Thursday, July 20, 2017

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #130

It’s a rather dark month of content at Clarkesworld, where the CW might well stand for content warning for most of the pieces. These are stories that take a look at the aftermath of harm. They look at post-apocalypses, post-traumatic plots that lead to further traumas. These are stories where, by and large, characters find themselves in situation they never asked for. Pressed into guarding a strange bridge. Woken from a space hibernation. Taken by raiders to do dangerous work. The stories are not as a general rule very happy. Instead they are full of violence and the looming threat of violence. But many of the stories are also full of hope and resistance. Some…not so much, but it’s a very interesting group of stories. Review time!

Art by Eddie Mendoza

"An Age of Ice" by Zhang Ran, translated by Andy Dudak (2430 words)

For a change the translated story actually kicks off the issue, and with a nice mix of science and wonder. In the piece, Feng Su is a woman who has been awakened after being cryogenically frozen. And to be more specific, after having her head cryogenically frozen. She’s awake again and conversing with her daughter, who is now older than her (technically), and through this conversation begins to express what she feels about having gone through the freezing and thawing process. At the same time, the story explores the social ramifications of freezing and thawing, and explores them through the perspective of Old Feng’s daughter. And I like how the story explores this idea of freezing, the business of it and the dream of it. How people are quickly drawn to this idea that they can cheat death, that they can avoid death. That technology will keep advancing and allow them further and further into the future. There’s almost a melancholy about it because it finds people at the twilight of their lives casting these long shadows into the future, losing sight of the present. And the story could be a sort of warning, to caution people against just shooting themselves into the future, that all it does is delay and give more and more money to businesses that won’t really have much to use it on if great swathes of the population are frozen, timeless. And yet that prospect of being able to maybe skip the unpleasant parts of history is keen and compelling. In some ways the story shows how people don’t want to say and fix something that might take effort. The relationship between Old Feng and her daughter is not one that really works for them, but [SPOILERS] instead of working on it and trying to bring it to a better place they put it off, hoping that sometime in the future will be better and more fitting, counting on other people to push forward the tech so that they can reap the rewards. It’s an interesting and fun little story and a nice way to kick off the issue!

"Travelers" by Rich Larson (3148 words)

I’m not sure I have ever noped off a story as hard as I noped off of this one. I’m tempted to just let that stand as my review but let me try to form some coherent thoughts. So, content warnings for rape, forced impregnation, cannibalism, and maybe a few more. A woman wakes up from being frozen on presumably a colonizing mission somewhere. There is a man already awake and a lot of questions. Questions that it becomes obvious he’s hiding. The story is a horror in some ways that the more recent Cloverfield movie is a horror—a horror of masculinity. And here we see the vague outlines of how this is often treated. [SPOILERS] Man abuses woman in pretty much the worst ways imaginable and then frames himself as the victim. Woman finds out and is able to fight off and kill man in a rather gruesome way. I’ve said before that revenge stories aren’t really my favorite. Well part of the reason is because what’s left? And what the point? It’s not satisfying to me because it doesn’t address any of what’s happens. It’s not justice. And the story doesn’t in my opinion do enough with the very serious material it uses to justify including them. As I read it, it attempts to expose toxic masculinity, but all I see is its affirmation. It points out how awful and harmful (and powerful and incapable of empathy) men are and then just sort of shrugs and walks away, leaving those very things even more firmly entrenched. And...nope. And...and I just have some really serious issues with this story but for the sake of my own mental health I’ll just step away for now. Go read it and see what you think.

"The Significance of Significance" by Robert Reed (5330 words)

This is an interesting and rather weird story about the nature of existence and the way that existence is perceived. It’s a generational story, too, which looks at how beliefs can shift from parent to child to grandchild and on and on, and how each generation handles the revelations of science sort of shape the personal relationships the characters have. The story opens with Sarah, who has embraced the nature of the universe where everything is just a simulation being run by some higher being, with the implication that if humans aren’t entertaining and fun enough, the world might get turned off. It’s an attitude and belief that makes Sarah rash and rather unpredictable, and while I’m not entirely comfortable with how the story then judges her (tying sexuality to lack of morals and responsibility), it does set up an interesting web of relationship between Sarah and her parents (who don’t really buy into this new science) and her grandfather (who does buy it but doesn’t really let it change what he does) and her child (who has even more different understandings of the universe). The central idea of the story is strange but also compelling, a great “what if” question that asks us what we might believe or do if it turned out that we were living in some sort of simulated environment. And I do find the ending to be a complex and wonderful twist on everything that comes before it, Sarah finally having come to a point where her own simulations have broken down, where her quest for fun has been replaced by a deep cynicism about the universe. Which again is interested even as I wonder about that. I mean, the story in some ways becomes about two universes reaching out to each other, trying to bridge the gap between them. The universe of Sarah and the universe of Honey. The universe that holds them both and some other universe. It’s interesting here to see that Sarah wants one reconciliation but doesn’t want to see another. It further grounds her character’s inability or aversion to depth. And it’s a rather nice story that plays with some big ideas in some fascinating ways!

"The Bridgegroom" by Bo Balder (9047 words)

This story looks at freedom and punishment, at crime and at confinement. It finds Alois, a young man with aspirations of becoming a doctor, instead sent into exile to become groom of a bridge, which might actually be an artificial intelligence responsible for a great man deaths. The setting itself is post-apocalyptic but also rather idyllic. Or...maybe that’s not the right word. The setting is largely rural but with enough of an urban life that there are universities. Things are simple technologically and people have lost a lot of knowledge from before this great disaster happened. For Alois, his assignment is a sort of punishment, and he fights back against the custom by fantasizing about escape, about walking away from this duty that has been set before him. Most of the story is just conversations, though, between Alois and the Bridge. It’s a strange juxtaposition of styles, the Bridge speaking much more like a person from our time while Alois maintains a more archaic and by extension more ignorant attitude. It seems a bit strange that so much has been lost about why the Bridge needs to be guarded—all that remains is a quasi-religious stance that it just needs to happen. I’d figure that with an entity as infamous as the Bridge, people would be able to do something more guaranteed than sending some young man up to the mountain to guard it. But it does create this rather philosophical situation, and it’s there that the story excels. Because it does examine what Alois’ responsibility is. He’s a sort of sacrifice and doesn’t want to be, but the supposed crimes of the Bridge are huge indeed, and the Bridge doesn’t really seek to hide them and certainly doesn’t show remorse. It’s not so much that the Bridge is a demon so much that they’re decidedly not human and doesn’t have human priorities. And I like where the story goes with that, positioning Alois to try something different, to reach for something rather selfish but also because the alternative is this endless cycle that just seems to eat young people up. So yeah, it’s an interesting and thoughtful story that I definitely recommend you check out!

"Last Chance" by Nicole Kornher-Stace (11493 words)

This story closes out a rather dark issue in rather dark fashion, imagining a sci-fantasy world where Aneko is the child of a famous torturer who is taken by raiders after a disastrous ambush along the king’s highway. Aneko is taken and chained and forced first to march and then to dig in ruins of a previous civilization. It’s heavily implied that this world is post-apocalyptic, and that what the kids are looking for as they dig are relics from a past age of more advanced technology. And the story moves in large thanks to Aneko’s voice and vision of the world. Her’s is the perspective of a child who doesn’t quite know everything, who has been raised fairly insulated from the rest of the world and certainly by a mother who had strong opinions about everything. But Aneko also learned patience and a certain amount of guile, even as she also holds a naive hope for what will happen to her, for what is happening to her. It’s a story that shows her struggling to survive, trying to find some amount of safety, and continually being disappointed. Except that the story doesn’t lose hope in its continued spiral into ugliness and exploitation. Violence is a constant presence in the piece, and a constant fear for Aneko. Those who have taken her have no regard for her safety, only for her use, and they intend to use her and all the other children up in the hunt for relics. It’s something that ends up giving Aneko the chance to better her lot in this rather sad and decidedly dark story. And in many ways this is an origin story, establishing everything that happens to Aneko and her friend Nina until something bigger happens. Until everything is poised to change. And then...well, then the story pulls away and leaves the reader to imagine what happens next. It’s effectively done, because in some ways it’s a test for the reader. The story itself doesn’t really give much reason to believe this is going to go well, and yet for me I still want something to go right for Aneko. So for me it’s a story that leaves room to imagine that things are going to turn around, that everything is about to get better, or at least that Aneko is no longer going to be so stripped of agency. And in any case, it’s a great story with some stark and complex world building and a great sense that something big’s about to happen. A fine read and nice way to close out the issue!


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