. It’s the ship that’s the second main character, a consciousness that is the ship, that is Baroness, and yet who also needs a pilot, someone else to help her fly. The story builds a dark world, giving a great deal of time to the way that Bishop was stripped of her identity and rebuilt. She was conditioned, was given a new name, was made into someone defined solely by their loss and then given a mission to stay focused on. She’s supposed to be beyond fear, has been exposed to her deepest darknesses again and again in the hopes that it will keep her active, that it will mean she won’t flinch at a key moment. The training covers up a whole lot of trauma, too, the fear and the terror that she felt when a refuge, when trying to keep her little brother safe, when failing to do so. To be the story becomes about the way that Bishop cannot feel, that she’s built up this distance that keeps her safe from her environment but doesn’t allow her to explore her grief or loss. Baroness, meanwhile, is a creature that breaks down walls, that dissolves them. For her, Bishop is something strange but captivating, and yet they both have needs buried within them and together they might have a chance to reach them. It’s a flowing and beautiful story that deals with some very dark content but maintains a drive toward hope, which makes for a great read!

“The Person Who Saw Cetus” by Tang Fei, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu (5532 words)

This is a beautiful story about loss and about imagination, about performance and about family. The story features a main character who grew up poor with a father who did performance art and was never very good with dealing with others, not even his daughter. He’s a man of visions, a man who seeks to create something vivid and memorable and wonderful, and yet at the same time he’s terrible at communicating. And when his life got very stressful and he could no longer support his family, something inside him broke and he created his last piece of performance art. Which is horrifying and vivid and powerful and fuck, yeah. The story itself is about the space that is left in his wake, the space in his daughter’s life. It’s a slow and ponderous kind of story to me, one that slowly circles around the character, Lilian, and her feeling about the man who tried his best with her but who was rarely there and who rarely understood her. He was a man who was committed more to his art, to the battles that he would wage, to being right. And in being right he would forget about her and what she needed. He would forget about being a father. What remains, then, is his art and the marks left behind, the way that he can seem both visionary and ahead of his time and deeply flawed. The way that he can give her such startling gifts and visions of far away places to inspire her, to get her to reach for the stars, and yet wasn’t able to actually help her very much with those very mundane things she wanted help with. It’s a piece that is haunted by the ghost of him, and looks back after the immediacy of the tragedy of his ending has passed and Lilian can try to understand him more and understand her feelings about him. It’s a touching and evocative story that brings distant worlds within reach, even as it recognizes that sometimes even the people closest to you are always going to be far away, and you should definitely go read it!


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